“All Scripture is God-breathed”: An allusion to God breathing life into Adam?

In my last post, in response to a reader’s question, I gave my general “take” on Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014).  While I found much to appreciate in the book, I respectfully disagreed with Hamilton’s view that that Bible is not “inspired” to any greater degree than sermons, devotional books, etc. might be today.

Hamilton actually believes that “the most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us” (p. 142).  “The biblical documents,” he says, “were written and edited by persons who were addressing the needs of the people of their time . . . in and through them, God continues to speak to us today” (p. 89).

These are Hamilton’s presuppositions.  They are theologically informed and they have a venerable pedigree.  As Hamilton himself acknowledges, “This view of inspiration is in some ways similar to that proposed by Karl Barth and the neoorthodox movement in the twentieth century” (p. 319 n. 5).  This view is specifically, as I understand it, that the Bible not so much is the word of God, as that it “contains” or “conveys” the word of God.  “We hear God’s voice,” Hamilton says, “as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added).

There is no debating another person’s presuppositions; you either share them or you don’t.  But Hamilton also advances some specific exegetical claims in support of his position, and these can be evaluated.  I’d like to look at several of his claims in my next few posts, starting in this one with Hamilton’s interpretation of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Hamilton observes that the phrase typically translated “inspired by God” in this statement “is just one word in the Greek: theopneustos. . . . Paul appears to have created this word himself.  It appears nowhere else in the Bible, and, to our knowledge, nowhere else in the Greek language until after Paul’s time (pp. 133-134).

So what does it mean?  Since it is a combination of the Greek words for “God” (theos) and “to breathe out” (pneō), Hamilton suggests it could mean “God-breathed” or “God-exhaled.”  (Compare NIV “God-breathed,” ESV “breathed out by God.”)  Then Hamilton asks, very intriguingly, “What if Paul, in using the word ‘God-breathed,’ is drawing upon the Genesis story of Creation?”  This story says, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

Hamilton sees here an analogy for his paradigm for Scripture: “When God first forms man out of clay, he is not yet a living being. God breathes into him and he becomes animated–he is now alive.  Paul knew of scripture’s human authors.  Was he suggesting that God breathes upon the human words of scripture thereby animating them, making them ‘living and active’? The words come alive in the moment when God, by the Spirit, uses these human words to speak to us” (p. 134).

This is brilliant, original exegesis. (Hamilton does not note any sources for the idea of an analogy between theopneustos and the Genesis creation account, so I am assuming that the idea is original with him.)  I agree with almost all of it.

Paul is believed to have coined original words by allusion to the Greek Old Testament elsewhere in his letters, so there is every reason to believe he may be doing the same thing here.  (The Septuagint has the verb emphusaō, “breathe into,” instead of pneō, but we can still take theopneustos as a general allusion to this incident in the creation story.)

This is certainly the most memorable episode of God “breathing” anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. (About the only other one I can think of is God telling Ezekiel to call to the wind/breath to “breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again,” which is similarly a case of God animating a lifeless body, and it may be meant to echo the Genesis creation account itself.)  So if Paul was indeed trying to describe the nature of Scripture by coining the word theopneustos as an allusion to something in the Old Testament, I agree that the story of God breathing life into Adam is the likely reference.

So what don’t I agree with?  Look at how Hamilton summarizes the parallel he believes Paul is drawing between the creation of Adam and the nature of Scripture (pp. 134-135).  In Genesis, Hamilton says:

1. God forms the man.
2. God breathes into him.
3. He becomes a living being.

And “in the case of the scriptures,”

1. Authors write scriptures.
2. God breathes on them.
3. The words come to life.

This is not really a parallel.  While the second point in each case is a divine action, and the third point is a creature’s response, when it comes to the first point, Hamilton is trying to substitute a human action for a divine action in order to account for the origin of the Scriptures. For this to be a true parallel, the first point in the second case should say, “1. God forms the scriptures.”

And that makes perfect sense to me.  Just as God formed the man from the common elements of the earth, but then breathed life into him so that he became a living being, so God formed the Scriptures through the common process of human literary composition, and then breathed on them to make them “living and active.”  But God was the ultimate creator of the Scriptures even in that first step.  While it appears from our perspective that they came about through “people addressing the needs of their time,” Paul’s analogy to the Genesis creation account through the term theopneustos shows us that God was actually superintending and guiding this process, just as God formed the body of Adam from the dust of the ground, in order to bring us Scriptures that would truly be the word of God, from start to finish.

Orthodox Christian icon of God breathing life into Adam

 

 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

5 thoughts on ““All Scripture is God-breathed”: An allusion to God breathing life into Adam?”

  1. Chris I agree with Hamilton and His view of sermons, devotional books, etc are as significant as the Bible. Heres my reason why. I am not sure if Hamilton used the phrase “parallel” when comparing the Bible scriptures coming to life, the “theos” term of God breathed to that of Adam being animated. But going in the direction you concluded, I would say that it is a continuum of the two. What significance would the bible be in our current day and age if there was no person to lead us towards it? My sentiments are it would be safe to say that the Holy Spirit, which trumps the Bible, being God, is the living word. Because of natural and progressive revelation, the Holy Spirits ministers and gives discernment to common people like you and I to contextualize our current day with the precepts of the sciptures of the Bible. Again how is this not as important as the Bible when the Bible does not make a sound unless someone speaks for it? Now what is important; is the backbone to the truth that Hamilton needs for his opinion of sermons, devotional reading, etc to be solid, are for other forms of the gospel to be CONSISTENT with the Bible. Now when you start getting all fancy, fancy, unorthordox now we’re talking heresy. If you are at home listening to a melody and your movements to the beat are wiered and funky, thats kool, but not the word of God! We want matters to agree with tradiition, doctrine and scripture ass much as possible. Thats just my two cents. I just Luv opening your post. Very good stuff. God Bless.

  2. You write that “There is no debating another person’s presuppositions; you either share them or you don’t.” I have a few broad follow-up questions that aren’t restricted to how we understand the Bible. If it’s true that debate is not fruitful at that level, what possibilities of dialogue remain for people who do not share presuppositions? How do presuppositions change? Are there any means of persuasion left at our disposal?

    1. Presuppositions certainly can change. Hamilton explains in his book that he considers himself an evangelical and that he was taught, and formerly believed in, “verbal plenary inspiration,” the view that attributes each individual word in the Bible to God’s direct inspiration. But Hamilton abandoned this view when he could no longer attribute statements to God that seemed to condone or command “behavior that we consider immoral today” (p. 293). Since his present presuppositions (“I generally accept as reliable the data and perspectives found in scripture, except when there is a compelling reason to question its teaching,” p. 298) seem to be a response to the need to account for these “controversial passages” in the Bible, perhaps if it can be shown that there is another way to account for these passages–besides verbal plenary inspiration, which is the only alternative Hamilton considers to his own–then perhaps he, or at least others who are inclined to share his views, might be open to that other alternative. In other words, if it was a problem with the data in Scripture that got him to change presuppositions in the first place, then another way of dealing with this problem might invite a further change.

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