What is “inspiration”?

This is the second of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

This leads us to the specific meaning of the word theopneustos. The phrase “inspired by God” seeks to render this enigmatic near hapax legomenon which is a compound adjective with the components theos ‘God’ and pneustos ‘breathed’, represented quite literally in many translations as “God-breathed”. It is often argued whether this word designates Scripture as the manifestation of or as the target of the breath of God: God’s breath is either the source of Scripture or is merely the reason each writing is divinely effective. This last option is closely related to the source of the term “inspiration” pertaining to this doctrine, because the Vulgate translates it “divinely inspired”, or literally, divinely in-breathed. It has been claimed that this reading would require a missing Greek preposition en– ‘in’ before pneustos, so that we should have theëmpneustos.[1] This form may perhaps have been more conclusive,[2] but aside from the fact that this is in effect an argument from silence, such a preposition is not grammatically or semantically necessary. The extra-biblical usage of this word is altogether indecisive on the precise mechanics. Are there any other factors that might give us some direction?

Paul used a compound so exceptionally rare that even then it likely had the potential for confusion if left to its own inherent meaning; this suggests that Paul did not use it in complete isolation and probably assumed it would be understood in terms of some implied context. Is there a reference elsewhere in the Bible to God’s breath being manifested as an object, as is claimed with the notion of “writings exhaled by God”? Although I am unaware of an example of this, the argument from silence is of course no more instructive for my argument than for anyone else’s. Rather the strength in my argument comes from asking the same sort of question about the other proposed meaning: what other Scriptures can be found that reference God’s breath infusing something? If so, what is God’s breath doing there?

The notion of God-breathing seems to be a rather explicit allusion to the Genesis account of man’s transformation into a “living soul” as a consequence of God’s “into-breathing” – His inspiration. This was very probably what Jerome had in mind in the Vulgate’s rendering. With an already existing (albeit obscure) compound, it would likely never have occurred to Paul to insert a directional preposition such as the proposed en- (or eis-) before the deverbative element when the allusion was clear enough without it. Paul said “God-breathed” knowing that Timothy would immediately associate that expression with Genesis 2:7.

God’s breath consecrated and empowered the writings of Scripture formed from the dust of the ground (men), and not dictated or handed to man on tablets of gold by the Almighty. As C. S. Lewis put it, this body of the literature of men sovereignly foreknown and ordained was “raised by God above itself, qualified by him and compelled by him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served”[3].

[1] So B.B. Warfield in “God-Inspired Scripture”, citing Ewald..

[2] Or perhaps not: Warfield himself argues for different reasons that empneustos would more likely mean “inhale” than “breathe out into”.

[3] From Surprised by Joy.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • what other Scriptures can be found that reference God’s breath infusing something?

    For the spirit of God made me,
    the breath of the Almighty gave me life.
    – Job 33:4 (REB)

  • what other Scriptures can be found that reference God’s breath infusing something?

    For the spirit of God made me,
    the breath of the Almighty gave me life.
    – Job 33:4 (REB)

  • Precisely, ElShaddai. It’s that breath of life that I think Paul’s original readers inferred. In other words, the Bible is not the very breath of God, as I have often heard theopneustos interpreted, but rather it is infused with the breath of God.

  • Steve

    Precisely, ElShaddai. It’s that breath of life that I think Paul’s original readers inferred. In other words, the Bible is not the very breath of God, as I have often heard theopneustos interpreted, but rather it is infused with the breath of God.

  • that’s very good, Steve. With Lewis’s quote in mind, it’s like a scribe writing a new edict or law; the writing has no effect or power until the king authorizes it with his insignia.

  • that’s very good, Steve. With Lewis’s quote in mind, it’s like a scribe writing a new edict or law; the writing has no effect or power until the king authorizes it with his insignia.

  • That’s the idea, Josh! Good analogy.

  • Steve

    That’s the idea, Josh! Good analogy.

  • God’s breath consecrated and empowered the writings of Scripture formed from the dust of the ground (men)

    I find it interesting that you equate “dust of the ground” with “men.” Are you intending to equate these two objects in Genesis 2:7 as well?

    “The the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

    If so, how would man (“a living being”) be formed from men (“dust from the ground”)? If humankind did indeed follow an evolutionary path, this verse could indicate that God intervened in history to give mankind a soulish aspect to his consciousness. Or, it was at this point in man’s evolutionary development that mankind’s consciousness awakened to God’s existence, at which time God began to fellowship with man.

    I dunno. 😉

  • God’s breath consecrated and empowered the writings of Scripture formed from the dust of the ground (men)

    I find it interesting that you equate “dust of the ground” with “men.” Are you intending to equate these two objects in Genesis 2:7 as well?

    “The the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

    If so, how would man (“a living being”) be formed from men (“dust from the ground”)? If humankind did indeed follow an evolutionary path, this verse could indicate that God intervened in history to give mankind a soulish aspect to his consciousness. Or, it was at this point in man’s evolutionary development that mankind’s consciousness awakened to God’s existence, at which time God began to fellowship with man.

    I dunno. 😉

  • In Genesis 2, men are dust made animate by God’s breath of life. It is true that I believe men were brought from “the earth”, if by that one means that they were brought forth from the smallest particles of matter. But I wouldn’t force too much of this sort of reading onto this Scripture, because it starts to smack of allegory, and I think there are few, if any, direct and specific metaphors in this type of literature.

    That said, I think the myth was intended by the biblical authors (and ultimately, God) to teach something specific; one of those things is that man was set apart by God from the beginning to be special. Therefore, on this surface level of such interpretation, I would say that the breath of life was not simply soulishness, but included the whole complex of divine intentionality that would lead to this God-consciousness. I think that man was from the beginning called out; this correlates with my idea of theistic evolution as God playing the lottery numbers He foreknew would win.

    I think that’s the same thing that went on with Scripture, which, as I stated in the above post, was “the literature of men sovereignly foreknown and ordained” and, as Lewis described it, was “raised by God above itself, qualified by him and compelled by him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served”.

    I dunno, either. But that’s my current understanding 😉

  • Steve

    In Genesis 2, men are dust made animate by God’s breath of life. It is true that I believe men were brought from “the earth”, if by that one means that they were brought forth from the smallest particles of matter. But I wouldn’t force too much of this sort of reading onto this Scripture, because it starts to smack of allegory, and I think there are few, if any, direct and specific metaphors in this type of literature.

    That said, I think the myth was intended by the biblical authors (and ultimately, God) to teach something specific; one of those things is that man was set apart by God from the beginning to be special. Therefore, on this surface level of such interpretation, I would say that the breath of life was not simply soulishness, but included the whole complex of divine intentionality that would lead to this God-consciousness. I think that man was from the beginning called out; this correlates with my idea of theistic evolution as God playing the lottery numbers He foreknew would win.

    I think that’s the same thing that went on with Scripture, which, as I stated in the above post, was “the literature of men sovereignly foreknown and ordained” and, as Lewis described it, was “raised by God above itself, qualified by him and compelled by him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served”.

    I dunno, either. But that’s my current understanding 😉

  • ZP

    Steve, I’m wondering how you relate to mystical traditions that take the words and letters of the sacred texts as their starting point. I don’t know how well this kind of tradition is fleshed out in Christianity, but in Judaism the Kabbalah uses it heavily. There is a teaching (as perhaps also in Islam?) that the world was made of holy letters, that the letters are the very building blocks of the the universe.

    From this springs a very rich set of associations on which the sacred texts can be read on many layers, some of them hidden and very beautiful. It seems to me that there is a lot there. I am wondering what you think of these traditions and where you think the notion that the Bible as human literature used by God to convey divine truths would leave such traditions, since they comb the text for very precise relationships of letters and words.