“Sacred texts” are at the heart of many faith systems. These faith systems believe that their sacred texts are “inspired.” For example, Christians accept the Bible as authoritative and inspired. But how do modern believers view these “sacred texts”? I will begin with a look at the article of faith from my denomination. Following that, I’ll discuss the relevance of Scripture to contemporary life. Finally, I’ll explain the way that Scripture and the Holy Spirit work together in the life of a believer.
Sacred Texts, Inspired by God
“We believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, by which we understand the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation, so that whatever is not contained therein.” (Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, 2017-2021 edition, Article IV: The Holy Scriptures)
Several points emerge from the text of this article of faith. First, what does “plenary inspiration” mean? Second, the limitation to “the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.” Third, what form does “divine inspiration” take? Finally, what does it mean to say that Scripture “inerrantly reveals the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation”?
Sacred Texts: Plenary Inspiration
If you do an online search, you will find many different articles and websites which discuss the inspiration of Scripture. So what does it mean to say that “we believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures”?
The word “plenary” means “full, complete, or entire.” Thus, “plenary inspiration” refers to the inspiration of Scripture as a whole. The comparison is with “verbal inspiration,” which refers to the individual words of Scripture. While I believe that “verbal inspiration” is an acceptable view of the inspiration of Scripture, I do not believe it is “mandatory.”
Why? Because if God inspired the individual words of Scripture, He certainly could have preserved an original manuscript of the entire body of Scripture. Obviously, God has not done that. The conclusion is that He did not view the individual words as being critical. The overall message of the Bible is what is most important. Even if we support verbal inspiration, no translator has had the “original text” for thousands of years. We must therefore account for God’s inspiration as working through both human authors and translators. This view that God inspires both authors and translators is consistent with the statement that Scripture “inerrantly reveals the will of God in all things necessary to our salvation” (emphasis added).
66 Books of the Old and New Testaments
Why does the Manual provision refer to “the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments”? This clause points in two directions. You probably realize that some denominations acknowledge additional books beyond the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. These books are commonly called the “Apocrypha.” They usually appear between the Old and New Testaments in published copies of translations of the Bible which include them. Our statement about “the 66 books” simply confirms that we do not accept the Apocrypha as “Scripture.”
This approach also excludes any other writings from the canon. That includes other ancient writings which were not included in the canon (such as the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, to name a few). These writings were viewed as helpful, but not “inspired,” by the bulk of the early church.
The early church also rejected other ancient writings as heretical and spurious. They often claimed apostolic authorship, but the church deemed their message inconsistent with orthodox belief. Finally, the canon also excludes any newer writings which claim divine inspiration. Our view is that the canon was “closed” toward the end of the fourth century. This resulted in “the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.”
In regard to Scripture, “inspiration” refers to God’s involvement in the writing in question. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work.” To say that Scripture in “inspired” thus means that it originated with God, who led the human authors to write.
As we saw in the discussion of plenary vs. verbal inspiration above, God’s inspiration can come in many forms. Did God dictate the original words to the human authors, as someone dictates to a secretary or stenographer? Or did God lead the human authors to write while allowing them to use their own words or images? I think the answer is probably “both.” I certainly believe that there were times when God said, in effect, “Take this down.” But I also believe there were times that God led the human authors to write, and gave them freedom to choose their words. For example, I consider much of the book of Psalms to be the inspired words of human authors, who were trying to express their emotions and their understanding of God in terms which other people could grasp as their own.
In my view, the process of inspiration goes beyond the first writing of the words of Scripture. The Spirit directed the selection of the canon. He guides the various translation processes, and and helps our understanding of Scripture in many cultural and historical settings over time. This is consistent with Jesus’ statement that the Holy Spirit would guide us into “all the truth” (John 16:13).
All Things Necessary to Our Salvation
The last phrase from our article of faith that I want to address is that Scripture inerrantly reveals “the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.” In other words, the Bible tells us everything foundational to following Jesus. While God will often call individuals to go beyond “the minimum,” the Bible inerrantly tells us what “the minimum” is.
Here’s an example from my denomination. When we join the Church of the Nazarene, we make a covenant with the other members of the church to avoid certain behaviors (for example, drinking alcohol). The Bible does not teach that all Christians should abstain from alcohol, so the call to abstain “is not to be enjoined as an article of faith.” However, the Bible does teaches that there are certain people who should abstain (for example, in those who took a Nazirite vow in the Old Testament era). There are also times when everyone should abstain. Paul challenges us to not use our freedom in ways that cause others to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9). So while the call to abstain is certainly appropriate for groups of believers to covenant with one another, it “is not to be enjoined as an article of faith.”
The Minimum, Not the Maximum
When the Bible speaks of the foundational elements of orthodox faith, it is absolutely complete and inerrant. God tells us everything we need to know to live in a right relationship with him. But there are many areas where God works with us individually, helping us to understand what following Jesus looks like in our lives. Now, God never contradicts the “minimum requirements” in leading individuals. For example, he does not say, “Do not commit adultery – well, except for you.” But he will take us further than the minimum (and I would say he desires to, if we allow him). “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you both to desire and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13, NASB).
Eternal Truth: The Relevance of Scripture to Contemporary Life
So far, we’ve looked at what it means to say that Scripture is “inspired.” But how do we apply Scripture to modern life? How can ancient writings be relevant to today’s world?
People who read Scripture with “eyes of faith” clearly see the ways Scripture applies to our world. You don’t have to read too far in the book of Proverbs to find statements that still hold true today.
- “The wise of heart will receive commands, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. One who walks in integrity walks securely, but one who perverts his ways will be found out” (Proverbs 10:8-9).
- “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a person who listens to advice is wise” (Proverbs 12:15).
- “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Okay, those are proverbs. They could come from any culture or tradition. What about the rest of Scripture? Consider this: But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, slanderers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness although they have denied its power; avoid such people as these (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
Just a few verses later, Paul adds:
For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, and they will turn their ears away from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
If you read Scripture from the perspective that it is God’s truth, you will see its application everywhere. Most of my blog posts are my daily reflections on Scripture: I read passages each day, according to a reading schedule, and then allow God to show me how those passages apply today. When we read, God speaks! “…All Scripture is inspired by God and is beneficial for teaching…”
Sacred Texts: God Spoke…God Has Spoken
“Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2a, NLT). From humanity’s beginning, God has been speaking to us. He does not hide himself from us; he reveals himself. (That is the meaning of the term “revelation.”) God has spoken through prophets – human messengers who deliver God’s words to us. He has spoken through angels – divine messengers. And he has spoken to us through his living Word, his Son. “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2, NLT). “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (John 1:18).
God spoke to us through his Son, Jesus. Jesus told us that God would send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to lead us into all truth. The Spirit uses the written word – Scripture – to help us understand what it means to live in right relationship to God. These sacred texts reveal God’s will to us, and tell us about Jesus, the living Word.
Sacred Texts, Eternal Truth
Scripture is relevant because Jesus is relevant. We cannot follow Jesus without Scripture, because everything we know about Jesus comes from Scripture. If we claim to follow a “Jesus” who is different from what Scripture tells us, we are creating an idol – we’re making up our own “Jesus.” But every day, as we read Scripture and allow the Spirit to teach us, we see that God’s truth is still as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.