The Bible: book of suggestions

Historically, Protestants have held a high view of the Scriptures. Parents taught children that the Bible was the inspired word of God, and that except for some possible scribal and translational errors (none of which affect any truths or teachings), it was God‘s infallible word to humanity. For generations, a general unity of common doctrinal beliefs was the norm. The authority and jurisdiction of Scripture in the daily life of a Protestant was rarely questioned. A literal six-day creation, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the reality of a visible second coming, the scriptures as the inerrant word of God, etc. were held to be sacrosanct by a majority of believers. However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Rationalism, Empiricism, “Natural Theology,“ etc. based on a Newtonian view of the universe, created a new paradigm of critical scholarship.(1) These disciplines were based more on philosophy and subjectivity than faith. They challenged some of the foundational doctrines of the church, and in time they filtered down to the laity. By the second half of the twentieth century, an atmosphere of pluralism and disparity challenged long-held beliefs. As a result, many Christians today treat the Bible more as a book of suggestions and recommendations than a supernatural authority and guide to life. At the heart of these divergent Scriptural world-views are the claims made by 2 Timothy 3:16,17. What is the “Scripture” Paul refers to here? Does this verse refer to “all” or just parts of it? What is ‘inspiration,’ and how does it affect the words of the Bible? Can I really trust every “jot and tittle” of Scripture? If I can’t, then who decides what part(s) of Scripture are inspired?

Not surprisingly, there have been some direct objections to the inspiration of Scripture from atheists. For example, renowned author and apologist Sam Harris wrote:

There are sections of the Bible that I think are absolutely brilliant and poetically unrivaled, and there are sections of the Bible which are the sheerest barbarism, yet profess to prescribe a divinely mandated morality—where do I start? Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and First and Second Kings and Second Samuel—half of the kings and prophets of Israel would be taken to The Hague and prosecuted for crimes against humanity if these events took place in our own time.(2)

Another popular atheist Richard Dawkins has quipped:

[I]nsofar as theology studies the nature of the divine, it will earn the right to be taken seriously when it provides the slightest, smallest smidgen of a reason for believing in the existence of the divine. Meanwhile, we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns.(3)

One would expect such critical objections coming from non-Christian, skeptical voices. However, coming from Christian sources, it becomes more alarming.(4) Greek scholar Daniel Wallace wrote about the “quiet battle over [the] locus classicus of dogmatic theology”- namely 2 Timothy 3:16.(5) RC Sproul has asserted that “liberal theology has made a strong impact on evangelical groups, particularly with an avalanche of criticism leveled against the trustworthiness and reliability of the Bible. The doctrine of inerrancy long upheld by Evangelicals [has come] under attack. . . Many individuals and institutions historically tied to Evangelicalism defected from the doctrine of inerrancy. Some opted for a watered-down view of ‘infallibility,’ while others sought a via media in the view of ‘infallibility.’”(6)

In 2009, the Barna Group conducted research that dealt with attitudes regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture.(7) They reported, “[W]hile most Americans of all ages identify the Bible as sacred, the drop-off among the youngest adults is striking: 90% of Boomers (47-65 yrs old) described the Bible as sacred, while 81% of “Busters” (28-46) and just 67% of Mosaics (18-25).” The study went on to show that Young adults are “significantly less likely than older adults to strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. Just 30% of Mosaics and 39% of Busters embraced this view- compared to 46% of Boomers and 58% of elders (66- up).” It should not be surprising to see what this leads to in terms of foundational truths. The study concludes that “among Mosaics, a majority (56%) believes the Bible teaches the same spiritual truths as other sacred texts.”(8) These generational attitudes can be directly attributed to the view of “inspiration” of Scripture they hold.

When looking at different translations of 2 Timothy 3:16, it is truly amazing to see how three words (pasa graphe theopneusos) can have so many different renderings:

All Scripture is inspired by God (NAS, NLT, NRS) Every Scripture is inspired by God (NET) All Scripture is God-breathed (NIV) Every Scripture inspired of God (ASV) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (KJV, NKJV) Every inspired Scripture (NEB) Every Scripture is breathed out by God (ESV) Every writing is God-breathed (YLT)   The first word pasa (“all” or “every”) is an adjective.(9) Furthermore, it is used without an article (“the“) in this verse. When it is used in this way, it means “every,” “every kind or variety.”(10) Lexicographer Walter Bauer confirms this understanding when he says “in the singular. . . the individual members of the class [are] denoted by the noun- ‘every,’ ‘each all.'”(11) In Clarkes Commentary, a similar observation is made, “'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God‘- This sentence is not well translated; the original πασα γραφη θεοp νευστος . . . should be rendered: ‘Every writing . . . is profitable for doctrine, etc.’”(12)   It is noteworthy to see that many translations have recognized this rendering:

“Every scripture inspired of God . . .” (American Standard Version, 1901); “Every holy Writing which comes from God . . .” (Basic English Bible); “Every scripture is divinely inspired“ (Darby Bible Translation) “Every Scripture is inspired by God . . .” (Weymouth Bible); “Every Scripture is God-breathed . . .” (World English Bible); “Every Writing [is] God-breathed. . .” (Youngs Literal Bible); “Every scripture inspired of God . . .” (English Revised Version)

Therefore, the lexicographical and translational weight of evidence points to the opening word of 2 Timothy 3:16 to be rendered as “every”. This emphasizes the individual portions of Scripture rather than “scripture as a whole.”(13) The Bible is clear that the Scriptures are a “whole” made up of units (John 10:35). An understanding of pasa as “every” denotes that if one verse is inspired, all are. It strongly implies that “Inspiration” extends to every Word (Matt. 4:14) of Scripture--including every “jot or tittle”. Of course, we are not here promoting the concept of “verbal mechanical dictation” of Scripture ( a matter to be addressed in a subsequent article). Rather, we are stressing the vital necessity of taking seriously the fact the entire corpus of Scripture (i.e., “every” part of the Bible) is “inspired by God,” and is thus to be accepted as the infallible revelation of the Creator to His created beings.

Our daily decisions and actions constantly depend upon the meaning and application of the individual words in Scripture. Without this confidence, we will inevitably believe that the Bible only contains the word of God--but isn’t necessarily God’s word. In our next article, we will examine the second word in the phrase- pasa graphe theopnosis.


Brent Shakespeare works in a community health center near Loma Linda, and lives in Yucaipa with his wife Nina and two daughters Kristina and Katelyn.