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The Apostle Paul on Inspiration

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 Timothy 3:14-17)

The KJV translated verse 16 as “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” which is the only time the word “inspiration” appears in scripture.  I think the NIV’s rendering “God-breathed” is a better one, and it might even be what the KJV translators intended to convey. “To inspire” used to mean “to draw in a breath.”  

Normally, the best practice for determining what a word means in the Bible is to look at it in other contexts, but that’s a no-go this time.  The Greek word, theopneustos, appears only here. Second best, perhaps, is to look at related ideas.  Where in scripture does God breathe into something?  Several places, as it turns out, but here are some of the key ones:

Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.-Genesis 3:7

The Lord took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley filled with bones. He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out.  Then he asked me, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.”

Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them.

 Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’”

 So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.–Ezekiel 37:1-10

But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them.–Revelation 11:11

The picture is clear–in significant passages throughout scripture God’s breath is shown to give life.  The most likely thing that Paul means when he says the scriptures are God-breathed is that they aren’t just dead letters on a page.  Something about them is alive, and gives life.  If we aren’t experiencing the vivaciousness of the scriptures, we aren’t reading them right.  What’s really interesting is the implication he draws.  If you were listening to a contemporary preacher, and he said “All scripture is God-breathed and is…..” what would you expect him to say next?  Holy?  Perfect?  Without error?  Infallible?  Maybe all of the above.  Paul doesn’t go there.  “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful.”  Useful especially for training people for good works.

Which means, I think, that if the scriptures aren’t coming to life as you read and prompting you to do good works, it doesn’t matter what your theology of inspiration is, you aren’t letting the Bible do what it is supposed to do for you.  And if your understanding of inspiration is off, or you completely misunderstand Biblical genres, but the words are living in your heart and compelling you to go out and serve the world in the name of Christ, you’re in pretty good shape.  I might want to have a chat with you about some better ways to study, but you’re letting scripture take you where it wants you to go, and that’s the point of inspiration.  It shouldn’t be just dead letters on a page to the believer.


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