Theological Hermeneutics III – The Function of Scripture

Assuming the existence of a metanarrative story embedded within the unfolding story of God with his people in Scripture (I will not take the time to defend that assumption at this point), it seems to me that we might identify the function of Scripture within the story itself in three ways.

Three Functions

1. Scripture Witnesses to God’s Mighty Acts. Scripture describes what God has done in creation and redemption. It is a record of the mighty acts of God. It is history, but it is not mere history. It is a redemptive-historical record. The writers of Scripture are not interested in mere facts about Abraham, David or Hezekiah. Rather, they are interested in the divine-human engagement within history. They are interested in telling the story of God’s relationship with his creation and people. One function of Scripture is descriptive.

2. Scripture Interprets God’s Mighty Acts for His People. While descriptive, Scripture is never merely descriptive. It is always interpretative. Whether narrative, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic or epistles, Scripture interprets the meaning of God’s acts. We might know from Tacitus and Suetonis that Jesus died under Pontius Pilate in Judaea, but only the narrations of the Gospels, the epistolary explanations and the Hebraic anticipations interpret the meaning and significance of that death for us. There are not “brute facts” or “isolated facts” within Scripture; every “fact” is interpreted and given significance within the story. And that significance is rooted in the movement of God within creation and redemption for the sake of his goals for his people and his cosmos.

3. Scripture Applies God’s Mighty Acts to His People. Interpretation does not stand alone as some kind of stark didactic meaning but rather is always applied to the hearers. Without application, the description and interpretation is a dead-end.  Isaiah applies the meaning of the Exodus to Israel centuries after the event itself. Paul applies the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ to Romans divided between Jewish and Gentile house churches.  Revelation inteprets the mighty acts of God in history for the seven churches of Asia in order to encourage faithfulness and perseverance.

In summary, I would suggest that Scripture is fundamentally an interpreted record of God’s mighty acts applied to the people of God.  Essentially, Scritpure = witness + interpretation + application.

Example Text: Ephesians 3:2-6

The text reads:

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

This is a theologically weighty text, but my interest is the specific function Paul assigns to his epistle.  What is the function of Ephesians, according to Paul?

Note some particulars.

  • Paul has received insight (understanding) into the mystery of Christ.
  • The mystery of Christ is the work of God in Christ through the Spirit to which Paul has just testified in Ephesians 1-2.
  • This has been revealed to him (and others–apostles and prophets) by the Spirit.
  • He writes so that the Ephesians might understanding his insight into that mystery.
  • He identifies, at least in part, the mystery as the fellowship of the gospel in Christ Jesus.
  • His letter applies this work of God–the creation of one body–to the racial, cultural and epochal distinctions between Jews and Gentiles for the sake of uniting the body of Christ in communal practice rather than simply in theological theory.

Ephesians, as one example, epitomizes the function of Scripture.  Paul, gifted by the Spirit and given revelation about what God has done in Christ, writes to share his understanding of the mystery of Christ with fellow-belivers. Paul describes (witnesses to) the work of God in Christ through the Spirit in Ephesians 1-3, that is, the election of the Father, the atoning work of Jesus and the seal of the Spirit. This is the mighty act of the Triune God for our redemption. Paul interprets the meaning of this work for his readers, that is, how the mystery breaks down racial, cultural and epochal distinctions between human beings. In Ephesians 4-6 he applies the meaning of God’s mighty acts by encouraging (using a substantial number of imperatives which are absent except for one [2:11] in chapters 1-3) conformation to the image of God in Christ.

Ephesians is, of course, a letter.  Other genres have a similar function though their literary method differs. So, for example, the Exodus narrative records the mighty act of God as history but also interprets and applies the meaning of the Exodus event through the narrative genre (utilizing sub-genres along the way such as the hymn of Exodus 15). Or, the Gospels tell the story of Jesus through narrative while utilizing various forms (miracle stories, parables, passion narrative) to interpret and apply the meaning of the mighty act of God in Jesus.

Our Theological-Hermeneutical Task

Scripture, therefore, may be said to be the practical application of theology (the mystery of Christ) to specific situations (whether Ephesus, Corinth, Seven Churches of Asia, etc.).  Scripture is applied theology.

Through Scripture’s own application of the mystery of God to those different situations we “see” (discern) the theology itself–we come to understand the mystery of Christ. Now, as disciples of Jesus, we take that same theology and apply it to our situations–whether in Russia, Singapore or Nashville.

In effect, what we really do is not so much apply Scripture (the bare text) but apply the theology (the mystery) that Scripture teaches. The theological-hermeneutical task, then, is not to reproduce the “stuff” of Scripture or merely repeat Scripture, but to know the mystery of Christ (the mighty acts of God), understand the meaning of that mystery (theology), and apply its meaning to the new contexts in which we minister as disciples of Jesus.

In pursuing this task, however, our knowledge of the mystery of Christ is derivative. We do not know it “by revelation” in the same sense in which Paul claims to have that knowledge by revelation. Rather, our knowledge of the mystery of Christ is derived from and guided by Scripture–the initial and foundational interpretation of the mystery to which we have access. We read Paul, for example, and through understanding his insight into the mystery of Christ, we apply the mystery in our contexts.

Thus, the task of “restoration” is not the mere reproduction of the historic practices of the early church–to simply do what the early churchd did–but the reapplication of its theology in a new setting. The theological-hermeneutical task is the recontexualization of the mystery of Christ in the contemporary world.  Our task is to bear witness to, interpret and apply the meaning of what God has done. Scripture models this for us and guides in our contemporary task.



7 Responses to “Theological Hermeneutics III – The Function of Scripture”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    JMH writes, “We might know from Tacitus and Suetonis that Jesus died under Pontius Pilate in Judaea, but only the narrations of the Gospels, the epistolary explanations and the Hebraic anticipations interpret the meaning and significance of that death for us.”

    This is a wonderful statement about the necessary function of all scripture. It is so easy to separate certain scripture as a ‘canon within the canon’ but this statement points out why we must give attention to all scripture.

    ———————–

    JMH writes “the task of “restoration” is not the mere reproduction of the historic practices of the early church–to simply do what the early churchd did–but the reapplication of its theology in a new setting. The theological-hermeneutical task is the recontexualization of the mystery of Christ in the contemporary world. Our task is to bear witness to, interpret and apply the meaning of what God has done. Scripture models this for us and guides in our contemporary task.”

    I would really like to see this teased out at some point to specific issues regarding the Christian assembly and church (leadership) structure as it relates to the Churches of Christ. As you well know, this ‘hermeneutical task’ (not reproduction but reapplication) flies right in the face of our historic theory that being a NT church means we must REPRODUCE the NT church, especially in assembly matters and church polity.

    The historic CoC would have no problem with this hermeneutical shift if we are talking about something such as foot-washing, since foot-washing is not part of our tradition anyways (despite it being commanded – Jn 13.14-16 – and having an example of its practice in the 1st century church – 1 Tim 4.10). However, historically we have insisted that any practice within the assembly or church structure that is not a complete reproduction of the NT church is false doctrine.

    So we have a pickle to overcome if this new hermeneutical paradigm has any practical meaning for the local congregation. Further, the missiological insist on an incarnational approach which is reapplication rather than reproduction. Considering the fact that Christians in North America are no longer a persecuted and illegal assembly made up of just a fractional minority of the citizens in the Roman empire, we cannot simply reproduce and expect the same results. For different contexts require different application.

    I am bringing this up because of my own ministry context, which is a small congregation miles away from the Bible belt. In one sense, it is a great blessing to be away from the Bible belt. But it also puts many miles away from the “thinking center” of the CoC and thus, certain things that we accept without much difficulty are still very foriegn to many. Ironically, they are small churches who have been told that the only right way (doctrinally correct) way has been the way of reproduction which, of course, was strongly influenced by the southerners who very un-incarnationally began churches here and have since moved back to the south. But the church here has been left with a paradigm that does not missionally work for them. So my job is… …pray for me, pray for us!

    Rex

  2. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think you state the problem well, Rex. After this methodologically-oriented series, I hope to pursue a series on application and address some the ecclesiological questions.

    There is a method to my madness…I hope. I do intend to get to some of the “where the rubber meets the road” in historic questions that have troubled Churches of Christ.

    So, I must ask for patience as I build the case block by block. 🙂 I will come back to this comment to remind of some critical concerns which must be addressed.

    Thanks

  3.   Quiara Says:

    I’m really enjoying these posts. I just wanted to let you know. I haven’t commented much because I prefer to sit back and think about them. This wasn’t my focus in undergrad or grad, so while I have a decent understanding, I have nothing useful to add to the discussion, so I really appreciate your sharing your knowledge and viewpoints on hermeneutics and history and how they are intertwined.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Not a problem. I understand you cannot address everything in one writting unless… …unless it comes in the form of a book:-).

    No, to be more serious. It seems to me that the CoC is coming to an impasse. Will our communal life continue to be controlled by a legal understanding, interprative, and hermeneutical framework of scripture (which I believe is stranggling our missional faith) or will we gravitate to a new paradigm that, even with its possible criticisms and unanswered questions, will allow scriptures to become the living word of God for a new culture and generation. But making this change is not easy and it should not be taken haphazzardly nor hastely (sp?), something I try to remember in my ministry too.

    Rex

  5.   Phil Says:

    You said: “The writers of Scripture are not interested in mere facts about Abraham, David or Hezekiah. Rather, they are interested in the divine-human engagement within history. They are interested in telling the story of God’s relationship with his creation and people.”

    I apologize beforehand on my ignorance on the issue, but how do we know they were not interested in the facts? I understand our western -enlightenment (scientific method) lens we wear too much when reading scripture, but how do we know they weren’t concerned with the facts? Do you have some references to direct me towards on understanding the genre of the writers and their original readers? Great post by the way, keep em’ coming.

  6. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    That is a good question, Phil. Like most statements due to limitations of space (at least self-imposed limitations on space and time 🙂 ), the statement rests on many considerations. It is a matter, I think, of attentive, inductive reading of the text according to its theological purpose.

    Notice I did not say they were not interested in facts, but that they were not interested in mere facts. For example, the Chronilcer is not interested in isolated facts about David (he does not mention Bathsheba or Absalom, etc.) nor does he give us the biography of any of the kings except in minimal points. Rather, he is more interested in telling a theological story with the facts he tells.

    An example would be Manasseh. Kings tells the story of Manasseh from the vantage point of explaining why Judah is in Babylonian Exile. Chronicles tells the story of Manasseh from the vantage point of reconciliation and an illustration of how God will receive the returning exiles into his communion at the temple. Neither is interested in the pure, bare fact as a matter of simple history. Rather, both tell the facts in a way that forms or shapes a theological story to apply to their readers.

    I hope that illustrates what I mean to some degree. Thanks for the question and for your attentive reading.

  7.   Zeeshan javed Says:

    Dear Brother,

    I am Zeeshan Javed from Pakistan . I have studied your web site, and I found it the most wonderful site to get right to the True Word of God. My suggestion for you is to create your material in my language of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Pashto, Sindhi, Sraiki, and Balochi also. It will bring lots of blessings of the Word of God for the Pakistani and Indian Urdu and Punjabi and other local languages speaking people. For that purpose, I as a translator will bring your material into my languages and into Indian language as well. I will be printing and distributing your material to my people around me. Although it will take your low expenses as well, as fund for the Word of God to reach out to the deserving people. I my self, work on a local radio station also. Many times it becomes difficult for us to keep doing this because of being minorities and because of the lack of the financial resources. I will wait for your response.

    Sincerely yours

    Zeeshan Javed

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