“Given by Inspiration” — the Connotations of theopneustos

“That Book in Your Hand”

The first of my sermons on Bibliology (the study of what the Scriptures are, and how they came to us) dealt with the inspiration of the Scriptures, from II Timothy 3:16.  This post (along with the previous two, and more to come) is based loosely on that sermon (including some things I studied but didn’t preach).

We are looking at the meaning of the Greek word theopneustos, translated “given by inspiration of God” in the King James Version.  I’ve broken this into pieces in part because it was too long for a single post.  But they are a unit, and you will definitely understand this post better if you start with the first two posts:

  1. “Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, Etymology, and hapax legomenon.
  2. “Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos in Context

Again, though we’re looking at some technical terms, I’m trying to give explanations that everyone can understand.  Inspiration matters to everyone, not just those with advanced theological degrees.  Yet, I trust this post will challenge the thinking of some with theological backgrounds as well.

A Brief Overview on theopneustos Thus Far

Points to remember:

  • This Greek word occurs but once in Scripture, with little (or no) evidence in other Greek writings as to its meaning.
  • The derivation (etymology) of a word can give clues, but does not necessarily tell us the real meaning (a seahorse is not a hippopotamus :), and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you missed the first post in the series).
  • The etymology of theopneustos points to a meaning related to “breathed by God,” which would indicate that the Scriptures came from God.
  • The context is strongly practical.  Paul knows he will be dead soon, and may never speak or write to Timothy again.  His purpose is to exhort Timothy to hold fast to the Word, and to preach it.
  • II Timothy 3:16 and 4:2 are closely linked.  The same Scriptures that are theopneustos (“given by inspiration”) and profitable are the Scriptures Timothy is to preach, and to use to “reprove, rebuke, exhort.”
  • II Timothy 3:14-17 is meant to strengthen Timothy’s confidence in “That Book in His Hands,” and the true meaning of theopneustos will fit that context.

Looking Further at Theopneustos

We’ve looked at the etymology of the word, and the general context.  Now I’d like to consider two additional pieces of evidence as to its meaning.

Form — Adjective

Theopneustos is an adjective, used to give information about (or describe) a noun (“Scripture”).  “Breathed by God” or “Given by inspiration” may sound like a verb (an action of God), but it isn’t.  Paul didn’t use the verb pneo, “to breathe”, to describe action — the Holy Spirit rather guided him to use an adjective, describing the Scriptures.  Though an action (breathing) is in view, the focus is not on the action of God, but on something about the Scriptures.  If Paul wanted to draw our attention primarily to the action, he almost certainly would have used a verb.

An adjective can signify different aspects of the thing it describes.  The great theologian, Benjamin B. Warfield, narrowed it down for us in this case, suggesting that theopneustos tells us one of three things about the Scriptures:

  1. Origin
  2. Nature
  3. Effects

Last Sunday, I held up a book about Abraham and said it was an Irish book.  People recognised that “Irish” was describing its source/origin.  I asked the origin of my Greek New Testament (trick question :)), and someone answered Greece — but it is from Germany.  “Greek” referred to its nature, not its origin.  A Russian-English dictionary was also printed in Germany — “Russian-English” again referred to the nature of the book.  Then, I mentioned an “encouraging” poem — describing its effects.

Origin, nature, and effects can overlap.  I finally held up an “American” one-dollar bill.  Does “American” describe source, nature, or effect?  The source is obviously America, but it is covered with American identifiers (motto, seal, text, President Washington, etc) — it is certainly American in nature.  “American” describes effect as well — just try to buy something with it in the local shops in Glenrothes to learn the “American” effects on the currency. 🙂

An “American” dollar bill could indeed be used to buy items in some countries other than America, so while effect is in view, that is not the main focus of the descriptive word.  It could also (theoretically) be printed outside of America, but it would still be considered “American”.  That tells us that while source is also in view, the primary force of “American” is the nature of the dollar bill.  It is by nature an “American” thing, not a Scottish thing.  All three (origin/nature/effect) are here, but the main thing is the nature/quality of the object.

I’ll summarise the “adjectival discussion” by saying that theopneustos (“Breathed by God” or “Given by inspiration of God”) is an adjective describing the A) source B) nature and/or C) effects of the Scripture.  The adjectival form gives no evidence as to whether one or more of these are in view, which one(s), or to what extent.

Connotations

What is “connotation”?  We might say it is an idea or meaning suggested by or associated with a word or thing, generally related but not identical to the explicit meaning of the word or thing.  A connotation is something that the word brings to mind, even if it isn’t what the word means — and often, that is intentional on the part of the speaker or writer.  He wants you to think, not just of the meaning of the word, but of the connotations, that other idea which the word brings to mind.

A few months ago, if you were on Wall Street in New York and heard someone talking about “99%”, they may have been talking about a great return on investment.  Today, with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, if you heard someone on Wall Street call out “99%” you would recognise it as probably being a political statement.

Ninety-nine percent is still a number, it still has the same formal meaning, but it now has political connotations it never had before.  When used in certain contexts, it means something more than just a number.  Those using it politically want you to think that just about everyone is on their side, or should be on their side, and that only a tiny fraction of people in the world cause all the world’s problems.  They are trying to convey all that through connotations.  (Of course, those assertions fly in the face of reality, logic, and most of all God’s Word, which clearly indicates that everyone contributes to the problems of this world.  But that’s another post for another day.)

The connotations associated with theopneustos are often overlooked, but for someone steeped in the Scriptures, to relate the Scriptures to the breath of God would have brought certain concepts starkly into focus.  In the Bible, when God breathes, things happen:

Genesis 2:7
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Job 33:4
The Spirit of God hath made me,
and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.

See also Psalm 33:6 and Psalm 104:30.  The Hebrew word translated “breath” in these two verses is ruach (often translated wind or spirit), which is not the same word as is used in the verses above.  The concept is similar, however — God breathes, and amazing things happen.

The breath of God, to anyone immersed in the Old Testament (as we know Timothy was from the preceding two verses in II Timothy 3), would immediately bring to mind God’s creative work and its life-giving (and continuing) effect.  When God breathes into man, man begins to breathe (and goes on breathing).  The same general sense is seen in the famous “dry bones” passage in Ezekiel 37.

Nor are these connotations limited to the Old Testament.  John 3:6-8:

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Here, Jesus uses a play on words, comparing the wind (pneuma) to the Spirit (also pneuma), blowing or breathing spiritual life into the new believer as he is born again.  And remember, pneuma comes from pneo, the same root we see in theopneustos.  The connection to pneuma (“Spirit”) would not be missed by any Greek speaker, and Timothy would have well known the apostolic teaching on the regenerating, life-giving work of the Holy Spirit (such as Titus 3:5).  Here, the life that is being given is spiritual life.

Then, there is John 20:22:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

Though the Greek word for “breathed” is a different word, we have the same concept.  Through the breath of God, mighty works with continuing effects are accomplished — Jesus breathed on them, and the pneuma (“Spirit”) of God was given.

If theopneustos (“breathed by God” or “God-breathed”) has life-giving connotations, and God wanted us to recognise those connotations in regard to Scripture, we would expect to find other Scriptural references connecting God’s Word, breath, and life — and we do.  John 6:63 connects words, Spirit (pneuma), and life:

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

The Spirit (pneuma) quickens (makes alive), and Jesus’ words are spirit and life.  The emphasis here is on the life-giving effect of His words, and that effect is due again to pneuma, the linguistic cousin of theopneustos.  Hebrews 4:12 talks about the living nature of the Word:

For the word of God is quick (living), and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

We see the same in I Peter 1:23, where the Word of God is both a living Book and a life-giving Book:

Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

The Word of God is living!  It is not an empty, dead book.  It is powerful, heart-exposing, living and life-giving and life-changing.  It is a fire and a rock-crushing hammer (Jeremiah 23:29). Faith (and thus life) comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17).  The Bible has been breathed into by God, and it lives, and gives life.  So I’ll say this, and I’ll set it off so no one misses it:

Those who translated theopneustos for hundreds of years using the words “inspired” or “inspiration” weren’t just making stuff up.  There was a very real basis in the connotations of the breath of God for the translational choice they made.

I’ll quote Arthur Pink, speaking just down the road in Falkirk in 1936:

The word “inspire” signifies to in-breathe, and breath is both the means and evidence of life; for as soon as a person ceases to breathe he is dead. The Word of God, then, is vitalized by the very life of God, and therefore it is a living Book. Men’s books are like themselves—dying creatures; but God’s Book is like Himself—it “lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).

If connotations mean anything, and they do, we should not limit our investigation of the meaning of theopneustos to its etymology, as too many scholars have done.  There are life-giving connotations to the breath of God.  There is an indisputable link between God’s Word and life, both as to the nature of God’s Word and its life-giving power (effect).  II Timothy 3:16 (and specifically the Greek word theopneustos) stands beside Hebrews 4:12 and I Peter 1:23, a trio of towering monuments to the continuing, living, ever-enduring nature and power of God’s Word. 

Yet, II Timothy 3:16 in a sense rises above those passages, because it draws in the truth of II Peter 1:20-21, as well:

20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

I’ll spend more time on this verse in a later post, but for now, I’ll just say that Peter is describing how the Scriptures were given — and again, pneuma is in view, the Holy Spirit.

When Paul used theopneustos in II Timothy 3:16, he delineated the link between II Peter 1:21 (on the one hand) and Hebrews 4:12 and I Peter 1:23 (on the other).  I’m going to set off another statement:

God breathed the Scriptures into existence, and God breathed life and vitality into the Scriptures. 

The first half of that statement is taught in II Peter, and the etymology of theopneustos points us to that truth.  The second half is taught in Hebrews, I Peter, and elsewhere, and the connotations of theopneustos reiterate it.  Because of the divine origin of the Scriptures, they have a living divine nature, with life-giving effects.

“That Book in Timothy’s Hand”?  It was a living, powerful Book, with life breathed into it by God Almighty.  He was not being challenged by Paul to preach a “dying creature”, to use Arthur Pink’s words.  He was to preach the rock-crushing hammer of God, the life-breathing words of the Spirit, the enduring fire of God’s Word.

“That Book in Your Hand”?  It is the same, living, and life-giving, and life-changing.  If connotations mean anything, this is what theopneustos means for the Book in your hand.

Note:  there will be those reading this post who have been taught differently as to the meaning of theopneustos.  If this is you, I’ll add a few thoughts.

  1. I am not suggesting that the definition of theopneustos which you learned was wrong.  I am suggesting it is incomplete, based almost exclusively on etymology, and other important evidence must be considered.
  2. The connotations associated with God’s breath in Scripture should not be lightly dismissed.
  3. I believe there is even stronger evidence for what I am saying about the meaning of this word, which I will post (Lord willing) tomorrow.
  4. Some may be thinking, “But Warfield…!”  I am well aware of the writings of Warfield and I believe he was right in much of what he was trying to say, if I differ with the way he said parts of it.  This is a pastor’s blog, not a technical theological site, so I’ll deal with his teaching in time, but I’m laying this out for the man in the pew, and any expert theologians who wander this way will have to bear with me a little longer.

More to come….

Next in series: “Given by Inspiration” — Three Useful Terms
Meaning of theopneustos.
Main article: The Scriptures — Inspired or Expired?

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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