So What Does “Inspired” Really Mean? The Bible as “God-breathed”

There has been a lot of discussion in the past year or two throughout the blogosphere and in various churches about biblical interpretation and its central role in evangelical identity. We might even say that evangelicalism is in the midst of rethinking its own approach to Scripture. Just a glance at a couple popular blogs of late (and the extensive discussions they prompt) illustrates the salience of this question. Rachel Held Evans has been discussing “biblicism” and various (mis)conceptions of Scripture, and Kurt Willems has recently reposted on the question of whether there really is a universally reliable “plain sense” to interpreting it. I think these are vital questions, and after a century or so of American fundamentalism–a movement rightly concerned with a faithful reading of the Christian Scriptures, but that unfortunately operates according to the very paradigm of those it reacts against (i.e., modernist scientific method)–I am very glad to see evangelicalism, or segments within it, reconsidering this very important question.

What the recent conversations I’ve linked here have not yet gotten to, though I’m sure they will at some point, is the question of inspiration. In so many evangelical statements of faith, the Bible is called “inspired” and “God-breathed,” a point that is often immediately linked to “inerrant” in a very scientific, journalistic, factual sense. What I want to do is take up this notion of “God-breathed.” This description of scripture is itself a biblical description, but I’m not at all sure we’ve been understanding it adequately.

Two biblical passages are usually used to justify this move: 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21. Let me address the second passage first. 2 Peter 1:20-21 states, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (NRSV). The key word here is “prophecy,” which is rightly understood in the sense of people being carried along in the Holy Spirit; as such, what they proclaim by the Spirit’s direct prompting is not open to debate. This notion of prophecy is then taken by many evangelicals to refer to the whole of scripture: every part of scripture is closed to varying interpretations, and comes only directly from the Holy Spirit. There’s only one problem with this move: the text here does not apply “prophecy” to all of Scripture. It’s referring specifically to actual OT prophecy that foretold the coming of the Messiah. And as we all know, not all of the Bible contains such prophecy, but only a small part. (And this doesn’t even get at the point that not all of what constitutes the Christian scriptures was even settled at the point of this writing, but not until several centuries later!) So 2 Peter 1:20-21 does not provide by itself a tenable doctrine of biblical inspiration.

So let’s take up what many consider to be the more important passage, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which reads, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Again, we’re faced with the problem that not all of the biblical canon was settled at the point of this writing, so it’s not self-evident to what “scripture” the passage refers. But that aside, let’s deal with the notion of “inspired by God.” As many know, that phrase literally means “God-breathed.” This is key. For many evangelicals, “God-breathed” means that the message of scripture–even the very words of the text–come directly from the mouth of God, and therefore brook no ambiguity or difference of understanding. I even heard an Eastern Orthodox theologian recently claim the same thing, that it literally reads “breathed out,” and therefore there can be no argument or varying interpretation. This is the bread and butter of fundamentalist (in the historical, not popularly pejorative, sense) and evangelical theology. But is this what “God-breathed” really means?

First of all, there is no preposition “out” in the Greek. It simply states that scripture is “God-breathed.” So let’s be clear: that understanding of the verse–that God literally breathed out the words of scripture–is itself an interpretation, and I believe, not one necessitated by the verse. In my opinion, in order to understand what 2 Timothy means by “God-breathed,” we have to look where else in Scripture God breathes. There are at least three passages where we find God “breathing” (which, of course, has to do with the movement of the Spirit of Life). In the well known second creation account of Genesis 2:7, God the Creator breathes onto a clay form and brings to life Adam (literally, “humanity”). In Ezekiel 37:1-4, the prophet Ezekiel looks out over a valley of dry bones. God asks him whether the bones can live, and Ezekiel says that’s entirely up to the Lord. So God then “breathes” over the bones, and flesh grows upon them, and they come to life. Finally, in John 20:21-23, Jesus has risen from the dead and appears to his disciples, who are overjoyed to see him. He then breathes upon them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” by which they will have a new authority and power as his apostles. Note that in every one of these passages, God breathes on something that already exists, and gives it new life and power. He DOES NOT breathe the object into existence. Thus, to be consistent, we cannot claim that 2 Timothy 3:16 declares God to have breathed the biblical text into existence. Rather, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that already existing texts were “breathed upon” by God, that is, infused via the Holy Spirit with new life and power for the building up of the Body of Christ and the expansion of the Gospel. Someone may respond and say, “Yes, but wasn’t it God who first formed the things that were breathed upon? Didn’t he form the clay, make the bones, and gather the disciples?” Yes, one could say God did that. But that is not the event associated with God’s breathing; God’s “breath” (again the movement of the Holy Spirit) is a subsequent but more important step.

With this in mind, I think we need to relinquish any hold we claim to have on the very words of the entire biblical text being the direct and exact words of God. Scripture itself does not require this understanding, and an approach more consistent with the entirety of the biblical narrative suggests that the process of what came to constitute the Christian scriptures was rather more open-ended, and therefore more open to varying interpretations. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our aim should therefore be to interpret humbly, sensitively, and with an eye toward conversation and even disagreement, all the while confident that together, we are endeavoring to be faithful to the scriptures that animate our life together as the community of discipleship called the church.


10 responses to “So What Does “Inspired” Really Mean? The Bible as “God-breathed”

    • Yes, I think we’re largely in agreement, Dan. What I really want to emphasize here is that a forensic analysis of 2 Tim by itself isn’t enough – this question requires a holistic reading, canon-wide. And also that this take opens up the door to a greater acceptance of the human role in the development of scripture. That greater acceptance should, in my mind, open the door to more dialogue and less supposedly definitive proclamation (on our part).

  1. You’re right on the analysis of the passages and words, but I think if we narrow down this way, we’re making it a contest of wills.

    It’s the same problem fundamentalists had in misunderstanding the same passage. The question is not ‘did God write it or man?’ but ‘When man wrote this, was God’s Spirit moving upon him?’.

    Paul is still Paul and Luke is still Luke. Their styles are preserved but God’s Holy Spirit was moving on them, for no reason other than His grace, to preserve a written account of the Truth. To testify to Him who is Lord.

    So while I’m not on board with the mechanical concoctions of the word ‘inerrant’, which no one really knows what it means anyway, I can affirm the same principles. The Scriptures such preserved are an authoritative guide, a constant arrow, pointing to the Messiah.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Cal. I appreciate your comment, but I’m not convinced. It’s not a contest of wills, but a form of cooperation, even if it is sometimes inadvertent on the part of the human authors.

      You’re still attempting to preserve God’s action in the generation of the text; I’m not saying the Spirit absolutely wasn’t present in moving the human authors, but Scripture itself indicates this just isn’t necessary for it to be considered authoritative Scripture. What you’re arguing is an extra-biblical logic that is necessary to preserve a certain security around the text; the NT suggests such security isn’t necessary. The Holy Spirit is, in fact, free to give new life and power to a text of human origin, and thereby to make it authoritative for the church. It may even be that in doing so, the Holy Spirit helps us understand the text differently than the original author intended. So be it. But in the end, it isn’t at all necessary–based on what Scripture says about itself–to require that God generated the text to begin with.

      • Found my way back to this blog after months!

        I don’t think its extra-biblical logic (perhaps overstretching) but in John’s Gospel, Jesus said the Holy Spirit will remind “you” (the apostles) of everything He said. I don’t think it was ever God possessing the author and his hand becoming a direct tool for God. However, in one sense, the author’s pen had become a tool for God. The Holy Spirit dwelt and brought to memory things and events, He helped in crafting an account without ever diminishing the human authorship. It is what makes Scripture different from other writings and authoritative for the use of a Christian (of course, it can be abused cf. see Satan and the temptation in the desert).

        And with or without the Holy Spirit, accidental meaning and profundity occurs all the time. I think even more so in the Gospels and Epistles (and the rest of the canon too!). I mean, I look back at something I wrote and find things that I didn’t consider at the time but were good insights. And that’s small potatoes!

  2. I have been thinking along similar lines to you. My only addition is to say that if we are wanting to know what a passage means, and especially what it should mean for us today, shouldn’t we be asking the Holy Spirit to reveal truth to us (as Jesus promised in John 16:13) as well as doing analysis of the text. If we all prayed more and learnt to hear collectively from the Spirit, we might make more progress. It was while praying for understanding of this text that I had the idea, as you have suggested here, that the inspiration Paul is talking about is given by the Spirit when we read, if we ask.

  3. Brad,

    I just came across this blog through a rabbit trail – we do not know each other. I am interested in the nature of the scriptures and my views have changed over the years. To be more clear, growing up I started on the side described as fundamental evangelicalism. Yet, I have always had a problem with words such as inherent and verbal inspiration. We do not have the originals but copies with variations, so the basis for this insistence is out of fear to begin with. THere are many more logical problems as well, among other things (the apostles had no NT and the church flourished!).

    HOwever, I am concerned with your 3rd paragraph on two points: your mention of only a small part of the OT as prophetic. It seems that in Luke 24: 36-49, Jesus is saying, “In other words, this is what the scriptures say…” that the Christ should suffer, etc. The entirety of the Pentateuch is prophetic – especially shown in the giving of the promise to Abraham before the giving of the Law. Another important note is that the apostles only used the OT to preach the Gospel. Christ is the true revelation or mystery-revealed of the OT law, prophets, and songs, as preached by the apostles.

    My second concern is that you make a point about the official canon of scripture, which is true, yet potentially misleads by ignoring the fact that Jesus refers to the OT as the Law of Moses, Prophets, and Psalms, quotes our scripture, along with the apostles and it is a simple fact that their ‘scriptures’ were indeed very close to our OT (dead sea scrolls).

    Not meaning to be argumentative for argumentative sake. With all that aside I agree with your last paragraph and overall concern. Humility, clarity, honesty and love must guide us. I think there has been terrible harm done with insistence of inerrancy – it’s unbiblical, illogical and a deterrent of the gospel. I came across a good article once, The Father, Son & Holy (scriptures?). Google it!


    • David,

      Glad you stopped by and chimed in. I appreciate your point on the OT, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge different genres of writing there. In a sense, you are correct; the entire OT has been read by many Christians to point in some sense to Christ. However, the 2 Peter 1 passage does seem to indicate something much more specific, i.e., the veracity of those passages from the designated prophets explicitly pointing to Christ. So for that reason, I’m still comfortable saying that the 2 Pet passage cannot be used in the way inerrantists wish.

      On your second concern, I think you’ve misread me because my point refers to the rest of the NT, not the OT. Inerrantists argue that Paul is speaking of all of scripture as we have it today, but the point is that he couldn’t be since the rest of the NT hadn’t been established yet. We’re on the same page regarding the OT.

      Thanks again,

  4. Pingback: What does the Bible say about itself? | the Way?

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