Explaining Scripture: Active and Unchanging

Explaining Scripture: Active and Unchanging

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This is the first in a three-part series that looks at how we view the Holy Scriptures. 

Most of us have had a “moment of truth” experience when a friend or loved one walks into the room and asks, “So, do you notice anything different?” The question itself tips us off that something has changed, and we begin scanning our memory banks to give the right answer.

Did she get new glasses? Did he shave off his goatee? Not only are we looking for what has changed, we are trying to assess whether it’s major or minor. Permanent or temporary.

We don’t want to give the impression that we’ve not paid enough attention to notice. But we don’t want to exaggerate or minimize the importance of the change, either. So we try to observe carefully, and choose our words wisely.

Early changes to Article 4

Despite proposed changes at recent general assemblies, the Church of the Nazarene’s Article of Faith on “The Holy Scriptures,” Article 4, has remained unchanged for nearly 90 years. The last changes in the wording of this article took place as the result of the 1928 General Assembly.

From the founding of our denomination in 1908 to the 1928 General Assembly, changes in the wording were made in three of the five assemblies. Changes in two of the three general assemblies were minor—just related to the descriptors used to identify Scripture. In the 1908 wording, the phrase was “the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.”

In 1911 the word “canonical” was dropped, and Scripture was simply described as “the books of the Old and New Testaments.” In 1915 it was changed to “the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.”

The next two general assemblies saw no changes in our Article of Faith on the Holy Scriptures. The 1928 General Assembly brought considerable changes in the wording of several of the Articles of Faith including the statement on Article 4. Several phrases were reworded; what has generated the most conversation in the intervening years was the addition of the words “plenary” and “inerrantly.”

As significant as those two additions were, I would argue that a more significant theological statement had been made by the way the original 1908 statement varied from its “family tree.”

Wesley’s Anglican heritage

Several of the phrases in the 1908 statement unmistakably identify our theological heritage in the tradition of John Wesley, and thereby, in the Church of England. Wesley was an Anglican from the cradle to the grave, so it should be no surprise that he turned to the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion when in 1784 he established the 24 doctrinal statements of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S.

From the title of the article on Scripture (Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures) to the specific phrasing that was used (containeth all things necessary to salvation), Wesley both inherited and passed on a clear, bedrock of faith statement affirming the sufficiency of Scripture to make clear all that is necessary for salvation.

The language of the Nazarene Article of Faith, from the beginning, has had both some remarkable similarity with Wesley’s language as well as one spot where we should “notice something different.”

About formation, not information

The similarity comes in the phrase “all things necessary for [our] salvation,” which gives a clear sense of the salvation focus of Scripture. The difference comes in the change from speaking of what Scripture contains to speaking of what Scripture does.

The documents from which our statement was derived speak of Scripture as “containing” all things necessary for salvation. From the beginning, our statement has spoken of Scripture “revealing” God’s will for us in all things necessary for salvation.

The former language speaks of Scripture in passive terms; our language speaks of Scripture in active terms. That is not to say that other denominations deny the active nature of Scripture. Rather the Church of the Nazarene, in its wording, has always affirmed the active-doing-revealing nature of Scripture as central.

Scripture is not just an inert container that we go rummaging through, looking for helpful or necessary information. Scripture itself is active—it does something. Or rather, through Scripture God does something—namely, makes God’s saving purposes known to us. Scripture is more about our formation as God’s redeemed people than it is about the information it gives us about God.

What difference the wording makes

So what?

Beyond the realm of church historians and theologians, does this change in wording make a difference?

It does make a difference, particularly in these areas:

1. A focus on God’s saving purposes, revealed in Scripture, gives us a primary lens through which we approach and interpret Scripture.

Scripture’s purpose is to reveal God’s saving purposes for God’s creation. The Bible was not written as a complete history of the world nor as a science textbook. As God inspired the writers of Scripture, there were selective, editorial decisions about what to tell and how to tell it.

We affirm that “All things necessary to salvation” was a guiding principle for the God-inspired writers. This guiding principle is seen most clearly near the end of John’s gospel, where he writes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

2. A focus on God’s saving purposes also helps us to remember that we are not people of the Book, but people of the Word.

Scriptures are not honored because they are the best book ever written, but because they are a written revelation of the Living Word, Christ. The words of Scripture are always secondary to the Word to whom the words bear witness.

The words are important. We take care in their translation and interpretation. But of greater importance is the One, the Word, whom the words reveal—the Word that became flesh and dwelled among us, revealing the glory of the Father (John 1:14). Jesus Christ, in His life, death, and resurrection, most fully revealed the will of the Father.

We never worship the Scriptures, but receive them as a gift—God’s chosen way of revealing the Living Word.

3. The shift in wording that focuses on what the Scriptures do resonates with the way that Scripture itself speaks of the Word of God.

Passages like Isaiah 55:10-11 speak of God’s Word accomplishing its purposes. The writer to the Hebrews highlights what God’s word does, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (4:12).

God’s Word is active

To be sure, we cannot take every phrase in Scripture that refers to God’s Word and equate that to a reference to the full canon of Scripture. The whole collection of the 66 books that comprise the Scriptures had not even been completed until long after they were all written.

Yet there is a certain correspondence between the purposes of God’s Word spoken episodically and the purpose of those words gathered together into the canon of Scripture. The pattern we get from page one of Scripture, where God speaks and things come into being, is but another example of our affirmation (article) of faith: God’s Word is active.

So, do you notice something new about the way we Nazarenes speak about the Holy Scriptures? Well, no, not really. At least not for the past 87 years. But maybe that’s a good thing.

The way we have spoken about the Holy Scriptures since 1928 has affirmed the divine inspiration of all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, has affirmed Scripture’s unquestionable reliability for us in all things necessary to our salvation, and has reminded us that God’s Word is alive, actively revealing God’s will to us.

Jim Fitzgerald is pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene, Duncanville, Texas. Holiness Today March/April 2016