Question b - Scripture

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W-4.0404 b.  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?

Bible Overview

W-4.0404 b.  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?

Image of the books of the Bible on a bookshelf

The Bible is an amazing anthology of books with contributions from different writers, representing different time periods, utilizing different genres, and reflecting different cultures. But the Bible is more than being a self-contained library of ancient writings. It is a sacred conversation. As Karl Allen Kuhn writes, scripture can be understood as an “ongoing dialogue between God and God’s people, and of God’s people with one another, as they sought to know God.”[1] We join this sacred conversation every time we encounter God’s word in scripture.

Old Testament

The Protestant version of the Bible begins with the five traditional books of the Torah, or law of God: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This set of biblical writings is also known as the Pentateuch (“five scrolls”).

Most Bibles label the next section “History.” This section contains what we often refer to as the work of the Deuteronomic Historian: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. While some aspects of these accounts can be verified in other ancient sources, it’s important to remember that this is different from contemporary historical writing. Ancient writers tended to extract stories and details that serve to make the theological points that they were seeking to communicate. This section of the Old Testament also contains Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles (products of the Second Temple period that followed the defeat of the Neo-Babylonians by the Persians) and Ruth and Esther, novellas probably from the same era.

These are followed by the books of poetry that include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Many of these texts are referred to as “Wisdom Literature” and reflect a tradition of both passing on advice on how to live a moral and productive life, and the exploration of the big questions like “why do bad things happen to good people?” and “what makes life worth living?”

The next group of books contains the major prophets, each large enough to fill an ancient scroll: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; Protestant Bibles also include Lamentations (traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah) in this section. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are large collections of poetic oracle and narrative. Isaiah includes writings from at least three different time periods in Judah, the first being during the period of the Divided Kingdom, before the Northern Kingdom was captured by Assyria with the latter being the years following the return home of the Babylonian exiles. Jeremiah was mostly written during the final days of Judah existence before the Neo-Babylonians, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and then continuing into the period after the exiles were taken away from the perspective of one left behind. Lamentations is a book of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel appears to be prophetic writings by a prophet in exile to a people in exile. Daniel is a text that may be better characterized as Apocalyptic Literature, likely dating from the time when Antiochus IV ruled Judea prior to the Maccabean revolt.

The final section of the Old Testament is referred to as the 12 minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi), all of which will fit on one scroll due the brevity of their texts. All of these, except the narrative folktale of Jonah, are varied prophetic texts that speak about immoral behavior, inappropriate worship, and the judgment of God.

New Testament

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). “Gospel” means “Good News.” Mark is believed by most scholars to be the first written, and a source for both Matthew and Luke. John is the last written and the most different from the others, emphasizing the divinity of Jesus. The Gospels are followed by the Acts of the Apostles and is written by the same author that wrote the Gospel of Luke and carries many of the same literary themes with the apostles Paul and Peter, instead of Jesus, being the primary protagonists.

Next follows the thirteen epistles ascribed to Paul, who according to modern critical scholarship, appears to have unquestionably authored at least seven of these (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). Scholars debate Pauline authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, as well as the pastoral letters of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Additional epistles and one sermon that are not ascribed to Pauline authorship follows (Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, and Jude).

The final book of the New Testament is another example of Apocalyptic Literature, titled the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John.

For Reflection and Discussion:

What parts of the Bible do you know best? With which are you less familiar? Which biblical books have most shaped your faith and relationship with God?

Identify a time that you have relied on Scripture. How has it given you comfort? How has it challenged you? What questions do you have?

[1] Kuhn, Karl Allen. Having Words with God: The Bible as Conversation, Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2018).

Biblical Canon

The term canon derives from a Greek word for measuring stick. As applied to the writings of scripture, it refers to the universally accepted books of the Bible. The texts of the Hebrew Bible were likely written down and edited over a thousand-year period with the last book, Daniel, dated to the period of Hellenization that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great (c. 167 BCE). Texts that were written after this period can be found in the canon of some Christian communions but are considered by Protestants as “Apocrypha.” While recognized as worthy of study, these books are not sanctioned for use by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as appropriate texts to read as scripture in worship. Tradition suggests that the final designation of Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) texts as canonical was determined at the end of the first century CE, possibly at a council of the Sanhedrin that had been relocated to Jamnia following the destruction of Jerusalem.

It took a long time for the New Testament canon to stabilize as there were many books being used by the many early church communities. It is likely that some books were simply more available to some communities, and that some books were deemed more useful. Of the canonical Gospels, the Gospel of John appears to be the book most copied by scribes and Mark appears to be the least copied, judging from the texts that have been found to date. This may indicate that the early church communities found John to be more useful. Most scholars associate the earliest list of New Testament books declared as authoritative that matches today’s New Testament, with a letter that was written by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in the year 367 CE.

The following were some of the criteria or attributes used to determine whether an ancient text belonged in the biblical canon:

Ancient and Apostolic Authorship—A book had to be written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle, which also meant that it had to be an ancient text and not a contemporary re-interpretation of an older writing. For example, tradition suggests that the gospel of Mark was written by a person named John Mark, who was not an apostle but was thought to be a close associate of the Apostle Peter. This ascription of authorship was generally accepted by the early church of the 3rd and 4th century as the final New Testament cannon was being finalized into a version that reflects what we have today, even though the oldest manuscript of the Gospels does not specifically reference any particular author.

Theological Orthodoxy—A book had to support a perspective that a majority of the faithful would agree was consistent with the content of divine revelation in other scripture. In the case of the New Testament, the book needed to reflect the accepted understanding of the character of the person and work of Jesus Christ and consequently agree with the existing apostolic writings.

Universality—The book should be accepted as authoritative by a majority of the faithful in communities across the known world. It needed to be a book that was helpful, inspiring, and instructional, and one being read and used in the churches throughout the Body of Christ.

For Reflection and Discussion:

What surprises or puzzles you about the long process of developing the Bible?

What criteria would you use to determine whether something belongs in scripture?

Why is it important for churches to agree on a certain set of biblical texts?

Biblical Languages and Translations

With the exception of a few chapters in the books of Daniel and Ezra that were written in Aramaic, most of the Old Testament texts were originally written in Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek. Simply saying that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew fails to acknowledge that most scholars believe that there are at least three versions of Hebrew reflected in our Old Testament. The oldest Hebrew texts may date back to the earliest part of the Iron Age and are exemplified by the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. The idioms and word meanings from these older texts when compared with the more recent Hebrew of the Second Temple Period demonstrate that all language evolves over time. Thus, we should never forget that there can be no perfect translation from the original languages into languages of the modern world.

Translations of biblical texts date back to antiquity. During the reign of Ptolemy II in Alexandria, Egypt, more than seventy Jewish scholars were assembled to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek so that the Hellenized world could read it in their common language. This translation, known as the Septuagint, is the version of the Old Testament that most Greek-speaking New Testament writers would have used. Other translations of note were the “Targum,” a translation into Aramaic, and the “Peshitta,” a translation into Syriac. St. Jerome created a translation into Latin in the 4th century, known as the “Vulgate,” which became the dominant text for medieval Catholicism.

A modern understanding of approaches to translating ancient texts reflects a spectrum, ranging from “Formal Equivalence” (rendering words from the original language into the modern language with an effort to retain word order and sentence structure) and “Functional or Dynamic Equivalence” (rendering thought for thought to convey meaning of an original text into a modern language with less emphasis on word order or matching sentence structure). An example of the first approach is the New Revised Standard Version, while an example of the latter approach is the New International Version.

An alternative to translations from ancient languages is the “Paraphrase” approach, which starts with a translation and attempts to reword in simplified or easier to understand verbiage. An example of this approach is the Living Bible. Many Bible readers think of paraphrased Bibles as being more removed from the original texts and thus, inferior to translations.

Interpreting Scripture

Most readers of the Bible acknowledge that understanding the historical context of the original writers is useful, if not critical, to glean meaning. This means that we would be wise to try and learn who wrote it, what was happening in their world as they were writing, and to whom they were writing. However, we should acknowledge that some biblical texts, like the inspiring poetry of many of the prophets, can legitimately communicate a meaning to the original audience and yet inspire a reader from a different time and culture to find a different meaning appropriate to his or her worldview. For example: In Chapter 7 of the book of Isaiah, the prophet is warning King Ahaz of the dangers of pursuing alliances with foreign nations and suggests that he seek a sign from God such as the hopeful perspective of a young woman who would select for her newborn child a name that means “God is with us.” First century messianic Jews who believed that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah saw in these words a prediction of how Jesus could embody the very nature of God in their midst. Today, during Advent, we read these verses and sing our hymns calling for Emanuel to come to us, recognizing that both interpretations consistently testify of a God who longs to be present in our lives.

Authoritative Witness

Some suggest that the Bible is authoritative by virtue of its “supernatural origin” and think of God’s involvement as one of “dictating to human secretaries.” An alternative and more helpful perspective is that God inspired human writers to discern the divine intent and presence in the passing of ancient stories and in the reporting and interpreting of observed events. Likewise, we, by way of the Holy Spirit, practice our own discernment as we read the scriptures seeking inspiration. Accepting the Scriptures as unique and authoritative means acknowledging this twofold understanding of biblical inspiration: that God’s Spirit (1) guided the ancient writers and (2) continues to guide contemporary readers.[1]


For some, thinking of scriptures as authoritative conjures experiences of the Bible used to coerce and judge. But the Bible is, above all, an authoritative witness to the amazing grace and liberating love of God exemplified in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the church has had a long tradition of interpreting scripture according to the “rule of faith” and the “rule of love.” The former holds that the witness of scripture must be consistent with the basic teaching of the church through history; the latter insists that the interpretation of scripture must never conflict with the commandments to love God and neighbor.[2]

[1] Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991, 44–63.

[2] Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture, 123rd General Assembly (1983) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1983).

The WORD of God

When many of us hear the phrase, “the Word of God,” we immediately think of the opening verses of the Gospel of John:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1–5, CEB)

 “Word” here is the Greek word “logos.” In common language, it carries a variety of meanings: an account or reckoning, and argument, principle, reason, or thought. Among the Greek philosophers, “logos” came to mean the rational principle that gave order to the cosmos and was therefore equated with God. In John, “logos” is certainly a reference to Jesus himself, the wisdom of God that became incarnate.[1] The implication seems to be that the best way to understand who God is, what God thinks, and what God wants to say to us, is to look at the person of Jesus. This is clearly manifest in our confessional tradition as exemplified in the Confession of 1967:

“The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel. The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.”[2]

 So, if we want to know God’s word, we should look to Jesus. And the best way to do that is to look to the Bible, which contains the best witness to Jesus and God’s intentions. Thus, many Presbyterian churches use the liturgical expression following the reading of scripture in worship: “The word of the Lord.” This expression is reminding us that this mysterious idea of God’s Word is not the words on the page, but in the message in the texts.

Illustration of Barth's Threefold Word of GodTheologian Karl Barth proposed the notion of the “Threefold Word of God.” Barth taught that the revealed word, the written word, and the proclaimed word are considered to be three different, yet unified forms of the Word of God. Barth compared the simultaneous independence and unity of these forms of the Word of God to the Trinity. To the extent that proclamation really depends on revelation attested in the Bible, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation, it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself. Barth believed we should never try to understand the three forms of God’s Word in isolation. So, we can find God’s Word by looking to Jesus, and by reading the scriptures, and by listening to proclamation or preaching that is derived from the scriptures and influenced by the work of the Holy Spirit. Barth believed that preaching becomes the Word of God, not because of something we do, but according to God’s direction. Likewise, we become proclaimers of the WORD, when we allow the Holy Spirit to guide our thinking, our speech, and our daily behavior, as we live in the world[3] (CD I/1, 90–121).

When we affirm this constitutional question, we acknowledge that God alone is the source of all life and wisdom, and we commit ourselves to be open to God’s direction by intentionally engaging the resources that have been provided to us by God.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Consider the ways in which God’s Word has come alive for you.

In your service as a ruling elder or deacon, where do you encounter Jesus as the Word of God?

When do you spend time with the written word of scripture?

[1] online dictionary.

[2] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Book of Confessions, “The Confession of 1967,” 9.27, 291.

[3] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Volume 1, 90–121.

Additional Recommended Readings

A Guide to Bible Basics, written by Tyler D. Mayfield, published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.

Essay “The Word as Event: Barth and Bultmann on Scripture,” written by David W. Congdon, published in The Sacred Text, by Gorgias, 2010.

Who Wrote the Bible, by Richard Elliot Friedman, published by HarperOne, 1997


About the writer

Kevin Burns has been a ruling elder for more than twenty years at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He currently serves on the session and chairs the Christian Education Committee and the Adult Education Sub-Committee. Additionally, he teaches a youth Sunday school class with a Bible survey curriculum that he developed. In his professional life, he is the founder and president of a twenty-five-year old architectural design firm named Architectural Investments, Inc., and is the owner and principal broker of a commercial real estate company named AI Real Estate, LLC.

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