What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired? (2 Tim 3:16)

How many times have you heard it said, “the Bible is the inspired Word of God” ? Have you ever thought about what this phrase actually means ? Paul Achtemeier, in his book The Inspiration of Scripture, has indicated the problems that are inherent in using the terminology of “inspiration” loosely.  He points to issues related to the use (or abuse) of this term.  The matter is not quite as simple as it first appears.

 The traditional answer to the question of what this statement means, is to assert (quite correctly) that the Bible uses this concept of inspiration to define itself.  However, we need to be careful in simply lifting out one word (this is all it is, even in Greek!) and making it the lynchpin of a massive argument.  The claim that “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is ultimately an inadequate answer if we are truly seeking understanding of our faith.

 What, then, is the biblical evidence for the claim of inspiration? 2 Timothy 3:16 is generally regarded as the “proof text” for this topic, with the claim being made that all scripture is inspired. This verse appears in the passage set for reading in churches this coming Sunday, as the epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary.

However, even this verse must be viewed in context.  It cannot readily be extracted from its context and pressed into service as an abstract definition; we cannot assume that it is the fundamental principle held by all biblical writers, as no other writers of other biblical books give any indication that it was adhered to in this way.  We should note a number of aspects of this verse which caution us against making it a fundamental universal principle which applies equally in every case.

Is this the last word on the matter? Some interpreters have argued that the whole of 2 Timothy should be seen as a last testament of Paul — an attempt to set out his final thoughts in a clear, systematic, programmatic manner, as his last will and testament for his followers. However, caution is again required at this point. 

The authenticity of 2 Timothy is debated. Some scholars claim that it was not written by Paul, others say that he dictated it to a secretary, while yet others argue that it does contain fragments of material written by Paul, which are placed within a larger framework of a whole letter by another writer.  (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)

Whatever the origin of the letter, it is clear that it was written in a specific context; it is by no means an attempt to set out basic principles, but rather applies such principles to a given situation.

 Inspired. First, the Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos, which literally means, “breathed by God”.  This was not a common term in the first century CE; many other similar terms were available prior to the New Testament to describe the activity of inspiration.  So the use of this term is not in itself a clear-cut way of proposing a “doctrine of inspiration” in first century terms.

 Useful. Further, we should note that in 2 Timothy 3:16 the definition which is given is functional, not ontological that is to say, it identifies the effect scripture has, and does not define the essence of scripture in and of itself.  The emphasis is placed on the fact that scripture is “useful” or “profitable”.  Inspiration, so it seems, does not reside in the writings themselves, nor in the writer, but results from the process of using (or applying) scripture.

 Scripture. A further issue concerns the word graphe, usually translated as “scripture”.  This word literally means “writing”, and normally it applies to Old Testament books.  At the time of writing 2 Timothy, it could not yet apply to the New Testament in a direct manner, since the complete New Testament was not yet formed. 

In his authentic writings Paul himself shows little awareness of the Gospels or of Gospel traditions; and there is no evidence for the collection of Paul’s letters until early in the second century CE.  By contrast, Paul regularly cites scriptures from his own tradition, the Hebrew scriptures, and it is clear that he considers these works to be important guides for living by faith. Romans, Galatians, and both letters to the Corinthians contain numerous such instances.

(There are explicit citations of Hebrew scriptures at two places in the Pastoral Epistles: 1 Tim 5:17-20, quoting Deut 25:4 and alluding to Deut 19:5, and 2 Tim 2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13.)

Thus, this statement was originally NOT about the whole of the Bible; it is only by inference that we can refer it to the whole of the Bible.

 Useful for … Finally, let us note the diversity of functions here attributed to inspired writings: they can be used for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.  Thus, a richness of meaning is perceived within scripture, indicating the diversity of ways of applying scripture.  There is no single function which is foundational; nor does this verse set out all the functions of scripture (the Psalms, for example, function in a number of different ways — for praise, lament, celebration, petition, confession, remembrance, and so on).

 Thus, 2 Timothy 3:16 itself does not offer a full and satisfactory answer to the question, what does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired?  It offers one insight, but it needs to be balanced against others.  It is not the last word on the matter.

Certainly, it is clear that this passage can refer only to the Hebrew scriptures, for the New Testament as we know it was not yet formed, even in the early decades of the second century. And it points towards a functional understanding of scripture, providing no basis for any claims about the divinely-inspired and absolutely authoritative nature of the books of the Bible.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/07/rightly-explaining-the-word-of-truth-2-tim-215/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

Rightly explaining the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. So writes Paul to his “beloved child”, Timothy, in the second letter that we have addressed to this co-worker.

(On the reasons why this letter may well not have been written by the apostle Paul himself, but by one of his followers after Paul’s lifetime, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)

The letter presents a scenario that sees Paul in prison (1:8; 2:9), in contact with a group otherwise unknown from his letters—Eubulus, Pudens, Linus and Claudia (4:21). As Paul was previously in Corinth and Miletus (4:20) and is in Rome as he writes (1:17), the letter itself suggests a time near the end of his life. He writes, we are led to believe, as a mature believer, imparting wisdom to a younger co-worker.

This assumption is supported by some of the imagery used, with Paul describing his life as “poured out as a libation” (4:6) and stating that he has “fought the good fight” (4:7). We know virtually nothing of this period from Acts; the last description of Paul that we have in Acts (28:30–31) is generalized and non-specific, so we can’t cross-check with anything there.

This letter, like 1 Timothy and Titus, gives indication of disagreement and conflict within the early Christian communities, with varied understandings of faith being present in the place where the recipient of the letter is based.

 The opponents envisaged in this letter are described largely with reference to their verbal activity: they utter “profane chatter” (2:16), their “talk spreads like gangrene” (2:17), they engage in “wrangling over words” (2:14) and “stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); they “captivate silly women” (3:6) and their “myths” are listened to by people with “itching ears” (4:3–4). The author certainly possesses a vivid vocabulary!

The author contends that these opponents are “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who oppose the truth (3:8), “wicked people and imposters” who deceive others (3:13); they have been “ensnared by the devil” (2:26). The long list of vices (3:2–5) might also be inferred as applying to these people. The rhetoric is aggressively antagonistic.

 The one specific identifying mark of these people who have “swerved from the truth” is their assertion that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2:18). Against this, the author refers to the future appearance of Jesus (4:1, using the Greek word epiphaneia, most unusually for Paul). There is also a quotation of scripture to refute the heresy (2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13).

Paul offers clear guidance to Timothy as to how he is to deal with such opponents. He provides Timothy with short, concise summaries of the faith that they share (2:11-13; see also 1 Tim 2:5-6 and 3:16) and advises, Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. So Paul instructs Timothy, whom he charges to be an apologist (one who contends verbally, and vigorously, for the faith).

The apologetic that Timothy is to exhibit is succinctly expressed in the excerpt from the letter set in the lectionary as this Sunday’s epistle reading; Timothy is to rightly explain the word of truth (2:15).

This letter shares an apologetic quality with the first letter to Timothy, in its concern for “godliness” (2 Tim 3:5), “the truth” (2 Tim 2:18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4) and “the faith” (2 Tim 1:13; 2:18; 4:7). It provides various indications of the content of this faith: an epitome in three short clauses (2:8), a more discursive exposition of “the gospel” in poetic form (1:8–10) and a five-line hymn (2:11–13), introduced as yet another “sure saying” (2:11).

Paul, the nominal author of this letter, is set forth as a model for Timothy; he is described as having been “appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (1:11) who provides “the standard of sound teaching” (1:13).

This “sound teaching” is entrusted to Timothy (1:12), who is exhorted to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you” (1:14). That’s the “word of truth”, direct from Paul. This word, in turn, is to be entrusted to “faithful people” (2:2) who in turn become teachers. So the letter clearly explains the way in which “the faith” is to be passed on from teacher to associate to local leaders. Paul’s authentic letters do not emphasise this line of authority in the same fashion.

 In his calling as a teacher, Paul has encountered suffering (1:12; 3:11), but he has placed his trust in Christ (1:12) and Christ has strengthened him (4:17). According to this pattern, Timothy ought then expect to suffer (2:3; 3:12) and should stand “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1).

The imagery used to explain the leadership role entrusted to him refers to the soldier (2:3–4), the athlete (2:5) and the farmer (2:6); these images are consistent with the rhetoric of self-defence which Paul employs (1 Cor 3:8–9; 9:7, 10, 24–25). By contrast, the reference to household utensils (2:20–21) runs counter to the way Paul used similar imagery (“we have this treasure in clay jars”, 2 Cor 4:7).

 The author of this letter expresses a firm confidence that he has gained “the crown of righteousness” (4:8) in his eternal destiny. For Paul to write this would be unusual, as he elsewhere uses this imagery to describe other people (not his own destiny) as his crown (the Philippians, Phil 4:1; the Thessalonians, 1 Thess 2:19–20).

As the letter draws to a close, the author asserts that “the Lord will rescue me…and save me” (4:18). This heavenly rescue, assured for Paul, is promised also to those who faithfully exercise their ministry; Timothy, and other leaders, will find themselves in the company of Paul, in the heavenly kingdom (4:8). It is noteworthy that Paul regularly expresses hope in his future fate, without claiming clear certainty about it (Rom 5:1–2; 8:24–25; 1 Cor 9:10; 2 Cor 1:9–10; Gal 5:5).

It is doubtful, to me, that this element of the letter reflects Paul’s regular way of thinking. My reading of Paul’s letters is that he has much more of a concern for the present realities of life, and how the Gospel is at work in the present, than with the promise of a future off in the distance. He does not dismiss the future; but his energy and passion is oriented towards living by faith in the present.

The letter provokes us to ponder what it is that we regard as essential to the word of truth, how we go about rightly explaining that word of truth, so that others will be grasped by the good news and feel welcomed and affirmed within the community of faith.

 

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

In the name of the apostle …

In this latter part of the season after Pentecost, in Year C, the Revised Common Lectionary is taking us through a tour of a number of letters attributed to Paul—which most likely, for various reasons, were not actually written by Paul himself. We’ve read a couple of excerpts from 1 Timothy and launch into 2 Timothy this coming Sunday, after which we move on to 2 Thessalonians.

Many scholars consider that the apostle Paul did not actually wrote any of these letters (along with some others also attributed to Paul—Titus, Ephesians, and perhaps even Colossians). They have been able to come to this view because of what is known about the widespread practice, in the ancient world, of circulating letters and other documents in the name of an eminent person from an earlier age—a great scholar, or philosopher, or religious leader, or teacher. This was done by a writer who wished to “borrow” the authority of the older figure, believing that this would give greater weight to the views and teachings included in their work.

The suggestion is that members of the church in the later decades of the first century did this, using the name of Paul, because they regarded him as a teacher of note and an apostle of the church. There were already many works like this in Jewish circles, and a number amongst the gentiles also; so this was a well-known practice. And the ancient world did not have the strict laws of copyright and intellectual property which characterise the twenty-first century!

1 and 2 Timothy are two of the three letters written in the name of Paul which are addressed to two individuals whom Paul valued as co-workers and employed as ambassadors to his churches—Timothy and Titus. The letters are commonly referred to as the Pastoral Epistles because, it is felt, they are concerned almost entirely with matters internal to the structure and governance of the churches.

Whilst Paul’s authentic letters reflect the dynamic nature of the community of faith, these letters reflect a move towards a more developed organisational structure. They point towards the institutionalised church of the second century and beyond, in which the way of Jesus would become determined by the authority of the apostle and his local representative, the bishop.

Each of these letters is addressed to a fellow-worker of Paul who is known from other references in Paul’s authentic letters. Titus accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1, 3) and was a fellow-worker with Paul in ministry to the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6, 13–15; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18).

Timothy also accompanied Paul as “co-worker” (Rom 16:21) and fellow- preacher (2 Cor 1:19) and was a regular intermediary between Paul and believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:1–6), Corinth (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10) and Philippi (Phil 2:19–24). Timothy is described as the co-writer, with Paul, of three authentic letters (2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1) as well as two debated letters (Col 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). In Acts, he appears regularly as an associate of Paul (Acts 16:1–2, 14–15; 17:5; 19:22; 20:5).

Each letter begins with a familiar assertion that it was written by Paul, but modern scholars have identified various doubts about this claim. Indeed, strong arguments can be advanced for dating these three letters after the lifetime of Paul. Clearly, these letters were written by someone with good knowledge of Paul and his teachings.

Yet the format of the letters and the distinctive vocabulary used throws doubt on the claim that Paul was the author. Whilst they each have a traditional framework for a letter, the body of the letter often reads more like a sermon or a moral treatise.

Over one third of the words found in these three letters are not found in the authentic letters of Paul. Many words found frequently in the authentic letters do not appear anywhere in these three letters.

In addition, the situations addressed, the theology of the letters and the ecclesial structures envisaged reflect many differences between each of these three letters and the seven authentic letters of Paul.

Together, all of these elements point to the conclusion that the author wrote these letters after the lifetime of Paul. He reaches back in time to the figure of Paul in order to validate the teachings given to the community of faith in his own time. The figures of Timothy and Titus represent the leaders in the communities of faith in this later period.

As we hear excerpts from the Pastoral Epistles in worship, and reflect on what they are saying to us today, we might ask:

How important is it, for you, to affirm that Paul himself wrote each of these letters?

Can you be comfortable with the idea that a follower of Paul wrote them in his name?

What message about the life of the church comes through these letters?