Dictation and Inspiration

The term “dictation” in modern parlance bears a wooden, narrow meaning not applicable to inspiration during the Reformation. Indeed, if ever a word suffered the ignominies of modern theological reconstruction, it is the word “dictation.” The word was in general use among the Reformers as common terminology describing the penmen’s role in writing under immediate inspiration. Reformation era writers used the word “dictation” as a safeguard against the erosion of the active, creative instrumentality of the Holy Spirit in inspiration. Dictation and infallibility were linked in Reformation theological formulation. To replace infallibility, certainty and the impossibility to err, with degrees of inerrancy, to be without error, the Reformed Orthodox use of dictation would also be replaced and thus the demonization and inaccurate teaching on the16th and 17th c. theological definition of dictation.

The active, creative instrumentality was called  the mandatum scribendi, an assumption of the doctrine of verbal inspiration, viz., that the Spirit initiated the writing of Scripture and provided a mandatum,(command) or the impulsium (impulse) to write (2 Peter 1:21).[1] At issue is not the role of human penmen but the sharing of the creative factor of inspiration.[2] The trajectory of sharing this creative factor with the penmen resulted in the expansion of the Doctrine of Inspiration to include the psychology and limitations of the writers, categories not found in Scripture. The Reformers recognized the penmen’s reason, forms of expression, and cultural thought patterns in submission to the active creative instrumentality of the Holy Spirit.[3] Turretin, on this issue, comments,

The question is not whether the sacred writers were impelled by certain occasions to write. For we do not deny that they often made use of opportunities offered to commit to writing the mysteries of God. Rather the question is whether they wrote so according to the opportunities that they could not also write according to an expressed divine command. For we think these things should not be opposed to each other, but brought together. They could write both on the presentation of an opportunity and yet by divine command and by divine inspiration. Yea, they must have written by the divine will because God alone could present such an occasion, for it was neither presented to them without design nor employed of their own accord.”[4]

Dictation was not meant to infer that the penmen were mere “tools” or that inspiration was “mechanical” [5] removing the personalities of the writers from the writing. Diction described in these terms was a misappropriation of the word used by the Protestant Reformers, utilized pejoratively by post-critical commentators to disparage the pre-critical formulation of the infallibility of immediate inspiration therefore reinforcing multiple views of inerrancy that diminish the meaning of inspiration by secular regulations. Our Reformation era forefathers used the word “dictation” in a technical sense to underscore the Divine process of Scripture’s inspiration and the infallible canon it produced.For instance, Thomas Hall, B.D. and minister of Kings-Norton in Worcester-shire writes,

That the Sacred Scriptures are the very word of God. Holy men were but the instruments, tis God that is the Author of them; they were but the spirits of amanuenses to write what he should dictate to them. Hence it is called the word of God. Mark 7:13, 2 Cor. 2:17 and 4:2, 1 Thess. 4:15. the Oracles of God. [6]  

Indeed, Ames in 1641 refers to the work of the penmen in terms of dictation given by Jerome saying, “The Scripture must be understood by the help of the same Spirit, by whom it was dictated, as, Jerome, eodum spiritu debet intuigi scriptura qua suit dictate.[7]

In addition to Ames and Hall the following are examples of pre-critical formulas of immediate inspiration, described as dictation. Dictation should be held to reinforce the Spirit’s creative role in Inspiration and not to negate the human element in Scripture. Francis Turretin writes in his Institutes,

And if corruption is admitted in those of lesser importance, why not others of greater? It will not do to say that divine providence wished to keep it free from serious corruptions, but not from minor. For besides the fact that this is gratuitous, it cannot be held without injury, as if lacking in the necessary things which are required for the full credibility (autopistian [self-authentication]) of Scripture itself. Nor can we readily believe that God, who dictated and inspired each and every word to these inspired (theopneustois) men, would not take care of their entire preservation.”[8]

Lamothe likewise writes, “When the Old Testament is cited by the Apostles, they usually call it the Scripture by way of excellency; as when St. Paul, speaking of an Oracle dictated by the mouth of God Himself, says, For what saith the Scripture, cast out the bondwoman and her son (Gal. 1:30),”[9] Again, quoting Eusebius, Lamothe finds that,

in the Ecclesiastical History that the heretics who denied the Divinity of our Lord, had the confidence to falsify the Scripture, to accommodate the Text to their opinions. Upon which the author of the primitive ages says, that it was not likely that the heretics were ignorant how criminal an enterprise of the nature was: For, says he, either they believed not that the Sacred Scriptures were dictated by the Holy Ghost; and so were infidels; or they imagine themselves to be wiser than the Holy Ghost, and then what are they other than demoniacs. Euseb. h.e.1.5.c.ult.[10]

God was the primary author of sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit the active creative agent, and the penmen were secondary, the writers of inspired text. Ames says that Scripture’s inspiration “may serve to admonish us, not so much to meddle in the Scriptures, as if we were in another man’s ground, or in those things which belong unto others and not unto ourselves,”[11] good and timely counsel for today.


[1] Muller, Dictionary, 183.

[2] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1993), 212. Strong writes, “The Scriptures are the production equally of God and man, and are therefore never to be regarded as merely human or merely divine.” Again on p. 216, “Inspiration is therefore not verbal, while yet we claim that no form of words which taken in its connections would teach essential error has been admitted into Scripture.”

[3] Muller, Dictionary, 155.

[4] Turretin, Institutes, 60. Contra James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 116., Garrett writes, “[Turretin] taught the utter passivity and sheer instrumentality of the biblical writers under the sway of the Holy Spirit, and the consequent inerrancy of the Bible.”

[5] Strong, Systematic, 208: Of the Dictation theory Strong writes, “This theory holds that inspiration consisted in such a possession of the minds and bodies of the Scripture writers by the Holy Spirit, that they became passive instruments or amanuenses – pens, not penmen, of God.”

[6] Thomas Hall, A Practical and Polemical Commentary, 1658, 274.

[7] Ames, Exposition, 186.

[8] Turretin, Institutes, 71 of the original language copies, autopistian; 126, autopiston.

[9] C.G. Lamothe, The Inspiration of the New Testament Asserted and Explained in Answer to some Modern Writers (London, Printed for Thomas Bennet, at the Half-Moon in ST. Paul’s Church-yard, 1694), 24.

[10] Lamothe, Inspiration, 32.

[11]Ames, Exposition, 251.


Published by Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr.

Dr. Peter William Van Kleeck, Sr. : B.A., Grand Rapids Baptist College, 1986; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990; Th.M., Calvin Theological Seminary, 1998; D. Min, Bob Jones University, 2013. Dr. Van Kleeck was formerly the Director of the Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, Grand Rapids, MI, (1990-1994) lecturing, researching and writing in the defense of the Masoretic Hebrew text, Greek Received Text and King James Bible. His published works include, "Fundamentalism’s Folly?: A Bible Version Debate Case Study" (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1998); “We have seen the future and we are not in it,” Trinity Review, (Mar. 99); “Andrew Willet (1562-1621: Reformed Interpretation of Scripture,” The Banner of Truth, (Mar. 99); "A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs" (Outskirts Press, 2015). Dr. Van Kleeck is the pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Manassas, VA where he has ministered for the past twenty-one years. He is married to his wife of 43 years, Annette, and has three married sons, one daughter and eighteen grandchildren.

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