“Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, Context Revisited

“That Book in Your Hand”

This post continues thoughts from/related to the first sermon in my series on “That Book in Your Hand,” studying the Bible, what it is and how we got it.

We have already spent four posts (and counting) looking at the meaning of the Greek word theopneustos, translated “given by inspiration of God” in the King James Version.  These are a unit, and I strongly encourage you to start with the first four, if you haven’t read them.  The second, on context, and the fourth, on some term definitions, are particularly relevant to this post:

  1. “Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, Etymology, and hapax legomenon.
  2. “Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos in Context
  3. “Given by Inspiration” — the Connotations of theopneustos
  4. “Given by Inspiration” — Three Useful Terms

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.

A Brief Overview on theopneustos Thus Far

Points to remember from the first three posts (part of this list already appeared in the “connotations” post, those in blue are additions from that post):

  • 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.
  • This word is an adjective, reflecting the origin, nature, and/or effects of the Scripture.  Though English translations may appear to emphasise an action of God, as an adjective this word emphasises rather an attribute of the Scriptures.
  • The concept of the breath of God has important connotations in Scripture, referring to God’s creative and life-giving power.  The Bible clearly says the Word of God is living, life-giving, and life-changing, and the connotations of theopneustos match those characteristics.
  • 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.
  • God breathed the Scriptures into existence, and God breathed life and vitality into the Scriptures.  Both halves of this statement are taught in the Bible, and both are taught in the word theopneustos, the first in its etymology, the second in its connotations.

In the last post, I provided the definitions I am using in this study for three terms:

  1. Revelation refers to God’s work in making Himself (and other truths) known to man.
  2. Inscripturation is the process by which parts of God’s revelation were recorded (written) in the Scriptures.
  3. Immediate inspiration is the moving of the Spirit (II Peter 1:21) by which He directed the process of inscripturation so that the Scripture record became that which it continues to be, God’s very Word – that which God wanted us to have.

Some Discussion of Copies and Translations

Copies

God specifically endorsed copies of the Scriptures.  Deuteronomy 17:18-19:

18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:
19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:

A copy, unlike the inscripturated original, can contain errors.  This is because God never said that “immediate inspiration” by the Spirit (if you didn’t read the last post for definitions, stop now and go read it!) applied to anything except the original writing of the Scriptures.  II Peter 1:21 tells us that the Holy Spirit moved holy men to write the Scriptures.  It says nothing about copies.  We’ll look later at the fact that God preserves His Word, so the fact that some copyists made mistakes isn’t a problem for us.

For now, we’ll stick with the fact that God endorsed the making of copies so that His Word would be available, but the Lord did not guarantee that any particular copy would be an accurate copy.

Some theologians may make a major point of the distinction between copies and the original writing (called “autographs”).  However, Greg Bahnsen in an article for The Evangelical Quarterly in 1973 properly said this:

So the word-groups (this phrase will be used throughout to denote the text of a piece of literature in the strict sense of words in their given relations) of particular manuscripts, as opposed to the particular parchment and ink, are predicated as “God-breathed.” It would be confused to speak of “this parchment” or “this ink” as inspired or God-breathed, for how can a parchment sheet and volume of ink be exhaled by God?

Bahnsen is saying that words (the phrases and sentences), and not the paper and ink, are “God-breathed.”  This may seem blindingly obvious, but I included the quote because it implies something about copies — if a copy is accurate, then the words written on it are as good as, and have every quality of, the words on the original autograph.  The only difference between them is a matter of the history of the two pieces of paper.  One got those words by “immediately inspired” inscripturation, while the other got them through careful copying — but the words are the same.  As far as the words, which is all that matters, the autograph / copy distinction is completely irrelevant when the copy is accurate. 

The only thing the original autographs had which a copy doesn’t have is a divine guarantee of 100% accuracy.  Copies have never had that guarantee — but when they are accurate, they have just as much value as the original autograph.

Translations

As I mentioned in a previous post on difficulties in translation, God specifically endorsed the translation of the Scriptures in Romans 16:25-27.  God commanded that the Gospel of Christ, by the Scriptures, be made known to every nation.  That makes it necessary to translate the Scriptures into those languages.  This is a simple matter of logic.  You can’t make the Gospel known by the Scriptures to someone who can’t understand the Scriptures because they are in the wrong language.  So if you are going to obey the commandment of God, there has to be translation.

Just as no Scripture speaks of God’s action that I’m calling “immediate inspiration” as happening in copies, so also there is nothing that says it happens in translation.  God does not tell us the Holy Spirit moved (and moves) translators in the way He moved the human authors of the Scriptures.

We return briefly to II Peter 1, including verse 19 this time:

19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
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.

Some key points about this passage:

  1. Peter is writing in Greek, and almost certainly not writing exclusively to Jews.  Not all of his readers would have known Hebrew.
  2. When he talks about Scriptures from the “old time”, he is talking about the Old Testament, written in Hebrew.
  3. Therefore, he is talking about the Scriptures to people who, at least in part, are using translations.
  4. He tells those people that they have “a sure word of prophecy.”  He does not in any way undermine their confidence in “That Book in Their Hands.”
  5. Verse 21, though it says holy men “spake”, refers to what I call “inscripturation,” because verse 20 tells us Peter is talking about “prophecy of the Scripture.”
  6. In discussing the “moving of the Holy Spirit” in verse 21 (what I’m calling “immediate inspiration”), he applies it only to inscripturation, the speaking (and by implication writing) by the prophets of the Word of God.
  7. He says nothing about immediate inspiration in regard to the copies or the act of translation — nor does any other Scripture.
  8. If anyone was ever going to apply immediate inspiration to the work of translation, it would have been Peter, for he was talking about immediate inspiration to people who were using a translation.

Thus, theologians have always said that “immediate inspiration” (some have used the term “inscripturation”) is an action of God (described in II Peter 1:21) which He carried out only in the giving of the original autographs, and it applies neither to copies or translations.  This is what Christians have always believed.  The Bible says nothing of any “re-inspiration”, a second direct act by God of immediate inspiration, in copies or translations.

As we saw above, the copy / original autograph distinction is sometimes overblown.  Peter’s attitude towards the Old Testament translation his readers were using indicates that this “autographic distinction” is not particularly relevant for translations, either.  He said that they had a “sure word of prophecy,” and based that confidence on the divine authorship of the original.

Since this confidence in a translation is based on God’s authorship of the original, it is almost tautological (unnecessary repetition) to say that the authority of the translation rests only in its faithfulness to the original.  An accurate translation provides a “sure word of prophecy,” while a rubbish translation provides a work of men.  Peter didn’t have to say that, because his readers weren’t idiots, but today some find it necessary to repeat and emphasise this point, so I’ll mention it.

Final word (for now) on copies and translations:  they are not “immediately inspired” in the sense that the original document was written under the “moving” of the Holy Spirit described in II Peter 1:19-21.  However, the Scripture directly affirms our confidence in accurate copies and translations.

Revisiting the Context of theopneustos

Timothy would have read II Timothy chapters three and four without chapter and verse breaks.  I’ll give the last two verses of chapter three and the first two of chapter four the way he would have read them:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.

There is a “therefore” in the middle of that text, bringing the connection between the two halves into sharp focus.  Verse one of chapter four consists of two parts.  The first part is a command (“I charge thee therefore”) and the second is a somewhat parenthetical section emphasising the seriousness of the command (“before God….”).  Verse seventeen of chapter three is also somewhat parenthetical, elaborating on the profitable nature of the Scriptures mentioned in verse sixteen.

The main flow of the passage could be boiled down like this:  “All Scripture is theopneustos and profitable, so I charge you to preach it.”  The Word that Timothy is to preach is the Word that is theopneustos and profitable, as I said in a previous post.  The second half of 4:2 matches the second half of 3:16 in meaning and even somewhat in wording (both verses refer to “doctrine” and “reproof”).

A Logical Progression Based on II Timothy 3:16-4:2

  1. II Timothy 4:2 must be talking about “That Book in Timothy’s Hand.”  You can’t preach something you don’t have.
  2. II Timothy 3:17 is also talking about “That Book in Timothy’s Hand.”  It would be ludicrous for Paul to talk about its ability to completely equip / furnish for good works if Timothy couldn’t read and use it.
  3. The second half of II Timothy 3:16 is talking about “That Book in Timothy’s Hand.”  It is profitable for doctrine and reproof (3:16) so he is to use it to reprove with doctrine (4:2).
  4. The first half of II Timothy 3:16 is talking about “That Book in Timothy’s Hand.”  That Book is theopneustos.
  5. Timothy was to preach the Word in Ephesus, where the people spoke Greek, and the Scriptures he had at the time were primarily the Old Testament.  Most of “That Book in Timothy’s Hand” was a translation of the Old Testament into Greek.
  6. Logically, then, Timothy’s translation-in-hand was theopneustos.
  7. Translations are not “immediately inspired” (as discussed above).

How can Timothy’s translation-in-hand be theopneustos if translations are not “immediately inspired?”  There is only one answer:  theopneustos is not the same as what theologians have called “immediate inspiration.”  It is not primarily talking about the moving of the Holy Spirit described in II Peter 1:21.  It is, rather, focused on what came into existence as a result of that moving — the divine quality or nature of the Scriptures.

The context virtually demands that we accept what the connotations also told us.  This word, which our translators rendered “given by inspiration of God,” is referring not primarily to the divine origin of the Scriptures, but rather to the current divine nature of the Scriptures which flowed out of that divine origin.  The God who breathed the Scriptures into existence also breathed life into them, and they became a living and life-giving Book.  That living divine quality lives on even in an accurate translation, which is why, returning to Romans 16:25-27, a translation is able to (as Scripture) make the Gospel known to the nations that they might have eternal life.

Once we recognise what both the connotations and the context of 3:16-4:2 are telling us, that theopneustos is talking primarily about the living divine nature of the Scriptures, other things fall into place.

  • 3:15 talks about Timothy’s childhood Bible, which was probably also a translation.  This fits well if we recognise theopneustos as an attribute of the Scriptures which is present in translations.
  • Every other description of Scripture in these verses deal with the nature of the Scriptures.  In a forest full of trees describing what “is”, the current nature and effectiveness of the Scriptures, we would expect theopneustos to be of the same species — describing primarily the current nature (and secondarily the origin and effect) of the Scriptures.
  • All the other descriptions of the Word of God in this passage are aspects of its nature which apply to “That (translated) Book in Timothy’s Hand.”
  • The fact that this is an adjective, rather than a verb, fits much better with understanding this as focused primarily on the current nature of God’s Word, rather than on the source or origin of the Scriptures, the act of “immediate inspiration.”  A verb would have pointed us towards “immediate inspiration,” but this is an adjective.

When Paul wrote that the Scriptures are theopneustos (“given by inspiration of God”), he was talking about “That Book in Your Hand,” about what it is today because of the way God made it.  God breathed life into that Book, and thus it is and remains forever a living and life-giving Book.  The divine qualities that He breathed into it live on even in that translation in your hand, just as they lived in Timothy’s Greek translation.  It still lives and gives life today, just as it always has.

Next in series (main article):  The Scriptures — Inspired or Expired?
Meaning of theopneustos.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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