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The Right Church: Book Excerpt from Chapter One
Finally, consider a well-known verse of the Scriptures from I Timothy 3:16:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (NRSV)
The Greek word that is translated as "inspired by God" here is theopneustos, which literally means God-breathed. This word appears nowhere else in the Scriptures. So, we do not have other usages to fall back on to help us understand more about what it means. However, for our purposes, we need not dig too much deeper on the meaning of the term. Rather, consider one of our initial points—that the church saw writings beyond those in the official canon as important for the life of faith. In chapter five we explore some writings of Basil the Great. His brother, Gregory of Nyssa, made an interesting statement about Basil's commentary on Genesis. He called it theopneustos—that is, Gregory considered Basil's commentary to be God-breathed. There were other cases where early church fathers used the term in application to works other than the 66 books that we consider the canonical Scriptures.
Now, I want to be clear. The point here is not to reduce the significance of the word, theopneustos, nor is the point to undermine the importance of the word as applied to biblical writings. Rather, I intend to resist the contemporary tendency to underemphasize the importance to Christian life and practice of other texts within the broad canonical heritage of the church. I wish to elevate their importance and, thereby, once again to draw attention to the contribution important, non-biblical writings have made to the life of faith and the life of the church. As Ted Peters once wrote, while the early church clearly took the Scriptures to be inspired by God, it did not claim that the Scriptures were the only writing that was inspired by God. Certainly, this was explicitly the case with Gregory and his view of Basil's commentary on Genesis.
Ideas to Consider
We have gleaned a number of insights from our look into the early church period, some of which are, no doubt, surprising to our contemporary sensibilities. As we conclude this chapter, let's summarize:
1. The official books of the Old and New Testaments were settled at a relatively late date. The Holy Spirit's guidance of the growth of the early church was going on at the same time as settling the biblical books.
2. Throughout the writings of the early church fathers we see a focus on how the Scriptures relate to human salvation, to the conversion of life. The aim is not primarily to convey historical events (though that is, as Origen notes, most frequently a secondary goal), but more to form us into the image of Christ, that is to lead us into a full-fledged conversion of life.
3. Even when the official books of the Old and New Testaments were settled, the early church recognized the importance of books beyond those officially named as canon. We learned that Athanasius, in the very same letter that named the canonical books, affirmed the importance of certain books that went beyond the canon. For the most part, these are the books that are in the Catholic bible, but not generally in protestant bibles.
4. The church had a strong sense of the Spirit's attendance to the process whereby the Scriptures came into existence and became identified as the Scriptures. Origen, as we saw, clearly believed that they contain what God intended.