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.
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.