One of Christianity’s favorite Bible passages is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 where Paul declares that “all Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Growing up I was told that this verse meant that the Bible is the literal Word of God and since the Bible is the Word of God that means that it’s without error, without mistake, and 100% literal.
Every punctuation mark.
… It’s all 100% the Word of God – it’s God’s love letter, God’s instruction manual for how we are to live a good life and to make it to heaven when we die. All we need to do is believe its primary message, that Jesus died to save us from our sins, and we’ll end up in heaven when we die.
If you think that’s an exaggeration or an unfair synopsis, it’s not. Back in high school there was this song by a super popular Christian band called Burlap to Cashmere, and the song was called “B.I.B.L.E.”, which they said stood for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. The idea was that the Bible is an instruction manual or a roadmap directly from the hand or mouth of God to help us live a good life HERE on earth so that when we leave earth to go somewhere else …
Either when we die.
When Jesus comes back to “rapture” His people away.
… We’ll end up going to the better of the 2 final destination (heaven instead of hell or the Lake of Fire).
Anyways, so that verse from 2 Timothy is very often used to bolster this kind of thinking, the kind of thinking which says that Genesis through Revelation are the very Words of God. It’s all Scripture. And it’s all breathed by God. And it’s all 100% useful to teach, rebuke, correct, and train.
I used to think that way. And I used to think that thinking in such a way caused me to have a very HIGH view of Scripture and of God.
Like, thinking of the Bible that way and declaring it to be “the Word of God” that is “God breathed” and “inspired” and “infallible” and “inerrant” and perfect in every way – I used to think that that kind of thinking reflected my great respect and deep admiration for such a holy book. And, if I’m being honest, I even felt like that respect and admiration gave me some points in God’s book. Like, that’s what He expected of me and so somehow He was happier with me than He was with other people who couldn’t bring themselves to believe every word of it with such immovable and deep faith.
It made ME better than THEM, really.
But I’ve recently come to think that such an understanding of that verse and such an understanding of the Bible has actually caused me to have a fairly low view of God and of the Scriptures because I’m not sure that’s what that verse means, and I’m not really sure that’s the best way to use the Bible or think of the Bible.
And there’s a couple of reasons as to why I’ve come to think this way.
The first thing to consider is that when Paul wrote those words to Timothy (“All Scripture is God breathed”), Paul was referring to the Scriptures as HE knew them to be.
“All Scripture”, Paul said, “Is God breathed.”
And so that begs the question, what was “Scripture” to Paul? What Scriptures did he have available to him?
Well, certainly not the letter he was writing to Timothy.
I think it’s silly to say that Paul’s letters to Timothy (or ANY of his letters, for that matter) would have been included in Paul’s term “all Scripture” because I’m not sure Paul would have had the audacity to believe or think or even have had the foresight to see that his very personal letters that he wrote to …
Or to the Church in Galatia.
The Church in Philippi.
The Church in Corinth.
The Church in Rome.
… Would end up in our Bible’s some 2,000 years later, lumped under the umbrella of “all Scripture”.
Or how about the Gospels? I don’t think they’re included in Paul’s term “all Scripture”, either. Truth be told, they weren’t even in circulation yet because they weren’t even written at the time Paul penned those words in 2 Timothy. The earliest of the 4 Gospels was Mark’s Gospel, which was written in about 70 AD. And Paul’s letters were written roughly 5 to 20 years earlier between 50AD and 65AD.
And so when Paul referred to “all Scripture” being “God breathed”, Paul wasn’t referring to his letters to Timothy and the various churches (those letters, which make up over half of the New Testament, mind you) or the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), much less Revelation.
In short, he wasn’t referring to your Bible.
Instead, he was referring to HIS Scriptures - the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) and a good portion of the prophets.
“All Scripture” for Paul wasn’t the same as “all Scripture” for you and me.
And the second thing to consider around this topic is if the Bible is the “Word of God” and every word in the Bible is from God and every description of God and His actions are 100% perfectly representative of Him and if the God that is depicted in the Bible is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (as the Bible says He is) … then we’ve got a problem.
Because what do we do with the verses and passages and stories where God is depicted as a monster, acting in ways that would land any normal human being in prison?
Like, what do we do with the story of God commanding the Israelites to commit genocide in Canaan when they invaded the promised land and killed every man, woman, and child who was living there (all people who were minding their own business and living their own lives, mind you.)?
The Bible says that God commanded that genocide. There’s no way around it. No way to explain it away. The story unfolds in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, you can go read it.
And since it’s the “Word of God”, my tradition would tell me that means it’s true.
Not only is it true, but I need to be OK with it.
Like, I need to be OK with serving a God who commanded people to kill other people. To enslave the survivors. Some scholars say to rape them. All because it’s written in the Bible, the “Word of God”.
“God is sovereign”, my tradition taught me, “and if the Bible says He did it, He did it. You don’t need to understand it. You’re not God. Don’t question. Just believe and know that He had His reasons. His ways are higher than your ways.”
Do you see the problem with this?
Because if God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow and that same God commanded Israel to destroy a group of innocent people over a small piece of land somewhere in the Middle East 4,000 or so years ago.
That means that God can very well command the same today, if He wanted to. And that means that just as God commanded Joshua to lead his troops into Canaan to wipe out the entire population, that means that God can command presidents and leaders today to do the same.
Because, according to that story in Numbers, God is on the side of His people.
And land and nationalism are so important to Him that He might command one nation to wipe out another nation all in the name of siding with the nation that He deems to be chosen. And since He’s God, we can’t question it. And we need to trust that it’s what He wants us to do, for His purposes.
Pick up a sword and start swinging.
Brian McLaren once said that when we have such a view of the Bible and uphold it as the inerrant and perfect “Word of God” that demands our allegiance and obedience to every verse and punctuation mark, it allows us to keep the genocide card in our back pocket.
It allows us to keep the hate card in our back pocket.
It allows us to keep the racist card in our back pocket.
Because if God did it then, He is well within His right to do it now. And if God asked me to do it. Well. Then I would have no choice, but to do it. And never, ever question it.
Do you see how dangerous that is? Do you see how dangerous blind faith and allegiance towards a book that is declared to be the inerrant and infallible Word of God can be?
Merge all of that with the fact that the Bible itself never declares itself to be “the Word of God”, but (instead) reserves that title for Jesus, the Christ, and I think we come away with a very different picture or idea of what the Bible is and how it’s meant to be used.
Now, bear with me here.
I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important. Or valuable. Hear me loud and clear on that. I love the Bible. I adore it. I’ve mentioned it on previous episodes, but I’ve literally been reading it and studying it since I was 12 years old, for the last 25 years. I went to Bible College. Seminary. I’ve pastored churches.
I don’t know everything or close to it. I’m not a theologian or a scholar. My only point is that I love it and I’ve given my life to studying it and trying to make sense of it.
And I’m also not saying that the Bible doesn’t contain the words of God or portray how God has worked throughout human history. I think it most certainly DOES contain His words and I think it most certainly does show us how God has worked and related to humanity throughout history.
The Bible is a holy book that I give a sense of authority to in my life. And I think that you would benefit from doing the same.
What I’m saying, though, is that (1) I don’t think Paul’s words about “All Scripture” are referring to the whole Bible as you and I know it today, mainly because the whole Bible wasn’t in circulation at the time Paul wrote those words; and (2) I don’t think that the term “God breathed” means that the Bible is a static document that’s the very Word of God and is (therefore) meant to be taken 100% literally as an instruction manual to help us live a good life and get to heaven when we die.
And I think that when we deny those things and (instead) declare the Bible as you and I have it today to be “the Word of God” that is perfect and infallible and inerrant, I think (from my experience, anyways) the next logical step is to take upon ourselves a subconscious permission to weaponize the Bible, arm up with our arsenal of verses, and use them to attack, shame, and outcast anyone or anything that lives or operates or thinks in a way that is even slightly different from the way the words of the Bible seem to say that they should live or operate or think.
“This is the Word of God”, we say.
“The things in this book are God’s commands.”
“You must obey.”
“You must live this way.”
“You must believe this way.”
“It’s a literal book, written as clear as day.”
“This verse says that, that verse says this, and so that means you need to live like THIS.”
“If you’re not, YOU need to repent.”
We then take the Bible and make it be the primary voice box of God, downplaying His clear ability to speak through nature, through experience, through people around us, through our own inner soul, and draw people to Himself whether they have ever picked up a Bible or not.
And this is important, you see, because the Bible isn’t the primary way that God speaks. He does speak through it, absolutely. It might not be the Word of God (Jesus, the Christ, is), but it most certainly, I think, contains the words of God. God can use it to speak and to guide and to teach.
It’s not the primary way that God speaks. If it was, how was God speaking during the 13.7 billion years that preceded the writings we find in the Bible?
In his new book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr says this …
“God did not just start talking to us with the Bible or the church or the prophets. Do we really think that God had nothing at all to say for 13.7 billion years, and started speaking only in the latest nanosecond of geological time? Did all history prior to our sacred texts provide no basis for truth or authority? Of course not. The radiance of the Divine Presence has been glowing and expanding since the beginning of time, before there were any human eyes to see or know about it. But in the mid-nineteenth century, grasping for certitude and authority the church was quickly losing in the face of rationalism and science, Catholics declared the Pope to be “infallible”, and evangelicals decided the Bible was “inerrant”, despite the fact that we had gotten along for most of 1800 years without either belief. In fact, these claims would have seemed idolatrous to most early Christians.”
I think this is an important idea to wrap our minds around. God was speaking to creation long before the Hebrew people penned the Torah.
Long before the prophets spoke.
Long before Jesus arrived on the scene.
Long before preachers started standing in their pulpits on Sunday mornings.
He speaks through the Bible, yes.
He speaks in other ways, as well. And that’s what I want to get across here today. I read my Bible every day because I believe that God uses the ancient words and wisdom to communicate with my Spirit. But, He speaks in many, many other ways, as well, just as He has been doing for the 13.7 billion years before the Bible arrived on the scene.
He speaks through creation.
He speaks through humanity.
He speaks through animals.
He speaks through children.
He speaks through the ocean.
He speaks through storms.
He speaks in our inner soul, in our spirit.
He speaks through the wind.
He speaks through your dreams.
You see, when we release our grip on words like “inerrancy” and “infallibility” and “the Word of God” in reference to the Bible and allow ourselves to see and believe that just as God spoke in a variety of different ways BEFORE the Bible so He can speak in a variety of different ways NOW, it opens our minds up to the idea that not only can God speak to ME in a variety of different ways, but He’s also speaking to …
My family members.
Strangers on the street.
… Many of whom have never picked up a Bible before … in a variety of different ways, as well. And so rather than try to get them to believe my list of Bible verses or rather than shoot my arsenal of Scripture at them, I can trust and know that just as my Creator speaks to me, so my Creator is speaking to everyone.
The Divine has been speaking for 14 billion years and I don’t believe for a second that He’s going to limit Himself to our relatively new invention of the 5,000 year old Bible or some other ancient book to speak and present Himself to the world.
One last thing I want to say, and that’s to my friends who have experienced the Bible primarily as a weapon being wielded against them by angry Christians who are doing their best to defend what they call “the Truth”.
Maybe you’re gay and so maybe you’ve been hit with verses that seem to condemn homosexuality.
Or maybe you’re an atheist and so maybe you’ve been slugged with verses that command people to have faith.
Or maybe you’re not sure Jesus rose from the dead and so maybe you’ve had verses lobbed at you that seem to threaten unbelievers with hell and judgement and fire.
Or maybe you haven’t been to church in months or years and so maybe your “concerned” church family has called you to remind you that the book of Hebrews commands people to “not give up meeting together”.
Or maybe you have trouble praying and so you’ve been bombarded with verses about the importance of prayer and talking to God.
Or maybe you’re bank account is empty and so you’ve been told you don’t tithe enough.
And maybe because of one or all of those things or something entirely different, maybe you’ve been made to feel like you’re not good enough, God is mad at you, and you need to shape up and make some changes before your life spins out of control and God stands by and watches you make a mess of things.
The Bible says none of those things, really. Sure, we can find verses and sentences to make a case in each of those areas, but when those verses and sentences are wrapped back up in their context and their culture and explained in light of history … it says and means none of those things. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual filled with commands to help you live a better life. Rather, it’s a collection of writings that reflect the messy ways that humans live and walk through life trying to navigate through problems and understand what it means to walk with a God who is invisible to the eye, but very often strangely visible and felt by the soul.
If the Bible has one message, it’s a simple one: the Divine, the Creator, loves you, is with you everywhere that you go, and will never, ever give up on you.
Much love to you my friends.