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The Scope and Overall Structure of ScriptureAs I mentioned in the introduction, my hope is that my beliefs are grounded in Scripture. The beliefs I want to hold closest are the beliefs that correspond closest to explicit Biblical statements. But this requires us to take a quick overview of just what we mean by the Scriptures. It is not my intention to present a full defense of the canon of Scripture or why certain texts like the Gnostic “gospels” are excluded, but to ignore it completely would be a disservice to presenting a full explanation for why I believe what I believe in theology.
The first key point that I must make about the Scriptures is that not everything that people claim is Scripture is actually Scripture. The most obvious examples would be works such as the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita. So what is the distinction between, say, the Gospel of Thomas (a Gnostic text) and the Gospel of John? I mean more than simply the fact that the words are different; the words between John and Mark are likewise different. The characters of Jesus and His disciples are in Thomas, John, and Mark, even if the events described are different. What is the actual basis by which we can exclude Thomas while accepting John and Mark?
The difference is in the authorship of the books. We know that God did not inspire every book that exists. As a result of this fact, there necessarily exists a set of books that we can call “books inspired by God” and there is another set of “all other books.” Even if we are not able to determine accurately whether a particular book belongs to the first set or to the second set, the brute fact that God has not inspired all works necessitates this distinction.
This part is important, so I will emphasize it with some repetition. It does not matter whether or not we are actually able to tell, using just our human reasoning, what books are actually inspired by God. The canon of Scripture (i.e., the books that are inspired by Him) exists independent of our ability to prove any particular item on that list is correctly identified. God has only inspired certain books, and those books necessarily are the books that form the canon of Scripture.
So our job is not to create the canon of Scripture—that has been done already by the fact that God only inspired a finite set of books. Our job instead is to recognize what the canon of Scripture, which already exists, is.
Thankfully, Scripture has given us some ideas on how we can do this. But before I continue, I must address the elephant in the room. Isn’t this just a blatant circular argument? Isn’t what we’re saying here essentially “Scripture tells us what Scripture is, and we know it is Scripture because Scripture says it is Scripture”? In response, I will point out that yes, there is a circular argument here, but I maintain that this circular argument is not a vicious circle, but rather a necessary and virtuous circle.
Naturally, the bare claim that “This is Scripture” could be made of non-Scriptural documents. But equally true, the claim “This is Scripture” must be made of Scriptural documents at any point in which they speak of their own nature. If the Scripture never identified itself as the Word of God, then we would have no basis to believe that it is the Word of God. Further, if something is true, then if it speaks of itself it must state that it is true.
The difficulty is, of course, that if something is false, then when it lies about itself it will state it is true. This means that in both instances, whether true or false, a text is going to claim to be true. Thus, we cannot take the bare claim that “This is Scripture” as proof beyond all doubt that the text is Scripture. On the other hand, if something is Scripture then it needs to state that it is Scripture in some form.
Because of that, I am on safe ground presenting what Scripture claims about itself. You are obviously not required to believe any of this, but my arguments for the rest of my beliefs will depend on you accepting this foundation—a foundation most who claim the name “Christian” do agree with.
So how does the Scripture speak of itself? We can begin with what might be the most famous passage about the Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is breathed out 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.We first note that the subject of the sentence is “All Scripture.” With the use of this universal “all” we know that there is no Scripture that is not breathed out by God. This means that if we have a text that is not breathed out by God then we already know that it does not belong to the canon of Scripture. This gives us our first indication of how to identify the canon of Scripture, although special care should be taken to note that just because all Scripture is breathed out by God does not necessarily imply that all that is breathed out by God is Scripture. God could actually breathe out other things that do not end up being part of Scripture (for example, we know from Genesis 2:7 that God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, yet that did not turn Adam into Scripture; but this aspect need not concern us at the moment).
Next, we notice that all Scripture is profitable, and we have a list of what it is profitable for: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. It is important to note that this falls just as much under the universal “all” in the subject, such that we can likewise note that if something is not profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness then that indicates that it is not Scripture.
So the passage in 2 Timothy has given us two indicators of what Scripture is, and it then proceeds to give us the reason for Scripture: “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” You can note that the reason given for the existence of Scripture likewise contains a universal term at the end: “every good work.” If Scripture provides us the means by which we can be complete, and that completeness entails us being equipped for every good work, then this indicates to us that what constitutes a “good work” must be defined by Scripture too. In other words, anything that is added as if it were a good work, but for which there is no Scriptural basis, cannot be a genuine good work. For this reason alone, concepts such as purchasing indulgences (a practice which was instrumental in necessitating the birth of the Reformation) cannot be considered good works, unless one can show that Scriptures equip us to purchase indulgences.
There are more passages that deal with how the Scripture views itself. We shall look at just a few more, beginning with excerpts from Psalm 119. This Psalm is the longest Psalm in the Bible, and it focuses almost exclusively on the word of God, found in the commandments and law of the Old Testament. The Psalm opens by stating, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” Verse 9 asks “How can a young man keep his way pure?” and answers it “By guarding it according to your [God’s] word.” In verse 25, the Psalmist says, “give me life according to your word!” and in the next verse he pleads that God “teach me your statutes!”
The Psalm writer’s passion for the law is clear throughout the entire Psalm. Consider this section constituting verses 57-64:
The LORD is my portion;It should be noted that the Law is not simply following rules and regulations, for the writer of this Psalm points out: “Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight” (verse 77). This shows that mercy is wrapped up in the law and it is not just rules. And that mercy carries through to the very end in verse 176: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”
I promise to keep your words.
I entreat your favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.
When I think on my ways,
I turn my feet to your testimonies;
I hasten and do not delay
to keep your commandments.
Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me,
I do not forget your law.
At midnight I rise to praise you,
because of your righteous rules.
I am a companion of all who fear you,
of those who keep your precepts.
The earth, O LORD, is full of your steadfast love;
teach me your statutes!
With this in mind, let us consider what is said about Scripture itself, and not just the Psalmist’s views of Scripture (as important and intriguing as those are). We read in verse 89, “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.” This tells us that the Scriptures are permanent. They are solid and do not waver. This view is later echoed by Christ when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
We also read in the Psalm, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Psalm 119:93). Likewise, “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies” (verse 98); “Through your precepts I get understanding” (verse 104); and finally, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (verse 105). This shows the previously quoted passage of 2 Timothy, which states Scripture is profitable for teaching, et al, is in many ways just a succinct summary of Psalm 119.
So clearly, Scripture has a high view of itself. The ultimate reason for this view is due to the fact that Scripture is breathed out by God Himself. This means Scripture is the very thoughts of God. In fact, so closely linked is the Word of God to His attributes that Jesus Christ is referred to as the Word throughout John. In a very real sense, therefore, the Word of God can be viewed not just as a set of laws and precepts, but as a direct link to the mind, the very character, of God.
Of course, one final point on this should be mentioned. For while Scripture is breathed out by God, it is obvious to anyone who has read the entire book that there are many different styles in the Bible. Likewise, Scripture attributes certain passages not just to God, but to human authors as well. In Matthew 8:4, after Jesus healed a man of leprosy, He said: “Show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded” (Matthew 8:4). In fact, this command was from Leviticus, part of the law given by God. So there must be some sense in which Leviticus can be viewed both as a command from God and a command from Moses.
While this may at first seem paradoxical, 2 Peter 1:21 explains, “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.” So we see that nothing in Scripture was ever produced by the will of man. But men were still the instruments of that Scripture, for it was men who spoke from God, even though this was done through the action of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to note that God did not use these men as a microphone. That is, these men were not merely conduits through which He spoke, without imparting any of themselves into the text. If they were merely microphones God used to channel His voice, then the styles would be uniform throughout. Even more important, the individual authors cannot have been said to be the authors of the text in any sense. For if Moses was just a passive instrument, then it would make no sense for Christ to refer to the command in Leviticus as having come from Moses.
On the other hand, 2 Peter clearly tells us to avoid the opposite extreme. The prophecies did not originate in the will of the men who wrote them down. It is God who carried them along. Thus, it is equally true to call the law the law of God and the law of Moses, and the Bible does so throughout.
How these two methods are synthesized together can be a bit of a mystery, but the Bible clearly teaches both aspects. It is ultimately my belief that this forms a pattern of compatibilism, demonstrating how God can predestine events and man can be completely responsible for the events that happen. Due to the importance of that topic, it will have its own chapter further along in the book.
For now, we have reached the conclusion of our opening chapter. The rest of this work will be based on the foundation of Scripture. We trust that it is sufficient to provide us with all teaching, wisdom, and understanding of God, and that by studying the fullness of Scripture we will be made complete and adequate to do every good work. Therefore, it is to Scripture that all our final appeals must be made in any argument. It is to Scripture that we must submit our intuitions, acknowledging that if something in Scripture seems to contradict a deeply held intuition we have, Scripture (being breathed out from God) must be the true path. If you find yourself agreeing with that concept, then the rest of this work should bear much fruit. Otherwise, may it at least grant you a fuller understanding of my own position.