An Inspired Bible isn’t Necessarily a Perfect One

Part 1 of this series on the Bible is available here.

A few weeks ago, I had a Sunday off, and so my wife and I thought it would be fun to check out one of the other churches in our area. We looked at probably 2 dozen church websites while trying to figure out what church we would go to. On every one, I’d click over to the “What We Believe” section to see just what we would be getting ourselves into theologically.

On every single one of those websites, the number one item that was listed was some variation of, “We believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible word of God.”

It’s amazing how universal this idea is among Evangelical churches. And it says a lot that on every single one of those websites I looked at, that be Bible was the most important item on the list.

So where does this seemingly universal language about the Bible come from? Why do so many churches adopt the language of “inspired, inerrant, and infallible”?

Most of our understanding of the inspiration of scripture comes from 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which states:

Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.” (NET)

Often times, if you want to have a conversation with someone about the nature of the Bible and its role in the lives of Christians, this will be the first Bible verse that is brought up. It’s a great starting place, but one that I think has been fundamentally misunderstood by many Christians.

Over the last hundred years or so, many Christians (particularly Evangelicals) have adopted the idea that the Bible is both inspired and inerrant (as seen on dozens of church websites, just in the Fort Worth area) because of 2 Timothy 3:16 and the words “All scripture is inspired by God.” But it’s not actually as simple as they make it sound.

The word in the Greek manuscripts (I know, Greek is boring, but bear with me) is theopneustos (θεόπνευστος) which is a compound word, made up of theo, which means “God” and pneustos, which comes from pneo, which means “to breathe”. Some translations (such as the NIV) actually reflect that idea and directly translate it as “God-breathed”.

Typically, it’s a bad idea to translate a word by breaking it into pieces, but in the case of Paul in 2 Timothy 3, it’s the best way to do it. Because the word doesn’t actually appear anywhere else before that. Because of that, we have no way of exploring its meaning in any other context. It’s reasonable to assume that Paul coined the word specifically for this instance. But since Paul was writing a letter, he also had to write in such a way that would be easily understood by Timothy, the intended recipient of the letter.

So if Paul is writing to his friend Timothy about scripture, and he’s using a brand new word that he would expect Timothy to understand, then the best place to look if we want to catch Paul’s intended meaning is in the scriptures that Paul is referring to: The Hebrew Bible (what would come to be known to Christians as the Old Testament).

In the creation account in Genesis 2, the author describes God’s creation of Adam like this – “The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

It hardly seems a coincidence that Paul would invent the term “God-breathed” when referring to scriptures that attest to the power of God’s breath. It seems that Paul is intentionally reflecting on the creative nature of God with regards to the inspiration of scripture – That the same God who breathed life into humanity in Genesis 2 also breathed life into the scriptures.

This ought to have implications in how we understand the Bible. It means that the scriptures are more than just a book, because they have the inspiration of God behind them.

But it also means that Paul doesn’t attribute any characteristics to scripture that aren’t also attributed to humankind as a whole.

Scripture is God-Breathed. But then, so are you. So are all people. Humanity is capable of seeking after God, because they have the breath of God inside in them. And Scripture is capable of pointing us to God, because it has the breath of God behind it.

But if the inspiration of scripture is the same as the inspiration of mankind, where does the language of  inerrant and infallible come from?

When we understand what Paul meant by “All scripture is inspired by God,” the ideas that the Bible is inerrant and infallible stop making sense.

Because only God is inerrant and infallible.  And the Bible wasn’t written by God. It was breathed by God, but it was written by humans. Fallible, imperfect humans. It was copied by those humans. It was compiled and translated by those humans. And it’s read and interpreted by those humans.

When I interpret the Bible, I do it imperfectly, even as someone who has been inspired by God. When you interpret the Bible differently than I do, you do it imperfectly, even as someone who has been inspired by God.

We all have the inspiration of God. We all bear the image of God. And if we’re functioning as we were created to, we all point back to the God who created us. And that’s the role of the Bible too – to point back to the Creator.

Not to take the place of the Creator. Not to be an object of worship or reverence. Not to be the first item on our list of “what we believe”. Not to be perfect and holy. But to direct us to the God who is perfect and holy.

Which is why it’s important that we give the Bible its due place – as a living text that points us back to God.

I feel confident that if Paul saw us using his letter to Timothy to place the Bible as the first item in a list of what we believe, he’d be furious. Because that’s the exact opposite of what the Bible is supposed to be.

For us to turn it into a test of faith is to completely miss the point of what Paul is writing in 2 Timothy. The Bible is a useful tool. Inspired by God, but not a stand-in for him. The Bible has no power to save. It is a living document in the sense that it finds it source in God, and it points back towards God.

And that’s the role that the Bible should take in our lives and in the Church.

As a tool to point towards God, the Bible is invaluable. As a standard of teaching and righteousness, the Bible is a vital component in the life of the church. The Bible connects us to the experiences of the Hebrew people as they interacted with their God throughout their history, which is significant in informing and affecting how we interact with God in the present.

So let’s use the Bible the way it was intended – to point us to a God who loves us and cares for us. A God who wants us to find our identity in him, and not in a book that is supposed to point back to him. Because the Bible isn’t something you believe in. It’s something that guides us to the God we believe in.  Let us seek after that God, using the book he inspired to help us do it.

8 thoughts on “An Inspired Bible isn’t Necessarily a Perfect One

  1. Very nice job on your article here! I think you explained your position very clearly. It is challenging for some to view the bible as less than inerrant because of fear that this means we have no real mooring of truth. I would liken the role of the bible to what we see happen in Joshua 4 when the Israelites cross the Jordan river to enter the Promised Land. God has them build a memorial with 12 stones from the river in order to remember what He has done for them and to teach their children. At the end of chapter 4 there are 2 purposes given for the building of the memorial. The 1st is for all peoples to see the mighty hand of God. He is the power that set them free from Egypt! He is the power that kept them alive in the wilderness! He is the power that makes entering the Promised Land possible–all demonstrated by His parting the Jordan river and bringing them across on dry ground. None of these things would have happened without His power and direction!
    The 2nd purpose was so they would FEAR the LORD God forever! The memorial points to the LORD and what He has done. They were to be in awe of this Father God who loved them so mightily and provided for them in such great ways! They were to recognize His unmatched power and majesty! They were not to FEAR the memorial–only the LORD! We must be sure the bible does the same thing for us. It points us to God and reminds us of all He has done on our behalf. It provides us with the ability to teach our children. It is important and significant, but it is not the object of our faith!
    I love you, son, and am very proud of you! Keep on digging deep into the word and especially your relationship with the LORD! You are wise beyond your years!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As the other comment points out, the struggle many people have with your approach arises out of fear. Fear that if the Bible is errant then how do we identify the errors? What if I believe an error, will that keep me from God? What if different people believe different parts are errors, who’s right? How do we know? What stops a person from basically writing their own Bible and saying the other bits were “errors”?

    I’m looking forward to seeing how you address the fears in the next couple of posts. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your article helped me create a verbal response to the ‘which translation to use’. I have no problem reading any translation (although I am partial to one) and it because what you said…the Bible points us to God and Christ. No matter what the translation is, I’ve never come across a concept being totally different when changing a word or two. Also, I think each church ascribing to their belief of the Bible in the first bullet point is to distinguish themselves from other writings such as the Quran or Sutras or Vedas. I am enjoying your article!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ok. I am playing catch-up.
    Nailed it. You inspired me to write a “What we believe” list for our new website. I think I want it to begin, “We believe the source, the first cause, the designer of all we understand ourselves and the universe to be enjoys relationship. Creator celebrates creation. Parent nurtures child. Leader guides follower. Teacher instructs student. Sometimes, Master corrects servant. But ultimately, Friend builds up friend.” (I guess the list will have to be short if each bullet point becomes such a blimp!)


  5. Interesting, but you fail to acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing and preservation of Scripture as well as the Holy Spirit’s involvement in its illumination to the reader. Surely we interpret fallibly as sinful creatures, but this is a place where tradition and the collective thought of her is important. And speaking of tradition, you miss the point entirely as to why Scripture is first on the list. You deride this inappropriately. Without Scripture itself, what else do you have to know God? He speaks through all creation, but that message is too easily twisted and contorted by our sinfulness. God never intended this alone to be the way He communicated to man. Unless God condescends in speech, just as he had to do prior to the Fall when telling Adam of the prohibited tree, we are left with sinful conjecture. If the Bible is not infallible, we are still left without a needed corrective to what we already misunderstand about what creation declares clearly according to Rom 1. Your position relegates the Bible to merely being better than creation when it comes to God’s revelation. We are still left with no assurance we can understand him any better than we could without it. You aptly point out the two things God-breathed. Here again, you miss the point. What was God-breathed, God pronounced good. Though potentially capable of error (like the copying of Scriptures by uninspired men), there was no error at this point, that came after the Fall. The real point concerns comparison. The difference between the dust of the ground and man, is the difference between all other writing and the Scriptures. So why is Scripture first on the list of historic and modern creedal statements? Because the RCC believes in the authority of the Church over Scripture. Scripture is only Scripture because Rome declares it to be so. This leads to the influx of what has historically been called “will worship,” and what the Scriptures define as the devices of men. Things like the worship of Mary, the sale of indulgences, praying to the saints as mediators, and so on. The doctrine of Scripture is first, because if you begin anywhere else, the way the Thomas of Aquinas influenced medieval Church did, you will arrive at the authority of sinful men over the Church, rather than the affirmation of God speaking sufficiently and authoritatively to His bride through rational language.


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