Our Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, Part 2: Scripture

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 11, 2014

2 Timothy 3:10-17

 

 

mluther

Martin Luther

Before the great awakening of the church in the 16th Century, known as the Protestant Reformation, the Western Church held to multiple sources of authority: the Bible, the church, and tradition.  In time, errors seeped into the church, leading Martin Luther to proclaim that only scripture held ultimate authority and that the pope and church councils may be fallible. This didn’t go over well in some corners.  Luther ideas that began to spread throughout Europe challenged the power of the established church and was booted from the Roman Church.  Unintentionally, Luther began the church that now bears his name, but he also placed his stamp on the entire Protestant Reformation.

Unlike the Swiss Reformers, such as Calvin whom I wove into my sermon last week, Luther didn’t want to leave the Catholic Church.  He actually believed if he could demonstrate to the pope the church’s errors, things would be changed.  But the church, it seems, always resist change and Luther found himself at the head of a new movement.  He thought of himself as an unlikely reformer.

Martin Luther had a troubled soul.  He was so bothered by the fear that he might forget and leave some sin unconfessed and thereby be assigned to perdition.  He drove his superiors’ nuts with his constant need to confess his trivial sins.  In reading the book of Romans, he had an epiphany.  He experienced God’s grace; he developed a faith in God’s goodness as opposed to his own good works; and he understood that scripture, God’s revelation to us, trumped all human authority.  Had Germany been making Volkswagens in those days, there’d be bumper stickers reading:  “Grace alone, Faith alone, and Scripture alone.[1]  In other words, Scripture tells us that we’re saved by God’s grace through faith…  This doesn’t mean that things like tradition or the ordering of the church weren’t important, they were and are, they’re just not authoritative.  Scripture, God’s revelation, is our source for authority.  This concept united the German and Swiss Reformers.

Today, my focus is on the role of Scripture and our passage comes from the Second Letter to Timothy, chapter 3, beginning with verse 10.

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When I was a child, I idolized Dennis the Menace.  In one of his cartoons, his Sunday School teacher asks him to name some of things that can be found in the Bible.  Dennis thinks for a minute and then responds: “my baby picture, dried up flowers, an’ a piece of bacon that I’ve been saving.”  I am sure we have all placed important things that we don’t want to lose in the Bible, which in a way shows our reverence to this book even if it isn’t its intended purpose.  We know that such things are safe there!

As a family, we always had such a Bible in the living room, one that probably weighed twenty pounds and was only read on Christmas Eve (there were other Bibles in the house to use for reading).  I remember my mother remarking that we need to dust the Bible just in case the preacher came by…  And then there was that kid who was asked by his mom during a visit by the preacher to bring “that big book that she’s always looking at to her.”  To her horror, her son brought her Sears and Roebuck’s big book.  Of course, it’s been a while since there was a Sears catalog.  To paraphrase Isaiah, “catalogues come, catalogues go, but the Word of God stands forever.”[2]

After the Diet of Worms, which thankfully had nothing to do with dinner but was a meeting of the German princes before whom Martin Luther refused to recant his teachings, Luther was on the fast track to his own barbecue.  In order to save Luther, Fredrick, one of Luther’s supporters, had him “kidnapped” and took him to the Wartburg Castle where he was disguised as a knight and allowed to write.  It was during this time that Luther produced his German translation of scripture, for he felt that the people needed to have access to God’s word in their own tongue.

I am sure that during this period of his life, when the Reformation was young and the danger was real, Luther could identity with Paul when he writes about his persecutions and sufferings?  Paul calls on Timothy to observe his teachings and actions, how he remained steadfast through his suffering, and then credits the Lord for rescuing him.  Like Paul, it seems that early in the Reformation, the more Luther was attacked and the more danger he faced, the more certain he became of his beliefs and the more defiant he was toward those who challenged him.   In Luther’s case, the Lord worked through a German prince to save his life and to allow him the freedom to expand the Reformation by the publication of a Bible in the vernacular, in the common language of the people.  As we are reminded in verse 12, persecution may come to those who desire to live a godly life, yet we are to endure and to remain steadfast in our faith.

In verses 14 and 15, we are informed that Timothy, to whom this letter was addressed, had a similar background to most of us.  He had been brought up in the faith.  He had attended church and Sunday School and the youth group or their equivalent.  He knew the sacred writings.  His training is credited to his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois.[3]  We, too, have had others who have instructed us in the Scriptures and to them we should honor and give credit for the gift they’ve given us.

The highlight of this passage is in verse 16 which reminds us that Scripture takes precedent over all human authority including the church.   Even our struggling denomination proclaims this.  The Bible trumps both the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions.  Those other books aren’t sacred.  They are referred to as “subordinate standards,” “subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.”[4]  The confessions can help us interpret Scripture, but cannot replace it.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” we’re told in this passage.  Let me unpack this a bit.  For Timothy and his contemporaries in the late first century, scripture was the Hebrew Bible or what we know as the Old Testament.  The New Testament, such as this letter, was in the process of being written.  But in time, the new canon came into being and the church applied this teaching to both the old and the new.  Those of us within the Reformed Tradition see them as equally important.  Both testaments contain revelation of God.

presbyterian seal

Presbyterian Seal

This is the reason most Presbyterians have two candles on the communion table and our seal has two flames beside the cross.  One candle (or flame) is for God’s revelation in the Old Testament as symbolized in the burning bush.  The other candle represents the New Testament and God’s ongoing revelation in Jesus Christ that continues with the Spirit which showed up on Pentecost as flames.   So, when we read all Scripture, we can assume this means the entirety of the Bible.

The second item in this phrase, “inspired by God,” also needs to be explored.  The word “inspired” comes from the Greek and can be literally translated as “breath.”[5]  We read in the creation account of God giving breath to Adam.  God gives us the breath of life.  Likewise, God gives us breath of life by inspiring those who wrote the Scriptures.  Furthermore, through the inward work of God’s Spirit, the Bible is “God’s Word in our hearts.”[6]

This passage concludes with a list of things for which scripture is to be used.  It doesn’t say that the Holy Book is a science textbook.  It doesn’t give us all the answers and is not to be used as a weapon.  It doesn’t give us all the answers.  Instead, Scripture is for teaching us about God and ourselves.[7]  It shows us where we are wrong so that we might realize our path and be brought into God’s grace and even after we have been brought into God’s fold through the forgiveness of our Savior, Scripture helps us along the path toward sanctification—as we strive to live in a manner that will honor and be pleasing to God.  In the end, as we read, as those who belong to God, through the study of scripture, we are equipped to do God’s good works in the world.

The Bible is a gift from God.  In it, we learn about God goodness and love and about our role in God’s world and coming kingdom.  If we are to be truthful to our calling as Christ followers, we must study and struggle with Scripture, praying for God’s Spirit to guide us.  For this reason, I encourage everyone of you to be involved in a Bible study, for the study of this book isn’t something we only do by ourselves late at night, it needs to be done with others who are also seeking out God’s will for their lives.  If you are not in a Bible study, ask yourselves, “why not?”  Seek out one or start a new one.  If you need resources to get started, they will be provided.  Just see me.

There was an old Jewish tradition that whenever a student would begin to study the Scriptures with a rabbi, a bit of honey would be dropped on the student’s tongue to remind him that God’s word is sweet.  It is life!  It’s the sweet life! Embrace it and live it.  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Jack Rogers in a video on the “Essential Tenets” for this joke.

[2] Isaiah 40:8 (The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of God stands forever.)

[3] 2 Timothy 1:5

[4] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Order, F-2.02

[5]J.N.D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: Timothy 1 & 2 and Titus (Hendrickson, 1960), 203

[6] Presbyterian Church, USA, Westminster Confession of Faith, Book of Confession 6.005.

[7] The third question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?”  The answer: “Scriptures principally teach what we are to believe concerning God, and what duties God requires of us.”

©2015

 


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