God-Breathed and Useful

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- 2 Tim 3:16-17

A recent conversation with my friend Lucid Elusion got me thinking about this verse. I've decided that I don't think it means what a lot of people think it means - that the Bible is inerrant or infallible. (I'm not saying that the interpretation I'm challenging is that of my friend, only that it seems to be a popular reading.) Here's why:

To begin with, it goes without saying that a statement in the Bible about the Bible cannot be used to prove its infallibility. A good skeptic will not be at all impressed to hear that the Bible says it's infallible. But most Christians already have great trust in the Bible, and if the question is not "is the Bible at all reliable" but "given that the Bible is reliable, just how reliable is it", then such a statement is of some interest. The logic is something like CS Lewis' famous Liar/Lunatic/Lord argument - if an author claims to be infallible, either he is attempting to deceive his readers, or he's badly mistaken (and probably a bit crazy), or he's correct. I'm not sure that I accept Lewis' argument, particularly in this revised form, but I won't get into that here. What I want to examine is not the truth of Paul's statement, but its exact content. Is Paul really claiming inerrancy?

First of all, there's a question of what the Paul (assuming Paul wrote 2 Tim) considers to be scripture. I'm told that the early Church used the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the OT, plus additional books), which includes many books and additions that we no longer consider to be "inspired", by which we mean inerrant. Perhaps Paul, an educated Jew, would have made a distinction between the OT and the Apocrypha, but his Greek readers would not. The NT gives no indication that any attempt was made in the early Church to clarify exactly which books are "scripture", and if anything, Jude's matter-of-fact references to contemporary myths suggest a fairly loose understanding of the word.

So when Paul says "scripture", it's unclear precisely what he means. We can be certain he doesn't mean the 66 books to which we now affix the term, because some of them were yet to be written, and the exact content of our Bible was not finalized until centuries later. Hard-line infallibilists are obligated to believe in the inerrancy of not only the Biblical authors, but also the members of the church councils that determined which books would be included. Thus for the sake of clarity, I propose that this verse be read "All books which are accepted by the church as scripture are God-breathed and are useful..."

But this does not help the infallibilists' case, because for the original readers, this statement would apply to the Apocrypha as well, which no infallibilist I know considers to be scripture. Instead, they might wish to read this verse as "All books which were ultimately recognized by the later church councils as scripture...", but this is problematic because it means that both the author and his original readers were mistaken about this verse's true meaning. In fact, for the early church the verse would have the deceptive and somewhat dangerous effect of seeming to claim inerrancy for writings which we now know to be errant. The only other readings I can think of would be "All books which are considered scripture by God, regardless of any human opinions...", which is even less helpful because it gives us no indication of to which books it applies, or "All books which are considered scripture at the time of this [Paul's] writing...", which no one I know would agree to.

Some will resist my interpretation of "scripture" as here meaning "all books which are accepted by the church as scripture" because of the apparent implication that the inerrancy of certain texts could change as they were added or dropped from the canon. But I don't think this verse is about inerrancy at all. What it says is that scripture is "God-breathed" and "useful".

"God-breathed" is not a word found anywhere else in the New Testament. According to my concordance, "God-breathed" is a literal translation of the Greek word, which comes from the words "God" and "blow", and which refers to the inspiration or communication of a deity. It's not unreasonable to think that something inspired by God would be without error, and I can see why some people understand this as a claim that the Bible is completely accurate in all matters - theological, moral, historical, scientific, etc. - from beginning to end. If a God-breathed text contained errors, they argue, it would mean that God is either lacking in knowledge or lying to us.

But no one will argue that hopeless wails of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, the anger and bitterness of the Psalms, or the self-righteous condemnation of Job's friends represent ethical and metaphysical truths. Of course not. These are examples of the human element of the Bible. Truth cannot be plucked from the pages of the Bible as from a creed (yeah, right) or even a physics text. No one argues that the Parables of Jesus are historical truths, and anyone who looks to Psalm 137 for moral instruction is headed for trouble. Even the staunchest literalist does not claim that every statement in the Bible is true.

So what might "God-breathed" mean if not "free of human emotion, bias, and error"? I'm not sure exactly, but I think the rest of the verse gives us a hint: "All Scripture is... useful". Useful for what? Understanding science? History? The mechanics of salvation? No. Useful for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness". And in case you didn't catch it the first time, he adds "so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

A story doesn't have to be historically accurate to be useful for training in righteousness. Jesus knew this better that anyone. And if we believe that this great storyteller had a hand in the crafting the rest of scripture, why are we so certain that the other stories it contains are historically true? And why do we think it matters?

It just occurred to me that "God-breathed" has a different feel to it if we call God "Daddy", as Jesus suggests. What might it mean for something to be Daddy-breathed? Parents tell children what they can understand, embrace, and learn from. They don't read them historical tomes or ethical treatises, they read them fairy tales. I think there's a temptation to think of the God who breathed the scriptures as more of a professor than a father, as if a book can only be useful for training in righteousness if it's true the way a physics text is true (only more so).

I'm not saying there is widespread historical inaccuracy in the Bible. (How would I know?) I'm just saying I don't think it really matters one way or the other. Paul could have said "All scripture is God-breathed and true", but he didn't. So I don't know what exactly Paul thought of the inerrancy of scripture, but it seems that he didn't consider the matter worth writing about. What was more important to him, apparently, is that the Bible is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness". I like that.


Katie V. said...

I didn't realize there was such a community of people in the same place as i have found myself lately. I was pretty fundamentalist for years until I was finally able to admit to myself that I couldn't and didn't really believe all of it. I look forward to what else you have to post. I hope you find what you're looking for.

Lucid Elusion said...

Yay, Jacob!

Applause seems to be in order here. An excellent, well formulated and completely accurate understanding of what Paul's writing there. Scripture never states that it is historically, scientifically or chonologically accurate; what it says, however, is that it is right & effective for instructing/building righteousness. Inerrancy and "correctness" are not necessarily equivalent (though, there is a tendency for overlap), especially when the Bible qualifies its claims with the clause "useful for...".

Trust me, you don't want to read a physics text to study proper English prose; nor do you want to leaf through Shakespeare to understand fundamental theories on even simple kinematics. It's nice that the Bible is fairly explicit in what content it is seeking to convey in its various sections, and that, often (it seems to me), one needs to try to overextend Biblical content from the realm of Biblical authority. Nonetheless, the Bible does have a limit to its authoritative range, and we should respect such limits, lest we risk bringing dishounour to the Good Book.

Here's your applause:



Filth- Man said...

I mostly agree with your critique... though I do think there is value in understanding Bible stories as historical. The retelling doesn't have to be inerrant, but if the stories are made up, they lose some value to me at least.

If David didn't REALLY kill Goliath, if there was no REAL mircacles or REAL feeding of the 5 thousand, the stories lose significance for me... this holds especially true for concepts like the incracnation and the ressurection.

(Please don't misunderstand me as saying YOU believe all Bible stores to be non-historical.)

Jacob said...

Thanks Katie.

Glad you liked it LE.

And Filth-Man, you make an excellent point. I tried to be vague about how far I would take the fallibility of the Bible, because I think there is a wide range of reasonable positions, and I can certainly see how believing that Biblical miracles actually happened would be important to a lot of people. Of course, a person doesn't have to be infallible to write about a miracle, and if we believe that God had a role in the writing of the Bible, we can trust that the central aspects of our faith are accurately (though not necessarily perfectly) recorded, including miracles like the incarnation and resurrection.

I think what's most important about a story like the feeding of the 5000 is the point that God provides, however I can see how the story is more effective if it's believed to be factual. So again, I would say that if we believe Jesus was divine and had the power to preform miracles, and we trust that he did many such things that are not recorded in scripture, then for me at least, whether he actually preformed this or that specific miracle becomes less important.

It's also worth noting that from a critical perspective, the New Testament is more trustworthy than the Old, simply by virtue of being more recent. So we have no way of knowing whether someone like Abraham existed, but we know Jesus did, and we know the effect he had on the Roman world shortly after his death.

But people can and do believe in whatever level of Biblical accuracy they need to. I can understand why it's important to many people to believe that the miracles recorded throughout the Bible all occurred pretty much as described. I think this kind of faith is just fine, but I don't think we should kid ourselves that we know that these things happened by claiming that the Bible is infallible. That's not faith.

Lucid Elusion said...

I would have to disagree with your assertion about critical analysis claiming that newer information necssarily implies more accurate infomation. Such a statement, I must point out, is fundamentally flawed. It is not the age of the material that makes the information more credible, it is the amount of corresponding & supportive external referencces that do. For example, I could claim right here that I am thirteen years old--a very fresh statement, from a source that is purportedly an expert on the subject (myself and my age), though an older document (my birth certificate) may dispute my claim. Who wins on accuracy? Well, since the birth certificate was issued through the witnessing of my entering into this world of no less than three cognisant others, as well being verified by a handful of other documents and individuals with vested authority... I think the piece of paper wins out. I may know myself pretty well, but the wealth of corroborating information available to support the birth certificate's claims make it a more reliable choice. Get my drift?

The only reason that "age" would impact the purported authenticity of the Old Testament is due to the fact that as time progresses, peoples & societies tend to forget. Records get lost, monuments crumble, people die. The iron-wrought supporting record rusts away, leaving us with an extremely well-guarded document at the core, whose contents were literally inspected for quality with religious fervour, rejecting any copy that had so much as a single uncrossed "t" or undotted "i" for generations.

Again, it is diffuclt (albeit, impossible) to prove the accuracy of the OT, but since the NT--as you stated--seems to be relatively accurate, one can induce that a culture who places such an extremely high level of importance on accurate record keeping (Yes, that's our friends, the Jews) would hold onto that tradition at a consistent level of fervour from the initial document, right on through to the current edition.

Just my two cents.

Elusive Lucidity.

Jacob said...

Ya, rereading my comment, I worded that part horribly. What I meant to say is that we've got a pretty good idea that Jesus existed, when he lived, and the impact of his early followers from extra-biblical sources. Stories about Abraham and Moses and David are naturally more difficult to pin down because we have next to no surviving documents from their times.

Literal religious fervor for the preservation of a document has both positive and negative effects on its credibility. It's true that the Jews have a long history of meticulously copying religious texts, but they also have a long history of writing texts that claim to be authored by long-dead famous figures, claiming to be historical accounts of events that occurred centuries before their actual writing. They also have a tendency to quickly adopt these texts as authoritative and authentic, and to believe in them and copy them with this same religious fervor.

Anonymous said...

I happened to be working on a paper regarding God's righteousness, and have run through a fabulous and challenging series of stories (from Adam and Eve and their eviction from the garden), Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, Isiah's call (Isaiah 6:9-10), Paul's great discourse on God's righeteousness in Romans), so when I ran across the oft-misued 2 Tim. 16-17, I was simply stunned -- how could I have missed the point all these years? I found your blog, looking to see who else has seen it. Congratulations on your careful reading of the Scriptures.

Drew said...

You may want to read some of St. Anselm's works. In his writings he choses not to include scripture, instead he takes a more Socratic angle. In short he follows a line of reason that brings the reader to understand that the Bible, as a whole, coinsides with reason. Your argument of how the Bible cannot be used to prove it's infallibility doesn't quite make sense in my mind. Does an instruction manual not hold itself to be true? You may also want to look into more literary works on the Devine revealation of scripture. Also it has helped me to read all of C.S. Lewis's works, really brings it into perspective