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Scripture: Christ the key to interpretation

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,... (2 Timothy 3:16)

Here we have a view of scripture that was current in the early church: Scripture was inspired by God and useful. The scriptures they referred to were the Hebrew Scriptures, the sacred writings of the Old Covenant, what we commonly call the Old Testament. It was those writings which Timothy was said to be familiar with from childhood:

So even the Old Testament, which could only have looked forward to the coming of Christ without witnessing directly to what to what Jesus had done, was able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Does this have any relevance to modern attitudes which for some would have us leave the Old Testament behind and learn only from the New? It is interesting that, through faith, the early Christians looked to the Jewish scriptures for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. And it is very interesting that at the time this was written it was already a family tradition (from childhood you have known the sacred writings) among Christians to learn and teach from the Jewish scriptures, and we are told early in this letter of the faith of Timothy's mother and grandmother:

It is even more significant that they used the Jewish scriptures if this family were Gentiles. Timothy's mother may have been Jewish, although she did not have a Jewish name and she was not very strict for she married a Gentile; we are told in Acts 16:3 that the Timothy's father was a Greek. However, we clearly have different traditions about Timothy; and it is difficult to relate what is told to us about Paul's young companion of his early journeys to the person named Timothy in the letters addressed to him. It is safer to assume that what is said in the letters to Timothy related to a much later period than that of Paul's journeys, perhaps as suggested by 2 Tim 1:5 to the third generation of believers, and that the advice given in these letters applied to a time after the initial enthusiasm of the converts had begun to wain and false teaching needed to be corrected.

It is clear enough at the beginning of chapter 4, a few verses further on from today's text about scripture being inspired by God and useful, that there was trouble in the churches to which the letter was addressed, for Timothy was urged to maintain the faith and fight against corrupting influences:

Similarly the encouragement for Timothy to pay attention to scripture followed concern about evil influences:

It has been tempting in recent years to launch straight into an application to the present day when it has appeared that we have indeed reached such a time {3}...when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, {4} and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. How well it fits so much of what we have seen and still find popular! However, perhaps as a result of recent uncertainties, there appears to be a growing interest in learning what the church has to teach. We may well be justified in saying, "Now is the time to return the scriptures, which are inspired by God and useful", and I believe we should do this; but that will raise the whole question of the authority of scripture and how we interpret scripture.

You will notice, for example that I referred to the circumstances under which the Second Letter to Timothy was written, noting briefly a little of what we can discover about when it was written, what conditions were like then, the kind of problems the advice was intended to address, and how it might differ from what we know of Timothy at another time as the young companion of Paul on his missionary journeys. It might not have been written by Paul who had probably died before the conditions which the letter deals with had developed, although it could have included some fragments of his earlier writing. How important do you think it is to take this kind of background into account when we interpret parts of the letter for our situation today? Do you feel uneasy when hearing of this sort of scholarship, fearing that we might be undermining the authority of scripture?

The authority of the Bible

The authority of the Bible is one of the most interesting, challenging and troublesome questions facing Christians today. I do not wish to be provocative, on this matter at this time, although a little provocation is something for which we have the example of Jesus who challenged people often enough to stretch their minds -- to accommodate such things as a camel going through the eye of needle and or a fig tree being tossed into the midst of the sea or seeing dishonest behaviour held up as a good example. The problem we have is that opinions on the authority and interpretation of scripture have become so polarized, people have been pushed to extreme positions, so that little provocation is needed for strongly defensive positions to be taken.

It does depend upon where you are, some Christians are happy to be among those with liberal attitudes, others seek 'Bible based teaching', and people of a similar way of thinking tend to cluster together, but in many congregations there is a diversity of views sufficient for some members to be suspicious of others among them, while in the wider church tactics of labelling and rejecting people who differ are all to readily employed. If you doubt a liberal interpretation which you think goes too far in making things acceptable in the present day you run the risk of being called a fundamentalist with an irrational belief in the literal truth of every word in scripture; and if you say that we need to take into account the cultural and historical circumstances in which the sacred writings were written you may well be suspected to wishing to shape Christian teaching to the passing wisdom of the present age. I do not want to encourage that kind of tension. At the same time I must be honest and say what I am really thinking. There is no point in trying to please everyone, although we should avoid unnecessarily provoking anger and disbelief. My aim is to bring to you what I believe to be the essential view of scripture that is given to us both in scripture itself and in Christian tradition.

Indeed we may look to scripture for consolation, for guidance, perhaps even for a whole program of living, and above all for knowledge of God, but we look with our own questions in our minds, questions that will shape the answers we find. People have different needs at different times in different places. How then can how we avoid being pulled in different directions by interpretations of scripture which suit us individually, or and as members of particular groups, but which obviously cannot all be right about what God has to say to us?

Christ the key

What is the basic principle that should guide Christians in their interpretation of scripture? Is there a key to understanding? Yes, I believe there is: - the key is Christ. It is a key given in scripture itself. For example, during his ministry of teaching Jesus indicated that the Hebrew scriptures pointed to himself:

When he met with disciples after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus he interpreted these scriptures:

And later when he met them gathered in Jerusalem:

Paul often quoted from the Old Testament to support his claims about Jesus. For example,

You see here how the Christian tradition of the Gospel (the tradition, Paul says, I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received) which later became the New Testament books, but which was not yet written down, was linked back to the Old Testament as an authoritative source.

When the time came for the Christian tradition to be written in the Gospel books John tells us that the purpose of those writings also was to point to Jesus as the Christ:

It is not, however, a circular argument about scripture claiming its own authority, though it does affirm its authority. The books we recognize as scripture in addition to the Hebrew scriptures are those in which Christians have recognized a true witness to Christ. These are the books that make up the New Testament. We go to scripture because we believe in Christ.

Christians are people who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. He is the centre of all we believe. All that we believe gains its meaning from Christ. Everything that we teach, all that we say about God and the relationship of people to God, depends upon our understanding of Jesus Christ and must be tested by reference to him. Everything that matters to us in faith depends upon our relationship to Christ. That faith is primary. It is the starting point. It is not derived from scripture or from tradition, though it may have been developed under their influence. It is not in any way secondary. By that I mean that it does not come from something else, even scripture, though scripture will have been our inspiration in much of what we believe about Jesus. He is the risen Lord who is known directly by his living disciples.

The faith that we hold, if it real, must relate us personally to Christ. It will, for most of us have been witnessed to, even modelled for us, by faithful believers, perhaps our parents or teachers or friends, and many of us will have been nurtured in a Christian fellowship, but our faith, if it is real, will not be a secondhand relic of tradition, however much we may love the traditions of church, family and community. Indeed for new Christians today, that experience can seem rather unlikely and remote, though they might wish that had known more of the riches of our tradition, which seem to be almost inaccessible in a rapidly changing world. It will be acknowledged that we have much to learn from scripture and tradition, but those things will be sought out and valued only if we believe it is worthwhile in what matters most to us. For Christians what matters, what is worthwhile, depends on our faith in Christ. He is the centre of what we believe and the key to understanding. It is Christ himself who is the Word of God.

When God took the risk of putting his Word into human form he was reaching out to us as he had in the law of Moses and the witness of the prophets:

Here then is the clue. We can get to the heart of the matter in seeking to understand what God has to say to us from scripture when we see that above all else it points to Christ. How we use this key to do what Timothy was advised, for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, will depend upon how we see scripture in the light of the person of Christ.

To follow this much further would take us into new territory that would take more time to explore than we have now, and you will certainly hear more of it another time, but a few basic things can be seen already:

  1. If Christ is the key, then we do not subject our interpretation of scripture to some external criterion apart from Christ, like science or political or literary theory. This does not mean that we reject science or other forms of human knowledge as I have explained in regard to controversies about creation. Rather we should understand those things in the light of our knowledge of Christ, not vice versa.
  2. We are not free to believe whatever we like about Jesus Christ. There is not "your Christ" and "my Christ" and another different Christ for someone else, although people often talk that way of our various limited understandings, but there is the one Lord Jesus, who is the historical Jesus of Nazareth, witnessed to in scripture and confessed by the church as one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and raised on the third day.
  3. We test what we believe and teach about Jesus Christ by reference to the scriptures. That is, the key we use to interpret scripture is itself shaped in our minds by scripture, and that shaping of our understanding must be constantly and deliberately undertaken as an act of faithful discipleship within the fellowship of believers and as part of our worship. Only then can we use the key to the understanding of scripture as a whole.
  4. When we see how the scriptures point to Christ we see several key points: Firstly, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." If Jesus Christ is the key who alone can unlock the door to the meaning of the Bible, we must understand that the Bible is in the first place the story of God's action, his initiative in both creating the world and redeeming it. Secondly, Jesus Christ is the key to the response of mankind to God's initiative in reaching out to us: in his obedience "even unto death" (Phil 2:8) and thus giving us new hope for the many made righteous (Rom 5:19). Thirdly, Christ the key in scripture takes his central place in history: " when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, (Gal 4:4).

The key we have then is complex. It is not simple, although faith in him personally may be as simple as a trusting child. The meaning of any passage and its application to our situation today must be set within our understanding of what God was doing in Christ. You cannot simply take a few words out of scripture and apply them all by themselves to any question we might have in our particular situation today as if those words were personally addressed to us. Any word of scripture must be applied in the light of the central message about what God did for us in Christ. As soon becomes obvious, someone else will quite likely be able to find other words in scripture with quite a different message for the same situation. The only way to work it out is to look to the centre of our faith, to Christ who is the key.

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