Protestant apologists such as James R. White will often appeal to the following biblical passage to prove that the Holy Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith since they alone are theopneustos (“God-breathed”):
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God (theopneustos) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:14-17 English Standard Version (ESV)
Since the Scriptures alone have been breathed out by God, no other authority can be on equal par with the Holy Bible or can ever function as an infallible rule of faith for believers.
There are several glaring problems with this Protestant claim.
First, the argument fails to adequately address or deal with fact that the Bible itself does not tell us which or how many books God has breathed out or inspired. Without this prior knowledge, the Scriptures cannot even begin functioning as the sole infallible rule of faith.
Second, this basically amounts to an argument from silence since the Holy Bible nowhere emphatically states that Scripture ALONE is God-breathed or breathed out by God.
This leads me to my third point.
The Holy Bible does in fact teach that there are other things that are God-breathed, namely the holy men of God whom the Holy Spirit appointed to not only write down, but also to verbally or orally proclaim the perfect words of God:
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, HE BREATHED ON THEM and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” John 20:19-23 ESV
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you HEARD from us, you accepted it not AS THE WORD OF MEN but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” 1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV
“since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you… For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” 2 Corinthians 13:3, 10 ESV
“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men SPOKE from God as THEY WERE CARRIED ALONG by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV
Finally, in ancient Christian literature the term theopneustos was used in reference to specific individuals, councils, inscriptions and other writings which were not included in the biblical canon. As Protestant Lee Martin McDonald, considered one of the foremost scholars on the canon of the Holy Bible, notes:
This is one of the more controversial areas of canon formation, as we saw earlier in Chapter 17… Was inspiration a criterion for canonization? The answer appears to be both yes and no. No church father who recognized a NT book as Scripture ever denied its inspiration. On the other hand, it is difficult to make a qualitative difference on this basis between some writings that were accepted as Scripture and others that were not. It is difficult to demonstrate the inspiration of one book over another, for example, Jude over the Didache or 1 Clement. The criterion for making that distinction is missing in antiquity except in so far as inspiration was attributed to the orthodoxy of a writing and was affirmed by the majority of churches, as we saw earlier in Chapter 17.
Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 180) is typical of the belief that Scriptures were inspired when he asserts that “the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men… that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him” (Autol. 2:22, ANF). For him, inspiration involved “men of God carrying in them a holy spirit [pneumatatophoroi] and becoming prophets, being inspired and made wise by God, becoming God-taught, and holy and righteous” (Autol. 2:9).48 The author of 2 Clement believed that 1 Clement was an inspired document and cites 1 Clem. 23:3-4 with the words “for the prophetic word also says [legei gar kai ho prophetikos logos] (2 Clem. 11:2), the usual words that designate writings as inspired. Barnabas 16.5 introduces a passage from 2 Enoch with the words “for the Scripture says [legei gar he graphe].” In a somewhat different light, Clement of Rome (ca. 95) told his readers that Paul’s letter, 1 Corinthians, was written “with true inspiration [ep aletheias pneumatikos]” (1 Clem. 47:3), but he later claimed THE SAME INSPIRATION for himself, saying that his own letter was written “through the Holy Spirit [gegrammenois dia tou agiou]” (1 Clem. 63:2). Ignatius also expressed awareness of his own inspiration: “I spoke with a great voice – with God’s own voice… But some suspected me of saying this because I had previous knowledge of the division of some persons: but he in whom I am bound is my witness that I had no knowledge of this from any human being, but the Spirit was preaching and saying this [to de pneuma exerussen legon tade]” (Ign. Phld. 7.2, LCL).
To what extent did inspiration play a role in the canonization process? Traditionally, many have argued that the biblical canon resulted from the church’s recognition of the inspired status of certain writings. As noted earlier, it is more accurate to say that inspiration was a corollary rather than a criterion of canonicity. It is especially difficult to show demonstratively that God inspired a NT writer to write a text, though admittedly, this is what the author of Revelation claims (Rev 22:18-19).
The problem with adding inspiration to the above two criteria is twofold. First is the problem of determining what is or is not inspired. This difficulty stems from the term’s fluidity of meaning in ancient Christianity. In fact, the church as a whole has never presented a comprehensive and clear definition of inspiration. The resultant ambiguity is seen in the variety of ways the term has been used throughout the ages, including in our own. Second, and more importantly for our purposes, the early church NEVER LIMITED the concept of inspiration to its sacred writings, but rather EXTENDED IT TO EVERYTHING CONSIDERED THEOLOGICALLY TRUE, WHETHER IT WAS WRITTEN, TAUGHT, OR PREACHED.
The ancient church fathers believed that their Scriptures were inspired, but inspiration alone was not the basis for including those works in the NT canon. Several writers of sacred truth believed that they were inspired as they wrote. The author of the book of Revelation, for example, claims prophetic inspiration: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy” (Rev 1:3), and “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book; if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev 22:18-19). The author of these words believed that he had the voice of prophecy and was inspired by God when he wrote, but this is not as obvious in other NT writings.
The ancient churches assumed the inspiration of their Scriptures, but to what extent did inspiration play a part in the canonizing process? Irenaeus, for example, makes it clear that the Scriptures, even when they are not clearly understood, “were spoken by the Word of God and by His Spirit” (Haer., 2.28.2, ANF). This appears on the surface to be more of an after recognition based on whether the truth that had been handed down through APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION (the regula fidei) was portrayed in the writings in question. Origen maintained that “the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another which escapes the notice of most” (First Principles, Preface 8, ANF).49 Seeking to discredit the Doctrine of Peter, he says that he can show that it was not written by Peter “or by any other person inspired by the Spirit of God” (First Principles, Preface 8, ANF). The operating assumption here, of course, is that Scripture is inspired, but heresy, and falsehood are not. The criterion for determining a text’s inspiration is not easily recognized apart from its affirmation of the church’s core tradition passed on in the early churches.
As we saw earlier, there are examples of noncanonical authors who claimed, or were acknowledged by others, to have been filled or inspired by the Spirit WHEN THEY SPOKE OR WROTE.50 The point is that the church’s Scriptures were NOT THE ONLY ancient messages or words believed to be inspired by God. Generally speaking, in the early churches the common word for “inspiration” (theopneustos; or “God-breathed”; see 2 Tim 3:16) was used NOT ONLY in reference to the Scriptures (OT or NT) BUT ALSO OF INDIVIDUALS WHO SPOKE OR WROTE THE TRUTH OF GOD. For example, Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330-95) describes Basil’s (330-79) commentary on the creation story and claims Basil’s work was inspired and that his words even surpassed those of Moses in terms of beauty, complexity, and form: it was an “exposition GIVEN BY THE INSPIRATION OF GOD… [admired] no less than the words composed by Moses himself.”51 This is quite remarkable since the text in question is compared to the church’s OT Scriptures (words of Moses) and believed to be SUPERIOR to them. This reference does not suggest that there was a qualitative difference in the notion of inspiration in either the biblical or ecclesiastical texts. Similarly, the famous epitaph of Abercius (ca. fourth century) was called an “inspired inscription [theopneuston epigramma]” and a synodical letter of the Council of Ephesus (ca. 433) describing the council’s condemnation of Nestorius was termed “his [or its] inspired judgment [or decision] [tes autou theopneustou chriseos].”52
From these and many other examples, we see that the ancient church DID NOT limit inspiration to the Scriptures or even to literature alone. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr argues that: “the prophetical gifts remain with us even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation [Israel] have been transferred to us” [Dial. 82, ANF; see also Dial. 87-88). He was speaking of the present and not of the past writing of NT Scriptures. Kalin finds NO EVIDENCE that the early church confined inspiration to an already past apostolic age or to a collection of sacred writings, even in writings that dealt with the Montanist controversy (see Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5. 14-19) in the latter third of the second century.53 The traditional assumption that the early Christians believed that only canonical writings were inspired IS NOT DEMONSTRABLE from the available evidence.
The rabbinic notion that “when the latter prophets died, that is, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, then the Holy Spirit came to an end in Israel” (t. Sotah 13:2)54 was simply not shared by the church.55 From his investigation of the church fathers up to 400, Kalin failed to turn up ONE EXAMPLE where an orthodox, but noncanonical, writing was ever called “uninspired”; such a designation appears to have been reserved for heretical authors. He concludes: “If the Scriptures were the only writings the church fathers considered inspired, one would expect them to say so, at least once in a while.”56 He adds that in the early church inspiration applied not only to all Scripture, BUT ALSO TO THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE, as it bore “living witness of Jesus Christ.” Only heresy was considered to be uninspired, because it was contrary to this witness.57 Von Campenhausen agrees here but adds that the presence of prophetic literature among Montanists – literature believed by the Montanists to be born of or prompted by the Holy Spirit but by others to be misguided – shows that at the end of the second century belief in inspiration was beginning to be confined to first-century literature.58 But, if this were the case, we would see more examples of it in the second and later centuries. It would be more accurate to say that inspiration was not limited to the first century, but by the end of the second century the church was beginning to assume that inspired Scripture ceased after the apostolic era. (McDonald, The Formation of the Biblical Canon: Volume 2 The New Testament: Its Authority and Canonicity [Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017], Chapter 22. THE CRITERIA QUESTION, II. What Criteria Did the Churches Employ?, pp. 342-345; bold and capital emphasis mine)
52 Vita Aberacii 76. Abercius Marcellus himself, who was bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia of Asia Minor in the late second century, apparently penned the writing. He died ca. 200 CE.Kalin gives several other examples of the ancient use of the term “inspired” (theopneustos) to show that it was NOT used exclusively of Scriptures. See Kalin “Argument from Inspiration,” 169-73. (Ibid., p. 344)
Here are some of the sources McDonald referenced which employ theopneustos for other than the canonical books:
The Testament of Abraham 1st/2nd century
20.10 And immediately Michael the archangel stood beside him with multitudes of angels, and they bore his honorable soul in their hands in divinely woven linen,
20.10 καὶ εὐθέως παρέστη Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος μετὰ πλήθους ἀγγέλων· καὶ ἦραν τὴν τιμίαν αὐτοῦ ψυχὴν ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν αὐτῶν ἐν σινδόνι θεοϋφάντῳ
20.11 And they tended the body of the righteous one with theopneustic (theopneustois) ointments and perfumes until the third day after his death.
20.11 καὶ μυρίσμασι θεοπνεύστοις καὶ ἀρώμασιν ἐκήδευσαν δὲ τὸ σῶμα τοῦ δικαί ου’ ἕως τρίτης ἡμέρας τῆς τελειώσεως αὐτοῦ· (Schmidt 1986)
Nonnus of Panopolis 400s (Pagan author)
“but one is coming after me. He is present in our midst already today, and my mortal hand is not worthy to touch his feet, to loosen the strap of his theopneustic (theopneustio) sandal.” –(Paraphrase 1.96-99 Paraphrasing the Gospel of Saint John)
Saint Gregory of Nyssa Apologia in Hexameron XXVI:2 (PG 44:61)
“… and although the human body be dispersed among carnivorous birds, or among the most savage beasts by becoming their food, and although it pass beneath the teeth of fish, and although it be changed by fire into vapor and dust, wheresoever one may in argument [logos] suppose the man to be removed, he surely remains in the world [kosmos]; and the world, the voice of inspiration [theopneustos] tells us, is held by the hand of God.”
Life of Abercius (Sanct. Abercii vita LXXVI) 300s
Describing the famous Inscription of Abercius, it identifies it as:
“Inspired inscription (theopneuston epigramma).”
Council of Ephesus’s condemnation of Nestorius: 431
“(Nestorius) has been judged by just decree of the holy Trinity and their divinely inspired judgment.”
ψήφωι δικαίαι τῆς ἁγίας τριάδος καὶ τῆς αὐτῶν θεοπνεύστου κρίσεως κατακέκριται (Source: St. Cyril from the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum)
The foregoing references show that the quality of being theopneustos was not believed to be a unique characteristic of the canonical books.