Oliver O’Donovan: Six Theses on Scripture

Oliver O’Donovan: Six Theses on scripture

1. Scripture is set apart from every other literary corpus simply by its function in the saving purposes of God; it is a literary corpus that is, to use John Webster’s term, “sanctified” to its task. But that is of a piece with the saving purposes of God to call out Israel and to anoint Christ for the salvation of the world. The specialness of Scripture belongs to its connection with Israel and Christ.

2. Holy Scripture is a part of God’s own self-attestation in deed and word. It is not a secondary reflection on it, which, had it not occurred, would have left God’s message about himself intact. In speaking of Scripture, then, we properly speak of the voice of God as well as of the voice of its human authors.

3. The authors of the books of Scripture were called to perform human tasks in God’s service, just as Israel was. There specialness does not consist in some unique superhuman activity, as though writing a Gospel was different from writing anything else. They are special because of their place in the redeeming work of God. Nothing in the humanity of the authors implies an imperfection in their work; nothing in their election to divine service authorizes us to attribute to them any other perfection than the one relevant perfection: God attests himself through them.

4. The faith demanded of the reader of Scripture is faith in the saving work of God attested there, which is therefore a faith in Scripture too. It implies willingness to accept the testimony of Scripture without presuming to improve upon it—by excision, by correction, or by privileging a canon within the canon—but instead simply seeking to understand in fidelity and obedience, without presuppositions or conditions.

5. Every element of Scripture contributes to the testimony of the whole, but the different contributions are not uniform. The right understanding of any given element of Scripture is determined by its relation to the whole; but that means by its relation to the historical shape of the event that Scripture attests, the calling of Israel fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

6. The church’s role in determining the canon was in the first place an act of recognition, discerning and acknowledging the unity and authority that belonged to this literature by virtue of its sanctification by God. At the same time, secondarily, it was, like the framing of the creeds themselves, an exercise of its authority to teach. the ARCIC report The Gift of Authority said well, “It was at the same time an act of obedience and authority.”

from “The Moral Authority of Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, (Baker, 2008), 166-167.

Robert Jenson on scripture

Robert Jenson on scripture

The churches most faithful to Scripture are not those that legislate the most honorific propositions about Scripture, or even those that most diligently scrutinize proposed theologumena for their concordance with it, but those that most often and thoughtfully actually read and hear it.

from “The Religious Power of Scripture,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 52, No. 1, (1999): 90.

There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. […] Since the gospel is whatever the apostles said to say “Jesus is risen,” apostolic reflective activity also — however profoundly or superficially done — must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

Thus it is not that Paul thought through the gospel better than, say, Irenaeus; the matter is in fact debatable. And having named Paul, we have named one of the few New Testament writers who, so far as the documents show, could compete in precision and profundity with many saints and thinkers who have come after. The New Testament witnesses are not necessarily the deepest or most critical or creative speakers of the gospel; they are the ones we must suppose did not simply do something else. That some of the New Testament writers were also genial thinkers is a bonus.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 The Triune God, (OUP, 1997), 32. [this quote speaks only to scripture’s status as a norm for theological inquiry, which, it may need pointing out, does not comprehend the scope of scripture’s diverse vocations. It isn’t only theologians who consult scripture, but also liturgists, evangelists, pastors, artists, the saints (the list could go on), all of whom find in scripture a co-laborer.]

Churchly interpretation of Scripture is not interpretation that obeys some preferred procedure, that, e.g., prefers redaction criticism to form criticism or vice versa, or eschews critical methods altogether, or follows any similar prescription. Churchly interpretation of Scripture is interpretation done in course of activities specific to the church: missionary preaching, liturgy, homiletics, catechetics, endurance of suffering, governance, care of souls, works of charity, etc. And there is no way to list in advance what roles Scripture may play in these different enterprises and their changing historical situations.

from “The Religious Power of Scripture,” 95.

Bibliography of Jenson on scripture …


  • “On the Problem(s) of Scriptural Authority,” Interpretation 31, (1977): 237-50.
  • “Can a Text Defend Itself? An Essay de Inspiratione Scripturae,” dialog 28, (1989): 251-56.
  • “Simplistic Thoughts about the Authority of Scripture,” Word and World, (1992): 181-90.
  • “Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church,” in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Eerdmans, 1995), 89-106.
  • “The Religious Power of Scripture,” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 52, No. 1, (1999)
  • “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, Eds., Ellen Davis and Richard Hays, (Eerdmans, 2003), 27-37
  • “Identity, Jesus, and Exegesis,” in Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Eds., Beverly Gaventa and Richard Hays, (Eerdmans, 2008), 43-59.


  • Systematic Theology, 2 Vol. (OUP, 1997, 1999), Ch. 2 & 29
  • Song of Songs, (Westminster John Knox, 2005)
  • Ezekiel, (Brazos, 2009)
  • Canon and Creed, (Westminster John Knox, 2010)
  • On the Inspiration of Scripture, (American Lutheran Publication Bureau, 2012)