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.
-2 Timothy 3:16-17
I don't know if you ever tried to catch fireflies (or lightning bugs depending on where you grew up). I only did it a few times, but there was always something cool about that image of going to bed at night with your room only lit up by the glow of some incandescent insects. Rule #1 of catching lightning bugs is that you need to poke small holes in the lid of your jar. Otherwise the insects will suffocate and instead of the joy of illumination, you're left with dead bugs.
People can sometimes do this with scripture. We may have a certain interpretive lens through which we read the Bible, but the lid can be shut so tightly that it does not allow what was written to breathe. The phrase God-breathed (translated above as "inspired by God") often eclipses the rest of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. That phrase is often used as a prooftext for a literal reading of the Bible.
When you start talking about the nature of scripture, people will immediately try to shut things down with this verse. The thinking goes that if all scripture is "God-breathed" then that is exactly what God wanted said down to the very letter. I would offer that the context of the passage suggests something more dynamic; something where the lid isn't shut so tightly (1).
Before we dig into what is meant by referring to scripture as “God-breathed,” it's important to ask what the author has in view when he talks about "scripture." Most people read this passage, see the word "scripture," and assume that the author is referring to the Bible. But he's not.
Considering that the New Testament wasn't canonized until some time in the fourth century--a few hundred years after 2 Timothy is believed to have been written--it is impossible for the writer to be talking about the Bible as we know it today. That is unless he was a time traveler. Although we can agree that time traveling Bible characters is an idea ripe for an awesome (or really lame) Saturday morning cartoon series, it is safe to assume that he was simply referring to the scripture of his day. What was the scripture of his day? The Hebrew Bible or what we often refer to as the Old Testament.
Now I would certainly argue that what is written in this passage about the Hebrew Bible can be applied to the New Testament as well. Yet we have to acknowledge that when we do that then we are stepping beyond what was intended by the original author. We are making an interpretive decision that deviates from the plain meaning of the text (a phrase beloved by people of a certain theological persuasion that enjoy debating).
Of course, interpretive deviation is what the author himself is advocating. That the Pastor (2) is referring to the Hebrew Bible puts us in an interesting position, because he goes on to write that these sacred writings are able to teach one about salvation through Jesus Christ. Jesus is never mentioned in the Old Testament; not in any plain reading of the text.
Now it is possible to see references to Christ in the Hebrew Bible, but that requires a certain interpretive lens. Once you go down that road, you are leaving Literal County and heading for other parts. This is not a bad thing. We should dig into what the author intends in his or her original context. That is important for helping us understand what scripture is trying to tell us. At the same time, I would argue that--especially as we seek understanding for how we ought to live ethically--we should read scripture through a Christocentric lens.
An Emphasis on Usefulness Rather than Inspiration
The subject of inspiration looms over this passage. That tends to be all that anyone wants to talk about. Yet this is only seeing part of the picture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which itself is only a part within a larger contextual frame. By narrowing our focus on that one phrase, we might miss the point that the Pastor intended. So let's move past the phrase "inspired by God" and see what the rest of the passage says.
In the rest of verses 16 and 17, the author indicates that all scripture “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 actual emphasis of the passage is on scripture's usefulness. James D. G. Dunn writes:
[T]he text is clear: The sacredness of the writings is directed to the end of ‘making wise for salvation’; the point of Scripture’s inspiration was that the Scriptures should be beneficial for teaching and equipping the student believer for effective living as a Christian. (3)
The context of the passage, which includes Paul’s desire for Timothy to live a God-honoring life in a world that was turning further from God and Paul citation of his life’s example in the verses proceeding 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Combine this framework with the emphasis on the usefulness of Scripture in all things and one can see that the main point of the passage is not inspiration but in following Christ with one's life. The importance of Scripture is its usefulness in living like Jesus.
To assure you that I'm not making this up out of thin air, this view was held by many early readers of this passage. Raymond F. Collins points out, “The many citations of 2 Tim. 3:16 in the patristic era--more than one hundred in all!--emphasize the usefulness of the Scriptures far more than they do their inspiration. (4)"
None of this is to stay that inspiration does not matter or that it is not a part of what the author is writing. It is simply not the main point of this passage. The main point is that scripture is useful for equipping Christians as they go through life. That is quite different from how this passage is used today. We can miss the forest for the trees sometimes.
But enough playing around. What about that phrase "God-breathed?" The phrase is actually a word: θεόπνευστος (theopneustos). 2 Timothy 3:16 represents this word’s only appearance in the New Testament. The word appears in a few secular Hellenistic works. The meaning is somewhat hard to nail down as it used to refer to the idea that all wisdom is from God and also used to describe dreams given by God which are different from normally-occurring dream. Several extra-biblical Christian writings use theopneustos to describe Scripture--as 2 Timothy does--and there is a writing that applies the term to an archbishop (5).
Now I doubt that you or I would be comfortable talking about a dream or an archbishop the way that many talk about the God-breathed nature of scripture. We wouldn't want to give an archbishop (let's call him Johann) that kind of power. Johann could be the greatest guy in the world, but if people are calling him inerrant then there could be all sorts of problems. But I digress.
Because theopneustos is used to describe a myriad of entities, the definition of the word can become a bit cloudy. Gerhard Friedrich states that theopneustos is used mainly to describe Scripture as “holy” and thus is noting a difference between writings that are and not set apart by God’s authority (6). That rendering is one that would likely be widely accepted. As a matter of fact, most people call it the Holy Bible.
Yet Friedrich continues by stating that 2 Timothy 3:16 “is not using a specific term from the world of enthusiasm nor referring to any particular theory thereanent [sic]. (7)" If I am understanding Friedrich correctly (and as always, I could very well be dead wrong), he seems to indicate that theopneustos is not necessarily referring to any sort of situation where God takes over the writer’s will and directs them what to write.
How then are we to read this passage? I would suggest a reading that would emphasize the breath of God found in theopneustos. While researching for this exegesis, I came across Hillel’s Seven Rules for the Interpretation of Scripture. Hillel was a famous rabbi who died midway through the life of Jesus and his rules are the foundation upon which Jewish interpretation is built. Since the Pastor is referring to the Hebrew Bible in this passage, it would be appropriate to consider these rules. The second rule is one that is particularly pertinent to the question of theopneustos. The rule is Gezerah shawah and states “the use of the same words in different contexts means that the same considerations apply to each context. (8)”
As earlier stated, the word theopneustos appears only in the 2 Timothy passage. Yet part of theopneustos comes from the Greek word πνεῡμα (pneuma), which can be translated in many different ways including “wind,” “breath,” or “Spirit.” Examining pneuma in a different passage could perhaps give us insight into theopneustos.
One such passage one could examine is John 3:8, where Jesus states: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Pneuma is the Greek word for both “wind” and “Spirit” in this passage. This suggests that pneuma is something mysterious and active. One cannot necessarily peg from where it is coming or to where it is going.
I would suggest that the way that we traditionally view scripture to be God-breathed turns the Bible into an inactive document. The Bible basically becomes something with which you know exactly from where it is coming and to where it is going. It is all right there in the book and the what it has to say is locked tight. Yet when an individual views “God-breathed” as something that is living, active, and mysterious, then one realizes that Scripture cannot be looked at in a flat and literal manner. There are things one will read that might be unexpected.
Each time a person comes to Scripture there might be new insight, new revelation. The God-breathed nature is not just happening with the text--as a literal view might assume--but it is happening within the people as they read it, it is happening as the text is proclaimed and preached, it is happening as the text is used for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness. Scripture is something that God has breathed into, God continues to breathe into, and God will breathe into. And by its usefulness God will continue to breathe into us.
Scripture is something to which each of us should continue come back time and again. No one should ever think that he or she has a text--much less the Bible--figured out. We should never think that we know what a certain parable, or a certain story or a certain psalm is trying to tell us. We should always have ears to hear from the reading and the speaking of Scripture breathes new life.
This is why we need to be in community. In a world where we are quick to tell everyone what we think about a particular passage of scripture, we need to be all the more quick to hear what others have to say. None of us should ever shut tight the lid on the Bible. To me, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is clear in its implication: Scripture is something that we can never completely nail down. It is living. It is active. It is still breathing.
(1) This was adapted from an 18-page exegetical paper that I wrote three years ago entitled "Still Breathing: A Reading of 2 Timothy 3:10-17." It has been heavily edited (I repeat in case any of my current or former professors read this: heavily edited) for time and formatted to fit this blog (which means there are more jokes, asides, and slightly less formal language).
(2) I'll occasionally use the term "Pastor" in reference to the writer because 2 Timothy is a part of the Pastoral Epistles. There is question as to whether Paul actually wrote 2 Timothy and it was not unusual for followers to write in the name of their teacher. I actually wrote a great deal about this topic in the original paper and it covers things like the appearance of Greek words in the undisputed letters of Paul versus Greek words in the disputed letters. I edited them out because you're probably a busy person.
(3) James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Volume XI), ed. J. Paul Sampley et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 853.
(4) Raymond F. Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus: a Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 264.
(5) "Θεόπνευστος" in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Volume VI: Πε-Ρ), ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Group, 1968), 453-454. I know that's a butchering of how Kate Turabian would cite that, but I'm really not going to march upstairs at 11 PM to find out how.
(6) "Θεόπνευστος" in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 454.
(7) "Θεόπνευστος" in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 454.
(8) So here's the deal. My computer died back in the spring and took shreds of information with it. I could find the original citation for everything in this blog except this point from Hillel. I'm going to keep looking for it and, should I find it, I'll put it on here. This is the difference between a blog and a formal paper.