Bibliolatry, “God-Breathed Scripture,” and the NIV

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by Tim Widowfield

[What follows is the text an email, with some emendations, that I wrote over a year ago.]

As you may already know, I have problems with the NIV [New International Version]. The translation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is particularly irksome. Since the time of the Latin Vulgate through the Authorized Version (KJV) and beyond, the word θεόπνευστος (theópneustos) was understood to mean “divinely inspired.”

omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata . . .

Whoever wrote 2 Timothy may have coined the word, but a form of it does appear in Pseudo-Plutarch. In Book 5, Chapter 2 of Placita Philosophorum, the author writes:

Herophilus [says] that dreams which are caused by divine instinct (θεοπνεύστους) have a necessary cause . . .

The KJV translates 2 Timothy 3:16 as follows:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

Gleason Archer

Nearly all its descendants (NASB, NET, ASV, etc.) follow suit. For centuries, it simply meant that the men who wrote the scriptures worked under the influence of divine inspiration. The living, continuing Church (its clergy and theologians) would interpret those scriptures as needed, because although under the influence of the spirit, men are still imperfect.

I cannot find the unusual translation, God-breathed, before 1849. At first, we see it used only as a hyper-literal rendering to argue that scripture is divine revelation. There’s really nothing extraordinary or new about that claim. But by the turn of the century, we start to see the argument blossom into the notion that scripture itself is a divine creation, reminiscent of the scenes in Genesis wherein God’s spirit moves across the face of the waters or when God breathes life into Adam’s nostrils. [Note: In its most extreme form, the Bible seems to become a kind of divine emanation, or at least a holy conduit through which God speaks to us.]

By mid-century, Christian fundamentalists were using it as an argument for the inerrancy of all scripture. And here’s where it really takes off. In 1964, the conservative Evangelical Christian, Gleason Archer, wrote (in A Survey of Old Testament Introduction pp. 20-21):

Does the Bible assert infallibility for itself? It has sometimes been argued that the Scriptures do not even claim inerrancy for themselves. But careful investigation shows that whenever they discuss the subject, they do in fact assert absolute authority for themselves as the inerrant Word of God.

. . .

II Timothy 3: 16: “All scripture is God-inbreathed [theopneustos], and is profitable for doctrine.” From New Testament usage it can easily be established that “scripture” (graphē) refers to the whole canon of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament as we have them today. II Peter 3:16 implies that Paul’s New Testament epistles also enjoy the same status as inspired Scriptures (graphai).

And just so you’re absolutely clear what he means by infallible and inerrant, a few paragraphs later he defends the stories of a literal Adam and Eve, as well as the literal truth of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. To deny part is to deny all.

It is impossible, he insists, to reject the historicity of these two often-contested episodes without rejecting the authority of the Christ of the Gospels and of the apostle Paul in the epistles. Pull a single thread, and the entire garment unravels.

By the 1996 edition, Archer changed “God-inbreathed” to “God-breathed” and added this footnote:

This word is really to be rendered “breathed out by God” rather than “breathed into by God.” The emphasis is upon the divine origin of the inscrlpturated revelation Itself rather than upon a special quality infused into the words of Scripture.

When the NIV chose to depart from tradition and render Pseudo-Paul’s theopneustos and Jerome’s divinitus inspirata as God-breathed, they were deliberately choosing a specific, idiosyncratic translation in order to smuggle in a specific, idiosyncratic (and surprisingly new) understanding of the Bible itself. The Evangelicals who created the NIV are using a peculiar term to foist their perverted Bibliolatry onto the unsuspecting reader.

And I don’t like it very much.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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14 thoughts on “Bibliolatry, “God-Breathed Scripture,” and the NIV”

  1. II Timothy 3: 16 is just one author’s opinion, and, of course it is impossible to know what is referred to as “All scripture”.
    One could say it could mean everything that has ever been written by anyone, but most likely it refers to the Septuagint “Old Testament” that was the original “Bible” of the earliest Christians. The “New Testament” and what we call “The Bible” did not yet exist when that opinion by the author of II Timothy was written.

    1. Ironically, 2 Timothy could be referring to many of the New Testament documents if we accept its pseudepigraphical nature and late dating. Of course, that’s unacceptable to fundamentalists who want it to be an early text by Paul, but then they can’t use it as witness to the authority of any text except the Septuagint.

          1. That is a good one from the author’s point of view, and perhaps also from the point of view of the reader: Scripture – whatever someone wrote that agrees with me.
            Hence the widespread bibliolatry among mutually disagreeing sects and believers.

  2. Tim, or others with competence in the field

    A bit off on a tangent — would you be able to suggest a single all around best English translation of the Bible? When I grew up only the KJV and the RSV were available to me whereas now I see other translations, not just the NIV.

    Or is one translation best for, say, Revelation, and another for the gospels, yet another for major prophets, etc; one for accuracy while another’s better for quick-and-easy, fluent reading–and so forth?

    1. You can’t have too many translations but beware what particular axe the translator(s) have to grind. They all have a bee-in-the-bonnet about summat or other. Be sure to look at Orthodox English translations and translations of the Septuagint (more or less the same thing). When the Gospel went Latin, the Greek comprehension of the translators wasn’t particularly great.

      Nestle-Aland has been mentioned; I had cause to check someones scholarship on the ‘Lilies of the field’ verses of G.Mt., G.Lk., and G.Th. in the Greek. Could I find the basis of their argument in Nestle-Aland? No. Only when I got hold of the particular text and apparatus used could I confirm their argument was valid. Nestle-Aland turned out to have conflated the texts of G.Mt. and G.Lk. at that juncture. Never forget that the Textus Receptus is a synthetic.

      1. Excellent reply and thank you for adding the British word “summat” (“something”) to my personal vocabulary. I think I find summat to use it here and there and confuse my fellow Merican Anglish Spreakers here in the South. 🙂

  3. Scholars long used the RSV. And today, many like the NRSV.

    Or the Greek New Testament, UBS 4th edition, Nestle-Aland 26th edition.

    The New Greek English Interlinear NewTestament, has that Greek text, plus a literalistic and NRSV translation.

    Though no Bible whatsoever is very reliable at all.

  4. Apologies: This comment had been trapped in the spam folder for several days.

    — Neil

    Eh, I wouldn’t blame the language, the problem comes from the fundamentalist mentality and theological arguments. If the aim was to move away from the more stuffy and archaic Latinate terminology, “God-breathed” seems pretty good as a vernacular translation that captures the meaning without sounding too hokey or awkward. But this new translation of the word is just as loosely metaphorical as what you get in the Greek and Latinate versions of the word. There’s nothing about the term “God-breathed” that implies an inherently narrow range of meaning in keeping with fundamentalist doctrines of inerrancy. It was only after fundamentalist commentators began to redefine “God-breathed” in such a specific way within their own circles that this term began to be associated with the concept of an inerrant and infallible Bible.

    When you read the NIV translation of the passage from 2 Timothy where “God-breathed” appears, it’s still a very generic exhortation about how much good and useful the contents of these people’s holy scriptures is:

    “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.”

    What is said about “the Holy Scriptures” here is broad and general. They were inspired by God, they bring salvation, they have a broad range of applications, etc. The comment about the inspiration of the scriptures is not even the main focus of what is being said. It gets tossed in there as a prefatory remark to emphasize the scriptures’ important, divine pedigree. The emphasis is on how good and useful the scriptures are when used in life of the religious community. Even here in the NIV there’s nothing in the text that would suggest the author wants to teach congregations about how the scriptures are “God-breathed” in some highly-defined, restrictive, technically-specific sense.

    One last thing worth mentioning is what other people in the comments have pointed out – what is referred to as “the Scripture” or “Holy Scriptures” is never defined in this epistle! What appears in the collection of what we now call the New Testament was new, so there’s no way these people could have read all of these books from their infancy (unless the author was using “infancy” in a metaphorical sense?). We have no idea what writings the author of this epistle or the congregations in which it circulated considered to be Scripture. The idea that this passage in 2 Timothy is speaking of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible doesn’t come from anywhere in 2 Timothy, it comes from fundamentalist Protestant dogma and theology. The author of 2 Timothy and the congregations who originally read it could have considered all kinds of writings unfamiliar to us to be part of their “Holy Scripture.” They might not have included some writings that appear in our modern Bibles in their idea of “Holy Scripture.” We have no idea based on what appears in 2 Timothy.

  5. The original words “PASA GRAPHE” could mean any piece of writing, including your laundry list. Who knows, maybe it is “breathed” by some deity?

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