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In this excerpt from my book, The Evangelical and The Open Theist, I discuss the purpose of Scripture.
purpose of scripture

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Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

What follows is, with some minor modifications, an excerpt from my book The Evangelical and The Open Theist.

Since the first century, Christians have affirmed Scripture as the signpost pointing the way to salvation.

You are contentious, brethren, and zealous for the things which lead to salvation. You have studied the Holy Scriptures, which are true, and given by the Holy Spirit. (1 Clement 45:1-2)

Evangelicals continue to affirm these Scriptures, believing that “nothing unjust or counterfeit is written in them.” (v. 3)

Historic Purpose of Scripture

This historic understanding of Scripture plays an important role in evangelical theology. Indeed, at the heart of evangelicalism is an effort to maintain what evangelicals view as the ancient faith.

This devotion to the historic faith becomes particularly understandable in light of nineteenth-century German liberalism and later Bultmannian attempts to “demythologize” the Bible. It is against these efforts that evangelicalism has stood firm.

To evangelicals, Scripture stands as the invariable keeper of the apostolic teaching. This is the essential purpose of Scripture.

Evangelicals do not view themselves as a twentieth-century phenomenon. Instead, they are the defenders of the teachings of Christ and his apostles. Evangelicals understand their faith to be firmly rooted in what they believe to be “historic or biblical Orthodoxy.”[1]

Salvation as the Purpose of Scripture

Modern evangelicals echo the call of Clement of Rome. Admittedly, their view of Scripture distinguishes them from other schools of Christian thought. Salvation by faith in Christ, however, is the fundamental tenet of evangelical theology.[2] To the evangelical, Scripture is the infallible guide directing humanity to salvation.

This fundamental understanding of the purpose of Scripture echoes through various evangelical affirmations.

The Westminster Confession, for example, affirms the “full discovery [Scripture] makes of the only way of man’s salvation.”[3] Similarly, the Tyndale University College and Seminary asserts that “through the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us in the Scriptures today to accomplish his purpose of salvation in Jesus Christ.”

The 1st summary of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is less oblique.

God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.

Evangelical Guide to the Purpose of Scripture

Scripture is the ultimate guide to salvation. For, it is through Scripture that people encounter the claims of Christ and their implications for daily life.[4]

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s statement is revealing.

Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, [are] the inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of his will for the salvation of men, and the Divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life (emphasis added).

Clause 2 of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, a declaration of European evangelical faith, affirms the “power of God’s Word to accomplish his purpose of salvation.” The Japan Bible Seminary argues that Scripture “contains all that God pleased to reveal to men concerning salvation.”

The common theme running throughout such evangelical expressions is Scripture’s place as the written revelation of God for the salvation of man. “In every age and every place, this authoritative Bible, by the Spirit’s power, is efficacious for salvation through its witness to Jesus Christ.”[5]

Room for Interpretation?

This understanding of Scripture and authority, however, introduces ambiguity. That is, if Scripture exists to bring men to saving grace, then where Scripture is ambiguous or unclear on matters of doctrine, there must be room for interpretation. (After all, if the issue were essential for salvation, then Scripture would be clear.)

Understanding the fundamental purpose of Scripture as a guide for salvation puts the movement in perspective. Indeed, it opens the door for theological diversity within the evangelical community.

If the purpose of Scripture is to bring man to salvation, how narrowly must we define terms like inerrancy? Does believing in evolution undermine Christ’s ability to work his salvation? Indeed, do metaphysical questions about the present existence of future events undercut affirmation of Christ’s saving work?

The answer is perhaps, No. Yet, while insightful, that does not end the discussion. Things are not that simple. Evangelicalism must still be able to draw some lines.

Evangelicalism is, after all, a school of thought. We cannot merely point to fundamental aspects of the Christian faith, such as salvation, and call that evangelicalism. Otherwise, evangelicalism would be meaningless as a distinct movement. Indeed, it would be absorbed into larger Christianity itself.

Limits of Toleration

There must, therefore, be a limit to the diversity evangelical theology can tolerate. Obviously, Arianism and Mormonism have no place. Alternative schools of Protestant theology, such as nineteenth-century German liberalism, are also excluded.

Yet, there is a big difference between fourth-century heresies such as Arianism and open theism. Indeed, there is a huge difference between Rudolf Bultmann and Greg Boyd.

How can we draw a line?

The pertinent question, therefore, is, “Does evangelical diversity allow the presence of the open-theist?” Evangelicals “take it for granted that [they] are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture.”[6]

So, does open theism—or more importantly, do open theists—line up? In other words, does ascription to open theology necessitate a non-evangelical understanding of Scripture?

Not a Question of Salvation

We must recognize, therefore, the evangelical movement’s understanding of salvation. That is, on the one hand, evangelicals affirm that Scripture points the way to salvation. On the other, however, they do not believe an evangelical understanding of Scripture is necessary for salvation.

Take, for example, Article XIX of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith…We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.

Therefore, the issue at hand is the validity of an open theist’s claim to the title “evangelical,” not the legitimacy of his or her claim to the title “Christian.”

What Is Error?

Nonetheless, we must recognize the driving force behind the evangelical’s affirmation of a high view of Scripture. That is, the purpose of Scripture is to point man to salvation. Its infallibility is essential because it provides us with a reliable guide to God’s plan of salvation.

Recognizing the purpose of Scripture is essential for determining what infallibility or inerrancy actually mean. For example, if the purpose of Scripture were to provide scientific understandings of the creation of the universe, then denying the historicity of the six-day creation account would necessitate a denial of scriptural infallibility. Theologians affirming evolution, however, generally do not have to worry about ETS showing them the door.

Similarly, if the purpose of Scripture were to provide a comprehensive outline of future events—as the Left Behind crowd seems to affirm—open theism and infallibility could not coexist.

If, however, the infallible purpose of Scripture is to point the way to salvation, then we must define errant views in light of that purpose.

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If you are interested in reading more, you may purchase the entire book on Amazon.com.


[1] Quebedeaux, 4.

[2] John H. Gerstner, “The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith,” in The Evangelicals, ed. David. F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975), 23.

[3]“Westminster Confession of Faith,” available <http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/> (25 February 2007), ch. 1 sect. V.

[4] Quebedeaux, 4.

[5] “Amsterdam Declaration,” 2000, Definitions, 4.

[6] N. T. Wright, “Laing Lecture.”

See Also:

The Nature of Scripture

The Authority of Scripture

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