Jeannine and I recently had breakfast with Pastor Erik. He mentioned a question he was recently asked about the second reading assigned for January 20, 2013, the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost. After some discussion Pastor Erik asked if I might consider a regular blog-spot on St. Luke’s ministry blog responding to questions about Church, theology, and the like thus adding a new dimension to our Adult Education and Faith Formation at St. Luke’s. He should have known better than to ask a retired professor to profess. But since he opened that Pandora’s Box, we’ll use the question put to the Pastor, launch “Ask Greg” and see if it will fly.
(WARNING: The response will not be authoritative, but hopefully will stimulate further discussion—and I am always available for that.)
Q. In the epistle reading for this coming Sunday (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5) we read the following: “All scripture is inspired by God…” What exactly does this mean? I am not comfortable with the idea that everything in the Bible is literally true. While a great deal of scripture is insightful and contains great wisdom, there are some things that make me rankle.
Such questions about many passages can be found throughout the history of Christianity. For the first four centuries there were a wide variety of answers, most of which came nowhere close to a literal reading of sacred writings. Beyond that, there was widespread disagreement on what writings were considered to be sacred. Even after the question of authoritative writings was settled (what came to be called the “canon of scripture”) the question of what it means continued to a point of controversy, and it still is today.
Let me share some questions and observations instead of offering a straightforward answer (which in all honesty would have to be “I’m not sure”).
What does the author of 2 Timothy mean by the word “scripture”? The word itself (γραϕή) simply means “writing.” In context (which we’ll deal with in a moment), it probably doesn’t mean “all writing” even though the text clearly says that—I would not object if someone insisted that we must consider the possibility that the author actually did mean that. But assuming for the moment that the author meant something more limited, it certainly can’t refer to that library of remarkably different writings called The Holy Bible that we have in our homes today because the books of Titus and 2 Peter were not yet written. Furthermore, from references in 2 Timothy we can’t be certain that the author was familiar with any of what we today call the New Testament except for the letters of Paul (the earliest documents of that literature) and later epistles in the Pauline tradition. It is quite possible that the author either did not know or did not hold in high esteem what we know today as the Four Gospels.
We can be sure that the author included some of the prophetic literature (probably especially Isaiah) in his generalization about “all writing.” We read in 2 Timothy 3:15
“from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
[As an interesting side comment, note that the author here refers to “sacred writings” (ίερά γράμματα, literally “sacred letters”) but in 3:16 the author refers to “all writings” (πασα γραϕή). Make of that what you will.] Beyond these fragments of an idea, I can’t be certain what the author means by the passage in 3:16.
What does the author of 2 Timothy mean by “inspired by God”? In the Greek that is one word; Θεπνευστος, “God-breathed.” Here we need to be precise and careful about the nuances of a metaphorical understanding in the ancient world shared among the speakers of Hebrew, Greek, and (to a lesser extent) Latin. The words we translate as “breath” in all three cases are either related to or identical with the words we translate as “spirit.” It does not indicate that there was direct dictation, nor does it conjure up notions of “channeling.” Rather, it refers more to a vague sense of a faith-filled reflection, or perhaps an indication that from the point of view of the author the writing is consistent with what we discern about God’s spirit, essence, being.
So, how does one approach scripture? Obviously there are a wide variety of answers to this question, but for myself I can only say that I look at the Bible as a library rather than a single book, and I read the contents with equal amounts of faith and skepticism. In addition, I always try to read the text (whether one calls it “sacred” or not) within historical context. 2 Timothy was written many centuries before our current culture wars over “inerrancy of scripture,” “historical criticism,” “form criticism” and other perspectives. It was written before Christianity carried the burden of centuries of widespread cultural acceptance and official status in Europe, a significant portion of Northern Africa, and most of the Western Hemisphere, along with the contemporary burden of widespread (and most likely inevitable) reaction to that long-standing acceptance and status. We need to see the documents that four centuries later became the complete canon of Christian scriptures not from the perspective of an assumed intended outcome, but from the more exciting and more instructive perspective of communities of faith struggling (sometimes successfully, sometimes imperfectly) to understand, define and articulate that faith. Indeed, we might be better served by seeing ourselves as a continuation of that conversation than as the inheritors of a firm, fixed and final truth.
Thus, my ultimate response to the anonymous inquirer is, “Good question! Let’s share perspectives and talk further about this.”
To talk further about this or any other related interests write to email@example.com or call 773-294-1194. If extended conversation develops we’ll meet for coffee.
In some (perhaps most) cases, I’ll refer the matter to people in the congregation who are more qualified to address the issue (and we have an embarrassment of riches in such human resources at St. Luke, Logan Square—actually Ray Pickett is far more qualified than I to address this specific question and perhaps he could be persuaded to write a useful corrective to this historian’s take and present a more reliable response from the perspective of a Biblical scholar).
To ask a question which will be answered in this space, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please indicate whether or not you prefer for your question to be posted anonymously.