By Kevin McFadden, Louisiana College
The conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention resulted from a battle primarily over the nature of the Bible.
Unlike every other denomination, the SBC returned to its historic position about the inspiration of Scripture.
However, Southern Baptists may “win the battle but lose the war” if we affirm a conservative doctrine of Scripture on paper, but fail to teach its meaning to our people. With this in my mind, my goal here is to explain the meaning of inspiration by reflecting on the doctrine’s classic text, 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (NIV).
What does Paul mean when he says Scripture is “God-breathed”? You may notice that some of our older English translations of 2 Timothy 3:16 say that Scripture is “inspired by God.”
The aforementioned older translation comes over into English from a Latin translation of the verse. Unfortunately for us, the English words “inspire” and “inspiration” are never used in modern conversation in the way they are used in Christian theology.
When Christians say that the Bible is “inspired,” we mean that it originates from God. The Greek word which is translated “inspired” or “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 is the word theopneustos. (You may be able to see in this adjective the word theos, the Greek word for “God.” This is where we get our word “theology” in English).
The word theopneustos means “breathed out by God,” and it refers to the origin of Scripture. So when Paul says that Scripture is “inspired” or “God-breathed,” he means that Scripture originates from God. And this leads to our next question: What does Paul mean by “Scripture”?
In context, Paul clearly refers to the Old Testament, because he says that Timothy has known these “sacred writings” from his childhood (2 Tim 3:15), a time before any of the New Testament documents were written. The word translated “Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 is always used in the New Testament to refer to the special collection of writings we now call the Old Testament.
From our vantage point, however, we may also say that the New Testament is inspired, for from the earliest days of the church, Christians began recognizing that the writings of the New Testament were on par with the Old Testament. For this very reason Peter speaks of a collection of Paul’s letters as a part of the “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
The idea that Scripture originates from God does not merely come from 2 Timothy 3:16, but is seen throughout the Bible.
The law claims to be from God, and the prophets often use the phrase “thus says the Lord.”
Matthew notes the divine origin of Scripture when he says that Isaiah’s prophesy of the virgin birth fulfilled “what the Lord had said through the prophet” (Matt 1:22). And Jesus himself claims that Scripture comes from God when he says David spoke Psalm 110:1 “by the Holy Spirit” (Mark 12:36).
Notice, however, that these texts speak of Scripture originating from both God and men. The Lord spoke through his prophets. The Christian doctrine of inspiration does not teach that God dictated the entire Bible from heaven, and that the human authors were just secretaries taking down God’s words. That is the Muslim view of the Koran, but it is not the Christian view of the Bible.
Peter tells us that “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). There is a dual-authorship to Christian Scripture: It was written by people, but it ultimately comes from God.
This is why Christians call the Bible “holy.” It is a book set apart or dedicated to God. This is why Christians find it to be authoritative.
The Bible tells us who God is, what God would have us believe, and how he would have us live. This is why we say the Bible has no errors: Not because we’ve examined and externally verified every problem in Scripture (although some have), but because we believe it originates from a truth-speaking God. And this is why we pray for help in its interpretation (Ps 119:18).
If Scripture comes from God, then its author is not dead: He is alive and present to help us understand His word.
I recently asked a seasoned worship pastor to tell me the most important thing he had learned in his 30 years of ministry. He told me: “Never stop teaching your people about worship.”
That same advice, I think, could be said for the doctrine of inspiration.
Southern Baptists must not only affirm the doctrine of inspiration on paper, we must continue to teach our people its meaning. One practical way of doing this might be to teach through the first article of the Baptist Faith and Message (the one about Scripture).
A church could incorporate this into a new member’s class, a Sunday School, or some other teaching venue.
Another practical way of teaching the doctrine of inspiration might be for a pastor to point it out as he preaches through passages that mention it. In whatever way we do it, we must be faithful to accurately teach this doctrine that others have fought to preserve, or we will risk losing it ourselves.
Kevin McFadden, PhD, is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College and in the Caskey School of Divinity.