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 theĆ«mpneustos.[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.

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