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The Breath of God

According to Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM),

The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible means that the Bible in the original documents is God-breathed and that it is a divine product.

Norman Geisler's Defending Inerrancy website claims the Christian faith is grounded in what Geisler calls the "three in's", and explains,

The first “in” is inspiration and this deals with the origin of the Bible. Evangelicals believe that “God breathed out” the words of the Bible using human writers as the vehicle.

This concept of inspiration comes from a single phrase found only in Paul's second letter to Timothy.

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

The Greek word behind the phrase "inspired by God" is theopneustos, from theo, meaning "God", and pneustos, "breath" or "spirit". According to Evangelicals, the fact that this word appears only in this one context means the Bible is a special product, created by a unique process that guarantees its infallibility. Or as the website GotQuestions puts it,

When people speak of the Bible as inspired, they are referring to the fact that God divinely influenced the human authors of the Scriptures in such a way that what they wrote was the very Word of God. In the context of the Scriptures, the word “inspiration” simply means “God-breathed.” Inspiration means the Bible truly is the Word of God and makes the Bible unique among all other books.

But although the specific word appears only one time in the New Testament, the concept of the breath of God can be found throughout the Bible, and it is not generally associated with infallibility.

For example, Genesis 2:7 says that after creating the first human, God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." God's breathing into Adam's nostrils represents humans' special relationship with God, a unique status among all living things, but it doesn't confer infallibility. Adam is the same man who, given a simple instruction not to eat the fruit from one tree out of all the trees in the garden, ate the fruit from the one forbidden tree.

In Ezekiel 37, God shows Ezekiel a vision of a valley filled with bones. God tells Ezekiel, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." This breath that brings the bones back to life is symbolism for God restoring Israel to a right relationship with him.

At the end of the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples in a locked room. After giving them words of encouragement, Jesus "breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" He was preparing to send them to complete the work he had started, but he wasn't promising to turn them into perfect people.

If we look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in the light of these other passages referring to the breath of God, we see something different. If the breath of God refers primarily to a relationship and not to perfection, then the focus of the passage should be on the last half of the sentence.

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

So the point of God's "breathing" into the scriptures is not to make the Bible better, but to make us better. To train us in righteousness, to equip us for good works. Turning this passage into a claim about the Bible's infallibility misses the entire point.

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