All Scripture is God-Breathed

Understanding the Inspiration of the Bible

by Derek Brown

In order to truly appreciate the Bible and benefit from its truths, we must come to grips with what theologians have long classified as the inspiration of Scripture. The word inspiration, however, doesn’t have the same connotation as it did in decades past. In our contemporary linguistic milieu, this word has come to refer to that which stimulates artistic creativity or personal initiative. We could hear someone say, “That novel inspired me to write my own book,” or “That movie inspired me to be a better parent.” We might think that the inspiration of Scripture is simply a reference to the spiritual feelings of the biblical authors that moved them to write what they did. Or, that the inspiration of the Bible has mainly to do with how it stirs us to love God and others.

All Scripture is God-Breathed
But these notions are not what evangelical theologians have in mind when they talk about the inspiration of Scripture. The word inspiration is found in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” This passage was taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). A recent translation, the English Standard Version (ESV), recognizing the potential confusion that may arise in our contemporary setting with the word inspiration, has replaced the word with phrase, “breathed out by God.”The New International Version (NIV), translated and produced several years before the ESV, actually set the precedent for the ESV phraseology by using God-breathed instead of inspired in their rendering of 2 Tim 3:16.

The word translated “inspired” in the NASB is the Greek word theopneustos. It is possible that Paul coined this word in order to describe the nature of Scripture’s divine origin. The root word is theos, which is the Greek word for God; pneustos refers to breathing, and, specifically, breathing out. While the NASB renders 2 Timothy 3:16 correctly, both the NIV and ESV more accurately reflect the actual word Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3:16. To say that Scripture is God-breathed or breathed out by God captures accurately what the word theopneustos means, and these two translations avoid the confusion that can arise in light of the connotations most people apply to the word inspiration. The Legacy Standard Bible (LSB), a recent update of the NASB, has replaced the word “inspired” with the phrase “God-breathed.”  

NIV: 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.

ESV: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of Godmay be complete, equipped for every good work.

LSB: All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be equipped, having been thoroughly equipped for every good work.

By using the word theopneustos to refer to the origin and nature of Scripture, Paul affirms that Scripture really is God’s Word. It is hard to think of a more graphic way Paul could have stated this truth: Scripture is literally the breath of God’s mouth.

All Scripture is God-Breathed
The Scriptures to which Paul refers in 2 Tim 3:16 were the Old Testament writings. At the time Paul wrote Timothy, the Old Testament Scripture—the same books we have in our English Old Testaments—were well established among the Jewish community as the Word of God. And because of their divine origin, these writings were received by the Christian community as well.

But on what basis did the Church receive these books of the Old Testament? Paul gives the reason to Timothy: all the Old Testament writings had been breathed out by God. These texts, treasured by the Jews and now received and cherished by the Christian church were not merely the religious reflections of ancient Jewish sages or the mythical history of a small nation in the Middle East. No, these writings were the very words of God. Therefore, these texts have the authority and the power to train, correct, rebuke, and equip the Christian for all of life and ministry.

We must also take special note of what is breathed out by God. Paul says, “All Scripture.” The word for “Scripture” here is the Greek word graphe, which refers the written text itself. Paul is saying that it is specifically the writings that are breathed out by God. Not much of an insight you might say. Sure, but it is important that we appreciate Paul’s emphasis here. Although God worked through human authors to produce His Word, it is the final written text that God breathed out. This means that God’s revelation is fixed in a particular collection of writings, not in the biblical authors. The men who wrote the Scripture are dead and gone, but the texts they wrote remain with us, and we can read and study these texts for our spiritual benefit.

Nevertheless, Scripture does recognize that the biblical authors were guided by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. Emphasizing the divine source of Old Testament Scripture, the apostle Peter wrote this:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

2 Pet 1:19-21

Peter tells us that the biblical authors were carried along by the Holy Spirit, like a ship being moved through the sea by the wind. Due to the Holy Spirit’s work, the final result—written Scripture—was not “produced by the will of man,” but by God.    

Although Peter gives us some insight into how Scripture was produced, however, the Bible does not explain in detail the inner-dynamics of this process of God producing his Word through the human authors. As we read the Bible, we see that the biblical authors wrote according to their own style, personality, place in life, personal circumstances, the research they had conducted, and the needs of their hearers (see, for example, Luke 1:1-4). And we learn that it is the final product—the writings—that are inspired. Beyond this, God has not left us resources to penetrate the mystery of biblical inspiration. We know that God worked through the human authors, and we know that the final written text is God-breathed. And that’s all we need to know. We can now read, study, and enjoy every word of the Bible even though we no longer have the authors of those books among us. 

All Scripture is God-Breathed
Although Paul refers specifically to the Old Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, this truth about the Scripture—that it is breathed out by God—can be applied to all Scripture that came after the final book of the Old Testament was written. That is, we can apply Paul’s statement to all New Testament writings as well. We can even see within the New Testament itself a recognition of new writings that were to be treated with the same reverence as the Old Testament Scripture and received as God’s Word. 

For example, Peter refers to Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:15-16.

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Here Peter encourages his readers to persevere in their reading of Paul’s letters because there were some things in those letters that were, admittedly, even for the apostle Peter, “hard to understand.” But there were some people who were, because of their ignorance and spiritual instability, unable to accurately interpret these difficult writings from Paul, and they were “twisting” Paul’s words just as they did with the “other Scriptures.” In this brief statement, Peter places Paul’s writings within the accepted canonical books. Paul’s writings are “Scripture.” This means that Peter considered Paul’s writings to be divinely inspired texts. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul also refers to Luke’s gospel as authoritative Scripture (see 1 Tim 5:18).

It is not surprising that Peter and Paul would start referring to other recent writings as Scripture. It has always been God’s pattern to provide written revelation at points of major redemptive-historical significance, and the coming of the Son of God marked the apex of God’s redemptive plan. That written revelation would flow out of such a glorious event makes sense in light of God’s past actions with Israel (see Heb 1:1-2), and it corresponds with Jesus’ promise to His disciples: “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). It is entirely reasonable, then, to apply Paul’s statement about Scripture’s divine origin to the New Testament documents as well. All Scripture—Old Testament and New Testament—is breathed out by God.

What About Paul’s Claim to Partial Inspiration?
But not all professing Christians believe that the entire Bible is inspired or that the Bible itself makes such a claim. One text that is often leveraged against the idea that all of Scripture is God-breathed is 1 Corinthians 7:10-12. Here, the argument goes, Paul makes a distinction between God’s Word and his word, signaling the difference with the phrases, “not I, but the Lord,” and “I, not the Lord.” 

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

Does this passage from Paul constitute proof of what some have called “partial inspiration?” Not at all. Paul is not toggling between inspired teaching and non-inspired teaching in this text. Rather, as he is offering authoritative instruction on the issue of marriage among Christians, he acknowledges that Jesus never spoke specifically to every marriage-related issue during his ministry.

Jesus taught that people should not divorce and that they should not remarry if they have divorced for unlawful reasons (see Matt 5:32; 19:1-9; Mark 10:11). But Jesus never explained to his followers what they should do if they find themselves married to an unbeliever. The reason for this omission in Jesus’ teaching ministry was due to the fact that he had not yet died on the cross, been raised, and sent his Spirit. In other words, Christian salvation had not yet been accomplished, so the scenario of a Christian husband being married to an unbelieving wife was not yet a reality. It was for this reason that Paul, a spokesmen sent by Jesus (see Gal 1:11-2:14) had to make an authoritative pronouncement about this kind of situation.

Other claims for partial inspiration often appeal to texts that appear ethically indefensible, like God’s command to Israel to kill the men, women, and children of Canaan (Deut 20:16), or stories that are so extraordinary, they appear to be fabrications or embellishments (e.g., the defeat of Jericho; Josh 6:1-7). While these objections usually reveal the ethical and religious proclivities of the one raising the complaint, they do not serve as proof that the Bible contains sections that are uninspired. Just because a passage does not meet our fallen moral sensibilities or appears “exaggerated” to us does not serve as evidence that Scripture is partially inspired.  

The Bible’s View of Itself
On the contrary, the Bible as a whole contains countless claims to its complete inspiration. Throughout the Old Testament the authors use the phrase, “Thus says the Lord” to introduce a word from God (e.g., Ex 4:22; 5:1; 7:17; Josh 7:13; Judg 6:8; 1 Sam 10:18; 2 Sam 12:11; 1 Kings 14:7; 2 Chron 20:15; Is 10:24; 45:14; Jer 8:4; 9:7, etc.). You also find the phrase, “The Lord said” (Gen 4:6, 9, 15, 6:3, 7:1, 8:21; 11:6; 12:1; 13:14; Ex 3:7; 4:4) and “The word of the Lord came to me…” all throughout the Old Testament (Deut 5:22; 1 Sam 15:10; 2 Sam 7:4; 1 1 Kings 16:1; 17:2, 8, 2 Kings 20:4; Chron 22:8; Is 38:4; Jer 1:4; 1:11, 13; 2:1; 13:3; Ezek 3:16; 6:1; 12:21, 26; 22:1ff; 31:1; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Amos 3:1; Jonah 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Zech 1:1, 7; 8:18; Mal 1:1).

Jesus viewed all the Old Testament as God’s Word (Matt 15:6; 19:3-5; Luke 24:25), regularly appealing to it to settle theological or ethical disputes (Matt 4:4; 4:6-7; 4:10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:31; Mark 7:6; 9:3; 14:27; Luke 4:4-10). The New Testament authors called the Old Testament “Scripture” (2 Tim 3:16), “the oracles of God” (Rom 3:1; Heb 5:12), and the words of the Holy Spirit (Heb 3:7-11), constantly appealing to Scripture in their arguments with the phrase, “It is written” (Acts 7:42; 13:33; 15:15; 23:5; Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:10; 4:17; 8:36; 10:15; 11:8; 11:26; 12:19; 14:11; 15:3, 21; 1 Cor 1:31; 2:9; 3:19; 6:19; 9:9; 10:7; 14:21; 15:45; 2 Cor 8:15; 9:9; 3:10; 3:13; Heb 10:7; 1 Pet 1:16). Paul even uses the words “God” and “Scripture” interchangeably so that whatever Scripture says, God says (Rom 9:14-18).

And it is not enough to say that God merely inspired the concepts of Scripture but left the decision on the individual words up to the biblical authors. While most of the authors wrote according to their own free expression (only a few times does God dictate his word to a biblical author [Ex 34:27; Jer 36:4; Rev 2-3], the final product—the writing (Greek: graphe)—is God’s Word, down to the very tenses of verbs (see Matt 22:32) and number (singular or plural) of nouns (see Gal 3:16). Throughout Scripture, there is a focus on the words of God and Christ. John Frame helpfully explains:

Verbal inspiration means that the words of Scripture, not only the ideas of the biblical writers, are God’s Word. . . .God’s intention is to speak personal words to human beings.  He has identified those words with the canonical text.  We recall Peter’s question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68).  The emphasis on the words of God, Christ, and the apostles is pervasive in the NT.  See Matt. 7:24-28; 24:35; Mark 8:38; 13:31; John 3:34; 5:47; 6:63; 8:47; 14:10; 24; 17:8; Acts 15:15; 1 Cor. 2:13; 1 Tim 4:6; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2 Peter 3:2; Jude 17; Rev. 1:3; 19:9; 21:5; 22:6-10, 18-19.[1]  

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 143.

The conclusion that we must draw is what the church has believed for centuries: The Bible, down to the very words, is God-breathed. The technical phrase is verbal-plenary inspiration. Verbal refers to the words (rather than the concepts) of Scripture, and the term plenary (“full,” “complete”) indicates that all of the words are inspired, not just some of them.

When you read Scripture, you are reading the very words of God. Therefore, you can know that these words are true, trustworthy, without error, ethically pure, and perfectly wise (Ps 12:6; 19:7-11; Prov 30:5-6) because God is holy and cannot lie (Num 23:9; Prov 14:5; Heb 6:18; Titus 1:2). These words provide us with all the knowledge we need to be saved and to live a life that pleases God (2 Tim 3:14-17). This is a stunning and glorious truth. Take some time today to read your Bible and thank God for the gift of his written Word.    

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