2 Tim. 3:16 — Redux, Correction, and Further Thoughts

Those who have read my series on Biblical inspiration know that I took issue with the use of 2 Tim. 3:16 as a prooftext for the inerrancy of the entire Biblical canon. I stand by my objection, but I have to do a correction nonetheless.

One of my suggestions in my prior post, was that perhaps 1 Tim 3:14-17 should be read as a single sentence, with verses 16 and 17 as a dependent clause on 14 and 15–that is, that the “all scripture” Paul is describing in verse 16 is merely an elaboration on “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” in verse 15.

Well, I put that very question to the translators at the NET Bible, as I have read from several sources that they are scrupulously careful with the grammar and the text, even if the result is an unfamiliar reading. Here is their response, authored by someone named “mburer” (I’d give fuller credit if I could, but I don’t know how…at least you can follow the link):

It is almost impossible for v. 16 to be a dependent clause. (1) Verse 16 is marked by asyndeton, and this is most normal for independent clauses. (2) Verse 16 has no marks of normal dependent clauses; there is no participle, infinitive, or subordinating conjunction to indicate dependency. (3) If it were dependent and meant to modify τὰ ἱερὰ γράμματα in some fashion, πᾶσα γραφὴ would need to be accusative case as the original phrase is, but it is nominative. (4) The fact that the copulative verb is missing from v. 16 does not argue for v. 16 being dependent. When a verb is lacking in Greek, usually the indicative is implied, which would in fact make this independent. To make v. 16 a dependent clause the participle would need to be implied, and likely Paul would have written that in ful to make the sense clear if that were the case.

Now, I freely admit that the grammatical technicalities they gave here are way over my head. I have submitted this to one other Greek scholar I know who has told me that it’s correct, however, so I must accept that my limited knowledge of Greek led me to an incorrect conclusion regarding the division of the sentence. I was wrong to suggest that 14-17 is a single sentence.

However, I still suspect it’s a single thought, for the simple reason that the “pasa graphe” that Paul is referring to in verse 16 cannot truly mean “all writing.” While it is true that “graphe” as a noun occurs in the New Testament as referring only to sacred writings, the fact remains that the word itself just means “something written down.” In fact, according to lexicographers Liddell and Scott, no lesser sources than Herodotus and Plato use the same word to refer to drawing and painting, not to mention plenty of non-sacred written words including catalogues, archives, medical prescriptions, and legal writs. So Paul was using a generic word “writing” not a holy word “Scripture” in verse 16. He cannot have meant that “all writings” are inspired by God, so it remains likely that he’s referring to the very writings he just mentioned in verse 14, simply because of context. As I have said before, to apply the statement in verse 16 to the entire canon of our modern, Protestant (or Catholic) Bible is only possible if you start with the presupposition that Paul was foreshadowing a canon he did not yet know about, when he wrote those words. In other words, it proves nothing you have not predisposed it to prove.

However, that’s only the phrase “pasa graphe.” We have not touched “theopneustos,” the word translated “inspired of God” in the KJV, “breathed out by God” in ESV, “God-breathed” in NIV, and “God’s breath” in the Pioneers’ New Testament. It’s a word that didn’t get much play at all in Greek literature prior to Paul (if you have the energy for a long and convoluted analysis of the word, have a look at B.B. Warfield’s article here). It’s broken down, of course into the constituent words “theos” or god (not necessarily always God the Father of Jesus), and “pneustos” which comes from “pneuma” and/or “pnoe,” two alternate forms of a word that can mean “spirit,” “breath,” and “wind” (I hope it’s not too insulting, but according to Liddell-Scott, “pneuma”–the same word used of the Holy Spirit, has also been used in Greek literature to refer to flatulence!).

It’s certainly appropriate, based on the wide variety of usages of the pneuma/pnoe pair, to understand “theopneustos” as “God’s breath.” But we have to remember, when we do, that there is an element of “spirit” in the word as well. As such, Paul may be saying as much about the influence of the Holy Spirit in tandem with the content of the written word, as he’s saying about the text itself.

The bottom line, however, is that grammar or no, to use 2 Tim 3:16, standing on its own, as proof that the Biblical canon is inerrant, is to lift a sentence out of context, impose rigid meanings on words with much broader history, and basically create a circular proof-loop where the evidence depends upon the conclusion that in turn is being supported by the evidence. That makes no sense.

9 thoughts on “2 Tim. 3:16 — Redux, Correction, and Further Thoughts”

  1. E. A. Harvey

    I'm going to have your read your posts about 5 more times to catch all that technical info. 🙂

    I appreciate your point about how we tend to pull that verse out and wave it around as the argument to end all arguments about Biblical inerrancy. It sometimes seems like Biblical inerrancy is the sacred cow of Christendom– people make the Bible an object of worship in that it is not open to questions or contradictions. (Whether they actually obey what it says is another matter!) Thus any questions or thoughts on, say, evolutionary creation are immediately shunned because it "contradicts" the "inerrant" Word of God.

    I believe the Bible is true in all it seeks to address (thus, Genesis is not a science book), but our interpretation is certainly not inerrant! Often people are really defending their interpretation of a passage as what they believe to be inerrant, rather than the passage itself.

    Side note– are you familiar with Karl Barth's understanding of the Word of God? I haven't read much of Barth (which I hope to remedy soon), but I remember reading how he thought the Word of God encompassed much more than the Bible– Jesus Himself. If you are familiar with this, I'd love to hear your thoughts (i.e. explain it to me!). 🙂

  2. Dan Martin

    I am not familiar with Barth. I've heard before that he's someone I ought to read, so maybe in some alternate universe where I actually get time to sit down and read an extended work, I'll do so. . .;{)

  3. Jc_Freak:

    I think your are missing some historical context here. I agree that Paul did not have the New Testament in mind when he wrote this, and instead merely the canonical Jewish books, but if we are to consider the respect that this means that he has for the canonical process, we can take to mean that Paul is referring to the open canon.

    To further illustrate this point, the Jewish canon at the time was, in fact, open. There are three sections to the Jewish canon, which were opened and finished at different times. The Torah (The law: Genesis-Deuteronomy and the Nebiim (The prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the book of 12, a.k.a. the minor prophets) where canonical groups that were closed already. However, a third canon was being formed know as the Kethuvim (The writings: the rest of our Old Testament) which wasn't closed until 90 A.D. It is evident in the NT that the Kethuvim was already considered to be Scripture within the NT, and as such, Paul is referring not to a closed canon, but to an open one. The fact that Christianity possesses a forth canon (the NT) means that they maintained the canonization tradition. I would not consider Paul to be thinking in terms of "these 24 books), but instead thinking of the full canon of Scripture, which the NT merely is an extension of. For this reason, I do think that the NT falls under Paul's comment.

    Whether or not 'God-breathed' means inerrant is another matter though. I strongly doubt it since inerrancy is a modern category, not something that Paul would have been thinking.

  4. Jc_Freak:

    E.A. Harvey:

    Karl Barth, Evangeical Theology,(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1963),18 [all emphases his]:

    "The Word of God is the Word that God spoke, speaks and will speak in the midst of all men. Ragardless of whether it is heard or not, it is, in itself, directed to all men. It is the Word of God's work upon men, for men, and with men."

    His proceeding comment on theology is a bit more telling to the subject at hand (pp 17):

    "Theology itself is a word, a human response; yet what makes it theology is not its own word or response but the Word which it hears and to which it responds. Theology stands and falls with the Word of God, for the Word of God preceded all theological words by creating, arousing, and challenging them."

  5. Dan Martin

    Martin, I think you're missing what I'm trying to say here. Whether Paul had the entire canon in mind is not the point if, as I have been arguing all along, he's not trying to say "everything we call scripture is God-breathed and" (here we insert words Paul never said) therefore inerrant. My argument for the content of "pasa graphe" is to illustrate that a simple literal reading of the common English translation is necessarily incorrect, WHATEVER Paul's original intent: that is, he can't be talking about "all writing" and that's what "graphe" literally means; but even if he's talking about all Jewish scripture, he's not so much declaring its inspirational source as its instructional and discipleship-producing use.

    So my entire and only argument is that using 2 Tim. 3:16 as it is commonly used, as a foundation for doctrines of verbal-plenary inspiration and inerrancy, is flawed to the point of foolishness.

    That Paul considered the Jewish scriptures authoritative, I have never disputed. That we should consider not only those scriptures, but also the gospels and the epistles authoritative, I do not dispute either. What we mean (or ought to mean) by authoritative…there I have BIG issues with the usual definitions.

  6. Kurt Willems

    I have often wondered similar to your comments on 'graphe' about the word 'pneuma'. there are times when in the greek text it is placed side by side with 'hagios' (holy) but there are other times when it stands alone. ya, i understand that context can tell us a lot, but i wonder how often we read "Holy Spirit" into the NT when the author may have simply meant "breath, wind, etc?"

  7. Dan Martin

    but i wonder how often we read "Holy Spirit" into the NT when the author may have simply meant "breath, wind, etc?"

    It's an important question, Kurt. I frankly wonder how much our translations may suffer from the fact that "everybody knows" what certain things mean. I don't know if it's humanly possible, since atheists often have an agenda too, but it's an interesting thought exercise to wonder how an atheist who hadn't been schooled in Christianese (but who wasn't on a crusade to justify gay marriage and free sex), would translate the Biblical text. That's actually a translation I'd enjoy reading.

  8. Daf

    Okay, the new guy here again, and I'm trying to work through all your 'inspiration' stuff. But I'm out of time for tonight, and must go. But before I do, I'd like to leave you with two things:

    1) I love this quote by you and agree completely: "So my entire and only argument is that using 2 Tim. 3:16 as it is commonly used, as a foundation for doctrines of verbal-plenary inspiration and inerrancy, is flawed to the point of foolishness." I agree … but not sure yet how much other stuff I'm going to agree with.

    2) The Greek study you've done on 2 Tim 3.16 is impressive for a non-pro … cool. But you need to augment the Greek study parts of it. "Zoom-Out" from those passages and your Greek microscope and see 2 Timothy as a unit. It's a letter from a guy, to a guy (if it's inspired and written by Paul, anyway). These guys know each other well, and Tim knows EXACTLY what Paul intended to write, and Paul knows that Tim knows. Go back to verse 10: "You followed my teaching…" and verse 14: "You, however, continue in the things you have learned…." That "You" there is singular (in the Greek) and it's Paul writing specifically to Tim (knowing Tim's church will also hear it) – to Tim, not to US! The thing most people (on all sides of this issue) neglect is that if the bible is true, no part of it is written TO us. It is written FOR us. If this letter is itself inspired and true, then it was written by Paul TO Timothy.

    So the answer to what Paul intended in this section isn't so much about Greek, it's about figuring out what sacred writings Timothy had been learning from childhood. And he learned them from his mother and grandmother (1 Tim 1.5) and Paul.

    Understanding Jewish ideas of inspiration is tricky business – and it's a lot of study. But you can figure out what it is Paul's trying to communicate here, just with a bit of common sense and some detective work (aka exegesis). For instance Paul warns him about bad guys coming, and then says, "You, however." That's Paul telling Tim how to be different than these guys.

    In other words, learn to ask questions more like this:
    WHY was Paul telling Tim the scriptures are inspired? Didn't Tim already know that? What did he really intend to communicate – to Tim?

    When you really get down into it and understand Paul's intentions, you'll do a great job of understanding 'why' he wrote what he did, and it'll serve you better than years of Greek study.

    And then once you know what Paul INTENDED … then you can deduce what we ought to infer from that teaching.

    I'll be back…

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