Sunday, 18 September 2005

Is the doctrine of Scripture “foundational”?

In a recent essay[1] the British theologian John Webster has spoken of the “dogmatic mislocation” of the doctrine of Scripture. The doctrine of Scripture is mislocated when it is placed at the head of a systematic theology, and used as a “foundational doctrine” on which the rest of theology depends. Used in this way, the doctrine of Scripture becomes “a relatively isolated piece of epistemological teaching.”

Instead of using the doctrine of Scripture in such a foundational way, Webster argues that we should regard it as a “consequential doctrine,” a doctrine which rests on our prior theological understandings of God, revelation and salvation.

Here Webster is making essentially the same point that I have been making in this series of posts. We do not start with a theological conception of Scripture, but we start with the gospel of God’s saving act in Jesus, and from this standpoint we develop a theological account of Scripture. When a systematic theology (or a course of theological lectures) begins with a “doctrine of Scripture,” the result is a formalised and distorted view of Scripture that has lost all contact with Scripture’s own subject-matter and significance.

Our knowledge of God is not derived from a certain collection of supernatural texts; rather our knowledge of God arises from God’s own saving self-revelation in Jesus Christ (to which the biblical texts bear witness). In other words, Scripture is not the “foundation” of our knowledge of God, but rather our knowledge of God through the gospel is the “foundation” of our understanding of Scripture.

And this means that the only proper basis for a doctrine of Scripture is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] John B. Webster, “‘A Great and Meritorious Act of the Church?’ The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” in Die Einheit der Schrift und die Vielfalt des Kanons (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), pp. 95-126.

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