Thursday, 15 September 2005

The inspiration of Scripture

Christian theology has long spoken of the “inspiration” of Scripture. The term is adopted from the Vulgate’s translation of 2 Timothy 3:16: “omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata.” Literally of course, the term θεοπνευστος means “breathed by a god,” so that “God-breathed” is a better term than “divinely inspired.”

According to the writer of 2 Timothy, then, “all Scripture is God-breathed.” This has often been interpreted as a technical statement about the origin of Scripture, as though the biblical texts exist because of a miraculous event of divine authorship. But such an interpretation is really impossible in the context of 2 Timothy 3. For the author is not concerned at all with the origin of the γραφαι, but only with the function and usefulness of these writings within the Christian community. The concern here is not with an event of “inspired authorship” at a specific moment in the past, but rather with the fact that the biblical writings, right here and now among us, are “God-breathed.”

This means that the concept of θεοπνευστος should not be interpreted formally, as a statement about the unique textual character of the biblical writings. It should rather be interpreted materially, as a statement about the unique power and function of these writings.

Let me offer this theological formulation then: when we say that Scripture is “inspired,” we mean that God himself breathes out the message of Scripture. The message of Scripture comes to us here and now by the very breath of God. This has nothing to do with a static concept of how Scripture originated in the past, but it has everything to do with how Scripture functions among us in the present.

Let me make this theological formulation more explicit: in Holy Scripture, God himself speaks (or “breathes”) the gospel. This is the inspiration of Scripture.

6 Comments:

ross said...

It is an interesting topic. People make much of "God-breathed" with respect to the inspiration of Scripture, but it seems to me that frequently, too much is made.

There are a couple of acts of God-breathing in Scripture which leap immediately to mind to "flesh out" what Paul may have had in mind. The first of course is Genesis 2 where God breathes into the nostrils of Adam and he became a living being. The second is John 20 where Jesus breathes upon the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. While John's gospel almost certainly wasn't written by the time 2 Timothy was, the story of that encounter would probably have been circulating amongst the disciples. Regardless, Paul certainly would have had Genesis 2, and so it is reasonable to ask wonder what God-breathed might mean in such a way as it can be applied equally to both Scripture and Adam.

tim said...

Interesting way of putting Ben, but I think we need to investigate a little more what the relationship might be between the breath, or the ruach/pneuma, of God and Paul's statements about the "god-breathed-ness" of Scripture. I wonder if we should speak of the inspiration of Scripture within a larger schema of Pneumatology. Gordon Fee argues that it makes no sense at all to speak about the new covenant without clear reference to the Spirit, and this might include the way the New Covenant community of Christ is to understand the Scriptures. After all, Jesus said "he will lead you into all truth" and the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah includes these curious words "I will write my law upon their hearts... no longer will a man teach his neighbour". What might these words mean for our understanding of the work of the Spirit and the role of Scripture in the New Covenant?

John Dekker said...

"Expired" rather than "inspired". ;)

Again, I find this unconvincing - why can't the origin of Scripture form the basis for its function and usefulness? It fits the context perfectly...

Ben Myers said...

Hi John. Well, if you want to you can obviously argue theologically that "the [miraculous] origin of Scripture forms the basis for its function and usefulness". I would disagree sharply with this argument, but as an argument it is still justifiable on the basis of certain theological assumptions.

On the other hand, it's very doubtful that this emphasis on the Bible's "origin" is justifiable as an interpretation of 2 Tim. 3:16. Luke Timothy Johnson's Anchor Bible commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy has a useful discussion of this (pp. 420ff.).

John Dekker said...

Yeah, I think I'll look that up. But what's the thrust of his argument? Why is it to be dismissed on exegetical grounds?

Chris Tilling said...

I wonder if 2 Pet 1:20-21 doesn't understand 'inspiration' in some sense reflecting divine origin in the sense you seem to maintain polemic against? Richard Bauckham's commentary on 2 Pet discusses the problem at length: Is this passage referring to the authority of OT prophecy in terms of its interpretation or in terms of its origin? He seems to suggest that understanding the clause in v 20 as 'origin' is the most likely. He concludes:
"In reply, the author ... reasserts, in the standard terms used by Hellenistic Jewish writers, the divine origin of OT prophecy. No prophecy in the OT Scriptures originated from human initiative or imagination".
Bauckham, R. J. (1998). Vol. 50: Word Biblical Commentary : Jude, 2 Peter Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 235.

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