My vacation Bible school was like every other. I listened to sanitized versions of Bible stories that would otherwise be R-rated movies and sang songs that would otherwise be propaganda (“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me!”).
And I distinctly the day remember when my sixty-year-old teacher assigned eight-year-old me what was my first ever memory verse.
I remember this day for two reasons: (1) because to this day I would rather listen to Nickelback on repeat than learn a single damn memory verse, and (2) because—despite my best opposition—this verse became the foundation of my worldview for nearly twenty years. You’ve probably seen it. The NIV translates it like this:
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy c3 v14–17
If you want to picture the scene, imagine there’s bomb about to go off, and you’re on the phone with a physicist who walks you step by step to deactivate it. Do you hear the seriousness in her voice? The urgency? That was the voice of my teacher, who walked us word by word along Paul’s careful and narrow path to salvation.
And I really can’t blame her. If billions of people at the end this life are going to Hell and the Bible is the instructions for not being one of them, it would be cruel not to copy her example.
And, truth be told, I did too for a long time.
Not only did I memorize the life out of those words, but they sunk deep into my bones. More than any other, the words all scripture is inspired by God forged themselves to every motivation, purpose, thought, argument, and guilty feeling that ever entered my young imagination. Had I been asked why I was doing or thinking just about anything I was ever doing or thinking, I could go down a train of thought that at some point would include the words, “all scripture is inspired by God.”
And, like I said, my experience was typical. Churches, vacation Bible schools, and summer camps use this verse to train children in essentially a ten-point line of reasoning, a series of points I’m going to call the “Wall of Assurance”. The Wall is built like this:
- When Paul uses the word “scripture”, he is talking about the Bible.
- Paul says that scripture is inspired by God.
- Therefore, every idea of the Bible can be relied on as a transmission from God (some take this as a word-for-word transmission; others allow for the writers express God’s ideas through their own choices of specific language).
- Therefore, since all of the Bible is transmitted from God, the Bible can be treated as a unified whole.
- The Bible says that God is perfect.
- Therefore, the Bible speaks with a single non-contradictory and inerrant voice.
- God is not given to the imperfect human fables and myths that you find in other literature.
- Therefore, God would not inspire the Bible’s writers to write fables and myths.
- Therefore, sorry Chris, but the Bible does NOT borrow from human ideas (dummy).
- And finally, therefore, it does not matter what modern scientists, philosophers, economists, psychologists, medical professionals, sociologists, or blood-sucking lawyers like Chris says if what any of them say contradicts the plain meaning of anything written in the Bible. To the contrary, opposing such contradictory voices demonstrates faithfulness to God’s word.
The Wall of Assurance is a strong wall, and people who call it into question are generally seen as arrogant and under the impression that their judgment is superior to God’s. That they are just trying to be fashionable, politically correct, and not offensive to modern life.
(I’m not imagining these statements; I heard them directed at many other people my whole life, and in just the last month I’ve received each one of them personally)
Before I talk about the foundations of the Wall of Assurance, I want to take a step back and make a few general observations about the effect of such a Wall. What I’m about to say is outside my train of thought, but I think it needs to be said anyway.
Even conservatives would agree that anything holding this much authority can be fashioned into a tool for just about anything. Walls of Assurance are dangerous because the same people who with enthusiasm agree that the Bible is the most influential book in their life, usually have read little of it.
The implication is that manipulating people with the Bible is not dependent on what is in the Bible so much as what people can be made to believe is in the Bible.
But, even for those people who have spent a lot of honest time in the actual text, most have been exposed to few viable and well-explained interpretations of it. Every text must be interpreted, but most people are not aware of the interpretive choices they reject when they make the interpretive choices they accept. Specifically, I was trained to read the Bible in ways that naturally filtered out those voices who argued in favor of anything like what I’ve described in the last seven weeks.
And everything I have said was true even before evangelicalism became the multi-multi-multi-mega-multi-billion-dollar industrial complex it is today.
Before that industry could saturate your television and Facebook newsfeed with a mix of a little scripture and with whatever was the agenda of the day: Why God’s promise to Noah protects us against global warming, why God would not allow children to be born gay, why poor people just need to work harder, and with a host of antediluvian ideas on women.
(Confession: I’ve defend every one of these positions and used scripture to do it)
All this to say, for those of you who grew up the way I did, the Wall of Assurance is probably the biggest barrier between where you are and where I am (and, frankly, between my twenty-year-old self and my thirty-year-old self).
So let’s talk about the Wall of Assurance. How strong is that thing, really?
Like I said earlier, much of the appeal the Wall of Assurance arises from the assumption that we need a Bible upon which we can rely because the dominant concern of this life is to not go to Hell. It’s an idea that begins with a questionable assumption and finds a memory verse to support it.
Or an interpretation of a memory verse.
Scholars of ancient Greek agree that there are basically two logical ways to translate 2nd Timothy c3 v16.
One way requires more addition to the Greek text, flows less well with the previous sentence, and makes less sense in light of everything we’ve seen in the last several weeks. Which all sounds bad, except this is the translation that most Bibles adopt and that I quoted for twenty years.
Unrelated I’m sure, but it’s also the translation that will most naturally sell the most Bibles.
I think (and others have too) that a better way to translate that verse goes like this: “Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
If you go back and read the verse in its context (which I provided above), you will probably notice how this translation flows so much better with the function of the prior sentence. This is essentially how the American Standard Version and New English Bible translates it, and the New Revised Standard Version includes it in its footnotes as a possible translation.
Why is this important?
What we today call the “Old Testament” took some time before it reached its final form. Not only was the question of which books to include not settled for centuries, but we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the internal composition of many of the Old Testament books themselves was in a state of flux for centuries.
However, by the time of Paul, most of the Old Testament had reached its final form. And we know from rabbinical sources that, by the time of Paul, Jews were already referring to their text as “God breathed”—as inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. In other words, the Pharisees were already referring to the Hebrew Bible the same way Paul did in 2nd Timothy.
In other words, Paul simply borrowing a phrase that was already in use.
Had Paul wrote to Timothy (remember 2nd Timothy is a personal letter), “Hey, Timothy, the scriptures were inspired by God,” Timothy would have written back, “Thanks, Paul, but I already know this. Are you okay, man? Are you starting to lose your memory?”
I have no doubt Paul believed that God was the originator of all the scriptures, but that wasn’t his purpose in writing 2 Timothy c3 v16. His purpose was simply to say that they were still useful. If I could paraphrase Paul, I hear his message to Timothy was simply, “I know that we are moving away from Judaism, but the texts of Judaism should not be abandoned.” Which would have been a relevant and useful message in this weird and confusing time of transition.
And a message with which I totally agree!
Also, keep in mind, there was no “New Testament” at this point. There was no Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There was no Bible. Most people didn’t have access to the scrolls of all the Old Testament works, let alone the ability to read them. What we call the “canon” wouldn’t be agreed upon for centuries after his death.
In light of the history surrounding Paul’s statement, the idea that we can use his words to argue for a unified Bible is an idea I simply don’t find plausible.
I can already hear certain people saying that I’m just another soft liberal who makes comfortable generalizations, but ignores hard details. They will quote two passages from 2nd Peter, which I provide below, and claim that they negate my whole understanding of the Bible.
So, let’s talk about the hard details of their hard details. Here’s 2nd Peter:
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2nd Peter c1 v19–21 and c3 v15–16
On the face of these verses, I concede that my argument is totally undercut. These statements make an undeniable case that (1) the Old Testament did not borrow from human ideas and (2) that Paul’s writings are on par with the rest of scripture. Many people will want to embrace what I’ve said these last weeks, but won’t be able to because of these two passages.
Here’s the problem.
I’m willing for all eternity to bet my soul and the souls of every person who will ever live that Peter didn’t write the book we call 2nd Peter.
You read that correctly.
Peter did not write 2nd Peter. I don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Peter.
The author of 2nd Peter strains the text repeatedly and kind of awkwardly to insist that the author is Peter. Yet,
- Simon Peter’s name is misspelled in the very first line;
- The Greek grammar in 1st Peter is very good, but in 2nd Peter it’s distinctly poor;
- 2nd Peter is dependent on Jude, which was written after Peter’s death (as one example of a few, notice how 2nd Peter c2 v11 only makes sense if you’ve already read Jude 9–10);
- Not a single 2nd century Christian writer makes reference to 2nd Peter;
- Several 3rd century Christian writers explicitly did not believe Peter wrote 2nd Peter; and
- 2nd Peter in the 4th century was accepted into the New Testament canon only reluctantly.
I’m not saying there isn’t anything useful in 2nd Peter. It just wasn’t written by Peter, nor was it written in the first century. It’s the opinion of someone writing probably about a century after Peter’s death at the hand of Emperor Nero.
So, that’s my first issue with the Wall of Assurance. It’s an issue that, like I said, is very dry and mechanical. It’s not the way I enjoy talking about the Bible, but, because the details matter, it is necessary. It’s the way I used to talk about the Bible, like it was an instruction manual for a kitchen appliance.
I kind of hated writing it just now.
Especially because this next part is so much more interesting.
In spite of everything I just said—in spite of all the effort I put in to talk about translations and canons and other boring but essential things—I want to be clear that I absolutely affirm that God inspired scripture. I affirm the breath of God in every page of that library we call the Bible (even 2nd Peter!). But, to say that God inspired scripture raises all kinds of sophisticated questions.
What does that mean?
Could the God of all past and future—the God who formed every quark, supernova, and ostrich—not have just written the Bible himself?
And if God wanted humans to write scripture, should that tell us anything?
And if the Bible is inspired, then what is it inspired to do?
And does God inspire people to write or say other things?
We’ve talked about the Bible for seven weeks now. We’ve talked about Babylon, Qumran, the rabbis, Greece, Persia and Rome. I’ve pointed out the pattern of the Bible’s authors taking audacious liberties to creatively and daringly borrow from their culture and tell new and amazing things about God and life and death and what it all means.
And that brings me to a Hebrew word.
(the h makes a guttural sound, which I bet you’re making right now)
The word Ruah means “wind.”
We understand wind to be simply the movement of matter in its gaseous state. But put yourself in a time when people had no way of knowing this. You might have noticed that while people are alive, breath circulates in and out of them. That when people die, their breath leaves them and doesn’t come back. That the same invisible air that gives people life moves all around and causes things to move. You might associate wind with life itself.
You might see the wind as something spiritual.
In Genesis c1, the Ruah of Elohim hovers over the face of the waters and Elohim speaks creation into existence. In Genesis c2, God makes the adam out of the adama and breathes into his nostrils the Ruah of life. In Exodus c31, Elohim fills a man named Bezalel with his Ruah so that Bezalel would have the artistic abilities necessary to fashion the Tabernacle.
Ruah is a rich and vibrant word of power, creation, movement, animation, connection with the divine, change, and mystery.
Today, we think of wind as just that—wind.
But, like most ancient people, the ancient Hebrews saw wind as part of something much more, a spiritual thing—a connection with the divine. In fact, the same Hebrew word we translate “wind”, we also translate “spirit”. And the ancients were as creative with this word as the word itself is a dynamic creative force.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the ancients saw Ruah as one of God’s tools in controlling human destiny.
God sent his Ruah to recede the waters of the flood.
God sent his Ruah to bring locusts to Egypt.
God sent his Ruah to send those locusts away.
And when God parted the Red Sea, he sent his Ruah.
Elijah—in one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of the entire Bible—went on a mountain where he witnessed a dramatic Ruah, which “tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks”.
But the writer had to clarify for the reader that God was not in this Ruah.
Ruah is constantly shaping. Constantly breaking. Constantly on the move. In the Old Testament Ruah “fills,” “rests on“, “envelops”, “carries” and “guides“. God even sends an evil Ruah that is said to “torment.”
Later on, the Hebrews became Greek speakers and adopted the word pneuma for each time the Old Testament used the word Ruah. Like, It too means “wind”, “breath”, and “spirit”. They began to conceptualize God’s Holy Ruah, and they attributed their brilliant text to the same wind of God that split seas, crushed rocks, and brought out humans.
And it is on this background that we get to Paul, who used the word theopneustos (“God-breathed”) to describe this same dynamic, creative, brilliant, driving forward of humanity and the understanding of God that the Jewish sages conceptualized.
The more I go into their ancient world, the more I see the brilliance of these writers. The more I see their brilliance, the more I see and affirm this Ruah at work.
The humans who wrote the Bible weren’t automatons. They wrote in their times as people wrote in their times as people thought in their time to advance new ideas for their times. And the Ruah of God animated them to do that.
The Bible’s Inspired Arguments With Itself
But if the Ruah of God animated people to write, the question is what? Did God push people beyond their mortal limits to write what God could have written for himself? I guess it’s possible, but the Bible itself points to a different conclusion.
I want to introduce you to a grouchy old man named Qohelet, a man in the Bible you’ve long known, though you probably didn’t know it.
Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, is famous for being depicted as the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs argues that seeking wisdom was the key the good life on this Earth. Here’s an excerpt that is representative of most of Proverbs:
Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.
By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.
“Wisdom,” says Solomon, “is the key to everything good.” – McNeal Revised and Extremely Abridged Version.
Of course, life was good in Solomon’s time; Israel was rich and at peace. And, when things go well—as they did in America during the housing bubble—we tend to feel brilliant.
We get in a groove.
We feel insulated from risk.
We credit ourselves for having uncommon wisdom.
With discovering “the formula.”
The “secret sauce.”
It happened in King Solomon’s time, and the hundreds of books authored by people who were in the right place at the right time—we call these people “business gurus” and “self help gurus”—bear me out that it happens today.
Centuries later, however, Israel’s fortunes began fleeting rapidly. Assyria had starved out the Northern Kingdom. Babylon had barreled down Jerusalem’s wall and temple in the Southern Kingdom. The throne that God promised would remain with the line of David forever was now like a disappearing fog.
And man named Qohelet could take it no more.
“Havel, havel! Utterly havel! Everything is havel!” he began writing.
Havel is the Hebrew word for fog. We translate it “meaningless.”
If you were raised like me, you were probably taught that Solomon wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and that Ecclesiastes is the writing of Solomon much later in his life. And your Bible class at some point engaged in the gravity-defying exercise of figuring out what Solomon must have learned over his lifetime.
I have news for you.
Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes.
Proverbs begins, “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel.” Ecclesiastes begins almost identically, “The words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Qohelet wants you to be thinking about Proverbs as you begin reading.
Because he’s about to argue that Solomon’s cute little self-help book was a sham.
“For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
“What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?”
“Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.” (haha, my favorite line)
“Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself?”
—A sampling of Ecclesiastes (which in the Jewish Bible is actually called “Qohelet“)
Seriously—Do not be too righteous!?!?!?!
The inspired word of God tells you to not be too righteous? You should highlight it. After all, it’s in your Bible.
If you let your Bible simply say what it says, these statements are clear and unmistakeable attacks on Solomon’s. If Ecclesiastes is right, then Proverbs is wrong.
Your Bible’s authors are arguing with themselves.
And they do this a lot.
The second half of Daniel, which was written during the high-water mark of apocalyptic literature during the 2nd century BCE, exemplifies the strain of Judaism that harbored a pessimistic view of foreigners.
But the writer of Jonah depicts literally every foreigner as having a righteous fear of God that Jonah lacks. The heroes in Jonah are the gentiles on the boat and the Assyrians.
And a fish.
You may not think of the book of Ruth as incredibly consequential, aside from being a nice story about a faithful friendship. But Ruth is probably the most dangerous book in the whole Bible.
The book of Ezra unambiguously commands Israelites not to marry foreigners, and Deuteronomy tells us, “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.”
But something odd happens in the book of Ruth. The hero in Ruth is a Moabite woman, and she marries an Israelite. Despite what is written in Ezra and Deuteronomy, Ruth isn’t depicted as a law-breaker, but fantastically as a woman of noble character. Then, after all the law-breaking, the author of Ruth tells us that it is from her line that came the great King David.
Ruth was written in a time of disagreement about the law, and its author was making a loud statement. He is disagreeing with Ezra.
These books, and others, reflect deep, complex divisions in Jewish thought that developed as reactions to centuries of foreign domination. Yet the sages who assembled the final Hebrew canon saw no reason to hide from the public the arguments that the authors of these books were having with each other. They just left them right out there.
And this is important: It is this literature that Jesus used to point to himself as the incarnate son of God.
If we are listening, God has inspired the Bible’s authors to tell our conflict-averse generation something remarkable.
Disagreement is a good thing.
Differing perspectives are an essential part of the human experience. We were never meant to agree on everything. We were never meant to expect or make it our goal to agree on everything. We were meant to converse. To engage. To argue. To listen. To never have it all figured out. Even to be wrong.
Because when we engage with each other this way, we move the ball forward. We move the needle. We advance the whole world.
The writers of the Bible were creative. They were passionate. They were polemical. They said amazing things. Great things. And horrendous things. They were inspired not to write an inerrant text, but to engage creatively with their time and so push the human race forward as best as they knew how. I find it hard to believe that God would use the Bible’s writers to push so many boundaries and limits, and to engage in so much creativity—only so that God could one day keep us all within an unchanging Wall.
I find it hard to believe that we don’t continue to be inspired. When people push the human race forward, when they honestly and passionately drive themselves to the best of what we can be, you find in those people the breath of God.
God didn’t inspire humans to write the Bible because he was too busy and needed a scribe. The book we carry to church every Sunday is not some my-way-or-the-highway-because-this-is-the-word-of-God thing. It’s not some your-argument-isn’t-with-me-it’s-with-God thing.
It is not a threat to your soul when other people read it differently than you—when people disagree with some of the many voices within the Bible.
This is why we shouldn’t strain so hard to keep the Bible from disagreeing with itself. When we see the Bible disagree with itself, we learn what God wants for us. We learn that disagreement is good. Engagement is good. Debate is good. Diversity is good.
What I learn from our holy Bible is that disagreement is holy.
Which should be no surprise given how much destruction has come in the name of conformity.
The Bible was written by humans who were inspired by God’s Ruah Ha-kadesh (the Holy Spirit). It represents the best of people at any given time who, over time, wrestled with God, life, death, and with each other. It is an on-going conversation, and the conversation continues today.
God inspired humans to write the Bible because God values human diversity, creativity, and engagement with each other’s differences.
When I affirm that God inspired the writers of the Bible, this is what I affirm.