No exploration of the nature of Scripture is complete without a discussion of Paul’s claim in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed.” Many a statement of faith uses this phrase and references as a proof text for the doctrine of Scripture, often as the first proposition as though all else follows from this assertion. John Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, devote a chapter to this text.
There are several important points. The first has do do with the way that language is used in Scripture. Quoting from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery “the Bible is much more a book of images and motifs than abstractions and propositions.” We err when we look at “the Bible as a theological outline with prooftexts attached.” John and Brent note that “the Bible primarily relates truth through narratives of human experience and through poetic language that transcends the normal boundaries of expression.” (p. 264)
Paul was a powerful communicator and he shaped his communication to evoke a response. His sermons, teaching, and letters were not dry statements of theological concepts. John and Brent run through a number of examples in 2 Cor. and Galatians, but we could find them in any of his letters. Language is a tool for communication, not some kind of mathematical formula.
As far as we know the term θεόπνευστος (God-breathed or God-spirited) was coined by Paul. It is found no where else in Scripture or “apparently in the Greek literature before Paul’s time.” (p. 269) It is likely that Paul is creating a word picture that aims to imprint the idea that God’s Spirit is behind the narratives and images we have in Scripture.
Second, we need to consider context. Because this is a one-time phrase, context is particularly important as we seek to understand Paul’s meaning. 2 Timothy is a powerful letter. It serves as a commencement address (Timothy is being sent of to carry on) and a farewell discourse (Paul anticipates his death). Paul’s use of of the new word has meaning in this context. Paul writes:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings … But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Tim 3:1-4:2 (NIV)
John and Brent suggest that the term θεόπνευστος (God-breathed or God-spirited) can be understood in three ways (p. 271): (1) it affirms God as the source of Scripture, (2) it evokes images of God’s communicative breath or Spirit, and (3) it communicates Scripture’s transforming power.
Paul is not putting the written teaching of Scripture in a place superior to his teaching. Nor is he suggesting that written communication carries God’s truth in a way that the oral communication of apostolic teaching did not. Today the New Testament preserves this apostolic teaching for us – but the oral origins are significant for the way we approach the text. But back to 2 Timothy. “Paul was tutoring Timothy in the importance of proclaiming divine truth to the community of believers, as evident both in oral and written sources.” (p. 272) He appeals to his teaching and his way of life, that Timothy can trust what he’s learned because he knows his teachers and the Holy Scriptures.
Third, Paul is not presenting complete doctrine of Scripture. Paul appeals to purpose in describing the Holy Scriptures … they make us wise for salvation and are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training. Paul’s emphasis is on the function of Scripture in Timothy’s life, in the lives of those he will teach, and by implication our lives. He was not developing or articulating a doctrine of Scripture. (John and Brent also note that Paul doesn’t distinguish the Septuagint that he and Timothy knew best from some unavailable original autographs or manuscripts.)
[Paul] was enjoining Timothy to entrust to others what he had learned from Paul’s preaching, to use Scripture in building up the body of believers and to preach the logos, the oral message of the gospel I2 Tim 2:2; 4:2)
Frankly, a proper understanding of purpose is more important than a precise articulation of the mechanism through which God’s message is faithfully preserved in written form. Paul’s farewell exhortation to Timothy is important for us today.
What is the intent of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy?
Is 2 Tim 3:16 a verse we should use as a prooftext in a doctrine of Scripture?
If so, how should we apply it?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.