When it comes to the Bible or scripture, there a lot of different questions and concerns that people have. This is not surprising since we are so far removed from the writing of scripture. Probably the two most frequent questions I hear people asking is how did we get scripture and how can we trust scripture to be true. Those are understandable questions that deserve an answer and the passage from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is usually the beginning place to start answering these two questions which are somewhat interrelated.
There is just one problem here. The passage of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is addressing another implied question that we often fail to grasp. When Paul says that “All scripture is inspired of God…” (NRSV),* he assumes that his readers (originally Timothy and now us) understand that scripture comes from God and can therefore be trusted. This is not to say that Paul did not understand the human element in the writing of scripture. Paul, as well as other writers of scripture, often use phrases like “it is written,” “David said, ” or “the prophets say” which is an acknowledgement of the human element. Yet from the eyes and ears of faith, Paul was able to understand the providential work of God in scripture. So Paul is automatic in his ability to trust scripture to be true and therefore does not feel the need to defend that claim.
This is where we need a reality check. Typically all talk about the inspiration of God and the truthfulness of scripture automatically turned into a discussion about the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture, citing 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as a proof-text. I believe this has been a mistake because it has subverted attention from the point Paul is trying to make (which I will get to shortly). Ironically, these two words – inerrancy and infallibility – are not even found in scripture itself. They are words that belong to rather modern philosophy instead.
Some will object to my criticism at this point. Some might even suggest that the foundation for truth is lost if we fail to hold on to inerrancy and infallibility while defending their claim, that we may lose the foundation for truth. I disagree! The God we serve is much bigger than the philosophical questions some wish to haggle over. In fact, it is my faith in the robust ways I see God at work in history, in the lives of others, and in my own life that allows me to trust scripture as his inspired word and therefore regard it as true and authoritative.
If we can get to that place in our own faith then we just may be able to pass by the room in which all the philosophical discussions are taking place and instead find ourselves in that place where Paul wants to take us. Paul goes on to say about scripture that it is, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (italics mine). This is to say that scripture has been given so that it can read us and as it does, it teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us, and trains us in the righteous ways of God so that we live as witnesses of God’s righteousness.
I like to tell the people I preach and teach to that scripture has been given to us so that we can become living Bibles because sometimes the only Bible someone else is reading is us. Think about that. This is why it is important for us not to get lost in all the philosophical discussions about scripture or to become arrogant in our faith, reading scripture in order to become the judge of everyone else.
North America is increasingly becoming a post-Christian culture and along with that a post-biblical culture. That is, there are more and more people who have never been a part of Christianity and have never read the Bible. But they are watching us, reading us and taking notice of us. Thus more than ever in our lifetime, how we live our lives is becoming the most critical factor of our witness for Jesus. And we have been given scripture so that we can learn to live a life that bears authentic witness to Jesus Christ… Because sometimes, the only Bible people are reading is us!
* Except for Ambrose, all of the church fathers understood this term in the passive sense; see Risto Saarinen, The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon & Jude, 155.