This post is a little long but I hope it helps us think a little more about the function of scripture in our calling to be followers of Jesus. First consider this text:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
– The Apostle Paul, 2 Timothy 3.14-17, NRSV
Imagine discovering a manuscript for a lost Shakespeare play. Naturally you would be excited to have found something from one of the greatest poets in history. So you begin to assemble actors and actresses as you read through each act…act 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. It is during the fifth act where you realize that only the last half of the fifth act is missing.
At first you might find yourself let down believing that it is impossible to perform the incomplete manuscript. But as you continue to read over the manuscript again and again, you realize that hope is not lost. You clearly understand the story with its setting, the problem, the resolution. The story even contains hints within it of how the story will turn out when it is complete. What is now required is for the actors and actresses to act out the missing part. It will require improvising as they act out the last half of the fifth that is missing but to make sure that such improvising does not get off the track to where it makes no sense, you have the rest of the story so that the improvising is still consistent with the character and values of the rest of the story.
This is the hermeneutical framework suggested by N.T. Wright (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 140-142) as the church lives out God’s creative and redemptive story. I believe this is a valuable way of understanding our calling to be followers of Jesus who live under the authority of scripture.
When the Apostle Paul spoke of the “sacred writings” and “all scripture” in the well known passage above, he at the very least had the Old Testament in mind. George Knight makes a convincing argument to at least consider the possibility that Paul understanding of scripture had been widened to include other gospel writings as well as his own writings(The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 448). Therefore I believe it is entirely appropriate for Christians to read “sacred writings” and “all scripture” as both the canonical Old Testament and New Testament (the question of what constitutes “canonical” is a valid question but beyond my scope at this point).
However, we must read scripture in light of Jesus Christ as Paul reminds us that scripture is able to teach us for “salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 790). This is important and cannot downplayed at all. The context in which the Apostle Paul is urging Timothy to pay attention to scripture is one in which other people, perhaps even some believers in Ephesus are engaging in conduct unbecoming of a follower of Jesus. So Paul is reminding Timothy to pay attention to scripture because doing so is able to remind him how he ought to live as a disciple (Luke Timothy Johnson, Letters to Paul’s Delegates: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 89).
This is the purpose of scripture, to teach us how to live. It does not save us. Only God saves us in Jesus Christ through our faith. The phrase “for salvation” in the passage above implies that scripture “… aims at bringing forth an understanding of salvation that may, in practical terms, be more or less identical with the salvation itself. In this sense the aim of scriptural instruction is to bring people into the reality of salvation” (Risto Saarinen, The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon & Jude, p. 155). Thus, what scripture does is teach us about this life we have been given in Christ and called to live as followers of Jesus Christ.
This is why I believe the hermeneutic proposal of N.T. Wright is very helpful. It ought to be clear that scripture does not address every question or context disciples find themselves in. That is because scripture is written as occasional texts addressing specific occasions within history. Further more, since the above passage gives authority to all scripture which at the very least includes the Old Testament, it ought to be clear that the calling of discipleship is not a call to replicate the story in every literal form. For instance, to simply redo what Christians did in the first century by making the restoration their ecclesiological forms the goal (and no church or denomination does this consistently anyways) misses the point of scripture and can actually be unhelpful to our calling. Imagine the actors and actresses filling in the missing section of the play by just doing a rerun of what’s already been done and said…it would get pretty boring and over time would cease to make sense. Yet I wonder if the world is shaking its head in confusion some of the time because churches are living out the creative and redemptive story of God by simply doing a rerun of previous scenes rather than living out the story in ways that are faithful to the story and yet sensible to their culture.
The number one Bible people read is us…those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus. We are the first impression of what it means to live under the reign of God and his Kingdom. Paul understands this and knows that the value of scripture is to teach us how to live in response to our own contexts as faithful followers of Jesus. The point of scripture is not to make us robots or clones of a bygone era of God’s people but to teach us to be living witness of Jesus Christ. When we get that, we’ll understand what it means to be and become living Bibles.