One. Scripture: Its Nature and Place in God’s Drama of Salvation

It seems like a good idea to begin a companion devoted to the theological interpretation of Scripture by thinking theologically about Scripture. This is because how and what Christians think about Scripture will influence the ways in which Christians might interpret Scripture theologically. Of course, it is not always clear how to separate theological thinking about Scripture from theological interpretation of Scripture, since much theological thinking about Scripture is closely connected to Christian views of God, the world, and God’s relations with the world that are themselves drawn in various ways from Scripture.

As Origen’s On First Principles and Augustine’s On Christian Teaching indicate, these issues were traditionally treated together. It is not my aim to separate what belongs together conceptually and theologically. Rather, I am simply treating these as two distinct topics for the sake of organizational clarity.

Initially, then, I want to begin by thinking about Scripture in theological terms. Most modern attempts to address the place and status of Scripture begin by asking what sort of book Scripture is. On the one hand, modern historical studies have made it all too clear that Scripture is a human work. The original texts that comprise the Bible were written by a variety of human authors (known and unknown) in diverse historical, linguistic, and cultural settings. Both the human authors of these texts and those who preserved, edited, and ordered these texts participated in and were subject to a host of social, material, and institutional forces which undoubtedly affected the composition of the Bible, even if scholars are not altogether sure how and to what extent this happened.

At the same time, Christians are committed to the notion that Scripture is the word of God. In, through, or in spite of its clearly human, historical characteristics, Christians confess that Scripture repeats, conveys, or reflects the words of the living God. At the very least, this makes Scripture the standard against which Christian faith and practice need to measure up.

If one begins by focusing on Scripture’s status as both the word of God and the work of human hands, it seems quite natural to extend a christological analogy to Scripture in order to account for its status as both divine and human writing. That is, in ways that are analogous to the confession that Christ has two natures, human and divine, Scripture is taken to be both human and divine. Although there are some pre-modern theologians who deploy a christological analogy to account for various ways in which Scripture might function, the use of a christological analogy to account for Scripture’s status seems to be quite modern. Moreover, although this analogy is fairly common across theological and denominational differences, it is less clear that theologians use this christological analogy in the same way.

For example, Karl Barth applies a christological analogy as a way of taking Scripture’s “writtenness” seriously: “there is no point in ignoring the writtenness of Holy Writ for the sake of its holiness, its humanity for the sake of its divinity.” Taking Scripture’s writtenness seriously in Barth’s eyes seems to allow for some types of historical exegetical methods, though Barth is appropriately wary of the exhaustive claims of historical criticism. Because Barth fundamentally orders his views about Scripture in the light of his doctrine of God, treating Scripture’s writtenness seriously means primarily treating Scripture as the hermeneutical lens through which one views all other things. As a result, Barth’s use of the christological analogy does not demand any specific interpretive practices.

From the Roman Catholic side of things, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) also relies on a christological analogy in its reflection on Scripture. In this case, the analogy works to show that human language can be a suitable vehicle for conveying God’s word. “God’s words, expressed through human language, have taken on the likeness of human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he assumed the flesh of human weakness, took on the likeness of human beings.” Because this is a claim about God’s willingness and ability to work through human language, the claim neither demands nor recommends any particular form of interpretation.

In contrast to both Barth and Dei Verbum, it has recently become much more common for this christological analogy to be applied to Scripture in the way advocated by Ernst Käsemann and many others. For Käsemann, this application of a christological metaphysic to Scripture results in or justifies a further set of interpretive arguments and practices. First, Scripture’s human historical status necessitates the wide variety of practices commonly known as historical criticism. Failure to see this, Käsemann argues, is to lapse into a sort of docetism. Failure to employ historical criticism is an implicit denial that Scripture is really the work of human hands. Because the Bible is a human book, it should be subject to the same interpretive practices and standards as any other ancient text. In this light, the interpretive practices and theories of biblical scholars should be accessible to all regardless of one’s disposition to the claims of Judaism or Christianity. Should an interpreter be a Jew or a Christian, those convictions need to be abstracted as much as possible from one’s interpretive work as a biblical scholar. Biblical interpretation becomes an end in itself whose goal is either the unearthing or the construction of textual meaning(s).

Upon deciding to treat the Bible as a human historical text to be read like any other, the remaining issue for theologians and Christians more generally is how to treat the Bible as the word of God. Once interpreting the Bible as a human book becomes its own end, the question is how to move from the results of that work either to theological claims, or to the moral and ascetical formation of Christians, or to any other edifying practice which Christians have traditionally based upon Scripture.

One older approach to this problem of how to treat the Bible as the word of God after already treating it as the work of human hands attempted to distill the timeless truths of Scripture from the historical particularities of the biblical texts and those texts’ production. The so-called “biblical theology movement” represents the most recent form of this attempt.

Such attempts rarely stand the tests of time. It is usually just a matter of a few years before any given proposal about a unique or timeless scriptural theme is shown to have some sort of cultural or temporal antecedent. When scholars adopted the christological analogy as a justification for reading the Bible as any other book, it became evident that critical scholarly activity would seek to fit the texts of the Bible into their historical and cultural milieu without remainder. This leaves little of theological interest or usefulness on which to build. The failures of theological approaches to Scripture that primarily operate on this christological analogy suggest that one should try an alternative starting point.

In his recent work, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster points out that doctrines about Scripture must begin with and depend upon doctrines about the triune God. The Christian God is the Trinity, whose inner life is reflected in the gracious and peaceful self-giving and self-communication of Father, Son, and Spirit. In creating all things, the triune God does not simply freely will the existence of humans created in the image of God, but God also desires fellowship with humans, offering them a share in the divine life. This is both the intention with which God created and the end for which God created. Given this, God’s self-presentation or self-communication is an essential element in establishing and maintaining the fellowship God freely desires to have with humans. Thus, God’s self-revelation to humans is both the source and content of a Christian doctrine of revelation. Revelation is directly dependent upon God’s triune being and it is inseparable from God’s freely willed desire for loving communion with humans. In this light, the written text of Scripture is subsidiary to and dependent upon a notion of revelation that is itself directly dependent on God’s triune being.

This recognition recalibrates the relationships between God, Scripture, and Christians in several interesting ways. For Christians, the ends of reading, interpreting, and embodying Scripture are determined decisively by the ends of God’s self-revelation, which are directed towards drawing humans into ever-deeper communion with the triune God and each other. In this way, scriptural interpretation is not an end in itself for Christians. One might even say that Scripture itself indicates that the mediation of revelation through written Scripture is not God’s best desire for believers but a contingent response to human sinfulness. Recall that God speaks with Adam and Eve with an unbroken immediacy. This is also reflected in the description of God’s interactions with Moses as speaking with a friend face to face (Exod 33:11). Further, Jer 31:31–34 indicates that the written covenant will ultimately be replaced by a covenant written on the heart so that teaching, remembering, and interpreting Scripture will be a thing of the past. In addition, when confronted with Moses’s permission of divorce in Deut 24:1–4, Jesus makes it quite clear that there is a gap between God’s best intentions for humans and the scriptural words of Moses which are offered as a concession to human sinfulness (Matt 19:1–9). These texts indicate that Scripture is the result of God’s condescension to human sinfulness. At the same time, Scripture is absolutely important since it reveals the mystery of God’s reconciling of all things in Christ. Thus, although the interpretation and embodiment of Scripture is not an end in itself, as Christians engage Scripture “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” they can confidently advance toward their proper ends in God, “proficient [and] equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). Until God’s law is written on our hearts after the manner of Jeremiah 31, Scripture is a sufficient means for revealing the triune God to sinful humans.

Another avenue that opens up when Christians think of Scripture in the light of their convictions about the triune God is in relation to the history and processes of the formation of Scripture. An emphasis on Scripture’s dual nature will obviously recognize that the text of Scripture as we know it today is tied to a variety of historical, political, and social processes. Scholars may disagree about the nature of these processes, but it is hard to deny that a variety of forces, known and not known, shaped and were shaped by the text of Scripture.

This recognition becomes difficult to square with a doctrine of revelation if that doctrine is divorced from its subsidiary role in relation to the doctrine of God. As Webster argues, just such a divorce occurred in the history of modern theology. Rather than a doctrinal assertion related to God’s triune identity, theologians came to think of revelation as an epistemological category requiring philosophical rather than theological justification. “Understood in this dogmatically minimalistic way, language about revelation became a way of talking, not about the life-giving and loving presence of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” Once one moves in this direction it becomes easier to understand why some attempts to defend the divine nature of Scripture tend to focus their attention on establishing either the incorruptibility of the text or the benign nature of the processes by which the texts of Scripture come to us. The most extreme manifestation of this concern is found in those theories or doctrines of Scripture that require some form of divine dictation where the human authors of Scripture simply record the words the Spirit speaks to them.

Even though scholars probably know much less about the processes that shaped the final form of Scripture than we are willing to admit, it is indubitable that every stage of this process was fully historical and fully human. Thus, if this epistemologically focused doctrine of revelation persists, it really becomes impossible for the christological analogy of Scripture’s dual nature to hold. It would seem that at this particular point the divine and human natures of Scripture simply cannot co-exist. “Both naturalism and supernaturalism are trapped . . . in a competitive understanding of the transcendent and the historical.”

Alternatively, if revelation is seen as the triune God’s self-communication, an activity that flows from the very nature of the Trinity, an activity that is graciously directed to drawing humanity into ever deeper communion with God and each other, then one can be more relaxed in approaching and analyzing the human processes that led to the formation of Christian Scripture. This is because the triune God is not simply the content of revelation, but the one who directs and sustains the revelation of God’s very self with the aim of drawing humanity into ever deeper communion. The conviction that God’s revelation is ultimately directed towards bringing about our salvation also entails a view of God’s providential ordering of history so that God’s ends ultimately will be achieved. In this way, Christians can fully recognize the human processes (whatever they may have been) that led to the formation of Scripture. At the same time, their convictions about God’s providence should lead Christians to understand that, however Scripture came to look the way it does, Scripture reveals all that believers need to sustain a life of growing communion with God and each other.

In this respect, Christians would do well to take on the disposition displayed by Paul in Phil 1:12–18. In this passage the imprisoned Paul begins by noting that, contrary to what one might expect, the gospel has advanced even in the midst of his imprisonment (v. 12). Indeed, Paul’s adoption of the passive voice here makes it clear that God, and not Paul, is the agent advancing the gospel. Paul then goes on to note that many believers in Rome (most likely) have become bold in proclaiming the gospel. Paul further observes that among these newly emboldened preachers, some preach from good motives and others preach from selfish motives (v. 15). After commenting on each of these groups (vv. 16–17), Paul surprisingly goes on to announce that, no matter what the motives of these preachers, Christ is being proclaimed, and Paul rejoices in this (v. 18).

The motives of the preachers, while important, seem secondary to the act of proclamation. It may appear that Paul pragmatically prefers to see the gospel preached than to wait until everybody’s motives are pure. I do not think Paul sees the choice in quite this way. Ultimately, Paul is convinced that God is directing both his personal circumstances and the more general spread of the gospel. Thus, he need not be overly concerned about the motives of any particular set of preachers. Paul is able to see in the midst of his own circumstances that, despite appearances and contrary to expectations, God is advancing the gospel. Rather than expressing a preference for preaching from selfish motives over no preaching at all, this phrase is an expression of faith in God’s providential oversight of the gospel’s progress.

From a theological perspective it is important to note that a very particular doctrine of providence underwrites Paul’s account here. Paul is confident that God will bring the good work started in his own and the Philippians’ lives to its proper completion (1:6). Paul’s view of God’s providence leads him to fit himself and his various circumstances into a larger ongoing story of God’s unfolding economy of salvation. Within this larger context, and only within this context, Paul’s circumstances can be seen as advancing the gospel. This view of providence enables Paul to rejoice even in the face of a gospel proclaimed from selfish motives. This is because the advance of the gospel is subject to the larger ends of God’s economy of salvation. If this disposition is extended to Scripture, Christians can both recognize the vicissitudes in the historical formation of Scripture and still treat Scripture as God’s providentially ordered self-revelation.

Obviously, one cannot sustain any notion of God’s providence apart from a fairly robust notion of the Spirit’s role in the various aspects of Scripture’s formation. One’s initial thinking about this should start from the role Jesus anticipates for the Spirit in the lives of those who will come to produce Scripture as presented in John’s Gospel. The Spirit is the one who calls to mind all that Jesus taught (John 14:6). Jesus also promises that the Spirit will lead his followers into all truth, truth that they simply could not bear on that side of the crucifixion and resurrection (John 16:2–15). In addition, the Spirit will guide and direct the disciples concerning what is to come so that they can continue to abide in Christ (John 15:1–11). In remembering the past words of Christ, leading and confirming the disciples in all truth, and speaking about the things yet to come, the Spirit’s role in the lives of believers, and thus in the production of Scripture, is comprehensive.

The Spirit’s work in the operation of God’s providential ordering of things sanctifies the means and processes that lead to the production of Scripture, turning them to God’s holy purposes without diminishing their human, historical character. Thus, in calling Scripture “holy,” Christians are not making a comprehensive claim about the purity of the motives of the writers and editors of Scripture. These may well have been decidedly unholy. Even in the face of such unholy motives and actions, Christians are committed to the belief that the triune God has revealed a passionate desire to have fellowship with them, even in the light of their manifest sin. Scripture is chief among God’s providentially ordered gifts directed to bringing about reconciliation and fellowship with God despite human sin. Thus, Scripture is holy because of its divinely willed role in making believers holy.

Questions

  1. What does it mean to think of Scripture as both a divine and a human document?
  2. Why is it important to connect a view of revelation to God’s identity as Trinity?
  3. Why is a robust notion of God’s providence important for understanding Scripture?