The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE MOST DANGEROUS VERSE IN THE BIBLE

Delivered 10/17/04
Text: II Timothy 3:14-4:5
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The most dangerous verse in the Bible. It's this one that says, "All Scripture is God-breathed" or "All Scripture is inspired," depending on which version or translation you use. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure that this IS the most dangerous verse, but as one writer says it IS the mother of all proof texts. As the bumper sticker has it, "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it." After all, this is God's WORD we are talking about. As to why I call this verse dangerous, stay tuned.

First a few notes about the text itself. There are some issues to be confronted. For example, in the original Greek, there is no verb "to be" in the first part of the verse. What the original language literally says is, "All scripture inspired by God..." Translators of our New International Version in your pews as well as some other English versions insert the word "is," so it reads: "All scripture is God-breathed..." or "inspired by God..." That is a perfectly legitimate translation. So saying, we are left with wondering whether the author of this letter is making a categorical statement about all scripture being inspired? Or is he saying that CERTAIN scriptures are inspired? We cannot say.

Another issue. We should note that this epistle was written long before we had a Bible with Old and New Testaments such as we have today. The church did not decide which writings would comprise the canon of scripture that you and I know until the latter half of the fourth century, AD. Our author, in sending this letter, would not have had a clue that these words of instruction for leaders of young churches would survive for almost 2,000 years and come to be thought of as "scripture." No, the scripture referred to here would have meant the Old Testament. So saying, as the centuries have passed, the church has come to include the later writings on the same lofty level. When we read "All scripture is God-breathed..." today, for us it is the whole package.

Speaking of "God-breathed," that is a literal translation of a fascinating compound Greek word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, Theopneustos. It has traditionally been rendered "inspired," a word that is related by root to "respiration." The point is that what we find in the sacred pages we have because of the action of the living God, the same God who the story of creation says made humanity by breathing into the dust of the earth.

Here we begin to encounter some of the dangers associated with this verse. Just what did God's breathing entail? Some folks want to say that God dictated the words themselves. The authors of the various books were nothing more than recording secretaries who faithfully reproduced what they had been instructed to put down. That is the position Muslims take regarding the Qu'ran, and that is why they insist that it be studied in Arabic, because translations cannot accurately render EXACTLY the original. Those who claim that this is the way we got our Bible will add that it is only EXACT in what are called the original "autographs." Subsequent copies and translations are possibly slightly flawed.

Another way of explaining God's "breathing" is to say that, rather than dictating the very words of scripture, God "inspired" human authors to use their own words to convey eternal truth. This is the position that most reputable Bible scholars hold today. It certainly explains why there are such vast stylistic and literary differences from one book of the Bible to another.

This leads to another "danger" in this verse. If all scripture is God-breathed or inspired, can there be any errors of any kind in it? The traditional response through the centuries was absolutely not. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism is typical; in his journal, he wrote, "If there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book it did not come from the God of truth."

But about 150 years ago, scholars began to question that hard-and-fast position. They began to point out that there are indeed contradictions and factual errors here and there - minor ones, to be sure, but there nonetheless. As might be expected, traditionalists went ballistic and the result was huge controversy within the church, and major splits in the mainline denominations. Why all the passion? Because "All scripture is God-breathed...inspired." The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it. That is dangerous.

Another problem began to develop about interpreting this God-breathed material. For example, how are we to understand the first chapter of Genesis, the creation story? As we all know, for generations people read that, on the first day God said, "Let there be light," and there was light; and on the second day God created the sky; and on the third, dry land; on the fourth the sun, moon and stars, etc., etc., and people understood that to be literal scientific truth. But then science began to discover things that did not jibe with that interpretation. Fossil remains, evolutionary development, and so on. Beyond that, it did not take a scientific genius to point out that if light were created on the first day, and if the sources of our light (sun, moon and stars) were not created until the fourth day, do we not have a logical conundrum? Again, traditionalists went ballistic. Remember, the Inquisition imprisoned Galileo for teaching what he had seen with his own eyes, through his telescope, about the orbits of heavenly bodies contradicting the interpretations of Genesis that were then current.(1) In our nation we had the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in which a Tennessee high school teacher was brought into court for teaching the possibility that the Genesis account of creation might not reflect scientific reality. Amazingly, there are still some people even today who want to hold on to a literal interpretation of Genesis One despite what science knows to be true.

By the way, there is a perfectly good way to understand Genesis without demanding that it be a science text. The truth is that Genesis, chapter one, is a wonderful worship litany that most probably comes from the sixth century BCE and is a communal affirmation that this wondrous world did not just HAPPEN - it is the creation of a wise and omnipotent God. To ask that this worship liturgy be understood as a literal explanation of how this world came to be is asking more of the text than we have a right to. Some folks still do, of course. Why? Why not? After all, "All scripture is God-breathed...inspired..." Dangerous.

Another danger. People think that scripture - because it is "God-breathed" or "inspired" - is somehow magical in the way it can give guidance. "Pastor, can you give me a few verses that will help strengthen my marriage or help me be a better father or to get my daughter to clean up her room?" Have you ever been faced with a difficult decision and gone to the Bible for assistance? Eyes closed, Bible on its spine in your lap, let it fall open, finger points to a place on the page, and voilá, God's will for your life. Ever tried it?

My sweetie has. Back in the days before her sanctification was complete. As most of you know, Christie grew up in Venezuela, but as is often the case with the children of Americans working overseas, when it came time for high school, she came back to the states to a school in New England, a place which she came to dislike intensely, as much for being separated from her family as anything else. She wanted to come home. So she decided to get some divine guidance: Bible on the lap, eyes closed and the moving finger magically guided. She opened her eyes to see what passage she had been "guided to" and read in astonishment from Jeremiah 38:2: "Thus says the Lord, he who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by the famine and by the plague. But he who goes forth to the Chaldeans shall live." By the sword? The famine? GRACIOUS! She was on the phone to Caracas that night and within two weeks she was back in South America. After all, "All scripture is inspired..." The Bible as Ouija Board!

William Sloane Coffin once bemoaned "Christians who use the Bible much as a drunk does a lamppost -- more for support than for illumination."

One more danger. And that is to do what I have been doing since this sermon began. Over and over I have been repeating "All scripture is God-breathed..." and leaving it at that. No reference to what comes before or after. That is what is called "proof texting" (if you wondered about that reference in the beginning). Folks do that with scripture all the time, and the result is that you prove most anything you want by appealing to scripture.

"Cain killed his brother Abel." (Genesis 4) "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10) "What you are about to do, do quickly." (John 13) Get the point?

Most folks are not quite so ridiculous with their proof texting, but it goes on all the time. Think of any of the major social issues that we face - abortion, gender equality, sexuality (whether gay or straight), war. People defend their positions in all of them by appealing to this or that scripture text - scripture becomes a club with which to bash opponents. But that is generally done without reference to surrounding material, and as we have seen, you can prove virtually anything with scripture depending on the verses you select. And who is to question you? After all, "All scripture is God-breathed..." Well, try to remember this: a text without a context is a pretext. A text without a context is a pretext. And it is probably dangerous.

So what is the context here? Listen to it again as the Apostle instructs his young son in the faith: "Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

Paul has high expectations of Timothy and they are based on the presence of two critical forces in his life -- the witness of the tradition and his own knowledge of scripture. This young man's faith had been nurtured through the guidance of his mother and grandmother, as well as, of course, by Paul himself. While Paul had been his most recent teacher, the apostle acknowledges that it was because Timothy had had the advantage of growing up in a Christian family that he was steeped in the tradition since "infancy."

We come upon our "dangerous" text as Paul declares that all Scripture is "God-breathed" or "inspired." But earning this divine pedigree requires something, a purpose. It is "useful" in quite particular ways: "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" - that is all the tasks of ministry that Timothy will be called upon to deliver that will develop disciples and create the character of the Christian community.

Paul now directs a final charge: "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction." Why? Paul says, "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." Hmm. I think I recognize the scenario. Do you?

"All scripture is God-breathed...inspired..." And we believe it. Practically every American home (93%) has a copy of the Bible, and one in five adults (21%) in this country report reading it at least once daily.(2) But be careful with it. Serious Bible study is more than memorizing an index that tells where to look up certain proof-texts that we can then apply like Band-Aids to life's wounds or a scalpel for societal surgery. It is a lifelong task of becoming familiar with the whole Bible, learning the great themes that run through the many books in this sacred library and finding our own place in its compelling narrative. It is only when we have undertaken this sort of wide-ranging study that we can be said truly to be "thoroughly equipped for every good work.(3)

I leave you with that wonderful old classic about the country preacher who announced that his sermon the following Sunday would be about Noah and the Ark and told the congregation the scripture reference ahead of time so they might read it in preparation for worship. A couple of youngsters noticed something interesting about the page layout of the story in the church's Bibles so they slipped into the sanctuary during the week and glued two pages of the pulpit copy together. Sunday came. The preacher began to read his text. "Noah took himself a wife," he began, "and she was..." He turned the page to continue, "...300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high." The preacher paused for a moment with a quizzical look on his face. Slowly he turned the page back and read it silently then turned the page again and continued reading. Then he looked up at the congregation and said, "I've been reading this old Bible for nigh on to 50 years, but there are some things that are still hard to believe."(4)

Amen!


1. Carlos Wilton, "Baggage or Equipment," The Immediate Word for 10/17/04, internet resource for preaching at http://csspub.com/tiw.lasso

2. D. Michael Lindsay, "A lived-out faith," Rev., May-June 2004, p. 84

3. Carlos Wilton, ibid.

4. Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler, Laughter in Appalachia (New York: Ivy Books, 1987)

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