Monday, November 28, 2016


2 Timothy 3:10-17[1]
The concept of “truth” has become quite small in our day. In a world of “instant everything” we seem to believe that truth can be reduced to a “sound bite.” We feel justified in thinking that we can capture in a word or phrase the full truth of a human being with all of his or her thoughts, feelings, history, and aspirations. We don’t have as many bumper stickers these days as we once did, but it seems that our conception of truth is something that can be reduced to a slogan. We like our truth bite-sized, cut-and-dried, and simplified so that we really don’t have to think too much about it. Unfortunately, life is far more complex than a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker.
That kind of simplification of truth seems to apply to all topics generally, from human relationships to politics to science to history to religion. Yes, we take this approach to our faith as well, as if a slogan can somehow satisfy the questions about God, redemption, and the meaning of human life. And our approach to the Bible is very similar. If we can quote some snippets of Bible verses, then we “know” our Bible. And we dutifully say, “The word of the Lord, thanks be to God!” And yet, I’d have to say that in my opinion this perspective on the Bible effectively nullifies any real authority biblical teaching might have in our lives. The real authority for most of us is our own opinion.[2] And if we make any reference to the Bible at all, its actual impact on our lives is quite minimal.[3] It’s become essentially a useless book.
Our lesson from 2 Timothy reflects a very different approach to the Bible. All of the New Testament writers look to the Hebrew Bible, which was the “Scripture” of their day. When they make a point, whether it’s theological or practical, they appeal to Scripture to back it up. They also appeal to life and nature and the way things tend to work, but when they really want to make a point with authority, they appeal to the “Scriptures.” Some scholars have accused the writers of the New Testament of simply trotting out their favorite snippets of Scripture as a “proof text.” But a more thorough study makes it clear that the apostolic writers were much more familiar with their Bible than most of us are.
In fact, the point of our lesson is to encourage Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14). The reason for that is two-fold: first, Timothy knows the character and the life of those from whom he had learned his faith.[4] But the second reason our lesson cites for his continued confidence in the faith is because “from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). The idea here is not just simply pulling out memory verses, but rather that Timothy knows the Scriptures, and knows them well. The idea of “knowing” Scripture in the New Testament has much more depth than we may assume. For example, James speaks of know the Scriptures so well they are able to become “doers of the word” and not simply “hearers who forget” (Jas. 1:22-26). This, of course, echoes the words of Jesus at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, where he praises those who “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Mt. 7:24-27). “Knowing” Scripture is something that makes a difference in the way you live.
When we know Scripture in that way, it becomes “authoritative” for us. I’m afraid that we may have some problems with our understanding of the Bible’s authority as well. We hear that “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), and we may tend to think of a secretary taking down dictation. That makes it seem settled and beyond question or doubt. But if you’ve ever given the Bible any really serious study, you know that it raises all kinds of questions and its truth is something that’s far from “settled.”[5] We continue to study the Bible over a lifetime, and at the end of it all, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we’ve only touched the hem of the garment.
In our lesson for today, the Bible’s authority is presented in terms that are far less definite than words like “inerrant” or “infallible” imply. Our lesson says it differently: the Scriptures “are able to instruct you for salvation through Jesus Christ.” That is the primary purpose of the Bible: to teach us what it means to know God, to follow Christ, and to experience salvation.[6] The other purpose of the Bible here is very practical: it is “useful …so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).[7] The Scriptures are not meant to be the final word on every matter of truth or knowledge. They are intended to introduce us to God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and to teach us how to live out that faith.[8]
From that perspective, the Bible is meant to be a truly useful book. But for it to be useful to us in this way, we have to spend time actually reading it—to be precise, studying it. That means we have to think about what we’ve read. We have to do so enough to raise questions about what it says, because we learn best when we ask questions. The Bible is not something that is meant to be read once in 90 days and then you’re done with it. The way for us to actually learn what it means to live out our faith is to continually read and study portions of the Bible.[9] Sound bites and slogans can’t come anywhere close to getting us there. The Bible only unfolds its truths gradually, over time to those who practice regularly studying it. When we do that, it will become more than just a table ornament or an accessory we carry to church. It will become useful precisely because it prepares us to be useful in living out the Christian life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/16/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language, 60: “The assertion of autonomous freedom and self-direction as the key to human self-fulfillment is subversive of many of the historic forms of religion with their traditional authorities of various sorts stemming from the distant past—and their insistence that man is fulfilled when he patterns himself according to the divine image” (cited in J. Christiaan Beker, “The Authority of Scripture: Normative or Incidental?,” Theology Today, 49 [Oct 1992]: 378).
[3] Cf. Sharon H. Ringe, “The Word of God May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” Theology Today, 49 (Oct 1992): 368, where she reminds us that “If what a speaker or author says is to have authority, it has to find an echo in his or her audience’s experience or longing.”
[4] The primary reference here is to St. Paul. Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus,” New Interpreters Bible XI:850: “Thus is picked up again an emphasis running through both letters to Timothy, where Paul is put forward, not only as Timothy's father and teacher in the faith, but also as a model for subsequent generations (1 Tim 1:12-16; 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11-12; 2:9-10; 3:10-12; 4:6-8).”
[5] Cf. Ringe, “The Word of God,” 371: “Clearly such readings that find in the Bible support for abuse, slavery, apartheid, and other death-dealing institutions are misreadings and, indeed, abuses of the Bible. But the fact is that the requisite words are in there.”
[6] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:850: “Obviously implied is the continuity between Timothy’s instruction from the Jewish Scriptures and his belief in Christ; it was because the two were so closely coordinated that Paul could defend and expound the gospel by referring to the Scriptures.” He continues (ibid.), “the assumption is that the gospel is the outworking of Scripture, so that the wisdom, salvation, and faith held out in the gospel are continuous with that inculcated in the holy writings. That is also to say that the gospel's saving power is of a piece with the saving power of Scripture, or it is not the gospel.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:504, where he explains the authority of Scripture in terms of the fact that “they have already given the proof of what they claim to be, that they have already shown their power, the specific power of instruction in the faith which saves him [Timothy],” and yet when this text describes the Scriptures as useful for instruction, “The same Scriptures have now become the object of expectation. The content of the expectation does not differ from that of the recollection of which he spoke earlier, but all that was previously represented as a gift now acquires the character of a task which has still to be taken up and executed.” The reason the Scriptures can carry out both of these functions is because they are “given and filled and ruled by the Spirit of God, and actively outbreathing and spreading abroad and making known the Spirit of God.”
[8] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:852: “The sacredness of the writings is directed to the end of ‘making wise for salvation’; the point of Scripture's inspiration was that the Scriptures should be beneficial for teaching and equipping the student believer for effective living as a Christian.”
[9] Cf. Beker, “Authority of Scripture,” 381: “when we posit that the authority of Scripture is to be located in the dynamic interrelation between coherence [which he defines as ‘the abiding, constant, and normative elements of the gospel’] and contingency [which he defines as ‘those elements of Scripture that comprise the time-bound, culturally specific situations into and for which the gospel is addressed’], the question of the authority of Scripture is directly connected to the interpretation of Scripture. And so it follows that Scripture is only authoritative when we obey its command to engage in the same risks of interpreting the gospel that it is itself engaged in all its parts.”

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