“Aha” Concept: Rethinking Biblical Inspiration

“All God-breathed scripture is also useful.”

The question arises with regard to whether or not the New Testament texts claim to be inspired and, if so, what does that means? The standard passage that is used to defend and describe inspiration is 2 Timothy 3:16–17, which reads (NRSV) as follows:

“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.”

The Greek reads:

“πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.”

The key phrase in terms of “inspiration” is “All scripture is inspired by God,” that is, “πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος.” The Greek, when literally translated, is “all (or every) writing (or scripture) God-breathed.

Here is how various versions translate this phrase:

  • All Scripture is breathed out by God… (ESV)
  • All Scripture is inspired by God… (HCSB)
  • Every scripture is inspired by God… (NET)
  • Every scripture inspired of God is… (ASV)
  • All scripture is given by inspiration of God… (KJV)
  • Every writing [is] God-breathed… (YLT)

The YLT (Young’s Literal Translation) lives up to its name here. Note that “is” is written as [is] which means that form of the verb “to be” is not actually in the Greek. It is supplied by the translators, in order to make the sentence make sense in English, but it does not necessarily need to be supplied there. Quite legitimately, the translation could read: “Every God-breathed scripture is also useful…”. Note that the ASV and the footnote in the NRSV read much like my translation, “Every scripture inspired of/by God (i.e., God-breathed) is also useful…”

Thus, the focus of this passage is not that “all scripture is God-breathed” but rather that “every God-breathed scripture is useful.” The latter translation better fits the context, as the rest of the passage makes clear – i.e., that “all God-breathed writings are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”.

But you might ask, “Why is the word ‘also’ [Greek, καὶ] doing in this sentence?” That’s a good question. See if you can answer that by going back and reading v. 15: “and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (NIV). The Greek word καὶ can be translated as “and, also, even, so then, too, etc.” So, the author of 2 Timothy has just said that knowledge of the scriptures makes one “wise for salvation through faith.” Then, he goes on to say, in essence, but that isn’t the scriptures’ only use; they also equip the person of God “for every good work.” Thus, translating καὶ as “also” (not “and”) best fits the context.

Regardless of how one chooses to translate this phrase, one must wrestle with how best to translate the most important word in this phrase “θεόπνευστος.” In the entire New Testament this word is found only ONCE; right here in 2 Tim 3:16. Neither is it found anywhere in the Greek version of the Old Testament (i.e., the Septuagint). Also, I have been unable to find it used in any Greek writing outside the Bible, prior to its use here in 2 Tim 3:16 and then referenced later by a few of the early Church Fathers.

Therefore, I choose the more “literal” – I would say more accurate – translation of “God-breathed” as it is a compound word from θεος (God) + πνευστος (“a presumed derivative of πνέω, meaning “to breathe or blow”).

The following quotation is from the United Bible Society’s Handbook on the New Testament and is quite informative.

“Inspired by God translates a term that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Its literal translation is “God-breathed,” which means that Scripture is produced by God’s breath (or spirit, which is also his power) and is therefore of divine origin. Another possibility is to understand the Scriptures as written by people but as breathed into by God (as in the case of the first man Adam), so that these writings are “alive” and can confront people in a way that accomplishes specific functions for which these writings were produced. This single term has perhaps produced more varieties of interpretation and generated more controversy among Christians than any other term…Suffice it to say that the mention of this term is not primarily to define the nature of Scripture but to give a reason why Scripture is useful and effective for the functions that are mentioned.”

This oft quoted passage of scripture, translated as I have done, is consistent with its immediate context and is true to the vocabulary and grammatical structure of the text. Its purpose is not to declare that “all scripture is God-breathed,” but that “all God-breathed scripture is also useful.”

A consideration that is often neglected in conservative discussions of this passage is this, “What texts did the author of this passage – and its original readers/hearers – understand to be ‘scripture’?” If this passage was written by Paul, it was authored no later than the early to mid 60s CE. If it was written in his name by one of his disciples, then perhaps we can add another 20 years or so to that date. Either way, the exact and full canon of the Hebrew Bible had not yet been determined and all the texts, that later were canonized as the New Testament, had yet been written. So, to equate “God-breathed scripture” with the 66 books of the Protestant Bible is clearly an anachronism. Since the 66 books of the Protestant Bible had not yet been canonized, and many of the NT books, not yet written, there is no way the author of 2 Timothy could have had exactly those books in mind.

I would suggest that he probably had the books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms in mind and perhaps some of Paul’s earliest writings (see 2 Peter 3:15–17), though I doubt the latter. As well, he may have also been thinking of some texts that, much later, didn’t make the cut for acceptance into either the Hebrew Bible (ca. 2nd century CE) or the New Testament (ca. late 4th century CE).

If one chooses to believe that “all God-breathed scripture” is a reference to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible or chooses to include the Deuterocanonical books, that is a choice by faith and not something that can be proven by appealing to 2 Timothy 3:16–17. And that’s OK, because ultimately whatever books one chooses to regard as God-breathed, it is always a faith choice.

I see, however, this passage as helping describe for me what God-breathed writings do, and thus helping me to determine which books I consider to be God-breathed. According to the author of 2 Timothy, God-breathed writings…

  • …make one wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
  • …are useful, by means of teaching, refuting, correcting and training, for the equipping the person of God for every good work.