We believe in the authoritative, infallible, inerrant Word of God – and his name is Jesus.
All the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, on every hand, point us to Christ Jesus that we are to follow him.
~ Menno Simons (16th Century)
Welcome back to our concluding post in this series. If you didn’t catch the first two posts, do not read further, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Instead, go here and start at the beginning. Otherwise, let’s dive in.
Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and when it comes to the Bible, our post-Gutenberg, widely educated and online generation of the Church has been given much. Very much. And we are required to make much of what we have been given.
In this final post of our “Radical Christians & the Word of God” series, we’re moving our focus beyond authority and inerrancy to application.
The Radical Reformers of the 16th century were gaga for Scripture. They studied it, memorized large portions of it, and asked the Holy Spirit to help them use the Bible to follow Jesus. Application was everything. They were not a Bible club or an academic society; they were Jesus followers, citizens in his Kingdom, and ambassadors on behalf of Christ’s Kingdom to the kingdoms of this world.
This emphasis on application was no doubt aided by the fact that the Radicals were largely non-academic. They were less systematic theologians and more step-by-step-figure-it-out-as-you-go-along Jesus followers. An emphasis on practical application is what happens when you’re doing your theology on the run.
During the earlier years of the Radical Reformation, most of the movement’s thought leaders were imprisoned and/or executed by other Christians. This resulted in the the remaining leaders within Anabaptistism being by-and-large uneducated when compared to their Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters. This removal of their educated leadership simply reinforced to Anabaptists the idea that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, regular Christians should be able to benefit from Scripture reading, as long as they a) kept Jesus in the centre and b) read the Bible with an emphasis on application rather than on building and defending complex theological systems. So Radical Reformers read the Bible like a series of concentric circles, starting by living out the Sermon on the Mount as the bulls-eye, then zooming out to learn and obey the rest of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, then moving forward into the rest of the New Testament and backward into the Old Testament.
THE HOLY SPIRIT
As they read Scripture, the Radical Reformers believed in the active, ongoing, powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus IS Lord (not WAS Lord) and his current, ongoing, living Lordship is being activated by God’s Spirit filling his Church, the body of Christ. Many Anabaptists were charismatic, proto-Pentecostals, open to all of the gifts of the Spirit at work in their lives, yet they didn’t see the Holy Spirit as leading them away from what Jesus had already taught and modeled in Scripture. Rather, Anabaptists believed that the mark of a Holy Spirit filled Christ-follower is someone who is increasingly drawn to and becoming like Jesus. And how can we know what Jesus is really like? Here we come full circle to the Bible, but with a renewed and relentless Christ-centred focus.
Otherwise, Anabaptists taught, if we don’t use the Bible to help us follow Jesus, we’re not moving with but rather against the wind of the Holy Spirit, who is consistently blowing us toward Christ.
All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
~ Jesus (John 14:25-27)
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. …. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.
~ Jesus (John 16:13-14)
So, knowing that the very Spirit of God is moving us in the Jesus-ward direction, let’s list this as the first of three suggestions for how to make the most of the Bible…
#1. START WITH JESUS
Silhouettes are interesting, but when you love someone, why not look into their face, rather than stare at their shadow? Speaking about Old Testament teachings, the Apostle Paul wrote:
These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
~ The Apostle Paul (Colossians 2:17)
The Apostle John wrote that Jesus was such a clear vision of God, it was like everything that preceeded him could not qualify as really seeing the reality of who God is.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
~ The Apostle John (John 1:17-18)
Moses gave us the Law, but Jesus showed us the truth. Radical Christians start with Jesus.
Anabaptism makes Jesus the lens through which all Scripture is read, concentrating attention on the pattern of Jesus’ life as the authentic example of God’s will for human society. … A second distinguishing perspective, one that marked the Anabaptists off from other Protestants, was their insistence that because the New Testament (NT) is the record of God’s revelation in Jesus, the Christ, it has authority over what preceded it. This was not merely a legalistic shift from the text of the Old to the text of the New. Rather, their new authority was Jesus, the Messiah, and not Moses, the Lawgiver. Christians’ mandate is to follow Jesus, and because the NT scriptures are the trustworthy written witness to him, they are of supreme importance. The Anabaptists valued the Old as a preparatory document, the historical witness and record of God’s covenant with Israel preparing the way for Christ and a new covenant to be written on the hearts of God’s people, in the words of Jeremiah 31. The NT, they held, is the culmination of, fulfills, and serves as the interpretive key to the Old.
~ C. Norman Craus, Anabaptist or Mennonite? Interpreting the Bible (in The Conrad Grebel Review)
When we want to know what Scripture says about a certain matter, we go first to the words, example, and spirit of Jesus. We may go to other Scriptures for further background and understanding, but our primary guidance comes from Jesus.
~ Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials
Jesus is the author and finisher, the pioneer and perfecter, the start and stop, the the beginning and end, the alpha and omega of our faith (see Hebrews 12:2; Revelation 22:13). Jesus is the whole shebang. Most Christians agree with this sentiment intuitively, even if they don’t say it so plainly. Let’s face it, when Christians want to introduce new people to our faith, we hand out Gospels of John not the book of Leviticus. Somehow we intuit that “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) carries more weight than “do not eat shellfish” (Leviticus 11:12).
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. …. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.
~ C.S. Lewis, (Letter to Mrs. Johnson, November, 1952) [For more on C.S. Lewis and the Bible, see this informative lecture.]
We need to have ears to hear this. When we don’t start with Jesus, the Christian church can go terribly wrong. We will be tempted to establish the Kingdom of Christ as described in the New Testament by using the tactics of the Kingdom of Israel described in the Old Testament. This can lead to the horrific phenomenon of a zeal for Jesus (a New Covenant ideal) alongside an openness to kill others who don’t honour God in the way we think they should (an Old Covenant allowance).
This problem isn’t theoretical – we have real world evidence of what C.S. Lewis describes happening in Church history. An Anabaptist splinter group took over the German city of Münster in 1534, ignoring the Radical Reformation’s Schleitheim Confession of 1527 in which Anabaptists agreed that absolute non-violence was the way of Jesus. This charismatic cult group tried to establish a city-wide Old Testament styled theocracy by force based on what they thought was fresh revelation from the Holy Spirit. It failed miserably, and those who tried to live by the sword died by the sword.
Out of respect for the Bible as a whole, the the earliest Protestant Reformers tended toward a “flat” reading of Scripture – giving every part of the Bible equal weight in discerning God’s will. This resulted in Protestants combining the Old Covenant with the New Covenant as their blueprint for building “Christian” nations.
Read the following quotes slowly:
Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?
~ John Calvin, cited in “Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics” in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 791.
Commenting on this quotation by Calvin, Philip Schaff states,
Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel.
On this issue, Calvin was following the Bible; he was not, however, allowing the Bible to lead him to Jesus and then following Jesus. The difference is, literally, a matter of life and death.
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
~ The Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 3:6)
Martin Luther advocated violence against Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. He wrote the following about Anabaptists and other heretical groups…
That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it . . . . the stubborn sectaries must be put to death.
They teach that a Christian should not use a sword, should not serve as a magistrate, should not swear or hold property, may desert an unbelieving wife. These articles are seditions and the holders of them may be punished with the sword. We must pay no attention to their avowal ‘we did no one any harm’, because if they persuaded everybody there would be no government.
~ Martin Luther (pamphlet of 1536)
Ultimately, while we LEARN from both the Old and New Testaments, disciples of Jesus are called to LIVE in the way of the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ. In fact…
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
Let this verse produce the “shock and awe” it was meant to. One part of the Bible calling the other part “obsolete”?! A new way of living in relationship with God (the idea of “covenant”) calling the old way of living in relationship with God “outdated”?! Does this mean we should just read the New Testament? Or better, just the gospels? Or just the red letters? No, we read the entire Bible, but we read it differently. The Old Testament as our ethical rule book, as law for life, is “obsolete”. We don’t keep kosher, burn witches, or stone adulterers. Neither do most of us avoid wearing clothing woven of two kinds of material, or believe we are mandated to worship God on Saturdays (one of the top ten laws!). Yet, as God’s guide to point us to Jesus, the Old Testament endures as precious Scripture for Christians. Used this way, ALL Scripture will be “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – the righteousness of the nonviolent, enemy-loving, peace-making way of Jesus.
In fact, if you are a Gentile (non-Jew), the Old Covenant was never given to you in the first place. The Law of Moses was never your law. We are grafted into the story of Israel through Jesus. Jesus is our sponsor into God’s family. Without Jesus, the Bible is not our Holy Book. Without Jesus, we are still on the outside looking in. But because of Jesus, the story of Israel becomes our story, and the lessons they learned and recorded become our Scripture too. So the Word of God in print leads us to the Word of God in Person, and in turn he invites us back into the Scriptures to see new things we would have never noticed without his guidance.
Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.
~ Jesus (Matthew 13:52)
#2. LISTEN TO THE HOLY SPIRIT TOGETHER
The Holy Spirit began God’s communication with us through Scripture by inspiring it, and now at this end of the communication process the same Spirit is in each of us illuminating what we’re reading. This is true when we read Scripture by ourselves, and it is especially true when we read it together.
Sometimes people who are health conscious say things like, “My body is a temple”. As Christians, this is most assuredly true, even for people with my body type.
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:19)
But even more than this truth, the Bible stresses that we, together, form one unified temple for God’s Spirit to dwell within.
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
We are (plural) God’s temple (singular). And God will judge anyone who tries to tear apart his temple. Every brick in God’s house is precious. And God dwells within and between us, as we gather together around Scripture to encourage one another in living out its truth. Just as each individual Christian is a precious member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), so too we are like living bricks making up God’s holy house.
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.
~ The Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:5)
Practically speaking, the presence of God in us together means that I should be open to what God wants to say to me through you, and vice versa. Yes, our better educated scholars and pastors should be leading the discussion, but we all should be open to the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit – using those of us who lack education and status to speak God’s truth in a way that keeps all of us humble.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
Jesus is our wisdom from God, and that wisdom is revealed through people who lack influential status or strength. We will all grow as we make room in our lives to listen to and learn from our weaker brothers and sisters. Does your spiritual practice include this kind of listening to what God might be saying to you through unexpected others?
In Western society we can tend toward individualism, and that has crept into our church subculture. Doing my private devotions has become a hallmark of spiritual practice for many Evangelical Christians. Without diminishing personal Bible reading, I encourage us all to organize ourselves around the conviction that studying the Bible together amplifies the voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Studying the Bible privately at the expense of learning together as the Church was never a temptation of earlier Christians. For the first 4 centuries of the Church (not until the Council of Carthage in 397) the books to be included in and excluded from the Bible were not yet fully and finally decided, or “canonized”. After that, only those with the money to buy an expensive handwritten copy (which would take a scribe close to a year, so would cost at least a year’s wages) could afford to have a Bible. And only people who were educated and literate could read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and eventually a Latin translation. So yes, if you were a privileged, multi-lingual, wealthy scholar, then we could tell you to go have your personal, private daily devotions. But for the vast majority of Jesus followers, you would need the Church, gathered together, reading together, listening and learning together, in order to grow in your knowledge of the Scriptures.
The Bible is the book of the church. This is a perspective that the Anabaptists inherited from and share with the Catholic tradition.
~ C. Norman Craus, The Conrad Grebel Review
True, now that we can and do have our own copies of the Bible in our own language and we have the privilege of widespread literacy and higher education, we should, in humble gratitude, make the most of what we have been given. We should study the Bible on our own as well as when we’re together, but we must never tip the scales of Christian spiritual practice toward the individual at the expense of the corporate. God used the collective body of Christ to write, preserve, and translate the Bible. It would be a shame if we then saw the Bible as anything other than “the book of the church”.
#3. LIVE AND LEARN
We can only really understand the Bible if we apply the Bible. Radical Christians put the emphasis more on organic theology than academic theology.
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
~ Jesus (John 13:17)
Knowledge is like intellectual calories. A calorie is a unit of energy – energy we use to get things done. Calories are the fuel we need to live in this world. But if our intake exceeds our output, the very fuel that food gives us to be energetic and healthy will end up making us fat and unhealthy. (I’m an expert on this process.) The same is true with knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge. If we study and learn and feast on the truth of Scripture but do not apply and live and love others better because of it, the very Bible study we are hoping will help us grow will actually make us spiritually sick. This is called hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy happens when our knowledge exceeds our application. The distance between the truth we know and the truth we live is our hypocrisy gap, and the Christian life should flow from a constant desire to close that gap.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
~ James the brother of Jesus (James 1:22)
This is why, in one sense, the most important part of any Bible study is the moment we close the cover. That’s when we’ll see if we have been reading for information or for transformation.
ADDITIONAL TIPS AND TRICKS
- Get your own physical Bible. Studies show that using a physical Bible that you can mark up and interact with is better for learning over time than only using digital Bibles on your phone, tablet, or computer. We are physical beings who learn in real space. We remember things in books by also picturing where those thoughts were on the page and how far into the book they are located. We may also be helped by picturing our own underlining and other markings on the pages. All of these physical, visual, tactile realities work together to help our minds receive and recall information. A screen Bible is terrific to use as an immediate concordance and to consult multiple translations, but it can never take the place of a physical Bible.
- Bring your primary Bible with you to Sunday service and/or wherever you are reading and learning from it. Mark it up. Take notes in the margins, underline and circle specific words or phrases. I use a symbol system I made up to help me remember places and topics and themes in the Bible. It isn’t sophisticated. A cross for salvation. A heart for love. A crown for the Kingdom. A lighthouse for evangelism. A footprint for discipleship (following Jesus). A pitchfork for the devil (he uses one of those, doesn’t he?). Etc.
- If you’re at a church that prints sermon notes, like we do at The Meeting House, take notes on those and keep them in your Bible. Come back to them later in the week for review and reflection.
- If you attend The Meeting House, take your Bible and sermon notes with you to Home Church. Be ready to hit the ground running with your own questions and reflections. We learn best by interacting with the material, not just listening to lectures/sermons.
- Whether at Home Church or in another context that could be a learning opportunity, ask lots of questions. Be eager to learn and grow. Take responsibility for your own spiritual development within the context of a loving community who can help you.
- Don’t just read the Bible, but pray through and meditate on Scripture. I taught more about this in our series “Way to Pray” so I’ll just leave this here as a reminder. When we study, it’s like typing information into our brains. When we meditate, it’s like hitting the enter key.
- Tell others what you are learning, especially your non-Christian friends. Psychologists call it the protégé effect – tutors who help other students will grow and learn faster.
When we teach, we learn.
~ Seneca (Roman Philosopher)
Our Protestant friends sometimes talk about the church being “reformed and always reforming”. I hope this is always true for all of our lives. God will help us grow as we learn from one another across our denominational divides. If you’ve resonated with this series, whether you are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”, you may also be a little bit Anabaptish. Whatever your leaning, thank you for giving this series about the Bible your attention. It’s been fairly theological and I really appreciate you tapping into your inner egghead and sticking with me! Next blog post will be more devotional, as I talk about my favourite recent scary movie. 🙂
In the meantime, join me in praying along with King David:
Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your teaching.
~ King David (Psalm 119:18)
NEXT POST, COMING SOON…
The Father’s Love in A Quiet Place
PS: Don’t forget to sign up for future email updates!
PPS: For more on the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the Anabaptist movement, listen to this informative lecture given by a Protestant scholar.