The Meaning of Theopneustos

Re-post, as previously mentioned….

“That Book in Your Hand”

This page is intended to provide a detailed analysis of the meaning of the Greek word theopneustos, translated “given by inspiration of God” in the King James Version, in II Timothy 3:16.  It includes two types of material:

  • Summaries, with links, of posts I have written previously on the topic.  These deal with the most important “clues” as to the meaning of the word.
  • Other evidence about which I have not written previously.  These factors would not be compelling evidence on their own, but since they support the conclusions of the more important “clues” they are worth mentioning.

An Introduction to theopneustos

“Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, Etymology, and hapax legomenon.

Key Points

  • 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 🙂 ).
  • The etymology of theopneustos points to a meaning related to “breathed by God,” which would indicate that the Scriptures came from God.

An Initial Look at the Context

“Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos in Context

Key Points

  • 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.

The Connotations of the “Breath of God”

“Given by Inspiration” — the Connotations of theopneustos

Key Points

  • This word is an adjective.  Though English translations may seem to emphasise an action of God, as an adjective this word emphasises rather an attribute of the Scriptures — its source, nature, and/or effect.
  • 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.
  • The connotations point to a meaning beyond simply the origin of the Scriptures, suggesting that especially nature, but also effect, are in view.
  • 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 suggested in the word theopneustos, the first half in its etymology, the second in its connotations.

Defining Some Terms

“Given by Inspiration” — Three Useful 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.

Others may use different definitions of these terms, but this is what I mean by the terms when I use them in this discussion.

Revisiting the Context

“Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, Context Revisited

Key Points on Copies

  • God specifically endorsed the copying of the Scriptures.
  • Copies were not produced by the direct act of God known as “immediate inspiration” / “inscripturation.”  Thus, any particular copy is not guaranteed by God to be an accurate copy.   The original copies (called “autographs”) were 100% accurate because God was directly involved.
  • Where a copy is accurate, the autographs / copies distinction is irrelevant, because what matters is the words.

Key Points on Translations

  • God specifically endorsed (in fact, commanded) the translation of the Scriptures.
  • The Scriptures do not teach that the Holy Spirit moved (and moves) translators in the same way He moved the original human authors of the Scriptures.  This “moving” is what I’m calling “immediate inspiration,” and it does not apply to the act of translating.
  • Nevertheless, Peter referred to a translation as “a sure word of prophecy.”
  • The authority of a translation is based on its faithfulness to the original, and if it is an accurate translation, it is authoritative.

Key Points on the Revisited Context

  • II Timothy 4:2, 3:17, and the second half of 3:16 are all talking about the same Book, “That Book in Timothy’s Hand.”
  • The context dictates, therefore, that the first half of 3:16 be talking about “That Book in Timothy’s Hand.”  His Book-in-hand is theopneustos.
  • The Book in Timothy’s hand was mostly a Greek translation of the Old Testament out of which he was to “preach the Word,” so his translation is theopneustos.
  • Therefore, since translations aren’t “immediately inspired” (as defined above), theopneustos must not mean “immediately inspired.”  Rather, it is speaking primarily of the result of immediate inspiration, what exists today because of that act of God.
  • The context, therefore, tells us what the connotations told us, that the main focus of this word is the current nature of the Scriptures as a “breathed-into,” divine Book, living and life-giving.
  • This understanding fits best with the rest of the context of 3:14-17 and 4:1-5 as well.
  • This divine nature of the Scriptures, living and life-giving, is present in translations (as implied by Romans 16:25-27).  It lived in Timothy’s Book-in-hand, and it lives in “That Book in Your Hand.”
  • This should not be understood as stating that any one translation has been perfectly done.  Timothy’s Book-in-hand, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was far from perfect.  However, its roots were divine, and despite the imperfections of the translators’ work, it was still a living and life-giving Book, and God called it theopneustos.

***Below this line is new content (not from previous posts)***

Grammatical Context

The Absence of a Verb

There is no Greek verb in II Timothy 3:16.  Our translators have provided “is” twice (and put it in italics so we can see what they have done).  The Greek language does not require a verb, generally implying the verb “is” when a verb is required and none is present (there are exceptions, but none apply here).  The consensus among scholars and translators is to supply “is”, either twice as the KJV does, or once as in many other translations, both modern and ancient (such as Wycliffe’s translation).

As I said above, Paul could have used a form of the verb pneo.  He could have used (for those familiar with Greek) an aorist passive indicative form to indicate an action in the past.  This could have made sense if he wanted to really focus sole attention on the origin of Scripture, rather than its present nature.  If Paul wanted to focus primary attention on origin, with secondary implications for current nature, he could have used the perfect passive of the verb pneo.  Alternatively, he just could have used “was” (the imperfect of eimi, “to be”).

There are sufficient tools in the Greek language to keep the concept of God’s breath and be absolutely clear that this is an “origin / source” descriptor (focused on historical action) rather than a “quality” descriptor (focused on the current nature of the Scriptures).  Paul was not led by the Holy Spirit to use any of them.

As a result, instead of giving us a verb telling us this is an “origin” descriptor, we are left to supply a verb.  I know of no serious Bible student who suggests we should supply the verb “was” in our translations.  Every translation of note has supplied “is.”

The grammatical structure is by no means conclusive, but it fits well with the other evidence we have seen.  It points to what “is,” not what “was,” to what exists, not to what happened.  It is yet another clue telling us that theopneustos describes what “is” — the current nature / quality / character of the Scriptures.  Arthur Pink again:

The Scriptures, then, are the living Word of the living God. Observe carefully how our opening passage expresses it, “All Scripture IS given by inspiration of God,” not “all Scripture was given by inspiration of God,” as man would have expressed it. The Holy Scriptures not only were “inspired of God,” but they are so now.

One Other Minor Grammatical Point

In II Timothy 3:16, the great emphasis is on ophelimos (“profitable”).  Not only does Paul give four ways in which the Scriptures are profitable, but he seems to emphasise “profitable” further by elaborating on it with four parallel prepositional phrases, rather than a compound prepositional phrase.  The repeated preposition seems to focus attention further on the profitability of the Scriptures — again, on what “is” rather than what “was” (or what “happened”) back when the Scriptures came into existence.

Christian History

Christian history cannot tell us what the Holy Spirit intended us to understand when He moved Paul to write the word theopneustos.  If we accept that the Holy Spirit illumines the Scriptures, teaching God’s people, however, we should expect to find the true interpretation of the Scripture within the historical beliefs of those people.  We should be wary of any novel interpretation that has been consistently rejected by believers down through the centuries.


  • Benjamin Warfield cited Hermann Cremer as saying that the Peshitta Syriac, one of the oldest translations of the Bible, translated theopneustos “inspired by God.”
  • The Latin Vulgate (late 4th century) translated it as divinitus inspirata — breathed into by God, very similar language to what it used in Genesis 2:7, where God breathed life into man.
  • Wycliffe, in the 14th century, translated “by God inspired” — again, “breathed into by God.”
  • Tyndale’s translation, the Geneva Bible, and the King James Version all referred to “inspiration.”
  • Every significant Bible translation up through 1970 translated using “inspiration” or “inspired”.  The only major English translations that have ever abandoned those words are the New International Version (about 40 years ago) and the English Standard Version (in the last decade).

Until less than forty years ago, Bible translators with one voice used “inspired” or “inspiration.”  “Inspired” means “in-breathed” or “breathed into.”  It has acquired other meanings in recent years, but that is certainly the sense in which all older translators of the Bible understood the word, and they chose it to represent theopneustos.

Theology and Lexicons

  • The Westminster Confession (1647) used “immediately inspired” as a technical term referring to the origin of the Scriptures, just as I have used it.  If the authors had considered theopneustos (“inspiration”) to refer to the origin of the Scriptures, there would have been no need to add the technical qualifier “immediate.”
  • The London Baptist Confession (1689) and the Philadelphia Baptist Confession (1742) used the same wording as the Westminster Confession.
  • Francis Turretin (17th century), in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, also saw the autographs as “immediately inspired” (similarly to the Westminster Confession) but spoke of accurate copies as theopneustos.  He applied inspiration to translations in the sense of the message they conveyed, though not in the exact words of the translations.
  • Benjamin Keach (17th century) used the term “immediate inspiration” to refer to the act of giving the originals, again feeling the need to add a qualifier to describe the original act.
  • Edward Robinson’s “Greek and English Lexicon” (1850, 1872) said theopneustos is “God-inspired, inbreathed of God.”
  • Thayer-Grimm’s “Greek-English Lexicon” (1887, cited by Warfield) rendered it “inspired by God.”
  • Arthur Pink (1936), as cited in the “Connotations” post above:  “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 vitalised 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).”

Until about 1880, the theological consensus was broad, and it continued after that to some extent as the quote from Pink shows.  The word theopneustos should be translated “inspired” or “given by inspiration,” often with the explicit recognition that it was with the sense of “in-breathing.”  There was frequently a distinction between that which “is” (inspiration) and that which “was”, which happened once with the original autographs (immediate inspiration).


God breathed the Scriptures into existence, and God breathed life and vitality into the Scriptures.  Both of these statements are clearly true, taught unmistakably in the Word of God.  When Paul wrote in II Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is theopneustos,” he was necessarily implying the first (which fits with the etymology of the word), but the primary focus of his statement was on the second.  He was describing a spiritual vitality, living and life-giving, which is not at all limited to the original autographs but exists even in accurate translations.  The consensus over many centuries that the word should be translated “inspired by God” or “given by inspiration of God” is correct.

Main article: The Scriptures — Inspired or Expired?

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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3 Responses to The Meaning of Theopneustos

  1. wayne dalton says:

    Interesting thoughts. I am working my way with this word. Before beginning to learn NT Greek, thought inspiration was a verb. Learning it is an adjective has helped me to understand a little more. Thanks, Wayne Dalton

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Wayne. Thanks for the comment. For me the thing that really got me thinking about it was a conversation with a professor who denied that a translation was inspired at all. He insisted it was a technical word that didn’t have any relevance to a translation. It simply didn’t ring true, and I looked at the context and found that Paul was using a practical word, not a technical one, and almost certainly with reference to a Greek translation of the OT..

      So then I began “working my way with this word,” to use your expression. And it is an adjective. And other factors….

      I think you’ll enjoy and profit by the study. You’ll find that most people see it as a verb, even many who know the Greek and know it isn’t — their thinking has been framed by a misunderstanding of what the translators were trying to say with “is given”, and influenced heavily by the way Warfield redefined the word..

  2. Pingback: The Bible | The Word

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