This is the text of a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I’m placed this year. The Scripture text it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.
All Scripture is inspired by God.
All Scripture. Wait. All? Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist? (I’m sure you could add to a list of texts of terror from your own knowledge of Scripture). On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.
It seems clear that the community who wrote this – what the vicar has been describing in recent weeks as the “school of Paul” – felt themselves to be in disagreement and conflict with others. From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that this Pauline community were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Judaizing Christians.
There must have been a temptation, when rejecting Judaism, to reject its Scriptures – the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point – as well. “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.” But the author of this text (who I’m just going to refer to as Paul for the sake of simplicity) says no, that won’t do. The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well. We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it. Here, I think, is actually something which this parish might find itself sharing with the “school of Paul.” We’re aware that there are Christians out there who have a more fundamentalist take on Scripture, which doesn’t gel with the ethos and culture of this place; but that doesn’t mean we throw the Scriptures out.
In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England. And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes. I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life. Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times. And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.
So. All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed. God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils. There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them. Paul draws on this imagery to retrieve the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving. If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.
This idea carries some practical implications with it. If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life. It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.” If the Pauline school were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, they might well have written learning outcomes which said: “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.” A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.
And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook. Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper. That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one. Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God. It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an auxiliary of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.
In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s providential care for creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world. Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people. As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference. When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.
So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon? I don’t have time this morning to go into that question in depth. All I will say is that we don’t ignore those texts, we wrestle with them and grow through that encounter.
It is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise this fruit of the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.