That Dratted Verse…

I have to be honest here. One of the verses I sometimes wish wasn’t in the Bible is the one found in 2 Timothy 3:16 . Here’s what it says in my favourite translation, the NIV (also including v.17 so that the sentence is complete):

You see, the reason I feel like I do is because that verse has been so abused and misued by people over the centuries that it has actually become the source of huge argument, pain, suffering and domination. In my opinion, it is definitely a candidate for the prize of the most destructive verse in the Bible. This verse alone validates all the Scripture-bombing, all the blasting people with Scriptures and weaponization of these sacred texts.

This is in no way what St. Paul intended the verse to be used for, of course. Paul was very much a gentle man, converted completely from the Law-ridden, violent Pharisee that he had once been. Indeed, he was the Apostle of Grace, and more or less everything he wrote was linked with that Grace in some way. Remember, then, that this (what we call a) ‘verse’ is taken from what was just a simple letter of practical, pastoral support to Timothy, a young protegé of Paul. It was never intended to be used by bullying and manipulative people to assert that not only is Scripture itself always correct, but also [by some unexplained and unconnected twist of ‘logic’] that what WE are telling you that any given Scripture means is also correct and therefore you must believe what we tell you, and this to the exclusion of what you feel the Spirit is saying, all your reason, other reading, others’ opinions, logic, your conscience, and science especially, and so on.

Writing it down like this exposes this Scripture abuse for what it is. But still there remains the ‘problem’ of the verse – how do we interpret it; how do we use it for good and for our own (and others’) upbuilding?

Well, here’s a piece by Ken Fawcett, written in response to a Facebook post by Don Francisco, on the subject of Biblical inerrancy, where he quoted the C. S. Lewis passage I published on here the other day. Ken puts it really well; I really recommend what he says:

“There are so many problems with the way people interpret that verse [2Tim 3:16] to argue for inerrancy that you could write a whole book on that verse and it wouldn’t fit in this world!

1. Circular logic. If I wrote a book and said “these words are all inspired by God” would you believe me? You can’t just say “the Bible is inspired because the Bible says it’s inspired because the Bible…” you get it.

2. The verse does not have a verb. The “is” is placed arbitrarily in translations. It could also translate “all scripture that is god breathed is…” so depending on the translation the verse could be suggesting that some scriptures are god-breathed, and some aren’t!!

3. Even if the usual rendering of grammar is correct, the word “god breathed” does not mean inerrant or perfect. Humans are created by God’s breath but aren’t inerrant. The word “theopneustos” [which is the Greek word we translate as ‘God-breathed’ – ed] is not used anywhere else and we have no idea what the author meant by it. I find it comical that those who authored the Chicago statement on Biblical Inerrancy believe in the “sufficiency” of scripture, but in order to advance their inerrancy agenda had to come up with 19 Articles written in 20th century English to explain how the Bible is inerrant, and what inerrancy means and doesn’t mean. What do we do with passages that contradict each other? Scramble around to find a peculiar solution… What do you do with passages that contradict known historical or scientific facts? Oh those historians and scientists have an agenda to destroy Christianity… It gets ridiculous.

Furthermore, the word “theopneustos” is used only a few times in Ancient Greek literature and we don’t know exactly what it means. One can speculate by looking at its root, theos and pneustos, and infer “god-breathed” or “god-spirited” but it’s not definitely. Etymology does not confirm semantics, just like butterfly does not mean a flying butter and a chairman is not a crossbreed between a man and a chair. Moreover the morpheme “theos” is not a Christian monopoly word and is used in Greek for words that have nothing to do with the Christian God, often just meaning “very” or “really”. “Theobarelo” means a big barrel, “theoptochos” means very poor, and “theotrelos” means utterly mad. So “theopneustos” could just mean really really inspiring. It’s such an issue how it gets translated, but when it is used in a definitive way that shapes how we read all the rest of the scriptures, that is beyond any reasonable application demanded by this passage.

4. We need to address what “scripture” means. Even the Old Testament canon was likely not settled then (depends on when we date 2 Timothy and when we date the settling of the OT canon). The author certainly did not have in mind the 66-book Protestant bible. In fact the author a few verses earlier quotes from Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic interpretation of the Torah, when he mentions “Jannes and Jambles” taking on Moses. The author uses “graphē” for “scripture”, which literally means “writing”, rather than “graphais hagiais” (cf Romans 1:2, “holy writings”). This may suggest that author’s scope of “scripture” is broader. So, do we regard the Targums as also inspired? The Mishnah? How about the Apocrypha, which was canonised by the same church that canonised our “scriptures”? How about the Pseudepigrapha, which includes the Book of Enoch quoted by Jude? What measure do we use to determine what counts as scripture that is true to the historical and linguistic context of 2 Tim 3:16.

5. Let’s assume we somehow arrive at an objectively valid frame of what counts as scripture and what doesn’t. But then, which stages of scripture are inspired? For example, Paul spoke his words and a scribe wrote it down. Were Paul’s spoken words inspired or were the scribe’s writing them down inspired? Also we don’t have any of the original autographs of any of the books. Are the copies inspired? There are so many discrepancies between the copied manuscripts, but are they all inspired? Are the translations we have inspired? If they are, why is there so much difference? If not, why aren’t they? Many inerrantists argue that the Holy Spirit inspired the scriptures to “preserve His Word” but what did he stop at the autographs, when obviously to preserve His Word He would need to have inspired it all the way down to the translations. And specifically about the Old Testament scriptures, was the Hebrew Bible inspired or the Septuagint? If it’s the former, why do Christ and the apostles consistently quote from the Septuagint? If it’s the Septuagint that’s inspired why do most modern translations use the Hebrew? And also I’m sure you know that the Hebrew did not have vowel markers. The vowel markers were added in the 10th century to complete the Masoratic text. A different vowel marker can change the meaning of the whole text and subsequently our theology. Are the vowel markers inspired? Why, or why not?

These are points that must be considered and answered if you want to take 2 Tim 3:16 as proof that all scripture is inerrant and God’s Word.” — Ken Fawcett

Thanks, Ken. Superb stuff.

St. Paul says the Scripture is ‘useful’. He doesn’t say it’s ‘essential’, ‘binding’, ‘Law’ or any other such thing that implies that we must follow it to the letter, despite what this passage appears to say on the face of it. And remember that Paul is not God. What Paul writes can be seen as suggestions, guidelines, and yes lots of sound ideas and doctrine too. But he was not God, and as such was not in a position to issue any commandments or Rules to be added to the ‘Ten Commandments’ given to Moses, and nor would he have wanted to. Paul was all about getting away from being crippled by the Law of Moses and instead basking, indeed resting in the fulfillment of that Law in Christ.

Remember also that Paul was likely only writing about the Hebrew Scriptures (what we now call the Old Testament (OT)), which were the only Scriptures available at the time (and even then, not easily available like they are today where you can go down to any bookshop and buy yourself a Bible). At the time that Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, the Hebrew Scriptures were undergoing a process of reinterpretation, by Christians, in the light of the total revelation of God’s nature in Jesus Christ. No reading of the OT can ever be complete without interpreting it in the light of Jesus, or ‘through the lens of Jesus’, if you like. To attempt to read the OT while ignoring the facts of the Incarnation, life, ministry, death, Resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the consequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon ordinary humans – to attempt to read it without taking all that into consideration is bound to lead to ‘error’, at least in terms of harmful opinions and attitudes. We humans, especially those from a religious background, have a very strong penchant to want to live by Rules, and then to impose those Rules on others too. It gives us a sense of security. But this is the time when God must be our Security; indeed if we find our security anywhere else than in God, we are not really as secure as we think we are.

And that brings me full circle, back to our verse, 2Tim3:16. “All Scripture is God-breathed…” Do you see how that little verse appears to give us full certainty that all we need to do to feel secure in life is simply to read our little book of God-breathed Rules and follow it? In that way, we find our security in that verse, and in the Bible – with all its different translations and contradictions, rather than in the One Whom the Bible reveals (Jn 5:39-40). That’s quite a shaky foundation to be on. The one Rock is Jesus, not the Bible. Build your foundations on Jesus, and on Him only. He’s the one Who is unshakeable.

Grace and Peace to you all.

Series Navigation<< Don Francisco on the BibleHonouring the Bible >>

2 thoughts on “That Dratted Verse…

  1. Tony, thanks for sharing this excellent post by Ken. And I think you really nailed the introduction and afterword!

    One observation from me: non-conservative scholars are almost unanimous that Paul did not write the books of Timothy and of Titus. So even those who regard Paul highly need to realize that he did not write this passage. Who did write it? Who knows…

    1. Thanks, Tim, I always appreciate your encouragement! 🙂

      I did know that about Paul/Not Paul and the Timothy letters (but not Titus), but I am aware that my posts are often contentious, and to raise yet another bone for people to gnaw could distract readers from the main points of the articles.

      The actual writer could have been a first-century blogger, like you and I… 😉

      But even then, I personally feel that the writing style fits with Paul’s general style – it reads like him – and I, again personally, do think that it was written by him. It think it also fits with his life story and general theology too.

      But I still don’t like the verse 😉

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