Literal Dictation of the Bible – Fiddlrts’ Reply

Recently Defeating the Dragons wrote a very good blog post on inerrancy titled I don’t know what I think about the Bible. Among the comments was one from Timothy Swanson (fiddlrts) that is so insightful I want to share it with you.

Timothy Swanson is an attorney in solo practice. He is also a violinist, which makes his example of Handel even more significant. He blogs at Diary of an Autodidact. You may want to check it out.


Originally I planned to use fiddlrts’ comment as a foundation for this post and add my interactions to it. However, what he says stands so well on its own that it does not need my help. I only supplied the subheads to his comment, which follows in its entirety.

Inspiration vs. Literal Dictation

Fiddlrts writes:

It seems odd to me that “inspiration” has come to mean “literal dictation.”

Part of my journey in understanding what Saint Paul (assuming he wrote it) meant by that term took place relatively recently when I was writing about women and divorce.

I had glossed over it before, but Christ actually says that the commandment that a man may dump his wife by giving her a certificate of divorcement was given, not by God (which he easily could have said) but by Moses, in order to account for man’s hardness of heart. That certainly put a different gloss on the making of the Old Testament. If Christ himself didn’t think that every detail of the Mosaic law was dictated from the mouth of God, then why do we insist upon it?

If you think about it, Saint Paul’s endorsement is a bit lukewarm. Scripture is “inspired” by God, not literally written by God in every word. Scripture is “profitable,” but not the one thing necessary for salvation. This doesn’t sound to me like the description Saint Paul would use for a literally word-for-word dictated message.

Allowing that individual flawed men (and maybe women) wrote as they were “moved” allows for appreciation of the delightful differences in voice and style throughout the Bible. (I find the language of Isaiah – including his biting satire – to be particularly enjoyable as literature.)

Inspiration, Dictation, and Handel’s Messiah

I might give a comparison from music, which is meaningful to me as a performer and as a Christian. The accounts of Handel’s composition of The Messiah sure look like he was “inspired” in the sense we usually use it. He was “moved” to write it, and did so in a nearly impossible amount of time. I think it is possible that we could say that he glimpsed something of the Divine and did his best to commit it to paper. However, any argument that God told him to write four G#s followed by a B (the opening to “Comfort Ye”) falls flat.

The Messiah is unmistakably in the musical language of Handel. No one reasonably familiar with Western music would mistake it for Wagner. Or Stravinsky. An expert in music history could easily distinguish it from works by Bach or Purcell, despite the similarity of language.

Style and Setting do not Affect Inspiration

Handel clearly wrote in the style of his time and with an 18th century understanding of music. But that doesn’t make it less inspired. Likewise, the fact that the writers of scripture wrote in their own words and language – and with the prejudices and ignorance of their time – in response to their own glimpses of the Divine, doesn’t make it less inspired. But approaching it with the idea of mimicking G#s and Es misses the whole sweep of the inspiration. Thus also when we attempt to mimic the details of the cultures and times in which Scripture was written.

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.”


I hope you find fiddlrts’ comments to be as useful as I do!

~Tim Chastain, Jesus without Baggage

Image credit: George Frideric Handel, by Francis Kyte (public domain) via Wikipedia Common
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9 Responses to Literal Dictation of the Bible – Fiddlrts’ Reply

  1. michaeleeast says:

    Timothy Swanson reflects the same attitude to scripture as myself.
    We must gather the fragments of light from the shards of pottery that surround them.


  2. lotharson says:

    Thanks for having called our attention to that, Tim!


  3. Mere Dreamer says:

    I enjoyed reading his comment again. I find his point about inspiration as related to music (and all life, really) to be particularly interesting, since I hope to live an inspired life as well. Don’t we all? When did we cease to be living, breathing compositions of God?


  4. sheila0405 says:

    I recently got into a rather heated discussion on the issue of Biblical inspiration with one who believes more in the dictation way of viewing the Bible. I immediately thought about Handel’s Messiah, which I firmly believe was inspired by a glimpse of the Divine, as so beautifully stated here. In fact, I was inspired myself to find it on my mp3 player and listen to it. You are correct; there is nothing really that can be added to this post. It says it all.


  5. fiddlrts says:

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone.


  6. lotharson says:

    I am not sure I buy this if it is meant for singling out the Bible as more inspired than other Christian and Jewish books.

    If not, I entirely agree that the presence of errors in a writing does nothing to show it was not inspired (in the sense that God can use it to bring about His good purposes and change the lifes and minds of people).


    • fiddlrts says:

      Very interesting. I particularly liked your post on Luther and the Jews. I wrote a similar post recently, so I love to see someone else pick up that issue.

      I wasn’t trying to make a specific point about the relative merits of the various writings. Rather, I was responding to a particular viewpoint of literal dictation, and the results that follow. I was raised in a very literalist tradition, and have been distressed to see many friends and family go even further in that direction to a rather strictly theonomic view of the scriptures. A view, perhaps, of the Bible as “God’s little instruction book,” containing literal and specific directions for all issues in life.

      Your thoughts on the inconsistencies and cruelties of such a reading really strike a chord. Perhaps the words of Propaganda (in his apropos rap “Precious Puritans”) match your thoughts. “So I guess it’s true that God really does use crooked sticks
      to make straight lines.”


      • lotharson says:


        On my blog I am blessed by wonderful and respectful atheist commenters but not many thoughtful Christians.

        You are warmly welcome to join our conversations 😉

        Cheers from Europe.


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