Evangelicalism and the Bible
This is the first of two posts I’m going to write about the Bible. Part of the reason for two posts is my lifelong love for and fascination with the Bible: God’s Word will always have central place in my heart. Growing up, I was always part of churches that help the Bible in highest regard, claiming the Bible as our authority for everything we do and believe. And while my life has had its share of twists and turns, I have always tried to think about how my faith and actions relate to the Bible’s teaching.
When we evangelicals talk about the purpose and use of the Bible, our number one “go to” passage is 2 Timothy 3:16–17,
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
We cite this passage to promote the idea that we try to worship God and live our lives per the teachings of the Bible. Yet while the idea of focusing on the Bible has been good for Christians (not just Evangelicals!), too often we go off track by trying to make 2 Tim 3:16 say something like, “the Bible is our authority”, instead of considering the actual words. Most important, we evangelicals tend to lose the meaning of the crucial beginning phrase, “all Scripture is God-breathed.”
In this post, I’m going to focus on the first two words of 2 Tim 3:16, “all Scripture.” Next week I will write about the phrase “God-breathed.”
Many readers who cite 2 Tim 3:16 do not realize that the phrase “all Scripture” in its original context does not mean what Christians usually take it to mean. Since 2 Timothy is part of the New Testament, and the New Testament itself had not been defined when 2 Timothy was written, the author of 2 Timothy cannot have been thinking of the New Testament when he used the word “Scripture” in 3:16. (This is more obvious when we read verse 15, which mentions “Scriptures” known to Timothy as he was growing up.) Instead, “all Scripture” refers to the Old Testament only (possibly including the Apocryphal books taken as Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church). This follows the New Testament practice, which consistently uses the term “Scripture(s)” to refer to the Old Testament.
This does not necessarily mean that 2 Tim 3:16–17 does not apply to the New Testament also. Since we believe that the New Testament is just as much a part of Scripture as the Old, it makes sense that principles that apply to the Old Testament apply just as well to the New. But when we state that, in our modern thinking, “all Scripture” of 2 Tim 3:16 includes both the Old and New Testaments, then we must acknowledge that the meaning of the phrase “all Scripture” has changed from the time it was written.
Before the late fourth century C.E. there is no evidence that anyone in the church thought that the New Testament consisted of the 27 books included in our Bible today. The earliest extant list that matches our New Testament was composed in 367 C.E. (by Athanasius of Alexandria) and it took a few decades more for the church as a whole to ratify this list. This means that for the first 300 years of the existence of 2 Timothy, the term “Scripture” had a different meaning for Christians than it does today. The meaning changed because the church changed: we’ve come to believe that our New Testament is Scripture in the same way that the Old Testament is Scripture.
One important reason that it took the church more than 300 years to decide which writings are part of the New Testament is that the Bible itself does not give us a list. This means that one of the core principles of Christianity comes not from the Bible, but from a long process of Christian reflection and debate, led by the Holy Spirit. The term for this is process is “tradition,” a word that many Evangelicals do not like: we prefer to closely follow the Reformer’s idea of sola scriptura, “Scripture Alone.” Yet as much as we may want to base our Christian faith and practice solely on the Bible, there is no way to avoid the fact that when we define the Bible as a set of 66 particular writings, we are relying on tradition instead of something that comes directly from the Bible.
There is one more important aspect of the term “all Scripture” that we Evangelicals must keep in mind. The statement “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” tells us that every part of the writings that we identify as “Scripture” is useful for us. Many of us tend to neglect Old Testament books like Leviticus, 1-2 Chronicles, and Job, because we assume that their messages are meant for people of a different age (before Christ) and location. Yet since Christ himself requires us to take then entire Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, including Leviticus) seriously (Matt 5:17–19), we must carefully examine these books for the “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” that they have to offer.
I worry that part of the reason that Evangelicals spend less and less time on the Bible is that we do not think that much of it is relevant to modern day issues. It has become commonplace for Evangelicals to proclaim strong beliefs on things like LGBTQ+ issues, abortion, Critical Race Theory, the appropriate role of women in church leadership, and so on, without referring to any biblical text, or by citing texts that say little on the issue at hand. Trying to figure out what the entire Bible has to say about some modern issue can be difficult and time-consuming; simply stating a position (often along with a condemnation of those who disagree) is much easier. So we tend to simply declare what we assume the Bible teaches, perhaps based on a small number of verses that support our position.
Aside from the obvious problem that our beliefs may not actually be consistent with the teaching of the entire Bible, we increase division and disunity in the church when we fail to do the hard work of searching the Scriptures with humble, open hearts, to be sure that the Bible says what we think it says. Evangelical unity is not based on things like opposition to abortion (indeed, prior to the 1970’s it was common for Evangelicals to support the right of women to decide whether to get an abortion); it’s based on (or should be based on!) a common conviction that, to the extent possible, the Bible – the entire Bible – should be our main source of spiritual truth and ethical behavior. So when we take time to examine the breadth of Scripture, giving the same amount of careful consideration to passages that agree and disagree with our personal preferences, it becomes much easier to find common ground with those who interpret certain passages differently.
There are three things to take away from the phrase “all Scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16. First, when we recognize that what the author means by the word “Scripture” is different from what we mean by that word, we must acknowledge that Scripture passages can change meaning. Giving new meaning to older passages is a major feature of the teaching of Jesus, and of the New Testament in general. We make a big mistake when we insist that there is only one correct way to interpret some given passage.
Second, if we understand the Bible to consist of the usual 66 books, then we must acknowledge that the fundamentals of Evangelical Christianity are not based exclusively on biblical texts, and that Christian tradition has an important role in sound theology. For Evangelicals, the Bible is the principal source of God’s revelation, but it is not the only source. Much of what we believe is based more on the conclusions of those who preceded us than on the Bible. If we cannot find a way to make the Bible support some practice or conviction, then we need to honestly admit the role of tradition in informing us about correct belief and practice.
Third, Christians need to put in time and effort working with the Bible, particularly when we want to take potentially divisive stands. We should not claim to be adhering to a biblical point of view unless we are willing to continually examine and re-examine biblical texts that may pertain to our issue. We may never get to the point where we all agree about the place of Critical Race Theory in schools, but we can and should be at the place where we search the scriptures together, honestly working with passages that affirm our feelings, and passages that challenge them. Following this practice promotes Evangelical/ Christian unity while increasing our biblical understanding.