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.