Many Christians refer to the entire Bible as the “word of God” and often base this on a few proof texts in the Bible. Two popular choices of proof of this view are found in two different books of the Bible and both attributed to Paul the Apostle.
Is the Bible the infallible word of God?
“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.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)
To some the passage above settles the question. There we have it in clear English that the Scripture is “God-breathed” and therefore if God said it then there is little more to say after that, right?
But there is more to be said…
First off the Bible was not written in English and we rely on the work of translators to give us their best interpretation of the books of the Bible. And, as far as translation, the popular King James Version renders the “God-breathed” of the Timothy passage above as “given by inspiration of God,” which is an interpretation that could give a profoundly different impression.
Second, the most literal interpretation is not always the best for conveying intended meaning. For example, the word ‘Kindergarten’ translated from the original German that it is borrowed from literally means “children’s garden,” yet that is certainly not what the term actually means in common usage and not the original intent of the term either. So, when Paul coined “theopneustos” to describe Scripture, we need to understand what he meant by it and not just assume how it renders literally in English is the most correct interpretation.
Third, if we are to be completely literal, we know writing is not accomplished by breathing and therefore “God-breathed” writing would be an absurdity. I presume we all accept that “breathed” part isn’t completely literal; that Scripture was written by men who were in some way inspired (or led to write what God put on their hearts to share) and not literally air from divine lungs.
Forth, Paul did not consider all of what he wrote to be God’s own instruction. Paul himself distinguishes in his own writing that some of what he says originates from “the Lord” while other portions he denotes are “not the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10-12) and that alone proves at least some of the Bible also contains instructions or ideas of men.
Fifth, one must consider the question of why the Bible contains hundreds of expressions like “thus saith the Lord” and “God said” if it is all the transcribed thoughts of God. If all Scripture were spoken directly from the mouth of God then why would it be necessary to denote what God said and use quotes? At very least there seems to be a difference between what is literally spoken by God in Scripture and Scripture in general.
So, in light of the evidence above, perhaps “theopneustos” should be taken to mean something less than literal. Because, although Peter does refer to some of what Paul wrote as being Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), it is even questionable if Paul considered all of his own writing in Timothy to be Scripture.
I do not believe Paul intended his words to be taken as many do and as an argument for the supremacy of Scripture. If anything it is proof that Scripture was of questionable importance to the Spirit-led church and needed his endorsement. What he says, in more basic terms, is that Scripture is useful to a Godly person and is writing inspired by God. To say more than that could be to assume too much.
Who gave us the Bible or has authority to interpret it?
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV)
Note the passage above does not say all Scripture is prophecy. It tells us that did not originate “in the human will” or “by the prophet’s own interpretation” but it doesn’t say all Scripture is prophecy. We know the Scripture includes things spoken as prophecy and attributed to God, we also know Scripture contains the words of ungodly people and Satan. In other words, there is a difference between prophecy of Scripture and other things written Scripture.
The Bible we hold today is actually a collection of books and letters that were decided to be authentic and then compiled into one canonical book. It is perhaps ironic, but many of the same people who say the Bible is the ultimate moral authority reject the institution that decided the books belonged in the Bible and those that did not. They use Peter above to defend their own idea that the Bible is reliable without acknowledging their reliance on the determination of a tradition they reject.
The passage above is simultaneously used also by those who put moral authority in an institution or their own group. The King James Version renders “prophet’s own interpretation of things” as being “private interpretation.” Some use that to say we cannot understand Scripture as individuals and that we need them to tell us what it means. Oddly enough, some of these who claim this means we need them also rejected the institution that canonized Scripture and claims we need them.
I ascribe to the other view that the passage from Peter isn’t intended to put power in the hands of a group. I agree with those who interpret it to be talking about those who wrote the prophecy of Scripture and that their prophecy was given to them by God rather than their own imagination. I do not see this as speaking of our interpretation of Scripture but of inspiration and reliability the prophecy contained therein.
Furthermore, it is being used in the context of their own testimony as believers and those filled with the Holy Spirit. If we look immediately before the passage in quotations in verses 12-19 this is speaking in conjunction with the reliability of their own testimony and basically putting their own testimony on par with Scriptural prophecy. The earlier part of the chapter (verses 3-11) mentions promises and describes attributes which are strikingly similar to what Paul lists elsewhere as fruit of the Spirit.
What were we promised by Jesus would teach us?
“Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:2-4 NIV)
Before the book of second Peter mentions prophecy of Scripture and the authenticity their own testimony it alludes to something else. It mentions “divine power” and a “knowledge” of God and Jesus that allow us to “participate in the divine nature.” Those steeped in Biblical fundamentalism could assume these things are references to the Scripture, but I believe from examining Scripture that it is a reference to something bigger than Scripture and the actual source of Scriptural inspiration itself: The Holy Spirit.
Of the promises Jesus made, the one that most fits the description in 2 Peter is not a book knowledge. Jesus promised believers something extraordinary:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:16-18 NIV)
Followers of Jesus weren’t promised a book of truth or an institution to guide them, but something much better. Jesus promised them he will return, but not in physical form, and will provide help that will last forever: “the Spirit of truth.” It is something that will neither seen nor known by those who do not believe. It is an advocate, and advocate that will teach us all things, as Jesus explains:
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26 NIV)
This promise is further explained in more words, attributed to Jesus, in the Gospel of John:
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16:13-15 NIV)
I believe this truth ‘known’ from the “Spirit of truth” is the same knowledge of what 2 Peter speaks about. It is also what 1 John 2 says keeps us from being deceived by antichrists:
“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.” (1 John 2:20-21 NIV)
It seems to be speaking about the same thing promised by Jesus in the Gospel of John:
“As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 26-27 NIV)
We aren’t promised a book or an institution to teach us, we are promised “a Spirit of truth” that will teach, guide and remind us of what we need to know to keep from being deceived. Paul speaks extensively about this in his letters to the Corinthian church, he contrasts “human wisdom” and that which is derived by the Spirit:
“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:13-14 NIV)
Paul continues in that chapter to describe a wisdom of a different origin and having the “mind of Christ” which allows us to transcend mere human judgment. He quotes Scripture “it is written” as evidence and yet says that the was not known except as it was revealed by the Spirit. In his second letter to the Corinthian church he speaks of a different type of book better than the Scripture that gives life rather than condemnation, is a source of competency and confidence:
“Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (2 Corinthians 3:4-8 NIV)
Have you been baptized in the Spirit?
Many Christians today seem to be living in the old rather than new covenant and are under the law of death rather than Spirit. Many prioritize their own knowledge or understanding of a book, still wait for a second coming of Christ and live spiritually powerless. It reminds me of those whom Paul encounters in Acts 19 who he acknowledges as disciples, who were baptized in repentance by water and still had not received baptism in Jesus or the Spirit. If you are unsure, consider what Jesus is recorded to have gave as final instruction:
“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5 NIV)
Maybe you are one of those who are baptized in water and repentance. Perhaps you are sincerely trying to use the Bible as an instruction manual or guide book. It could be you read diligently, you might even speak the name of Jesus and travel the world on a mission to prove yourself before God or others. You can be doing all those things without God’s word alive in you, the Pharisees did those things (Matthew 23) and we are told some who shared the name of Jesus are not known to him (Matthew 7:21-23) despite their works.
Read John 5:16-47. There is no salvation found in diligent study of Scripture. One can have vast knowledge of Scripture and still not have ever known God’s word. That was the case with those who rejected Jesus despite knowing the Scripture and it is the case for those who still believe a book knowledge can save them. It is not the Bible that Christianity should center on, it is something else bigger, better and more unifying than a book:
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
Note that one of the one things not listed above is Scripture. If Scripture were central to our oneness with God and unity together it seems something that should be mentioned. We have mention of Spirit twice, mention of one Lord, one God and Father, one body, one faith, one hope, one baptism, but not a mention of a one book and Scripture. It is Spirit emphasized throughout Scripture.
So what is the “word of God” mentioned in Scripture?
2 thoughts on “Literalism, Authority and the Promised Teacher”
“Biblical literalism” as evangelical fundamentalists use it is actually a misnomer, because their interpretation of “literal” means “taking ancient writings and superimposing a modern interpretation of the word ‘literal’ over it.”
True biblical literalism means also accepting the style in which the ancient writings were written–apocalyptic language, poetry, etc. When that difference is understood and accepted, there is much less of a tendency for absolutely laughable interpretations of, say, the Apocalypse of John.
It’s another reason I’m not a young-earth Creationist either: I believe Genesis 1 is obviously poetic and shows less of the nitty-gritty of how God created everything and more of the power and majesty of the Almighty as the Foundation of all being.
Language is not as concrete as many seem to assume. I wish I was as good at explaining it as a certified linguist. Unfortunately I got lost in Stephen Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” and he’s about as articulate a person as I know. So I’d sooner just recommend the book.
Language is full of metaphors that depend on correct presuppositions often taken for granted. But language to describe spiritual things is often metaphor on top of metaphor and even the disciples were clueless hearing the Gospel Jesus preached in their own native tongue.
And we are so arrogant today that we think the Bible (taken ‘literally’) is all we need to know God?