Word Study #158 — “Inspiration”

(Please use this as a companion study to #148)

Here is another requested word that appears only once in the entire New Testament.
I find it interesting that in all the arguing and pontificating that goes on regarding the many versions of “inspiration” ascribed to the Biblical writings, virtually no attention is given to internal evidence – statements by the writers themselves – of the reasons or motivations for their writing. These statements are plentiful, and should certainly be viewed with a seriousness at least equal to the stature accorded to the documents in which they are contained!

Does it surprise you that only one of those writers – John, in the Revelation – makes any claim to having been told what to write, by the Lord or a messenger of his? John reports that he was instructed to write specific messages to particular churches (2:1,8,12,18, 3:1,7,14). Other instructions are (1:19)to “write what you have seen”, and not to write the message of the “thunders” (10:4). And John makes no similar claim about either his letters or the gospel that bears his name.

Neither Matthew nor Mark includes any explanation in his narrative. Luke,though (1:1-4), not only states his purpose very clearly, but also describes his careful research and organization efforts, in order that Theophilos may “be assured of the accuracy of the teaching (he) had received.” And John, as he concludes his account, notes (20:30-31) that although he left out a lot of things, he wrote what he did in order to enable his readers “to trust that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God,” and, having become faithful, to “have life in his name”. John thus declares the purpose of his work to be deliberately evangelistic, whereas Luke’s is to give additional evidence to someone who has already been taught.

Although the history recounted in Acts is addressed to the same individual as Luke’s gospel, the introduction is simpler: after all, here, in a considerable portion of the narrative (the “we” passages), Luke is a participant, and no longer just a researcher.
There are two records of “writing” by believers contained within that history. First is the letter written by the folks at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15:23-29) to the Gentile believers. It was written, reporting the consensus of the gathered group, to reassure them that they were not required to adopt Jewish customs, but merely to avoid (15:20) “the pollution of idols, sexual perversions, strangled things, and blood”, all of which were components of idol worship.
The other letter (Ac.18:28) was written by brethren in Ephesus to counterparts in Achaia (Corinth), urging them to welcome Apollos into their fellowship.
There were also letters written by the Roman officials.

Paul’s letters frequently included a note about his purpose in writing: Rom.15:15 – to remind them about what he had taught; I Cor.4:14 – not to scold, but to warn them about false teaching; I Cor.7:1 – to reply to questions they had sent him; II Cor.7:12 – to settle a dispute; 9:1 – to urge the collection of a relief offering; and 13:2, 10 – to correct errors. His purpose stated in Gal.1:20 was to recount his own personal history, in Eph.3:3 to share a revelation; in Phil.3:1 to keep them safe from error; and in Philemon, to encourage his acceptance of Onesimus. He says he wrote I Thes.4:9, 5:1, to commend their love, and to reassure them about Jesus’ return, and I Tim.3:14 to communicate his plans to visit.
Several times, notably in I Cor.7, he says, “I have no instructions from the Lord – this is my best judgment”. Only once (I Cor.14), after a lengthy outline for orderly sharing in a meeting, does he claim to be wielding the Lord’s own authority.

Peter writes (I Pet.5:12) to encourage the faithfulness of his readers, and (II Pet.3:1) to remind them of his message.
John (I Jn.1:4) says that his goal is to make their mutual joy complete, (2:1), to prevent error, and (2:12) because they are faithful and growing!
Jude (3) also writes to encourage faithfulness.

Nobody claims to be writing a definitive statement of “doctrine” to which all are required to subscribe, or an inviolable code of conduct which all must observe – except for the one requirement imposed by Jesus himself and repeatedly appearing in all John’s works – mutual love in the brotherhood.

So – who – or what – is “inspired”?
The word, theopneustos, appears only one single time in the entire New Testament, and not at all in the LXX. It likewise does not appear at all in ancient classical literature, although Plutarch (2nd.century AD) used it occasionally. It may have been an “invented” word, since no etymology is given in any lexicons, other than its component parts: theo – God, and pneustos, from pneo, to breathe or to blow. The sound linguistic approach of examining other usages of a word, is not possible, since there are none. The use of theo- indicates clearly that the reference is to inspiration by/from God – people can also be “inspired” by other people, by a cause, by an idea, etc. – but as noted in Word Study #148, the rest of the sentence is problematic, due to its lack of any verb. Please see that treatment.
There is another valid consideration, suggested in a conversation with my son, Dan, who pointed out that help could be found in the broader context of this quotation, specifically the reference in v.15 to Timothy’s “knowledge of the holy writings / scriptures since childhood” , and the beneficial results of that knowledge. Later,I realized that this would also solve the problem of what to do with the kai in v.16, before ophelimos, “useful”, by enabling the reading, “From early childhood, you’ve known the holy scriptures/writings that empower you to be wise for deliverance /salvation, through the faithfulness that is in Christ Jesus.  All writing inspired by God is also useful …”.  This may be the best solution of all, and I intend to incorporate it in the next edition of the PNT.  (If you have downloaded it, please add this to your copy!)

In either case, for anyone who takes the New Testament seriously, it is unwise, if not downright impossible, to make a dogmatic, definitive statement regarding its “divine” or “human” origin.
Far more productive would be redoubling our most earnest efforts to understand and to follow its precepts, and to honor the One by whose gracious Kingdom its narrative is “inspired”!

One Response to Word Study #158 — “Inspiration”

  1. Dan Martin says:

    You’re in good company translating kai as “also” in v. 16, Mom. That’s the way the translators of the original 1901 American Standard Version (see the text here. In fact, it’s this version that originally set me on my own exploration of this passage as they, too, place the “is” in a different place.

    The other interesting thought on this passage is one that I came across first in Vernard Eller’s compilation of the writings of Johann and Christoff Blumhardt. Here’s an excerpt: “People speak much these days about “the inspiration of scripture”; and this is good. However, I prefer to speak of “inspired people.” God be thanked that we have scriptures that came from those through whom God’s Spirit spoke the truth. Yet it is the prophet who is inspired, not the letter of scripture. And if the letter is to lead to the truth, so must you also be led by the Spirit of God as you read.”

    From this, and also from some thinking about the idea that pneuma / pnoe have the connotation of “wind” or “breath” as well as “spirit,” I’ve come to think that perhaps theopneustos refers more to the action of God’s spirit upon the reader/hearer of Scripture, rather than so much on the source. More on that here.

    I’ve tried to compile most of my own ruminations on Biblical inspiration into a summary post here if you want to look at the broader picture.

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