Sunday, February 05, 2006

2 Tim. 3.16-- On the Inspiration and Authority of Scripture

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 graphÄ“ (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 graphÄ“ 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).


Sven said...

A very good post, thanks.

One thing I've wondered lately is how we can distort and abuse the scriptures and whether or not they are still the word of God in these instances.

What I mean is, Paul says that scripture is useful for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness", purposes which originate with God himself and are for the edification of his people.

So if people use the scriptures to bully, control, slander and condemn both their fellow-believers and those outside the church, can they still claim that divine inspiration is still behind the scriptures they quote in those instances?

I have in mind the numerous "watchdog" ministries and blogs who seem to appeal to 2 Tim 3:16 as a divine mandate to use scripture in what appear to be very negative and divisive ways, and certainly not for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness". What do you think?

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for these posts. In regard to the first by Dave, I would say that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the canon was recognized by the church, not invented by the church, which is also the view of Metzger in his book on the canon. In regard to the second post, we need to distinguish between the inspiration of the text, its meaning, and the way it is used and abused. There can be no justification for the abuse of the text-- thats bad application, but the text doesn't cease to be inspired because of that sort of abuse. It also in no way sanctions abuse. Anyone up for the inerrancy question?


Trierr said...

Oh Ben!

I would love to look at the inerrancy question! Although, in truth, my questions may be more about literalism than inerrancy. (Sorry this post became so long....)

For instance, I look at 2 Ch 14:9 where it talks of an army of a million men. When I consider the population of the world at that time, an army this big at least begs against the literal million. Or is it exaggeration? In reality, I find it to likely be an error.

There are not many of these, but they are there.

Did people really live 900 years? Did the Nile really turn to literal blood? Did the sun really stand still for Joshua? These kinds of things have amazing ramifications if they really happened. Why is there not extra biblical support for these extraordinary events? If the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 are not literally true, does that mean that it is not inerrant? Again, I'm not sure if my questions are more about literalism or inerrancy.

And then we have some of the prophecies, such as in Daniel 8, which so accurately reflects Alexander as to be striking. Unfortunately, all references to this text that I know of date to after Alexander. So was there some fudging along the way? There is also a prophecy in Isaiah which even names names and of course, is fulfilled. But the dating of these prophecies is suspicious to me. The error is not that the prophecies didn't come true (they did), but that their place in time might be misrepresented.

These are some areas that are not huge stumbling blocks to me, but they do raise questions. And unfortunately, I can not really ask these kinds of questions in church.

Oddly enough, I don't have a problem with the miracles of Jesus. I am not like Jefferson, who cut out all the miracles. Perhaps because I have seen some pretty amazing stuff myself. Or perhaps because they seem to not defy physics. As noted by a well respected physician, we have stories of the lame walking, but not of those without legs.

Trierr said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Trierr said...

P.S. One other question: When Paul spoke of "all scripture" what exactly was he refering to? The Jewish old testament? Does it including the deuterocanonical books? His own writings? The writing of other apostles?

I have been trying to place this verse in it's historical context, so I appreciate you blogging on it.

Ben Witherington said...

Wow--- say the word inerrancy and you open pandora's box. I appreciate the honest questions and probings. In the first place, sticking to this quote from 2 Tim. 3.16, Paul is referring to what we call the OT, and what he means is that since it is God-breathed it is telling the truth in whatever way that God wants it to tell the truth. It faithfully reflects the divine character. Inerrancy is a negative word which leads one to have to define (or redefine) what amounts to an error. I prefer saying that the Bible is totally truthful and trustworthy in what it asserts. There are of course a lot of things the Bible does not purport to teach us, that some modern Christians think it does. It is not, for example, a scientific text book from a pre-scientific era, for example. Its provenance is telling the truth in the main about history,theology, ethics and those sorts of subjects. On the issue of prophecy I would suggest you have a look at my Jesus the Seer (Hendrickson) book. Prophecy is a huge subject, and yes it is sometimes predictive, but it always involves truth-telling. As for the numbers, you need to understand that 1) Hebrews operated with a lunar, no solar calendar and further more the words they used for length of time, length of age etc. are all of debatable meaning. For example the same Hebrew term can mean a tent group or 1,000. It is perfectly possible to believe in 1,000 tent groups in an ancient battle or army, but 1,000 times 1000 is another question; 2) the use of phenomenonoligcal language must be considered--- the language of how things appeared. We of course use such language all the time--- the sun doesn't rise or set, but it certainly appears to do so, and truthful phenomenological language is found in many places in the Bible. More on this in due course, but I will simply say that I see no reason to doubt the veracity of the Bible on what it tries to teach us, so long as it is rightly understood taking into account genre of literature and the like.

Phil said...

Has anyone read Jaroslav Pelikan's Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages?

It seems interesting and in light of this post, I was curious if other people had interacted with it.

yuckabuck said...

"it is telling the truth in whatever way that God wants it to tell the truth"

I really liked the particular way that was worded! It seems to be a fresh way of stating it. At least one that I haven't seen elsewhere yet.

I was not that impressed with Wright's Last Word, due to the subtitle, "a new understanding of the authority of Scripture." The book was definitely a good read, filled with lots of good sense, I didn't really see really anything aproaching a new solution. Merely reframing some of the issues can be good, but is not necessarily groundbreaking. (For example, when a person endorses male headship, but say that the exercise of it should look like Christ; he has reframed the issue but not really solved it.)

I was much more impressed with Gordon Fee's Gospel and Spirit, which seemed to go in some of the same directions as Wright wants to go, but yet is much more fuller and satisfying. (I have "forced" my wife to read it so that she will not be helpless the next time her sister asserts that the book of Acts teaches us that we need a baptism of the spirit as a second work that includes speaking in tongues.)

Thanks for your post!

Ben Witherington said...

I believe there was a historical prophet named Jonah, since we have other evidence to that effect. Whether this particular story is a parable about him is something I have not really researched. What I do know is that there is a famous story from the 19th century with full documentation of a man who was swallowed by a whale and lived to tell the tale, though he was a little bleached when he came out. Of more of an issue than that part of the story is the notion that all of Nineveh repented. It is clear enough that Jesus assumes Jonah was a historical figure that he could draw analogies to in regard to his own experience. I have Pelikan's book staring at me in my to read pile.

Trierr said...

Professor Witherington,

Thank you for taking time to answer my questions! I see that ancient Hebrew culture treated numbers much differently than I undertand them today. I will look forward to your future comments regarding phenomenological language.

And I will add Jesus the Seer to my pile of books to read!

Lisa said...

A+++++MEN! In a world of scholarship gone liberal, it is so refreshing to read a good scholar who sees and respects the inspiration and authority of God's graphe! Keep writing, please!

stc said...

How about the two accounts of Judas' death? (Mt. 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-19)

How about the various places where Matthew and/or Luke polish up Mark's theology? (notably Mark 10:17-18 // Mt. 19:16-17)

Or where Mark and Matthew interpret one of Jesus' sayings differently (notably the saying, "whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him", Mark 7:14-23 // Mt. 15:10-20 — I recently blogged about this conflict, without being too pointed in my conclusions.

Then there's the very significant conflict between James and Paul on the relationship of faith, works, and justification. James says that Abraham's faith was completed by his works and this was counted to him as righteousness (2:22-23). Paul says that we are justified (= counted righteous) by faith apart from works, specifically citing Abraham as an example (Rom. 3:28, 4:1ff.).

In sum: no, scripture is not inerrant. Matthew, Mark, Paul, and James, like us, struggled to grasp the significance of Jesus' life, execution, and resurrection; and they came to different conclusions.

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