What is “God-breathed” all about?

God-breathed imageInteractive Table of Contents

(1) Introduction
(2) Preliminary Examination of Proof Texts

            (2.1) 2 Timothy 3:16-17

            (2.2) 2 Peter 1:16-21

            (2.3) 2 Peter 3:15-16

            (2.4) Matthew 5:17-18

            (2.5) 2 Timothy 2:2

            (2.6) Hebrews 4:12

            (2.7) Isaiah 8:20

(3) What “God-breathed” cannot mean and why

             (3.1) Why the conservative view would be narrow, over-simplistic and demeaning

             (3.2) The Dishonesty of the conservative view when it comes to Scriptural authority

             (3.3) How the conservative view leads to a worrying and dangerous “Biblical Command Theory”

             (3.4) The incompatibility of the conservative view with Anglicanism

(4) What, then, can it mean?

(5) Can the Bible still be the “Word of God” without it being infallible/inerrant?


Conservative evangelical Christians today hold that the Bible is both infallible and inerrant (without human error) and that it alone is their sole source of both doctrine and ethics. They claim to derive these views from certain Biblical verses and passages, especially ones where we are told that the Bible is “God-breathed”. In this article I shall examine these verses and passages and I explain why I oppose the conservative interpretation of God-breathed. I will then explain my own understanding of the term “God-breathed” and try to demonstrate how the Bible can still be the “Word of God” without being infallible/inerrant.

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Preliminary Examination of “Proof Texts”

Before we begin to look at the “proof texts” themselves, we must bear the following two points in mind. Firstly, none of the below verses or passages contain the terms “infallible”, “inerrant”, or “without human error”. Secondly, all arguments for the authority, reliability, validity, infallibility, or inerrancy of the Bible which are solely based on or purely derived from verses contained within the Bible itself necessarily must be completely circular arguments as many conservative evangelicals themselves admit. This makes such arguments rationally, logically and philosophical inconsistent and incoherent. We must then ask ourselves why God gave us minds and intellects if he does not want us to apply them here.

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2 Timothy 3:16

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”

(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The first thing to discuss is what the author of this letter (it is one of the three letters which, according to the strong consensus of modern scholarship, was definitely not written by St Paul) really means by “All Scripture” (verse 16). Now evangelicals, especially conservative evangelicals, will immediately jump ahead here and say, “Well obviously the author means the whole Bible”. However, there are problems with this presumption. Firstly, it presumes that the Bible that we have today is exactly the same as the one which the author of 2 Timothy (whoever he or she was) had. This simply cannot be true as 2 Timothy is thought by many scholars to have been written in 64-67 AD, (probably in 66 AD to be precise) and, at that time, only 15 of the 27 New Testament books which today appear in our Protestant and Anglican Bibles had been written. Furthermore, the author of 2 Timothy was probably not even aware of the existence of many of these books. How could he then possibly declare all of them and their contents to be infallible, inerrant, and without error without him ever even knowing of the existence of these books and letters, never mind having read them? In 66 AD, 11 of the 27 canonical New Testament books had even been written, including three of the four canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and John). The canon of the Bible (both that of the Old Testament, and that of the New Testament), that is the list of which books should be included in the Bible was not even settled until the fifth century AD, at least 334 years after 2 Timothy was written. It is therefore very unclear as to which books the author of 2 Timothy is referring to here. Nobody really thus knows what he/she means here by “Scripture” (verse 16), and “All Scripture” (verse 16). It is worth bearing in mind that books, which are and have been considered non-canonical ever since the fifth century AD, are sometimes quoted in the seven authentic and canonical Pauline letters. In total, 30 non-canonical books are quoted, mentioned, or referred to in today’s Protestant/Anglican Bible (20 are mentioned in the Old Testament, and 12 alluded to or quoted in the New Testament). This very clearly shows how difficult it is, impossible really, to know which books the author of 2 Timothy is referring to here as the fact that the Biblical authors refer to, mention, and quote these non-canonical sources suggests that they trusted them, viewed them as reliable and saw them as having at least some authority, if not equal authority to those they were writing at the time. The Biblical Canon is still a debated matter and is by no means universal among the different Christians denominations. There are large differences between today’s Protestant/Anglican Bible and today’s Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. We cannot just take the position of our own denomination for granted. All of this needs to be carefully, seriously, and fully examined and investigated before we can even begin to get onto the question of what “breathed out by God” and the rest of verse 16, as well as the whole of verse 17 mean.

So now we get to what most Christians, rightly or wrongly, see as the heart of the matter: what the author of 2 Timothy really means by “breathed out by God” (verse 16). Most evangelicals, especially conservative evangelicals just presume that this means that God divinely dictated every single word, sentence, phrase, and paragraph of the entire Bible as we now, in its Protestant/Anglican form, have it today. This is a large and, in my view, dangerous, logical leap for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are reading the term dictation into the text as nowhere in the Bible is does it state that it was divinely dictated by God and nowhere does it say that it is infallible, inerrant, or without human error. The phrase “breathed out by God” (verse 16) can be and is interpreted in many radically different ways and their particular hermeneutic/interpretation is just one of many. Dr Benson states that he finds there to be two main different ways of interpreting “breathed out by God” in verse 16:

“Respecting the inspiration of the books of the Old Testament, I find two opinions, says Dr. Benson, on this passage: “1st, That the writers of the several books had all the thoughts, and even the very words, suggested to them by the Spirit of God: and that they were the penmen of the Spirit to commit to writing just what he dictated.

2nd, Others think with more latitude; and allow, indeed, that Moses received the Law from God; and that the prophets were inspired by the Spirit to foretell future events, which lay out of the reach of human foresight; but that they were left to express themselves in their own words and phrases, in which they give a faithful account of what the Spirit dictated to them”

(Taken from part of the “Benson Commentary’s” section on 2 Timothy 3:16, accessed via the “Bible Hub” website)

Out of Dr Benson’s two above quoted interpretations, I find the latter much more convincing, even though I do not completely agree with either. I think that the Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical authors to write the books and letters they wrote and often, but not always, inspired them to make the points they made, and that the particular form of expression, tone, language, and terminology were left up to the human Biblical authors themselves. I believe that the Biblical authors sometimes made certain points and lines of argument which were they not inspired to make by the Holy Spirit and this explains the inconsistencies and human errors which is clearly present within the Bible and the rationally inexplicable and irreconcilable points which are sometimes made in the Bible. An example of a rationally inexplicable and irreconcilable line of argument would, as Professor Anthony Bash has pointed out, be that which St Paul makes about hair length in 1 Corinthians:

“Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory […]”

(1 Corinthians 11:14-15)

Professor Bash rightly argues that the idea that all men ought to never have “long hair” (verse 14) and that all women ought to always have “long hair” (verse 15) is often not naturally apparent or obvious to us all. Many, if not most, today argue that “long hair” or longer hair suits some men better than others and is looks more natural than shorter hair for them personally. The same argument can be and is made for women’s hair length. Furthermore, what is long and what is short? This is a completely subjective question which can only merit and produce completely subjective, random and arbitrary answers. The answers to both of the following questions raised by verses 14-15 are completely subjective and culturally-influenced or maybe even culturally-determined, as some may argue: ‘Is it only natural and thus right for men to not have “long hair” and for women to have “long hair”?’, and “How long is “long” and how short is “short”?’ Is Paul arguing that only those things which are natural and also thereby moral? This is a very weak argument and does not hold water at all as most Christians, especially Anglicans and Protestants, today carry out all sorts of unnatural deeds and actions which are not seen by themselves or other Christians as sinful e.g. contraceptive sex and new, artificial medicines and medical treatments. This logic in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 which seems to at least imply that Paul is morally condemning everything which seems to him personally to be unnatural is the same logic he uses in Romans 1:22-27 to condemn the act of homosexual sex.

The second problem with the conservative “dictation interpretation” of “breathed out by God” is that it leaves no room for God’s good gift of human free will or for God’s allowance and endorsement of human individuality in writing. Without even the possibility of human freedom, the Biblical authors would be reduced by God’s divine dictation from full humans each made in God’s own image to mere automata or robots who each always had to write exactly what God wanted, exactly when He wanted, and with the exact terms, language, tone, and phrases He wanted. I find this very hard to believe as it is simply indisputable that the tone, language, and terminology, never mind the points and arguments made, all differ from book to book in the Bible.

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2 Peter 1:16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit

(2 Peter 1:16-21)

Again, here we exactly the same problems we had with 2 Timothy 3:16-17 of just not knowing what the author of 2 Peter means by “the prophetic word” (verse 19), or “Scripture” (verse 20). It’s also worth remembering that the author is only referring to prophesies, he is not making a broad generalised statement as is made in 2 Timothy 3:16. This significantly limits the scope of verses and passages which the author of 2 Peter could be referring to. It is much easier to accept the validity, reliability and truthfulness of Biblical prophesies than it is with every single word in all of the books and letters of the “Scripture” (verse 20) which the author of 2 Peter knew at the time. To demonstrate this, there are 44 prophesies about the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament and all 44 are fulfilled in the New Testament and so are all clearly trustworthy, reliable, valid and true. It is also much easier to accept that no Biblical “prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (verse 21), than it is with every single word in all of the books and letters of this author’s “Scripture” (verse 20) at the time.

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2 Peter 3:15-16

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures

(2 Peter 3:15-16)

It is worth noting a few things first of all. Firstly, nowhere in these two verses are the following terms mentioned: “infallibility”, “inerrancy”, “absence of human error”, or “God-breathed”. Secondly, it is unclear as to which Pauline letters this author is referring to. Is he referring only to those letters which modern scholars would, on the whole, today call “authentic Pauline letters” or is he including more than those seven here? Is he included the non-canonical Pauline letters Which Pauline letters did this author know of, which ones had he read only referring to a letter(s) of Paul (again it is unclear as to which letter(s) he is alluding to or he had read). Thirdly, we know for sure that Paul himself wrote letters other than those which are today included in the Bible as is shown in 1 Corinthians 5:9; 16:3; and 2 Corinthians 2:4.

Painting of St Paul writing
A painting of St Paul the Apostle writing

It is obviously a bit of a stretch to say the least to try to somehow argue “wisdom” (verse 15)=completely perfect teaching, doctrine, morals and ethics. Doctrinal, ethical and moral “wisdom” is to be found in a great many non-Biblical books, and even in books written by non-Christians but this wisdom is obviously fallible and, in at least some areas, capable of flaws and errors. There is no evidence whatsoever that the author of 2 Peter is not here referring to this definition/view of wisdom. If “wisdom”=infallibility, we would have to declare authors like C.S. Lewis as infallible.

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Matthew 5:17-18

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished

(Matthew 5:17-18)

Painting of the Sermon on the Mount
“The Sermon on the Mount” painting (1877) by Carl Bloch

Firstly, we need to remember that Jesus is only referring to “the Law [the Torah/Pentateuch – first five books of the Old Testament]” and “the [Old Testament] Prophets”, and not to the rest of the Bible or to any part of the New Testament, all of which was written long after his Ascension in 25-28 AD. Secondly, there is a significant different between saying that it is not incumbent for one to read, acknowledge and take account all parts of a text, including even the smallest ones, and saying that every single part of a text is infallible, inerrant, and totally free from human error. It is finally worth bearing in mind that these verses only appear in Matthew’s Gospel.

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2 Timothy 2:2

“[W]hat you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also”

(2 Timothy 2:2)

First of all, we ought to acknowledge that 2 Timothy is one of the letters which the modern scholarly consensus states was certainly not written by St Paul and so this questions the letters reliability, authority and validity, and it is begs the question: ‘who is the author referring to when he says “what you have heard from me”?’ Secondly, again, nowhere in this verse are the following terms mentioned: “infallibility”, “inerrancy”, “absence of human error”, or “God-breathed”. This author is simply stating that I think you who read this letter ought to relay my teachings to others who will themselves and in turn pass on those same teachings to others. If we just presume that he was implying or suggesting that his own personal teachings were all completely free from human error, we must view all of those humans in this chain and process as being mere automata or robots without true power, influence or freedom and without proper meaningful functions of their own. They could not question, challenge, amend, or even re-interpret any of these teachings.

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Hebrews 4:12

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”

(Hebrews 4:12)

I actually find it very hard to see how people could see this verse as supporting Biblical infallibility/inerrancy as it states that the “word of God is living and active” – which, in my book at least, means that it is not exegetically, hermeneutically or interpretively static. Interpretations of it can change according to individuals themselves, the time, place, context, society, culture, and new information about verses and their authors, specific contexts, etc… As Professor Bash has said:

“God may have given us an inspired Word, but He has not given us an inspired hermeneutic [interpretation]”

(Professor Anthony Bash)

Just think of how radically the vast majority of British Christians have re-interpreted passages on slavery in books such as 1 Corinthians, Titus, and Philemon, and of how radically passages such as 1 Corinthians 11; 14:33-35; and 1 Timothy 2:12-15 when it comes to gender. Jesus Himself re-interpreted the Law/Torah/Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) as is constantly shown throughout the Gospels, especially in places such as John 8, and Matthew 5:17-48, and he relocated the ethical and moral epicentre or focus of the Law/Torah, as Professor Anthony Bash has pointed out, as is shown in Matthew 22:40. Paul also re-interprets the verses he quotes from the Old Testament in the new, post-resurrection context in which he finds himself and as a recently-converted Christian. It thus makes little, if any, sense to say that the very text of the Bible itself is infallible as how is one to know and who is to decide which interpretation of each term, phrase, verse and passage is “the right one”, even if we are to presume that there is always just one correct interpretation of everything in the Bible.

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Isaiah 8:20

“To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn”

(Isaiah 8:20)

To me, this verse fits perfectly with the idea that all we need for salvation is contained within the Bible. I also think it fits perfectly with the Anglican doctrine of prima scriptura (literally, “Scripture first”) which the idea that Scripture should be the most important, reliable, valued, truthful, and trustworthy, but not the only, source of divine revelation, doctrine and ethics. If a suggested/proposed doctrine or ethic directly contradicts the doctrine or ethic which is both consistently and coherently set out across the Bible, it must be rejected. In other words, all proposed and suggested doctrines and ethics must first be tested against the Bible and, if the Bible contradicts them, they are to be rejected. On the surface and the face of it and at first glance, this seems to be solid approach. However, how can the Bible be the measure of doctrinal authenticity and validity, and final arbiter for issues which the authors of the Bible never mentioned? Modern questions such as whether or not abortion, euthanasia, assisted dying, in vitro fertilisation (I.V.F.), and Artificial Insemination by Husband (A.I.H.), and Artificial Insemination by Donor (A.I.D.) are never mentioned in the Bible are very recent ethical issues and so we cannot look to the Bible for answers here. There is again the question of what Isaiah means when he says this word as, at most, all it can refer to is the Old Testament books written before the Book of Isaiah. Finally, we need to remember that nowhere in these this verse are the following terms mentioned: “infallibility”, “inerrancy”, “absence of human error”, or “God-breathed”.

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What “God-breathed” cannot mean and why

God-breathed 3

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Why a conservative view would be narrow, over-simplistic and demeaning

The very presence of pseudepigrapha alone proves that it contains some human errors. Pseudepigrapha are falsely-attributed texts where either the author or someone later has attributed a work to someone other than its author. According to the strong consensus of modern scholarship, Titus and 1-2 Timothy were definitely not written by the man to whom they were attributed (Paul), and Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians and Colossians were most likely not written by the man to whom they were attributed (also Paul). Whichever way you look at it these false attributions, whether it is an intentional lie or an accidental mistake of ignorance, have to be human errors and thus prove the fallibility of the Bible. Now, fearing the potential and possible consequences of acknowledging the presence of pseudepigraphal letters in the Bible, some conservative evangelicals will unwisely go against the strong consensus of modern scholarship on this issue and they instead argue that all 13 letters attributed to Paul were indeed written by Paul himself. However, they then find it very difficult to explain why the language, vocabulary, style, theological method, terminology and structure of the letters in the original Koine Greek varies so greatly between the 13 letters.

In addition to this, the authentic Pauline letters even contain many unfinished sentences in the ten non-pastoral Pauline letters such as in 1 Corinthians 10:6a as Larry Kreitzer, Jack Barentsen, Professor Anthony Bash, and many others have all pointed out. Furthermore, it is widely acknowledged that the Greek in Mark’s Gospel is quite sloppy and certainly not at the level of perfection or infallibility!

I do not believe that the Bible is infallible or inerrant (free from human error). It seems very clear to me that there are at least some clear, unambiguous, and indisputable human errors in the Bible (which have nothing to do with God’s own incomprehensible, transcendent, and unfathomable nature) which just cannot be reinterpreted to make sense. In the words of Professor Anthony Bash,

“There’s only so much hermeneutical acrobatics you can do”

(Professor Anthony Bash)

before one starts to seem illegitimate and dishonest and before one can be seem to simply be desperately trying to protect and defend the text for nothing other than its own sake. Such an example is the story of the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant in the Gospels, as James D.G. Dunn has pointed out. In one version of the story, the Roman Centurion himself approaches Jesus but in the other telling of the story, he is too humble to do that and sends his friends instead. Both of these versions of the same story cannot be true. One must be right and the other must be wrong. This is clearly, therefore, a human error. What is important, as Dunn again points out, is the main gist of the story and the point that is trying to be made through it, not the specific words themselves or the pedantic detailed minutiae of the story itself. Another example of an inconsistency would be the significant shift in Paul’s view on circumcision, the seeming contradiction between Paul’s severe moral warning and his belief in the eternal security of the believer, the differences in the views of the Second Coming between 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, and the difference in the views on what happens to a Christian’s body after he/she dies between 1 Corinthians 15 and the letters to the Thessalonians. Most people who choose to describe themselves as “evangelical Christians” reject this view and argue that the Bible must be infallible, and they generally interpret it in a very narrow, literal, wooden way, neglecting the complexity of the Bible and the multiple layers of deep, powerful and profound meaning. As Dr Gordon Harper recently pointed out to me, they make the Bible and the very text itself their golden calf, their idol and their false god. Christianity and the Gospel are based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not on a particular view and interpretation of Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture is it stated that the Bible is infallible or inerrant – that is just a human construct dreamt up by those who want easy answers, certainty, and to safeguard the Bible from the legitimate, proper academic, literary and critical scrutiny and examination which it, as such a well-known, powerful, widely-read and influential text, rightly deserves. These “evangelical Christians” hold this position of infallibility and inerrancy because they fear a slippery slope if they let go of that particular view, as Robert Carroll has rightly pointed out. Infallibility and inerrancy are relatively late human constructions which have been gradually developed after the Reformation to try to erect an invincible fence around the Bible and protect it from proper academic, literary and critical scrutiny and examination, as Robert Carroll rightly pointed out. They have tried to construct a solid wall of steel around both the very text of the Bible itself and their own particular interpretation of it and its contents. However, I do not believe that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, divinely-dictated Word of God. This is because I personally think and believe that there are some human errors and insoluble contradictions in its pages which would not be there if God had divinely dictated it. This view of the Bible as infallible leaves no room for even the possibility of human freedom or free will as the humans who physically wrote it did not really write it but merely transcribed it. They had to write it and had to write exactly what God wanted them to write in exactly the way he wanted them to write it with the exact tone, language, and terminology he wanted. I just cannot accept this as it seems to me, from my own empirical experience, to be obvious that we humans do indeed have free will. We have multiple options before us, we take a long time considering each option in turn and weighing up the pros and cons and then finally make our conclusion and then choose to act upon it. We at least seem to make decisions freely by, with, and for ourselves. If you argue that this is just an illusion, then you would have to equally doubt all other knowledge which we gain from our senses, but I have never seen any determinist actually do this. Furthermore, the following Biblical verses all strongly imply that human beings do indeed have free will (“ultimate self-determination” as John Piper puts it):

(1) “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”

(Joshua 24:15)

(2) “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place”

(Jeremiah 7:3)

(3) “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another”

(Galatians 5:13)

(4) “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”

(Revelation 3:20)

(5) “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own”

(John 7:17)

(6) “Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement”

(Romans 13:2)

(7) “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’”

(Genesis 2:16-17)

(8) “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon”

(Isaiah 55:6-7)

(9) “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”

(Deuteronomy 30:19)

(10) “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live”

(Ezekiel 18:30-32)

(11) “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.”’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”

(Luke 18:18-22)

It is important to remember that nowhere in the Bible does it say that it is infallible, inerrant, or free from human error and nowhere does it tell us how we should view or interpret the Bible as a whole, individual passages, books (the Bible is really a library of books, not just a single book), verses, sections or chapters. As Professor Anthony Bash often states:

“God may have given us an inspired Word, but he has not given us an inspired hermeneutic [interpretation]”

(Professor Anthony Bash)

Or as Professor Robert Carroll used to say when students would respond to him, saying, ‘But the Bible says…’:

“The Bible does NOT say, YOU make it say!”

(Professor Robert Carroll)

A really thorough, interesting read on this subject is Carroll’s book Wolf in the Sheepfold: The Bible as Problematic for Theology. This book lays out simply, thoroughly, clearly and in lay person’s terms why it can at least sometimes be so difficult to derive logically and rationally consistent and coherent theologies, doctrines, ethics and philosophies from the Bible, and how and why the Bible has been and is being misunderstood, misused and abused by Christians.

Now conservative evangelicals will generally dispute the idea that the Bible is a library of many books, rather than just being one single, completely consistent and coherent book. One such man is Revd Vaughan Roberts from Oxford who wrote the following:

“The Bible certainly contains a diverse collection of writings: sixty-six books written by about forty different human authors over a considerable period of time. But it still holds together as a unity. Fundamentally, it is just one book written by one author with one main subject. The author is God […] What the human authors wrote still bears the marks of their different personalities, situations and writing styles, but […] He [God] ensured by His Spirit that they wrote exactly what he wanted them to write”

(From page 10 of the “Introduction” of “Life’s Big Questions: Six major themes traced through the Bible”)

Is it just me or does Roberts contradict himself here? He refreshingly acknowledges that forty different authors of the Bible were all very different people in different situations, contexts and circumstances and that they all had different careers and former careers, backgrounds, cultures, etc… but he then states that, despite this, none of these factors had any impact whatsoever on what these authors wrote, what they chose to include or not to include. Roberts states that “What the human authors wrote still bears the marks of their different personalities, situations and writing styles”. However, if this is true, then he must admit that the Bible’s tone, language, expression and terminology is human rather than divine and must necessarily, due to the Fall of humanity, therefore be fallible. However, he bizarrely still holds to Biblical infallibility and states that, regardless of this, God still ensured that “they wrote exactly [this presumably includes the Bible’s tone, language, expression and terminology] what he wanted them to write”.

An acknowledgement of the fact that Scripture clearly contains some minor human errors needn’t diminish one’s view of the Bible. I still believe that the Bible is a divinely inspired book and that it is by far the most important and fascinating book in the world and in history and I believe that all Christians should aim to read it at least once a day and that it is the best set of instructions before leaving Earth.

Conservative evangelical student churches very rarely mention the Holy Spirit and, as another friend rightly pointed out to me, seem to replace it with the Bible within the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and the Bible; rather than God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit). These churches do not “experience” the Holy Spirit in worship (I don’t often either) but they also state that the Bible itself (excluding interpretations and study – just the very words themselves) is infallible. This leaves very little scope for the Holy Spirit. This, I think, demonstrates their hardness of hearts when it comes to interpretation. The focus of conservative evangelicals on the exact and precise words of Scripture themselves sadly reduces the Word made flesh (John 1:14) back to just being the Word of old again as Edwin Muir pointed out:

“The Word made flesh here is made word again”

(From Edwin Muir’s poem “Incarnate One”)

God-breathed 5

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The Dishonesty of the conservative view when it comes to Scriptural authority

No Christian, Church or denomination, no matter how conservative and/or evangelical they might claim to be, has or has had the Bible as their sole authority. This is because there are many modern theological, pastoral, doctrinal, practical, and ethical questions and topics which are never even mentioned in the Bible. It is also because we constantly and often subconsciously use our reason and the tradition of the Church, but particularly reason, to read and interpret the Bible and to derive an ethic and/or doctrine from it. As one of my lecturers constantly and rightly says, “God may have given us a divinely-inspired Word but he has not given us a divinely-inspired hermeneutic [interpretation]”. Also, we constantly use reason and/or tradition to try to fit two at least seemingly contradictory verses or passages on one single issue together. Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us how we should or shouldn’t read/interpret different verses and passages and nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Bible is infallible, inerrant, or free from human error. This view of the Bible makes it into one’s idol, false god, and golden calf. Christian faith is not based on a particular view of or interpretation of the Bible but is based on faith in Jesus Christ alone as Jesus Himself clearly stated. Sola scriptura, sola fides has always meant and does mean in the original Latin: faith in Christ alone via/through the Scripture/Bible in which He is revealed. Not faith in the Bible itself. Sola scriptura’s main point is that all we need for salvation is contained within the Bible and I very much agree with that.

Conservative evangelicals argue that we cannot and should not use any sources other than the text of the Bible itself to demonstrate its authority. They argue that we cannot even turn to the writings of the Jew Josephus, author of The Jewish War, who refers to the resurrection of Jesus, or the writing of the non-Christian Tacitus who refers to Jesus and miracles he performed. This is because they argue that when we turn to a source other than the Bible, to back it up, we placing that source above the Bible itself which ought to be the only and the supreme source of authority. I see this as faulty logic as one can acknowledge the authority of the Bible itself in and through its text (the proof of the pudding is in the eating), but one can also refer to non-Biblical to a lesser extent to give the Bible even more authority and show it to be even more reliable, truthful, valid, authoritative, and trustworthy. All arguments for the authority, reliability, validity, infallibility, or inerrancy of the Bible which are solely based on or purely derived from verses contained within the Bible itself necessarily must be completely circular arguments as many conservative evangelicals themselves admit. These arguments merely prematurely presume that their own premise (that the Bible is the sole and supreme authority) is correct. The arguments’ entire basis is a self-authenticating circular premise. It is quite frankly an insult to the intelligence. This makes such arguments rationally, logically and philosophical inconsistent and incoherent. We must then ask ourselves why God gave us minds and intellects if he does not want us to apply them here.

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How the conservative view leads to a worrying and dangerous “Biblical Command Theory”

The conservative view of the Bible leads not to the Divine Command Theory (where God Himself is the sole measure, source, authority and final arbiter of morality and ethics), but instead to a “Biblical Command Theory” where the Bible itself, and not God, is the sole measure, source, authority and final arbiter of morality and ethics. If the Bible says something is morally right, then it must be, regardless of what your intellect, experience, thought, wisdom, knowledge, reason, or logic tell you. You must just accept the complete authority of the Bible and subsequently just submit and surrender to all of its moral and ethical opinions, some of which, at least appear, to contradict each other. As the conservative Christian John Piper put it:

“[J]ust read this book [the Protestant Bible] and believe it all”

(John Piper when answering the question of whether or not God’s plan included sin from the start)

Another conservative Christian, Francis Chan, made the same point in a slightly different way:

‘Are you willing to surrender to God no matter what he said. What if he said, in this book, “Chinese people have to stand on their heads”? I’ll try to stand on my head. I mean, He’s God. What if He said, “Chinese people don’t get to marry”? He’s God. I don’t like that but I’m gonna surrender to that because I understand the difference between a Creator and a created being. And before we even get to what does this book actually say, I have to say, do you just surrender, would you surrender? If you disagree with God on an issue, would you still submit to Him?’

(Francis Chan when asked about his views on homosexuality)

Chan is dangerously and wrongly conflating God with the Bible here, he is deifying and idolising the Bible. He has made the Bible has become his idol, golden calf and false god. He is treating a finite book written in limited human language as equal to and even the same as God. Chan is arguing here that we need to accept and surrender to anything which is stated in the Bible, even if it makes no sense and has nothing to do with God’s own nature or his deeds/interactions with the world. People who hold this view will often point you to doxologies (glorifications of God, or “A liturgical formula of praise to God” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as) such as Romans 11:33-36, forgetting that they only refer to God Himself:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counsellor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen’

(Romans 11:33-36)

Such doxologies only apply to God, as Paul makes clear in the above passage – he never mentions “Scripture”, “the Bible”, or “the Word”. He addresses his doxology solely and purely to God Himself and God alone. So, when us Christians cannot explain an ethic, not related to God’s incomprehensible nature or his unfathomable way of acting and dealing with the world, which appears in the Bible, they are entitled to be able to reject it. This is because there is no reason why it should be incomprehensible, unfathomable and inexplicable, particularly as, if it were truly from God and if He did want us to follow it, surely he would have made it explicable, coherent, consistent, rational and logical in order for our God-given minds and intellects to understand it? Why do both God the Father and God the Son (Jesus Christ) both often explain the logic, reasoning, explanation, and rationale behind their moral commandments before/when/after they issue them? Jesus went to great effort to explain his moral and ethical views, often by using extraordinary parables. Surely, if the rationales and explanations of morals and ethics were irrelevant and pointless, God would not ever issue them?

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The incompatibility of the conservative view with Anglicanism

The Church of England and Anglicanism as a whole which derived from the Church of England in the first place, is a “broad Church” with many different wings and factions – almost like “sub-denominations” with their own different emphasises, tones, terminology, language, styles of worship and expression, and occasionally beliefs. As an ordained Anglican minister in the Church of England, you are expected to acknowledge, understand and admire this breadth, not oppose it and this is shown in part of one of the nine selection criteria for ordained ministry:

B 4: Candidates should show willingness to work with diversity within
the Church of England
Evidence for this may be drawn from a candidate’s capacity to:
• Understand, value and respect the diversity of approaches to theology,
ministry, mission and liturgical practice within the Church of England
• Display a spirit of generosity, respect and flexibility towards those from
different Anglican traditions and perspectives
• Be willing to work ecumenically and in partnership with those from
other Christian Churches and be prepared to relate to those of other
Faiths and none”

(Criterion B 4 from “Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England”)

However, many conservative evangelicals such as Rico Tice in the video above think that those who just happen to disagree with him on the single ethical question human sexuality “have a different religion” and are “putting people on the road to destruction”. Remember that, on top of this, Tice personally confronted the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Revd Paul Bayes, about his views on human sexuality and, when he could not persuade +Bayes to change his mind, he left the Archbishop’s Evangelism Task Group.

A Photograph of the Archbishop's E.G.G.S.
A photograph of the Archbishop’s Evangelism Task Group as of 26th March 2014

The very same conservative evangelicals are, and have been for some time, threatening to break away from the established Church of England and form their own new, separate, independent and distinct Anglican Church also in England with its own Bishops, synod, and legal structure. Indeed, they have already carried out their own detailed planning for such an eventuality. It is therefore impossible for me to see how such conservative evangelicals who refuse to tolerate difference of theological, doctrinal and ethical opinion and who do not respect, admire or work with other wings and factions within the Anglican Church of England can really, in all honesty, call themselves Anglicans. Conservative evangelical ordained ministers have to intentionally, directly and specifically go against the very criteria on which they were assessed and selected for their ministry in the first place.

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What, then, can it mean?

Jesus teaching in the Synagogue

I personally think and believe that “God-breathed” means that the human authors of the books of the Bible were inspired by God the Holy Spirit to write those books and make at least some of the arguments and points which were to be contained within them. The choice of language, tone, terminology, expression, vocabulary, and arguments were, however, ultimately up to the human authors themselves who had free will, a good gift given to them by God Himself, when writing the books they wrote.

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Can the Bible still be the “Word of God” without it being infallible/inerrant?

God-breathed 4

There is an important and significant distinction between the phrases “the Word of God”, and “the Word from/by God”. Let us say that I refer to a Volkswagen (VW) car, which is assembled, built and put together in Germany, as a “German car” or a “car of Germany”. Does this necessarily have to mean that every single part of that car is from Germany and was manufactured in Germany? Of course it doesn’t. Does this have to mean that the car’s design, appearance, composition, assembly and construction were never influenced by people, cars, companies or manufacturers from countries other than and outside of Germany? Of course it doesn’t. When then is it presumed by many Christians that the Bible cannot be “the Word of God” if every single word, phrase, sentence, passage, and argument contained within it was not divinely dictated by an infallible God?

By Ben Somervell

Might also like these two previous of mine:

What does it mean to be an “evangelical Christian”? Am I one?

What’s Wrong with Evangelical “Student Christianity”?

One thought on “What is “God-breathed” all about?

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