Over the past month people have sent, both on social media and by email, lots of verses from the Bible, which the sharers believe are evidence that the Bible is, in and of itself, the Word of God, inerrant, and infallible. Among these texts, the most common I have received are John 1, Hebrews 4, and 2 Timothy 3. Over the next few weeks I want to focus on each of these texts to discover what they might mean.
Let’s begin with 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
We should all pay attention to the tendency we have to make assumptions. As Dallas Willard said, familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. We can be so familiar with, and certain about, the meaning of the text that it actually becomes unfamiliar. Is that certainty based on serious and deep engagement, or just an assumption because that’s how we’ve always heard it interpreted? 2 Timothy is an example of such an instance where deeply held assumptions that inform our interpretation of the text can keep us from seeing what might be going on in it.
Let’s begin with language. The word at the center of this text in 2 Timothy is the word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos). The text says, “All scripture is theopneustos…,” which is a word made up of two other words, theos (God) and pneo (to breathe). It is often translated as God inspired or God breathed. What does that mean, though?
One of the ways we can usually make educated guesses at what a word might mean is to look for how the word is used elsewhere. Does this particular author use it in another place? How was the word used in other texts outside of the Bible?
There’s the rub. It’s possible the author of 2 Timothy coined the word, which puts us at somewhat of a disadvantage in determining its meaning. What does God breathed mean? The first thing that comes to mind is all the way back in Genesis 2, when God forms a human from the dirt, then breathes into that human the breath of life. The word for breath in Hebrew, ruach, is the same word for Spirit. God, in Genesis 2, inspires, even inspirits, the first human. To be alive, in the world of Genesis 2, is to be inspired by God. To be human is to be dynamic and ever evolving, perhaps the same is true of Scripture?
Back to the meaning of theopneustos. Does God breathed mean God dictated? Does it imply that the human beings into whom that breath comes are somehow then able to move their own humanity and contextual limitations out of the way to create a text that is without any error? Which is more inspiring, God dictating a text to a passive human writer, or God working in and through contextual limitations to inspire the human writer to share their story? Inspired isn’t the same as dictated. Inspiration meets us where we are and invites us to keep moving forward, skipping none of the steps of transformation along the way.
One further note about language. The word ‘is’ isn’t found in the Greek text of 2 Timothy 3:16. It actually doesn’t read, “ All scripture is inspired by God…” Instead, it reads, “All scripture inspired by God…” The ‘is’ is furnished by translators. There are times in Greek when ‘is’ is implied but not written, and I’m sure those who want to affirm the inerrancy of every text in the Bible would argue that this is such a place. However, this can also be read and interpreted as an affirmation that the scriptures that have been inspired by God are beneficial “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Is it possible that the way we decide what scriptures are inspired by God is that they actually are beneficial in these ways? Perhaps it’s the breath of God in us resonating with the breath of God coming through the writers of the text.
Next, let’s think about the context. What is the scripture referenced by the author? Scholars date 2 Timothy to the early second century, somewhere in the 110s, which means the reference to scripture would likely be the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. Most of the texts that now comprise the New Testament existed, but the canon was still more than two hundred years away from being finalized. In 2 Timothy the writer isn’t referring to a set and final collection of texts. There were debates to come about which books would be canonized.
To state it concisely, I don’t think 2 Timothy 3:16 is making a case for the inerrancy of scripture. To claim that the Bible is error free from the table of contents to the maps isn’t a claim found here. The claim is for inspiration, and I wholeheartedly affirm that the writers and editors of the Bible were inspired, and that inspiration led them to write their stories, letters, and poems down. They didn’t know, at the time, that they were writing anything that would be grouped and canonized as sacred scripture. Much less that two thousand years later these same writings would be called inerrant or infallible.
It’s worth a mention that of all the ways scripture is helpful and beneficial (teaching, reproof, correction, training, and equipping), proof-texting isn’t one of them. Yet, too often, we come to the Bible looking for a text to use to prove our rightness and their wrongness. This doesn’t ultimately honor scripture or those who were inspired to create it.
Not only is scripture inspired, it is also inspiring. In the best moments the Bible, through stories and poems and letters, allows us to see our spiritual ancestors make giant leaps forward in their understanding of God, humanity, and the world. In the worst moments, we see them in their in-process-ness, and even that can be inspiring. We are separated by time and context, yet we aren’t that different. Perhaps that is why we keep coming back to the Bible, because in it we can see ourselves. It reminds us that there’s more to do, more to discover, and at the same time, more to leave behind.
I love the Bible. I am inspired by so many of the people and stories found in it’s pages. The best way to show that love and appreciation is to continue the work, to pick up the baton and continue the journey forward that our ancestors began. For that work, the Bible is surely a beneficial source of teaching, reproof, correction, training, and equipping.
Up Next: Authority