Scripture plays a foundational role in the Christian faith on both an individual level and a corporate level. In fact, the centrality of scripture to the Christian faith is hard to argue. It is a self-revelation of God, so Christians believe. The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne has written a short book to describe his general approach to scripture: Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible. The first two chapters of this book look at Scripture, that is the nature of scripture, and Development, the way the story and doctrines develop from Genesis through Revelation.
Dr. Polkinghorne is not an evangelical – and he certainly does not subscribe to the US evangelical view of biblical inerrancy. Neither, however, is he a (whisper it) liberal, denying incarnation and resurrection and rationalizing away the miracles. His views on scripture are outlined in the first chapter:
At the heart of the Christian faith lies the mysterious and exciting idea that the infinite and invisible God, beyond finite human powers to conceive adequately, has acted to make the divine nature known in the most fitting and accessible manner possible through the life of a first-century Jew in whom humanity and divinity were both truly present … The Word of God uttered to humanity is not a written text but a life lived, a painful and shameful death accepted, and divine faithfulness vindicated through the great act of Christ’s resurrection. Scripture contains the witness to the incarnate Word, but it is not the Word himself. Its testimony is that “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14) (p. 2-3)
As a witness to Christ, scripture contains multiple layers – and a central task for the interpreter is to separate the lasting witness of God’s work in the world from the incidental features of each passing age from Abraham or earlier, through Moses, David, Isaiah, Paul and John to select just a few. As Dr. Polkinghorne points out, and as Scot wrote a book exploring (The Blue Parakeet), no one can eliminate this task of interpretation and separation. The multi-layered view of scripture has been a common one in the New Testament era and through the early centuries of the church. The insistence of a single appropriate interpretation of any specific passage runs counter to history. The New Testament writers made use of the OT scriptures in ways that oppose the notion of a universal unique interpretation. The early church fathers looked at literal, moral, symbolic, and spiritual levels of scripture.
Is Dr.Polkinghorne right to emphasize the Word of God as Jesus?
Is scripture the Word of God or the witness to the Word of God?
Moving a little deeper into his interpretation of scripture Dr. Polkinghorne sees a development or an unfolding revelation of God in the pages of scripture. His answer to the question – how can the God who appears to command genocide and massacre be the same God who through Jesus commands us to love our enemies.
I believe that response to this dilemma demands the recognition that the record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages. (p. 12)
Dr. Polkinghorne sees this development in several specific examples.To give three:
The ruthless holy wars of the exodus and the conquest of Canaan, the wars of Saul and David give way to the understanding in Isaiah and the Servant songs at the time of the exile, and this in turn gives way to their “fulfilment in Jesus, a crucified messiah rather than the hoped-for militant fighter against Roman occupying power.”
There is also a development from the command “you shall have no other gods before [or, perhaps, 'besides'] me” and a tacit acknowledgement in the pages of scripture that other God’s may exist to the uncompromising monotheism of Isaiah (or second Isaiah). In Isaiah and in the NT witness there is no divine reality at all except for Yahweh. (Is. 42:8, 43:10)
The second commandment speaks of God punishing children for the iniquity of the parents; in Joshua Achan and his whole family are stoned. By Ezekiel and Jeremiah we have “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent for the iniquity of a child (Ezk 18:20)
Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that this developmental perspective on the nature of scripture and of God’s interaction and increasing revelation to his people can explain the apparent contradictions present in scripture.
Of course, all development did not end with the final page of the NT. Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that there is an ongoing need to wrestle with the both scripture and with God’s revelation and work.
Those who believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) will not find this surprising. The role of development, within Scripture and after it, depends on the fact that revelational disclosure is primarily personal rather than propositional, living and not petrified. (p. 19)
I am sure that many will disagree with Dr. Polkinghorne’s positions on scripture and the developmental nature of revelation, both within the pages of scripture and in the ongoing development of the church. This is surely worth some discussion though.
Is there are development within scripture that leads to the revelation through Jesus?
How is this development expressed and how does it impact our understanding of the nature of scripture?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.