What is Scripture?
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
January 9, 2011
2 Timothy 3:14-17
What is scripture? Scripture is a name we give to the writings that we deem uniquely valuable, uniquely important in helping us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. Holy Scripture refers to those writings deemed so valuable by a community that they are considered, by that community, to be the word of God.
That’s the bird’s eye view. Now let’s look at the more human level.
When I was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church USA, I had to answer certain questions and take certain vows. Among those questions was the following: ”Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?” I said yes. I still do.
So how do these scriptures, these writings, become God’s word to me, or to anyone?
Occasionally it happens that a person picks up a copy of the Bible, and, without any background or context at all, begins reading it and finds it to be the life-transforming word of God. This happens very rarely, but it does happen. I suppose the same thing happens for some people reading the Koran or the Book of Mormon or the Bhagavad Gita. But for most of us it is different. It happens in the way that Paul describes in his second letter to Timothy. Let me elaborate.
I wonder if there is anyone is this congregation who is familiar with the term “memory verse”? As I thought. Well, for anyone raised in the Protestant churches of the South, as I was, the term is very familiar, I went to Sunday School every Sunday from before I can remember. Every Sunday, we were encouraged – or required – to learn a memory verse, a verse from the Bible. They were usually very simple, becoming a little longer as we grew older. Such verses were as follows:
“Love one another”.
“Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another.”
“Children, obey your parents.”
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
You get the idea. I learned the bible piece meal, in verses, over many years. One of the verses that I learned in late boyhood, as a member of the Royal Ambassadors, was this one from Second Timothy: “All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.”
So, I was told, the Bible itself claims to be the inspired word of God, See, it says so right here! That settles it.
That position, however, came to seem obviously flawed to me, being a smart-alecky kind of kid. When Paul wrote those words to Timothy, I asked, did he know he was writing the Bible? When he said all scripture, did he know that he was writing scripture? How did those 66 books in the Bible (and we were taught to name them all) come to be selected anyway? How did God make sure that just those 66 were selected, and no others? And when Paul wrote “all scripture”, didn’t he mean just the Hebrew scriptures? After all, the only Christian scriptures then available were his other letters! The gospels had not even been written. (As I said, I was a smart-alecky kid.)
So how did these writings, these verses, these Scriptures ]become the word of God to me? Exactly as Paul said to Timothy. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Continue in what you have learned and believed from childhood, knowing from whom you have learned it …. You see, what I was learning at Sunday School from infancy on was not just verses. It was love. I was becoming part of a community. My Sunday School teachers taught me more than words. They taught me kindness and faith. Indeed, they embodied it.
I came to respect the Bible because I was taught to do so by others who loved me and who found it to be sacred,, That is the way most of us learn everything. We are taught by others, and the lessons are especially powerful if they are taught to us through love and reinforced in a community. And so it was that I became a part of the Christian church, which is rooted in the scriptures of the old and new testaments, and they became, through the Holy Spirit, the word of God to me.
Only such an upbringing has made me able to believe. Simply reading the bible as another text, as I was taught to do in college, and, to some degree in seminary, reveals many difficulties – not the least of which is the picture of an apparently unloving God that prevails in certain parts of the scripture. There are obstacles to belief, obstacles that prevent these scriptures from becoming the word of God, for some people. But for me, I was taught that the Bible was a story – of creation, of sin, of God’s call to his people Israel, of their obedience and disobedience, of destruction for sin, and of the promise of forgiveness sealed in the blood of his crucified Son. And although that story has many rough spots, so does my life. I am a part of that story. I have come to find my meaning in it, my solace in it during sorrow and trial, my joy in it during times of blessing. Though it can never be accepted without interpretation, and though the texts sometimes appear puzzling or contradictory, I still find, as millions of others have, this text, these stories, to be my story, and the texts useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
There are lots of problems that come with this tradition; it isn’t all easy. And we will consider some of these problems during this term. As a student who in college studied literature, and who still loves literature, I have read many other stories, some of which became important to me. But my life is shaped by the words of scripture, and by the community which passed on those words, and talked about them, and tried – with many failures – to live by them. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.