Whose Book is the Bible? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Tuesday, 05 October 2010 07:51

Ecclesiological accounts of the origin and character of Scripture are increasingly popular today, and not only among Catholics.  For various reasons, Protestants have been diving into this boxcar.  Drawing on general observations about how texts work within communities, these accounts claim that Scripture is Scripture by virtue of the church’s decision and the church’s use.  The church chose the canon, and the books that make up the church’s chosen Scripture function as instruments of community-formation.  As David Kelsey has put it, to say we have a canon is to say “we are a community such that certain uses of scripture are necessary for nurturing and shaping our self-identity.”

Kelsey is not entirely wrong.  Scripture is necessary for nurturing and shaping the self-identity of the church.  Scripture is communally formative.  The trick is that Scripture can function that way only if it is something more than a creation of the church.  To get our bearings in this discussion, we have to go back to evangelical stand-bys, back to Scripture and to Scripture’s own account of Scripture it is.

According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “all Scripture is theopneustos and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  Several wholly unoriginal observations are in order.


First, Paul is writing about writings.  The word translated as “Scripture” is graphe, which simply means “written-things.”  Paul is not describing qualities of the writers of Scripture, or their ideas, or their experience.  He is describing the qualities of the text.  Paul has little use for the squeamishness about textuality that pervades the Western philosophical tradition beginning with Plato and Aristotle, a squeamishness that Derrida most mercilessly exposed.  Whatever Plato might say, Paul is convinced that written texts are capable of recording and communicating without distortion or static or leakage.

Second, Scripture first of all has the quality of being theopneustos.  None of the standard translations quite get this word right.  “Inspired by God” misplaces the emphasis; “God-breathed” is better, but by rendering the pneu- as “breath” misses chance to highlight the work of the Spirit.  I submit that “God-Spirated” gets the gist of Paul’s point, but that phrase is too eccentric to make its way into a translation.  However we translate, we should note that the word means “coming out from within God by the breath of the Spirit.”

And, remember, the thing that has the quality of “coming out from within God by the breath of the Spirit” is the text.  Sometimes when the Spirit breathes, dust becomes animate; sometimes when the Spirit breathes, men turn into fighting machines; sometimes when the Spirit breathes, apostles talk in foreign languages that sound to the untuned ear like the gibberish of drunks at the corner bar.  Sometimes, Paul says, the Spirit breathes and His breath coagulates as text.  Collect those texts together, and we get what we call Scripture. Of anything that Scripture says, we can say “God breathed this.  This comes from the Spirit who searches the depths of God.”

Third, Paul is all for community formation.  That is what Scripture does.  It instructs, corrects, rebukes, trains, both individual believers and communities of believers.  It forms those who receive, read, study, and inwardly digest it into perfect and complete men.  It is an active tool for growing up the church into the complete man that is Jesus Christ.  Plug in all you would like to say about the church as new society.

Crucially, though, for Paul this community-forming power is dependent on the fact that the Scriptures do not arise from within the church but are bestowed on the church.  Scripture is “profitable” in all the ways it is profitable because it is theopneustos and not otherwise.  Once the Scriptures are immanentized, they cease to do what Scripture is supposed to do.  John Webster puts it nicely: “the canon is a function of God’s communicative fellowship with an unruly church . . . part of the history of judgment and mercy . . . [and] as the place where divine speech may be heard, it is – or ought to be – a knife at the church’s heart.”

On this point, we get some (perhaps unexpected) help from Barth, who writes: “it is not for us or for any man to constitute this or that writing as Holy Writ, as the witness to God’s revelation, to choose it as such out of many others, but . . . if there is such a witness and the acceptance of such a witness, it can only mean that it has already been constituted and chosen, and that its acceptance is only the discovery and acknowledgement of this fact.”  Canonization is an act of the church, a “decision” of sorts, but a decision that is a confession that the Scriptures preceded and impose themselves on the church, and a “Spirit-guided” (Webster) decision at that.

Whose book is the Bible?  It belongs to the church in the same way that a gift belongs to the recipient, in the same way Christ belongs to the church.  It’s God’s book, and only the church’s by her grateful reception.

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