“All Scripture is inspired by God…”
It may well be that no words in the Bible have had more read into them than these words.
These well-known words are from 2 Timothy 3:16. For the moment let’s leave aside whether this is the best way to translate the Greek text. And let’s bracket off the question of whether this description of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) should also be applied to the New Testament. Those are valid questions. But even if we move past those hurdles, there’s at least one significant thing 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t say: it doesn’t say how Scripture is “inspired” or “God-breathed.”
Rather, we have to import our own ideas about the how of inspiration into our reading of 2 Timothy 3:16. And very often our ideas of exactly how Scripture is inspired come from some very questionable assumptions.
We imagine, maybe, that the human authors of the Bible—Moses, David, Isaiah, Luke, John, Paul, to name a few—sat down at their writing desks, quill in hand, parchment laid out before them. Perhaps they reflected prayerfully on what God wanted to say through them, and then, as the Spirit moved in them, they began to write. Steadily, thoughtfully, carefully, always attuned to the Spirit’s inner promptings. When they finished, there before them was an inspired, inerrant manuscript—God’s very words in still-drying ink.
But wait a moment. Is that really how it worked? Consider this:
Paul used a scribe (Rom 16:22). Likely, even for a literate person such as himself, this was his normal practice. Perhaps, if the scribe was well-trusted, Paul might even have just dictated notes to the scribe, who would then flesh out those notes into a letter, getting Paul’s authorization—and maybe a brief handwritten note (Gal 6:11)—for the final product.
Luke used sources (Luke 1:1-4). He read previous writings about Jesus, he talked with people who knew Jesus, and then he carefully planned out his two-volume story of Jesus and the early church. In other words, he did the work of an ancient—not modern, mind you, but ancient—historian.
John’s Gospel was edited by others (John 21:24). There’s a “beloved disciple”—possibly John, the son of Zebedee, but who knows for sure?—who “testified to” and “wrote down” certain things about Jesus. But then there’s a “we” who comes after, who collectively added their own testimony to this earlier disciple’s testimony.
The Psalms were collected over centuries (Pss 23:1; 90:1; 137:1). Even if we take the Psalms’ opening ascriptions at face value—another difficult question—we have to face the fact that we have a psalm that claims to go back to Moses, right alongside several that state they are David’s, mixed in with some that clearly come from Israel’s exile in Babylon.
Use of scribes, use of prior sources, later editing by an individual or even a community, collection by different peoples over many centuries—the fact is, these realities are the norm for the writings we have in the anthology of ancient literature we call the Bible.
These realities are also the bread and butter of biblical scholars. They are the basics of the business: comparing manuscripts, discerning prior sources, tracing out later editing, sketching out how these writings have been received and read over the centuries.
But these realities are not easily accepted by many Christians—and much of the reason for this is all those questionable assumptions we import into 2 Timothy 3:16, bringing in some (quite frankly) untenable ideas about what “inspiration” must involve. For it turns out that our imagined biblical author—the individual person before God, perfectly in tune with God’s Spirit, producing inerrant truths in written propositions—is a projection of our own modern sensibilities. This image has nothing to do with the way the biblical writings actually came to be.
Are the biblical writings actually inspired by God? I believe so. As a church we confess this to be so. “All Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness,” our church denomination’s Confession of Faith says. But we stop short of insisting on a particular view of how God inspired these ancient human writings. Instead, we are wise simply to say, as our Confession of Faith goes on to say, that “God was at work through the centuries in the process by which the books of the Old and New Testaments were inspired and written.”
To say, then, that the Bible is inspired by God, is to say that God was at work in this complex and very human process, through authors and scribes and editors and compilers and communities—and that God can speak to us through this ancient, diverse collection of human writings.