Easter Message: All Scripture?

Photo taken in Ethiopia by the author. St George and the Dragon are very central to the faith there.

Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness

2 Timothy 3.16 (WEB)

2 Timothy 3.16 is often used to tell us that scripture all comes from God. I remember as a small child hearing the verse and thinking, “But hang on. How can the Bible endorse itself like that? Isn’t that a bit circular?” I didn’t use those exact words but the emotional sentiment was there. I didn’t dare voice these views at the time but rather suppressed them for decades. I guess I decided that the Bible must have a special exemption from the usual rules of logic.

Recently, however, I was thinking of the verse. The Bible is much more interesting to me since becoming an atheist. I can read it without the voice in my head trying to clean it up. It’s taken, even by relatively scholarly Christians, to mean that “all scripture” refers to The Bible as we have it today. That is, that Scripture is synonymous with The Bible.

A moment’s thought will tell you that this simply isn’t so. When Paul wrote the words he was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, now known (patronizingly) as the Old Testament. In fact, that’s always what’s meant when the word Scripture is used in the New Testament. It’s specifically what the authors meant. They had no conception that they were writing words that would later be incorporated into the canon. I suspect they’d have been horrified by the idea since it’s the opposite of their central point.

Their point is usually that we only need the scriptures, meaning the Jewish scriptures or the Old Testament, and that we should not really be looking beyond that. From their perspective, God gave us the Old Testament and there’s enough in there to know what we need to know. Well, that plus direct revelation, since those folks were constantly having visions and dreams. Paul even describes his visit to the third heaven.

But the point is that to read a verse in the New Testament and say that it has all this divine authority and to back this up by pointing to 2 Timothy 3.16, is to dramatically reinterpret Paul. In fact, essentially to reverse what he said, since he was trying to point everyone to the Old Testament and we’re using it to point even to his own writings which is certainly not what he meant. 

Now theologically, this is not insurmountable. You just say that God was inspiring Paul to write something for one reason, but with God’s revelation we can now take the words to mean the opposite. Dang it, I just dropped my slippery eel again.

Okay, but then let’s at least be honest and clear about what we’re doing. Let’s say that. Let’s explicitly note that Paul was referring to the Old Testament and that because of a revelation to Pope whoever or Pastor so-and-so or Professor Doctor Sir Reinterpretations-R-Us, that we’re extending this so far beyond its original meaning as to make a point that opposes what the original author was trying to say. If we are at all interested in the truth, is that too much to ask?

In fairness, here’s someone’s attempt to do this. Here’s what he writes:

The “All Scripture” in this case most specifically referred to the Old Testament, since the full New Testament did not yet exist. At the time Paul wrote these words, books such as the Gospel of John and Revelation had not yet been written. However, this principle would still apply to all Scripture given by God, including the 27 books of the New Testament. New Testament writers recognized Scripture even as it was written (2 Peter 3:15–16).

Ah, okay, so he quickly passes over the fact that Paul was writing about the Old Testament and assures the faithful that it really means New Testament too. The faithful, their hearts racing as they’ve stumbled upon a huge flaw, are reassured and move on with their lives. What does 2 Peter 3:15-16 say, then?

as also in all of [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things. In those, there are some things that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unsettled twist, as they also do to the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

2 Peter 3:16 (WEB)

See that? “Other scriptures,” meaning that the author of 2 Peter took Paul’s epistles to be scripture like the “other scriptures.” That’s a little too glib for my taste.

2 Peter was probably the last of the canon to be written and it’s conceivable that by then Paul’s work was already being seen in those terms, but that actually shows that the religion is evolving. Clearly, Paul wasn’t writing as though he were writing Scripture and all his discussions on the matter refer to the Old Testament. Not only that, but the author of 2 Peter was also not intending to write scripture either. But now we put this all together and claim that his verses are included in the canon and somehow referring to their own writing despite that being the opposite of their point.

To be clear: Paul wrote about Scripture and meant the Old Testament. Later authors may have started to take his words as additional scripture of some sort (despite the prohibitions on adding to the scriptures), and now we re-interpret Paul’s words to mean the opposite of what he meant. Paul was pointing back to the Old Testament but now we’re using his words to point back to his own words. Here’s an example of the prohibition:

Every word of God is flawless.
    He is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Don’t you add to his words,
    lest he reprove you, and you be found a liar.

Proverbs 30:5-6

Presumably, when these words were written they were not part of scripture either. So each generation added bits to the original Mosaic Law, incorporating, without any apparent sense of irony, new parts that were written to tell us not to do that. So when you read Paul, understand that he is referring to the Old Testament when he talks about Scripture. At the least, it will make much more sense.