Sunday, 11 February 2007

The New Testament and the Word of God - Part I

Christian faith is dependent on the idea that God speaks, that God communicates with people, revealing himself and his works. Christian thought has traditionally identified that speech as Scripture, and this identification has become perhaps the most distinctive mark of evangelical Christianity today. The evangelical position is driven by the conviction that God himself speaks in the Scriptures, that what Paul says of “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3.16 is true of the whole Bible, that the Scriptures are “inspired” by God. This series aims to investigate the structure and meaning of this conviction in relation to the New Testament. In the first part of the series I intend to address the rationale and structure behind this understanding of Scripture: why it is right to understand the New Testament as the word of God. In the second part I hope to discuss the meaning of this conclusion: what it means for scripture to be the word of God.

The evangelical understanding of Scripture is based on the apostles and their authoritative witness to God’s work in Jesus. Their witness is authoritative because it was an authorised witness. The apostles were authorised by Jesus to be his witnesses. This authorisation is central to the accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his resurrection. They were to be his witnesses to all nations (Matt. 28:16-20; Lk. 24:47-48; Jn 20:21). This witness was to be under the teaching and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who had been promised by Jesus before his death and after his resurrection (Jn 14:26; 16:12-13; Acts 1:8), and who was sent by the ascended Lord to his church (Jn 20:21; Acts 2:1-33). Jesus envisaged people coming to believe in in him through this apostolic witness (Jn 17:20). This comissioning as authorised witnesses was acknowledged by the apostles (e.g. Acts 5:32). Although in a different position, divine authorisation was also central to the apostle Paul’s conviction of his vocation to bring the gospel to the gentiles (Rom. 1:1-6; 16:25-26; 1 Cor. 11:23; 2 Cor. 2:17; 5:18-21; Gal. 1:12, 16; Col. 1:25; 1 Thess. 2:4, 13; 2 Tim. 1:11; Tit. 1:1-3).

The apostles’ witness is authoritative also because of the unique relationship of the apostles to Jesus: they were eyewitnesses. The significance of this unique relationship is noted both by John (1 Jn 1:1-5) and Luke (Lk. 1:1-4). It was this unique knowledge of Jesus that put the apostles in a position to testify to him, and so they were authorised for that task. They were to commanded by Jesus to testify because they had been with him from the beginning (Jn 15:26-7). The apostles were the authorised witnesses to Jesus. Their testimony to Jesus is the apostolic gospel.

Within the New Testament it is clear that from the beginning this authorised apostolic testimony to Jesus, the apostolic gospel, was received by the early church and recognised by the apostles themselves as the word of God. The Thessalonians received Paul’s testimony “not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word” (1 Thess. 2:13); the word of faith proclaimed by the apostles stands beside the word of God in the Law that “is near you” (Rom. 10:8); Paul expects anyone who has spiritual powers to acknowledge, “that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37-8); Paul and his companions are not “peddlers of God’s word” (2 Cor. 2:17); and Peter writes that, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God,” which “is the gospel that was announced to you” (1 Pet. 1:23-25) and says that the commandment of Jesus was “spoken through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). Thus the written letters of the apostle rightly demand obedience (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14). The apostolic proclamation of Jesus is not simply a human word, but a divine word with divine authority.
See also the numerous references to the spread of the gospel in the book of Acts, where the message is frequently identified with the word of God: 4:4; 6:7; 8:4, 14; 13:26, 49; 14:3; 15:7; 20:32. The paradigm of understanding scripture associated with Karl Barth, which emphasises that Jesus is the Word of God and sees the New Testament as primarily a witness to this word, can run the risk of not doing justice to this powerful testimony within the New Testament of the apostolic gospel being regarded as the word of God (this point is well made by Peter Jensen in The Revelation of God). While defending the crucial point that Jesus preeminently reveals God, this paradigm tends to unhappily distance the New Testament documents from the category of “word of God" somewhat. The right balance is struck by Oliver O’Donovan: “Scripture is not the first moment of God’s self-announcement; that is the historical deeds themselves by which he raised up Israel and Jesus. But neither is it a moment after God’s self-announcement, a retrospective commentary that could be peeled away, leaving the core intact. Scripture is, we may say, God’s administration of his self-announcement, the record he has authorised to it and the seal he has set on it to confirm that it is true.”

The apostolic gospel is the word of God. An evangelical understanding of the New Testament flows directly from this recognition, for the New Testament is the definitive exposition of the apostolic gospel. Two things must be said by way of explanation.

First, the apostolic gospel is the core content of the New Testament. The naming of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as “gospels” rightly reflects their core content. They are written proclamations of “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1), apostolic witness to the person and work of Jesus (Lk. 1:1-3; Jn 20:30-31). The book of Acts is the record of how “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” and central to it is the record of special moments of this apostolic witness (e.g. Acts 2:14-42; 3:11-26; 4:8-12; 7:1-53; 8:26-40; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 16:22-31; 24:10-21; 26:2-23). Similarly, explanation of the gospel is central to the letters sent by the apostles to the earliest churches.
This is not as straightforwardly evident as it is with the book of Acts and the Gospels. However, Paul’s ministry of “defence and confirmation of the gospel,” is clearly reflected in his letters. He is an apostle “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1), and his words to the churches are flooded with references to this message. At a number of points, especially at the openings of letters, these references are explicit and sometimes extended (e.g. Rom. 1:1-5, 16-3:31; 1 Cor. 15:1-8; Gal. 3:23-4:7; Eph. 1:3-2:22; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-23; 2 Tim. 2:8). We can imagine Paul saying of his letters as well as his ministry, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” Similar things can be said of the later epistles (see e.g. 1 Pet. 1:3-9; 1 John 1:1-10). Likewise, the exhortations of the book of Hebrews are based on lengthy exposition of the meaning of Jesus’ work; and the Book of Revelation echoes with praise to God for what he has done in Jesus (e.g. 5:9-10; 11:15-18).

Second, however, it is obvious that many parts of the New Testament are not just straightforward statements of the gospel. The book of Acts is also concerned to document important moments in the history of the early church; and the letters are concerned with a range of issues, from household codes and community organisation to circumcision. Yet, these wider concerns are not incidental to the gospel, but an integral part of it. They are the “Therefore” that flows from the cry of “Blessed!” at the work of God in Christ (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:3, 13). Appeals to the work of Christ in the context of instruction reveal the organic connection between the gospel and its implications (e.g. 2 Cor. 8:9; Tit. 2:11-14). The apostolic gospel was wider than a simple statement. It was the testimony to how God had worked in Jesus, which had profound implications for every aspect of life. It required elaboration. Proclaiming the gospel innevitably entailed its application in the real lives of those individuals and communities that accepted it. Testifying to the gospel meant teaching of its implications. So the apostle Paul proclaims Christ, and this means “admonishing” and “teaching” (Col. 1:28). The New Testament is the authoritative “expansion and interpretation” of its “decisive and central confession.”
This broader understanding of the apostolic task of witnessing to mean the application of the gospel to the early church was reflected in the broader commission the apostles received. They were commissioned, fundamentally, to testify to Jesus, but this would entail a broad range of activities. Amongst other things it would mean: “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28.20); binding and loosing (Matt. 16.18-19); forgiving and retaining sins (Jn 20.23); and judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19.28; Lk. 22.30). Essentially, that is, the apostles were authorised by Jesus, not just to proclaim the message, but also to guide the church. They were to make disciples, and to teach them and lead them. Within the New Testament, this broader commissioning is reflected in apostolic “commands of the Lord” relating to church practice (e.g. 1 Cor. 14.37-38; 2 Pet. 3.2; 1 Cor. 7.25; ); and it is the basis for exhortations to hold to apostolic “instruction” and maintain a “standard of sound teaching” (Rom. 16.17; 1 Tim. 6.13-14, 20; 4.6, 11; 2 Tim. 1.13-14; 2 Jn 9-11). The gospel entailed instruction. But this apostolic instruction was not separate from the message; rather, it was part and parcel of their commissioning to be Jesus’ witnesses – it was the practical content of the message of reconciliation with which they had been entrusted.

The New Testament derives its authority from its connection to the gospel. As Oliver O’Donovan comments, “At the centre of the biblical message is an announcement of what God has done in history – “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4) – and in that announcement all the authority of the biblical texts finds its source." The source of authority is there, because, as Christian experience attests, in that announcement, God himself addresses us. Yet it is not just this central announcement that should be regarded as the word of God, but also the wider teachings that flow organically from this centre. O'Donovan, again: “The New Testament is the totality of what this eyewitness generation was given to tell us about God’s work in Jesus, just as Peter’s famous sentence (“You are the Christ”) is the centre of it.” So the implication in 2 Peter 3:15-16 that Paul’s letters are Scripture is to be welcomed, along with the assertion that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The New Testament is to be received as the word of God because it is the definitive record of the uniquely authoritative apostolic proclamation and explanation of the gospel.


Anonymous said...

From the ground up! one can't help but appreciate your keeness the explore the foundations. Keep digging deep brother.

AndrewE said...

Yes, well we'll see how it goes. I am acutely aware of the possibility of being de-railed early on, and am not at all sure I will be able to avoid it.

michael jensen said...

Is there a difference between word and words of God?

AndrewE said...

There is at least the difference of plurality. More important differences I hope to at least mention in future installments.