“All Scripture is God-breathed…” (II Timothy 3:16) is the Bible’s own claim to authority. Paul is saying that the words of Scripture are the words of God: God breathed them out. Because of this, God still speaks through Scripture whenever it is read, and it carries His authority.
Christians differ somewhat in their understanding of exactly how this process took place. Does it just mean that the Bible is ‘inspired’ in the same way as great poetry is said to be inspired? Or (to go to the opposite extreme) does it mean that God dictated every word of it?
Those of us who take the Bible at face value have to accept what it says about itself. In some parts of the Old Testament, we find statements like: “The LORD called to Moses and said…” which sounds like dictation to me. On the other hand, most of the psalms are outpourings of the writer’s soul, full of anger and despair as well as love and praise – to maintain that God dictated these seems ridiculous. In the New Testament, Luke tells us that his gospel was written because ‘it seemed like a good idea’, and that he obtained his material through ‘careful investigation’, presumably from eyewitnesses and other reputable sources (Luke 1:3). On the other hand, John informs us that Revelation was more or less a straight transcription of what he saw in his vision (Revelation 1:11).
The ‘dictation’ theory runs into difficulties when faced with such things as the discrepancies between the gospels. If God dictated them, why do they give varying accounts of the same events? But if they come from independent human sources, these differences, far from casting doubt on the veracity of the events they describe, actually make them more believable. If the police take statements from numerous witnesses to a crime and find them all completely identical, they suspect collusion. Really truthful witnesses will always disagree on the details.
How we view the inspiration of Scripture may be related to how we understand God’s sovereignty to work. Is He a micro-manager, controlling every detail, or does He operate more subtly? My own belief is that God’s sovereignty does not override our free will; instead, He uses it. As when Caiaphas made his prophecy (John 11:49-52), a man can be the mouthpiece of God even when he is speaking his own words. So how much more easily can the words of a true apostle or prophet be the words of God! The apostles did not set out to write the book we now call the New Testament; they wrote individual letters and other documents, often in response to particular problems and needs. But they were always conscious of speaking and writing with authority – an authority that Jesus Himself had given them (e.g. Galatians 1:1; II Corinthians 13:2,3). It was because the early church recognised that authority that they collected the books of the New Testament together.
However we understand the concept of ‘God-breathed’ Scripture, the consequence is the same: if we acknowledge the Bible as being God’s Word and carrying His authority, we must submit to it (not trying to impose our own agenda) and obey it. “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)