The Use of the Term “Scripture”

The Inspiration of Scripture – Part Three

N.B. This is a companion piece to the articles on Inspiration

“Scripture” usually translates the Greek term graphe.  Sometimes, as in 2 Timothy 3:15 one finds hieros grammata, but it is clear that in the context grammata is referring to the Scriptures of verse 16.  In other words it is just a synonym.  Also, Paul is referring to the Old Testament as a unit – as a whole, and not to the different books of the Old Testament.  This is important because when the translators rendered those words as “Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:15-15, that is, grammata and graphe respectively, they understood that Paul here was referring to the whole of the Old Testament, the whole of the inspired Scriptures together as God’s word.  That is why they translated the article pas not as ‘every’ but as ‘all’ in verse 16.  So the correct reading here is ‘all’ Scripture, not ‘every’ Scripture, is inspired.

This becomes important when you want a doctrine of inspired Scripture which covers the whole of Scripture; the whole and not just the parts; which is to say, a plenary version of inspiration.  Translating pas as ‘all’ avoids any ambiguities and stops liberals to picking and choosing what passages within the Bible they will designate as Scripture and what passages they will say aren’t God-breathed.  (For more on this argument look at Warfield’s article on the term “‘Scripture’ and ‘Scriptures'” in The Inspiration of Authority of the Bible, especially pages 233 – 238, etc.

The designation ‘all Scripture is God breathed’ is passive in form, not active; it is designating what the Scriptures are in fact, not what they are when they are actively employed, or what they are in some continuing dynamic way.  (elsewhere it’s called ‘living and active’, but that is not what Paul is trying to get across here).

Texts from the New Testament that Employ the Term ‘Scripture’

Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. – Mark 12:10

Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament while questioning the Jewish religious leaders.  He is using the designation ‘Scripture’ to speak to what he is about to quote.  However, the inference is that everything in the Old Testament makes up Scripture and therefore is from God.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. – John 5:39

Again ‘the Scriptures’ are a group or body of writings that are holy and are from God.  In Berea the Scriptures were being read and searched. (Acts 17:11).  According to Romans 15:4 the Scriptures have an ongoing effect and influence and relevance for us today.

They were also prophetic:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. – I Corinthians 15:3-4

Because the Scriptures are the Word of God you would expect to find in them the prediction of Christ’s suffering and death in the OT which were in accord with what the circumstances were surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ.  That is Paul’s argument there…the basis for his Gospel.

Theopneustos and the Autographs

Now the Scriptures Paul is talking about in 2 Tim. 3:16 are obviously the ones Timothy knew and read.  That being the case we have an interesting usage of the term theopneustos.  The Scriptures that Timothy was reading were God breathed, at least Paul. In context, Paul is not, first and foremost, dealing with the original autographs.  This is important because evangelicals and fundamentalists have usually said that only the originals were inspired.  The Bible seems to throw a spanner in the works.  We tend to speak of inspiration in the past tense when we are trying to be accurate.  But the Apostle doesn’t.  What is one to do with this?

A former acquaintance of mine who teaches Comparative Religion at Berkeley, certainly no Christian, was amazed that I held to biblical inspiration.  She pointed out to me that we have so many variants among the extant manuscripts that it is entirely indefensible to hold to the conservative evangelical position.

Replying to this, I said two things:

First – if we adopt a provenance view of the origination of the Books of the Bible I think we can only speak meaningfully of inspired autographs, so we’re certainly not disagreeing with the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy or any other statement like that.

Second – such is the wonderful overall agreement of the manuscripts, Hebrew and Greek, plus other ancient witnesses, that we can refer to the Scriptures we possess as God breathed because they have so much of the content and character of the autographs. Indeed this is how Paul referred to the copies which Timothy read growing up.

I like what Geisler and Nix say in this regard:

A good copy or translation of the autographs is, for all practical purposes, the inspired word of God. – Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 44

In fact, most of the passages where the word Scripture is used, do not allude to the original autographs either.  Furthermore, let us suppose that Timothy read a Greek translation of the Old Testament, as is likely.  This translation Paul says is inspired in someway.

Again, let me be clear what I am saying.  I’m not denying inspiration to the originals.  I am facing a fact that is all too often left unconsidered in discussions of this doctrine.


To show you that I’m not completely around the bend here, let me quote from the great 17th century English theologian John Owen and his view of inspiration.  Firstly, his work On the Divine Original of the Scripture, which is in his Collected Works , Volume 16.  Owen says,

The whole authority of the Scripture in itself depends solely on its divine original is confessed by all who acknowledge its authority.” 297

I certainly agree with that view.  If the originals were not inspired then it is useless to speak about inspiration at all.

Owen says in another place,

Sacred Scripture claims this name for itself.  It has its origin from God, so that what God wants said to the church through the medium of the prophets, apostles, and other inspired writers, was still spoken directly by God and that not only in the primary sense to those whom he delegated his task of reducing his revealed will to written form, but also no less so in a secondary sense. He speaks to is now in his written word, as in days past he spoke through the mouths of his holy prophets. – “A Defense of Holy Scripture”, reprinted in Biblical Theology, 788

According to Owen the modern-day recipients of those original writings are still receiving the Word of God.  This is because of what Owen believed:

It is true we have not the autographa [the originals], but the apographa [or copies] which we have contain every iota that was in them. – The Divine Original of the Scriptures, 301


Another great theologian of the past shares Owen’s opinion:

By original texts we do not mean the autographs which we certainly do not now exist, we mean their apographs, which are so-called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. – Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1, 106

Now Turretin is a great scholar, as of course is Owen; they know what they’re talking about, they know that the manuscripts have errors in them.  Owen grants this fact:

For the first transcribers of the original copies and those who have done light work from them, it is known, it is granted, that failings have been amongst them and that various lections [i.e. variants] are from thence risen. – John Owen, Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of Scripture – Works, Volume 16, 355

So Owen certainly knew that the manuscripts had variants, still for all that he could say that the apographs; the copies, were inspired.  He believed this, although not exactly in the same way as the autographs (which is why Turretin talks about those that wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit).  But both men certainly believe we have good enough copies of the originals to call what we have inspired.  Hence, it seems to these men that Paul is not so much bothered with the autographa, as with the state of the extant copies,which if they accurately reflect their originals, may be designated, at least by extension, as inspired.

To summarize, the context of 2 Timothy 3:15-16, and the use of the term “Scripture” to elsewhere in the New Testament, speak about copies, but copies which are reliable enough, preserved enough, and used by God enough to be called theopneustos.

They are not inspired in the way that Peter is referring to in his First Epistle, and they are not the work therefore of the direct concursive influence of the Holy Spirit on the original writers.  But they are, in Paul’s thought, and in Owen’s and Turretin’s, inspired.

Van Til

Although not completely sharing the view of his illustrious predecessors, Cornelius Van Til provides a wise illustration of the matter for us:

We may perhaps illustrate the difference between a general trustworthiness of the Doctrine of Scripture which holds to the infallible inspiration of the autographa, though it recognizes the fact that the autographa are not in our possession, by thinking of a river that sometimes overflows its banks.  Suppose we are seeking to cross such a river while the flood has gone so high as to cover the bridge. As far as the surface appearance is concerned we cannot see whether there is a bridge, we have to drive in the water even while we are driving on the bridge. Yet if there were no bridge we should certainly not be able to cross that river. We can drive with comparative ease in water that is a few inches deep as long as we have a solid bottom under the water. What the idea of general trustworthiness without infallible inspiration does in effect is to say that it really makes no difference whether there is a solid bottom under the water in as much as we have to drive through water in any case. But we have seen that man needs absolutely authoritative interpretation. Hence, if the autographa were not infallibly-inspired it would mean that at some point human interpretation would stand above divine interpretation; it would mean that man were after all not certain that the facts and the interpretation given to the facts of Scripture are true. We are actually crossing the river of life on this bridge of infallible interpretation even though it be covered: 

1. Objectively by the loss of the autographa.  2. Subjectively by the inability of any sinner to interpret the truth perfectly to himself. – Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 148-149

Van Til is saying we have to have a doctrine of the inspired autographs in order to be sure that what we are traveling on – the Scriptures that we are traveling on – actually are from God,  And when we have that assurance then we can go across them to eternal life, and to certainty in life.  We’re safe as long as we stay on the bridge (the Scriptures).


7 thoughts on “The Use of the Term “Scripture””

  1. Hi Paul,

    I was wondering if you’ve had occasion to read any of Wilbur Pickering’s writings in this topic? I recently read The Identity of the New Testament Text IV and also purchased a copy of The Greek New Testament According to Family 35.

    Much of what he says resonated with me. As an engineer by profession, I’ve always found the eclectic approach to textual criticism questionable: namely the subjective nature of its “rules” (really heuristics).

    For instance, at Revelation 5:9 in my commentary, I wrote:

    Here we encounter an excellent example of the arbitrary and subjective nature of textual criticism underwriting the NU text which omits “us.” The motives are no doubt well-intentioned as is the logic—once applied. But the guidelines employed in the selection of the preferred text from among the variant readings are flawed. Proponents of the Critical Text attempt to pass off as scientific analysis that which is largely arbitrary. For it is impossible to accurately restore an original text when subjective guesswork, hundreds of years after-the-fact, guides the selection process. The approach relies heavily on heuristics: general guidelines which seem to make sense, but which cannot be known to actually reflect the facts. And therein lies the vulnerability of the method. In the case at hand, we have “us” in every significant manuscript known with the exception of one. But that doesn’t deter the “logic” of textual criticism which arrives at a conclusion rejecting the overwhelming evidence in favor of the one exceptional reading

    So, it seems to be one thing to say we have overwhelming manuscript evidence for all the key doctrines of the faith (which we do) and another thing to settle on a precise reading among the variants when employing the eclectic approach. Pickering takes a different approach based on manuscript affinities rather than assuming earliest copies are always superior–even where they exhibit considerable disagreement and evidence of poor quality.

    Whatever one’s point of view, I found much of value in what he had to say and the problems (and solutions) he puts forth.

    1. Hi Tony,

      I have read Pickering, but not the updated version of his book. I shall have to pull it out and look at my notes. However, I am fully on board with your reasoning in your [excellent] commentary. As a matter of fact, I think Maurice Robinson is the most reasonable man writing on the subject. He argues that (1) the eclectic text cannot be found in any ms and so is unrepresentative of any mss. we have, (2) that the Byzantine text does furnish a “running text” corresponding to many mss. (3) that in the textual criticism of other ancient books the median view (as opposed to the shorter or longer readings) is viewed as the best.

      Your point about the subjectivity of the “science” of TC is taken, but it is crucial to refer this subjectivity to the starting assumptions, not so much to the analysis once it is underway. It’s like Evolutionary dogma. The whole thing is subjective at its core, but certain truths appear through analysis that would have appeared anyway, but then they are wrongly filtered through the beginning assumptions.

  2. Thanks, Paul for your work and study. I have been really enjoying following your recent series on CT and digging through your website.

    As to the subject of Inspiration, years ago I came across the small book “Is My Bible the Inspired Word of God?” by Edward W. Goodrick who does a good job of supporting the arguments you give concerning inspiration. From the book:

    “Do we have hard evidence that copies of the Old Testament autographs were called “Scripture” (graphé) in the New Testament? A search of the fifty appearances of graphé in the New Testament reveals that Jesus read from the Scripture (graphé) in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:21) and Paul from the Scripture (graphé) in the synagogue at Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). The Ethiopian eunuch riding in his chariot on his way home from Jerusalem was reading a portion of Scripture (graphé, Acts 8:32-33). These were not autographs; they were copies. And copies contain scribal errors. Yet the Bible calls them graphé, and every graphé is inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). Yes, copies of the autographs are inspired.”

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