In my United Methodist context, one of the less salient but no doubt highly significant differences between the more traditional and evangelical Methodists and the progressive and liberal Methodists amounts to the different understands they have about the theological and ethical significance of the Bible. These differences also influence the approach of the institutionalist moderates given their both-and approach. The way in which the Scriptures are considered to be inspired has a deep bearing on how various passages of the Bible are considered to apply, or not apply, to the living of the Christian life.
Without trying to sketch out a fully-orbed account of how everyone sees Scripture, as there would doubtlessly be some critical detail let out of mix, I will simply suggest that the varying views of Biblical inspiration and significance are largely owing to two influences from the 18th and 19th century. On the one hand, the ‘conservative’ view of Scriptural inerrancy can be understood as an attempt to blending Enlightenment concerns about the rational acquisition of truth with Scripture as the source we pull from for theological reality. Far beyond simply recognizing the centrality of Scriptures to Christian faith as God’s gift ot the Church, Scripture became seen as functioning as principally giving peculiar propositional claims about various theological and ethical concerns that are true in terms of (a) have an objective reality to them and (b) not being contradictory with other propositions found in Scripture.
By contrast, the ‘progressive’ view of Scriptural inspiration finds its origins in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s understanding of religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence.” In emphasizing feelings as an explanation of religion, Schleiermacher represented the Romantic protest against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. One consequence of Schleiermacher’s view was to suggest that “[t]he real value of biblical stories is their ability to encourage and nourish the consciousness of God for those who hear them.”1 As a result of this influence, Scripture is evaluated on its ability to produce positive affectivity in its readers. As a result, passages about sexuality, for instance, are assessed based upon how beneficial they are perceived to be in fostering people’s faith.
There is a point I am trying to suggest here. The reason for our division in the United Methodist church and other denominations that have a similar struggle is indeed in part a division on matters of Biblical inspiration and significance that has created an environment that their can be sharp, vitriolic divide on the present problem on matters of sexuality. Not only do we disagree on sexuality, but we disagree on the very things that lead us to the conclusions we draw. This point should not be controversial, particularly for more traditionalist UMs who have repeatedly made this point. What I would suggest we need to see, however, is that the origin of our conflict isn’t faithfulness to the Scriptures vs. faithlessness. Rather, it is more owing to the influence of the Enlightenment and the oppositional reaction of Romanticism on modern Christian theology.
In make this comment, I am not trying to suggest that both sides are essentially equivalent when it comes to Christian faith. I would argue that conservative fusion of Enlightenment rationality and Christian theology is is one step less removed from the substance of the Gospel proclamation than the Romanticism of progressive Christianity. The former was a blending of Protestant Christian theology and some Enlightenment ideals about reason, the latter was more defined by forming Christian faith by its rejection of Enlightenment ideals. The result is what is largely true today, progressive Christianity is largely for those protesting and dissatisfied by what they deem to be the callousness, heartlessness, etc. of evangelical Christian faith and theology, much like Romanticism was the rejection of the Enlightenment. This makes Romantic/Liberal/Progressive Christianity one step further removed.
Yet, I am suggesting there are a few points in which both conservative and progressive Christian views of inspiration are similar on three measures in such a way that they are somewhat antithetical to what I would consider a Pauline view of inspiration in 2 Timothy 3.14-17. However, I will offer one important theological prolegomenon to what follows: the Scriptures for Paul is the Old Testament. However, I embrace the idea that the doctrine of inspiration of the New Testament finds its analogy with the inspiration of the Old Testament. While this does not suggest that we must understand the significance and purpose of the OT and NT as being exactly the same on all points, it allows that they bear a family resemblance to each other in terms of God’s involvement in the communicative meaning of both canons.
Firstly, both views of inspiration and significance of Scripture focus on a single epistemic good that Scripture is primarily seen as providing that is highlighted and distinguish from the rest of human life. Whether truth or right religious feelings, both views of inspiration leads to the evaluation of Scripture primarily along ones line of evaluation. While certainly, most theologically aware Christians today would acknowledge that Scripture is much more complex than simply providing propositions or affective experiences, what people acknowledge is different from the habitual acts of reading they engage in.
However, for the apostle Paul, his view of Scripture could not be reducible to any single epistemic good. M.any translations and interpretations of 2 Timothy 3.16 divide God-inspired (θεόπνευστος) and useful (ὠφέλιμος) as the expression of separate qualities of Scripture such that the four functions of teaching, reproof, correction, and training are seen as only describing the usefulness of Scripture. In other words, this verse is seen as saying that all scripture is (1) inspired and (2) useful for difference functions. However, I would put forward it more likely that those four prepositional phrases are adjectivally describing θεόπνευστος in addition to ὠφέλιμος. Divine inspiration would not have been understood as some abstract, generic epistemic grounding for the value of Scripture that prefigures the Enlightenment’s abstracted accounts of rationality. Rather, inspiration would have been understood to have specific purposes and specific goals that would be in mind. Isaiah 55.11 implies that an understanding of God’s inspired word has specific purposes in mind.
If this is the case, the ancient reader of Paul’s letter would associate θεόπνευστος with the four prepositions at the end of the verse as the purposes that God’s inspiration would accomplish. The most appropriate way to read 2 Timothy 3.16 is to see θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος as two sides of the same coin. God’s inspiration is not understood as some ‘objective’ quality of the Scriptures that then ensure some truth or goodness that comes from any act of reading the Scriptures, but rather as God’s action to make Scriptures beneficial for specific purposes.
These purposes are diverse for Paul. It is important for my point here to precisely defined what teaching, rebuke, correction, and instruction are specifically, other than to say that these are different actions with different, albeit overlapping, purposes. In terms of modern epistemic language, the inspiration of the Scriptures means that the they deliver many different epistemic goods, rather just a single thing such as truth or religious affectivity. Furthermore, whereas modern accounts of inspiration have a tendency to construe inspiration as providing a single good that ultimately separates and severs the connection of cognition and/or affectivity to the rest of life, these four purposes of the inspiration of Scripture would be understood as contributing to the formation of the person through the Scriptures.
Secondly, both Enlightenment and Romantic versions of Scriptural inspiration make a basic assumptions about who are effected by the Scriptures. They regularly make the assumption that theoretically everyone can be effected/affected by the Scriptures. The epistemic good of Scripture is a publicly accessible good. Certainly, not everyone will necessarily benefit from reading or hearing the Scriptures because they don’t have the prerequisite learning, perspective, thinking, attention, etc. However, receiving the benefits of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures is available for anyone who can just correct their errors so as to received what God purposes the Scriptures to provide.
However, Paul’s account to Timothy does not cast God’s inspiration of the Scriptures as a publicly accessible good. Rather, Paul provides an explicit statement of who the Scriptures are beneficial for in 2 Timothy 3.17: the person of God (ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος). This is likely a reference to people who are the recipients of God’s salvation and calling 1.8-10. Put differently, the person of God is a person whose life is defined by the Gospel, both in the calling by God and their response in faith. For these people, the divine inspiration of the Scriptures matures them (ἄρτιος) so that they can be skilled to accomplish good.
This isn’t to suggest that Paul thinks the Scriptures have no benefit for other people. Paul’s purpose is to encourage Timothy in his ministry. It appears Timothy had experienced some discouragement, if not even doubts, stemming from struggles with persecution. Encouraging Timothy to recall his prior training in the sacred writings, Paul’s emphasis on the benefit of the God-inspired Scriptures is highlighting the function that they have for people firmly situated in faith. Paul may consider there to be some other benefits of Scriptures for other people, just like he considers the Torah to have a value in teaching the unrighteous (1 Tim. 1.8-11). We might today after the canonization of the New Testament include the story of Jesus Christ life, death, and resurrection as beneficial for evangelistic preaching. However, despite these other purposes and functions, Paul considers there being very specific purposes of Scripture that are realized for a person of God (probably at the exclusion of others to received those benefits). For those who have faith, the Scriptures can instruct people in salvation (2 Ti. 2.15)
Finally, modern accounts of inspiration terms to focus on the inspiration of specific words. This specific sentence or this specific phrase has some truth-bearing or inspirational significance. John 3.16 is taken as it is to be a clear expression of salvation by faith. Jesus’ words about the two most important commandments are seen as providing a divine ethical program of love. In both cases, the words of Scriptures are themselves seen to provide a sense of goodness and/or truth on their own.
However, it is unlikely that Paul has in mind verbal inspiration as such. Inspiration in the Greek world would have placed a larger emphasis on words such as the Oracle of Delphi. However, inspiration through the Old Testament was more so imagistic and hermeneutical than verbal. Prophets cast images of God’s future and would often serve as object demonstrations of God’s action. God provides dreams, visions, and understandings of such phenomenon. That isn’t to say words weren’t important: they were very important as a medium of communication. But the importance of the words God’s instruction was in their listening, meditation, submission, and obedience; the experience of God’s word was more important than the sense of God’s word and in the image they conveyed.
Furthermore, as Paul’s teaching would have been more likely to have been construed closer to an ancient philosophy with a focus on ethical thinking than with what we today associated with religion, Paul’s language about the purposes of Scripture would likely have been understood against the backdrop against some popularized yet latent, philosophical conventions. For instance, the Stoics has an account of truth-bearing speech that is similar to our modern account of propositions in which there is a distinction between the verbal expression of a proposition and the state of affairs that the proposition refers to. While we need not assume that Paul has the Stoics proto-propositional account in mind, it is likely that the distinction between word and reality would be assumed in his account of inspiration. Consider Paul’s usage of the phrase “this saying is trustworthy” in his correspondence to Timothy (1 Tim. 1.15; 2 Tim. 2.11), which seems to imply a distinction of words from the truth and purposes those words are used in service of. As such, we would expect Paul to find the value of Scripture in what they do in the teaching, the rebuking, the correcting, and the instructing and not simply in the isolation of some thought or feeling that the words evoke.
Then, Paul refers to the writings through language that relates the Scriptures as wholes. He does not use the Greek word λογός and other synonymous terms to refer to the Old Testament. Rather, he used language that refers to their mode of transmission as being written, γράμματα and γραφὴ. As such, Paul does not have in minds the words of Scripture being inspired, at least not primarily. Rather, it was the collection that were enumerated as a collection of different ‘documents’ that were written separately.
Then, Paul’s concern about “all” isn’t a reference to every word of Scripture per se, but rather to the whole collection of the sacred writings. This makes better sense against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism in which there was no well-defined sense of any canon. The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on whether God was instructing through the Torah or the Torah plus the prophets. We can imagine the Qumran covenanters may have had their own views, being closer to the Pharisees. As such, “all Scripture” is understand as a reference to the entire collection of what Paul and Timothy knew as the sacred writings, over and against a more narrow view of the Torah alone. As such, Paul is concerned about the inspiration of various separate writings.
While all of this is largely piecemeal evidence, this implies that a different account of inspiration than inspiration of the words of Scriptures themselves is needed to take 2 Timothy 3.16-17 into account. Allow me to suggest here that what distinguished Paul’s approach to the Scriptures from many of his fellow Jews at the time is that Paul read the Scriptures as larger, whole units. For instance, the commandments and ordinances of the Torah are not for Paul to be understood in isolation from the end of Deuteronomy, where the account of future blessings and curses looks forward to God’s future action on behalf or, or in opposition to, Israel, which requires faith in response to God’s redemption. Meanwhile, if you were to read the Mishnah and Talmud, you see a predominant concern on getting the specific teachings of specific passages.
In making these three distinctions, part of my motivation is provide a robust theological account of inspiration that shares many of the concerns that evangelicals have about progressive theological movements without accepting many of the deeply baked assumptions about inspiration and language that evangelical interpreters rely upon. In putting forward an account of inspiration that is pluralist in terms of seeing Scripture delivering multiple epistemic goods, a non-public understanding of the value that doesn’t go into the solipsism of private interpretation but rather takes the Gospel as the starting point of comprehension of the Scriptures, and placing the emphasis on the whole of the Scriptures and the wider images and narratives they communicate rather than on the specific words themselves, the pitfalls of modern progressive theology can be avoided without having to essentially revert back to an implicitly Enlightenment construal of reason, truth, and knowledge.
For instance, take Scriptures as inspired in terms of their various whole stills works against the tendency of picking-and-choosing what parts of Scriptures are to be considered normative, but for a different reason that postulated that all the individual words of Scripture are themselves inspired. Once you begin to split apart a ‘document’ and saying “this applies to us, but this does not” you begin to tear the whole apart. To understand Paul in 1 Corinthians, you don’t suddenly import modern assumptions of sexuality that would render his concerns about ἀρσενοκοῖται as no longer important to comprehend. If we are to take 1 Corinthians is inspired as a whole, then one needs to seek to understand Paul’s message in light of his various statements about sexual practices.
Now, perhaps someone could say that we still need to understand Paul in light of those passages but God is doing something new in this day such that we don’t apply all the whole to us today, much like we do not apply the all of the Torah to ourselves as Christians even though we follow a Jewish Messiah. However, when God did something dramatic like that that so dramatically changed the way His people should respond to God’s instruction in the past, he raised a Rabbi who taught from the Torah in a seemingly novel way from the dead. In this background, those who accept the inspiration of wholes while also allowing that God can do something new would need to see clear hermeneutic or practice set out in advance in such a way that God then clearly vindicates it by some wonder.
That is just one of the ways that this account of inspiration that drawn from an exegesis of 2 Timothy 3.16-17 would go against the grain of much of what is practiced in progressive hermeneutics and and received in their accounts of Biblical inspiration without simply going back to the tried-and-false Enlightenment accounts of inspiration and hermeneutics.
However, in the end, my ultimate concern, asides from attempting what I deem to be a responsible exegesis of 2 Timothy 3.16-17, is to explicate a more spiritually edifying account of inspiration that is consistent with (1) the prevailing practices of Scriptural exegesis that takes history, literature, and language seriously and (2) the way interpretation, application, and practice actually works itself in human experience that, in the end, provides a clear account for God’s redemptive agency for humanity being accomplished through hearing, preaching, and comprehending of the Scriptures.