All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 TNIV)
I come back to it a lot, but, yet again, the above passage has been on my mind. Usually my thoughts tend to rest on what Paul is actually saying in this passage. What I mean by that is that I ask myself whether he is affirming inerrancy, as is traditionally asserted, or if he is defending Scripture’s authority. I tend to think the latter more than the former, but I have gone there before and I don’t wanna go there again. Today my thoughts have been elsewhere; specifically, on one word: God-breathed.
In all of the studying I have done on the passage, there is one agreement among all of the sources I consulted, no matter how liberal or conservative: Paul basically made the word up. Prior to this passage, God-breathed didn’t exist as a word. This is a distinctly Pauline term, and it is found literally nowhere else in the Bible. This word was used solely for the benefit of the original hearers of his letter, namely, Timothy, which means that Paul was reminding Timothy of an idea that they had probably discussed previously. This last part is presumption on my part, but you get the idea. Scripture being God-breathed was something between Paul and Timothy. It was an idea that Paul had passed on to Timothy and he was reminding him of it in this letter.
But what does it mean?
Lexicons and concordances are of little help. They basically use the word in the definition. According to them, God-breathed means breathed out by God. Thank you, Mr. Strong, for clearing that up.
The literal definition being as vague as it is, then, it is to the theologians that we must turn. Here, we find a pretty definitive consensus. Generally, in so many words, Biblical authorities say that God-breathed means that God spoke the Scriptures to the writers. They are authoritative because God has spoken them.
Going with this idea, that God-breathed means God-inspired, it is understandable, and logical, that the jump would be made to say that they are also inerrant. If the Scriptures being of divine origin and being the very words of God is, as John Calvin says, “a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others,” then it makes perfect sense that our Scriptures should be held as being inerrant, especially in our day and age. In modern times, perfection is what makes or breaks someone or something in a place of authority. The president lied, so he loses our approval. The baseball coach did some cocaine one time, so he shouldn’t be taking his team to the world series. You get the idea.
And for many, this is the end of the matter. The Bible is the inspired, authoritative, inerrant words of the Almighty God because 2 Timothy 3:16 says so. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
I don’t think this is wrong. Not at all. But I don’t think this is it. I don’t think that this is all that Paul was trying to get across to his reader. In making up the word God-breathed, Paul was making a very deep theological statement. It is the Scriptural equivalent of someone looking at the fall of Adam and Eve and referring to it as a felix culpa. Paul is saying something incredibly profound, if we will only have eyes to see it.
God-breathed points us back to creation. God does something special in Genesis: He personally breathes life into one of His creations. According to Genesis 2:7,
The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
This is interesting, especially in light of what the Bible says in Hebrews:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)
Going with the traditional interpretation of the Hebrews 4 passage, that it is referencing the Bible, for all Scripture to be God-breathed means (looking to Genesis) that God has breathed into it “the breath of life,” making it “living and active.” God has given life to the Scriptures that they would otherwise have been without. In fact, He has made them a “living creature” as He did with humankind.
But this can’t be it. Or at least this can’t be the whole of it. There’s a problem here: people aren’t inerrant. They have God’s life in them, but they make mistakes. One could say that this is only referring to the first man and that God only did it that one time, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to make a Biblical case for that one. Maybe inerrancy wasn’t on Paul’s mind. Maybe Paul was speaking to the life-giving power that the Scriptures convey.
Looking back at the Timothy passage, we see something of the direction that Paul was going. The reason, according to Paul, that the Scriptures are God-breathed is so that we can be prepared to live the life that God has called us to live. God has breathed the breath of life into the Scriptures so that we too may live. No one finds a new life by reading a dead text like a dictionary or Stephenie Meyer novel. A quickening to action is only found in a text that is inspired by a higher power. A text inspired by something outside of humanity. Mathematics inspires. Biology inspires. Philosophy inspires. Why? Because they point us outside ourselves; they show us that there is more and give us hope. The Scriptures do so for a different reason: because it is God, our Creator, who has given them life. And He has breathed into them so that we, too, may be breathed into.
But I think there is more packed into that word and we will discuss some more of it next time.