A recent article, in aiming to articulate a “proper” way of reading the Bible, contrasts two ways of developing a doctrine of Scripture:
First, we can study what Scripture says about itself. That is, we can examine the relevant didactic passages of Scripture and from them build a comprehensive doctrine. Second, we can examine the characteristics of the Bible – that is, what are often called the phenomena, date, evidence, or facts of Scripture – and construct a doctrine out of our findings. The first approach aims to tell us what Scripture claims to be; the second approach aims to tell us what Scripture actually is.
The writer goes on to argue for the first way, explaining that once one examines what the Bible says about its own inspiration, the characteristics of scripture can then be “properly” interpreted. To invert the process, however, leads readers to claim that what the Bible really “is” is at odds with what it “claims” to be.
The underlying assumption, however, seems to be that what the Bible claims to be is somehow distinct from what it really is; i.e., that the “didactic teaching” of the Bible is not actually one of its phenomena. Is this really the case?
To claim as much presupposes that there are some aspects of scripture to which we have a sort of unmediated access and others to which we do not. Therefore when we read the Bible’s didactic teachings about itself (e.g., 2 Tim 3.16), we find things “as they actually are,” if you will – teachings that rise above the contingencies and humanity of the Bible itself. When we observe the “facts” of scripture, however, (e.g., redactional seams, narrative tensions, editorial glosses or additions) we are back in the category of mediated material – phenomena that requires us to assimilate the supposedly unmediated information received from the didactic passages.
Perhaps the problem with the above formulation lies in the assumption that there is unmediated access to any portion of scripture – as though some passages, though of course written by both God and humans, were more God-like than others. Remember, when we read 2 Tim 3.16, we don’t suddenly have access to the mind of God in an unmediated way (unless you’re a Clarkian). Therefore, once one realizes that nothing we have in scripture is archetypal and unmediated, one finds that the statement by Peter Enns is actually a beneficial way to frame the discussion, recognizing that we study the Bible “not to determine whether the Bible is God’s word, but to see more clearly how it is God’s word” (Inspiration and Incarnation, pg. 21).
Thus there seems to be a better alternative to the two approaches described above for developing a doctrine of scripture, namely that we study both the teachings of scripture about itself and the characteristics of scripture. From there, we move with both tools in mind to formulate a doctrine that explains what the Bible really claims about itself in exhibiting the characteristics it actually does.