Looking at biblical ‘inspiration’
How many times have you heard it said, “The Bible is the inspired Word of God”? Have you ever thought about what this phrase actually means? Paul Achtemeier, in his book The Inspiration of Scripture, has indicated the problems that are inherent in using the terminology of “inspiration” loosely. He points to issues related to the use (or abuse) of this term. The matter is not quite as simple as it first appears.
The traditional answer to the question of what this statement means, is to assert (quite correctly) that the Bible uses this concept of inspiration to define itself. However, we need to be careful in simply lifting out one word (this is all it is, even in Greek!) and making it the lynchpin of a massive argument. The claim that “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is ultimately an inadequate answer if we are truly seeking understanding of our faith.
What, then, is the biblical evidence for the claim of inspiration? 2 Timothy 3:16 is generally regarded as the “proof text” for this topic, with the claim being made that all scripture is inspired. This verse appears in the passage set for reading in churches this coming Sunday, as the epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary.
However, even this verse must be viewed in context. It cannot readily be extracted from its context and pressed into service as an abstract definition; we cannot assume that it is the fundamental principle held by all biblical writers, as no other writers of other biblical books give any indication that it was adhered to in this way. Weshould note a number of aspects of this verse which caution us against making it a fundamental universal principle which applies equally in every case.
Is this the last word on the matter?
Some interpreters have argued that the whole of 2 Timothy should be seen as a last testament of Paul — an attempt to set out his final thoughts in a clear, systematic, programmatic manner, as his last will and testament for his followers. However, caution is again required at this point.
The authenticity of 2 Timothy is debated. Some
scholars claim that it was not written by Paul, others say that he dictated it
to a secretary, while yet others argue that it does contain fragments of
material written by Paul, which
are placed within a larger framework of a whole letter by another writer.
Whatever the origin of the letter, it is clear that it was written in a specific context; it is by no means an attempt to set out basic principles, but rather applies such principles to a given situation.
Inspired. First, the Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos, which literally means, “breathed by God”. This was not a common term in the first century CE; many other similar terms were available prior to the New Testament to describe the activity of inspiration. So the use of this term is not in itself a clear-cut way of proposing a “doctrine of inspiration” in first century terms.
Useful. Further, we should note that in 2 Timothy 3:16 the definition which is given is functional, not ontological that is to say, it identifies the effect scripture has, and does not define the essence of scripture in and of itself. The emphasis is placed on the fact that scripture is “useful” or “profitable”. Inspiration, so it seems, does not reside in the writings themselves, nor in the writer, but results from the process of using (or applying) scripture.
Scripture. A further issue concerns the word graphe, usually translated as “scripture”. This word literally means “writing”, and normally it applies to Old Testament books. At the time of writing 2 Timothy, it could not yet apply to the New Testament in a direct manner, since the complete New Testament was not yet formed.
In his authentic writings Paul himself shows little awareness of the Gospels or of Gospel traditions; and there is no evidence for the collection of Paul’s letters until early in the second century CE. By contrast, Paul regularly cites scriptures from his own tradition, the Hebrew scriptures, and it is clear that he considers these works to be important guides for living by faith. Romans, Galatians, and both letters to the Corinthians contain numerous such instances.
(There are explicit citations of Hebrew scriptures at two places in the Pastoral Epistles: 1 Tim 5:17-20, quoting Deut 25:4 and alluding to Deut 19:5, and 2 Tim 2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13.)
Thus, this statement was originally NOT about the whole of the Bible; it is only by inference that we can refer it to the whole of the Bible.
Useful for … Finally, let us note the diversity of functions here attributed to inspired writings: they can be used for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Thus, a richness of meaning is perceived within scripture, indicating the diversity of ways of applying scripture. There is no single function which is foundational; nor does this verse set out all the functions of scripture (the Psalms, for example, function in a number of different ways — for praise, lament, celebration, petition, confession, remembrance, and so on).
Thus, 2 Timothy 3:16 itself does not offer a full and satisfactory answer to the question, what does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired? It offers one insight, but it needs to be balanced against others. It is not the last word on the matter.
Certainly, it is clear that this passage can refer only to the Hebrew scriptures, for the New Testament as we know it was not yet formed, even in the early decades of the second century. And it points towards a functional understanding of scripture, providing no basis for any claims about the divinely-inspired and absolutely authoritative nature of the books of the Bible.
Rev. Dr John Squires is currently undertaking an Intentional Interim Ministry with Queanbeyan Uniting Church.
This reflection originally appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith.
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