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.