“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
2 Timothy 3:16, NRSV
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:21, NRSV
Growing up, those words in 2 Timothy explained the Bible — well, not all of them. “All scripture is inspired by God,” or as my Bible at the time put it: “All Scripture is God-breathed” (NIV, 1984). All Scripture is God-breathed. Period. Full stop. Those words were some of the most oft-quoted in my church. The Bible, after all, was central to Southern Baptist life and identity. This has always been true about Southern Baptists — from the beginning, it was founded as a separate denomination because of its insistence on the Bible’s support for the owning of slaves. To the present day, the Bible remains in this elevated position bolstered by these words: “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
I had a problem with using this verse early in my life. It did not make sense to me that the Bible could talk about itself — so what was this getting at?
It made about as much sense as Moses writing the first five books of the Bible, one of which contains the story of his last words and death. But those were the books of Moses, even Jesus said it, so it must be true. After all, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
The truth to which the “God-breathed” verse points, according to my church, was that the Bible was not only inspired by God but therefore inerrant. So, when I started biology classes in high school and thought evolution just made sense, I was told that I was wrong. The Bible doesn’t say evolution is true, and if the Bible says it, it must be right. After all, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
If that Bible is inerrant, all its words are true and have prescriptive impact on our lives, I was told. For, “all scripture … is useful for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (NRSV). So, when I started to learn that multiple friends of mine were gay and I began to have less and less of a problem with that — and eventually come to affirm and celebrate their personhood as children of God — I was told that was wrong. It was wrong because Leviticus and Paul said it was wrong, and they were in the Bible. And if it’s in the Bible, it must be true. After all, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
Even if adherence means squelching our questions, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
Even if it means rejecting science, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
Even if it means harming my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
When we use this Pauline verse to begin our understanding of Scripture, we can run into disastrous results. I do not think that this verse necessarily must be interpreted the way that it was for me growing up. I think you can faithfully doubt while believing “All Scripture is God-breathed.” I think you can accept science and say it. I think you can accept your gay brothers and sisters and say it. I don’t think it has to mean what it has meant in my youth. I also don’t think that everyone who recites it as a refrain is necessarily ignorant, malicious, or prejudiced.
Regardless, I do not think our understanding of Scripture should start with “All Scripture is God-breathed.” I think there is a much better starting point.
I remember one day when Jesus had freshly returned from both his baptism and from great temptation in the wilderness. I remember when Jesus returned home and got up to speak in his synagogue. Luke tells us,
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind,
To release the oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Our encounter with the Bible does not begin with the Bible. It begins with this Jewish man from Nazareth. It’s easy to pick up the Bible and be tempted to start with Genesis, but our engagement with the Bible starts with Jesus. We would not, we could not, be in the place we find ourselves if not for Jesus. You see, Jesus did not come to us. Jesus came to God’s people, Israel. He tells a non-Jewish woman, a Gentile, as much when she came asking for healing. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Jesus did not come for you and me, we Gentile Christians.
But we heard what Jesus had to say, and we interjected ourselves into the conversation. We, like the woman Matthew was recounting, barged in from a position of need. We had heard of this Jesus, and we knew he had what we needed too. So, we protested at his feet, “Lord help me!” Jesus said to her first, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” But she said, and we cry, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:25-27). And Jesus honors that faith. By grace she and we were and are included in the salvation of God.
Too often, we forget our origins. We assume that our story starts with Israel’s story. We presume to replace Israel as God’s people. We pick up their Scriptures and treat them as our own. We read our Scriptures too as if we were always on the inside. We manhandle Scripture like it’s our own. We read Scripture from positions of power and we employ Scripture from positions of power, undergirded by the principle that it’s not on our authority but the Bible’s. After all, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
When we start from Paul, we make our origin after our inclusion into this story. Our story needs to start at the beginning, our beginning. And that beginning is Jesus. We need to remember that all Scripture is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God come to us, God who included us only by grace, not by heritage or any effort of our own. Our encounter with Scripture begins with this God, this God who brought us into the story God was already making with Israel. We are a part of that story, but it is not just our story.
So, when we pick up Scripture, we ought to remember our position. We have to start from the outside. We were brought in from the margins, so we need to read Scripture from the margins. Just as God instructed the Israelites to welcome the stranger because they were once “aliens in Egypt, I am the LORD your God,” so too we Gentile Christians must read our Bibles from the margins because we were once aliens in this salvation history and Jesus Christ is our Lord.
When we read the Bible from this position, we approach it with humility, acknowledging that we are in a position of need, not power. And when we read from our position of need, we cannot use the Bible to oppress and marginalize, for we were once at the margin, too. When we read the Bible from this position, we remember that Jesus is our starting point. Jesus is the key for interpretation. Jesus fulfills the Scripture in our hearing, and it is through Jesus that we encounter God in the Scriptures. It is only through Jesus that we can hope to understand the Scriptures rightly. Only then can we say, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” because God has breathed into our reading of Scripture through the Son and Spirit.
That doesn’t mean we will suddenly all have the same interpretation of Scripture and your mind will magically change to agree with me about everything. We will still struggle and see through obscurity and ambiguity, but we at least won’t be missing the point. We cannot forget Jesus when we pick up the Bible. We cannot pick up the word of God in Scripture while forgetting the Word of God in Christ. The Word in Christ does the God-breathing of the word in Scripture. Only then, is the Scripture fulfilled in our hearing.