All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
— The Apostle Paul, to Timothy
In the second of two surviving letters, Paul encourages his young protégé, Timothy, to lean on the Scriptures as he leads the church in Ephesus. Rightfully so, this passage is often quoted to remind Christians of the importance of the Bible. However, there are some challenging aspects to this text that need to be addressed if we want to read the Bible with integrity. Let’s grapple with one problematic issue that this text raises. (We may explore more in the coming weeks.)
Problem – What does “all Scripture” mean?
A key to interpreting the Bible is to work to understand it in its original context. Through historical research, archeological excavations, and other means, scholars have been able to learn a lot about what a text likely meant to those who originally heard/read it. This is why, in many of my sermons, we talk a lot about how an ancient person might have viewed a particular situation or passage. To paraphrase Gordon Fee, what a text means is always tied to what a text meant.
As important as this principle is, do you see the problem in our passage? Timothy would have known that Paul was clearly talking about the inspiration of the Hebrew Bible, not the New Testament. To put the issue more provocatively: Is Paul’s teaching on inspiration… inspired?!
As Christians, we say yes. We would all insist that this letter is God-breathed along with all other texts found in the Bible. But how can we come to such a conclusion?
Solution – “All” means “all.”
When Paul says that “all Scripture is inspired” we need to hold two truths in tension.
The first truth is that Paul, in all likelihood, was thinking about his Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), when he encourages Timothy. No serious scholar that I am aware of has argued that Paul consciously thought his letter to Timothy would have been accepted by the Church as an inspired text.
The second, and most important truth we must hold is that the Spirit was happy to use Paul’s immediate intention while not being limited by it. In other words, though Paul was thinking about the Old Testament, the Spirit had bigger plans! Paul under the direction of the Spirit, used the word “graphē” which means “a writing” or “a certain portion of the Holy Scripture” when he could have used a more restrictive phrase like the “law, prophets, and writings” (the Hebrew Bible, in other words). It’s amazing how the Spirit works!
As we have discussed in earlier posts, God, in his sovereignty and providence used people to communicate his Word. God inspired people to deliver divine revelation about himself to humanity. God also allowed these people to use their own context, culture, and experience to deliver his message. As we study Scripture more, we see God’s work in greater detail and admiration! I think of the Bible as an intricately woven tapestry. Different materials, colors, and textures are skillfully brought together by an artist to create something of beauty.