"From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
I wanted to talk a bit about this passage, and eliminate one misunderstanding. As I explained here, this is a key verse in our understanding of the inspiration of the Scriptures--and though technically Paul was referring only to the Jewish Tanakh (Old Testament) here, Christians would agree that the same principles apply to the New Testament.
As I explained, these verses say that God inspired the Scriptures for two primary purposes: (1) to make us wise for salvation, and (2) to teach us how to do good works.
However, people often stretch this and make a very bad assumption: If all Scripture is profitable, then all Scripture must be equally profitable.
When people fall into this bad assumption, then they forget that they need to worry about what the Bible actually meant, and how the passage of Scripture was written, and instead they can just rip it out of context and use it however they want.
Though the Jews (like Paul) saw all of the Tanakh as God-breathed, they by no means saw them all as equivalent. Rather, they saw the Old Testament as divided into some different general types of Scripture:
- Torah, the "Teaching" of God
- Nevi'im, the writings of God's prophets
- Ketuvim, other ancient Jewish writings
The ancient Jews saw all three sections of Scripture as being God-breathed and divinely inspired, but they saw them as having three levels of inspiration.
Torah was the most important section of Scripture. It was inspired by God to Moses, and carried by the Jews in the Ark of the Covenant. When copied, the entire scroll was thrown away if a single mistake was made. If you read my Pentateuch series, you get an idea of the importance of this passage of Scripture. It records how the Hebrews ended up in Egypt as slaves, how God led them to freedom, the requirements of the religious worship of God, and the constitution of their newly-formed nation. It is as if we had our Constitution and New Testament and a history book, all rolled into one...and given us by God. It was really, REALLY important. Books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
A slight step down from Torah was the Nevi'im. They are read each Sabbath in synagogue, along with Torah,, so that in the course of each year all Jews have heard all of the writings of the prophets. These passages can be seen almost as historical commentaries on the Torah: generally speaking, they cover periods of time in which the Jews have rebelled against God, and a prophet is inspired to move the Jews back into the right paths. Books: Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
The lowest level of inspiration was the Ketuvim. Also inspired by God, these books were seen as valuable and useful for teaching, but not carrying the same spiritual weight as the writings of actual prophets of God. Thus they were not studied in synagogues like Torah or Nevi'im. Quotes from them were used in services as songs or poetry to aid in worship, but not for instruction or as a sermon topic. There are three divisions:
- The Books of Poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, Job
- The Five Scrolls: Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.
- The Historical Books: Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1&2 Chronicles.
This division was important to the ancient Jews. All of this Scripture was seen as inspired by God and profitable for teaching, but not equally so. To the Jews, learning the Law of Moses was by far the most important thing, followed by the prophets (and their evidence of what happens when you failed to follow the Law of Moses). The ketuvim were useful for poetry, songs, historical thinking, and reflections on God...but these are a clear "lower level" of Scripture.
The Modern Christian Approach
What scares me about modern Christianity's approach to the Old Testament is two-fold:
- Most pastors simply ignore the OT and spend almost their entire time in the NT
- Those who do teach the OT tend to give disproportionate weight to the "lesser" Scriptures and very little weight to the "greater" Scriptures.
Think about it: how often have you heard a theology based on a proverb? It happens all the time: "wine is a mocker" so we shouldn't drink; "spare the rod spoil the child" so we should beat children with a stick if they misbehave; etc. Ditto with psalms. Or Song of Solomon as the source of 90% of our sexual theology. Etc., etc.
Of course all of these are important things that we should consider: we should consider what Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon tell us. We should know them like the back of our hands, for these "wisdom" books contain a great deal of good guidance for our lives.
But we do a serious wrong when we treat a proverb about Godly living--which is meant to be a 'rule of thumb'--as though it were equivalent to the Law of God in the Torah. When we are building a theology based on the OT, we must always give primacy to the same Scriptures that Jesus gave primacy to: when He preached, it was almost exclusively about the Torah, and occasionally about the Prophets...as was typical for an ancient Jew.
Remember what He said in Matthew 5:17: "Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." He was not using these terms loosely: He--like most Jews--saw the Law and Prophets as the central Scriptures for their faith.
And this is completely okay.
Of course the Gospel of Luke--written by a Gentile to a Gentile--is more applicable to us than the letter of Jude. Of course the letters of Paul--written to Jewish-Gentile mixed audiences, focused on the theology of the Gentiles--is of more value to us today than, say, the letter to Philemon. That does not mean that Philemon or Jude are unimportant...it just means that some Scriptures are of course more central to our faith than others. In fact, most early Christians saw the New Testament similarly to the Jew's approach to the Old Testament: the Gospels-Acts were like the Torah, the writings of Peter and Paul and John were like the Prophets, and the other letters and Revelation were like the Ketuvim.
So my first message to you today is: do not feel bad if you don't mind much of interest in the book of Ezekiel. It's okay. You are not a bad Christian just because some parts of Scripture are more critical to your spiritual growth than others.
The second message to you today is: be careful of your sources when you build your theologies.
When you are building your theology for sex, it is true that Song of Solomon has something to teach you: but it does not supersede or overrule Leviticus, which is actually part of God's divine law.
When building a theology for parenting, it is true that Proverbs and Psalms have some good things to say: but they do not supersede commandments in Deuteronomy or the Gospels.
So when you hear a person who is teaching something, ask yourself--from which Scripture is he preaching? Is his entire theology based upon a non-central Scripture, like a proverb or a psalm? If so, be careful and wise: he may be (knowingly or unknowingly) taking a line of a proverb or a line of a song out of its context and setting it up as a commandment from God Himself.