This is the bedrock of evangelicalism, and yet what does it mean exactly?
For example, in one of Paul’s letters, he says, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)…” How can this be God’s Word when it clearly states in “God’s Word” that it’s not God speaking?
This got me thinking on the nature of scripture. This is a heated debate in this day and age, and I am nervous to even address publicly. In fact, it’s nothing new that division in the church is often related to how we read and understand scripture.
All the same, I cannot help but reflect on the single most important verse in our canon related to the nature of scripture and it’s authority. It’s a familiar one. Paul, in a letter, says to Timothy:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
For the sake of argument, let’s say this applies to the Old and New Testament (even though it was written before the New Testament was completed).
What does it mean for scripture of be God-breathed?
Here are some popular interpretations:
- God gave the words for the disciples to write.
- God might not have given them the words, but God inspired the general ideas.
- The writers were aware that God was using them to write God’s word.
- The writers weren’t aware.
- The writers were just vehicles.
- The writers were allowed to impart their own personality.
- The writers weren’t.
With all of these interpretations, the issue is always with how the scriptures came to be. Yet, there is one thing that is overlooked.
Paul fabricated the word “God-breathed” for this particular passage. It’s not used elsewhere in the scriptures or in ancient culture at large. Its a compound word that literally means “god-breathed” so although we know how to translate it, no one can be sure how to interpret it.
Yet, when I think of God breathing something into existence, one story in particular comes to mind.
Out of the dust a body was formed. Yet it was lifeless.
I know what a lifeless body looks like. There’s something strange about them. They look human, but they don’t feel human.
I’m sure you’ve visited a funeral as well, and although the person lying there looks a lot like your loved-one, the life is no longer there. Its strange. Its emotionally powerful. Its uncanny. I’ve held more than one person standing before their loved one, who they recognize and yet don’t recognize. Alive in their memories, but lifeless before them. And we take comfort in the fact that their life is not before us anymore, but very much alive and well, walking with our Savior in paradise. Their life isn’t trapped in that body anymore.
But we know what a body without life looks like.
This was the person in the dirt, formed from the dust. Motionless. Lifeless. Human, but not really.
Then God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7)
I have had the unique honor, as a pastor, to watch someone pass from this life to the next. I’ve sat by their bedside. I’ve held their loved-one’s hands. I’ve prayed over them. I’ve had those final conversations. I’ve seen the life of someone begin to leave their body.
So its possible for me to imagine this in reverse.
God breaths into this limp body the Spirit, and it wakes up, gasping loudly it’s first breath of air.
It breathes in. It’s lungs fill up and he releases his first breath.
This is life.
This is what it means to be God-breathed.
Something that was lifeless, takes on life.
There’s a difference between God-created and God-breathed.
Humans were God-created and then God-breathed. Formed from the dust, and then moments later “became a living being.”
I wonder if we looked at scripture with this nuance?
Scripture is a collection of many different writings. Some are direct quotes from God. Others are letters from apostles to churches. Some is history. Some is law. Some came from God, other parts were clearly written by individuals. Although I think they all came through the inspiration of God, and are unique in their origin, I do not think this is what 2 Timothy 3:16 is saying.
When Paul tells Timothy that scripture is “God-breathed” it seems to me that he is clearly referencing the story of Adam’s first breath. Something that was dead and lifeless, takes on a special life because of God’s Spirit.
This passage isn’t about how the scriptures were written, but rather what happens to them after they came to be. Without God’s breath, they would remain lifeless in the dirt. They would look alive, but be strangely dead—preserved over time much like morticians do with bodies (and much like many Christians do with their Bibles).
And without the Spirit, they remain dead and lifeless, like a body that resembles what we once loved.
So with this in mind Paul tells Timothy—they are not dead! They are not lifeless! They are not like any other writings! They are in fact, God-breathed.
They take on God’s Spirit. They become alive through God’s Spirit.
They are God-breathed, not because of where they come from, but because of the life they have now. In fact, they came from the dirt of humanity and the creative work of God, but what gives them life is the Spirit of God. Its only through the Spirit that they become “living and active.”
This is how I read the scriptures.
I could be wrong, but I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this.
Does this make sense? Am I missing something? How do you understand 2 Timothy 3:16?