This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.
All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.
All Scripture. What. 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 difficult bits 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 when Paul wrote this, he found himself 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 communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.
There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well. To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.” But Paul says no, that won’t do. We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest. 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.
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 express 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 Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he 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 organ 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 care to provide for God’s 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’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives. We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised. We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun. By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted. By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion. Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture? Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.
So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.