A Reflection on the Inspiration of Scripture from the Patristic Period

by W. Jackson Watts


In my last post, I highlighted a brief, exegetical insight offered by an early church figure as it concerns the perseverance of the saints. Of course, the early church period offers us a treasure-trove of other exegetical, theological, and pastoral insights that we would do well to explore.

Our minds perhaps most quickly go to some of the ecumenical councils, such as Nicaea and Chalcedon, in which fundamental aspects of orthodoxy were clarified and codified. Specifically, the relationship of the Son to the Father and the two natures of Christ were the focus of such councils. Yet this period offers perspective on a number of other critical doctrinal questions which were, contrary to the arguments of some, not later, post-Enlightenment inventions. Instead, they were part of the original apostolic deposit.

One such doctrine is the inspiration and authority of Scripture. While modern debates over Scripture tends to focus more on hermeneutics and inerrancy—both important, related issues—more fundamental to our doctrine of Scripture is the nature of biblical authority as an inspired word from God.

Enter Athenagoras of Athens, a second century philosopher who was one of the most eloquent apologists and theologians of the early church period. His best-known work, A Plea for the Christians, is more of a plea for civil toleration than a doctrinal treatise. However, as students of church history will realize, the modern divisions between biblical studies and theology, theology and apologetics, theology and pastoral care, etc. are often indiscernible when one considers premodern Christian literature.

In the midst of his Plea, Athenagoras offers a brief window into how he (and many other early Christians) understood the nature and authority of Scripture. In making reference to Old Testament figures such as Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Athenagoras describes those prophets

“who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute-player breathes into a flute.”[1]

He appeals to the prophets’ words in establishing his doctrine of God because He believes they function as divinely-appointed, Spirit-led mouthpieces for the Lord. This quote, if anything, emphasizes Divine inspiration of Scripture.

While at times there has been the tendency of Christian thinkers to articulate a more mechanistic-sounding view of inspiration, the other references to Scripture in Athenagoras that I can locate do not minimize in any way the human characteristics and qualities of Holy Scripture. That is to say, I don’t think Athenagoras would want to mute the biblical authors’ own unique, literary contributions. If one considers his handling of secular sources and the overall approach to general revelation implicit in his work, he strikes me as a very sensitive student of the nature of texts, and above all, the biblical texts.


[1] Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 2004), 133.

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