Exploring the God-Breathed Nature of Scripture
The thoughts below are my answer to a question posed in one of my seminary classes. The question asked how we reconcile the God-ordained violence and genocide in the Hebrew Bible with the compassion and grace of God presented in Jesus Christ.
There is a lot to unpack in the concep of inspiration that I describe below, and I definitely don’t have it all worked out. I’m sifting through it day-by-day, trying to see if it makes sense, how it breaks down, and what the implications are… so I value what you think. I’d love for you to leave your thoughts and ideas on what this might mean in the comments.
The history of the Old Testament records incredible scenes of violence and destruction done in the name of God — acts of aggression that, if they happened today, we Christians would condemn without hesitation. To our understanding, the God-ordained genocide in these biblical books does not reflect the character of the God revealed in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.
In the book of Joshua, God commanded the Israelites to take the land of Canaan by conquest and utterly destroy its native inhabitants. If a nation attempted to do that today, we'd call it mass genocide. If someone said God had told them to do it, we'd call them a religious terrorist.
So what do we do with the violence God decreed in the Old Testament? How are we to understand these ancient texts that describe a God that is so at odds with the God that we know and love? I see three possible (basically/arguably non-heretical) conclusions:
- God has an ugly side. A really ugly side.
- God’s character has changed (or the way God has revealed Godself has changed).
- The ancient Israelites who wrote the texts had a flawed understanding of God.
1. God has an ugly side.
As a child, this is pretty much what I was taught. Although I don’t recall ever specifically talking about God as being a genocidal tyrant, that was the essential message: the pagan nations had opportunities to follow the true God but had chosen to follow their own gods instead, so physical and spiritual destruction was the result of their decision. God had (and still has) no obligation to save everyone — it was (and is) God’s right to select who should be worthy of salvation.
This notion, founded on a literalistic interpretation of Scripture, wasn’t framed as an “ugly side” of God, though; it was described as God’s need for justice, suggesting that it was "just" for the Israelites to act as God’s retributive sword upon people who had no hope of salvation.
This conclusion does not mesh with my understanding of God as revealed in Christ. While I am quick to confess the limits of my own understanding, I cannot reconcile a God of love – the God who was Jesus and taught us to lay down our swords and turn the other cheek – with a God who destroys thousands of lives without, at the very least, giving the people a legitimate opportunity for repentance.
2. God’s character has changed.
There’s a theological framework called “process theology” that asserts that God changes and grows in response to the decisions and trajectory of humanity. Within this framework, the very character of God evolved in response to the cries of the dying pagans, and that character reached its ultimate conclusion in Christ’s message of love and hope.
Some Christian circles argue that process theology is heterodox (or even outright heretical). I don’t know enough about the framework to have a strong personal conviction regarding its acceptability as a Christian theology, but I know that it’s an option in our discussion. I find myself leaning away from such an explanation, although admittedly that may be simply because it’s outside the realm of my embedded assumptions about the nature of God.
3. The ancient Israelites didn’t really understand God.
Peter Enns and most other biblical scholars have convincingly argued against the factual accuracy of the Hebrew conquest. This reading of the Hebrew Bible requires a different approach to Scripture than I was taught as a child, because it means that the historical record of the deuteronomic history is not a journalistic recording of events, but a series of stories told with a religious agenda — a theological purpose instead of an historical one. It means that the Bible was written by humans rather than by the hand of God.
Within this reading of Scripture, we understand that the biblical authors were giving their best reflections upon God and the mission to which God called them, rooted as that was within the limits of their cultural context. The Israelites believed God was telling them to exterminate their enemies because, within their paradigm of the activities of gods, that was the essence of what gods (and therefore God) did — it was the role gods played in the world, so of course that’s what God wanted them to do!
This kind of understanding means that we have to read Scripture through an entirely different lens than I was raised with — particularly as we approach its most ancient texts. In many cases, it opens up more questions than it provides answers for. While I appreciate the deconstruction of our assumptions regarding the authority of Scripture, I find myself frustrated that they don’t ever seem to rebuild that concept of biblical inspiration.
Within this paradigm of the human-ness of Scripture, how are we to understand it as divine? If it is so mired in the cultural context of the ancient world, how can it play a positive role in our life and faith today?
Scripture Inspired: The Living Words of God?
Nearly every doctrine of inspiration is grounded in 2 Timothy 3:16, which says “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (NRSV). Translations of this passage vary a bit — several translate it to say something like “All scripture is God-breathed.”
This word that is translated as “inspiration of God” or “God-breathed” is the Greek word theopneustos. From my research, it seems that Paul completely invented this word just for this particular usage in his letter to Timothy. The first part of the word, theo, means “God” (just like in “theology,” the study of God). The second part of the word, pneustos, relates to breathing, breath, or spirit. Often, particularly in evangelical circles, this has been used as an argument that God “breathed out” the scriptures, as if God spoke them almost directly to human copyists.
But I’ve been working through an alternate understanding of what could be meant the term theopneustos.
When I think of God breathing, I immediately go back to the stories of creation in Genesis, where God breathed life into the elements of the earth. The second verse of the Bible talks about a wind from God (other translations say “the Spirit of God”) moving over the waters as an initiation of the creative work of God. In chapter two, God forms the first human from the dust of the ground, but that form didn’t have life, didn’t bear the image of God, until God breathed into it. God took the dust, the material elements of the world, and turned it into something incredible by giving it God’s own breath.
I wonder if Paul is suggesting something similar in his letter to Timothy when he talks about the God-breathed nature of Scripture. Perhaps he’s presenting the idea that God takes these human reflections, limited and flawed as they are, and breathes into them, giving them the very life, image, and power of God.
The implication here is that, though the texts bear all the cultural, sociological, and intellectual limitations of their human authors, God has invested them with the power to change the world. As the church embodies Scripture — wrestling with its theology, trying and failing to live out the message of Christ — God gives the texts life and impact that they could never have on its own. This isn’t a one-time act of inspiration; rather, it is an act of creation, of taking natural elements and making them supernatural so that they bear life. Scripture becomes living and active because these human texts have received the breath of God.
Within this understanding of inspiration, Scripture is sacred because it has been chosen by God as an instrument of the gospel. It has been at the heart of the church for millennia, and we have seen it at work throughout history in the way the church has ministered to the broken and hurting and displaced in society. The reality of the gospel’s impact throughout the world — and the knowledge that Scripture has been a central part of that impact — is evidence to me that the texts we claim as sacred have in fact been breathed upon by God.
What are the ramifications of this kind of understanding of biblical inspiration? How does this impact the way we embody the teachings of the Bible? How do we reconcile it with the ugly ways Christians have historically wielded Scripture as a weapon (I'm thinking of the Crusades, the embrace of the slave trade, the subjugation of women, etc.)?