Inspired by God?

A Sermon for Proper 29C [2 Timothy 3.14-4.5] (Common Lectionary, Unrevised)

Copyright (C) 1998 by Abigail Ann Young

Our new Sunday lectionary ends up year C with readings from some of the more interesting but obscure of Paul's letters, such as Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, and, during October, 2 Timothy, which must be his very last surviving writing. Ancient tradition, universally accept ed until the last century, recalled that Paul, freed after the imprisonment described in Acts, continued to travel and preach in the Mediterranean area, even (according to Clement of Alexandria) visiting Spain as he had planned at the time he wrote Romans. By this account, 2 Timothy was composed during a later and final imprisonment, at the end of which Paul was executed.

Indeed the letter reads very much as though Paul were putting down for his beloved co-worker and disciple the lessons and beliefs which sustained him throughout a tumultuous career. There is a great deal in this letter about scripture, primarily in the chapters from which we heard readings last Sunday and especially today. That is not surprising, since it is clear from all of Paul's writings that scripture was central to his understanding of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus of which he was, as he says, a herald, an apostle, and a teacher. And the Bible remains central for us as well. It is impossible to imagine our liturgy without it, to imagine how we could know very much about God or Christ without it. But it has not become any easier to read, to understand, or to apply to any part of our lives in the intervening nineteen and a half centuries.

In today's reading, Paul offers as part of an final exhortation to Timothy a view of the Bible from which we can, I think, get some help for our own times. There are four points I want to stress about Paul's point of view:

  1. it is pragmatic without diminishing the significance of the Bible
  2. it presents scripture as a vehicle of revelation
  3. it is not unthinkingly literal or fundamentalist
  4. but at the same time, not trendy or subjectified

First, Paul offers an essentially pragmatic view of the place of the Bible in the life of the church: 'All scripture,' he says, 'is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness'. Just as Jesus himself in the gospel ordered the institution of the sabbath to human needs, so Paul here orders the scriptures to the needs of the worshipping community for a standard of conduct, of training, and of community discipline.

However this is not done in any way which dimishes the Bible or subordinates it to human needs, because in the same verse Paul also says that the scriptures are inspired by God. A great deal of ink (and blood) has been spilled over the centuries in trying to understand what Paul meant by this. For some Christians, it has meant (indeed to many it still means) that the Bible is verbally inerrant, that is, that no word of the Bible is untrue or mistakened. I doubt that this was what Paul meant. The most important indication of what he did mean may be found, it seems to me, in the simple, literal meaning of the words he used: the word we translate as inspired by God means, literally, in-spirited by God, that God has breathed his Spirit into the Bible.

If this means anything at all and is not just some flowerly or rhetorical flourish, it must mean that God has made the Bible an instrument of grace, a way through which, like the sacraments, he reveals himself to humankind. But in the process the scriptures remain what they started off as, the product of fallible human beings at a particular point in their history and (more importantly) in their understanding of God. Just as the bread and wine of the Eucharist remain bread and wine while becoming the body and blood of Christ, so the scriptures become inspired books capable of revealing God's self to God's people without ceasing to be the work of human authors.

So Paul cannot have been advocating some kind of unthinking literalism or fundamentalism. Indeed in the previous verse he reminded Timothy that the 'sacred writings' he had known from childhood were able to instruct 'for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus'. Now the only sacred writings, the only scripture, to which Paul can possibly be referring in these verses is the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and it is not by a literal interpretation of that Bible that Timothy or anyone else is instructed for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus! Centuries of debate, sometimes friendly but more often acrimonious, between Christians and Jews show this clearly. It requires the eyes of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit, to see that faith and that salvation in and through and undergirding the encounter between Israel and her God of which the Old Testament is the story and to which it is the response in sacred history, in prophecy, in liturgy, and in poetry.

The kind of prayerful response to the Bible which these attitudes to revelation entail has further implications for us and for our avoidance of over-literalism. The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But what Paul is saying to Timothy makes clear that, in a very real way, the Bible is not the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This is not by any means to advocate altering the text of the Bible, like the theologian who, writing a few years ago in Bible Review, announced that he found John's Gospel difficult, so he wanted to drop it from the New Testament or modern translators or paraphrasers who want to sanitise the text to the point that it no longer reflects the real circumstances of its composition.

Rather Paul's words point to the fact, which we all experience in our lives and which the church has experienced in its corporate life, that there is a kind of progressive relevation in our reading and understanding of the Bible. Timothy, knowing Christ through community and sacrament, also finds Christ through the Spirit in the Old Testament and it changed the way he read the Old Testament. In the same way, the on-going experience of Christ through community and sacrament in the life of the church since apostolic times has changed the way we read both Testaments and done so in very practical ways. We have only to contrast the changing attitudes of the church about slavery or the role of woman in the community with the attitudes Paul himself express es in some parts of his letters to see how, prayerfully and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church has come to read the New Testament in as new a way as Paul and Timothy and the rest of the early Christian community had come to read the Old Testament. This is not a betrayal of Christian essentials, but a necessity if the whole Bible, the whole word of God, is to become gospel, that is good news, for our own times.

But we must not fall into the opposite fault of not taking the scriptures seriously or literally enough. Paul clearly offers his pragmatic view of the role of the Bible without any intention either to subordinate the scripture or open it to subjective interpretation, to the whims of a congregation or its leaders. A few verses after the sentence we quoted above, Paul urged Timothy, in words which clearly hearken back to that description of scripture, to be persistent, 'in season and out of season' as the Authorised Version puts it, to convince, rebuke, and encourage. That work, rooted in the soil of scripture, is presented as precisely the means by which the new leader of the Christian community at Ephesus is to preserve his people from the dangers of 'trendy' religion, that they will 'accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.'

The only way this work can help to prevent us from 'telling people what they want to hear' (or rather and harder to escape, telling ourselves what we want to hear) is if we are persistent in presenting to others and to ourselves the whole Bible and not, to put it bluntly, just the parts we and they like. Paul has already reminded us that by divine inspiration, the scripture is a vehicle for revelation. That is God's revealing of himself in the various stages of salvation history: in Creation, in the call of Israel, in the prophets, in Jesus, and finally through the Holy Spirit in the church. Respect for that revelation involves us in fidelity to the written record which is its vehicle; and it is our strongest defence against catering to the "itching ears" against which Paul warns Timothy. The danger of liberal, or excessively subjective, religion is, like that of fundamentalist, or excessively objective, religion, a loss of balance in our reading of that written record. With fundamentalism, we lose sight of the forest; with subjectivism, we only look at a few of the trees. If we like Timothy persist in season and out of season in preaching the good news, we shall do neither, but present the whole scripture to a needy world.