More on the Proper View of Scripture
I think that ultimately we must ask ourselves, "What is the Word of God?"Regular readers of my blog already know that one of the things that marks my blog is a willingness (some might even say "eagerness") to ask the hard questions and challenge the status quo. I hope, however, that you all understand that this tendency in me is not just an attempt to question for the sake of questioning. It is how I think through issues and work through beliefs. And it's a practice that refreshes me, even if it annoys some of my readers! ;)
So, when I read Gordon's comment, it struck a chord with me, because I was already heading in that direction. Let's start by taking a look at some common teachings and assumptions in the body of Christ today:
- The term "Word of God", with the exception of in the context of John 1 refers to the Bible.
- Any references to "word" (such as Psalm 119:9-16, Psalm 119:89, Psalm 138:2, John 17:17, Colossians 3:16, James 1:22, etc.) are references to our Bible
- When Paul says that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16), he is referring to the sixty-six books of the canon that we call the Bible
- The Bible is the complete word of God to us today, and contains 100% of the instructions we need for life (this belief is called "the sufficiency of Scripture")
- We are commanded in Scripture to study the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15 in the KJV) in order to show that we are "approved workmen" and so that we can "rightly divide" the Scriptures.
As with most of my posts, I'm "thinking out loud" here, and welcome any comments, even in disagreement. I sincerely hope I don't lose readers on this one, but hopefully most of you will give me the grace to talk through this, and may even talk through it with me.
Do all (or even any) references to "word of God" refer to our Bible? To answer this question, we need to be aware of a few things. First of all (and I already mentioned some of this in the comments on the previous post), there are generally two Greek words that are often translated as "word" in the New Testament. They are familiar to most, and are logos and rhema. I have often heard it said that logos refers to the written word, while rhema refers to the spoken word. However, this does not hold water in New Testament usage. For example, in Matthew 8:8 the centurion says to Jesus, "Just say the word", which is the Greek word logos. Unless he was asking Jesus to quote from the Old Testament, I think it's rather difficult to say that logos is a written word there.
Getting back to the question at hand, though, if references to "word" in Scripture referred to our Bible, then the fact remains that every usage of that in the Bible would have to be prophetic in nature. In other words, when David says, "Your word is a lamp unto my feet", he would have to be referring to a future "word", including the sentence that he had just penned. Now, I am entirely willing to concede the idea that David could have been speaking prophetically to some extent, but the context of his statements (especially all the many references in Psalm 119) doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, if the meaning is mostly prophetic.
Even beyond David, however, what of all the references to "the word" in the New Testament? When Paul wrote to Timothy and said, "Preach the word", was he talking about expositional preaching? Was he referring to preaching the Bible? Even if he was, what "Bible" did Timothy have? It was only the Old Testament. (Somehow, I have difficulty picturing Timothy preaching expositorally from Paul's letter to him, but that's beside the point!)
As I have noted in previous comments, there is a bit of an anachronism for us to assume that "word" in the Bible refers to our "completed canon". And this is demonstrated even more so by the fact that translations such as the NASB translate both logos and rhema as "message" on more than one occasion. I think the translators understand something. It is not so much the specific books that we have canonized that are the "word of God", but the message that is contained within them.
Now, I realize this flies in the face of many popular evangelical notions about inspiration and inerrancy, but for that I'm not sure I can really apologize. If looking at what the Bible actually says causes us to rethink our popular notions, than by all means, let's rethink them! Many would draw a very clear distinction between saying the Bible is the word of God vs. the Bible contains the word of God. And those who would draw that distinction most likely would say that the former is the "correct" view, while the latter somehow demeans the value of Scripture.
So, since I've brought up the subject of inspiration, let's look at that with relation to the topic at hand. The classic "proof" of inspiration of the Scripture is Paul's statement to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16. In this verse, we read that "all Scripture" is inspired by God. This statement is (again, anachronistically) extrapolated out to refer to the sixty-six books we hold in our bound Bibles. But I think we need to be really honest here and look at what Paul actually says. (I realize I'm stepping on toes, but please hear me out!) Let's look at the context in 2 Timothy 3:14-17. I'll use the NASB here:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.When Paul says "all Scripture", to what is he referring? I believe that the best interpretation is to see this as a reference to the "sacred writings" of the previous sentence. And again, what would these sacred writings have been? The Old Testament. This is what Timothy had been studying.
Now, am I arguing against an inspired New Testament? Honestly, no. At least not at this point! But let me say that I don't believe we are completely straightforward in our normal evangelical treatment of this topic. For example, when Paul states to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7:25 that he does not have a command from the Lord, but gives his opinion, we have only two possible interpretations as it relates to the doctrine of inspiration.
- Paul really was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but just didn't know it, and so he thought he was giving his opinion.
- Paul knew that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but said it was his opinion anyway.
Suffice it to say that I don't believe the doctrine of inspiration is completely honest about situations like that one. There also seems to be a distinct difference between Old Testament writers who fully understood they were writing "the word of God" and New Testament authors such as Paul who seem to be fully unaware that they are writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
How does all this relate to the issue at hand? Quite simply that we have to be careful in casually applying 2 Timothy 3:16 to the canon itself. (Please note that I am not saying it is impossible! I just think that we have to be honest about the problems it presents.)
This post is getting lengthy, and most of my regular readers have stopped reading by now and taken any links to my site off their blogs, I'm sure! hehe So let me wrap up by looking at the last of my initial bullet points.
Are we commanded to "study" the Scripture? Is studying the Scripture a way of proving anything to God? Does it make us "approved" in His sight? 2 Timothy 2:15 is the key verse for the AWANA program in so many churches. AWANA stands for "Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed" and their entire program is based on Scripture memory.
Well, I took some time yesterday and today to look at this verse. Once again, I have this annoying feeling that what I've been taught for so many years does not necessarily stand up to scrutiny. You see, nowhere else in the New Testament do the translators of the KJV translate that Greek word (spoudazo) as "study". In fact, that same word appears in the same form (imperative) two other times in the very same letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:9 and 2 Timothy 4:21). And in neither case did the translators use "study". In fact, it would not have made any sense. In both of these other verses, they translated it as "Do thy diligence", presumably a 17th-century way of saying "Be diligent".
So, if that is the case, why would it be any different in 2 Timothy 2:15? To this end, the translators of the NASB chose "Be diligent" as the translation in 2:15. In the chapter 4 case, they used "Make every effort". Same concept. This seems so much more consistent to me, and makes sense. Paul wasn't telling Timothy to try to excel in Scripture memory. (In fact, Timothy probably already had huge portions of the Scripture memorized since he had been taught it from a very early age.) Why would Paul tell someone who has already been diligently studying the Scriptures to "study" those same Scriptures? That seems odd to me. But the idea of being diligent to be an approved workman fits nicely with a lot of what Paul wrote elsewhere (such as his analogy of running the race, etc.) in his letters.
So what does this all mean? I've thrown a lot of information out there, with probably a lot more questions than answers. However, let me sum up a few bullet points of where I'm currently heading in my thinking:
- Jesus' statement to the Pharisees in John 5:39 shows us the danger of making Scripture the focus of our study as opposed to Jesus Himself. The life does not come through the Scriptures, but rather through the One to Whom the Scriptures point.
- As Paul mentioned to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15, Scripture is "able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus". In other words, it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
- The "word" that is referenced so often in the New Testament seems much more related to the actual message contained in the Scriptures, not the very Scriptures themselves. And specifically, it is the message of Jesus Christ. To whatever extent we teach or preach (regardless of church system), it seems to me that we must be preaching and teaching the message of Christ. And while it is true that Paul said Scripture is useful for teaching, doctrine, instruction in righteousness, etc., it is the relationship with the living Word, Jesus Himself, and the indwelling Holy Spirit that we are to move toward.
From that standpoint, I find it ironic that Dan Phillips accused me of being "fascinated and enthralled with the blank spaces in between the lines of Scripture." It would seem that those who elevate Scripture to the point of it being an end in itself (even claiming to have a relationship with the Scriptures) are adding their own thoughts in between the lines of Scripture.
Until next time,