Deep within many of us — those nurtured by Bible-attentive churches, especially – resides a solid devotion to the timeless authority of scripture. While such devotion is clearly a good thing, it can result in less-than-helpful situations. Reverential attitudes toward scripture have led to
- discussions around the nature of inspiration (2 Tim 3:16)
- countless fights over interpretation methodologies
- an almost idolatrous fear of writing in the margins of one’s Bible
Of deeper, more insidious concern is the tendency of some to claim for scripture that which it does not claim for itself. Canonical writings never claim, for instance, that the words were dictated by the Spirit, i.e., that John and Peter and Paul, etc., had their upper extremities robotically controlled.
It isn’t hermeneutically necessary to suppose that the words of the original manuscripts were necessarily authorized by God, although they might be. Scripture certainly never claims that a single translation is authorized above another, either. “Authorization,” when it comes down to it, seems to be an inherently human notion. Furthermore, the authors themselves seem not to have suspected that they were authorized to create documents for the ages: rarely, if ever, could honest readers of scripture infer that an author had the sense that what he was writing what would become scripture.
A recent conversation with friends reminded me of the distinction among various types of scriptural literature — narrative/history, letters, poetry, and prophecy, to name the major groupings. We might even be able to correlate the type of biblical literature with an author’s relative sense of being God’s oracle for wider, longer-living audiences. In other words, when Paul wrote letters to Timothy, they were specifically directed and situationally time-bound, and therefore unlikely to have been conceived as being for time immemorial. The writers of the somewhat more general, and later-penned, gospels, on the other hand, might have assumed that their messages would extend to broader audiences through the decades, if not the centuries.
Also wrapped up in the question of whether Paul and Peter and others thought they were writing “scripture” is the question of eschatological foretelling: the apostles appear, at least initially, to have thought the Lord’s final coming was imminent, so they wouldn’t likely have written something they thought would also be read by believers in the year 2012.
Most letters in the New Covenant scriptures are considered situational — that is, written out of and into a particular sitz im leben (situation of life). Further, I have lately learned that letters are not really epistles, despite the headings in some Bibles, e.g., “The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians.” An epistle appears to carry the connotation of a rhetorically formal document — reasoned and fully worked out. A letter is somewhat less formal. Most of our Pauline material seem to lean more toward the “letter” category, although Romans and perhaps another one or two are exceptions.
Inasmuch as the letter to the Galatians is an epistle, it might be thought to be universally applicable (at least, in the time in which it was penned). Inasmuch as it is a letter, it is more situationally specific. One goal in poring over a letter is to uncover its situation — the situation out of which, and into which, it was written … i.e., the impetus for its creation. No matter who Galatians was addressed to (those in the specific province of Phrygian Galatia, or those in the larger region settled over centuries by the Gauls), it is unmistakable that Paul was monumentally, spiritually ticked off at the way things were going. That he was addressing a situation is beyond question; I am persuaded he was addressing it by the impetus of God Himself.
I’m not at all sure Paul knew he was writing “scripture” for later believers, though. (Remember that 2 Tim. 3:16 couldn’t really have applied to New Testament material, since it wasn’t collected yet. Almost certainly, the reference to “all scripture” was to Tanakh/Old Testament documents.) Scripture doesn’t claim that Paul had an inkling of this letter’s perpetuity, and I won’t ascribe such a sixth sense to him, either.
Does all this matter? Well, yes, I think it’s significant, or I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s not as significant as eternal love or grace or hope or the second coming … but as I study and learn more of such ancient documents, before I attempt to apply them to my situation, I want to know more about the situations in which they originated. This knowledge is more important than figuring out whether Paul (anachronistically) considered his letters “scripture.”