Although “scripture” is an old English translation of one of the most ordinary of words, few such translations have engendered more controversy, among both “scholars” and “ordinary” adherents to varied theological perspectives. The Greek words, grapha, gramma (nouns) and grapho, graphomai (active and passive verbs, respectively), carry no defined “perspectives” at all. The two nouns, which lexicons do not differentiate, may refer to any sort of drawing, painting, mathematical diagram, or legal records, as well as any written document, letter, or inscription, whether intended for public or private use. The term “holy scripture” appears in an extensive L/S list that also includes musical notes, medical prescriptions, criminal records, catalogs, and various other sorts of lists! The verbs are just as diverse, including “to draw a map, to describe a mathematical figure, to brand or mark, to invoke a curse upon, to propose a law, to write a letter, to enroll oneself or another, to take notes, or to petition for a hearing before a council!” Consequently, there is clearly no theological case to be made by etymology!
Nevertheless, even if one (correctly) interprets these common Greek words simply as “writings, documents, or records”, it is clear that in the minds of the readers and writers of the New Testament documents, some “writings” carried greater authority than others.
While “the Law” (#37,38), among its most devoted adherents, was honored almost (if not altogether) to the point of worship, and “It is written” (more than 40x in the Gospels alone) seems to have been expected to end all speculation or argument with a “proof-text” from the law, the psalms, or a prophet, please note that Jesus did not hesitate to make corrections (Mt.5,6,7 and elsewhere) to its precepts, and even to refer to it as “your law” (Jn.8:17, 10:24) rather than “God’s”. He exhibited careful selectivity, also, in his view of the “authoritative” quality of the prophets. His statement in Lk.18:31, “Everything that has been written by the prophets about the son of man will be completed”, is modified in Lk.22:37 to “all this that has been written about me,” indicating the distinct possibility that not “everything” assumed to refer to his person or his mission was necessarily accurate or relevant!
Both Jesus and the apostles quoted “the law and the prophets” – sometimes in support of their message (Jn.2:22, 7:38, Ac.8;32,35) and sometimes in contrast to it (Mt.22:29, Rom.7:6, 2:29; II Cor.3:6).
Some things only made sense to the disciples after the fact (Jn.20:9, Lk.24:27,32,45), and it is not unreasonable to assume that faithful followers may still find that to be the case.
But for committed followers of Jesus, it is Jesus himself who must be the definitive arbiter as to what is or is not reliable “scripture.” He challenged the Pharisees’ minute attention to the details of their “scriptures [writings]” (Jn.5:39), with the observation that, had they paid proper attention to those very scriptures, they would have seen that all which had legitimately gone before, bore testimony to him!
But how do we discern what actually does apply to him?
At a distance of more than 2000 years, it must be acknowledged that evaluating and sorting bits of recorded information and observations is problematic at best. Scholars correctly point out that the presently recognized “canon of scripture” represents only a portion of the “writings” of the New Testament era. The official councils that ruled upon the inclusion or exclusion of specific documents were no more composed of unbiased scholars than are subsequent translation committees!
Nevertheless, anyone who reads many of the rejected accounts – some of which bear closer resemblance to Greek mythology, philosophical polemics, or simple flights of fancy than to responsible reporting or thoughtful teaching – can readily discern a sharp difference in the quality of writing. Documentary study, when responsibly done, is a separate and respectable discipline, but it is beyond the scope of this brief paper.
For the purpose of this discussion, I have chosen to assume that we have, in the New Testament text, a reasonably accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus and the practices and understandings of his earliest followers.
The integrity of the existing account is additionally evidenced by the “warts and all” presentation of both individuals (including those recognized as “leaders”) and group interactions. There is no credible evidence of whitewashing.
That is not to say, however, that “every word” was divinely dictated! No such claim is made anywhere in the text. In fact, Paul overtly notes (I Cor.7:12,25) when he is expressing his own opinion, “not the Lord”! His statement to Timothy (II Tim.3:16) has been seriously misinterpreted. The problem derives from the textual absence of any verb from the sentence. An English translation needs a verb. But where does it belong? Most translators, conforming to their prior teaching, have rendered it “All Scripture [writing] (is) inspired [breathed] by God, and (is) useful …”, but the grammar would equally support, “All God-breathed [inspired] writing (is) useful …”. There is no grammatical clue as to where the “is” belongs – or to how many there are! It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to maintain that “all writing” – of whatever provenance – is either “inspired by God” OR “useful”! Clearly, Paul’s point is that inspired writing is useful – for teaching, correction, and discipline. Remember, “scripture” in the text, is NOT a “different word” from “writing”! And “inspired” does not mean “dictated”!
The same caveat applies to Peter’s complaint (II Pet.3:16) about Paul’s writings, and the much-quoted reference to the “other scriptures”. Peter calls for discernment, on the part of both teachers and hearers. This is still a serious need among God’s people.
I believe that the lack of such discernment is the key to a very large percentage of “theological” disagreement among well-meaning disciples yet today. Quoting the passages mentioned above, a large contingent of teachers / writers subscribes to the “flat book” theory of “inspiration”, claiming that “every word from Genesis to Revelation” was directly chosen by God (in KJV English, no less), and is equally authoritative. As we have seen, Jesus did not subscribe to that theory, nor did he ask it of his followers. In fact, his frequent use of “BUT I SAY …” (Mt.5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44) or “because of the hardness of your hearts, Moses wrote that for you” (Mt.19:8, Mk.10:5), grows out of his understanding that he needed to correct the errors of the old ways of thinking, behaving, and interpreting the plans and instructions of the Father. The entire letter to the Hebrews is devoted to that same subject: The old ways did not work! That’s why Jesus had to come, personally, and straighten things out!
Jesus explained (Mt.11:13, Lk.16:16) that the law and the prophets were (in effect) until John (the Baptist), and “Since then, the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed!”
Paul understood this (II Cor.3:12-14), “In Christ it has come to an end!” and Eph.2:15, “He eliminated the law of commands and decrees!”
Folks who quote Jesus’ statement in Mt.5:17-18 regarding the permanence of the law and the prophets, neglect the last phrase: “until it all happens [is fulfilled]!” Jesus himself IS that fulfillment! (Lk.18:31, Jn.19:28).
Luke’s version of the “great commission” (Lk.24:44-48) is the proclamation of that fulfillment!
So – how does an earnest disciple identify “authoritative Scripture”? Basically, it is a choice.
Personally, I have chosen the New Testament as my standard. I impose that choice upon no one else, but I identify the most closely with folks who have chosen similarly. If there seems to be some sort of conflict in the text, Jesus’ own words make the call.
Luke described his quest in the prologue to his gospel (1:1-4) – he carefully researched the available information, and checked it out with folks who had “been there, done that.” The other writers may have combined their own experience with the accounts of others – they don’t say. But Jesus had the final word. There are few discrepancies in direct quotes.
Pre-Christian writings can be helpful – indeed, the apostles referred to them frequently, when their audiences were familiar with the ancient texts. The Jews at Berea used them to confirm Paul’s message. But they were not imposed upon Gentile groups (Ac.15).
The judgment of others who are well- acquainted with the Lord is also helpful. It’s fairly easy to discern whether a statement, idea, or action is consistent with the personality of someone you know very well.
The Biblical writers and teachers challenged each other (Gal.2) and corrected one another (Ac.18:24-28).
Paul summarized it well in Rom.15:4-6:
“For whatever was written before, was written for our instruction, in order that by means of the endurance and the ‘coaching’ of the Scriptures [writings] we might have hope [confidence].
May God, (the source)of endurance and encouragement, give you all concern (about) the same things, among each other, with Christ Jesus as the standard, in order that unitedly, with one mouth [voice] you all may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”