Language is a curious affair. It flirts with an idea for a time and then shifts to new meanings and intents as the users themselves shift. The relationship between a word and its meaning is seldom exclusive beyond a moment.
Two, three, five definitions are common for words. A spoken tone can convey shifting meanings as the context updates. And so it is with the use of the word “Scripture”.
When is Scripture, Scripture?
It has been said that only the Old Testament writings are verifiable Scripture and that the New Testament writings are just cherished tradition. Skeptics try to deny the scriptural reliability of the New Testament by claiming that those original Apostles viewed the Old Testament as Scripture and not their own writings.
However, none of writers of the Bible, at any time in history, called what they wrote Scripture. In fact, it is not even a word used in the Old Testament. The closest reference in Hebrew is a word that simply means “writings” and it does not convey any special sanctity on its own.
The extra-biblical use of the label “Scripture” came into use after the Hebrew canon had become widely accepted. That is why it was an understood word for the Old Testament by the time of Jesus and used by the Apostles and Jesus in reference to the ancient scrolls.
But it should be noted that this word for “holy Writ” remains just as fluid. Just as the prophets of Old didn’t label their own writings as Scripture, neither did the New Testament authors. That fact, however, does not prevent either set of documents from rightly being identified eventually as Scripture.
So, when is it appropriate to call the writings of the Bible “Scripture”? Let’s take a brief look at how the Bible itself addresses this truth.
The Bible Speaks
First of all, a significant distinction needs to be made: Whereas we tend to view how the Bible is identified in terms of writings and documentation, that is not the primary way God addresses it.
The term Scripture is used over 50 times in the New Testament. The phrase “word of God” is used over 40 times throughout the Bible, and the dominant identifier of “the word of the Lord” is used some 250 times (13 of which are in the New Testament).
The Holy Spirit uses “the word of the Lord” as the most common term for all of what is recorded in the Christian Bible, so let’s take a look at how he uses this label. You may be surprised to find that he does not emphasize the recorded documents when speaking.
The first evidence of this phrase is in Gen 15:1 and it says, “the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not”. For the sake of brevity in this post, I will not belabor the point that is so clearly made here by citing the remaining 250 plus references. Quite simply, the word of the Lord is the Voice of God, the Person of the God-head through whom the Almighty speaks to his creation.
The Divine Pronoun
More properly the word of the Lord is not an “it”, as in a document in which God’s words are recorded, but most importantly a “He”. The verses demonstrate this distinction in pronoun use as well. Certainly, over time, the written evidence of what was spoken by that Word can rightly be attributed the same degree of holiness in what it says, since the message is identical. Nevertheless, it is the living Person that the Bible primarily identifies with this dominant label for what comes from God.
This revelation is significant when considering how the same term is used in the New Testament. When Peter heard the rooster crow the third time, the writer says that “Peter remembered the word of the Lord”, which of course was a reference to what Jesus spoke, not to something from the Old Testament. In fact, every post-incarnational reference of this phrase speaks about Jesus and not about quotes from the Old canon.
In other words, the usage is uniform throughout the Bible. The “word of the Lord” is a direct reference to the One that the Apostle John understood as the Living Word who was God.
Synonyms for the Word
In addition, the term “the word of the Lord” is used interchangeably with the term gospel (see Act 8:25; 1 Pet 1:25; 2 Tim 8-9). It is expanded to the identical phrase “the word of the Lord Jesus” (Act 19:10). The apostles also re-label it as “the truth”. And it is used to authorize statements made through the Apostles and that are not recorded elsewhere in the Bible (in other words it justifies their spoken statements as originating from the Voice of God even after the resurrection of Jesus; see 1 Thes 4:15).
By the era of the early Church, references to Scripture were understood to apply to the Old Testament canon. Apollos was said to possess a “thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (a.k.a. Old Testament canon). However, he was ignorant of the “way of the Lord” and needed instruction beyond his depth of study, which earlier in Acts 18 was called “the word of God”.
Peter has a similar view of these terms. At one point he states “For in Scripture it says”, and then quotes, as Jesus had done, out of all three traditional sections: The Law, Prophets, and Writings (look at your Bible footnotes for 1 Pet to verify this). And yet, as distinct from what could be read in the ancient scrolls, he also identified the word of the Lord as “the word that was preached to you”. In 1 Pet 1:12 he separates the subject-matter of the word of the Lord and its source from what most would have called Scripture at that time in saying, “by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from Heaven.”
The observation here is that the early Apostles understood that most people had come to accept the term Scripture to reference the documented canon of Old Testament books. And yet, with regard to their view of the primary sanctity of the “word of the Lord”, which was the biblical term for all that came from God, it applied to those ancient writings as well as all that Jesus spoke, and even all that the Apostles preached.
Just as with the Old Testament writings, time would tell which documents were accepted as holy Writ. It was not necessary for the Apostles to label their own writings with a term that had a limited meaning at that time. The term that was clearly understood by all Jews to indicate infallible truth from God was already in use in the New Testament writings.
And so, although Scripture was accepted to reference the Old Testament, the primary term of “the word of the Lord”, as well as the similar phrase “the word of God”, would pave the way for eventual identification of the New Testament canon with the same “holy writing” term of Scripture.
The Shift of Scripture as a Label
This shift was already beginning toward the end of the first century. One of the last things Peter wrote was comparing how ignorant people tend to distort the writings of Paul just “as they do the other Scriptures”. In this final letter, Peter even quotes God from Heaven when he thundered about Jesus’ supremacy, the same word which was recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke (whose Gospel accounts would have had to quote someone like Peter who had been present at that transfiguration event).
Paul even says that “Scripture says” and then quotes from both the Old and New Testaments (see 1 Tim 5:18 which quotes from Dt 25:4 and Lu 10:7).
At another time, Paul identifies a quote from Isaiah as Scripture, but then immediately portrays “the message” that brings salvation as “the word of Christ” (Rom 10:11-17), thereby demonstrating something beyond the 1st Century definitions of what qualifies as God’s word (e.g. something more than just the Old Testament writings).
As a result, although technically correct, it would be misleading to say that the New Testament writers didn’t view what they wrote as being Scripture. Instead:
“when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God”
“he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God”
Both of these quotes were written in what is widely considered the very first book written in the New Testament canon.
When Scripture becomes Scripture
And so, in spite of the dismissiveness of critics, the Living word of God spoke to both prophets of old as well as the original Apostles. They then recorded what was given to them, which over time, as supported by the fruitful evidence of sanctification and preservation by the Holy Spirit, became identified as both the breathed Word of the Lord and the same documented word of divine Scripture–both Old and New Testament.
That is how the Word of God flirted with the label of Scripture.
There is a lot more scriptural evidence to back this up and you are invited to include your additions.