Biblical Inspiration Part 3: But what about 2 Tim. 3:16?

Note, please see the follow-on to this discussion linked at the end of this article.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. . .” (NRSV). Doesn’t this verse conclusively state that our Bible comes straight from God?

Well, not exactly.

First of all we have to look at the word “Scripture.” While in modern English that word has the meaning of “sacred writing,” the Latin word “scriptura” is much more pedestrian–it just means the written word. In addition to the religious word “scripture,” we also get our words “scribe” and “script” from the same root. Similarly the Greek word “graphe” used in the original text is a pretty generic word. You’re reading my “graphe” right now, but at least it has some spiritual content. If my wife puts a note on my dashboard reminding me to pick up milk on the way home from work, that’s “graphe,” too. I doubt the grocery list is inspired by God!

Now it’s true that in the first century a lot fewer people were literate. Added to the fact that pens and paper were a whole lot rarer and more costly, and writing back then was likely reserved (mostly) for more significant stuff than the grocery lists, but we have plenty of examples of “graphe” from Paul’s time that were most certainly not holy!

But the real key to this passage leaped out at me when I first read it in the old American Standard Version from 1901. Though it’s not the most readable version I’ve ever seen, the 1901 ASV is regarded by many scholars as possibly the most literal translation ever, of the Bible into English. Here is the same verse from the ASV:

Every scripture inspired of God [is] also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness.

Notice the difference? That little verb “is” got moved three positions to the right, and it completely changes the character of the sentence. Instead of declaring that “every scripture comes from God,” the ASV tells us the somewhat-obvious fact that “anything that comes from God is profitable.” The ASV’s translation is equally valid because the verb “is” doesn’t appear in the original text at all, in either place. A literal translation of the Greek text is more like “. . .every (or “all”) writing God-breathed and profitable. . .” Both the translators of the ASV and other English translations inserted the “is” because the sentence doesn’t make much sense in English without it. But with apologies to Bill Clinton, where the “is” is, makes a huge difference in the meaning!

The more I think about it and look at this passage, though, the more I suspect that both sets of translators got it wrong. Their error (besides “already knowing what it means” before examining the text) was assuming that verse 16 and 17 are a single sentence separate from verses 14 and 15 before them (and forgetting that Paul is legendary for run-on sentences). If, instead, verse 16 is a dependent clause in the same sentence as 14, we don’t need an “is” at all to understand it. Consider this alternate reading of the passage (picking up in verse 15):

“. . .from childhood you have known the holy writings (which have the power of wisdom to produce faith in Christ Jesus): every writing inspired by God and useful for teaching. . .” etc.

In other words, the writings which Paul is saying have the power of wisdom to produce faith are those writings which (1) are inspired by God, and (2) are therefore profitable for teaching and all the rest of it. That is, Paul is using the fact that a given writing is God-breathed (as opposed to all th other writing “out there”), as a point of qualification for it’s being used for teaching the believer. Stated plainly, “If God inspired it, then it’s worth using for teaching.” Put that way, it’s kind of a no-brainer, don’t you think?

To use this passage as it has been used for centuries, as a divine imprimatur over a Biblical canon that did not exist for another 200-plus years is nonsense. I have been told before that “God intended to inspire the canonical council to put all these books together as His word, and so inspired Paul to state that’s what they were.” This is circular reasoning. . .saying that “the Bible is the Word of God, therefore it says it is the Word of God” only makes sense if you start with the assumption that it’s the inspired, inerrant word of God. Paul in this passage said no such thing.

For a correction based on better grammatical analysis, please see this follow-on article.

5 thoughts on “Biblical Inspiration Part 3: But what about 2 Tim. 3:16?”

  1. Kurt Willems

    First — good joke on the clinton!

    2nd – You are really making me think. Understanding the cannon and biblical inspiration theory is a weak area of mine. I know that i dont hold to inerrancy, but I have occasional questions that come up that you have really brought some good light to.

    3rd — I think that (at least based on what you say in your post without my own personal study) what you say about the alternative reading of the text is profound. I think that you are right to point out that we use this text in a wrong way if we try to assume too much into it. You are right when you say that it is circular reasoning.

    Man, I am glad that you study these areas because I seem to have less and less time to do so myself. I appreciate the precision of your arguments here and will read on to the follow up post.

  2. Andrew Palmer

    Hi there. Useful articles, thanks.

    Just a couple of queries though.

    1. You mention that the Greek word for Scripture is “a pretty generic word”, and yet looking at every other reference to it in the New Testament, it’s always used to speak of the Old Testament writings. So to argue that Paul in 2Tim 3:16 is referring to just any old writing seems a step too far, surely?

    2. There’s a passage in Galatians where Paul refers to the Old Testament writings as though they were God-breathed, in fact he refers to them as being intelligent in themselves (personification?):
    Gal 3:8 “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.”
    What do you make of this usage by Paul?

    Despite the above, I really think you’ve got something here.



    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Thanks for your comments and questions, Andrew. As for the word “graphe” referring only to Scripture, check out John 19:21 (Pilate’s writing of the inscription on Jesus’ cross). The verb form also occurs in Acts 23:25 when a Roman centurion writes a letter to the governor, and in a similar vein Acts 25:26. There’s not a lot of discussion about writing in the Bible that is not somehow connected to holy messages, it is true…after all, far fewer people were literate in those days, and parchment/papyrus etc. were fairly costly. You didn’t doodle like we do today. But the usage is pretty clear…there’s nothing “holy” about the use of “graphe” in the N.T.

      Interesting comment about the anthropomorphized language of Galatians 3:8. If you actually think back to when those words “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” occur in scripture, it’s an account of God speaking directly to Abraham…in all likelihood some sort of vision that did not include writing at all. To use this as a justification for elevation of the written word is a monstrous stretch. To extend it as an imprimatur of our extant canon is unreasonable in the extreme.

      Nevertheless thanks for your challenge. This subject deserves further wrestling.

  3. Steve Jackson

    When Paul wrote these words, he was undoubtedly referring to the Old Testament writing. If is a stretch to assume he included the as yet unwritten letters and gospel books of the New Testament under this umbrella. Since he was responsible for a significant portion of the letter eventually approved for the NT, he would be saying, in effect, “everything I write is inspired by God”. But I suspect this is not the case.

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