This semester, in particular the past two weeks, I've studied the concept of the inspiration of Scripture more than ever before. My Intro to New Testament class and my Greek class have both spent significant amounts of time pondering, discussing, analyzing, and studying the history of this foundational philosophy of Scripture, even questioning how foundational it really is. And while there is still more to learn and seek out, the conclusions I have come to are both vastly different than I expected, but far more historical, Biblical, and I believe beneficial to the us as Christians. So here's a bit of a technical, more academic post that will share a bit of what I've learned, and why I believe it's so important.
"Inspiration" has become the central, key, absolute foundation of Biblical authority in most churches in North American evangelicalism. When asked why the Bible is trustworthy, the Sunday-school answer is engrained in our minds, "It's inspired by God." We know that we can't necessarily prove it's inspiration, but we have faith and we've seen its influence in our lives. What we do know is that the Bible's inspiration is what sets it apart. Or at least, that's what I always claimed. But... where does that even come from?
In one of our early Greek classes, we looked at 2 Timothy 3:16, the verse many of us have learned by heart, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped for every good work." Different English translations interpret the verse differently. In particular, the "God-breathed" part can be translated "inspired by God," "breathed out by God," "given by inspiration of God," "written by the Spirit," "divinely inspired," etc. Finally, I'm actually taking Greek, so I figured I could settle this by just looking at what the actual Greek text says. The whole concept, worded so differently in English translations, is just one word: theopnuestos.
Theopnuestos is a combination of two other words: theo and pnuema. Theo means God, and pnuema has many different meanings, most prominently "breath," spirit," and "Spirit." So what does theopnuestos mean? Well, it's a little tricky because there is no precedent of use before Paul writes it in 2 Timothy 3:16. For all we know, it appears that Paul may have actually invented the word when writing this verse. "God-breathed" is a fairly literal interpretation, and "inspired" is a good translation as well because it encapsulates the outside-influence, as well as the idea of breathing life into something. Interestingly enough, when Paul wrote that "All Scripture is theopnuestos," he was not referring to the New Testament (since it hadn't been written), and even the Old Testament that he was probably speaking of hadn't been fully canonized and was rather open and flexible. But ultimately, we have to start with acknowledging that we don't know exactly what theopnuestos is. One way we can begin to understand it more is to look at its use throughout church history.
What may surprise evangelicals today is that for centuries after Christ, the term theopnuestos was used for far more than Scripture. Early church fathers called letters from elders "inspired," they called non-canonical writings "inspired," and even referred to the epitaph on a Christian's grave as "inspired." Why? Because the early church was acutely aware of the Holy Spirit living and active inside of each and every Christian. Indeed, the Christian community was filled with the Spirit, and thus, by definition, "inspired." When I first read this in documents analyzing inspiration throughout church history, I was uncomfortable and confused at this wide use of "inspiration." In class, our professor would ask us if we thought the Holy Spirit was living in us, and we would say yes. So he would ask us if we were inspired. To most of us, it was like him asking if we were Biblical authors, if our words were authoritative and New-Testament-worthy. So of course we said "no." And he would ask us, is the Holy Spirit less in us than He was in the apostles? And there, we had no answer.
I continued to search this out. Following Paul's principle of theopnuestos, and the way that word continued to be used after Paul coined it, I too am inspired by God. And that lines up with everything that I've read in Scripture, which teaches that the Holy Spirit is not only in me, but is my very life and breath.
But what, then, makes the Bible authoritative? I'm ready to say that I could potentially be "inspired by God" on some level, but I will not say that my words hold authority anywhere near to that of Scripture. But if I'm inspired, and the Bible is inspired, what's the difference? And when I'm confronted by a non-believer about why I trust in this pack of ancient manuscripts, what can I reasonably, rationally explain to them?
From more studies on the topic, I've learned about the other criteria used by early church fathers to determine what books were considered authoritative and ultimately put into the New Testament canon. One major criteria was apostleship - if a gospel or letter was written by a direct apostle of Jesus, it was considered authoritative because of its proximity to Jesus' teachings. Another criteria was antiquity - all New Testament books needed to be written within a lifetime of Jesus to reduce any risk of doctrinal distortion. Third, books that were popularly and commonly used within the early church and considered useful for teaching would often be held up as more authoritative than writings that never received much attention. And obviously, maintaining orthodox doctrine in line with the teachings of Jesus himself were necessary for any Biblical book. These are just a few of the criteria used to separate authoritative, New Testament books from other writings of the time. And using these criteria explains why my blog posts, while potentially inspired with the influence of the Spirit, are nowhere close to being Biblically authoritative.
I'm still growing to understand the implications of this broaden concept of inspiration and practical approach to Scripture. Having discovered that inspiration is only one piece of a multi-faceted process, I can acknowledge what the Bible says: I too am filled with the Holy Spirit, and I pray that he is constantly influencing and motivating my words and actions. This broad concept of inspiration allows me to more fully appreciate non-Biblical writings, whether by Clement, C.S. Lewis, or Tim Keller, because I believe that these authors may be just as inspired by the Holy Spirit as Paul was. I will still check all theology, doctrine, and teaching against the authoritative canon, but the chasm separating Scripture and other Christian writings has become significantly smaller.
I can even find greater appreciation for the writing, music, and other arts from believers and non-believers alike. Just as the Holy Spirit filled ancient Israelites for the task of designing the tabernacle, the Spirit can inspire beauty and truth wherever he pleases. Perhaps this is what Trinity Western University's first President Calvin B. Hanson was getting at when he said, “If Jesus Christ is Lord, nothing is secular.” While there is no way to prove inspiration or non-inspiration, this new view of the concept of theopneustos means that it is not crucial for us to identify what exactly is the influence of the Holy Spirit and what is not. We believe that Scripture is inspired, influenced, and breathed out by God, but it is trustworthy for many other reasons as well.
Most of all, I hope this understanding of Scripture encourages you in two ways. First, I hope you are reminded that you too are being used and filled with the Spirit of God. The authors of Scripture were not super-Christians, more connected to God that we can be. They were used for a special purpose at a special time, but you also are being used for a special purpose at a special time. Ask God to make you more aware of His Spirit in you, to make you a witness to the things in which you have seen Him, and a witness to those in which He will appear to you. Finally, I hope you are encouraged to be confident in your Bible. Those words have been fought for, searched out, analyzed, and written all to provide you with the gospel, the good news that God is with us. We have rational, historical, textually critical reasons to put our trust into this canon of writings, and I'd encourage you to seek out those proofs for yourself.
So there you have it, one more theologically educating discovery I've made at university. Chances are, I'm still not 100% right on this. But I think some of my blinders have been removed, and I'm more convinced than ever of the Spirit's work in me, and the authority of my Bible. Thank you Father for theopnuestos.