“All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Ti 3:16). This verse has led to countless arguments and has been interpreted in numerous ways. It is often used as a key verse to define the character of the Bible. But what does it mean that all scripture is inspired by God? What does it mean for our understanding of the nature of the Bible?
PLEASE NOTE: This article is not for those who believe that the Bible is inerrant and flawless. If you perceive the Bible as perfect, then please ignore this article. This article is for those who love the Bible but struggle to reconcile what they read in the Bible with the claim that the Bible is inspired by God and therefore flawless and inerrant. If you want to reconcile the problems you see in the Bible with God’s inspiration, then this article is for you.
16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Ti 3:16-17 RSV)
These verses are often interpreted in a way similar to this:
“All scripture” is equated with the Bible. Therefore, the Bible is inspired by God. God is perfect. Everything he inspires must be perfect, too. Consequently, the Bible is perfect, without error (inerrant), and infallible. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy claims that “all matters” in the Bible are “true and trustworthy” (article IX).
This interpretation of these 2 verses has caused much harm to Christians who faithfully study their Bible, but can’t embrace the Bible as perfect, inerrant, and infallible. Many of them believed that the Bible is perfect and without error because they were taught that doctrine. But studying the Bible themselves, they discovered that they can’t reconcile the actual shape of the Bible with that claim, doubt and disappointment were the natural results. Many of them have turned away from Christianity because they realized that the claims Christians have about the Bible are simply not true. We set up people for problems when we claim things about the Bible that are not true. Because if Christians lie about the Bible who knows what else they lie about. Even though many dedicated Christians try to explain and resolve the errors and contradictions of the Bible (and some arguments are pretty good) I still believe that the Bible has errors, and it has contradictions. Here are only a few of countless examples:
Does God punish the descendants for the sin of the ancestors or not?
Yes: Ex 20:5 and Jer 16:11
No: Deut 24:16 and Jer 31:30 and Ez 18:4.
Who incited David to sin?
God: 2 Sam 24:1
Satan: 1 Chr 21:1
Was Jesus crucified before the Passover or after?
Before: Mt 26:17
After: John 19:31
Who was the father of Joseph?
Jacob: Mt 1:16
Heli: Lk 3:23-24
What did the women do after the resurrection?
They shared the news: Mt 28,8 and Lk 24,9
They were silent: Mk 16:8
Where did Paul go after his conversion?
Arabia, NOT Jerusalem: Gal 1:15-17
Damascus and Jerusalem: Acts 9:18-25
Jesus said that the grain of mustard is the smallest of all seeds (Mt 13:32). Well, it is not!
The Bible supports a cosmology with flat earth, a protective dome on top of it, and an ocean of water on top of it (read more about biblical cosmology HERE).
Abiathar (Mark 2:26) was NOT the high priest when David ate showbread in the temple, it was Ahimelech (1 Sam 21:1)!
Matthew attributes a verse wrongly to Jeremiah, while the verse originally is from Zechariah (Matt 27:9–10; cf. Zech 11:12–13).
Some Christians believe that they need to solve and hide the errors and contradictions in the Bible because they are afraid that these problematic texts will take away from the authority of the Bible. But this is a flawed conclusion. The opposite is true. The errors and contradictions of the Bible enhance the beauty and credibility of the Bible. They show that the biblical texts were not edited by authors and smoothed out. They are a beautiful testimony of God constantly working through imperfect people to achieve his purposes.
Inspired by God
What the verse means by inspiration can only become clear when we ponder the Greek word for “inspired” in the verse and in the entire biblical context. The Greek word for inspired is theopneustos (θεόπνευστος). This word is unique in the Bible and appears only in this one verse! Its literal translation is “God-breathed”. All scripture is God-breathed! In order to understand what that means we need to consider what else in the Bible is God-breathed and what the result of God’s breathing is.
What else in the Bible is God-breathed?
Gn 2:7 immediately comes to mind. God breathed into Adam and the result was that Adam became alive. The result of God’s breathing was that something dead became alive.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet sees a valley full of bones. God breathed and (Ezekiel 37:5) the bones became alive. The result of God’s breathing was that something dead became alive.
Jesus taught that “it is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63 RSV). The spirit of God is the breath of God. The breath of God gives life!
Romans 10:9 teaches that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (RSV). In John 20, we read of the meeting when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. This was the moment when they understood that God had raised Jesus from the dead. It was the moment when they “were saved”. Jesus breathed on them, and they received his spirit (John 20:22). They received new spiritual life. The result of God’s breathing was that something dead became alive.
What does it mean that “all scripture” is God-breathed?
God’s breathing in the Bible makes something dead alive! I suggest that this is how we should understand the nature of the Bible. The Bible in itself is neither inerrant nor alive, it is dead. Why does Hebr 4:12 then state that the word of God is alive? It is the breath of God, the spirit of God, that makes “all scripture” alive. The spirit speaks through “all scripture” and thereby makes it profitable for teaching, correction…
The result of God’s breathing in all biblical examples was not perfection. The objects of God’s breathing (inspiration) were dead and even after God breathed on them, they were anything else but perfect! Claiming that God’s inspiration means that the Bible is inerrant and infallible means ignoring the biblical understanding of God’s breathing. The idea that God’s inspiration causes perfection is a human idea that unfortunately often gets projected onto 2 Tim 2:16!
God-breathed outside the Bible
“The early church fathers used theopneustos to refer to writings apart from the biblical texts. “The Council of Ephesus’ condemnation of Nestorius is referred to as “their inspired decision” (auton theopneustou kriseos) and the inscription over Abercius’ tomb is called an “inspired inscription” (theopneuston epigramma; Life of Abercius 76). Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa says his brother Basil’s commentary is “inspired (theopneuston) exposition” (Apologia in Hexaemeron). The concept of something being ‘inspired by God’ was not limited to the canon of Scripture in the early church” (Barry, 2012, 2016). The early Christians didn’t apply the term theopneustos exclusively to scripture. This should make us careful to interpret too much into the word theopneustos.
Two more quick observations about 2 Tim 3:16-17
- It is debatable if “all scripture” really should be equated with the Bible. The canon of the Bible, as we know it today, was made hundreds of years after 2 Timothy was written. When Paul wrote the letter he certainly didn’t have the Bible in mind as we know it today.
- 2 Tim 3:16 explains WHY all scripture is profitable for correction (because the spirit makes it alive) and was not primarily written to teach anything about the character of the Bible.
What is the job of scripture?
Many Christians today understand themselves as guardians of the Bible. While we should love the Bible and study it every day, we shouldn’t worship it. But sometimes I feel that some Christians are dangerously close to worshiping the Bible instead of worshiping God. The same was true for the Pharisees. They saw themselves as the guardians of the scriptures. They wanted to protect it. This brought them constantly in trouble with Jesus. Once Jesus told them: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me;” (John 5:39 RSV). The job of scripture is to bear witness to Jesus! The scriptures are supposed to help us recognize who Jesus is, what he accomplished, and to empower us to imitate him. If the Bible doesn’t point toward Jesus, then it is misunderstood. Jesus is the highest revelation of God. He showed us what God is like. Jesus revealed to us how a God-pleasing life looks like. God uses the Bible to bear witness to Jesus. God’s breath, the spirit of life, opens our eyes so that the Bible can teach us everything we need to know. Even though the Bible is not inerrant and infallible it still could be said that the Bible is “perfect”; but “perfect” should be understood in the way that the Bible perfectly can fulfill its purpose: witnessing to Jesus. Even though the Bible has errors and contradictions it still perfectly points us towards Jesus and helps us to follow him. The Bible is a precious gift from God to us but it can be a harmful weapon if it is read without the spirit making it alive to us.
Does the Bible need to be inerrant?
All throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as the God who works through imperfect people. He is the God whose “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9 RSV). He chose to work through imperfect vessels. Why would he contradict all of that by giving us an inerrant Bible? God alone is perfect, the Bible is not. But that doesn’t reduce the worth, beauty, and authority of the Bible at all. Actually, it enhances the beauty of God and the Bible. Greg Boyd concludes his book Inspired Imperfection in this way:
“I can see my own brokenness reflected in all the characters that show up in God’s story (save Jesus), and I can readily identify with the sin and imperfections of the authors God used to breath God’s story. If God was able to use those fallen and fallible people to bring about the story that would serve as the foundation for the community of God’s people and the means by which people would come into a relationship with Christ, then there surely is hope for the rest of us fallen and fallible people. If God was able to transform the unsightly brokenness and scars of biblical authors into something that displays God’s glory, then I can trust that God can do the same with my own brokenness and my own scars as well as with the brokenness and scars of everyone else. (…)
In other words, in the story that all the Bible’s scars tell, we can find the story that all of our own scars tell, if we will but surrender them to God. And it is always a version of the same story the cross tells. It’s the story of a God who is able to build God-glorying masterpieces using human weakness and sin as building material.
In sum, when viewed in light of the cross, there is no more need to be embarrassed by the Bible’s scars then there is to be embarrassed by the scars on Jesus’s resurrected body—if only we can set aside our old assumptions about what a God-inspired story is supposed to look like and instead boldly embrace the cross-centered story of God that we actually have. It may not be the Bible many of us were taught to expect. But it is precisely the kind of Bible I believe we should expect from a God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, acquired deep scars that he now wears like a crown” (Boyd, 2020:Postscript).
Assuming that “all scripture” can be equated with the Bible, we can conclude that the Bible is God-breathed. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is inerrant, but rather that the Bible is a “flawed/dead” tool that God makes alive through his spirit to teach us everything we need to know and to live a life that pleases God. This doesn’t devalue the Bible. No, it enhances the beauty of God and affirms that God always works through broken humans and flawed things to accomplish his purposes.
Barry, J. D. (2012, 2016). Theopneustos: Interpreting “God-Breathed.” In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Boyd, G. (2020). Inspired Imperfection: How the Bible’s Problems Enhance Its Divine Authority. Fortress Press.