I was asked a question from a friend some time ago on Facebook that generated an interesting exchange between us, and since some of us have a little extra time on our hands these days, I thought I would share our conversation here.
Here is his original question:
I’ve been struggling with something for some time, and I’m hoping you can help. One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is that the Bible is the divinely-inspired Word of God, and one of the most often quoted pieces of Scripture about this is 2 Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture is God-breathed…”). However, it seems to me that using a citation *from* the Bible to prove that the Bible is divinely-inspired is little more than circular reasoning (“The Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true”) and specious logic.
Is there any evidence *outside* of the Bible to support the idea that the Bible is divinely-inspired? Note that I’m *honestly* asking this question (even though I think I know the answer). I don’t intend any sarcasm or snark here at all.
And yes, I know it’s called “faith” for a reason.
Here is my initial response:
Thanks for the question. It’s an important question, so I have been taking my time in answering it. So, please forgive my delay, and this overly-long answer. And let me start by saying that I personally believe that all Scripture is inspired by God. You could even say that I have staked my life on it. But I can’t prove it. I can’t offer evidence outside of Scripture that a non-believer would accept. It is a faith statement, after all, as you note in your question. And how can any non-inspired word prove something about the inspired word?
You ask about the specious argument made by Paul, and I would point out that Paul wouldn’t have thought it a specious argument at all, for a very simple reason: he wouldn’t have thought of his letter to Timothy as being Scripture! For him, Scripture would have been what we call the Old Testament. He is simply reminding Timothy, in this very moving letter, written from a prison cell near the end of his life, to hold onto the Word of God – read it, study it, live by it, and proclaim it, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Tim. 4:2). But he is not talking about his own writing.
We as Christians now accept Paul’s letter as Scripture. We believe it is the inspired word of God. Why? Because the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has declared this letter and other letters of Paul to be divinely-inspired Scripture. Ultimately, however, it is still a matter of faith. We believe the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in making this claim, and therefore we believe that Paul’s letters, along with the rest of the New and Old Testaments, are the inspired words of God.
Let me also add here that I do not believe that Paul would have made this claim to a non-believer. I believe that he would have taken a very different approach. An example of this can be found in Acts 17, when Paul addresses the Areopagus. Interestingly, he doesn’t quote Scripture in this address, but instead quotes some of the poets that the listeners were familiar with. (As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. – Acts 17:23)
So, when Christians use 2 Timothy 3:16 in discussions with non-Christians, I do not believe that they are using Paul’s words in the way that he intended.
But let me offer one other way to think about your question, a way for Christians to think about it. Let’s start with the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the Gospels included in Scripture are trustworthy accounts of his life and ministry. We have to start somewhere, right? Starting there, what can we learn from Jesus himself about Scripture?
What might it mean to Jesus, in other words, that all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness? An important clue is found when Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. In that case, he responded to the temptation to turn stones into bread with these words: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus is quoting Scripture here (Deuteronomy), in his reproof or correction of the devil. And by quoting this passage, Jesus is teaching us that Scripture itself is the clearest source for “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Another clue: when Jesus is given the opportunity to teach in the synagogue, he opens Scripture (Isaiah), and tells those present that “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Scripture is important to Jesus, and he himself is the fulfillment of what is promised in the Old Testament.
And another clue is found after Jesus is raised from the dead, when he joins the disciples on the road to Emmaus and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Even after his resurrection, Jesus doesn’t dismiss Scripture, but helps the early Church to see that he is the fulfillment of the promise made in the Old Testament.
Jesus, in other words, believes that all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, and he shows us what that means in his life and ministry.
Here is his follow-up question:
Thanks for responding. I appreciate your comments, especially your comments about Paul’s words. One of my challenges with the way that 2 Timothy 3:16 is used is just what you said… Paul was referring to the Old Testament, and didn’t believe his own letter to be Scripture.
I also understand that since that time the Church has declared his letters to be Scripture as well, and that’s where my challenges with the Bible really start (I knew you would get to heart of the matter). The fact that “man” has decided what is and is not divinely inspired is suspect to me. The idea that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in the decisions about what does and does constitute Scripture is a step of faith I’m not comfortable with. The cynic in me wonders how much influence earthly concerns contributed to the decisions made to include specific works in the Scripture (i.e. did Paul’s writing reflect morals and ideas that were politically attractive to church leaders and if so, did that also influence the eventual decision to include his letters, etc.?).
Lastly, I really appreciate you citing the stories about Jesus’ faith in the Scripture. I find those to be better arguments for the divinely-inspired nature of Scripture than Paul’s words.
And my follow-up response:
Thanks for the follow-up, and for challenging me to think more deeply about these things! I want to make clear that I do believe that Paul’s letters, along with the entire New Testament, are the divinely-inspired word of God. But it is a matter of faith, and must always be. And I personally believe in the Church (as I confess, along with my congregation, in the Nicene Creed). Although, as a Lutheran, I also believe that the church can err, which is why church teaching is always measured against Scripture. And this takes on anther cul-de-sac of reasoning, doesn’t it? Scripture, as determined by the church, is used to measure the church’s teaching! This, again, drives us back to the need for faith. But isn’t that a basic need we all have, regardless of our religion? We have to place our faith somewhere. We have to believe something. So, the question for me is, in what (or whom) do I believe? If not the Bible, then what? My experience? Reason? Only that which can be verified factually? In what (or whom) do I believe? Where do I place my faith? That’s not just a question for me, but for us all.
By the way, as a slight tangent, it has always intrigued me that Jesus became human when he did. Why then? Why not now? And, furthermore, it intrigues me that he never wrote any letters himself. Why not? Both of these facts drive us back to faith, don’t they? If Jesus were to become human now, with all the technology we have, would we need faith? We would have “proof,” right? But he chose to come before all of our modern technology. And, similarly, if Jesus did any writing, then what other divinely inspired words would we need? We could throw the rest of the Bible away and simply stick to his own writings. I personally believe that Jesus chose when to come to earth, in part, to invite us to faith.
The cynic in you wonders how much influence earthly concerns contributed to the decisions made to include specific works in the Scripture, but couldn’t the same be said for the decisions to include specific works in the Old Testament? That’s why, to me, it is important to see that Jesus accepted the Old Testament of his day as divinely-inspired. To me, it is only another step of faith to take to accept the New Testament in the same way.
One more thought: I don’t trust myself to decide what should and shouldn’t be included in the Word of God. I might end up doing as Thomas Jefferson did, and keep only those portions of the Bible that I believe at the time. (You’ve probably heard of this, but you can Google “Jefferson Bible” if you haven’t). So, I choose to accept all of Scripture as divinely-inspired. It doesn’t mean that I like everything I read. I wrestle with what God’s word says quite regularly. But where else shall I go? A favorite theologian of mine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrestled with these same questions, and phrased it this way, in a letter to his brother-in-law:
“How can I live a Christian life in the real world, and where are the final authorities for such a life, which alone is worth living?” For him the final authority can only be Scripture, and so he concludes:
“There remains, then, only the decision whether we will trust the Bible or not, whether we will allow ourselves to be supported by it as by no other word, in life and death. And I believe that we can only be happy and at peace when we have made that decision.”
Yes, indeed. And may we all, by choosing to trust the Bible and allowing ourselves to be supported by it in life and death, find that same happiness and peace!