Scripture: God-breathed and God-breathing

A much loved and highly trusted friend spoke to me recently about ‘preacher’s tunnel vision’. He mentioned it in the context of a major preacher’s faux pas I had made in the pulpit the previous Sunday. I completely overlooked a significant detail in the text that was right there in the passage, but I was so preoccupied with the ‘main point’ I just hadn’t seen it. I duly acknowledged and apologised for the oversight the next Lord’s Day! Needless to say, it came as some relief to realise I wasn’t the only preacher to make such a blunder.

Reflecting on the experience later, it struck me that we can also suffer from other forms of tunnel vision: often self-inflicted and more often not brought on through our best intentions to be faithful in our theology.

This came home to me with some force while reading Herman Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of inspiration in his section on ‘Revelation in Nature and Holy Scripture’. There he says,

‘It [Scripture] was not merely “God-breathed” at the time it was written; it is “God-breathing”. “It was divinely inspired, not merely while it was written, God breathing through the writers; but also, whilst it is being read, God breathing through the Scripture and the Scripture breathing him [He being their very breath]’.[1]

When I first read this, I had to reread it several times for it to sink in, but also for theological alarm bells to stop ringing. It made me realise that, for me at least, I had allowed my doctrine of inspiration to be skewed by a desire to protect it against the notion of ongoing revelation on the one hand and revelation that ‘becomes the word of God’ on the other. And the net effect of that had been to limit Paul’s language of theopneustos [God-breathed] to the moment when particular portions of God’s word were inscripturated. (This seemed to tally with Peter’s parallel description of the Spirit’s role in carrying holy men of old along to create the prophetic word in written form [2Pe 1.19-21]).

The livingness of Scripture, therefore, was to my mind confined to the way in which the Holy Spirit takes this once-for-all revelation, breathed out by God in the past, and ‘makes it live’ in those who hear it in the present. But Bavinck’s comments made me think again about the adequacy of such a view.

The Bible is not the living word merely because it is the ‘sword of the Spirit [who is the Lord and giver of life]’ (Eph 6.17), but in its very essence is animated by the breath of God that is inexhaustible. We may be able to breath out continuously for so long, but eventually must gasp and draw another breath. Not so with God. Without in any way detracting from the once-for-allness of his word, God (as Bavinck notes) continues to breath its efficacy into people’s lives wherever it is read and heard.

Pastorally and in terms of personal Christian experience, this helps us understand why we can come to particular passages in the Bible – even after a lifetime of knowing them – and yet be struck by their freshness. They continue to add depth to our knowledge of God, of ourselves and of the sheer wonder of the salvation we have in Christ. As we see our world in its light, not just materially and spatially, but temporally in its past, present and future, we understand it more fully than anything that can be offered merely through the lens of science. It literally ‘brings the world to life’ with more vivid colour than even the best of television documentaries on planet earth.

Of course the Bible itself testifies to its own living and life-giving character and qualities. The author of Hebrews speaks of its being ‘living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword’ (He 4.12). Peter in his first letter tells his readers that they ‘have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God’ (1Pe 1.23).

Bavinck’s wider explication of what is bound up with this facet of the doctrine of inspiration elaborates on what this entails:

Holy Scripture is not an arid story or ancient chronicle but the ever-living, eternally youthful Word, which God, now and always, issues to his people. It is the eternally ongoing speech of God to us…In it he speaks to his people, not from afar, but from nearby. In it he reveals himself, from day to day, to believers in the fullness of his truth and grace.[2]

The reason for this is of course that the Bible is the book in which Christ is not only made known but through which he engages with us as his people. He is the incarnate Word who has made himself known to the world – both before and after his actual incarnation – through the written word.

In our Reformed zeal to safeguard the church from the excesses of Charismatic and Pentecostal views of revelation and inspiration we may well have robbed ourselves of an appreciation of its livingness and, in so doing, miss out on its life-giving and life-renewing power. Theological tunnel vision is be avoided every bit as much as its preacher’s equivalent!

[1] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1  (Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, MI) 2003 pp 384-5 [quoting J.A. Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, rev. and ed. Andrew R. Fausset, 5 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1877), IV, 319 (Commentary on II Timothy 3:16)

[2]  Ibid


Mark Johnston