Lecture: The God-Breathed Scriptures

*Note: An essay prepared at the same time as this lecture, Reflections on Biblical Authority, is also available.

1996 Pan American Lectureship
Quito, Ecuador

"All Scripture is God-Breathed"
2 Timothy 3:16-17
by Bob Young

I am thankful to be here. I feel a bit like the mule who wanted to run in the Kentucky Derby because he thought the exposure to good horses would do him good. The Pan American Lectures are one of those places where our presence does us good. We need to rub shoulders with one another. I am confident I will get more than I give.

I am especially thankful for the principle reflected in the topic assigned me. We are in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. All Scripture is God-breathed; all Scripture is inspired. This truth is foundational for effective mission work. It is at the foundation of every life lived in dedication and commitment to God. How we understand the word of God is of ultimate importance, for our world, and for the world to come.
Because all Scripture originates with God, is from God, we need to be reminded that "Scripture is our final authority in matters of faith and practice because it is from God." We may not like what Scripture says, it may at times appear that following Scripture is slowing church growth, but we have no choice but to be faithful to the Word of God.

When we seek to know and understand the Bible, we come face to face with some difficult questions. What does it mean that the Scriptures are inspired? In what way are they "God-breathed?" How does this affect the authority of the Bible? What is the authority of the God-breathed Word of God?"
When we seek to apply the Bible to missions work, add additional questions. I want to begin by stating the case for biblical missions based on authoritative word of God.

"Biblical missions is speaking with faithfulness, personal spiritual strength, and courageous sensitivity, the authoritative, God-breathed Scriptures, so people receive them as from God, recognize them as relevant, and obediently respond to them, as they hear God's voice."

The relationship between the word of God and missions can hardly be denied. Missions is rooted in encounter with God, which encounter is mediated, directly or indirectly, through the written Word. If we do not understand this, missions becomes at best only an evangelistic endeavor in a foreign country, or at worst a monastic spirituality, consumerism, or the innocuous spreading of a powerless message that hardly matters. This encounter with God must grow out of a correct understanding of Scripture, its nature, its inspiration, its authority, as well as its message.

James D. Smart has written "that the church in each era of its life has been largely shaped by its view of Scripture suggests a relationship between the present confusion regarding the authority and interpretation of Scripture and the powerless pulpits that contribute to a debilitating confusion of thought and attitude which is paralyzing the modern church." Boice contends that much of the decline in preaching is due to prior decline in belief in Bible as authoritative word of God. Lloyd-Jones says that the decline in preaching is due to loss of belief in the authority of the Scriptures and a diminution in the belief of truth. If one has no authority, one cannot speak well, one cannot preach. Thus the importance of this topic is focused. Nixon says "it is possible to profess the acceptance of New Testament authority but to use such a system of interpretation that the New Testament itself becomes secondary and its message never bursts out spontaneously and freely but is allowed to run only along carefully guarded canals."

These quotations remind us that missions must be always grounded in the spiritual realm. That our God is a missionary God means that a proper understanding of Scripture points toward and encourages biblical missions.

Two concepts of Scripture from 2 Timothy

An overview of 2 Timothy reminds us of at least two basic concepts. First, the gospel is God's, and it is God's power, which has been deposited into human hands(1:8ff). Second, the word of Scripture must be correctly handled (2:15). If the authoritative words from God are to enter this world through humans, Scripture must be handled correctly. We must learn how Bible authority works out in human experience? Is properly the subject of hermeneutics or interpretation. This is not our subject, but it can hardly escape notice in this day of the globalization of hermeneutics.
Finally, in our text from 2 Tim. 3:16-17, these two are combined. The gospel which comes from God must be applied to life is useful for living. The words here are instructive for what Scripture claims. The term for Holy Scriptures--"hiera grammata" was common among Greek-speaking Jews. "Inspired," on the other hand, is only here in the New Testament, and appears only four times in pre-Christian Greek literature, reflecting the way Jews of the first century viewed Scripture. What is in this text is not a statement about the inspiration of the Old Testament only, but a statement of the nature of Scripture for aiding the Christian life. The Scriptures can make one wise to salvation, but not necessarily wise to countless other matters.

Thus the passage points not to itself but to Christian living, showing its essential nature as witness to a reality beyond itself. Even if the nature of Scripture is secondary in the text, it is still true that the author affirms that Scripture has a central role in the salvation of Timothy and in the task of proclaiming that salvation to others. Indeed, Scripture is for living.

Four principles of Scripture

These verses from 2 Timothy also suggest at least four truths. First, this authoritative word has power based in the character of God (ch. 1). It is God who made us like him (1:5), who empowers salvation and holy living (1:9), and who grants life (1:10). Second, this authoritative word is heard in the world thru human beings (1:11-14; 2:2,14-26). Third, this authoritative word powerfully permeates the world by reflecting the the nature of Jesus Christ (ch. 2). Jesus is presented as giving and forgiving (grace, 2:1), as identifying with both human and divine (2:8), and as saving (2:10-13). Fourth, this authoritative word convicts world, even though the world usually rejects it rather than acknowledging it (3:1-13). Scripture, because it is communication from God, when correctly handled is valuable for living.

Three obligations

How shall we divide the book of 2 Timothy? This is not an easy question to answer. Is this a book about doctrine (3:16-17, 4:1-5)? Would we do better to emphasize the need to "continue in the word" (3:14)? If 2 Timothy contains principles for preaching, for missions, and for evangelism as we have suggested, these principles and the instructions Paul gives Timothy suggest three obligations which grow out of this understanding of Scripture. These three obligations grow out of the first three chapters of the letter.

First, from chapter one, be faithful to God, to yourself in the use of your gift, to the entrusted deposit as you give testimony and guard the entrusted deposit from God, and to his word. The latter is emphasized here. To be faithful to God's word in missionary endeavors, we must renew our efforts in the disciplines of exegesis, history, geography, culture, and language. It is a blunder to read our twentieth century thinking, or even western thinking, into the minds and message of the biblical authors.
Second, from chapter two, be strong in your own life. Be strong in faith and in grace. Receiving and applying this word in our own lives requires grace, faith, by entrusting, enduring, and remembering.
Third, from chapter three, be courageously sensitivity to the world. To be courageous means we are willing to confront controversies and to confront godlessness with the word of God. Sensitivity reminds us that the word of God which came to us in another language and culture is intended for everyone. We can explain the original meaning of text, but must then apply that word to our contemporary world. Our struggle is to understand our world, grasp movements of thought, listen to its voices, questions, pains, and protests, feel some of its disorientation and despair, and then facilitate the application of the God-breathed word to those hurts.
These three obligations--faithfulness, spiritual strength, and courageous sensitivity are paramount. We cannot falsify word to secure a phony relevance nor ignore the world to secure a phony faithfulness. The final test is in own lives.

This suggests we must keep evangelism and human needs connected. As words and works went together in ministry of Jesus, today a theology for preaching and missions must encompass everything the church is called to do and to be. Christ demonstrated the arrival of the kingdom by works of compassion and power. As Chuck Colson has stated it, his concern was not only with saving this world from the misery of the next world, but with delivering it from the hellishness of this one. This sensitivity to the world must be exhibited in our own lives before it can enter the lives of those whom we seek to touch. The question which we must answer is this: Is the word authoritative in my life so I receive it and apply it?

We return again to our initial statement: Biblical missions is speaking with faithfulness, personal spiritual strength, and courageous sensitivity, the authoritative, God-breathed Scriptures, so people receive them as from God, recognize them as relevant, and obediently respond to them as they hear God's voice.

Three "R"s

Our faithful reception of the God-breathed Scriptures as authoritative honors the claims that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, normative, intelligible, and applicable. This is the written word of God, from God, originating with God, speaking his will. This is the powerful word of God, with creative power, recreative power, guiding power, sustaining power, and protecting power. This is God communicating his word in human words.
Our text makes three affirmations concerning these Scriptures. They are wisdom for salvation. They are God-breathed or inspired. They are useful for God's purposes. Because these three affirmations are true, Scripture claims three abilities: to impart salvation via wisdom. to deal with evil, to secure the future.

The relevance of Scriptures demands we make intelligent and intelligible applications. This is possible based on three convictions. First, the biblical text is an inspired text which is powerful and useful. This high view of the biblical text, which is unlike any other text, unique in origin, nature, authority, and authorship, is indispensable to authentic missions. Nothing undermines Christian missions more than skepticism about Scripture. The words we have examined--Scripture, God-breathed, and authority--belong together. All Scripture is God-breathed. This gives the Bible authority.
Second, the biblical text is an open text by which I mean the biblical text can be understood. God can speak so he can be understood. This text is useful for equipping.
Third, the biblical text, because it is a partially closed text, must be opened. While it is true that Scripture has a transparent, see-through quality and can be understood even by simple, uneducated people, I am also reminded that some Pauline things were hard for Peter to understand. The Biblical message must be spoken, illustrated, and applied to demonstrate its relevance and encourage its reception.

The reception and relevance of Scripture demand a response to the Scriptures. One may properly hold at least two expectations or hopes in missions works. First, God's voice will be heard. People will respond to the spoken word of God which is a message about Jesus Christ, the living word of God. This message will be fashioned in harmony with the written word of God. As Jesus Christ is the Word, so also we are the word and message reflecting the written word (1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Cor. 3). God spoke in the past, and speaks in the present through what he has spoken. The expectation of response is at low ebb today. It is important that the preacher and people be expectant because it is still true that the salvation message of the word of God communicates four significant, eternal implications of the cross: the awfulness of sin, the brokenness of sinner, the community vital to restoration, and a destiny based in radical obedience and restored relationship.
Second, God's people will obey him. God's word demands always a response of obedience. This response is to the mandates of the profitable word (2 Tim. 3:16-17), the mission of that word to develop a faith which submits, an obedience which empowers, a worship which humbles, and a hope which is shared. When lives are characterized by this faith, obedience, worship, and hope, God's Word is demonstrated as supreme authority and guide. These are they who like Samuel of old say: Speak God, thy servant heareth.

Once again, Biblical missions is speaking with faithfulness, personal spiritual strength, and courageous sensitivity, the authoritative, God-breathed Scriptures, so people receive them as from God, recognize them as relevant, and obediently respond to them as they hear God's voice.

May we.

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Last updated February 26, 2001.