You are hereBibliology and Hermeneutics, Part 1: the Origin and Purpose of Scripture
Bibliology and Hermeneutics, Part 1: the Origin and Purpose of Scripture
by Stephen Douglas
In determining the value and purpose of the Bible, we have to begin by looking at its origin. While a description of the process that put the words of the Bible on the page in mechanical terms is interesting, the theological and philosophical answer to the question of origin is foundational. This we refer to as the issue of inspiration.In determining the value and purpose of the Bible, we have to begin by looking at its origin. While a description of the process that put the words of the Bible on the page in mechanical terms is interesting, the theological and philosophical answer to the question of origin is foundational. This we refer to as the issue of inspiration.The passage in Scripture usually cited as the primary source of the doctrine of inspiration is 2 Tim 3:16-17. This begins, “Every Scripture is inspired by God...” The syntax of the phrase is the most problematic aspect, because there is no copula (verb of being), a syntactical situation common in Greek that does not necessarily carry any detectable significance. The ambiguity of where we should understand the copula to belong fuels this debate: should we render this verse as “Every Scripture [is] inspired by God and [is] useful...” or “Every God-inspired Scripture [is] also useful...”? In the first, the point of the statement is that God inspired Scripture and hence it is useful for doctrine, etc. In the second version, inspiration seems to be the qualifier, and that seems to suggest that there are Scriptures that are not inspired and that those are not necessarily useful - but does it really mean that? The word graphe meant simply “a writing” outside the New Testament, but is always understood to mean "sacred writing" or “Scripture” in the New Testament. Theopneustos 'God-breathed' was probably intended not to modify the already specialized “Scripture” sense of the word but rather to act as a specializing qualifier for the more general meaning “writing”, thereby forming a phrase meaning literally “God-inspired Writing” and hence “Scripture”. Besides this, the usage data gathered by Robinson and begrudgingly confirmed by House seems fairly conclusive about the use of that particular syntactic construction throughout both the NT and the Septuagint: in almost every instance the adjective is attributive (i.e. it modifies graphe to mean "every God-inspired Writing").
So what is the significance of the phrase "also useful"? What is the first reference to its practical purpose? If we look at the previous verse, we see that the start of this inspiration passage is not verse 16, but verse 15. Notice there that Paul modifies another oblique term grammata 'letters' with hiera 'sacred', a word that may be justly considered a parallel to theopneustos. Grammata is not used in the New Testament to refer to the Old Testament as a body of Scriptures. Although it is used in reference to the Ten Commandments in 2 Corinthians 3:7, Paul is manifestly trying to highlight the fact that the actual lettering was engraved in stone. Grammata is a term with meanings ranging from accounting (Luke 16:6-7), to written words in contrast to spoken words (John 5:47), to learning in general (John 7:15, Acts 26:24), to epistolary correspondence (Acts 28:21), to the actual characters written (2 Cor. 3:7, Gal. 6:11). Surely this is why Paul found it necessary to use the specializing qualifier hiera to specify holy "letters". So here we have parallel phrases, "sacred Learning" : "God-breathed Writing".
To summarize so far, in 2 Tim. 3:15-17 Paul praised Timothy's “sacred Learning” because it is able to make one “wise for salvation”, and that is the take-off point for the following assertion that every Scripture is “also” useful for doctrine, reproof, etc. In other words, Paul is glad that Timothy knows the Scriptures because they take one beyond the door (salvation) and actually help one navigate once inside.
All this evidence aside, there is no clear answer to this problem, although many on both sides will claim there is one because both are completely possible treatments of the underlying Greek. The ambiguity may in fact be there because a decision on one of the two does not end up being determinative for our view of inspiration. Because neither view disproves or substantiates the rest of what I have to present, I will avoid referring to the debate below. Therefore we will assume that we should render it, “Every Scripture is theopneustos.” Similarly to avoid controversy, we will not get into the discussion of whether every “Scripture” includes the New Testament, which the Church centuries later designated as such but which at Paul’s writing did not even fully exist. We have good reason to believe that the principle Paul is explaining applies to the New Testament as well, and so I assume this in what follows.
This leads us to the specific meaning of the word theopneustos. The phrase “inspired by God” seeks to render this enigmatic near hapax legomenon which is a compound adjective with the components theos ‘God’ and pneustos ‘breathed’, represented quite literally in many translations as “God-breathed”. It is often argued whether this word designates Scripture as the manifestation of or as the target of the breath of God: God’s breath is either the source of Scripture or is merely the reason each writing is divinely effective. This last option is closely related to the source of the term “inspiration” pertaining to this doctrine, because the Vulgate translates it “divinely inspired”, or literally, divinely in-breathed. Many say that this reading would require a missing Greek preposition en- ‘in’ before pneustos, so that we should have theempneustos. Of course this form might have been more conclusive, but aside from the fact that this is in effect an argument from silence, such a preposition is not necessary. Are there any other factors that might give us some direction?
Paul used a compound so exceptionally rare that it has the potential for confusion if left to its own inherent meaning; this suggests that Paul did not use it in complete isolation, probably assuming it would be understood in terms of some implied context. Is there a reference elsewhere in the Bible to God’s breath being manifested as an object? Although I am unaware of an example of this, the argument from silence is no more instructive for my argument than for anyone else’s. Rather the strength in my argument comes from asking the same sort of question about the other proposed meaning: what other Scriptures can be found that reference God’s breath? If so, what is God’s breath doing there?
The notion of God-breathing seems to be a rather explicit allusion to the Genesis account of man's transformation into a “living soul” as a consequence of God’s “into-breathing” – His inspiration. This was very probably what Jerome had in mind in the Vulgate’s rendering. With an already obscure compound, it would likely never have occurred to Paul to insert a directional preposition before the deverbative element when the allusion was clear enough without it. Paul said “God-breathed” knowing that Timothy would immediately associate that expression with Genesis 2:7.
We can summarize from this discussion that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 teaches that these writings collectively known as the Bible have been infused with the breath of life from God’s own lips, and that the Bible has therefore taken on all the practical properties for which God ordained it. But which properties are they? Paul is clear in this passage that the Scriptures are “able to make [one] wise for salvation” and are also “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV). Paul makes absolutely no claims that Scripture is to be used in any other way, and gives no intimation that it had any other purpose. Indeed, no one seems to disagree that the Bible's usefulness has its limits: no one can find building schematics for a skyscraper, or coloring pages for children, or a recipe for peanut butter balls between the covers of any Bible. That is understandable, for the Bible contains no information about those subjects: the debate enters when trying to determine if the Bible is useful for every subject about which it does contain information. Now we are getting into the question of the value and purpose of the Bible, which is in part answered by looking into the more mechanical aspects of the Bible’s inspiration. Whether or not we construe en dikaiosune 'in righteousness' as pertaining to "teaching", "rebuking", and "correcting" as well as the more obvious "training", we may be sure by the context that this is what Paul was referring to. In verse 17 he summarizes the purpose of the Scriptures: "so that the man of God may be be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (NIV). Again, not so that the man of God may be fully informed about the distribution of the descendants of Noah's sons throughout the earth.
God breathed the breath of life into Scripture. This logically implies that there was something already there for Him to breathe into. A good parallel (provided Paul thought this all the way through) would be that just as God molded the pre-existing clay into a vessel into which He could breathe life, He similarly breathed life into a pre-existing and formerly useless lump of clay. This clay was man’s own literature that through inspiration was, as C. S. Lewis put it, “raised by God above itself, qualified by him and compelled by him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served”.
I do not mean to give the false impression that the Bible was independent of God’s influence until after man had written it down. This elevation of the works of mankind was not based on an afterthought or incidental approval (“Hmm…this looks pretty good”), but was an act God's providence had foreseen in His election of the Israelite people. Thus, even when ignorant men were writing with their own purposes and emphases, God was ordaining that work concomitantly to be useful for the things Paul noted in 2 Timothy.
Moreover, God’s influence is the very subject of the Bible. It is a compilation of testimonies about God’s encounter with man. It is a history of mankind’s pursuit of God and of God’s pursuit of mankind. Its efficacy is the legacy of the latter and its existence a testimony to the former: a person's pursuit does not begin without God's prior decision to meet that person, and man's contact with God leads him to express this relationship, and thus we have the Bible. This means that in the Bible, we have the stones of foundation laid by men of faith before us; they have created for us the steps upon which our spirits and minds may climb to reach an understanding of God's heart and purposes. In fact, at times, God personally invaded and practically dictated whole portions of literature with special messages of a theological nature: this is what we call “prophecy”. Such exceptions would necessarily be inerrant and free of the author's interpretation of the message, except that they retain the natural stylistic and contextually relevant mode of delivery pertinent to the individual author. In these cases, the Holy Spirit, as described in 2 Peter 1:21, bore along the prophets, and thus God ensured that what these men reported from their encounters was accurate, lest some portion of God's specific revelation be twisted by man’s ignorance and His intended message be obscured.
The human writers of Scripture, although unavoidably influenced by the Holy Spirit’s promptings, may truly be said to be the authors of Scripture because each one bears witness to God’s guidance by imprinting his own mind, heart, and aspects of his very consciousness in the work. This is not a spontaneous creation of anything but a discovery of something that has existed quite regardless of previous human imperceptions. For the writer of Scripture, this is the mode of operation: God ordains an author to bear testimony to some aspects of His truth; the author is then confronted with the truth and gives it literary expression.
The last issue I wish to address here is the issue of the author’s intent. Is this part of what was ordained by God? Not exactly. God intended the Bible to be given to us for His Own purposes primarily. God's intent was manifested through the writer's intent, but God's intent was never limited by nor necessarily the same as the writer's. God's intent for Scripture was to let His followers bear testimony to Him and the truth they had obtained by their encounters with Him.
I hope we can all agree that there is no more patently absurd notion than verbatim dictation as the method of inspiration. Ruling this out, I suggest further that if God had intended to convey unfiltered, unprocessed Truth, he could definitely have chosen a more sanitary (objective) vessel than literature written down by man. Coupling this with a view of Truth as something much too large and unwieldy for even an infinite number of authors to exhaustively address or describe, I am left with the conclusion that God's purpose was not to lay out cold, hard truths in a series of unanalyzable propositions. Therefore, the author's intent is undeniably relevant to what God was trying to say: he chose Matthew to write a gospel not in spite of, but because of his point of view and his take on the issues that God is concerned about.
Importantly, this takes into account the fact that the author's own thoughts even on the important issues were not always God's. Surely no one believes that the "cursing Psalms" reflect the heart of Jesus - but they do reflect the heart of a man in a tight spot, who calls out to God for help, spotlighting God's message. We cannot afford to stop digging when we detect the author's own view on a subject: we must instead look into God's motivations for ordaining the words the author writes, whatever the author’s motivation. God's intent for a passage trumps that of the author.
The upshot of this view of the origin of the Scriptures in regard to interpretation is that we are left to discover and know the Truth of God through a veil more opaque than many of us in our modern era would choose. But an examination of every human's experience in finding and understanding our Creator and His ways, including this very study, shows that the sum of theological epistemology follows the same principle. Sure He could have built in a network link so that His communiqués would never be subject to human obfuscation! He chooses to have us learn things through study and from one another. Like it or not, it seems that it is God's preferred mode of operation in dealing with humanity.
What bearing does this view of inspiration have on the issues of inerrancy and infallibility? The next installment is meant to discuss those issues, as well as to present the literary-generic principle of biblical hermeneutics.
 Cf. our term, "a man of letters" referring to an individual who has availed himself of learning by being literate; also DLitt. or Litt.D. degree (Latin Litterarum Doctor 'doctor of letters').
 Or perhaps not: Warfield himself argues for different reasons that theempneustos would more likely mean "inhale" than "breathe out into".
 From Surprised by Joy.