Question: "What are the different theories of biblical inspiration?"
Answer: Inspiration is one of the most important doctrines in Christianity for the sole reason that we hold the Bible to be inspired by God, and as such is our infallible rule for faith and practice. If that rule of faith and practice is not “God-breathed” but is simply the work of the human imagination, then there is no compelling reason to follow its doctrines and moral guidelines.
The reason we hold the Bible to be our rule for faith and practice can be summed up in one biblical passage: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17; NASB). We notice two things regarding Scripture from this verse: 1) It is "inspired by God" and 2) It is "profitable" for Christian living. We can come up with definitions for the various things Scripture is profitable for (reproof, correction, etc.). What really needs to be defined is what is meant by "inspired by God?"
There are four ways to look at inspiration:
1. The neo-orthodox view of inspiration
2. The dictation method of inspiration
3. The view of limited inspiration
4. The view of plenary verbal inspiration
The neo-orthodox view of inspiration is based on their view of the transcendence of God. Neo-orthodoxy taught that God is so completely different from us (i.e., utterly transcendent) that the only way we could ever know Him is through His revelation to us. This view of the transcendence of God is so restrictive that it denies any concept of natural theology (i.e., that God can be known through His creation). Furthermore, it denies that the Bible is the Word of God. Rather, the Bible is a witness, or mediator, to the Word of God, which is God Himself. The words in the Bible aren't God's words, but God can use them to speak to individuals. Other than that, the words in the Bible are fallible words written by fallible men.
From what we can see, the neo-orthodox view of inspiration is no view of inspiration at all. If the Bible is the fallible product of fallible men, then it really has no value at all, at least not any more than any other book written by men. God could very well "speak" to us through works of fiction as He could through the Bible.
The dictation method of inspiration sees God as the author of Scripture and the individual human agents as secretaries taking dictation. God spoke and man wrote it down. This view has some merit as we know there are portions of Scripture in which God essentially says, "Write this down" (e.g., Jeremiah 30:2), but not all Scripture was created that way. The Pentateuch is essentially a pre-history and chronicle of the Jewish people prior to settling in the Promised Land. While Moses is believed to be the primary author, much of it is the editorial work of Moses and later redactors who finalized the finished product. Luke states in the preamble to his Gospel that he performed detailed research into the events of the life of Jesus before writing his work (Luke 1:1-4). Many of the prophetic books read like journals of the prophets' lives. The bottom line is that the dictation method only explains certain portions of Scripture, but not all of it or even most of it.
Limited inspiration is sort of the opposite view of dictation. Whereas dictation sees Scripture as primarily the work of God with the human agent reduced to being a secretary, limited inspiration sees Scripture as primarily the work of man with "limited" inspiration from God. God guides the human authors, but allows them the freedom to express themselves in their works. This view asserts that while there may be factual and historical errors in the Bible, the Holy Spirit guided the authors so that no doctrinal errors resulted from their works. The problem with this view is how one can trust the Bible in doctrinal concerns when it is prone to error in its historical accounts? The reliability of the Bible is called into doubt in this view, and if we can't trust a literary work to get mundane details right, how can we trust it for weightier issues? This view also seems to ignore the fact that while the Bible is a story of redemption from Genesis to Revelation, it is a story told against the backdrop of human history, the doctrine being interwoven within the history. One can't just arbitrarily say that this account is factually inaccurate yet state it contains a kernel of doctrinal truth.
The final view, and the view of orthodox Christianity, is the view of plenary, verbal inspiration. The word plenary means "complete or full," and verbal means "the very words of Scripture." So plenary, verbal inspiration means that every single word in the Bible is the very word of God. The passage quoted above (2 Timothy 3:16-17) uses a unique Greek word, theopneustos, which literally means "God-breathed." Scripture is literally "breathed out" of the mouth of God. Furthermore, in another biblical passage, we see that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
This passage gives us a clue as to how God inspired the human authors. We see that men spoke (or wrote) "as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." The verb "carried along" is used to speak of a sail being filled by a wind and carrying a boat along the water, which is fitting since the Greek word for "spirit" is also used for "wind." When the human authors were putting pen to paper, the Holy Spirit "carried them along" so that what they wrote were the "breathed-out” words of God. This means that while the actual writings retain the personality of the individual authors (and that is obvious if you read the works of Paul compared to James or John or Peter), they contain the actual words of God.
In closing, it should be noted that there are some things that inspiration is not:
1. Inspiration is not robotic dictation (not to be confused with the dictation method mentioned above). The personality of the human authors is present in each of the writings.
2. The fact that individual personalities are present in the writings does not mean that God's "control" over them was not perfect. The Holy Spirit superintended the process so that the words written were the exact words God wanted, despite the fallibility of the human authors.
3. Inspiration is limited to the original writings (autographs) not the process of transmission. We know there are minute transmission errors in the copies of manuscripts, but these errors are more grammatical than substantive.
4. The inspiration of Scripture, as we said, is to the verbal level, meaning that it's not just the ideas or thoughts that are inspired, but the very words. Moreover, we don't speak of inspiration of Scripture as we would the inspiration of a great work of literature or a work of music.
5. Finally, inspiration is limited to the specific works of the authors that are included in the biblical canon. Paul wasn't inspired, but Romans was. Furthermore, not all letters of Paul were inspired, but only the ones the Holy Spirit chose to preserve (e.g., see the Corinthian letters in which reference is made to two additional letters to this church of which we have no existing copies).
Biblical inspiration, in a nutshell, is the orthodox view of the church which says that the Bible is the plenary, verbally inspired word of God.