Questioning the Inspiration of the Bible

The Westminster Confession of Faith1 which is utilized by a variety of Presbyterian and Reformed congregations, says this about the Bible:

Our natural understanding and the works of creation and providence so clearly show God’s goodness, wisdom, and power that human beings have no excuse for not believing in him. However, these means alone cannot provide that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary for salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at different times and in various ways to reveal himself and to declare that this revelation contains his will for his church. Afterwards it pleased God to put this entire revelation into writing so that the truth might be better preserved and transmitted and that the church, confronted with the corruption of the flesh and the evil purposes of Satan and the world, might be more securely established and comforted. Since God no longer reveals himself to his people in those earlier ways, Holy Scripture is absolutely essential. (1.1)

The Confession then lists the standard list of sixty-six books of the Bible that are found in the Protestant canon:2 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Then the Confession says,

All of these books are inspired by God and are the rule of faith and life. (1.2)

As support for this claim, some editions of the Confession list a variety of verses establishing the idea that the sixty-six books of the Bible “are inspired by God and are the rule of faith and life.” They include Luke 16:29, 31; Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 22:18-19; 2 Timothy 3:16; and Matthew 11:27. Yet none of these verses claim what the Confession suggests they claim. In fact, nowhere in the Bible are we told that the Bible is inspired.

2 Timothy 3:16

Take one classic passage that is usually cited by Christians: 2 Timothy 3:16. Setting aside the fact that it is doubtful whether Paul wrote any of the Pastoral epistles,3 the text doesn’t claim what Protestants tend to think that it does. Let’s look at it in its proper context.

But as for you [i.e. Timothy], continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from who you learned it [i.e. Paul], and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 (2 Tim. 3:14-17).

It becomes immediately clear to what Paul is referring when he says “all scripture”: he is speaking of “the sacred writings” that Timothy had known from childhood. And what would those “sacred writings” have comprised? The Hebrew Bible. Paul wouldn’t have been suggesting that the New Testament was inspired if for no other reason than at his time the New Testament didn’t exist. The earliest writings we have come from Paul and the Gospels don’t come till much later. And many of the Catholic epistles (i.e. 1-2 Peter, James, the Johannine letters) are all post-Paul. So it makes no sense to cite Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 as evidence for the entire Protestant Bible’s inspiration.

What it boils down to is that there is no statement in the Bible that the Bible – all sixty-six books – are inspired by God. You won’t find it no matter how hard you try. Therefore statements like we find in the Westminster Confession are claims without support, not even from the anthology of texts they find to be inspired by God himself.

ENDNOTES

1 Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms in Modern English (Livonia, MI: Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 2004).

2 On the so-called Apocryphal books the Confession states,

The books usually called the Apocrypha are not divinely inspired and are not part of the canon of Scripture. They therefore have no authority in the church of God and are not to be valued or used as anything other than human writings. (1.3)

Personally, I’d extend that last sentence to include the entire Protestant canon.

3 See Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 105-115 on pseudepigraphy and also 116-124 on “Paul’s Fictive Self-Interpretation” in the Deutero-Pauline literature. See also Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press, 2016), 335-337.

Featured image: By Hubertgui – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27826880

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