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Those of us who participated in or at least lived through the hot debates on “inerrancy” that divided the Southern Baptist Convention will recall that a favorite term of its adherents was (and is) theopneustos, a rare word that appears only once in the Bible, in 2 Timothy 3:16.

The letter purports to be written by the Apostle Paul, offering pastoral and spiritual advice to his younger protégé, Timothy. Many critical scholars note that the letter presupposes a church hierarchy more developed than it would have been during Paul’s life and suggest it was more likely written by a disciple.

The writer, whether Paul or not, encourages Timothy and other readers to trust in the “sacred writings” (hiera grammata) “that are able to instruct you for salvation in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

Grammata, like graphē in verse 16, basically means “writing” and does not inherently mean “scripture,” but the qualification as “sacred writing” in verse 15 makes it clear that the author has in mind authoritative writings that we can rightly translate as “scripture.”

Whether the author had in mind the full Hebrew Bible or any earlier New Testament writings is unclear. The Hebrew canon had not yet been settled within Judaism and parts of the New Testament were still being written.

He goes on to say, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

The verse presents several translational issues beyond the meaning of graphē, beginning with the first word (pasa), which could mean “every” just as easily as “all.” Most modern translations prefer the word “all” (NRSV, NIV11, NASB20), though the New English Translation chooses “every.”

The significance is obvious: Is the writer referring to every writing considered to be “scripture” in his day or to every writing he believed to be “inspired by God” and useful for spiritual instruction?

Most interpreters relate it to the whole. Even though the NET translates pasa as “every,” a footnote argues that it refers to “every individual portion of scripture.”

The hot-button word, though, is the next one: theopneustos. Most church fathers and early commentators, as well as most Greek lexicons and modern translations, render it as “inspired by God.” This is based mainly on the etymology of the word: theo is from the word meaning “god” and pneustos, which generally refers to “breath.”

Adherents of inerrancy make much of the idea that all scripture is “God-breathed,” directly inspired by God, which they present as evidence that every word of scripture must be regarded as inerrant, at least in what they call the original (though nonexistent) “autographs.”

One can refute the logic of such arguments without questioning whether theopneustos really means “God-breathed” or “divinely inspired,” but our interpretation of the word remains significant.

We can’t always determine the meaning – as popularly used – of a word based on its etymology. The word “hippopotamus,” for example, is derived from two Latin words meaning “horse” and “river.” We can see the philological connection, but we know that a hippopotamus is not a horse, not even one that is fond of swimming.

Theopneustos appears just once in the entire Bible, so we have no other scriptural uses to compare it with. Could theopneustos mean something other than its common translation?

John C. Poirier, chair of biblical studies at Kingswell Theological Seminary in Ohio, thinks so. In a new book, The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture, he has researched how the word was used in other early writings.

Poirier concludes that prior to the third century, theopneustos was understood to mean “life-giving,” and only with the writings of Origen did it begin to take on the more “inspirationist” interpretation.

I confess that I have not yet read the book, though I’ve requested one for review. I’m relying on the publisher’s abstract but have no reason to think it would be misleading.

Poirier argues that theopneustos was consistently understood to mean “life-giving” when used in the fifth Sibylline Oracle, the Testament of Abraham, Vettius Valens, Pseudo-Plutarch (Placita Philosophorum) and Pseudo-Phocylides.

He also considers the use of the word among church fathers prior to Origen and notes that the understanding of the word as “life-giving” persisted in some circles, including a fifth century work by Nonnus of Panopolis.

As we might expect, Poirier argues that rendering the term as “life-giving” better fits the context of 2 Timothy 3:16.

Even so, he insists that the change from “inspired by God” to “life-giving” does not detract from our understanding of the truth of the gospel message as found in the teaching of the apostles.

It does, however, detract from the ongoing arguments for “inerrancy,” a doctrine that wasn’t fully developed until the emergence of fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The words we consider to be scripture were written by many different human persons over nearly 1,000 years, being constantly adapted and edited along the way. If God had inspired every word, we would expect the scripture to be fully consistent from the beginning.

Instead, what we find is an ongoing human attempt to understand the ways of God and humanity. We find differing theologies and understandings of God that developed over time and often conflicted. Samuel’s belief in a vindictive deity who commanded Saul to practice genocide against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15), for example, is clearly at odds with the God revealed through Jesus Christ.

Many parts of the Bible tell us much about Israel and other peoples, but not necessarily much about God. Still, the scriptures do contain the truths “that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” and to provide life-giving guidance for those who trust in Christ.

The Bible does not have to be perfect in order to tell us what we need to know.

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