Is Inspiration a Distorting Perception? A Response To Dan McClellan

Recently in a video biblical scholar Dan McClellan said the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is a serious and harmful distortion. If you’re not familiar with Dan, he’s known on TikTok for debunking biblical misconceptions. I find him to be pretty hit-and-miss, but he’s clearly well-informed about current biblical scholarship.

Dan: The most distorting assumption that’s imposed on the Bible is inspiration….The classic biblical proof text for the doctrine of inspiration is 2 Timothy 3:16, which says, “All scripture is theopneustos,” which literally means “God-breathed.”

Now, there are three issues with the use of this passage as a proof text for inspiration. The first issue is that it was not written by Paul. It wasn’t written until decades after his death by someone merely pretending to be Paul. So already, the text is lying to you.

Bad Assumption #1: Paul didn’t write 2 Timothy

Dan has said why he considers 2 Timothy and the other pastoral letters as forgeries in a separate video, and I’ve rebutted his arguments. The evidence supporting Pauline authorship is strong, including internal clues and unanimous agreement among early church fathers. Despite Dan’s claim that this contradicts the consensus of biblical scholarship, the weak arguments opposing 2 Timothy’s authenticity provide a legitimate reason to question that consensus.

Bad assumption #2: We don’t know what is meant by “all scripture”

Dan: The second problem is that when it says “all scripture,” it’s not referring to the Bible. The Bible would not exist for generations after this text had been written. What they understood to be scripture included things we no longer consider scripture, and what we consider scripture includes things that were not a part of what the author of 2 Timothy considered to be scripture.

Okay, so when we’re talking Scriptures today, we’re basically talking about the Old and New Testament. Let’s talk about the Old Testament first. The famous Jewish historian Josephus was a first century Pharisee. Regarding what he considered to be canon, he wrote:

“For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.

Against Apion (1.8)

Josephus mentions 22 books that include exactly the same content as our present 39 books of the Old Testament; he’s simply counting books like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as one, and Ruth was attached to Judges, Lamentations to Jeremiah, and Nehemiah to Ezra.

You also see here that Josephus argues that after Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, there were no more authoritative writings until his own time. Artaxerxes, who reigned from 464-424 BC, overlaps with Malachi’s period. Ezra came during the seventh year of Artaxerxes, and Nehemiah came in Artaxerxes’ twentieth year, as found in the Bible. (Ezra 7:8, Nehemiah 1:2)

Between Malachi’s time and Josephus’ writing (425 BC to AD 90), there were no new additions to the canon of Scripture as far as he was concerned. This created a long period without a divinely authoritative Word from God. Josephus also wrote about books that were written after the completion of the sacred books.

From Artaxerxes to our times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit, with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets

(Against Apion 1:8)

From this statement, we learn that additional writings were created after the conclusion of the Old Testament. However, these books weren’t regarded as divinely authoritative like the Scriptures. There was no authoritative Word from the Lord after Malachi. While certain groups might have held different opinions, Josephus’ viewpoint probably aligned with mainstream Palestinian Judaism in the first century.

Furthermore, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus refers to the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. (Luke 24:44) This three-fold division of Law, Prophets and Psalms appears to be reflected in Philo (Contemplative Life, 25), and the prologue of the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus. Jesus seems to be presenting the common Jewish view of the time.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 5:17-20) He also references the Scriptures multiple times throughout the Gospels. (Matthew 22:29, Mark 10:5-12, John 10:34-35, etc.) I believe that Jesus had a good understanding of what he meant by “the Scriptures.”

So what about the NT? Did New Testament authors lack self-awareness that they were writing Scripture? Not quite. 

I get that there was no official canon of the time, but the NT authors demonstrate they knew their writings contained authoritative apostolic tradition. The apostles were Christ’s representatives, commissioned by the risen Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit, so their writings held Christ’s authority. Whether we label them “Scripture” is somewhat irrelevant; to early Christians, they were “the word of God.” Here I’m drawing from Michael J. Kruger and Andreas J. Köstenberger’s book The Heresy of Orthodoxy.

So for instance, in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul emphasizes his authority as an apostle. He tells the Thessalonians they received God’s word from them, not as human words but as God’s word. By “word of God,” Paul refers to the authoritative apostolic tradition they shared orally. So, if Paul’s teachings are divinely authoritative, does 1 Thessalonians lack that same authority? Paul later says in 2 Thessalonians to “hold fast to the traditions that are taught by them, either by word or letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)  If Dan wants to argue that 2 Thessalonians is also a forgery, then I’m happy to push back on that

Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 14:37-38. In this passage, Paul boldly asserts his apostolic authority, stating, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual (literally: Spirit-empowered), he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.  If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”  

What’s striking is how Paul explicitly declares his writings as a “command of the Lord,” a phrase commonly found in the Old Testament for God’s direct commands or those given to Moses. Paul is unwavering in his confidence to speak on behalf of the Lord, and he firmly states that anyone who doesn’t acknowledge this authority will not be acknowledged themselves. So, if we were to ask the Corinthians whether Paul was aware of his own authority when he wrote the letter, they’d likely confirm it. 

There’s also Luke’s prologue found in Luke 1:1-4. Luke explicitly asserts that he is passing down apostolic tradition. In his prologue, Luke states that the traditions in his gospel were “delivered” to him by those who were “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” from the beginning. Most scholars see this as a clear reference to the apostles. The term “delivered” is a common way to refer to passing along authoritative apostolic tradition. Therefore, Luke understood his gospel to be the embodiment of the authoritative apostolic “Word” entrusted to him. 

Then there is Revelation 1:1-3. The author of Revelation provides the most explicit claim of a book’s authority. The opening line directly states that it is the inspired prophecy of Jesus Christ delivered to John by an angel (1:1). This book carries a divine blessing, as it says, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (1:3). Furthermore, the authority of this book is emphasized by an “inscriptional curse” at the end, warning against adding or removing from this document under the threat of divine judgment (22:18-19). This curse about not adding or removing what is written is also mentioned regarding the Law in Deuteronomy 4:2.

Finally, in 1 Timothy 5:18, the verse “the laborer deserves his wages” is introduced with “For the Scripture says.” While there’s a chance that 1 Timothy 5:18 might be referencing some apocryphal source, the only known match for this citation is found in Luke 10:7. This raises the probability that 1 Timothy is citing Luke’s Gospel as Scripture. McClellan might not appreciate this quote because it’s taken from the pastorals, but even if he’s correct about pseudonymity, it demonstrates that the early church considered this saying of Jesus as Scripture.

Here I want to highlight that I understand there were debates about certain books in the early church, such as James, Jude, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. But the main concern was about their apostolic origin, not their accuracy. Take Hebrews, for example. Even though its authorship wasn’t agreed upon, the early church believed it contained the “thoughts of Paul” (Origen, quoted by Eusebius, Church History, 6.25).

In the case of 2 Peter, it didn’t receive as strong support among the Fathers, but it still got substantial backing. The early church, aware of various forgeries circulating (there were quite a few), cautiously identified 2 Peter as genuine. Its acceptance as a canonical book suggests those early Christians were convinced of Peter’s authorship. The key concern remained apostolic origin rather than the accuracy of the content.

Bad assumption #3: 2 Timothy 3:16 isn’t claiming that the Bible is inspired (God-breathed); therefore, Scripture is emptied of authority.

Dan: “The third thing is that this word, “theopneustos,” God-breathed, was not used in this time period to mean “God-breathed” in the sense of breathed out by God. That word, in this time period, was used to refer to things like rivers and sandals in the desert and food because it meant “God-breathed” in the sense of God-breathed the breath of life into the first human. It is life-giving. Things like water, sandals in the desert, and food give life. So when this text was written, it was intended to mean, “All scripture is life-giving and useful for instruction and for reproof and so on.” It didn’t come to mean “God-breathed” in the sense of breathed out by God until Origen of Alexandria in the 3rd Century CE came up with that reinterpretation. So the doctrine of inspiration as we know it does not come from the Bible. It comes from someone imposing that reading upon the Bible.

So was Origen just making things up? Or did he make a big mistake here? Let’s read the passage Dan is probably referring to:

And we must add that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual nature of the law of Moses came to light after the sojourning of Jesus. For in principle it was not possible to demonstrate the theopneustia of the old writings

Origen, In Princ. 4.1.6 (Early 3rd Century)

For starters, Origen was known for his exceptional linguistic skills. He was well-versed in multiple languages, including Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. His proficiency in these languages allowed him to engage in extensive biblical exegesis. So while I understand that he could’ve made a mistake, I think he should get some benefit of the doubt.

That said, Dan is getting his information from a biblical scholar named John Poirier. While I haven’t read his book, The Invention of the Inspired Text, from what I was able to gather online it seems like Poirier makes some strong points regarding the linguistic and lexical data. So perhaps Poirier’s findings are indeed correct. Let’s grant that he is. It seems to me that the distinction being made here is a distinction without much of a difference.

The intended meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16, whether it’s “God-breathed” or “life-giving,” is of lesser importance. What truly matters is the recognition of the teachings of the apostles as inspired and infallible. I’d argue that the Christians have the New Testament canon because of the belief in the apostolic origin of these documents, whether authored by the apostles or their close companions. As Dan likely knows, this belief predates Origen and is widely accepted among Protestants and Christians who reject Sola Scriptura, like Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

In his book The Question of Canon, Michael J. Kruger give several quotes from early church fathers that illustrate this point. Here’s a brief sampling, and I’m paraphrasing some of Kruger’s comments here.

In the book of 1 Clement, it not only encourages its readers to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul,” but also provides a clear reason for doing so: “The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ, therefore, is from God, and the Apostles from the Christ.” Additionally, the letter refers to the apostles as “the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church” and he said that Paul wrote “under the inspiration of the Spirit.” (1 Clement 47, 22, 5)

Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, also acknowledges the unique role of the apostles as the mouthpiece of Christ. He states, “The Lord did nothing apart from the Father… neither on his own nor through the apostles.” (Ig. Mag. 7:1) Here, Ignatius indicates that the apostles were a distinct historical group and the agents through which Christ worked. Therefore, Ignatius takes care to distinguish his authority as a bishop from the authority of the apostles, saying, “I am not enjoining you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles; I am condemned.” (Ig. Rom. 4:3)

Justin Martyr demonstrates a similar appreciation for the distinct authority of the apostles. He notes, “For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number… by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God.” (First Apology 39) Moreover, he views the Gospels as the written embodiment of apostolic tradition, stating, “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them.” (First Apology 66)

Likewise, Irenaeus views all the New Testament Scriptures as the embodiment of apostolic teaching: “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” (Against Heresies 3:1) Although this is only a sampling of patristic writers, the point is clear. The authoritative role of the apostles was woven into the fabric of Christianity from its very earliest stages.

It seems that the early church’s theory of inspiration asserts that God selected specific individuals, like apostles and prophets, to receive revelation and to convey God’s message. This aligns with what we’ve seen in passages like Revelation 1 and 1 Corinthians 14, where these authors viewed their writings as authoritative and binding.

I might be missing something here, but I don’t really see the strength in Dan’s argument at all. The prophetic and apostolic writings are inspired because they were authorized to give God’s unbreakable Word. This is based on Jesus instructing the apostles “as the Father sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21, cf. Luke 10:16). Describing the Scriptures as “life-giving” doesn’t diminish their authority or equate them to mere refreshments like water or sandals in the desert. So, in my view, while the linguistic and lexical data unearthed by Poirier is enlightening, Dan’s whole point is basically moot. He’s overstating his point to empty scripture of all authority. For if the Scripture lacked authority, then how can it be “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”?

Dan’s Bad Conclusions

Dan:Now, why is this the most distorting assumption that is imposed on the Bible? Two main reasons. The first is that it is the root of the other assumptions that are imposed upon the Bible. The notion that all scripture is breathed out by God gives rise to the notion of univocality because it has a single source, a single divine source, and therefore must be a single unified perspective. The notion that it is inherent arises from the notion that it is breathed out by a single divine source.

Again, Jesus acknowledged the Law and the Prophets and called them Scripture. If we believe that the apostles were appointed by the resurrected Jesus (and there is substantial evidence supporting Jesus’ resurrection) and that they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, then their teachings hold God’s message. Their message does arise from a single divine source.

Dan: “The second reason has to do with the fact that texts don’t have inherent meaning. Texts are just collections of signs, and readers make meaning with those signs based on their understanding of the relationships between the signs and the semantic content that have been agreed upon. Now, those relationships change from time to time, from place to place, from person to person, and people have different degrees of understanding of those relationships.

But one of the things that this means is that our reading of a text is a process of negotiation. It’s a process of constructing meaning. We are never just extracting pure and unadulterated meaning. We are engaged in a process, a process of creating meaning. If we believe that the text of the Bible is breathed out by God, that means that we’re going to make meaning that is most meaningful and useful to us, and then we’re going to assign a divine origin to that meaning.

I’m sorry, but this seems like some straight-up postmodern mumbo-jumbo. The perspicuity of Scripture doesn’t mean that every aspect of it is equally straightforward. As Peter pointed out, certain sections can be challenging (2 Peter 3:16). (And I’m happy to argue that Peter wrote 2 Peter as well.) However, the fundamental teachings related to salvation and loving one’s neighbor are abundantly clear and can be grasped by anyone using standard methods of interpretation.

Dan:The Bible contains a lot of harmful ideologies in it. Based on the best scholarship, the best thinking that is available, we know that the Bible promotes things like slavery, promotes things like genocide, promotes homophobia, promotes misogyny, promotes other harmful ideologies. Many of these have been left by the wayside because our negotiating with the text has not found meaning and utility in perpetuating those harmful ideologies. Unfortunately, many people do still find meaning and utility in perpetuating a lot of those harmful ideologies. And it is distorting to present things like misogyny and homophobia and even genocide as the very mind, will, and word of God. This results in incalculable suffering, loss of agency, and even life down to today. And I think that’s what makes inspiration the most distorting assumption that’s imposed on the Bible.

So basically, according to McClellan, modern Bible scholars mostly agree: “Bible bad.” I have to say, Dan’s activist side is on full display here.

Look, the Bible has some hard sayings and things that even make me blush or even sick to my stomach. (Numbers 31:17-18, anyone?) But hey, Jesus taught we’re to love our enemies. And He himself emphasized that Moses made some concessions because Israel was hard-hearted, sinful and stubborn. If you don’t filter your theology through Jesus, who is the express image of God, you will run into issues. (Heb 1:3)

Take divorce, for instance. When asked about it, Jesus referred back to the creation story in Genesis 1-2. While there’s no slavery or subjugating women going on in Eden, this way of interpreting things suggests that sexual intimacy is meant for a husband and a wife for life and this is what is best for human flourishing. (Mark 10:1-12)

Like most Christians, I agree that it’s sad that there are hate preachers like Steven Anderson, and it’s irritating that the Westboro Baptist weirdos are still around. These issues that Dan brings up are a bit nuanced—topics that theologians have debated for centuries, including Origen, who interpreted some difficult Old Testament passages as metaphorical. I can’t cover everything here. If you’re interested, you might want to dive into books like William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, Charlie Trimm’s The Destruction of the Canaanites, or Brandon O’Brien’s Paul Behaving Badly. They can shed some light even if they don’t answer every difficulty.

But here’s the deal: the writer of 2 Timothy isn’t trying to trick you. Nobody in the early church thought Paul didn’t write it. The apostles seemed to know that their words carried God’s authority. And the early church totally saw these apostolic writings as inspired and binding. Now, whether you accept their apostolic authority is a whole other discussion. Did Jesus rise from the dead and commission them? But Dan is taking things a bit far. He’s made it quite clear that he thinks the Bible is basically a harmful book, but I think he’s overstating things to make his case.

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