"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

The 1-2 Punch of Scriptural Authority - Second, Universal Authority

(Continued from Part 1 of the series found here)

Let us extract another truth about the Bible's authority from 2 Timothy 3:16-17, this one a bit less obvious.  First, a reminder of the passage itself:  "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."

We see that God's Word is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" for the "man of God."  Note the communicative quality of these four actions; these actions are visited upon a person by another person.  In the case of the Bible, of course, the person originating these actions may well be the Holy Spirit, but it is important to establish that people, God's subjects, are called in the Word to carry out these sorts of things as well.  Says Paul to Titus, "But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1), and the word translated "doctrine" is the same is Paul's word for "teaching" in 2 Timothy 3:16.  We all recall, of course, how Paul urged fathers to raise their children "in the discipline and instruction [training, in 2 Tim. 3:17] of the Lord." (Eph. 6:4b)

The import of this line of thought is that we cannot approach 2 Tim. 3:16-17 without understanding that people, God's people, do this teaching and reproof and so forth.  To be sure, the Holy Spirit is behind all such endeavors, and He does work directly from scripture to the believer's soul, but He is also present and active as the preacher preaches, as the brother admonishes, and as the sister encourages, if these actions are founded in God's Word.  If this were not so, there would be no call for spiritual gifts, and no commands in scripture to exercise them. 

Here is the substance of the matter, at long last.  There are those for whom the Word of God is to their hearts like a cloud is to their eyes, whose vaporous form may be regarded as any of a thousand distinct shapes.  To such people as these, scripture may whisper one word of truth to one person, and quite another, perhaps even the opposite, to a different person, and how could we name either as untrue?  Who are we to suggest that this could not be the case?  Do we dare set up ourselves as experts on how God uses His own divine Word? 

Fortunately, we need not be experts at all; we need only read what His Word actually says.  If, as we have discussed, believers are to teach and correct and train one another, and if indeed scripture is useful for all of these purposes (as it has purported itself), then, quite plainly, scripture is universally authoritative.  It does me no good to try to teach my fellow believer from the Bible if he can in turn deftly repudiate my words merely by saying, "Yes, but this is not what the Word means to me!"  It must bear precisely the same significance and meaning for all of us, or else we cannot employ it for any useful purposes with one another, and it becomes, then, nothing but a sad lie.  To take things still further, if we cannot utilize the Bible for useful purposes with one another, then neither can we utilize it for loving purposes!  Consider this for a moment.

There are two key conclusions from the Bible's universal authority. 

First, it shapes our hermeneutics.  I find, all of a sudden, that my own opinions have absolutely no bearing on the meaning of scripture, because I have stopped working to unlock its personalized meaning just for me, myself, and I, and I have begun instead to think about what it means to its divine Author.  There must be some common basis by which all of us might unlock the meaning of scripture, and our quest to find this out tends to evict fanciful intruders from our thinking. 

This is the reason we lean so completely upon such ideas as the literal interpretation of scripture.  While a literal understanding establishes itself on the immovable bedrock of the text, any sort of figurative approach languishes in the mirey muck of human opinions, and so is endlessly debatable.  This is not to suggest that some figurative approaches are not superior to others, or that no portions of scripture are figurative, but we will permit our literal understanding of the Word inform us when it is being figurative.

We also must consider the human authors of scripture - how they used vocabulary and grammar, and how they developed their ideas.  We also examine the original intended audience; what would this letter have meant to them?  We look at the whole of scripture, of which God is the superintending Author; we know it must be in total accord with itself.  Context, language, history, theology - we cannot divorce scripture from these crucial components and expect to come away with a right or complete understanding of God's Word.  Beware, then, of any preaching that pointedly ignores these - many a pastoral hobbyhorse has been ridden across this very terrain, and it is an arid terrain indeed.

Second, it changes our accountability.  I do not maintain that the hermeneutic upheld above clothes us in scholarly invincibility, but this approach makes it clear that we are endeavoring to allow God to speak through His Word, not ourselves.  Thus conviction, but not pride, should be our familiar companion as we hold to our understanding of God's Word:  we believe what we believe with clear reasoning and humbly-sought certainty, but we are ready to unflinchingly amend our understanding if careful study of scripture shows it necessary. 

On one hand, a passionate, assured, humble, literal hermeneutic should help to prevent us from jealously guarding ideological strongholds which the Lord has never even entered.  On the other, as we discuss the things of the Word with those who hold to different hermeneutics (and so maintain very different beliefs), it tends to turn every biblical disgreement into a discussion on how we interpret scripture, which is, of course, the more fundamental issue - the one that must be resolved if certainty and steadfastness are to come. 


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