How scripture should function in theology

Doing theology while respecting the authority of the Bible

In one way or another, all Christian theology—fandamentalist, conservative, progressive, and liberal—must affirm the authority of Scripture. 1

In this essay I will identify and briefly explain three important principles for the way Scripture should function in Christian theology—that is, in the interpretation of faith, or in faith's search for understanding.2 These principles are (1) Scripture's priority over every subsequent tradition; (2) its wholeness; and (3) its theological Christocentricity.3

Priority over every subsequent tradition

The theological priority of Scripture must be maintained over every sub sequent Christian theological tradition. The ground of this priority is the fact that it is in and through the documents of scripture—climaxing with the New Testament and especially the Gospels— that we come closest to the actual revelation of God in Jesus the Messiah. Hence the need for "a constant overhaul of dogmatic development by the standard of Christian origins; and 'Christian origins' can only mean in practice the evidences we have for Christian origins."4

As a resource for theological thinking, a heritage of traditional under standing is exceedingly valuable to a community of faith and to its individual members. It provides a viewpoint, a frame of reference, a place to stand, a foundation. But a traditional theology is always subject to revision in the light of a more adequate understanding of the meaning of Scripture.

Theological traditions, however, tend to solidify and to become fortresses to be defended at all costs rather than foundations on which to build larger and better understandings of eternal truth. Indeed, traditions tend to become absolute and to assume an authority of their own, almost as if they were independent of the scripture of which they were originally expressions and interpretations. When this happens, scripture is used in support and defense of the tradition; scripture thus becomes the means, and tradition becomes the end. The tradition is then the primary object of theological respect, and Scripture is its agent instead of its norm, its servant instead of its master.

A similar distortion occurs in the theological biblicism that "makes believing a theology about the Bible almost more important, if not foundational, for believing its content; this same biblicism tends to force belief into a pattern of first assenting to a kind of theism read from between the lines before one can go on to use the lines themselves."5 Here theology is the prerequisite to understanding the Bible.

The danger of elevating and absolutizing a theological tradition is especially great when a particular interpretation of faith is ecclesiastically inherited rather than personally discovered—when it is regarded as a sacred trust rather than an incentive to theological growth, a sort of heirloom to be treasured, protected, and polished but certainly not to be thoughtfully adapted to suit one's present needs. The danger is greater still when an inherited understanding is vigorously attacked from outside the community of faith or seriously questioned from within; for then the natural impulse is to defend the tradition rather than to acknowledge its fallibility and seek to correct and improve it.

The coincidence of these factors makes the absolutization of a theological tradition entirely understandable and almost inevitable; it does not, however, make it right. Nor does it become right if it happens to be one's own tradition that is inherited, solidified, questioned, and absolutized. This is a possibility of which thoughtful Christians should be continually aware, and they should do everything they can to keep it from happening within the community of faith. Christian theological thinking, collective as well as individual, must always remain subordinate to, and in the service of, Scripture. In the words of the Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance a generation ago, our theology "stands or falls with sheer respect for the Majesty and Freedom of God in His Word and for the transcendence of His Truth over all our statements about it even when we do our utmost to make them aright."6

The wholeness of Scripture

It is Scripture as a whole that is the primary source and norm of Christian theological thinking, so "when we appeal to Scripture, we appeal to Scripture as a whole."7 As a basis for theology, Scripture functions, like the human body, by means of a dynamic interrelation and interaction of differentiated parts. This characteristic of Scripture has both exegetical and theological significance.

While each part of scripture belongs to the whole and the whole is for Christians unified by the centrality of the figure of Jesus, each part retains its own individuality, which must always be respected.

The basic fact that each part, each literary unit, is related to the whole and to the various other parts, it may plausibly be assumed on the basis of its presence within the canon of Scripture that was established over time by the consensus of the Christian community. But the particular ways in which a given part is related to the whole and to the other parts cannot simply be assumed. The precise nature of these relationships can be known only through careful exegesis, which examines a passage first of all in relation to its own literary and historical context.

It may, for example, be appropriate to ask whether we can understand the book of Revelation better in the light of, say, the letter to the Romans; but it is surely not appropriate for us to decide in advance that John must be echoing Paul. Similarly, it is highly significant that Jesus was a Jew; but we should not assume that between the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels there is only theological continuity and no tension, as if Jesus were simply the outcome and expression (albeit a uniquely powerful and creative one) of ancient Judaism. Nor can we presuppose that all of the New Testament materials relating to the process of salvation are simply variations on the theme of justification; they may in fact be saying something quite different, and what they say may require some modification of the theological force of the metaphor of justification.

The wholeness of Scripture, in other words, does not legitimate an imposed consensus that results in a theological homogenization of its various and diverse parts.8 "These disparate elements are not to be 'harmonized' into some innocuous consensus. Their function is, rather, to stimulate more thorough reflection and more lively apprehension of the canonical witness and its implications."9

If the exegetical implication of the dynamic wholeness of Scripture is a recognition of and respect for the individuality of its different parts, the correlative theological implication is a recognition of the "resultant" and "constructive" character of a total theological understanding of scripture in regard to any given subject.

What I mean here by "resultant" may be clarified by a simple analogy: If an airplane is headed due north at a speed of 600 m.p.h. while a high-altitude wind is blowing due east at 50 m.p.h., the resultant direction of travel is neither due north nor due east but a geometric combination of the two vectors; namely, north-northeast.

Similarly, the biblical materials relating to a given subject may well include differing "theological vectors," so that the "resultant theological direction" is not identical with the theological thrust of any one passage of scripture by itself. A failure to recognize this possibility may lead to theological mischief: "Confusion results when texts that relate events in the flow of redemptive history are isolated from the context of the Bible as a whole and are treated as prescriptions to be imitated by the church in all ages." 10

An especially important example of this theological phenomenon is the role of a person's behavior (or "works") in the process of salvation. It is immediately evident to even a casual reader of the New Testament that Paul and James did not say the same thing 11—and determining precisely what each did in fact say, and how the different perspectives are related, requires much more than casual attention. Rather than regarding either Paul or James as normative and reinterpreting the other to bring him into harmony with the presumed norm, a truly scriptural view of "faith and works" must take serious account of the views of both Paul and James, and other writers as well. The result will be a formulation that is truly "canonical" in the sense that it reflects the content of the entire scriptural canon but may not be strictly identical with any of the individual scriptural sources. 12

Another example of the "resultant" character of any "scriptural" or"canonical" interpretation of faith is the doctrine of atonement. Here the New Testament contributes several different metaphors, including ransom (or redemption), healing, cleansing, justification (or, preferably, "putting right"), and dying to sin. Each of these metaphors correlates with a logically prior metaphor for the human predicament: slavery, sickness, defilement, rebellion, and death. While the various metaphors are properly understood as complementary to each other, they are not simply cumulative: In some respects they are mutually reinforcing, but in other respects they are mutually limiting.

In short, it is primarily in the course of the subsequent theological task rather than in the course of the prior exegetical task that the principle that "scripture is its own interpreter" is most helpfully operative. But if, for example, we want to know what Hosea understood and intended when he quoted Yahweh as saying, "Out of Egypt I called my son," we should consult Hosea's own account in its historical and literary context, not Matthew's much later use of those words in a very different context. 13

To say that a "scriptural doctrine of" is "constructive" as well as "resultant" recognizes the fact that the various materials of Scripture are often theologically synergistic. Together they may point beyond the explicit content of any or all of them, so that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Historically, the most prominent example of this phenomenon is the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, which nowhere in Scripture is stated as such, but which in some form is theologically essential even if the traditional formulations are regarded as not entirely satisfactory. 14

While my claim here that theology is "constructive" is much more modest and much less speculative than are some similar claims in contemporary theology,15 it does reflect the fact that theology, like science, necessarily goes beyond the evidence whenever it does anything more than merely catalog the relevant data: To relate facts or ideas, as well as to look for their antecedents or explain their implications, is to "construct." Theology is, after all, faith's search for understanding; it is not only an interpretation of faith but also an interpretation of faith.

Both the "resultant" and the "constructive" characteristics of the theology of Scripture are complicated by the fact that the materials of Scripture are of quite different kinds, including historical narrative, theological polemic, liturgical hymns, imaginative parables, ecclesiastical procedures, and practical advice. If Scripture is to function theologically as a whole, we must consider all of the relevant materials, and in the course of our consideration, we must recognize the qualitative differences among the various kinds of materials and the implications of these differences for determining the respective theological force of particular passages.

To establish, for example, a "scriptural understanding of the role of women in ministry," it is necessary to consider not only the directly relevant materials (including instances of women in various kinds of ministry16 and in stances of restrictions of or limitations on the role of women) 17 but also related themes (such as gender differentiation as a primordial element in created human nature,18 the equality of all humanity in Christ, 19 and the nature and function of Christian ministry), and even the many casual references to women, which may collectively disclose significant attitudes toward womanhood.

Another example is the "scriptural understanding of the Sabbath," which involves the creation narrative,20 the two formulations of the fourth commandment,21 and the Sabbath experiences of Jesus and the apostles. It involves also— and perhaps most significantly—the attention to the experiential and theological meaning of Sabbath time demonstrated in all of the Gospels,22 reflecting a continuing interest in the Sabbath on the part of the Christian communities whose religious life was the context for the writing of the New Testament documents.23

So it is evident that the task of elucidating a "scriptural doctrine" or "scriptural understanding" requires not only a careful examination of so-called "proof texts" and "problem texts" but also a consideration of all the materials that are directly or indirectly relevant, plus the far more complicated theological integration of the results.

Scripture must function theologically as a whole. "All of scripture should be heard if its canonical sense is to be most fully discerned."24 In its totality lies its theological authority. Like the authority of a board of trustees of a college or university, the theological authority of Scripture is necessarily a collective authority. Individually the voices are often illuminating, but they are authoritative only as part of the whole.

Theological Christocentricity in Scripture

The theological meaning of the whole of Scripture is centered in Jesus the Messiah, the definitive revelation of the character of God; and the meaning of each part of scripture is understood in relation to this center. It is the Incarnate God who is the focus and the ultimate criterion of Christian theology.25

We recognize that Jesus the Messiah was human, and so were those who wrote the Gospel stories through which we know Jesus, as well as the linguistic media (Aramaic, Greek, etc.) through which the stories come to us. And we know that, in principle, nothing human can completely express the reality of God. But notwithstanding this inescapable "qualification" of His revelatory function, Jesus remains the center and norm of all our theological thinking.

Apart from their relation to this theological center, all the other parts of scripture—the history, law, poetry, and prophecy of Hebrew scripture and the narratives and letters of the apostolic writings—are, from a Christian perspective, inadequately understood. Indeed, according to the British theologian Austin Farrer, apart from this relationship the other parts of scripture would hardly be worth reading at all:

"Christ is the golden heart of scripture. Indeed, if he were not there, the rest would not concern me. Why do I read Paul? Because he sets Christ forth. Why do I read the Old Testament? Because it is the spiritual inheritance Christ received, it is what he filled his mind with, it is the soil in which his thought grew, it is the alphabet in which he spelled, it is the body of doctrine which he took over and transformed."26

The other parts of scripture are not, to be sure, utterly meaningless apart from their orientation to Jesus the Messiah. The Ten Commandments and many of the psalms, to take obvious examples, are in themselves broadly relevant to human existence. But for a Christian their meaning is incomplete.

Three things need to be noted regarding this Christocentric under standing of Scripture:

• First, it identifies a theological rather than an exegetical principle. That is, it does not suppose that every part of scripture was originally intended to refer to the revelation in Jesus the Messiah. Rather, it is the theological significance of each part that is to be understood in relation to this supreme revelation.

• Second, the principle of Christocentricity is a principle of relationship and interpretation, not of exclusion; the "Light of the world" is the light in which the whole canon is read. Neither the stories of mass destruction nor the imprecatory psalms are to be omitted; but it is in the illumination provided by this Light that they are to be interpreted and understood.

• Third, the relation between the story of Jesus in the Gospels and the other parts of scripture is reciprocal but not symmetrical. Certainly His Messianic mission cannot be adequately under stood without both the historical and theological context provided by the Hebrew scriptures and the historical consequences and theological implications provided by the apostolic writings. Yet the supreme revelation disclosed its theological preeminence as Jesus, taking the role of the consummate Moses, radicalized the tradition of torah and proclaimed a higher kind of righteousness. Citing what had been "said in ancient times," He declared, by way of contrast, "Now I say to you. . . !'27 The same combination of continuity and preeminence was indicated again in the letter to the Hebrews: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets; in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son."28 In Jesus the Messiah the revelatory process reached its zenith; here the character of God became most plainly visible.

There is an obvious sense, then, in which scripture itself is theologically progressive. On the one hand, there are important continuities between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, such as the themes of Creation and renewal, sacrificial atonement, law, covenant, and the kingdom of God in history and beyond. And on the other hand, the New Testament says some things the Hebrew scriptures do not say, such as the truth that atonement is not merely God's provision of sacrifice but God's self-sacrifice. Yet this revelatory progression does not make the earlier scriptures irrelevant, superseded, replaced or passe; they are not a developmental "stage" or "phase" of revelation that was subsequently outgrown and should therefore be left behind, any more than algebra is left behind when a mathematics student learns calculus. What is prior in revelation never becomes meaningless; it is incorporated into (literally, it becomes part of the body of) that which transcends it.

If the meaning of Scripture, the norm of theological thinking, is centered in Jesus the Messiah, it follows that theology, too, is centered in Him. In fact, if a Christian theology revolves around another center, it is, quite literally, eccentric; and every denominational theology must be careful that it avoids this kind of theological eccentricity. The distinctive beliefs and practices of any lived expression of Christian faith are theologically legitimate and spiritually valid only in relation to, and as implications of, the truth of the authentic theological center.

Existential perspective

One final point needs to be made here, not as another methodological principle but as an existential, spiritual perspective.

The goal of theological thinking is not simply an accurate and comprehensive knowledge of Scripture but ultimately a responsive and transforming knowledge of the character, activity, and will of God—what God is, what God does, and what God wants. Similarly, as Charles Wood observed nearly two decades ago, the purpose of Scripture is not simply to ground the formulation of an appropriate and adequate theol ogy but ultimately to foster the present and continuing experience of salvation:

"Our primary aim as Christians in the interpretation of Scripture is to grow in [the] knowledge [of God]: to be reminded, against our inveterate tendency to forget, who God is and who we are, what God's bearing toward us is and what that means for our common life as God's creatures. Scripture serves this reminding function by disclosing God to us and simultaneously giving us the concepts requisite to our hearing and apprehending of the disclosure."29

In other words, the objective of scriptural study is "to understand through the text, rather than being for ever preoccupied with the text itself." Thus we try diligently to avoid both "bibliolatry" and "theologolatry"—the worship of the biblical text and the worship of our own interpretation of faith.

The proper outcome of theological thinking is "to create fervor, to elicit a hymnody, to cause rejoicing."30 Theo logy, born of a holistic encounter with the Christ of scripture indeed creates "a lyrical calling"; and "even when it is doing its best to think clearly, [and] lay out the Christian doctrines logically, it draws much of its motivation from the beauty that such thinking brings to mind."31 It calls for and inspires one to effectively act in consistency with that which is called forth. Both theology and scripture, which is its center and norm, are neither more nor less than instruments of grace, contributing to the ultimate triumph of God's universal love.

1 This claim is admittedly problematic, both because it is
seriously disputed and also because there is no consensus about the
meaning "scriptural authority." See, for example, David H. Kelsey,
The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress,
1975), l,2and 10,11,n. 2, and the literature cited there.

2 The most famous, and probably the most useful, definition
of theology was provided in the eleventh century by Anselm of
Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), Proslogion, preface: "faith seeking
understanding" (fides quaerens intellectnm}.


3 For other Protestant views of the role(s) of Scripture in
theology, see also The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical
Options
, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985);
Charles}. Scalise, From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey
into Hermeneutics
(Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity, 1996).
For recent Roman Catholic views, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Scripture,
the Sou! of Theology
(Mahwah.N.).: Paulist, 1994);and Gerald
O'Collins and Daniel Kendall, The Bible for Theology: Ten
Principles for Theological Use of Scripture
(Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist,
1997).This kind of affirmation is essential because to be Christian
means to regard the story of Jesus the Messiah as the clearest
revelation of God's character, activity, and relation to created reality;
and Scripture is our primary source of information about Jesus.

4 Austin Farrer, Interpretation and Belief ( London: SPCK,
1976),158.

5 'Paul L. Holmer, "Contemporary Evangelical Faith: An
Assessment and Critique," in The Evangelicals: What They Believe,
\Vho They Are, Where They Are Changing
, ed. David F. Wells and
John D.Woodbridge (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 81.
"Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science (New York:
Oxford, 1969), 352.


7 John B. Cobb, Living Options in Protestant Theology: A
Survey of Methods
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 178,
describing the view of Karl Barth.

8 A notable example of unwarranted harmonization is the
Song of Solomon, whose sexually explicit language has generated
centuries of attempts to understand it as meaning something other
than what it most obviously says. Besides its historic spiritualization
and Christologization, it has recently been reinterpreted as a political
treatise in favor of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy in Judah;
see Luis Stadelmann, Love and Politics: A New Commentary on the
Song of Songs
(New York: Paulist Press, 1992).

9 Charles M. Wood, The Formation of Christian
Understanding: An Essay in Theological Hermeneutics
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 110.

10 'Mariorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical
View
(Grand Rapids, Midi.: Eerdmans, 1982), 173.


11 Compare, for example, Gal. 2:16, "We have come to
believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in
Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will
be justified by the works of the law," and James 2:17,18,"Faith by
itself, if it has no works, is dead.... Show me your faith apart from
your works, and I by my works will show you my faith."

12 Wood describes this process in terms somewhat different
from those used here, citing the letter of James as an example and
designating its modification in the light of other scriptural
(presumably Pauline) materials as its "canonical sense" or "canonical
significance" (72-74). For, as he says later, the "canon is not merely
an anthology of documents, but, rather, the product of their
interaction" (109); therefore, it can be said that "no portion of scripture
is above criticism in the light of the canon" (108). I prefer, however,
to use the term "canonical sense" to refer to the resultant theological
formulation; that is, the sense of the canon as a whole, equivalent to
what I call a "scriptural understanding."

13 Hos. ll:l;Matt.2:15.

14 Besides the gender specificity of the terms Father and
Son, the difficulty of the notion of God as "three persons" has been
recognized at least since the beginning of the fifth century. Augustine
noted in De Trinitate, 5.9.10, that if we speak of God as "three
persons," we do so "not in order to say that, but in order not to
remain silent" (translation supplied). For a standard but less precise
translation, see A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Niccne
Fathers of the Christian Church
, 14 vols. (New York: Christian
Literature, 1887-94), 3:109.

For a brief discussion of the problematic character of "person"
language in reference to God, see Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary:
Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (Notre
Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 275-280.

15 The idea of "theology as construction" has been developed
extensively by Gordon D. Kaufman in An Essay on Theological
Method
(Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1975; 3rd ed., Atlanta:
Scholars Press, 1995); The Theological Imagination: Constructing
the Concept of God
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981); and In Face
of Mystery: A Constructive Theolog
y (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard,
1993).


16 'For example, Matt. 28:7, 8; Mark 16:7; Luke 8:1-3;
24:8-10; John 20:17, 18; Acts 1S:26; Rom. 16:1, 3,4, 6,7, 12;
17 Cor. 16:19; Phil. 4:3.

17 For example, 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12.

18 Gen. 1:27,28; 2:18-25.

19 Gal. 3:28; Eph. 5:21; etc.

20 Gen. 2:1-3.

21 Exod. 20:8-11; Dent. 5:12-15.

22 See Herbert E. Saunders, The Sabbath: Symbol of Creation
and Recreation
(Plainfield, N.J.: American Sabbath Tract Society,
1970), 33-53; Niels-Erik Andreasen, Rest and Redemption: A Study
of the Biblical Sabbath
(Berrien Springs: Andrews University,
1978), 95-108; Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday,
26-63,69-73; Divine Rest for Human Restlessness: A Theological
Study of the Good News of the Sabbath for Today
(Berrien Springs:
Samuele Bacchiocchi, 1980), 147-166; and John C. Brunt, A Day
for Healing: The Meaning of Jesus'Sabbath Miracles
(Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1981).


23 See Herold Weiss,"The Sabbath in Matthew, Mark, and
Luke," Spectrum 19/1 (Aug. 1988): 33-39; James J.C. Cox,
"Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Sabbath—According to the
Gospel of John," Spectrum 19/1 (Aug. 1988):40-46.


24  Wood, 111. For the importance of nonexpiicit but relevant
biblical materials in ethical reflection and decision making, see John
C. Brunt, Decisions: How to Use Biblical Guidelines When Making
Decisions
(Nashville: Southern, 1979), 15-23, 63-73.


25 In the language of the Reformation, Christ was the
"unnormed norm" of theology, the norm that is not itself subject
to any other norm; the Latin formula was norma normans non
normata
. See Wood, 101,102.


26 Farrer, 12,13.

27 Matt. 5:22,28,32,34,39,44. The usual English translation,
"But I say to you" suggests a greater discontinuity than is warranted
either linguistically or contextually.

28 Heb. 1:1,2. Here there is no adversative conjunction at all
in the Greek text; the word but is supplied by the most common
English translations, including the Revised Standard Version, Neiv
English Bible, Jerusalem Bible, Today's English Version, New
International Version, and New Revised Standard Version. A notable
exception is the New American Standard Bible.

29 Wood, 38.

30 Wood, 43; on the distinction between the "understanding
o/language" and "understanding through language" see also Gerhard
Ebeling, Word and Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 318; Paul
L. Holmer, The Grammar of Faith (New York: Harper, 1978), 35.

31Denise L. Carmody, Christian Feminist Theology
(Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995), 252.


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March 1999

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