Based on an article originally published in the January 2020 issue of The Sword and Trumpet.
The Importance of Inspiration
Good theology is more than just an intellectual activity; good theology impacts our lives. In fact, we need good theology if we want to be faithful Christians. We must understand God before we can rightly worship or serve Him.
To that end, I’d like to look at why a right understanding of the authority of Scripture is important. The authority of Scripture relates the fact that what the Bible says actually matters. It is the supreme authority on all issues of belief and practice. Understanding this begins with understanding where the Bible came from, a doctrine called the inspiration of Scripture.
I believe in the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture. Plenary means the entirety of something. You may be familiar with the term in connection with a conference or gathering. The plenary sessions are those when everyone is together—all of the attendees are present. In the same way, the plenary inspiration of Scripture means that all the parts are inspired. Every piece is from God.
The term verbal has to do with the words of the Bible. Though the term can be used in a variety of ways, when used in this context it means “of, relating to, or consisting of words.”1 So, verbal inspiration includes the words.
And the term inspiration means to fill up or breathe into. The fact that Scripture is inspired means God actually breathed out each word. These aren’t just pious writings. They aren’t just accurate records of men. Yes, they are the words of men, but these men were guided, carried along, by the Spirit of God, and wrote what He willed them to write. When we read the Bible, God Himself speaks to us.
Plenary, verbal inspiration is more than a theological construct; it’s a definition of how faithful Christians view the Bible. If Scripture is truly inspired (and it is), if it is truly from God (and it is), then what it says is important. If the God of the universe says something, are we not obligated to obey? Since the words in the Bible are directly from God, God’s own people ought to direct their lives based on what those words say. The Word has the right, the power, the authority to govern our lives.
While Anabaptists have not typically been theological people, we have historically been committed to the Word of God. If the Bible says it, we believe it and obey it. But it seems that conviction has faded in recent years, and our beliefs are often defined more by what Anabaptists believe than what the Bible teaches. I see things many of us believe primarily because they are Anabaptist distinctives rather than because we believe those things are taught in the Bible. If, when these issues are discussed, we appeal to the traditional Mennonite/Amish/Brethren understanding rather than checking what Scripture teaches, we have it backwards. The Bible has to be our source for all truth. When we lose that mooring, our churches and homes quickly deteriorate into cultural enigmas rather than biblically faithful communities. We may look strange to the world because we do things differently, yet we don’t live biblically grounded lives. That is not as it should be.
We need to find our place with the original Anabaptists, who were ostracized and rejected because they committed themselves to Scripture above all else. The Bible held absolute reign over their lives—not as a cold, hard list of rules and regulations, but as words from a loving Father who reveals His character and will through His Word.
We too must obey the Bible because it is God’s Word. In submitting to it, we submit to our God. And if you have not submitted to it, you have not submitted to God. According to the Bible, unless you have submitted to God, you don’t love Him. You don’t know Him. You don’t understand the weight of the gospel. You haven’t been changed by the gospel if you don’t, at the very core of your being, want to serve and obey God. And that obedience begins by understanding and obeying His Word.
Understanding the Gospel
Submission to Scripture is also important because a right understanding of the gospel can only come from a robust commitment to the Word of God. The Bible is clear about the gospel, and it doesn’t mince words when it tells us about our problem. Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” What were we apart from the gospel? The Bible says, “dead.”
Because we know the Bible is from God, and every word is as He wants it to be, we can’t simply redefine this deadness as sickness, though that’s what we might like to think. When describing our spiritual condition, the Bible calls us lifeless. Not diseased, but dead. At a funeral, the last thing we all expect is that the recently deceased would sit up in the coffin, dust himself off, and resume normal life. Dead people don’t do that. Ephesians 2 says that’s exactly what we were before Christ. Dead in trespasses and sins.
Our spiritual deadness is why the first part of this verse is also true. Paul says, “You He made alive.” This isn’t something we do, but something that’s done to us. Who is the “He” here? God. And who is doing the action? God. He made us alive. We were dead, without life, and God made us alive. In the entirety of Ephesians 2:1-10 we are the ones acted on, not the actors. God is the Actor, making us alive, loving us, raising us up, seating us with Jesus. We are His workmanship. Salvation begins, not with us, but with God.
I realize this doesn’t fit with how we Anabaptists typically look at ourselves. But if you are committed to the Word of God, I urge you to at least consider what it says. If we redefine the words of Scripture to fit what makes us comfortable, we may inadvertently reject the inspiration and authority of Scripture. God didn’t just suggest what He meant; He said what He meant. We must not disregard that.
But the same commitment to the words of the Bible keeps us from the error of some of our Calvinist brothers. Romans 10:13 says, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This “whoever” is every bit as inclusive as the “dead” in Ephesians. Just as we are all hopelessly dead, God also says all may be saved through Christ. All we need to do is ask God, and He will save us.
And, just as there are no conditions on our deadness, there are no conditions on the reach of the gospel. Whosoever calls will be saved. The same truth is underscored in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Whoever believes. The offer of the gospel is available to all who are willing to receive it.
Some reject this dichotomy, saying it’s impossible to believe that God is sovereign in salvation and still allow man to have the freedom to receive or reject salvation. But we can’t always boil biblical truths down into neat little packages. Sometimes we simply believe the words of the Bible for what they say. And, I’ll add, that’s not illogical. Faith is not opposed to reason. But it stands to reason that a God greater than us just might be able to understand things that our feeble minds cannot. Though we don’t understand everything about God and His ways, we accept that what He says is true.
We must not answer the questions of our day based on popular opinion, nor based on what makes us comfortable, nor based on our own traditions or opinions. Rather, we must ask the question, “What does the Word of God say?” Then we bend to it, believe it, and obey it. We have no right to twist Scripture to make it say what the culture wants it to say. We have no right to take the easy way out when the Bible teaches another way. And we have no right to stand over the Word and choose our own opinions and perspectives over the clear teaching of the Word.
This principle informs our understanding of many current issues, whether specifically Anabaptist (headship covering, non-resistance), evangelical (women in ministry, social justice or the social gospel), or cultural (abortion, LGBTQ+). Where we land will largely be defined by our view of Scripture. And our view of Scripture is quickly revealed when we’re under pressure for these very things. Whether we stand or fall—indeed, whether we are faithful Christians or not—rests on whether we accept the Bible for what it says and allow that to govern our lives.
Julian Stoltzfus lives in Elnora, IN with his lovely wife, Ruthie. He has had the privilege of attending several semesters at Elnora Bible Institute since 2014, where he received a certificate in Christian Ministries. He spent three years in a pastoral apprenticeship program under Truth and Grace Mennonite Church, and now serves there as the youth shepherd. He enjoys working, tinkering around his house, diving into a good read, and building relationships with family and friends. The 5th in a family of 6, he has greatly benefited from the wisdom and influence of his parents and siblings. He longs to see authentic Christianity thrive as God transforms hearts through the gospel.
- “Verbal,” Merriam-Webster, accessed October 29, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/verbal.
- All Scriptures are taken from: The Holy Bible, New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).