Paul's doctrine of inspiration

[I’ve cross-posted this on my personal blog, but I thought it was especially relevant in light of the discussion in Keith’s Van Til post, and Keith’s most recent post. In the discussion under the latter, Bene linked to Richard Hall, who linked to Gibson; in Hall’s post, there were two comments that bring up things that have been discussed here recently:

From “Kim”: (3) Above all, however, nowhere does any text in any Bible say that Bible is inerrant – and before you start, no, not even II Timothy 3:16-17, quite apart from the fact that it is referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (because, of course, there was no New Testament at the time). The only way you can make this text speak of inerrancy is to smuggle it in via the term theopneustos – literally, “God-breathed”, usually translated “inspired”. Moreover you’d be smuggling in a pagan Greek, not a Jewish idea. [Most people don’t appeal to this verse alone, and even I don’t this in this post, to defend inerrancy from Scripture–AF]

And from “Beth”: A loving God does not want us to make people feel unwelcome and violated for any reason. A loving God is not going to condemn two people for loving each other. You and I will never, ever agree on this, DH, for the simple fact that you believe that the Bible is perfectly inerrant, and I cannot accept that. In a sense, for you and me personally to have this particular discussion is utterly pointless.

Because these issues came up so clearly, I figured cross-posting this here might be helpful.]

2 Timothy 3:16 reads as follows:

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,”

A few comments need to be made here, I think:

This common translation of the word theopneustos as “inspiration” is actually a mistranslation, despite its commonness (which comes from dependence on the Vulgate). The term contains no idea of God breathing into (as in “inspire”) something that already exists (as presented in, e.g., Brian McLaren’s analogy of inspiration to Adam’s being breathed into by God); rather, the idea is of God breathing a thing out. In this case the thing is a set of ordered, written words, the graphe, the writings. This idea of “breathing out” is not new; it alludes back to texts like these:

Psalm 104:30: “You send forth Your Spirit (ruach, breath), they are created; and You renew the face of the earth.”

Job 32:8: “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath (ruach, Spirit) of the Almighty gives him understanding.”

Job 33:4: “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”

These texts are, of course, themselves alluding back to the Genesis account:

Genesis 1:2-3: “…And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said…”

The general image is of God/the Spirit (Breath) bringing entire objects into existence. In the case of 2 Timothy, the things created are writings. Essentially, then, Paul is saying God the Spirit directly created these communications, that he intended to produce communications, that he authored these communications. It is this logic that allows for the ubiquitous attitude of the Scriptures toward themselves: what the Scriptures say, God says.

For example, Paul says in Romans 9:17:

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up…’.”

But if we go back to Exodus 9:13-16, who is speaking these words?

“Then the Lord said to Moses… ‘But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up…’.”

For Paul, there is an equivalence between what God says and what Scripture says; the logic for this is given in 2 Timothy.

Or for another example, in Matthew 19:4-5 Jesus says,

“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'”

And yet, if we go back to Genesis 2:24, it is the narrator (Moses?) who says “For this reason…”. Like Paul, Jesus equates the words of Scripture with the words of God.

For yet a third example, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews begins his letter by saying (1:1)

“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets…”.

Later, he makes the following statements:

Hebrews 4:3-4: “For we who have believed do not enter that rest, as He has said: ‘So I swore in my wrath, “they shall not enter My rest,”‘ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’;”.

Hebrews 4:6-7: “Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, ‘Today,’ after such a long time, as it has been said…”

In the former passage, the author assumes (like Jesus), that the narrator of Genesis, clearly speaking of God in the third person, is God. In the latter passage, the writer assumes that the section of the quote from Psalm 95:7-8 he focuses on, the word “Today”, clearly spoken by David prior to David’s quotation of God in the verses following that statement, is the word of God spoken “in” David (presumably as an instrument). Not only are the quotes of God God’s words, but the human introduction of God’s words are also God’s words. Clearly the logic for both of these ways of speaking about Scripture is found in the first verse of the letter, and is identical to the logic seen in 2 Timothy.

What does all this mean?

Well, firstly, it is insufficient to describe God’s relation to Scripture as simply His using, or taking up, a human product. The Biblical writers have no problem attributing the words of Scripture directly to God (and seem to even subconsciously do so), and directly stating that God has produced these words. It is very true that God takes up these words by His Spirit in His acts of illumination, conviction and witness, but in terms of a full explanation of God’s relation to the graphe this does not go far enough, it seems.

Secondly, making the same point from a different direction, it is the words that are said to be produced by God; this rules out any explanation of God’s relation to Scripture which says God inspired ideas which were interpreted by humans and expressed in human words. Instead, Paul says something much more radical: the written words themselves were breathed out by God. This may help to explain the meaning of verse in 2 Peter 1:20-21:

“knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

Given that the context of this verse is focused on the reliability of Scripture, not the interpretation of it by readers, the interpretation in question is likely referring to that of the prophets themselves; this would mean that what Peter is saying is that the words of Scripture, given by the prophets, are not from the prophets privately (i.e., in exclusion from God), but are produced by the Spirit as He moves the prophets to speak. Thus Paul’s words illuminate Peter’s: the words of Scripture, not just the visions or auditions received by the prophets which prompted the writing of those words, are themselves from the Spirit.

Thus another view of inspiration is seen to be insufficient: it is not just that God inspired the writers of Scripture by giving them moving ideas, which they then tried to express in their own words. Rather, God both gave them the ideas/visions/auditions, and then moved them to write the words that He wanted them to say. Thus Scripture as Scripture is God’s word(s), not just the ideas we can extract from the Scriptures. In fact, anything we extract from Scripture will be our interpretation of it, which actually will have less authority than the words we are interpreting (we are nowhere told that our interpretations of Scripture are God-breathed).

Finally, and most simply, it should be obvious that the argument frequently given that “2 Timothy does not give a theory of inspiration” is just false. If a theory is simply a way of understanding something, then Paul’s use of the idea of “God-breathed” certainly does give us a way to understand something. And further, in case anyone is keeping track, the last two points I made cover the traditional terms “plenary” and “verbal” in the old theory labeled “plenary verbal inspiration”. It is because of the conviction that the words of Scripture are God’s words that inerrantists believe in inerrancy; it is because of this deep conviction about the origin and nature of the Scriptures that Jesus could say something like “the Scriptures cannot be broken,” and Peter could say, in contrast to any thought that the Scriptures were unreliable, that the Scriptures are “of no private interpretation”; and it is because of this conviction, shared and handed down through the ages by followers of Christ, that the doctrine of inerrancy has been the main view of the church through history with regards to the authority of Scripture in its indicative statements.

[Virtually all of the arguments I made above were made by BB Warfield in his book The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible a century ago; [Edit:] they can also be found, for the most part, here.]