Meet Father Roland E. Murphy. He taught at Duke Divinity School when I was a student there. I took one class with him that I will never forget. It was his last class as he was set to retire after that year. He was a renown Biblical scholar, having collaborated on the Jerome Biblical Commentary.
Near the end of the semester, a student asked, “Father Murphy, why don’t you get a new Bible. That one looks kind of ragged.”
With his 6’7” frame, arms that were at least half that, with his booming voice, he reached over the lectern and shook his ragged old Bible, “You ought to pray your Bible looks like mine one day!” Then he just let out a big belly-laugh. But we knew he was serious.
I have a Bible like that that I am proud of. Mark through Acts is liable to fall out at any time. The cover has been reattached with duct tape. I wrote “BIBLE” down the spine in Sharpie. I thank God every day that I have been able to accomplish Father Murphy’s goal. This Bible is worn out from study.
But I still am not a master of Scripture. Not even close! The Bible is more complex and deeper than any book ever written.
It is misleading to even call the Bible a “book.” It is a library of books. It is poetry. It is history. It is a law book. It is theology (“God talk”). There are places where me must remember to read poetry as poetry and not history, for example.
We Christians have become fond of saying that the Bible is “the word of God,” that it is “inspired by God.” We say that – but aren’t really clear what it means.
Let’s go right to the source – 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. (CEB)
What does “Inspired” mean? Literally, it means to “breathe into.” Webster’s Dictionary says:
- to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on
- to influence, move, or guide
- to draw forth or bring out
Typically, when a word appears in Scripture whose meaning is vague or varied, we look to other parts of Scripture where the word is used. This is especially helpful because the language of Scripture is ancient and obscure.
We might say, “We’re not sure what Paul meant here, let’s see what he might have meant somewhere else.” We usually learn the meaning of new words with contextual clues and the word’s development across uses in many other places. In this case, there are no other uses!
2 Timothy 3:16 is the only place that particular word is used. No additional clues are available. So, we creative humans have come up with a variety of possibilities:
- That God composed to Bible “word for word.” (In English, that might be “All Scripture is composed by God,” or “dictated by God.” If so, what do you suppose Luke meant in chapter 1 when he told his reader, Theophilus, that he had “investigated everything carefully” and “decided to write a carefully ordered account” of the life of Jesus? That sounds like after-the-fact research, not divine dictation.)
- That the Bible is completely without error, true and accurate in all matters – theology, science, history, everything! (I’m standing in a church full of “rocket scientists.” Do we actually take Joshua 10 literally when it says “the sun stood still”? Did the sun stand still? I thought it was already still and it was the earth that was moving. What would happen in that case? We’d burn up? Freeze to death on the “dark side” of the earth?)
- If you’ve ever read the King James Bible, you might notice that there are no paragraphs like in normal writing. Every verse stands on an equal footing with all other verses. One of the variations of “inspired” has lead us to believe that all verses are as important as any other.
- But – is the genealogy (the “begats”) of Matthew 1 as spiritually important as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?
- Are the lists of tribes and family members from the book of Numbers as inspiring as the description Jesus’ birth in Luke 2?
There is always room for interpretation when the original meaning is unclear. We cannot know precisely what Paul meant when he said, “All scripture is inspired by God . . .”, but we can make some educated guesses or guided interpretations.
What does Paul mean when he says “All scripture?” Remember that, when Paul wrote, Scripture meant something different than it does for us. He would have been referring to the scrolls and documents that were revered by the Jewish and early Christian people. Its unlikely he was referring to the Gospels as we know them, his letters, and even other books of the Old Testament.
Did he mean every single word written therein? Or just the concepts? The ideas? It is unclear and requires some interpretation.
The Greek word he writes in that sentence is theopneustos:
- Theo – meaning “God”
- Pneo – “to breathe out” or “to blow”
Scholars think Paul just made up a word out of two other words to say what he wanted to say. It could mean something like “God-breathed,” or “God-exhaled.” Unless the pneo referred to the Greek word pneuma which means “spirit.” Then, he could have meant something like “God-spirited.”
I think it is the height of idolatry to suggest we know everything there is to know about the Bible. Because, every time we claim such, we find that God surprises us again! Any time someone tells you they know what this word means, they are giving you an interpretation – even me!
One thing is clear. Paul created a metaphor to describe how God is present in Scripture.
So, lets interpret that metaphor. Could it be that Paul is referring to the moment when God breathed life into humanity? Genesis 2:7 says that God, “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life.” When God breathes, even common clay becomes fully animated.
Was Paul suggesting that when God breathes on the human words of Scripture, they become alive? Fully active, useful for “teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good?”
Could he mean that it is God’s living presence breathing life into Scripture every time we open the book?
Scott Barry Kaufman; Harvard Business Review:
“Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities.”
And could it be that even today, when the living, eternally active God meets us in Scripture, the words come to life and inspire us? Propel us from apathy to possibility? Albeit differently than they inspired our ancestors? Differently than the person next to us, because God has made us all infinitely beautiful and different? Thereby approach Scripture with different eyes? Different lives? Different experiences?
When God breathes, it inspires even the words on a page to transform us.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says the Scriptures are our “primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine”; that “Scripture is primary,” that it “reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation,” and “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” (paragraph 104 and 105).
So, when we wish to more fully understand what Scripture is saying about God, we have other sources to which we can turn;
- Tradition – the work scholars and theologians, creeds, doctrine, sermons – we are not the first to ever try to understand scripture. There has been thousands of years of tradition.
- Reason – We employ the disciplines of history, geography, archeology, science, biology to help us understand. God gave us brains to use!
- Experience – what is the Spirit saying in our lives, right now.
AdamHamilton describes these criteria as “colander” that holds the important things while the undesirable are washed away.
Let’s add another criterion – Jesus, the definitive, “Capital W” Word of God. When we come up with a question, perhaps the answer is found in the heart and character of God revealed by Jesus Christ.
Example: the laws in the book of Leviticus command that “the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, . . . she shall be burned to death.” Yet, many places in the Gospels show Jesus forgiving, defending, or befriending a prostitute (see Luke 7:36-50). When there is this kind of inconsistency, we hold on to the witness of Jesus.
Let me recommend a book to you: Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. This sermon is largely indebted to his discussions in chapters 14-18.
In a similar blog post about the phrase “The Bible says it and I believe it”, Hamilton says:
While Paul teaches us that the Bible was inspired by God, the biblical authors were not mindless writers, simply taking dictation. They were human beings, writing in particular times and places, and for particular purposes. We see their personalities in their writings. We recognize their differing writing styles and vocabularies. Their life experiences and their historical context shaped their faith, theology, and ethics.