In a shocking and unexpected move, overtly progressive Christian bloggers have been making bad arguments against unpopular conservative forms of Christianity and their whacky view of the Bible. If I were not so busy pummeling homeless people with my fists and stockpiling guns, I would be outraged.
It started like this: Someone shared a link to an article by Fred Clark, summarising an article on 2 Timothy 3:16, telling us that his “fundamentalist” friends (he elsewhere in the article refers to them as “fundies”) like to use this verse to address any question about “the infallibility or inerrancy or “literal” interpretation of the Bible.” Surely there’s a bit of rhetorical overstatement here – I’m yet to encounter people using this passage to show that a “literal” interpretation of the whole Bible is correct. But Clark’s point – or at least the one that caught my eye and prompted me to comment on Facebook when somebody shared the article, was about authority.
Fred says that Paul doesn’t claim that Scripture is authoritative or inerrant. He only claims that Scripture is “useful”:1
This verse doesn’t claim that scripture is authoritative, or infallible, or inerrant. It claims that scripture is “useful.” As McGrath puts it: “The focus is entirely on behavior. Scriptures are not said to impart right doctrine, but to be useful in training people in living a particular way.” [Emphasis added]
On the face of it, this is not true. Sure, Paul is, in this context, talking about behaviour. But this verse doesn’t only say that Scripture is useful, it says that Scripture is god-breathed and useful. The writer of the blog was simply omitting the first part of what Paul says, and as a result his claim was false. When “fundies” cite this verse to show that Paul thought Scripture had authority, they are not referring to the fact that he called Scripture “useful” (although of course they don’t deny that). They are talking about the fact that Paul considered the Scripture to be breathed by God. So to deny that Paul calls Scripture authoritative on the grounds that he actually called it useful is simply not a true thing to say.
That’s the sum total of what I said about Fred’s comment. It was short. Well, somewhere on the internet, an alarm went off. This author had been reproducing the argument of James McGrath. When I made my observation about Fred’s article, James appeared like a fireman alerted by the bell, here to put out the flames of dissent. I was wrong to say that Fred’s claim was false, McGrath said, because in McGrath’s article, he had offered an argument for why “God-breathed” has nothing to do with Scripture being authoritative, namely an argument involving the creation of Adam (see below). To cut a long story short, my observation was about a claim that Fred had made, and Fred didn’t even allude to the argument about Adam. In the context of his blog post, Fred’s claim was indeed, false. 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t only say that Scripture is useful, Paul actually says that it is god-breathed and useful. So my criticism was quite modest and correct.
But what of this other argument? McGrath thinks he can show that Paul didn’t mean anything about the authority of Scripture, Actually that argument is not in the article that Fred linked to, but it’s in another article linked to in this article. His argument goes like this:
One possible background for the rare term θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), sometimes rendered as “God-breathed,” is the story in Genesis 2, in which God breathes the breath of life into the human being he has made, and the human being becomes a living soul.
If that is the background, then the analogy is interesting to explore. A human being without the presence of life and breath turns to dust and is mere matter. Could we say the same of the Bible? It is just bones, just words, just dust, just matter. It is God acting and giving life to those words that matters (another intentional pun), and not the words and letters themselves. Without the divine presence, the words become useless, just like a human body when the breath of life is no longer present.
James fleshed out the argument for me in the conversation by telling me that Adam, when God breathed life into him, was not authoritative or inerrant. Why then should we think that the Scripture being god-breathed means that it is inerrant or authoritative?
So there we have it: Paul said that Scripture is “god-breathed,” breathed out by God (or inspired by God), θεόπνευστος (theopneustos). Genesis 2:7 says that God “breathed” the breath of life into Adam. But Adam wasn’t “inerrant” or authoritative just because god breathed the breath of life into him. So having God breath into something doesn’t make it inerrant or authoritative. Therefore Paul didn’t mean to suggest that Scripture is inerrant or authoritative.
Since it seemed to have concerned McGrath that I didn’t comment on his argument (as I didn’t read his article but somebody else’s), here’s what I make of it: The comparison to Genesis 2:7 amounts to a relatively confused argument if it is meant to undermine the idea that Paul saw Scripture as authoritative. It’s possible that the argument depends on a fairly literal, historical view of the account of Adam’s creation, but I will set that aside completely for now. In that account, God breathed out, not Scripture (or any cognitive message at all) but the breath of life. It makes no sense to point out that Adam was not authoritative or inerrant (and it makes no sense at all to even call a person “inerrant”), since it was not Adam that was breathed out by God. Rather, the breath of life was breathed out by God, and it is not as though the breath of life was somehow lacking in authority or truth – it simply wasn’t a message that could be authoritative or true (or false) in the first place.
Suppose you think that theopneustos does not mean “breathed out” but rather “inspired,” so that we are thinking of humans as the recipients of something that God breathed into them. This mirrors the idea of St Peter, who described the prophets in Scripture who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Here too, the comparison to the creation of Adam fares no better as an argument that Paul did not think of Scripture as authoritative. The fact that Adam received something from God and the fact that Scripture is from God (inspired by God) does not mean that if Scripture is authoritative then so is Adam. A parallel argument would be this:
- I got my car from the Ford Motor company
- You got your car from the Ford Motor company (and you got it the same way I got mine)
- Therefore if my car is red, so is yours!
The fact that two things come from God hardly means that they must be the same in every way (or indeed in any way other than having both come from God). It can seem clever or scholarly to make comments like “Paul here is alluding to the Old Testament imagery where God…” But there’s no good reason to suppose that’s what the writer is doing in relation to Genesis 2:7. This is no more warranted than if someone were to claim that Scripture is their weapon against sinners. After all, Scripture is God breathed, and do you know what Scripture says about the breath of God?
- “By the breath of God they perish, And by the blast of His anger they come to an end.” (Job 4:9)
- “And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.” (Isaiah 11:4)
- “I will pour out My indignation on you; I will blow on you with the fire of My wrath…” (Ezekiel 21:31)
I doubt many people would buy it.
Even if there were any evidence that Paul had the creation of Adam in mind, we could not infer that the writer thought Scripture was not authoritative. As I noted above, that comparison just can’t work that way. What we have instead is the writer’s claim that all Scripture is breathed by God, and – seemingly for that very reason – it is useful for teaching, reproof, training, and correction. Being god-breathed is thus being viewed by Paul as a credential of Scripture, something that gives it clout. McGrath’s suggestion that we should read the text backwards, find the parts of the Bible that we find useful, and then treat those as God-breathed Scripture, makes a nonsense of Paul’s thought that “all Scripture” is God breathed and useful for training, correction etc (whether we are willing to treat them that way or not). Paul’s thought is that Scripture is useful, not that the useful bits are Scripture. It’s not a complex argument: We should trust Scripture because it’s breathed by God, so we can confidently use it for teaching, reproof, correction and training.
Lest you think this is just the reaction of a “fundamentalist” (a favourite slur of those who inhabit the progressive section of Patheos, reserved for anyone to the right of themselves), my readers know quite well that I am on record saying that I do not defend inerrancy. I’m commenting on an argument because somebody thought it unreasonable of me not to address it. It’s a bad argument. But at the same time, it is fairly obvious that 2 Timothy 3:16 does not claim that Scripture is inerrant, and there is no claim here for anything like “verbal plenary inspiration.”
Just what it means for Scripture to be authoritative on account of being breathed out or inspired by God is not made explicit in this passage. Certainly inerrancy or verbal plenary inspiration is one possibility. Or perhaps what is authoritative (because it is inspired) is the message of all of Scripture, allowing for the possibility that the means via which that message is conveyed is less than perfect at times. But it is an obvious over-reach to say that Paul here does not even suggest that Scripture is authoritative. He does precisely this, noting that the sacred writings are able to make you “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15), and which, because they are breathed by God, are useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training.
The Patheos blogs make me tired. I just don’t read them anymore. Self-styled progressive Christian blogs, it seems to me, are almost a purely reactionary phenomenon, rather than a constructive one. They exist as an almost visceral reaction to fundamentalism, very often to the writer’s own perceived fundamentalist past. What seems obvious to me in many discussions of Scripture in these settings is that there is a remarkable obsession with the doctrine of inerrancy – far more so than in conservative circles. The preoccupation with saying at every opportunity that inerrancy is false seems to set the agenda, so that whatever the authors of Scripture might have actually wanted to say takes a back seat to the really important message (namely that inerrancy is false). It’s like a perpetual culture war over the Bible, and watching the salvos being fired over my head from the far left and the far right of the theological spectrum makes me feel positively moderate sometimes. I guess I’ll keep walking that line.
- I understand that some people think Paul didn’t write the pastoral Epistles, including 1 and 2 Timothy. In recent years I’ve become impressed by the flimsiness of the arguments against Pauline authorship of these letters. I will not comment on that issue here, but I will refer here to the author as Paul.