You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
I’ve been closely following the pistis christou debates, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am that, according to some scholars, I am justified by an objective genitive. I’d been getting so worried that I might need some complex periphrastic or optative construction to get saved that I’ve been brushing up on my Metzger and Moule.
Kim Fabricius, “Faith and Theology” blog
In this note I want to do a theological exposition on the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures, God’s Word. I will be fleshing out in detail the following loaded but rarely clarified theological terms: Revelation, Inspiration, Witness/Testimony, Prophetic and Apostolic message. Finally after developing this neo-orthodox theology of Scripture (neo-orthodox because it is a theology largely based upon that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hermann Sasse and Karl Barth in reaction to the liberalism of the 19th century), I will explain why I think it is not critically important for us know the intricate historical context, circumstance or background of the Scriptures to understand it.
Say No to Purely Formal Conceptions of Scripture
But first, I shall need to quickly debunk one very widespread (mis)understanding of the Scriptures as God’s Word simply because it is written in a certain canonical document. The problem with this conception of course is that it is a purely formal conception of the Word of God. Something is the Word of God simply because it is written in this very special set of documents or manuscripts. But a very simple consideration will show that such a conception will lead to absurd contradictions. Now, is 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 the Word of the Lord? On a purely “formal” conception of the Word of God, the answer has to be yes because that set of verses is found in a set of document/manuscript, i.e. 1 Corinthians, which we consider canonical, and therefore those set of verses has to be canonical too.
But unfortunately, 1 Corinthians 7:12 actually says, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)…”
Opps. What happens when the text itself says that other parts of this text isn’t the Word of the Lord? That it isn’t “thus saith the Lord”? A purely formal definition of the Scriptures will trap us in such hopeless contradictions and more which I shall not go through here in detail since I am more interested in developing my neo-orthodox alternative account. (I will place the link for my more substantive critique and early vague theory of Scripture at the bottom).
So what is needed is an understanding of how are the canonical Scriptures the Word of God?
Scriptures as Witness to Saving Events
Let me just shoot off a highly loaded thesis statement before breaking it down and going through it term by term.
The Holy Scriptures are the Word of God because it is the Inspired Prophetic and Apostolic Witness to Christ’s salvic Activity.
Okay, let’s start from the back. “Witness to God’s Gracious Life-Giving Activity”. Thus firstly, the Scriptures are the Word of God because of it’s subject matter, because of what it is about, what it refers to, and what it is a witness to. Thus, this is a material and not a formal conception of the Scriptures. As a common saying goes, when you point at the moon, don’t confuse your finger with the moon. The Scriptures simply as a collection of texts do not make the Word of God, it is ultimately what the Scriptures talk about, it’s subject matter, which makes it the Word of God. It testifies and witnesses to Christ’s salvic, with the person, life and action of Jesus Christ at it’s centre and as the unifying thread of all the Scriptures.
The gracious activity of God in historical time to give us life and salvation is revelation. As the Bethel Confession puts it,
God reveals himself by history, that is, by his non-recurring and non-repeatable action that is complete in itself and affects all eternity. It begins with the creation of man and with the promise for man become guilty. It receives its temporal consummation when the elect from every nation enter into the glory of God’s Son. The church proclaims this history as God’s revelatory act that is valid for us. By witnessing these acts, Scripture is God’s word to us, and the church is able to do God’s will only in obedience to the command of Scripture.
Thus, “revelation” refers to those gracious life-giving acts of God in time, by acting as such, God reveals himself for us in those historical events. These series of historical events which reveals God’s gracious life-giving activity is known as salvation history. To quote again from the Bethel Confession,
The history attested to in Holy Scripture is salvation history, that is, it is the work of God’s grace that bestows on the world the life from God and for God. Not the holiness of men, but the salvation granted them in their unworthiness, guilt, and plight of death through their call to his knowledge is what makes Holy Scripture to be God’s word. A fully valid understanding of this history is first possible from the New Testament that attests to the consummation of the divine plan of salvation in the incarnation, in the words and deeds (Luke 24:19), in death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the institution of the church. The Old Testament is God’s word because in it the living God bears witness to himself, as he makes Israel into his people, judges its unbelief, and makes those called from it into bearers of his word for humanity.
Thus, what makes the Scriptures the Word of God is it’s testimony or witness to revelation or salvation history. In Lutheran language, we can say that the essence of salvation history is God justifying sinful man by grace through faith, and this is activity is performed, through and in the person, life and action of Jesus Christ.
To summarise this section, the Holy Scriptures is the Word of God because it is the witness to revelation or salvation history. Thus we have here a text referring to external realities conception, so far so good. But as N.T. Wright once pointed out in his critique of this conception of Scripture,
Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial. Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative? I think not.
To put it in other words, whilst being a witness to divine revelation is a necessary condition for being the Word of God, it is not a sufficient condition, otherwise as Wright rightly points out, any document which witness to divine revelation would simply become God’s Word by default! Thus, there must be something else about the Scriptures which makes it God’s Word. And here we turn to the concept of inspiration.
Inspired Scriptures, Saving Words
My main thesis states that not only are the Scriptures witness to divine revelation, but it is an inspired witness to divine revelation. But what do I mean by inspired? It might be best to cite the well quoted verses from 2 Timothy 3:14-17,
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 instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God 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.
First, we have to note that whilst we are used to speak of people being “inspired”, but this passage is interesting in that it speaks of the Scriptures itself or the text itself as “inspired” by God. But what does an “inspired” Scriptures do? An inspired artist paints beautiful paintings, an inspired musician composes beautiful music, an inspired author writes an excellent story, but an inspired Scripture… narrates a thriller? No, an inspired Scripture gives instructions unto salvation, teaches, reproofs and corrects errors, trains in righteousness, completes the man of God and equips him for every good work. In short, an inspired Scripture gives life and salvation.
But as I’ve quoted from the Gospel of St John at the start, how can the Scriptures give life? The scribes search the Scriptures for eternal life, thinking that it can be found there, but yet they do not find it because it can only be found in Jesus Christ. The solution to this should be quite simple by now:The Scriptures gives life because it witnesses and points to Jesus Christ and by testifying about Christ, brings Christ to us and it is he who gives us life and salvation. Thus, the Scriptures as a set of text don’t do anything, but as an inspired text, written about Jesus Christ and salvation history and written for our salvation, that is how it can give us life and salvation.
Thus to elaborate on a previous point, the reality to which the Scriptures witness to is the life-giving act of God in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is the heart, the unity and the foundation of this reality to which all of Scripture witnesses to. Because of the unity of salvation history in Jesus Christ, therefore it is as a whole, not merely in parts, by which the Scriptures witnesses, by which the Scriptures speaks. Scripture must be read in the light of the whole in Jesus Christ, not merely in parts in individual books or epistles. As the Bethel Confession puts it,
Holy Scripture is a whole. Its unity is Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. He speaks through all of Scripture… We reject the false doctrine that tears apart the unity of Holy Scripture by rejecting the Old Testament or by even replacing it through non-Christian documents from the pagan early history of another nation. Holy Scripture is an indivisible unity because it is in its entirety a testimony of and about Christ… The Holy Spirit who speaks to us through one word of Holy Scripture is always the Spirit of all of Holy Scripture… it is important to promote the Lord of Scripture, Christ, where Scripture runs the risk of being promoted against Christ. Yet our judgment in the use of Scripture remains true only when it emerges from the willingness to hear the entire word of Scripture.
As the Gospels puts it, “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, [Christ] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:27. But if we remember our previous problem, the Scriptures cannot just be a record or testimony about Christ, otherwise other secular writings which record Christ would also become the Word of God, but it must be an inspired testimony or witness, namely it must be a witness or testimony written for the sake of salvation and giving eternal life. That’s what the inspiration is for, not to write creative stories with sophisticated literary ornaments, but to write for salvation and giving eternal life. As the Gospel of St John puts it,
but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name…
and for the Old Testament, as St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 10:11-12, speaking of events in the Old Testament,
Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall…
The Old Testament events in salvation history were written down for our instruction. That is what it means to speak of the inspiration of these sacred texts, inspired for our instruction towards eternal life. To sum up, the Scriptures is not only witness to salvation history in Christ, it is also witness for salvation by presenting those events of salvation history to us for our salvation.
But it seems here that we run into another kind of problem. If today some pious Christian writes about the events of salvation history with the intent of presenting a saving message to us, we wouldn’t thereby accept this writing, no matter how excellent it maybe and no matter how many people such writings may have brought to salvation. (Otherwise certain tracts or, horrors of horrors, the “Four Spiritual Laws” would become the Word of God!)
Thus we turn now to our final criteria which would also close the circle of exposition on the theology of the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures is the Word of God because it is inspired prophetic and apostolic witness.
Prophetic and Apostolic Message Concerning Salvation History
Let’s do a brief recap. In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word spoke and acted in time. That is salvation history. But how did salvation history get recorded? This section will answer that question.
First salvation history isn’t simply God acting in a vacuum. God acts to give life to people. God acts upon people through various salvic events, supremely in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. But Christ didn’t just rise from the dead and then nothing more happened, he appeared to certain people, namely the apostles and explained to them the significance of his death and resurrection. The fact that Christ did die can be noted by anyone, not just the apostles, in fact secular roman and Jewish historians have noted that as well. But to be a witness to the bare event of Christ’s death doesn’t say anything interesting. We need the interpretation of this event as well. It is one thing to be a witness to Christ’s death, it is quite another thing to know that his death is for us and for our salvation. That this death is a propitiation to God, a ransom for our sins, a cancellation of our debts, etc. That Christ rising from the dead is not just a one off miracle, but is also a promise of resurrection for all the rest of us who believe in his name, etc.
Thus, in order for salvation history to be “life” and relevant to us also, we need the interpretation of salvation history, the meaning of the events of salvation history, it’s saving significance for all mankind, or to put it simply, we need the saving message concerning salvation history. Thus the apostles were first and foremost, eyewitnesses to Christ, including St Paul in his special Damacus road experience. But then again, there were a lot of eyewitnesses to Christ, a lot of secular eyewitnesses to the deeds of Christ, even the scribes and pharisees confess the miracles of Christ, although they did not interpret the as the works of God for our salvation but the the works of the devil instead. Thus, the apostles, in addition to being eyewitnesses to Christ, were also personally entrusted by Christ with the message of salvation concerning himself, in other words, the Gospel, the good news, not just news of certain events, but good news, news which spells good tidings for us. Thus, not only did they witness to Christ’s life and deeds, they were also given the meaning and message of those deeds.
So, we have the missing link between salvation history and saving inspired texts, namely the apostolic interpretation or Gospel, good news, concerning the events of salvation history. Now, it must be clearly understood that the apostles received the apostolic message, they did not formulate or invent it. Thus, the apostolic message or Gospel message is independent of the apostles. It does not derive it’s meaning or truth or integrity from the apostle’s person, but from Christ who delivered the message to them, and it is an apostolic message only because it has been entrusted to the apostles, who are it’s guardians, not authors. Thus, St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3,
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…
Thus, the ground of the Gospel is Christ which St Paul received and delivered to the Corinthians. And to emphasize the independence of the Gospel message from the person of the apostles, St Paul in his epistle to the Galatians of whom he had heard that they had departed from the apostolic message which they have received thundered the following,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.
Galatians 1:6-9 (bold mine)
Later on he goes on to argue that although he had the other apostle’s confirmation of his message, but he did not need it, especially when St Peter himself sinned against the Gospel message by not sharing table fellowship with the Gentiles, the Gospel message stands on its own, independent of the person of the apostles. Thus, St Paul himself declares that even though he is an apostle, but not even he can preach a different gospel to the one which he had preached to them before, that is simply because the one which he preached before was received of Christ, and anything else would therefore be excluded.
Now, the Scriptures of the New Testament are canonical because they were either written by the apostles themselves, (i.e. St Paul, St Peter), who directly received the gospel message from Christ himself, namely, the interpretation and saving meaning of salvation history for us, or they were written by “apostolic men”, person or persons who have received and heard the Gospel message from the apostle’s own mouth and preaching. As the Gospel of St Luke puts it at the opening,
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
Thus the “us” to whom were delivered the narrative originated from “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”. Therefore when we speak of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, we mean the Church which is grounded upon the message of the apostles, not their persons and this can be found solely and normatively in the Holy Scriptures. This is the Protestant doctrine.
We have to constantly emphasize the independence of the apostle’s message from the apostle’s person. We have to remember that it is not their persons who were inspired, but their writings which were inspired. It is their writings whereby salvation history is recorded, the interpretation of that salvation history explained, and salvation offered to all mankind. The persons are quite frankly inconsequential. This is why it is not important for us to know exactly who wrote certain Gospels or who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, etc, as long as it is someone who received the message from the lips of the apostles themselves. To take the example of Hebrews, most scholars, even the most conservative ones, admit that they do not know who wrote it, but that doesn’t matter, because even if St Paul didn’t write it, it is clear that it was written by someone who had contact with one of the apostles or direct disciple of Christ, namely, an apostolic men, as this part puts it,
Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will.
“…it was attested to us by those who heard [Christ]“. Thus, the writer(s) of Hebrews was someone who received it from someone of apostolic office.
So, to emphasize again the independence of the Gospel message from the persons, we only need to turn towards the second epistle of St Peter who said,
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
2 Peter 1:16-21
Thus, the prophetic word did not come by “one’s own interpretation”, but they simply spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Therefore, the Gospel message, the prophecy, it’s meaning/interpretation, etc, does not come from the author or the writer’s own mind or person, but “directly” as it were, from the Holy Ghost in the case of Old Testament prophecies, and directly from Christ or the Apostles, in the case of the New Testament, but always under the guidance of the Holy Ghost of course.
I confess that I am not too familiar with the canonisation process of the Old Testament Scriptures, how did they decide what writings were “prophetic” and what were not. (Actually, I think the Old Testament is a bit more complicated in that it does not only include prophetic writings but also the “Laws” and the “Psalms”, etc.) But whatever the difficulties, the same outline for accepting those books are the same, there is some internal relationship between the inspired Old Testament writings to the saving events of the Old Testament, just as the New Testament writings by apostles or apostolic men, are related to the saving events of Christ.
The Not-so-Critically Important Significance of Historical Context and Original Languages
With the theory in place, I can now justify the relatively milder importance of understanding the historical circumstance of each book of the Bible. First, it is the texts, not the writers, who are inspired. Therefore, there is no point going round looking for authorial intentions or the writer’s interpretation when they don’t have any. Therefore, there isn’t much need to know the historical background of the writer of the book because his psychology quite frankly doesn’t really matter. Secondly, the texts are not records of the writer’s intentions or thoughts, but the texts are records or witnesses or refer to external events and realities, namely, salvation history. As an Anglican theologian puts it,
What we do have are texts. Unless we are going to concede that once an author is dead, his or her meaning is lost forever, we have to affirm that texts, as texts, have an inherent intelligibility, and can be understood in themselves. Moreover, the purpose of texts is not normally to point to the intentions of authors, unless the texts are confessional. Rather, texts are referential. They point beyond themselves to external realities, and it is these external realities to which the text bears witness. So one assesses the intelligibility of a text not by trying to get inside the intentions of its author (whether dead or alive), but by referring to the subject matter to which it bears witness. In the case of Scripture, these referential realities are such things as God’s triune revelation in the history of Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Spirit in the church.
Therefore, the point of texts is to point to realities beyond themselves, to witness to salvation history and its interpretation. As such, The meaning of the words is in what it refers to, not in it’s minuscule little semantic nuances in the original languages which doesn’t really change the reporting of the external event. They maybe important in those parts of the Scriptures which deals with theological argument or interpretation of salvation history, the saving theological message, but otherwise, one shouldn’t really waste too much time upon them.
And finally, to go back to the sarcastic remark made at the start, the Scripture’s saving message and task cannot possibly be dependent upon such contingent and uncertain empirical details like historical circumstances. Even conservative scholars have difficulty locating the audience of the New Testament writers, the time of writing and the location of writing, etc. (The epistle to the Ephesians for example, has some ancient manuscripts missing the “to the Ephesians” in Ephesians 1:1, so what is going to happen to an interpretation which builds up upon the socio-historical background of Ephesus?) Therefore the saving message of the Scriptures is fundamentally grounded upon the texts itself, not upon all these extraneous empirical details which are uncertain and speculative. I admit that a certain degree or broad historical-cultural understanding of the setting to the writings are necessary, but it cannot possibly be dependent upon too specific detail. Because those we cannot establish with any certainty and are based upon much theory and speculation.