…As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
-2 Timothy 3:14-16 (NIV)
“I don’t know anyone who takes the entire Bible literally, and I don’t know anyone who takes the whole thing as metaphorical.” That’s what this person I was discussing a Bible text with said, and I could only agree. It reminded me that reading and interpreting the Bible together can be hard, kind of like trying to hit a moving target sometimes, or maybe more accurately like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It isn’t always immediately clear how a particular text applies to us, or why this one should be applied at all while we leave this other one in the ancient world. And by what standard do we decide to take this passage literally while that one is obviously figurative or poetic or at least in need of nuance?
We sometimes tell ourselves that all we need to do to be united is read the Bible and just do what it says. But of course the church has been trying that on and off for a couple thousand years now, and in case you haven’t been paying attention our record is not unspotted.
Reading the Bible, in short, is difficult, and the more people involved in the endeavor the more complicated it gets. It’s so difficult, in fact, that you’d think the church would just give up on it. Sometimes it almost seems like we do. And yet…
Paul, it seems, made up a word to describe the Bible: theopneustos, literally, “God-breathed.” Some English translations say “inspired,” but “God-breathed” captures it better. We have no evidence that this word was ever used prior to Paul’s usage of it in 2 Timothy: not in the Bible, and not in the extant Greek literature that pre-dates Paul. Apparently, existing vocabulary couldn’t express what Paul thought of Scripture. He literally had to come up with a new word.
Ever since he did, of course, the church has argued about what that word means. We’ve used phrases like “plenary inspiration” or “verbal plenary inspiration” as shibboleths that prove we’re insiders, that our belief is pure and that we can be trusted to handle the Bible responsibly. We tie inspiration to ideas like inerrancy and infallibility. But it seems to me that Paul didn’t try to define “God-breathed” in that way. He doesn't try to define it at all, in fact. He doesn’t assume a theory of how the text got from God to the writers to paper, or formulate a statement on inspiration for his church to affirm. He just says God “breathed out” the Scriptures, and doesn’t seem to care about anything more than that.
The point Paul is trying to make by coining that word “God-breathed” is that the Bible comes from God. Full stop. Maybe he has in mind the creation account, where God “breathed” into Adam the breath of life to make him a living being. Maybe he has Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones in mind, where “breath” enters the reassembled bones as a symbol of God’s Spirit reanimating the remains of Israel. Maybe he’s just thinking about God whispering in the ear of those who know to listen for his voice. Whatever, he’s making a statement about the source of the Bible.
Which leads him to its function: it’s useful for teaching, for getting in our faces, for straightening us out, and for helping us to come into our own as people who live righteous lives. It does, in short, what God does. This is why the church considers understanding and applying the Bible to be worth the struggle, in spite of the ways in which we get it wrong. This is why we keep going back to it, and why we’d best not stray too far from it in figuring out who we are. Our emphasis should be on allowing Scripture to have its way in our lives, not on proving that we know it better than anyone else, or take it more seriously, or have a higher view of it. The idea that the Bible is inspired is not supposed to be just another test of faithfulness or orthodoxy. Lots of us with what might be called very high views of inspiration don’t give the Bible much traction to actually do its work in our hearts.
Notice too that Paul doesn’t seem to think that the Bible alone is the way we learn the faith best. Maybe that’s an unintended consequence of the proliferation of the Bible. It’s everywhere, and everyone can have multiple copies of it. William Tyndale’s supposed hope, that “the boy who driveth the plow” might know the Bible better than the Pope himself, is actually within reach of the plowboy. But if the easy availability of the Bible leads to a radical individualism in reading and interpreting it, then maybe something has been lost.
Paul tells Timothy to continue living out what he learned from others. Few of us learn the faith by reading through a Bible by ourselves. We’re taught by others. Our faith is influenced by their experiences, formed by their words and examples. We read the Bible best when we read it together with people who are different from us in one way or another. We’re shaken out of the readings that make us most comfortable and forced to plumb the depths of the text in ways that we don’t when left to ourselves. Our faith has to be our own, of course. But it shouldn’t be so radically individual that it can’t find room to sit down and open a Bible with others.
And, of course, the Bible doesn’t save us. Maybe that raised some eyebrows, so let me say it again: the Bible doesn’t save us. Paul says that the Scriptures make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Lots of people have come to salvation through Jesus without knowing how to find Genesis in a Bible. No one has ever come to salvation without trust in Jesus. Let’s be sure we don’t start to give the impression that we think the way to salvation is knowing the Bible. The Bible helps us come to salvation because it helps us to know Jesus. Let’s read it with our eyes on him.
I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know exactly where I stand on inspiration. It sure doesn’t seem like God dictated the Bible word-for-word. There certainly do seem to be some contradictions, maybe even some errors. Definitely some things that are difficult to synthesize. But the Bible itself doesn’t claim anything different, only that it is breathed out by God. That’s enough for me. I think it’s enough for you, too.
Read it, and let it do its work in you.