Scripture’s significance within the first couple hundred years of the early church was predicated on the claims about itself and the patristic deductions from these claims. Starting with the Hebrew Bible, the early church fathers argued for Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of these scriptures. They utilized Old Testament prophecy coupled with the direction of the Scriptures as the bedrock for these arguments, so between the continuity of the Old and New Testaments and the Scriptures’ claims about itself, the early church contended for Christ’s Lordship and the church’s own legitimacy.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul instructed his disciple, Timothy, that all Scripture is breathed out by God (1). Although he was referring largely to the Hebrew Scriptures since the New Testament canon had not yet been established, his reminder still serves to establish the whole Bible’s origin: God. It is not a post hoc jump to say 2 Timothy 3:16 refers to the New Testament because the New Testament was inevitably established as canonical and therefore authoritative. It is quite difficult to argue that the apostles did not believe themselves to be writing with a kind of unique authority relative to their particular situation as those who had encountered and been commissioned by the risen Christ. As N.T. Wright has argued:
Those who read [the apostle’s writings] discovered, from very early on, that the books themselves carried the same power, the same authority in action, that had characterized the initial preaching of the “word.” It used to be said that the New Testament writers “didn’t think they were writing ‘scripture.'” That is hard to sustain historically today. The fact that their writings were, in various senses, “occasional”… is not the point. At precisely those points of urgent need… Paul is most conscious that he is writing as one authorized, by the apostolic call he had received from Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, to bring life and order to the church by his words.
This is not to say, of course, that the writers of the New Testament specifically envisaged a time when their books would be collected together and form something like what we now know as the canon. I doubt very much if such an idea ever crossed their minds. But that they were conscious of a unique vocation to write Jesus-shaped, Spirit-led, church-shaping books, as part of their strange first-generation calling, we should not doubt (2).
Paul’s instruction to Timothy as an apostle and authorized leader of the church who was charged with receiving and continuing the tradition of the word should not merely be read as a personal appeal with no weight or authority outside of the immediate relationship between the letter’s author and recipient especially since Paul instructs Timothy to preserve his teachings and authoritatively pass them along to others in the same way he did (2 Tim 1:13, 2:2, 3:10-15, 4:1-5) (3). In this way, the New Testament writings can be called authoritative as they produce mandates for all believing Christians which is evidenced by the fact that these letters were preserved by their recipients, copied with great frequency, and distributed to Christian communities throughout the known world.
As to be demonstrated below, questions concerning the Bible’s status as from God must ultimately be investigated through the Scriptures themselves by tracing Israel’s history to Christ’s advent. Any orthodox understanding of Scripture begins with this doctrine which makes Scripture’s unique status paramount in the church. Therefore, the primary method for comprehending Scripture comes from itself. The distinctness of its parts coupled with the unity of its whole maintains a continued narrative stretched over the course of history ultimately culminating in the Messiah with implications for the Christians succeeding his resurrection. As Paul goes on to say, if Scripture is of God then it is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be equipped for every good work (vv. 16-17). Here Paul assumes Scripture’s infallibility. If part of the aim of Scripture is to teach and train in righteousness, then there must not be a moral or theological flaw within Scripture itself. It must not call good evil or evil good (Isa 5:20). This does not mean that Scripture’s maxims are absolute, or always applicable in the same manner without regard to the scenario; often, Scripture’s teachings must be weighed to relative circumstances in accordance with an appropriate end which Scripture postulates as Christ himself.
Scripture’s culmination in Jesus of Nazareth is as essential as Scripture itself since it is the means by which one reaches Christ as the chief aim. Suggesting another end outside of the risen Messiah renders Scripture’s purpose moot. In John 5, Jesus criticizes the Jewish religious leaders for this same mistake when he says that their search for eternal life ought to lead them to himself (v. 39). Therefore, the key to Scripture is Jesus the Messiah as the primary connection between the Old and New Testaments. Christ as the bridge between the two testaments is made evident by his fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophecies and the overarching narrative brought to fulfillment in him.
Within the Old Testament, there are a variety of prophecies which tell of a leader who will serve a multitude of purposes. He will be a prophet to his people (Deut 18:15), lowly riding on a donkey’s colt (Zec 9:9), crushed and pierced for the people’s sins (Isa 53:5), and the rightful king from Judah’s line (Gen 49:10). Further, convictions concerning the messiah derived from a number of Old Testament texts such as the promise that David’s dynasty would continue forever (2 Sam 7:4-16, Ps 2). There existed a dual set of convictions concerning the messiah such as that he would be of David’s line and establish a peaceful reign of prosperity and righteousness (Isa 9:6-7, 11:1-10, Jer 23:5-6, Ezk 34:23-24, 37:24-25, Amos 9:11-12, Mic 5:2-6, ), but it was also believed that God will be the one to bring about this future age (Joel 2:27-3:21, Zeph 3:9-20). Further, certain texts such as Isaiah 9:6-7 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 attribute the divine names “El” and “YHWH” to this descendant of David, respectively (the more striking case being Jeremiah 23:5-6 using the tetragrammaton).
From these prophecies, the early church identified Jesus as the Messiah who had broken into history to ultimately accomplish God’s promises, but the church also identified Jesus on the basis of his fulfillment of God’s covenants with various characters in the Hebrew Scriptures primarily concerning those to Abraham and the people of Israel.
Examples of this fulfillment include Mark 14:22-25 as a realization of Jeremiah 31:31-34 when the prophet Jeremiah tells of a time when a new covenant will be established with God’s people. The people will have the law written upon their hearts, and God will forgive them and no longer remember their sins. In Mark 14, Jesus offers to his disciples bread and wine during their meal as representative of his own body and blood, respectively. He identifies his blood as, “of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Historically, the church has identified this passage as the initiation of the new covenant established on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection following the example of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Similarly, in Ezekiel 36:22-31 the prophet Ezekiel foretells of a time when God will place his Spirit within his people thereby giving them a new heart and a new spirit. Acts 2 identifies this time with Pentecost, when the apostles were equipped with the Holy Spirit himself to proclaim the Kingdom of God to the nations (vv. 4-11).
Any questions concerning how Scripture is from God can be quelled by examining God’s acts in the whole of Scripture in reference to Christ, and because Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament could be read in light of him and his claims. In this way, the Bible is, in sum, a lived account of God’s faithfulness from the perspective of those who experienced it.
This makes neo-Marcion (a figure in the second century who attempted to do away with the Hebrew Scriptures and “Jewish” New Testament documents, such as Matthew) attempts to unhitch oneself from the Old Testament absurd because without the lived history which proceeds the New Testament, there is no undergirding validity for it. Therefore, the connection between the Old and New Testaments is Christ and his work foretold by the Hebrew Scriptures, accomplished in the gospels, and lived out in Acts and the Epistles.
From these principles, the early Church fathers established their rule of faith and argued for Christ as Israel’s Messiah. With this rule of faith based upon the resurrected Christ as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament as a herald to the coming of the Messiah was fundamental to the early Church’s hermeneutic and teachings. Not only was this method crucial in rebuffing the pagan culture but also the gnostics and those adhering to traditional Judaism. The patriarchs’ arguments might have been enough to persuade a number of pagans to accept Jesus as the Messiah, but persuading pagans was just as important as protecting the church by refuting Jews and gnostics who rejected Jesus as their Messiah and rejected the Old Testament as of the same God as Christ, respectively.
One of the first patriarchs to employ this method as a hermeneutic was Justin Martyr. Although his application of some scriptures is questionable at best, he represents the mindset of the fathers well. In his first apology, Justin argues that Christ is supreme over all the pagan deities on the basis that while the pagan gods have only tales with no proof, the Christians have the testimony of Scripture and the apostolic tradition to establish the validity of their claims (4). He highlights the promised Messiah as someone who would heal all diseases and raise the dead, then he points to the book of Acts for its fulfillment (5). For Justin, to unite the Old and New Testaments together into one cohesive narrative was not to argue for mere miraculous prophecies but to show the continued work of God throughout the Bible. It was not significant to the pagans that a miracle had been performed or a prophecy completed (their own myths had plenty of these things); rather, what mattered was showing that the one, true God had intervened in history in accordance with his prior faithfulness promised to Israel.
In the same way that Justin sought to engage pagans and convince Jews, Irenaeus sought to combat gnostics who reinterpreted the New Testament allegorically and independent of the Old Testament. For the gnostics, the material world was created by the lesser god of the Old Testament, the Demiurge, and the material body is a cage within which lies the soul. The soul must be freed from the body in order to escape the material world and enter the realm of the eternal. This freedom is only available through secret knowledge made known to only a few. Therefore, the divine Word of God (the Logos, or the pre-incarnate Christ) could not have taken on a human body nor could be the Messiah in any way related to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Gnosticism endangers the rule of faith hermeneutic because it denies any relation between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures, so the Logos could not be the fulfillment of any promise made by God in the Old Testament because the Logos’s purposes run contrary to the Demiurge’s purposes. Irenaeus argues that greater truths cannot be known by applying arbitrary names to inventions of the mind. If this was true, then anyone could attribute whatever names they wished to their inventions as Irenaeus himself does to parody the gnostics’ arguments (6). For Irenaeus, the only legitimate way to discover truths concerning God is to expound his activity and dispensation for the sake of mankind. Truth is found in God’s own long-suffering over man’s disobedience, his revealing things to the prophets, his shutting up all in disobedience to have mercy on all, and in giving thanks that the Word of God was made flesh and suffered (7). In other words, there must be a discernible living history.
According to Irenaeus, the problem with gnostic teachings is that they are new (8), and they contradict one another (9). The rule of faith hermeneutic supplements both of these critiques by adding tradition and unity to the orthodox Christian position. Irenaeus contends that the Church is distinct from the gnostics because their teachings are rooted in tradition, not novel ideas. He attributes this tradition to the apostles who first preached the gospel abroad and then handed their message down in writings which serve as the foundation of the faith. The apostles believed that the same God revealed in Jesus was the one who called Abraham, rescued the Israelites from Egypt, and ordained the Law and Prophets thereby extending the faith tradition to before themselves (10). Further, these apostolic teachings have produced only one Church confessing one faith in one Christ while gnostic teachings produced a number of radically different interpretations. Irenaeus emphasizes that although the Church is scattered over the whole world, they are all united in their receiving the apostolic tradition and its faith in the one God (11).
Similarly, much of the narrative language which permeated the early Church fathers’ writings is being reclaimed for the modern age. Briefly, I will mention two Christian writers who have made this topic all the more relevant to the modern Church.
First, N.T. Wright in his book, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, outlines what could roughly be called a method for reading and tracking the progression of Scripture. According to Wright, Scripture as a narrative gives us a proper understanding of what it means to use the phrase, “the authority of Scripture.” Wright takes this phrase as a shorthand for the longer, more accurate phrase, “God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community” (12). This authority, similar to how the Church fathers understood it, is demonstrated by God’s covenant faithfulness to His people, Israel, which culminates in the Messiah who inaugurates the process of new creation.
Wright compares the drama of the Bible to acts in a play. Act 1 is creation, Act 2 is the Fall, Act 3 is Israel, Act 4 is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and Act 5 (where we are today) is the life of the Church. Because of this, a Christian in Act 5 cannot read the Bible as though she were living in Act 3 when much has transpired between the two acts. A character restating lines which are out of scene would seem confusing to the audience and fellow performers; however, Act 5 is only Act 5 because of Act 3. A performer is not at liberty to pretend the previous acts never happened or never reference them when appropriate. The performer must know her place in the story and this can only be properly done through reference of what came before.
Such a reading does not endorse cherry-picking certain lines from Mosaic law in order to advocate for or reject certain behaviors; rather, this hermeneutic understands parts of Scripture like the Mosaic law relative to its place within the narrative of God’s faithfulness. The Church living in Act 5 today, “read[s] scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be” (13).
Second, Daniel L. Migliore in his book, Faith Seeking Understanding, relates this concept of what can be called revelation as disclosure between two persons as only revelation through a person is fully intelligible to persons, and, by analogy, it can only be personal revelation which adequately discloses God because he is supremely personal (14). As such, persons relate to one another via communication whether spoken, signed, written, etc. The knowledge persons have of God is not foremost factual knowledge (although this is certainly part of it) but inter-personal knowledge because, as John Zizioulas argues, what God “is” is not fundamentally a substance but a person (15).
Therefore, the knowledge of others is analogous to God’s self-disclosure in four ways: 1) attention to persistent patterns. There must be a discernible consistency in how an agent acts in order to determine that the agent’s inclination is good or bad (16). 2) The person’s identity is freely disclosed. A person is free to do new and surprising things which prevents predictability with the intent to control and manipulate an agent based on said consistency (17). 3) It involves a continuous invitation to trust and to live in response to promises. Because there is an element of the new or surprising in relationships, promises concerning an intended future are necessary (18). 4) Finally and most importantly, identity of persons is often rendered in narrative form. It is the lived story which gives background and significance to present disclosure (19).
However, the biblical narrative is not simply any story; it has three qualifications: 1) at the center is Jesus Christ the crucified who reveals the identity, purpose, and power of God on full display. 2) The narrative is not simply a narrative to inform, entertain, edify, or even enlighten; it is meant to engage, liberate, convert, and transform human beings back into proper role as image bearers. It lays a claim on a person’s life. 3) It is an unfinished narrative. It remains open because (as implied by point 2) it demands a response and the narrative is as of yet incomplete. The drama of divine revelation in Scripture identifies God in several ways that include the activity of the triune God from creation, reconciliation, and the final redemption of all things, the new creation (20). This unfinished narrative directs the Christian to Scripture’s literary forms such as proverbs, hymns, lamentations, commands, prophesy (which is more than simply foretelling), and cries and prayers to God in order to witness to the self-revelation of God who remains ever free and beyond our control (21).
It is worth adding in light of this discourse that when Christians speak of certainty concerning God grounded in Scripture, it is unreasonable to say this certainty is analytical or satisfies the highest standards of epistemological justification (it clearly does not); rather, the certainty the Christian has of God is analogous to the certainty a wife has for her husband. A wife’s certainty for her husband’s fidelity will fail every test of strict analytical epistemology, but it seems odd to say that the wife cannot subsequently trust her husband or be certain concerning specific actions he will do. The problem arises from a conflation of categories. One cannot expect the standards of knowledge in philosophy or science to neatly cohere within a communitarian framework. Doing so will lead to persistent anxiety and mistrust. The certainty the Christian speaks of is ultimately one of communion and relationship. It is like the comfort from laying one’s head on a lover’s shoulder, the bond of trust shared between lifelong friends, the utter abandon a child shows in running towards her father, or a community’s solidarity with one another in the midst of tragedy. This is why God can speak of his people as his bride (Jer 2:2, Hos 3:14-23, Matt 25:1-13, Eph 5:25-27, Rev 19:6-10). The church’s relationship to God is not an affirmation of facts but a believing fidelity of love, and the evidence of God’s fidelity towards his people is the Bible, a collection of documents written over the course of (roughly) a thousand years concerning events told from the perspective of those who experienced it. This is why remembrance is essential to the Christian life (Deut 6: 12, Ps 103:2, John 14:26, 1 Cor 11:26). One not only remembers the events and promises of Scripture but also God’s faithfulness expressed in a person’s own lifetime.
Although a number of worldviews opposed to Christianity, like rabbinical Judaism and Gnosticism, still exist today in various forms, the Church is not left without answers to them. Scripture as breathed by God and a testament to Jesus of Nazareth gives the church a rule of faith by which to understand God’s works and promises coming to fruition throughout both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. For the early church fathers and Christians today, the Hebrew Scriptures culminate in Christ; therefore, it can be understood and interpreted in light of God’s predetermined and redemptive work in Jesus’s death and resurrection.
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
(1): All Bible verses are from the English Standard Version.
(2): N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 51-52.
(3): It is worth nothing that this is not justification for belief in apostolic succession as the necessary qualification for apostleship was receiving teaching directly from Jesus himself (Acts 1:21-22).
(4): Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin, The Martyr,” in Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril C. Richardson (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 276.
(5): Ibid., 272-273.
(6): Irenaeus, “The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called,” in Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril C. Richardson (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 363-364.(5):
(7): Ibid., 361.
(8): Ibid., 375.
(9): Ibid., 364.
(10): Ibid., 370, 373.
(11): Ibid., 360.
(12): Wright, 115-6.
(13): Wright, 116.
(14): Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 35.
(15): John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 48-50.
(16): Migliore, 36.
(18): Ibid., 37.
(20): Ibid., 37-38.
(21): Ibid., 39.