The Bible provides minimal help for anyone trying to write a description of it for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. As a result, such descriptions typically claim more than the Bible discloses about itself.
When formulating a declaration about Scripture, I recommend adhering to the following guidelines:
1) Echo the language which Scripture uses to speak about itself.
2) Reflect an appreciation of how ancient Jews viewed the Bible—the fountainhead of their literary heritage.
3) Demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the achievements of text-critical scholarship, since they constitute a foundation on which all modern English translation rests.
A key New Testament passage for discussing the nature of Scripture is 2 Tim. 3:16-17:
All Scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
A reader well versed in the New Testament will recognize that the above translation reflects the content of a footnote appearing in some English editions. Preferring the note’s alternate wording for the purpose of this essay, I have rendered the passage’s opening phrase as “All Scripture inspired by God” as opposed to “All Scripture is inspired by God.”
Behind the word “Scripture” stands the Greek word γραφή, which is related to the verb γράφειν (to write). Scribes transmitted Scripture by transcribing it. Being written, it was intended to be read (aloud). One can, therefore, characterize Scripture as having a scribal-literary quality. These two verses also establish a close bond between inspiration and profitability for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. When speaking about inspiration, I make a habit of speaking about Scripture’s profitability for instruction or training in the next breath. These concepts are two sides of the same coin and should not be separated one from the other.
At the end of the passage, the desired objective is stated: to prepare a person for an effective life of doing. Although not explicitly mentioned in the immediate context, teachers do have a role to play in the program. Scripture’s usefulness for teaching and training depends not only on the inspiration of the text, but also on that of the teacher. Just as a score of music is ultimately only as good as the conductor who leads, so it is the case with the Bible and those who teach and preach it. A popular rabbinic story about Ben Azzai makes a similar point by tapping the imagery of a different metaphor. On one occasion, while he sat and taught, fire glowed around him. Ben Azzai’s spontaneous combustion harks back to the giving of God’s fiery Torah. In other words, his auditors were witnessing a sublime event, which was less dramatic, but similar in essence to the one which the original recipients of the Torah at Mt. Sinai had experienced.
1 Chron. 28:19 is a short verse about a text containing building instructions for the temple and its furnishings. It literally says: “All [the specifications of this plan] are in writing and they [come] from the hand of the Lord. I am responsible to explain [them].” At first glance, this verse seems to have little relevance for a discussion centering on 2 Tim. 3:16-17; however, in light of a Talmudic passage, both verses actually address similar issues.
Rabbi Yeremiah once taught the following in the name of another:
[Consider] the scroll which Samuel entrusted to David. It was given in order to be expounded. What is the proof? All of this in writing—This [refers] to its scriptural-literary character. From the hand of the Lord—This [refers] to the Holy Spirit. I am responsible to explain—From this [we learn] that it was given to be expounded.
These remarks belong to a discussion about canonicity. For his part, Rabbi Yeremiah reminded his colleagues that the prophet Samuel gave David a scroll which possessed three defining characteristics of Scripture:
1) The scroll was “in writing,” thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.
2) The scroll came “from the hand of the Lord,” meaning that it was inspired like Oral Torah.
3) The scroll was given in order “to be expounded,” meaning that it could serve as the objective of exegesis, thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.
The same elements are present in 2 Tim. 3:16-17. The Greek word γραφή (graphae) conveys the idea that Scripture is written. The Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos, i.e., God breathed) parallels the idea of coming “from the hand of the Lord” (i.e., God delivered). The former is regularly called divine inspiration, whereas the latter could be described as divine manipulation. Interestingly, Rabbi Yeremiah attributed this manual act to the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the association of θεόπνευστος with the Holy Spirit (i.e., πνεῦμα ἅγιον) is easy to make, because of the shared etymology. The clause “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” looks like an expanded, but equivalent way of saying “for expounding.”
We now have the benefit of consulting not only an early Christian epistle, but also a conceptual parallel from Talmudic literature before formulating a description of Scripture for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. Ideally, our declarations should echo the content of this old Jewish concept to which the New Testament author subscribed and which the editors of the Jerusalem Talmud included in their compilation. Being inspired (i.e., emanating from the Holy Spirit) and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training are intrinsic attributes of Scripture. These two attributes allow the Bible to play an indispensable and salubrious role in the life of Jewish and Christian communities of faith. When an inspired (and learned) teacher expounds the biblical text, it becomes like a living spring whose cathartic and curative waters nourish, refresh, and stimulate the community, and no matter how often revisited, they remain plentiful and efficacious.
-  An earlier version of this essay was entitled A Jewish Comment about Scripture. ↩
-  Compare the NAB and NASB. ↩
-  Another article that addresses this point is my “Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture.” ↩
-  Lev Rabbah 16:4. ↩
-  J. Meg. 70a (ch 1:1) (Krotoschin ed.). ↩
-  I have benefited from Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, 1986). ↩