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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: False Views of Scripture

Don Stewart :: Was the Bible Dictated by God to Humanity? (Mechanical Dictation)

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Was the Bible Dictated by God to Humanity? (Mechanical Dictation)

False Views of the Bible – Question 2

It is a popular idea that the Bible is a result of God dictating every word to the writers of Scripture. The writers then merely recorded the words God spoke to them. This would make the end result entirely divine with no human elements whatsoever. This theory is known by a number of different names including the “mechanical dictation theory,” or simply the “dictation theory.” This theory can be summed up in the following manner:

Claim: the Words of Scripture Were Dictated by God to the Human Writers

According to this theory, the human authors of the Bible were like passive stenographers who recorded the truth of God in the same manner as a recording device records the voice of the speaker. This view teaches that the entire Bible was dictated word-for-word by God. The personality of the writer was set aside to preserve the writings from any possible error. It is supported from a number of passages in the Old Testament where God tells the writer exactly what to say to the people.

The Bible, therefore, would have been similar to what Muslims claim for the Koran—their holy book. Supposedly, it had been dictated from heaven in the Arabic language to their prophet, Muhammad. The Bible, it is argued, came about in the same way.

The idea of the verbal dictation of the Old Testament can be found in the writings of the Jewish Talmud and the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria. Some of the Church Fathers believed the New Testament came about by some type of verbal dictation.

Some Parts Were Dictated by God

It is true that some parts of the Bible were dictated by God and then recorded by the writer. This includes the following parts of Scripture:

The Ten Commandments Were Dictated by God

In the introduction to the Ten Commandments, the Scripture says the following:

And God spoke all these words. (Exodus 20:1 NIV)

Moses merely recorded what God said. He did not compose any of it.

God Told Isaiah What to Say

God told Isaiah the prophet to say certain words to the king. The Bible says:

The Lord told Isaiah, “Go and tell Hezekiah: ‘This is what the Lord God of your ancestor David says: “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Look, I will add fifteen years to your life, and rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria. I will shield this city.”’” (Isaiah 38:4-6 NET)

In this case, Isaiah spoke and wrote exactly what God told Him. He did not add his own words to what the Lord had said.

It is also possible that other sections of Scripture prefaced by, “Thus says the Lord” are examples of dictation. The biblical writers would reproduce what God said to them “word-for-word.”

Parts of the Book of Revelation Were Dictated by Jesus to the Apostle John

We also find dictation in the New Testament. Revelation 2:1-3:22 was dictated by Jesus Christ to John the Apostle. For example, Jesus told John to write the message that He dictated to the various churches. John wrote:

On the Lord’s day the Spirit took control of me, and behind me I heard a loud voice that sounded like a trumpet. The voice said, “Write in a book what you see. Then send it to the seven churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:10-11 CEV)

Jesus told John exactly what to write. The Bible records Jesus saying:

This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Ephesus. (Revelation 2:1 CEV)

The same dictation of Jesus to John occurred seven different times with different messages to the seven churches.

Therefore, it is clear that some parts of Scripture were dictated by God and recorded by the writers.

This Viewpoint Wants to Protect the Bible from Error

This view is sometimes likened to automatic writing, where the person is guided to write something by an external force. The idea is that the writer has no real participation in the contents—he is merely the vehicle through which the writing occurs. Christians who have held this view see it as protecting the Bible from any human error. They reason that if humans had no involvement in the composition of Scripture, then it is not possible for the Scripture to be in error.

What are we to make of this theory?
Response to the Mechanical Dictation View

The mechanical dictation theory, or the idea of automatic writing, does not fit all the evidence.

1. Only a Few Parts Were Dictated

Although a few small parts of Scripture were dictated by God to humanity, this is not the case for the entire Scripture. It has never been the teaching of the majority of the church that the Bible resulted by some sort of dictation from God to the authors. God used a number of different ways to communicate His words to the biblical authors. It is clear that the authors were not machines who automatically wrote what God dictated to them.

2. Dictation Does Not Protect the Bible from Error

Dictation, by itself, would not protect the Bible from error. There would always be the possibility that the writer would hear inaccurately. Even if he heard God correctly, he would still have to write down correctly what he heard. An error could occur in either of these two steps. Therefore, the only way in which complete accuracy could be guaranteed would be by some sort of automatic writing where God actually took absolute control of the person. The Bible does not teach that this is what happened.

3. The Evidence Shows That the Bible Was Not Dictated

The following points clearly demonstrate that God did not mechanically dictate the totality of the Scriptures to humanity.

  • The Style Would Have Been Uniform Throughout, It Is Not

    If God had dictated the Scriptures to the various writers, the writing style would be uniform throughout each of the sixty-six books. It would be the sentence structure and vocabulary of the Holy Spirit. The Scripture would be free from all trace of humanity. Yet this is not what we find when we examine the pages of Scripture. The style of writing of the various books of Scripture is anything but uniform. Therefore, we have no indication whatsoever that the words were dictated. The evidence is as follows:

  • There Are Different Styles and Personalities in the Books of the Bible

    The idea of dictation is easy to refute when one looks at the different biblical books. Each writer has his own personality, style and vocabulary. For example, the New Testament writings of John are in sharp contrast with those of Luke. John writes a very simple Greek with a limited vocabulary, while Luke writes a much better style of Greek showing greater familiarity with the language.

    Many of the biblical books contain passages where the author’s temperament and previous training are revealed. This is hardly consistent with some idea of mechanical dictation.

    For example, the language of the Apostle Paul runs the gamut of emotions. It is hard to reconcile some of the sections where Paul’s personality is evident with the idea that he was simply a stenographer. He wrote the following to the church at Rome:

    I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit?I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed?cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen. (Romans 9:1-3 NET)

    The Contemporary English Version translates it as follows:

    I am a follower of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is a witness to my conscience. So I tell the truth and I am not lying when I say my heart is broken and I am in great sorrow. I would gladly be placed under God’s curse and be separated from Christ for the good of my own people. (Romans 9:1-3 CEV)

    Paul’s emotions are clearly reflected in these verses. No dictation, or automatic writing, occurred here.

  • The Authors Were from Different Ranks of Society: Their Writings Show This

    Furthermore, God chose the various human authors of Scripture from all ranks of society. Each of them wrote from their various backgrounds that included different occupations, different amounts of education and different languages. All of the differences are reflected in their writings. For example, only Luke/Acts and the Book of Hebrews could be classified as “good writing.” The writings of John the Apostle, especially in the Book of Revelation, have a number of examples of non-standard grammatical constructions.

    In addition, we find in Luke’s gospel a number of medical terms used. This is consistent with his training as a physician. However, we do not find the same use of these medical terms in the other gospels.

  • We Find Different Literary Devices in Scripture

    The writers of Scripture employed different literary devices. For example, the Apostle Paul used an allegory (Galatians 4) in his comparison of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and Hagar, his concubine. This is not consistent with mechanical dictation.

  • There Are Grammatical Irregularities

    We also find grammatical irregularities in Scripture. For example, some of the sentences found in the Book of Revelation do not conform to standard grammar. In addition, Paul writes a number of broken sentences. All of this is inconsistent with the idea of dictation from God. If God wrote each of the books of the Bible, then we would have similar styles and faultless grammar. We have neither.

  • The Bible Was Written in the Third Person

    If God mechanically dictated His words to humanity, then we would expect the Bible to have been written in the first person, “I.” Instead we find the Bible describing God in the third person, “He.” The humans were the actual writers.

4. Some Scripture Was a Result of Historical Investigation

Not all writers of Scripture depicted themselves as recording what God told them. Sometimes the words of the biblical writers resulted from their own careful investigation. Luke wrote his gospel by consulting previous works as well as doing his own research. He wrote:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 ESV)

The biblical writers did research and then they reflected upon that which they had researched. Eventually, they wrote down the results of their reflection. This entire process was guided by the Holy Spirit.

The biblical writers also made use of non-biblical sources. We find this to be true in both testaments. The fact that a number of these writings are mentioned shows that other historical materials were available and sometimes were consulted at the time the Scriptures were written.

5. Some Material Was Already Written

Some material that found its way into the Bible had been previously written. For example, the writers of Scripture used already written genealogies (Matthew 1:1-18, Luke 3:23-37). They incorporated this written material into the text.

While the human authors of Scripture did, at times, use some pre-existing materials, the Holy Spirit supernaturally controlled the writers and their writings. Consequently, their finished product was without error.

6. There Was Some Editing of Scripture

There was also editing by human hands. We are told that the Proverbs of Solomon were edited by the men of Hezekiah.

These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of King Hezekiah of Judah copied. (Proverbs 25:1 NET)

The fact that certain writings in Scripture were later edited testifies against the idea of some type of mechanical dictation. God certainly would not have to edit Himself!

7. There Are Differing Accounts of the Same Episode

We also have differing accounts of the same event—something that is inconsistent with mechanical dictation. For example, the wording of the inscription that was over the cross of Jesus is different in all four gospels. Matthew wrote:

Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37 NRSV)

Mark records it in this manner:

The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” (Mark 15:26 NRSV)

Luke’s gospel reads differently than Matthew’s gospel:

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38 NRSV)

John’s gospel read differently than the other three:

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19 NRSV)

The fact that each gospel writer records a different wording on the inscription above Jesus’ cross is inconsistent with mechanical dictation.

8. Not Everything Was Original with the Writer

There is also the possibility that some of the psalms may have actually used well-known writings and changed the words to honor the God of Scripture. Psalm 29 is usually given as an example of this. The psalm is similar to a pagan writing that honors the storm-god Baal. It has been argued that the writer of the psalm, traditionally viewed as being David, actually took this pagan work and changed the wording to honor the Lord—the true God of nature.

Among other reasons, he may have done this to show the Canaanites that it is Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is the only true God and that gods like Baal do not really exist. Thus, he took a hymn to a false god that was familiar to him and changed the words to honor the Lord.

If this is what happened, then we have a case of a writer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, taking an existing pagan writing, or at least the main ideas from an existing writing and changing the words to honor the true God. If this actually happened, then certainly no one could argue the idea of mechanical dictation on the part of the biblical writer because the original writer was an unbeliever. It must be noted, however, that not every Christian accepts that this is what was done with Psalm 29; it is only a possibility.

Conclusion: There Are Not Just Two Choices: the Bible Was Either Divine or Human: the Bible Is Both Human and Divine

Some would have us believe that there are only two possible ways in which the Bible could have come to humanity. The first choice is that God dictated every word of the Bible to humans. This would guarantee the accuracy of the finished result. There would be no mistakes because humans were never involved in the process. The second choice said humans alone were involved in the recording of Scripture. This would result in legends, mistakes, and inaccuracies. But neither of these is true. God divinely inspired the biblical writers to use their own personalities, vocabularies and writing styles to impart His Word to humanity. This is where the evidence leads us.

Summary – Question 2
Was the Bible Dictated by God to Humanity? (Mechanical Dictation)

The mechanical dictation theory teaches the writers of the Scripture were passive as God spoke His Word through them. Rather than writing with their own words and vocabulary, they were more like stenographers or automatic writers. This would guarantee the Scripture would be without error. There are indeed portions of Scripture, such as the Ten Commandments, where God dictated His Word to humanity.

However, the idea of mechanical dictation does not account for all aspects of the Bible. There is no evidence that God always dictated the Scripture to the various authors of the biblical books. For one thing, the vocabulary and style of the various books of the Bible is not uniform—this is something one would not expect had each author merely wrote down what God had told him to write. For example, the style and vocabulary of Luke is much different from John.

Also, the writings of Paul express a variety of different personal emotions—this is not something that a stenographer does.

If the writers were mere stenographers, then we would expect the Scriptures to have been written in the first person rather than the third person. But we do not find this.

In addition, the writers do not depict themselves as being stenographers. Luke used sources for his gospel. Also, both he and Matthew incorporated genealogies that had already been written. This is hardly keeping with the idea of the writers being passive stenographers.

There is also the different rendering of the same event. For example, we find all four gospels giving a different wording of the writing over the cross of Jesus. This is inconsistent with the idea of dictation.

Scripture teaches that God spoke through the unique personalities of the biblical writers. The Holy Spirit approved the written words of the various books of the Bible as the various writers expressed them. This was accomplished without the authors being mere stenographers.

Since the Holy Spirit was the actual source of what was written, He made certain that the writers used the correct words to express God’s truth. Consequently, the Scriptures were supernaturally protected from error.

What Are Some Inadequate Theories of the Bible’s Inspiration and Authority? ← Prior Section
What Is the Partial Inspiration Theory? (The Bible Contains the Word of God) Next Section →
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