Monday, 22 August 2011

2 Timothy 3:16

2 Timothy 3:16-17 is one of those snippets of scripture you get taught to memorise when you're a young evangelical.  I haven't read it for a while but it formed part of our readings on Sunday morning and it struck me that I had learnt it without thinking clearly about what it means.  Now's my chance to make up for that lack.  Here's the passage.

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

We were taught that this verse was a key indication that we should believe the Bible in its entirety.  It was often combined with a passing reference in 2 Peter 3:16 (what is it with that chapter and verse number?) to Paul's writings "which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures", to indicate that Paul's writing's come under the same heading and should also be treated as inspired.

Of course unlike Paul (more on that later) I was taught to read bible passages in context, but I somehow had no memory of the context of this one.  Paul is encouraging his younger protege in his task of guiding the church in Ephesus.  He is encouraged to rely on two connected sources of knowledge to fortify his faith - the example of Paul and the others who have taught him during his life, and on "the Holy Scriptures", which he has known from infancy. 

So let's take the last two verses bit by bit.

"All Scripture"
What is Paul talking about here?  Well, if we accept the traditional view that Paul is the author of this letter then from the context  it seems most likely that he is talking about the Old Testament and perhaps also the Old Testament Apocrypha which many New Testament writers use freely in their teachings.  He is clearly not talking about any of the New Testament writings because he is talking about what Timothy learned in his infancy, before any of the Christian writings existed.  The only way this passage can be made to refer to any of the New Testament writings is to accept the view of some scholars that it was not, in fact, written by Paul but is of unknown authoriship and dates from the late first or early second centuries.  Even then, it could not date from any time when there was anything like a fixed New Testament canon.

All this begs the question as to the authority of this statement itself.  Why should we believe Paul when he says this?  Paul clearly expects himself to be believed because of his example and his relationship with Timothy.  In other words, Timothy is being asked to continue a tradition which has been handed down to him.

"Is God-breathed"
The version I memorised said "all scripture is inspired by God".  This construction is clearly grammatical nonsense, since to "inspire" is literally to "breathe in", and it makes no sense for God to breathe in his own scripture.  Rather, the sense is that God breathed it out and the writers breathed it in.  The word "spirit" is derived from the word "breath" so the Holy Spirit is best understood as the "breath of God".  What is being suggested here is that the people who wrote the Scriptures were under the influence of God's Spirit.

This is a far more nebulous assertion than we were taught to believe.  It clearly says that the scriptures have their origin in God, but what exactly is the nature of the infuence of the Spirit on the authors?  Theologians have argued at length about the alternatives of "verbal inspiration" (every word comes from God) and "plenary inspiration" (the whole comes from God), and the relative roles of an infallible God and the fallible, culture-bound humans through whom God spoke.  Paul offers us no help with this question.

"..and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..."
Paul is most struck by the usefulness of Scripture.  He wants it to be used for a particular purpose - "so that the man of God may be equipped for every good work".  Scripture is where we learn to do what is right.

What strikes me is that Paul himself uses scripture in quite a different way to how we are taught to use it.  Take for instance his set of scripture quotes in Romans 3:10-18.  Here he uses a number of quotes from scripture, each of them taken out of context, to illustrate the point he has already made (without prior scripture reference) that all humans have sinned against God.  Such examples abound in the New Testament writings and serve to remind us how culture-bound our own traditions of interpretation are.  Paul feels free, and by implication is encouraging Timothy to feel free, to use the scripture to illustrate or reinforce his teaching, which he has learned from Paul and from his own mother and grandmother.

To summarise.
  1. It's not at all clear that we should treat this statement itself with any particular reverence or authority.
  2. It clearly does not refer to any of the New Testament writings, only to pre-Christian Jewish scriptures.
  3. It does not imply that these scriptures are inerrant, only that the writers, in some unspecified way, are under the infuence of God.
  4. It emphasises the use to which the scriptures are to be put, not any kind of truth claims.
This verse will only give you certainty if you are already certain. 

1 comment:

Sammy said...

When it comes to the Bible, I do believe that some of the writers were inspired by God. However, they were also normal human beings who had flaws and biases, just like we all do. So, I do believe that the Bible contains great wisdom. However, I do not believe that every word is the inerrant, infallible word of God. There are passages I believe are outright wrong, not just factually but morally.