'All scripture is inspired by God'

The readings for this Sunday basically present a test case, as I suppose one could argue every Scripture passage does, of the idea of Inspiration, discussed in my last post on What is the Good Word?. Yet, this Sunday’s second reading, from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, especially v. 16, does present the actual test case in many ways. Timothy is urged to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:14-15). These sacred writings would have to be the writings of the Old Testament as, even if Paul is not the author of 2 Timothy and the letter is late, Timothy himself would have been raised from infancy, the literal translation of “childhood” in the NRSV, prior to the writing of the New Testament. These texts of the OT, then, are nevertheless able to “instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and the “instruction for salvation” seems to be the heart of the significance of the Scriptures. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 goes on to say, however, that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (3:16-17). Beyond, that is, its salvific function are other tasks or functions for which or in which the Scripture aids us or forms us, such as teaching, or correction, or to help us perform every good work. The word which is translated as “inspired” is theopneustos, which could be literally translated as “God-breathed.” There is no question that the early Christians considered the NT “inspired,” too, even if the OT is in mind here, but if the OT is able to lead one to faith in Jesus Christ it does suggest a certain way in which the OT is “inspired” by God.

This way would be found in “spiritual” readings of the OT, which Jesus himself engages in the Gospels (for two examples see Mark 12:24-27 and John 3:14). In this kind of spiritual reading a literal text can be read in a spiritual sense. When Christians saw Jesus in the OT, where on surface it would not seem he was not discussed, Christians would read the OT “typologically.” Not every OT text can be read typologically and reading a text typologically does not indicate that there is no longer a literal sense present, but it does offer a means to make sense of difficult passages or to make sense of them particularly in terms of salvation history: “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

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So, how should one read the first reading for today, Exodus 17:8-13? How should it inspire us? It is a “historically grounded” text in the life of ancient Israel, in which the Israelites defeat the enemy Amalek when Moses’ hands are raised with the staff of God in them (the same staff that drew water from the rock at Horeb earlier in the chapter). In order for Israel to succeed, his hands must be raised up. When Moses gets tired, he sits on a rock, while Aaron and Hur hold up his hands. For when his hands with the staff of God fall down, Israel falters, but when they are raised, Israel is victorious.

On the one hand, the text is odd, and it is difficult to draw meaning from the actual battle scene – how often, after all, does Moses’ staff come into play in wartime (though, ahem, I have seen the staff in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul)?  But it is not necessary to draw meaning from this text in only a typological sense; it is clear that the staff of God represents God’s favor and God’s way and whenever the Israelites are with God, they are victorious and whenever they are apart from God, they fail. This has continuing significance for the life of any faithful person today, Jew or Christian: remain with God and God will remain with you.  This is inspiration. I am not suggesting it is the only level of inspiration in this account, but an odd battle account has meaning for us today.

The Gospel reading inspires us as well with Jesus’ wonderful parable in Luke 18:1-8 of the dishonest judge who, upon being harried and harassed by a widow, renders a faithful and honest verdict because he is tired of being bothered by her. Jesus says, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” (18:7-8). In this case we find inspiration for prayer in the form of a Jewish qal v-homer argument: if a dishonest judge renders a righteous verdict just to stop being bothered, how much more will the true judge render a just and true (and quick) verdict with those who appeal to him? These appeals must be prayer in this context. Jesus ends by saying, “and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Faith in this parable is found in the practice of prayer and it is linked to our salvation. This salvific purpose is the heart of inspiration.

I am only touching the surface, obviously, in any of these readings, but the point is that scripture will yield inspiration in a variety of ways at a variety of times, however hard it might be to locate its meaning in certain passages, but “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

John W. Martens

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