The Divine Inspiration and Purpose of Scripture

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If we believe that Scripture is a gift from God to lead us into salvation, it only makes sense to say that God has guided the writings of Scripture in order to provide us with the teaching we need. Christians, therefore, affirm that the Bible is divinely inspired. This is a place where our language trips us up a bit. The New International Version translation of the Bible is helpful in its rendering of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” The Greek word theopneustos (“God-breathed” or “inspired”) is very uncommon in Greek literature. In fact, the use of it in 2 Timothy may be its first known appearance. Because it is such an uncommon word, it is hard for us to translate. We don’t have very much context to help us ascertain what ancient Greek-speaking people might have understood by it. It seems clear, though, that by saying Scripture was “God-breathed,” 2 Timothy affirms that the Spirit of God came to bear in a significant way on the writings that together make up the Bible.

Exactly how did the Spirit come to bear on these writings? That’s the million-dollar question, sometimes even among Christians within the same community. Almost all Christians believe that Scripture is a reliable guide, given to us by God, to teach us what we need to know about salvation. Beyond this, we enter into a briar patch of theories about how God inspired the biblical writers, how the teachings of Scripture relate to fields of knowledge like science and history, and the extent to which the words of Scripture have been reliably preserved through the centuries. I personally think these kinds of questions are both interesting and important, but they are too complex to pursue here (And, to be honest, many people find them a bit dry.)

The Purpose of Inspiration

The Bible itself, however, is less concerned with a particular theory of inspiration than it is with telling us the purpose of inspiration. Second Timothy, for example, does not tell us exactly what it means for Scripture to be “God-breathed,” but it does provide a statement of what Scripture does because it is God-breathed: But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (3:14–17)

Historically speaking, this passage has to do with the writings that Christians call the Old Testament. The New Testament, after all, had not yet come into being. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that these words about inspiration do not apply to the New Testament as well. Followers of Jesus and the early Christians first understood the Jewish Bible as Scripture—as an authoritative work given by God to the community of faith for our well-being.

Over time, Christians began to accord other writings—specifically Christian writings—that same status. Yet it makes no sense to accord these newer writings the same status as the Jewish Bible if we do not believe that they come from the same Source and serve the same purpose. The same Spirit who inspired the Old Testament inspired the New. If God intended the writings of the New Testament to stand alongside those of the Old Testament as Scripture, then what is said about the inspiration of one should apply to the other.

We learn from this passage several ways in which God has inspired Scripture in order to help us. Scripture is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ. It is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” These qualities of Scripture are for the purpose of equipping the servants of God for the good works they will do. Through Scripture, we are to learn about salvation and righteousness so that we can be about God’s work in the world. The alignment of our will with God’s is part of our journey into the divine life.

God teaches the community of believers in many different ways, such as through preaching, prophecy, and the writings of great teachers and thinkers. Scripture, however, has a unique function related to teaching within the church. It is a touchstone, a standard against which other teachings are measured. If I were to claim, for example, that God told me to spend all of my money on myself and give none of it to others, the people of my faith community could rightly respond that this “prophecy” violates the teachings of Scripture (for example, Deuteronomy 15:7–11; Luke 6:38; James 2:15–16). What I believe that God had told me does not measure up to the standard that God has given for teaching in the community of faith. Hence, it is likely to lead me away from the life of God, rather than more deeply into it. It is also likely to hurt the community of faith, rather than help it.

If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll benefit from Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson. In these pages you’ll: (1) Gain spiritual appreciation for the Bible (2) Grapple with some of the difficult portions of Scripture (3) Learn to use the Bible as a means of grace an catalyst for personal growth. In Scripture and the Life of God, David Watson takes us on a journey through what it means to enter into the life of God through texts that God has inspired and made authoritative for the teaching of the Church.

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Dr. David F. Watson is the Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary. David is also an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church. He has worked in the local church and in a United Methodist campus ministry. David is married to Harriet. They have two sons: Luke and Sean.

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