But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:14-17 KJV)
This was Paul’s advice to Timothy. Today, this passage is used as justification to say that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, that it is inerrant and without contradiction. But if one even begins to think about this passage, things soon become a hopeless tangle. Imagine the following conversation:
“Is the 2 Timothy 3:14-17 passage authoritative and without error by virtue of being part of the Bible?”
OK, then by virtue of the authority of this passage, it is only the Old Testament Scriptures that are given by inspiration of God, that are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. There were no New Testament scriptures, there was no Bible when Paul made that statement, so the 2 Timothy passage is not part of what you call the authoritative Word of God. Therefore the New Testament, as we now have it, does not fall under Paul’s admonition that it is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for…”
There is the tangle.
I once asked a Mexican student at Friends Bible College (now Barclay College) why the old versions of the Spanish language Bible had John 1:1 as “En el principio era el verbo…” (In the beginning was the verb…) while newer Spanish Bibles state “En el principio era la plabra…” (In the beginning was the word…) After thinking for a moment, he stated that they had made the change to make it clearer that the Bible is the Word of God.
For those who make the Bible, as the Word of God, the cornerstone of their faith, there is a lot at stake in declaring that it is the authority in the life of the Christian, that it is without error and without contradiction, and that there is no further inspiration. This is what underlies all the contention over evolution, creation, a young earth, and so on. At the root of the controversy is the question, “can I make the Bible a secure foundation on which to build my life?” Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus, the Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, could not maintain his belief in God in face of his discoveries that there were multiple, ancient manuscripts of the New Testament that did not agree. There was no way to establish which scrap of manuscript represented the inerrant Word of God.
Now, before you become hopelessly tied into knots, look at what Jesus had to say to the Jews about the scriptures:
You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
Jesus is stating that the overarching value of the Jewish scriptures is that they are a testimony pointing people to Himself. He says nothing about them being authoritative, being the Word of God, being inerrant, or being without contradiction. And neither did Paul.
The author of the book of John goes to some length to state that Jesus is the Word of God and to explain why that matters. He makes extensive use of this Old Testament testimony Jesus touched on in John 5. Look at the following examples:
|Significance of Jesus Being the Word of God
||Old Testament Reference and Some Explanation
|John 1 proclaims the Word is the creator in whom is the life that is the light of mankind. This light shines in all, but only those who will live by the light are given the power to become children of God (i.e. remade into His image).
||See the Genesis 1-3 account of Creation and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In this story, mankind is happy and blessed only as long as they continue under the teaching of God. When they listen to the teaching of the serpent, they lose the image of God (the life and light) and can no longer remain in God’s garden.
- John 3:31-36 is John the Baptist’s comparison between his own ministry and Jesus’, “He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth belongs to the earth and of the earth he speaks; he who comes from heaven…bears witness to what he has seen and heard…he whom God has sent utters the words of God…He who believes in the Son [i.e. hears his words and trusts them to the point of living by them] has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”
- In the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, she stated, “I know that when the Messiah comes, he will tell us all things.” to which Jesus responded, “I that speak to you am he.” (John 4:26-27)
|These passages allude to Deuteronomy 18:15-19, which speaks of a prophet like Moses raised up by God to lead the people. God puts his words into the mouth of this prophet and all that God has spoken to him, the prophet declares to the people. The passage goes on to state that listening to and obeying the word of this prophet is mandatory.
|In chapter 5, Jesus answers the question concerning, “Of what use is Jesus telling us all things?” He stated, “…he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life…the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.”(John 5:24-25)
||Ezekiel 37 relates the incident of the prophet Ezekiel being brought to a valley filled with dry bones. God then asked him, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel is then commanded to issue a number of prophetic statements concerning those bones. Bone joins to bone, flesh covers them, and finally the breath comes into them and the valley is filled with living people. God then explains the vision to Ezekiel. “…these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves,…you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you from your graves,…I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live…then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:11-14) Jesus’ statements in John 5 relate to this vision and to the life granted by hearing the voice that calls us up out of our graves and establishes us as a living people in the kingdom of God here and now.
The life generated by hearing the voice of the Son brings with it the absolute knowledge “that I am the Lord, that I have spoken and I have done it.” This is a life that surpasses the natural, biological life as far as eternity exceeds temporal. The only way to partake of this life is to hear and follow the voice of the Son who calls us up out of our graves.
|Chapter 6 contains a lengthy discussion about the bread of life. Jesus told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…”(John 6:53) “This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers ate manna, and are dead. He that eats this bread shall live for ever.” (John 6:58) Jesus later told the disciples, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken/am speaking to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63) Because of these sayings, many disciples stopped following Jesus. He then asked the 12 if they were going to leave also? Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
||Exodus 16 speaks of the manna God sent to feed the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness for 40 years. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ summation of the history of the Israelites journey from Egypt to Canaan. In reference to manna, Moses said, “And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness…And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna…that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God shall man live.” (Deut. 8:3)
This passage from John also ties into the themes of the prophet like Moses and Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
|In John 8, Jesus reiterates the major theme of the prologue, “…I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (verse 12) and “…He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world…I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” (verses 26,28)
||This section of John combines the theme from Deuteronomy 18:15-19 with themes picked up from Isaiah: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light and upon those dwelling in the shadow of death the light has shined. Why? Because “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”(Isaiah 9:6)
“I the LORD have called you [the Servant} in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep you, and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
“I will also give you for a light to the Gentiles, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
In the Word of God is the life which is the light of mankind. This light and life, which come by hearing the Word, is the rightful inheritance of every human being, but that heritage lies desolate and abandoned by all who will not hear. The Servant’s calling is to restore these desolate heritages to their rightful owners by bringing them [the rightful owners] into the covenant of light and life. Thus Isaiah can say that the Servant is given for a covenant of the people and for a light of the Gentiles.
You can see from these few instances that the writer of John is not concerned about writing an authoritative book to be the inerrant guide for all who come after him. His intent, like the scriptures of the Old Covenant, is to point people to Jesus who is the only source of wisdom and guidance.
So why quote scripture?
Once I got beyond the elementary stuff of mathematics, it was exciting to learn the theorems and their corollaries that allowed me to prove logical, mathematical statements. The Adepts were those who knew the most theorems and could dance the intricate steps of logic to travel from the textbook statements of “Prove that…equals…” to being able to say “because of these manipulations we can establish our proof Q.E.D.”
But Scripture is not a textbook of theorems.
Look again at Paul’s admonition. He told Timothy that:
- [You] have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make [you] wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
- All scripture is given by inspiration of God
- It is profitable for
- for reproof
- for correction
- for instruction in righteousness
- That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
Start by looking at statement #1 above speaking about the scriptures, “which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” It is not clear from the structure of the sentence whether the phrase “through faith which is in Christ Jesus” pertains to “make you wise” or to “salvation.” Try it both ways, “the scriptures are able to make you wise, through faith in Christ Jesus, unto salvation.” Or “the scriptures are able to make you wise unto salvation-through-faith-in-Christ-Jesus.” The first is in line with Jesus’ statement that the Scriptures point to Him as the source of life.
Return to my example from math. The mathematician is the one who understands how to apply all the theorems and corollaries, not the one who has memorized them and can only recite them back on the test. In like manner neither wisdom nor salvation are to be found in Scripture, nor is the ability to quote lengthy passages an indication of either. Both wisdom and salvation come through hearing the voice of Christ, believing what you hear, and living accordingly (i.e. “through faith which is in Christ Jesus”). Neither the mathematician nor the man of God are served by a blind knowledge of the discoveries and understanding of their predecessors nor is either group helped by ignorance of such material.
Can’t people come directly to the experience of following the voice of Christ without the scriptures? And if so, then what value can such ancient writings possibly have for one living in today’s world?
I am sure there are many who have never known the scriptures who come to hear and live by the voice of Christ. And the heart that is thus made alive can’t help but sing and rejoice when encountering the treasure of the testimony of those who have traveled the same path even though such events occurred some thousands of years ago. The path traveled by such a person today, even though our world is markedly different, is the same as that traveled by King David who could write, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul…”
The heart of the one made alive today can sing with Moses at the far edge of the Red Sea, “The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation…” (Exodus 15:2) Because we have known deliverance from an enemy as real as Pharoah’s army, we share in the Israelite’s experience. And we have come to know the Word to take up habitation within us.
Paul’s second statement is “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” I am not sure Paul would have considered the “begats” particularly inspiring. And what about the contradictions? Abraham believed God required him to sacrifice Isaac. Jeremiah states that child sacrifice never entered into God’s mind. Portions of the Old Testament portray the character of God as a great warrior, yet David is forbidden to build the temple because his hands are full of bloodshed. And Jesus (who told Phillip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”) stated, “I am come to save men’s lives, not destroy them.”
Clearly, if all scripture is given by inspiration of God, then there is a marked progression in the authors’ understanding of God’s character and purpose in history. Jesus himself is the clearest portrayal in history of the Father. But we are left neither to the vagaries of translations and transcriptions nor the dimming revelations of ages past. In spite of the insistence by many that inspiration from God has ceased, we are called into that same inspiration to know God’s life breathed into us. The psalmist invites us to “O taste and see that the Lord is good…” (Psalms 34:8) We are called to the same life whereby we can say with John,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
We are to live in the same inspiration that brought forth the scriptures. George Fox said:
The Lord had said unto me, If but one man or woman were raised by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round. For people had the scriptures, but were not in the same light, power, and spirit, which those were in who gave forth the scriptures: so they neither knew God, Christ, nor the scriptures aright; nor had they unity one with another, being out of the power and spirit of God. (Works of Fox, Vol. I, p. 138)
Paul’s third statement is: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…”
Turn again to the reply Jesus made to the Pharisees who sought life in the scriptures. Never were there more scrupulous quoters of scripture, more zealous teachers of doctrine, more adamant reprovers and correctors. Look at Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees depicted in Matthew 15:
Then some Pharisees, and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” and He answered and said to them, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your Father and Mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.'” (Matt. 15:1-9)
How then are we to distinguish the command of God from the precepts of men? Scripture-quoting men and women promulgate the precepts of man all the time today while they think they are proclaiming God’s good news to the world. Take for example, the much used concept of forgiveness of sin. This is the cornerstone of the modern evangelist’s presentation of salvation and, for them, this concept has to do with taking care of the guilt of man’s sinning. It has nothing to do with the perfecting of man’s moral character. “Christian’s aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” is the buz phrase that pops up periodically. But, the Greek word we have translated “forgive” or “forgiven” has to do with removing the cause of man’s displeasing God. It is a word that implies the remaking of man’s moral character to be in alignment with the purpose of God, to make it perfect before Him. The ability to quote scripture does not prevent us from spreading the precepts of man.
George Fox stated:
I saw the state of those, both priests and people, who, in reading the scriptures, cry out much against Cain, Esau, Judas, and other wicked men…but do not see the nature of Cain, of Esau, of Judas, and those others, in themselves. These said, it was they, they, they, that were the bad people; putting it off from themselves: but when some of these came, with the light and spirit of truth, to see into themselves, then they came to say, I, I, I, it is I myself, that have been the Ishmael, the Esau, &c. For then they saw the nature of wild Ishmael in themselves; the nature of Cain, Esau, Corah, Baalam, and of the son of perdition in themselves, sitting above all that is called God in them. So I saw, it was the fallen man that was got up into the scriptures, and was finding fault with those before mentioned… (Works of Fox, Vol. I, p.86)
Fox goes on to state:
…I saw also how people read the scriptures without a right sense of them, and without duly applying them to their own states. For when they read, that death reigned from Adam to Moses; that the law and the prophets were until John; and that the least in the kingdom is greater than John; they read these things without them, and applied them to others,…but they did not turn in to find the truth of these things in themselves.
Here Fox is outlining a process that must be gone through. First there is a sense of our deadness that begins with our “entrance into transgression” until we pass through the “ministration of condemnation,” which would restrain us from sin. This is the “ministration of Moses.” Then comes the ministry of the prophets, the greatest of which is John. For it is the ministry of John that reveals the mountain of sin and earthliness within us which must be brought down, the valley of our deadness raised up, and our rough and crooked nature made smooth and straight. Then, and only then, is the way prepared for the coming of the Lord and our entrance into the kingdom of God.
The key to profitably using and understanding the scriptures lies in this process. It is not something inherent in the Bible that a few enlightened teachers can pass on to the next generation of Adepts. It is not some hidden quality lying latent within the human psyche. In this same passage, Fox summed up by saying:
…I saw it was an easy matter to say, death reigned from Adam to Moses; and that the law and the prophets were until John; and that the least in the kingdom is greater than John; but none could know how death reigned from Adam to Moses, &c. but by the same holy spirit which Moses, the prophets, and John were in. They could not know the spiritual meaning of Moses, the prophets, and John’s words, nor see their path and travels, much less to see through them, and to the end of them into the kingdom, unless they had the spirit and light of Jesus; nor could they know the words of Christ and of his apostles without his spirit. But as man comes through by the spirit and power of God to Christ, (who fulfils the types, figures, shadows, promises, and prophecies that were of him,) and is led by the holy ghost into the truth and substance of the scriptures, sitting down in him who is the author and end of them, then are they read and understood with profit and great delight. [emphasis mine] (Works of Fox, 1831, Vol. I, pp 88-89)
There are two extremes prevalent in today’s thinking: One amounts to ancestor worship in that if it was said by the ancients, it must be right and holy. The other amounts of repudiation of anything older than our generation in that anything coming from someone not of my generation just does not apply to me. Neither of these extremes nor some middle ground will suffice. It is only this experience Fox wrote about in the last quote above that will perfect the man of God and furnish him unto all good works. It is the infusion of the breath of God, the Word, that brings man to completeness and makes him able to do the work of God.