One verse often quoted, 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV):
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
This was also quoted during the “Foundations 1” course from Shofar that I attended on 27 January 2008, resulting in an interesting (private) conversation at the end of the session. I was curious what exactly this referred to, so I went to ask. I asked Ryno, if I have my names correct.
The simple answer “it refers to the Bible” is not quite that simple to me. 2 Timothy was most likely written before the Gospels and before Revelations. I think it is pretty clear that the author of 2 Timothy was referring to the Hebrew Bible (what we now call the Old Testament). Let’s drop the quote-mining and consider the surrounding verses, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV):
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
He refers to the holy Scriptures that Timothy has known “from infancy”, i.e. the Hebrew Bible.
Anyway, the conversation was dealing with the Bible as a whole. At that point, Wynand (if I have my names correct) got involved to help me with my question. I brought in the question of the canon (the definitive list of what books make up “The Bible”), that it was only “finalised” in the fourth century. So if “all scripture” includes newer and future writings, does it include the “scripture” that was excluded from the canon by the synods? It seems a silly question in hindsight. I’d say the verse must either refer to the Old Testament (I’d say that’s more correct), or reinterpreted to refer to whatever texts whichever group decided to define as “scripture”. Either way, the conversation lead to an interesting revelation…
Wynand(?) explained that the Holy Spirit inspired people to write the texts. Furthermore, apparently without exception, many diverse Christian communities unanimously concluded, through inspiration from the Holy Spirit, which books were to be included and which weren’t. Eish… this doesn’t correspond to what I’ve heard, whereby the list of books considered canonical was determined by a sequence of synods. In terms of a definitive list for the New Testament canon “a definitive list did not come from an Ecumenical Council until the Council of Trent (1545–63)”. During the Protestant reformation, the Old Testament canon changed. (The New Testament books remained the same, but not without debate.)
The conclusion I’d end up drawing if I take this kind of “unanimously agreed” idea to its ultimate conclusion, would be that we call everyone that agreed on the same set of books “true Christian”, and the rest “heretics”. By defining “Christian” that way, we will have all “true Christians” agreeing on the canon, by definition. Hmm…
At the time, my knowledge of the matter was that the canonical texts were decided by a committee, so I asked Wynand about it. Paraphrasing his response: “That’s not how I understand it. I haven’t made a study of it though, but this (the inspiration account above) is how I was told it happened. I could go find out for you.” Now this is where I’m worried about critical thinking: people teach strong statements based only on what they were told. If a large group of people were to accept sweeping statements without exception and unanimously, we could end up accidentally concocting or evolving incredible supernatural stories that are swallowed hole by a huge community. Following that, people would start saying “but so many people believe it, it must be true”.
Too easy. Way too easy.
Wynand recommended I attend Shofar’s Bible School if I want to know more. I’ve taken him up on that offer, I have signed up for the first semester of the correspondence course. (I need flexibility, I will be travelling.)
My stepfather bought me a book by William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (kalahari, amazon). It deals mostly with how the oral traditions of ancient Israel came to be written down, the interplay between oral and written traditions. It only has a short section on the New Testament, and does not deal with issues such as canonisation.
So how does the interest look from my readers? Would you like me to place this book relatively high on my priority list (for reading and blogging about)? I’m still a little more eager for reading (or rereading) some of my Marcus Borg books and blogging about that, I suspect it might be of greater use.