Every Scripture God Breathed?

Every Scripture God Breathed? March 26, 2013

A question about 2 Timothy 3:16 from a commenter inspired (pun intended) me to think about the text in a different light.

One possible background for the rare term θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), sometimes rendered as “God-breathed,” is the story in Genesis 2, in which God breathes the breath of life into the human being he has made, and the human being becomes a living soul.

If that is the background, then the analogy is interesting to explore. A human being without the presence of life and breath turns to dust and is mere matter. Could we say the same of the Bible? It is just bones, just words, just dust, just matter. It is God acting and giving life to those words that matters (another intentional pun), and not the words and letters themselves. Without the divine presence, the words become useless, just like a human body when the breath of life is no longer present.

If that is the point, then this text does not support the way it is used by inerrantists, and perhaps undermines their arguments.


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  • Why is scripture inerrant? > Because 2 Tim 3:16 says so. > Why must we believe 2 Tim 3:16? > Because scripture is inerrant. > … ad infinitum

    Of course, I also agree that “God-breathed” does not immediately imply “inerrant”. On top of the fact that inerrancy is easily falsified by contradictory accounts within scripture itself.

  • Dustin Smith

    I heard Fuller prof John Goldingay comment once saying it might mean “blown-over-by-God”, using “wind/breath” as the key to its meaning.

  • Jeff Carter

    If scripture is inerrant because it is God breathed – then Adam must have been as well, right? How would it have been possible for an inerrant Adam to have made mistakes?

    • That’s a fantastic point!

    • Good analogy! but on its own, this is hardly a valid argument. (I actually wanted to say precisely the same thing, but after some critical reflection, decided not to lol.)

      Edit: I’m not saying that you intended it to be a valid argument. It’s still a good point.

  • Stewart Felker

    Outside of Christian literature, θεόπνευστος is used in the Moralia of pseudo-Plutarch (12.61) – the author of which relates the opinion of the 4th century BCE physician Herophilos, who contrasts dreams that are θεοπνεύστους with dreams δὲ φυσικούς (‘of natural causes’).

    The association of breath and the spoken word is natural – cf. Psalm 33.6, in which God makes the heavens by his ‘word’ (דבר/λόγος), and its host from his breath (רוח/πνεῦμα). In the ancient Near East (esp. the Amarna letters), there was the idiom of the “(sweet) breath” (šaru ṭabtu) of the king. This was also something that could be _heard_ (EA 297).

    In a blog post – http://semitica.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/inerrancy-and-precedents-of-textualconstructive-perfection-all-the-way-back-to-esarhaddon/ – I wrote about the very early precedents of textual ‘inerrancy’…which really go back to the earliest ANE literature. The _word_ of the king/god/prophet is important here – “You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria” (cf. also Deut. 13.1 [=12.32]; Revelation 22.19, “if anyone takes away from the words…”).

    Of course, this doesn’t conclusively show that that’s what the author of 2 Timothy had in mind here. But I don’t think it precludes it, either.

  • arcseconds

    I’m reminded of the bit in the Phaedrus, where Plato has Socrates make a similar point.

    Books are dead. Knowledge is embodied in people. The worry Socrates puts forth (in the parable he’s telling, it’s Amun, the Egyptian god, talking to Thoth, who has just invented writing) is that people will read dead books, which are unable to give a living response to their understanding, and think they know things.

    There’s certainly a message that one could take about Biblical interpretation there…

    • This reminds me of the issue of whether “saving faith” is mere intellectual assent to doctrinal statements, or whether it requires a real understanding of God’s living word (Heb 4:12). Obviously we all think it’s the latter (Matt 13:23)!