Note: Here’s another article on “inspiration” that I wrote last fall, but didn’t publish at that time. I thought, now, it might be a good follow-up to my previous post, or a more in depth explanation of my struggles with theopneustos (i.e., God-breathed or divinely inspired).
My doctoral supervisor noticed that I am reluctant to use the word “inspired” when talking about the nature of the biblical texts and asked me why. I think it has a little to do with the fact that I was once an apologist for a very conservative view of biblical inspiration. My reluctance, however, is more the result of knowing that the Greek word that most modern English versions render, “inspired by God” or “God-breathed” has been interpreted in a variety of ways from literal idea of word-for-word divine “inspiration” to some vague idea of divine “influence.”
More specifically, I have several issues with referring to the biblical texts as “inspired by God”.
First, where in any of the biblical texts is there a claim of divine inspiration? The go-to passage is 2 Timothy 3:16, but in fact, the phrase “inspired by God” is not in any Greek text. Though several English translations read “inspired by God,” that phrase is an interpretation not a translation. The word in Greek θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), is a hapax legomenon—a word used only once in the biblical texts, and, to my knowledge, not in any previous Greek writings. Therefore, it is a word that appears to have been created by the author 2 Timothy. It is a compound word, which combines θεός (God) and πνεῦμα (pneuma = breath, wind, spirit) or πνέω (pneo = to breathe hard, blow). Most scholars agree that it is best to translate it as “God-breathed”. But what does that mean, involve or produce? This term is not self-defining but is left to us as rather ambiguous. That ambiguity is evidenced by the various and often contradictory interpretations that have been offered over the centuries.
Second, the author of 2 Timothy states πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος (pasa graphe theopneustos kai ophelimos). This phrase can legitimately be translated as “every God-breathed writing is also useful…”, which stands in contrast to the conventional “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful…”. For me, the non-traditional translation better fits the context of 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Here Timothy is being reminded about what “God-breathed writings” do. The author is not speaking about what the scriptures are, but rather what the scriptures do: (1) “sacred writings…are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and (2) “every God-breathed writing is also 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.” Note that “sacred” is equivalent to “God-breathed.” That may be all the author is saying God-breathed means, that is, there are writings which have been deemed to be sacred (i.e., God-breathed) because of what they do. While this may implies some level of God involvement in the production of the sacred writings, it tells us nothing about how or to what extent God was involved. Or, could it be that God’s breathing denotes God’s use of them in people’s lives resulting in their equipping. The focus of this passage is on what the holy writings do, that is, what they are useful for.
Third, we have no idea today which sacred writings the author of 2 Timothy had in mind. All the biblical manuscript evidence tells us is that the Jewish canon was not fully formed at the time 2 Timothy was written (i.e., latter quarter of the first century CE). It would be another century before rabbinic Judaism settled on the twenty-four books of the Tanakh. And, it would be at least three more centuries before “orthodox” Christianity, more or less, settled on their OT and NT canons—though there remained significant variation for few centuries more. As we can see by the 4th and 5th century Christian biblical codices (i.e., Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus), a variety of books were considered to be “canonical” in all three versions. Various texts were intensely debated for quite awhile among the Jews (primarily which books would be included among “the Writings” of the Tanakh). Then, among the Christians none of the earliest versions of “the Bible” contained only the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. That version of the Holy Scriptures, comprised of only 39 OT and 27 NT books, did not appear until the early 17th century. There is no way anyone—and I mean anyone—can, with the certainty of manuscript evidence, claim that they know exactly what books the author of 2 Timothy had in mind when he wrote the words “sacred writings” or “every God-breathed writing.” For sure it was not all of, and ONLY, the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible.
Fourth, similar things can be affirmed regarding the author of 2 Peter 1:19-21. Exactly what “prophecies of scripture” did he have in mind? And “being carried along by the Holy Spirit” is again ambiguous as to what involvement of deity was being claimed and what the effect was on the “final” form of the writings. In the author’s time there was no “the Bible” yet, because the various texts regarded as “sacred writings” existed in pluriformity. Are all the various forms of each text the result of being carried along by the Holy Spirit? Are all canonical versions of “the Bible” the “sacred writings”? What about the differences in the canonical collections? By what justification can we assuredly say which set of books that make up any given version of “the Bible” is the “God-breathed” version, and which ones are not? How can we say that none of the books that were already written, and in circulation and only later labelled as the OT Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha, are not “God-breathed”? It is clear that some of these later rejected writings were “holy scriptures” in the minds of the earliest Christians. In the same way, how can we say that none of the books that were later labelled as the NT Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha, are not “God-breathed” when some of them were “holy scriptures” in the minds of the earliest Christians?
Finally, I have come to a place where I no longer believe any form of deity controls the actions of any of God’s sentient creatures. The higher forms of life have been endowed with free will and a complexity of thought that results in their ability to make their own choices. I choose to believe that God is love and as such God is “uncontrolling” in all divine-creaturely interactions.1 This perspective leaves open the idea that God works to influence or impact creatures in such a way that good choice options are available. However, the choice of which options these free-will creatures make is 100% creaturely. Yet, I am reluctant to even say that theopneustos means “influenced by God.” The texts that comprise whatever version of the Bible I prefer,were written, copied, edited, translated, and canonized by multitudes of people over a period of many centuries. Externally, the manuscript evidence establishes that these texts existed in pluriformity—many different forms—and internally, no matter which manuscript one reads (in the original language or in translation), these texts demonstrate polyphony—variety and even, at times, contradictory content.
There are two questions the answers to which I (and many other biblical scholars and believers) must ask, but cannot answer with absolute certainty: (1) To which texts was the author of 2 Timothy referring in 3:16; and (2) What does “God-breathed” mean or involve or produce? Whatever answers we might propose, we cannot speak with assurance that our answers, and none other, are correct. Do I, personally, believe that the 66 books of the anthology we call the Protestant Bible are God-breathed? It all depends on what one understands “God-breathed” means, involves, and/or produces.
Therefore, I tend to avoid speaking of biblical texts as “God-breathed” (ambiguous) or “inspired by God” or even “influenced by God” (still ambiguous). Since I do believe the uncontrolling love of God resulted in the creation of free-will human beings, I believe all sacred writings—whichever they be—are the creation of the free-will of the human authors, copyists, editors, collectors, canonizers, translators, and publishers. For me, the biblical texts are descriptive of what this series of textual creators experienced and thought rather than prescriptive of definitive spiritual truth. It is up to those who read the writings they believe to be sacred/God-breathed, to take what is descriptive and determine whether and how it applies to life in their world.
1Oord, Thomas Jay. The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.