Study of the nature of the relationship of the sixty-six canonical books of the Bible. The unity of Scripture claims that the Bible presents a noncontradictory and consistent message concerning God and redemptive history. The fact of diversity is observed in comparing the individual authors' presentations of God and history.
Foundational Issues. The foundation of the unity of the Bible is the belief that the sixty-six books of the Bible encode God's self-disclosure of himself and his will to his creation. God's method of conveying this revelation includes the diversity of time, culture, authors, literary genre, and the theological themes that address the special needs in the progress of that revelation.
The self-witness of the Bible to its inspiration demands a commitment to its unity. The ultimate basis for unity is contained in the claim of divine inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:16, that "all Scripture is given by inspiration [theopneustos [qeovpneusto"]] of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (KJV). The term "inspiration" renders the Greek word theopneustos [qeovpneusto"]. This term only occurs here in the New Testament and literally means "God-breathed" (the chosen translation of the NIV). Paul's use of "all" focuses on the already composed Old Testament as well as the developing New Testament. This certainly reflects Jesus' authoritative use of the Old Testament in his teaching recorded in the Gospels. Peter also stresses that Scripture is a divine product and therefore authoritative ( 2 Peter 1:19-21 ; 3:15-16 ). Peter's discussion of earth history in 2 Peter 3 assumes the unity of God's control of history. It is obvious that he would also assume a unity in the biblical record of that control. The statements of Paul and Peter model a belief in the unity of Scripture on a priori grounds.
This approach to the unity of Scripture is often attacked on the basis that it is circular reasoning, using the source (the Bible) as a testimony to itself. Modern liberal scholars claim to reject such a procedure, denying unity by highlighting the diversity of the data within the Bible. We have noted, however, that ultimately our commitment to Scripture is an issue of faith. All ultimate beliefs appeal to a circle of reasoning for their support, even the beliefs of liberal biblical critics. At the same time, while it is not within the purpose of the present article to prove the point, it can be argued vigorously and with intellectual integrity that the phenomena of Scripture support a belief in its unity.
The Unity of Scripture. The Bible has one heart beat. It is an organic unity because an infinite God orchestrated its production. God normally accomplished this task through human instrumentality without violating the integrity of those individuals. Such a process cannot be studied in a test tube; it can only be proclaimed. This is exactly how Peter and Paul described it. Therefore, the organic unity of Scripture is ultimately a theological proposition that reflects a presupposition concerning the nature of God. Although this unity is a deductive proposition, it is inductively illustrated from the phenomena. We do not have a unity of Scripture because we can prove it from the phenomena, but we have phenomenological unity because it exists. The phenomenological study of Scripture serves several purposes: (1) to explicate the beauty of the product of Scripture; (2) to answer the critics who would demean its divine origin and unity; (3) to expose the diversity that is a part of God's plan as represented by its presence in the biblical record.
The unity of Scripture is observed in numerous categories. The normative nature of moral biblical teaching over a period of thousands of years as recorded from Genesis to Revelation is most striking. While the narrative structures make their own contextually specific points, there is a thread of continuity in regard to the larger moral expectations of God. It is as if the Bible reads us rather than us reading the Bible. It is a mirror in which we see ourselves, whether observing the struggles of the first family, the patriarchs, David and the kings, the prophets, or Jesus and the apostles. The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, James, and 1 John present a harmonious voice for what constitutes godly character.
The interdependence of the Old Testament and New Testament requires a view of unity. The Old Testament is incomplete without the next chapter, the New Testament. The New Testament is not understandable without the Old Testament as a prolegomena. Jesus as Messiah brings both together and presents not only a unity but provides information for the final chapter the eschaton. The use of the Old Testament in the Old Testament (e.g., the call narrative of Jer. 1 reflects Deut. 18) and the Old Testament in the New Testament illustrates this interdependence. The naturalness of this relationship is noted in that the New Testament uses the Old Testament as proof texts, showing continuity with the Old Testament in theological assertions, analogies in redemptive history (e.g., Matt 2:17-18 ), and typological fulfillment. The use of the Old Testament in the New Testament as direct predictive prophecy is much less frequent than the above categories, but the fact of prophetic fulfillment argues strongly for the unity of the Bible. Prophetic fulfillment within the Old Testament and especially during the earthly messianic era demonstrates God's sovereign control over history and the resultant unity of the redemptive record.
The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus did not totally take Israel by surprise because it was in concord with the Old Testament prophets. Paul presented promise and fulfillment themes from the perspective that his teaching is identical with the Old Testament promises (cf. Rom 1:2 ; 4:14 ; Gal 4:18 ). The Book of Revelation does not contain one formal quote from the Old Testament, yet it cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of all biblical revelation that preceded it.
The historical and ethnic details illustrate continuity. The genealogies of Jesus rehearse ethnic origins and God's plan. Abraham is still a father model for those who believe when Romans and Galatians are read. Jesus and Paul go to the "Jews first." Paul argues that Israel is still important to God even though the Gentiles are now grafted into his plan (Rom. 9-11). The Book of Revelation ends where Genesis began, in an edenic garden.
A permeating theological continuity exists throughout Scripture. The development of a complete Christian worldview requires an understanding of the biblical story line from Genesis to Revelation. Genesis provides the nesting place for redemptive history. Revelation forecasts the culmination with abundant allusions to Genesis motifs. It is also interesting that the Gospel authored by the apostle John (assuming he also authored Revelation) focuses on the creation motif in its prologue.
The Scriptures present a singular view regarding sin and salvation. The Bible opens in Genesis 1-3 with a narrative on creation, fall, and redemption. The Scriptures then proceed to develop these themes. All subsequent passages depend upon these established motifs until the consummation in the Apocalypse delivers humankind and places them in an eternal utopia like the Garden of Eden. The New Testament illustrates this dependence. The classic text of Romans 3 defines sin by stringing Old Testament quotes together. When Peter engages his own sinfulness, it seems that he does so in Isaianic imagery (cf. Isa 6:5 ; with Luke 5:8 ). From Abraham to Paul, salvation is by faith and faith alone. From Abraham to James, righteousness by faith is functional (a point also noted by Paul in Eph 2:10 ; Titus 3:3-8 ).
The concept of covenant provides a major framework for unity and diversity within the record of God's redemptive work. The Old Testament presents the relationship between God and humankind in terms of a series of covenants. Covenant forms are presented to Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses; then the promise of a new covenant appears in the prophets. Old Testament theology forms many of its concepts around covenantal terminology. Common terms such as "know, " "lovingkindness, " and "love" bear special meaning in many contexts. The statement in Romans 9:13, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated, " is best understood in terms of an established covenant with Jacob and not with Esau. The New Testament reflects the continuing presence of a covenant consciousness in Zechariah's hymn of praise ( Luke 1:67-79 ) and the Epistle of Hebrews.
The christological continuity of the Testaments is undeniable. The New Testament correlates with the Old Testament concerning Jesus' place of birth, family line, forerunner, suffering, death, and future kingdom. Matthew is so conscious of this correlation that he creates a quotation from the Old Testament on a very broad analogy of Jesus as the rejected one in order to justify Jesus being raised in Nazareth ( Matt 2:23 ). The baptism of Jesus marks him as the anointed servant of the Lord. Jesus adopts a particularly messianic title" son of man" from Daniel 7 as his favorite way of referring to himself. All Bible students wish Luke would have recorded more than a mere reference of Jesus' exposition of himself from the Old Testament (24:25-27; 24:44). The correlation of Jesus with the Passover Lamb at the beginning and end of his earthly ministry presents a most prominent Jewish imagery of salvation.
The Diversity of Scripture. The focus of skepticism in relation to Scripture as a unified divine revelation has been on what it views as irreconcilable diversity within the phenomena of the biblical text. Several issues need to be considered as one evaluates diverse data. One major flaw in evaluating what constitutes unity is to assume that unity means unanimity. The New Testament's record of disagreements between Peter and Paul, Paul and Barnabas, and many other items, does not reflect irreconcilable differences but reveals the struggle of the christological transition. Jesus warned about a variety of tensions that accompany times of transition when he described old and new wine, old and new cloth, family members turning against each other, and many other aspects of conflict over the revelation of God's developing program.
Another problem in evaluating diversity relates, once again, to the matter of presuppositions. An example by analogy is the matter of Luke's record of the Quirinius census at the time of Jesus' birth. If a scholar assumes that the biblical authors are only correct when clear external collaborating evidence is present, then Luke will not be viewed as accurate. If Luke, however, is given the benefit of the doubt as a historian, then one can build a strong case of probability on behalf of his accuracy. The same principle applies when evaluating diverse material in the Bible. If Scripture is viewed for what it claims to be, reasonable explanations for diversity can usually be provided or merely allow the tension to stand. On the other hand, if Scripture is viewed as nothing more than a composite body of literature that records a varied history of religion, no amount of explanation will satisfy.
A failure to accept diversity can often be another problem. The unity and diversity of Scripture must ultimately be described by the evidence in the biblical text. What exists in the text is, by our own evangelical presupposition, what God intended for us to have and it is inerrant. If we fail to assimilate into our overall biblical worldview the diversity God has created, we will miss an important aspect of God's character and plan. Diversity itself is complementary and not contradictory! Therefore, diversity as well as unity must be taken into account. The technical development of exegesis among evangelical biblical scholars over the past several decades provides us with an adequate tool chest to accomplish this task. The work of evangelical scholars in relation to accounting for the diversity that exists in the Synoptic Gospels provides some helpful principles in accounting for other areas of diversity within Scripture.
The old liberal presentation of negative diversity in the Bible was based upon certain controlling presuppositions. Examples include composite authors who were attached to rival sects (e.g., the JEDP theory), assumed antitheses between Jesus and Paul, and discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ (which means the Christ preached by the early church without any necessary connection with what Jesus of Nazareth actually said). This article will cite the more positive examples of diversity, which should be viewed from the human perspective as God-ordained diversity.
The New Testament writers use a great variety of semantic domains to describe the same issues. One striking example occurs between Paul and John's description of gospel proclamation. Paul uses the euangel- word-group ("proclaim the gospel/good news") to image his proclamation of the gospel and thereby has made the term "gospel" a household word among Christians. John never uses any form of this term in his Gospel or epistles (the occurrences in Rev 10:7 and Rev 14:6 ; are merely good news in general ). John utilizes the martur- word-group ("witness") and thereby images his proclamation of the gospel as a "witness." Since John's Gospel was probably written after Paul's influential mission, does this mean that he disagreed with Paul? No, he merely chose another term to suit his purposes. Another aspect of semantics concerns the definition a writer gives to a term. Paul views the concept of righteousness almost exclusively as a forensic issue. Most other biblical writers use the terms for righteousness in functional ways, reflecting the evidences of one's legal standing with God. Jesus and Paul and James and Paul do not contradict one another; they merely provide a variety of perspectives upon a larger issue.
Apparent theological diversity provides many difficult areas to explain. How do you resolve the dilemma of the divine will and human responsibility? The "problem of evil" question" If God is ultimate good, and God has ultimate power, then how can he allow evil to exist?" challenges each new generation of Christian theologians. The Acts of Yahweh in the Old Testament ( Jos 6:15-21 ), and the teaching of the God-Man ( Luke 9:54-55 ) in the New Testament appear on opposite ends of a continuum to many. How God can hate sin and love sinners, save some and consign others to eternal punishment, defies explanation in the minds of many sensitive people. Yet, these are all expressions of diversity Scripture upholds without providing the reader with a systematic theology footnote to ease the tension. Biblical diversity is not to be rejected or simply explained away. It must be incorporated into our total world and life view.
Gary T. Meadors
Bibliography. D. L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible; J. Barr, The Bible in the Modern World and Fundamentalism; J. D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament; D. P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible; F. Gaebelein, "The Unity of the Bible, " inRevelation and the Bible; N. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy; J. Goldingay, VT 34 (1984):153-68; J. Grier, GTJ 1ns (1980); C. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 4; L. J. Kuyper, The Scripture Unbroken; G. Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method; R. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man; J. I. Packer, JETS25 (1982):409-14; V. Poythress, Symphonic Theology; H. H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible; F. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason; J. Walvoord, ed., Inspiration and Interpretation.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Scripture, Unity and Diversity of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".