Most Christians who have done any Bible verse memorization will know that for whatever reason the '3.16's seem to be special, John. 3.16 being the most famous. But for the patristic Fathers the '3.16' that seems to have been most put to use was 2 Tim. 3.16. What follows here is an excerpt from my commentary on the Pastorals and the Johannine Epistles, which is due out next November. I figured it could prompt some good discussion on an important topic.
Vs. 16 is surely the most famous of the verses of 2 Timothy, cited over one hundred times in the patristic literature. There are however various ways it could be translated and each causes a variable in its meaning. It could read, for instance, ‘Every graphē (i.e. Scripture) is God-breathed and profitable/useful….’ so that/with the result that the person of God is ready, equipped for good works.’ Usually when pas is used with a noun without the definite article it means ‘every’ rather than ‘all’. Thus the meaning seems likely to be ‘every Scripture’ or perhaps ‘every passage of Scripture’. Paul does use graphē in the singular to refer to the whole of Scripture in Rom. 11.2 but there we have the definite article (cf. also Gal. 3.22). Of course this means that ‘all Scripture’ is included but the emphasis would be on each one being God-breathed. Paul does not envision any Scripture that is not God-breathed. It would also be possible to read the verse to mean ‘Every inspired Scripture is useful….’ but against this view is that it is more natural to take the two qualifying adjectives as relating to the noun in the same way as in 1 Tim. 4.4.
A further issue is what to make of the adjective theopneustos. Its literal meaning is ‘God-breathed’ and it is indeed a term used in pagan literature, for example in reference to the Sibylline oracles (cf. Sib. Oracles 5.308, 406; Plutarch, Or. at Delphi 7; Pseudo-Phocylides, 121), and in the papyri (SIG 95; CMRDM 2.A8). We may compare for example an aretology to Isis written in Macedonia which reads at one point “this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god” (line 14). Greek words with the –tos ending tend to be passive rather than active, so we should not take this to mean ‘every Scripture is inspiring’ but rather ‘every Scripture is inspired’. What is meant is that God speaks through these words. God breathed life and meaning and truth into them all (see similarly Num. 24.2; Hos. 9.7 cf. Josephus, Apion 1.37-39; Philo, Moses 2.292; Spec. Leg. 1.65; 4.49; 2 Pet. 1.21). Note that we are not given an explanation of how that works. This word by itself does not explicate a theory of inspiration or its nature. Does the Spirit lift the mind of the writer to see, understand, and write, or is it a matter of mechanical dictation? These questions are not answered here. What is suggested is that whatever the process, the product is God’s Word, telling God’s truth. The emphasis here is actually on what it is good or profitable for—as a source of teaching about God and human beings and their ways, as a means of refuting false arguments or errors and offering positive ‘proofs’ and rebuking sin , and as a means of offering constructive wisdom and teaching on how to live a life pleasing to God. It will be seen then that the OT is largely viewed here as a source for ethical instruction and exhortation, which is not surprising given the emphasis in this letter. There is no emphasis here on it being a sourcebook for Christian theology, which would come more from the Christian kerygma and Christian tradition. We may also want to consult other places where Paul speaks about the nature of the OT Scriptures such as Rom. 15.3-4 or 1 Cor. 10.11 which confirms that Paul thinks that what we call the OT is very suitable for Christian instruction, especially for training in righteousness and other ethical matters.
I must say that I find Luke Johnson’s reflections here puzzling in an otherwise first rate commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy. He attempts to argue (see 1 and 2 Timothy, pp. 422-23) that the authority of the Bible doesn’t rest on its inspiration but on its canonicity. This is surely not what Paul thinks and is not what is meant by this text, as even the OT canon was not yet closed when these letters were written. Surely Paul believes these words have authority because they are God’s words spoken in human words and through human beings, but reflecting God’s character and so are truthful and trustworthy.
If one studies the ancient concept of inspiration, whether in relationship to Biblical or other prophets it is perfectly clear that it was believed that the prophetic words, inspired by God, had authority because of the source and the character of the one inspiring the prophet to speak. Indeed sometimes it was even believed that the deity in question took over the human being and simply spoke through them. The Holy Writings were not seen as merely revelatory of God’s Word, they were seen as synonymous with God’s Word, such that God said what the Scriptures said. Whatever one’s feelings about the fundamentalist/modernist discussion about the Bible and its authority, they should not be allowed to skew what one says about what is being asserted here and about ancient views of inspiration. Johnson goes on to add that the Bible does not function as an exclusive deposit of revelation but as an essential and normative resource for discerning and measuring the divine self-disclosure. This is nearer the mark. But the discussion has been skewed by suggesting that canonization conveys authority on the text rather than canonization being the process of recognizing authority and truth in the text. On prophetic inspiration see Witherington, Jesus the Seer and the Progress of Prophecy (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996). Finally, Johnson is right that the focus here is on the practical function of Scripture rather than on expounding a theory of inspiration. What should not be slighted or dismissed however is that a very high view of Scripture is assumed here, and it is assumed that the audience simply agrees with this view, such that it need not be argued for. See e.g. Collins, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, pp. 263-64 for more adequate reflections and P. Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999) and see now N.T. Wright's The Last Word (Harper-Collins 2005).