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radical christians & the word of god (part 3 of 3): application

Dusty Bible

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.
(Hebrews 8:13)

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 
  7. 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)

CONCLUSION

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)

Peace,

 

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.

 

 

 

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radical christians & the word of god (part 2 of 3): inerrancy

Sword on a Bible

We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.

Welcome back! In this second part of our series on Scripture we’re talking about the idea of biblical inerrancy, why many Anabaptists like myself don’t use the term to describe what we think about the Bible, why that makes some Evangelicals uncomfortable, and why this should be an issue for rich discussion and debate, not division. (If you haven’t read part 1 yet, please start here.)

Radical Reformers (or Anabaptists) tend to talk about Jesus the way Protestant Reformers tend to talk about the Bible: Jesus is our perfect, inerrant, infallible, authority. What Christian would want to argue with that? (Quite a few, apparently, but let’s move on.) Now we’re asking, what do Anabaptists believe about the actual text of Scripture? Here’s the quick answer, and then we’ll slow down and unpack it: Anabaptists believe similar things to many Evangelicals about the Bible, we just tend to use different words and concepts to describe it. You will often hear (or read) me saying things like “Anabaptists tend to say it this way or that way” because our differences are often exactly that – a matter of tendency, of where we put the emphasis in our theology rather than trying to create a different theology. Our default? Jesus is always our emphasis.

But wait! Before you read further, two warnings:
#1. Please know that this post is primarily for theological eggheads and committed Bible nerds. The next post will be more practical, honest.
#2. This post is way too long. Sorry!

So, if you’re a Bible nerd with too much time on your hands, you’ve just struck gold. Enjoy!
Otherwise – see you next time!

MY STORY

In the first post of this series I talked a bit about my experience as a Baptist pastor investigating the Anabaptist tradition. I was asked to consider pastoring a Brethren In Christ church (now called Be In Christ in Canada). Even though part of me was thrilled with what might become my new denominational home, as a transitioning Evangelical I remember being suspicious when I couldn’t find the word “inerrant” in the BIC’s statement of faith. I was beginning to fall in love with this simple family of joyful Jesus followers and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh no! I knew they were too good to be true!” Inerrancy, I had been taught, was the litmus test of orthodoxy. Look for a clear and bold proclamation of the inerrancy of Scripture in any denomination’s statement of faith and you could be more certain that they were a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching orthodox group of Christians – or so I thought. Today I’m so glad I didn’t run away from the issue or suppress my questions, and instead leaned into Scripture and the ongoing conversation around Scripture with my new Radically Reformed friends.

I remember meeting with the Bishop of the Canadian BIC at that time, Darrell Winger, to ask him about this potentially dangerous omission from the BIC statement of faith. “I’m wondering what to make of the absence of inerrancy in your doctrinal statement. Does this mean you believe the Bible is errant?” Darrell’s response was simple: “It just means we don’t think in those terms. Nothing more and nothing less.” Then he added, “But if you hang out with us for any length of time, you’ll see that we believe the Bible is breathed out by God, and as we read it together, God uses the Bible to thoroughly equip us to follow Jesus.” And that has been precisely my experience with Anabaptism.

Some Anabaptists (like the Brethren in Christ / Be In Christ) have no doctrine of the “inerrancy” of Scripture. We are not anti-inerrancy; we simply emphasize the perfection of Christ more than we highlight the perfection of Scripture. Rather, we stick to biblical language like saying all Scripture is “inspired” and “useful” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
~ From sermon notes in our teaching series “Radical Reformation” (You can listen to that series here.)

THE LIMITATIONS OF INERRANCY

Many (though not all) Evangelicals do hold to a doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, and by that they mean that the original copies of the Old Testament and New Testament texts were so inspired by the Holy Spirit that they are without error in everything they affirm. (Note: we don’t have the originals any more, but we do have enough early copies that we can get very close to what the original manuscripts said.) These Christians believe that the Holy Spirit did not allow any human error to creep into the process of recording the original handwritten biblical texts (what are called “the original autographs”). So technically, the idea of inerrancy does not apply directly to any existing Bibles today. All Christians agree (perhaps with the exception of the KJV only tribe, but that’s another issue), the Bible you hold in your hand or read online is not inerrant. It was not copied from the original manuscripts inerrantly, it was not translated inerrantly, and while we’re at it, you the reader are not understanding it inerranty. Yet God still speaks. His gospel is still proclaimed and the Holy Spirit still illuminates our understanding and application as we study it together. The process is imperfect, but it is a process God works through powerfully. We, the recipients of Scripture, do not live the teachings of Jesus out inerrantly, but we are introduced to Jesus who lived inerrantly and died sacrificially and rose triumphantly and is still passionately involved in our lives today by the Holy Spirit.

In brief, then, it would be more accurate for those Christians who embrace biblical inerrancy to adjust their grammar to say that Scripture was, not is, inerrant in the original copies. Or maybe there is a better way of talking about the Bible altogether. (Hint: that’s where we’re going here folks.)

Many Protestants – from C.S. Lewis to Ben Witherington III to N.T. Wright (to name a few) – align with Anabaptists in pointing out the inadequacies of inerrancy as a Christian doctrine, for a variety of reasons.

I don’t call myself an “inerrantist” because
(a) that word means what it means within a modernist rationalism, which I reject and
(b) because it seems to me to have failed in delivering a full-blooded reading and living of what the Bible actually says.
~ N.T. Wright, Anglican Scholar

As a segment of Anabaptist and Evangelical scholars have always pointed out, inerrancy also puts our focus on the negative, by emphasizing what what Bible is not – errant.

The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects– history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.
~ Ben Witherington III, Interview with Michael F. Bird

The late Luke Keefer, an influential BIC scholar, reminds us that committed Christ-followers should not need the added assurance.

Terms like “inerrant” and “infallible” are negative terms. They declare what the Bible is not – that it contains no errors and is not capable of being at fault. There is an assumption that the Bible must be defended against certain attacks upon it. But certainly it needs no such defense against people who believe that it is the only complete, reliable, true, and authoritative Word of God.
~ Luke Keefer, Jr., “Inerrancy” and the Brethren In Christ View of Scripture

And if inerrancy is an unnecessary assurance for committed Christ-followers, it can become a distracting claim for non-Christians. When I am sharing the gospel with someone and I claim to know about Jesus because the Bible is inerrant, I end up shifting the weight of the conversation from a Person to a book. I have, in a sense, dared my conversation partner to find fault with the Bible, as though my faith stands or falls on the perfection of the text. (When in reality, even this claim of inerrancy is about a version of the text that doesn’t exist any more.) The whole enterprise of evangelism – gospel sharing – can be thrown “off centre” (which is Jesus!) and, as Ben Witherington III points out, the claim itself can die the death of a thousand qualifications. “No error? At all? Then what about…?” and off we go, talking about something interesting, but not central.

Ironically, our Buddhist friends get this better than many Christians. When Buddhists talk about their beliefs, they focus on sharing the teachings of the Buddha rather than arguing for the perfection of the Pali Canon, their earliest Scriptures. As someone who cares about evangelism, I want to do my best to keep the conversation moving toward the good news about Jesus even more than the good news about the Bible. Arguments about inerrancy do not help me help others focus on Jesus.

Another inadequacy with an emphasis on inerrancy is that it can tend to lead to word legalism. After all, if every word of Scripture is individually important, should we not honour God by staring into each word on its own? Word studies can be very helpful, but if we lean too far in that direction, our Bible study can miss the forest for the trees.

Sometimes we do see cases of the New Testament writers emphasizing a single word of Scripture to make their point. In Galatians 3:16, for example, the apostle Paul highlights the word “seed” in Genesis 22:18 as part of his argument. Inerrantists might argue, if Paul based an entire argument on the numerical value of the noun (seed vs seeds), then every word of the Bible must be personally and perfectly picked by God. Perhaps. But I would argue that here Paul is not building his theology around a single word (his approach to Scripture is much more robust), but is using this single word to illustrate the point he is already making. Elsewhere we see that the New Testament writers tend to quote the Old Testament more thought-for-thought than word-for-word, often following closer to the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) rather than the original Hebrew words of Scripture.  These New Testament writers chose not to quote the actual words of the Hebrew text, yet they show no signs that they fear they might be watering down the power of the message itself.

Jesus himself follows this same pattern of interacting with the Hebrew Bible. In Mark 12, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Law. This is a question about Scripture itself, so you would think accuracy would be a priority in answering. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 when he answers:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
~ Jesus (Mark 12:30)

Only here’s the thing: there is no “and with all your mind” in Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus has inserted it because it helps to emphasize the point of this passage. He is focusing more on the message of Scripture than the individual words of Scripture. And his earliest disciples followed his example.

The four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were written in Greek, probably because Greek was the lingua franca of their day – the common language that would help their message spread furthest and fastest. Many people in the first century were bi-lingual, speaking their original tongue plus Greek, which is similar to how English is spoken around the world today. Jews spoke Aramaic (a language related to Hebrew), and Romans spoke Latin, but they could both communicate with each other through Greek. Now, did you catch that – Jews spoke Aramaic. Jesus spoke Aramaic. His teachings, among his fellow Jews, were in Aramaic. But the gospel writers wrote them down in Greek. Apparently, the writers of the four gospels who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to preserve the very teaching of Jesus didn’t feel the need to capture his exact words. Instead, the first written record of Jesus’ teaching is already a translation. The New Testament writers felt the radical freedom to make a practical, pragmatic, strategic decision – promote the word (or message) of Jesus rather than preserve the precise words of Jesus. There are so many missional lessons in this for us today, but I’ll have to save that for another time. For now we need to move on.

WHY INERRANCY BECAME IMPORTANT FOR SOME CHRISTIANS

So, if the idea of inerrancy only applies to the original manuscripts which we no longer have, and if Church history gives us ample evidence of error (minor, but present) in the transmission process throughout the past two thousand years, and if the process of translation is imperfect, not to mention our imperfect understanding as receivers of the message, and if Jesus and his disciples do not seem to prioritize the precise words of Scripture over the message and meaning of Scripture, then why are many Evangelicals so very much concerned that all committed Christians use the word “inerrant” to describe our contemporary Bibles? Why has “inerrancy” become the litmus test of orthodoxy for many contemporary Christians?

In the early twentieth century, conservative Christians became increasingly concerned about the slow creep of liberal Christianity, which they believed didn’t take the truth of the Bible seriously enough. Increasing numbers of liberal leaning Christians were tending to dismiss the parts they didn’t like in favour of the bits they did like, rather than see every bit of the Bible as “inspired and useful”. In 1978 a group of Christian leaders gathered together in Chicago to form a statement about biblical inerrancy. They called it “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (creative bunch!). They wanted to plant a flag, a clear statement of what Evangelicals believed (or at least should believe) about the Bible. Now “inerrancy” would increasingly become a clear identity marker, a code word for Christians who wanted to distinguish themselves from religious liberalism. Inerrancy became short-form for saying, “I take my Christian faith seriously!”

Two things worth noting:

#1. This was more of a North American rather than global phenomenon. British Christians, for instance, tend not to make as big a deal over inerrancy.

#2. More importantly for this article, note that most Anabaptists were not invited to this table. For the most part, we were not aware nor involved in this debate. We were not the liberals being reacted against, nor were we the conservatives fighting back against liberalism. The result is that Anabaptists have maintained a different language surrounding how we talk about the Bible which parallels neither liberal nor conservative Protestant Christianity.

THE ANABAPTIST APPROACH

Let me point out that Anabaptism, like Protestantism. is not a monolith. There are various strains of Anabaptists who have been influence by various other Christian groups since the birth of the Radical Reformation in the 16th century. This includes some Anabaptists who have been and continue to be influenced by Calvinism and are more classically Reformed in their approach to theology and church polity. But for the most part, Radical Reformation Christians practice a relentlessly Jesus-centred approach to everything they do, including how they read Scripture.

Anabaptists were already convinced that the Bible was trustworthy and reliable, so did not feel a doctrine of inerrancy was needed to undergird it.
~ Darrell Winger, former BIC Bishop

Anabaptists tend to stick to more biblical language to describe our understanding of the Bible. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The entire Bible is breathed out by God, or “inspired”, and because of this it is also “useful” to equip God’s people “thoroughly” for living like Jesus. These are the three points Anabaptists rally around regarding the Bible:

  1. The Bible comes from God.
  2. Therefore we should use it.
  3. The result will be that we are thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Our emphasis is less on the details of doctrines about the Bible and more on using the Bible as a gift from God for our guidance – especially as a guide to see Jesus most clearly. Our emphasis is more on transformation than information. Anabaptists are exceedingly practical, and our approach to Scripture is a perfect example of this.

The reason for this practical approach to the Bible is born out of both theological conviction and historical circumstance. For centuries, while Protestants were establishing seminaries and other schools of higher learning to debate theological details, Anabaptists were on the run, trying to avoid the persecution coming from their Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters. While the Protestant Reformers were writing systematic theology text books, the Radical Reformers were meeting in secret, hiding in caves or barns, trying to evade arrest. Early Anabaptist leaders who were theologically educated in Protestant seminaries were killed for arriving at “heresies” like believers’ baptism and their conviction regarding the separation of Church and State, which led to their refusal to fight against any State on behalf of any State. Subsequent generations of Anabaptists just didn’t have the freedom or ability to spend time involved in heady theological discussions which had become common place for Protestants. Also, Anabaptists observed that those Christians who did invest a lot of time, money, and energy in advanced theological education were also habitually missing the simple peace teaching of Jesus. Often the most educated and theologically precise Christian leaders still advocated for brutal violence against anyone who disagreed with them in significant ways.

All of this served to reinforce the Anabaptist idea that Scripture should be primarily used to lead us to Jesus our Lord, otherwise the Bible could be used to justify horrific acts of violence. Even when Anabaptists made it to North America and found relief from generations of persecution, they were never inclined to use the Bible as an academic textbook, but as a gift from God to help them keep their eyes fixed on Jesus. Today, when it comes to Christian higher education and systematic theology, Radical Reformers have a lot of catching up to do with our Protestant Reformation brothers and sisters.

As we covered in the previous post, today when many Evangelicals find out that Anabaptists don’t tend to use the word “inerrant” to refer to Scripture, they may assume we must be theological liberals (where “liberal” is one of the worst things you can say about a fellow Christian). In their minds, there are only two camps: 1) theological conservatives who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, and 2) theological liberals who demean Christian Scripture in order to import progressive (i.e., worldly) ideas into the Christian faith apart from biblical support. For many Protestants, it never occurs to them that there might be a third option: a group of deeply committed Christians who hold the Bible in very high regard as God’s inspired gift to the Church, but who also hold Jesus in even higher regard than Scripture and who use their language intentionally to reflects this.

Notice: in religious debates like this one, the majority usually sets the rules of engagement. So when it comes to discussions about the Bible, if Anabaptists want to be understood by other Christians, we have to become theologically bi-lingual. We don’t talk about biblical “inerrancy”, positively or negatively. It isn’t our language. But this IS the language of the Evangelical world around us that we want to have healthy fellowship with. So let me try to unpack my best attempt to describe what is an Anabaptist approach to the doctrine of inerrancy.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that the Bible is “to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms” and adds that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching.” Radical Christians can say “amen” to this. What the Bible affirms, what it means to teach, it does so perfectly. As the Statement of Faith for Tyndale Seminary, a local Evangelical seminary where I sometimes teach, says, the Bible is “the authoritative written Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, inerrant in all that it teaches” – a statement I have been happy to align with. It isn’t my primary language as an Anabaptist, but neither do I object to the idea. For Anabaptists, we are less concerned about the language of inerrancy as we are about using the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to help us see Jesus clearly and follow him faithfully.

I believe God meticulously compiled scripture as an inspired, authoritative guide to conform us to the image of Christ when read prayerfully in community.
~ Randal Rauser (randalrauser.com)

Alright, enough theory. Let’s look at some examples to better understand the differences between how Evangelicals and Anabaptists might approach this topic.

EXAMPLE #1: PAUL FORGETTING

I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)
(1 Corinthians 1:15-16)

Evangelical Commentary: Here God sovereignly inspires his inerrant Word so as to show us how God uses imperfect people to carry out his perfect plan.

Anabaptist Commentary: Here God’s inspired text shows us Paul’s faulty memory. This helps us know that God uses imperfect people to carry out his perfect plan.

EXAMPLE #2: MATTHEW & MARK MISLABELING

Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 
“They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
(Matthew 27:9-10)

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
(Mark 1:2-3)

[Note: Matthew claims to quote Jeremiah, but this quote doesn’t appear anywhere in Jeremiah. Rather it seems to be a combination of a passage in Jeremiah and one in Zachariah. Mark claims to quote Isaiah, but actually quotes Malachi, then goes on to quote Isaiah after Malachi.]

Evangelical Commentary: God’s inerrant Word is revealed through the social convention of its day, and in that day it was common practice to combine quotations and label the combined quote with only the primary prophet’s name. So this is an example of inerrancy, yet within a first-century standard. (That, or a number of other explanations as to why these are not examples of mistakes.)

Anabaptist Commentary: Here Matthew combines Scriptures because he felt the freedom to promote the meaning and message of God’s Word rather than be bound by the precise words of one passage. And Mark makes a simple and understandable mistake. Mark knew he was going to eventually quote Isaiah and forgot to credit Malachi along the way. Big deal. Happens to all of us. We can again see how God’s inspired written revelation bears the evidence of God working precisely through the imprecise styles of human authors in such a way that the main point of the text remains clear and intact.

EXAMPLE #3: PAUL’S SLANDER

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith.
(Titus 1:12-13)

Evangelical Commentary: Paul is teaching Titus a general truth about people who are lazy and how to respond to them by using a popular quote of his day. And in one theological sense, this quote is true. Apart from Christ, all people are unregenerate and totally depraved, bound over to sin and unable to please God. We are all, in this sense, liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons. The fact Paul points this out in one nationality of people without mentioning how it is also true of all other people is inconsequential.

Anabaptist Commentary: God is teaching us all something perfect through Paul’s far from perfect advice. As Paul says elsewhere, all Scripture is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), and this passage is no exception. Paul’s morally problematic slip has been providentially included as part of the process by which God teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains us. (In his book What’s So Confusing About Grace?, Randal Rauser makes this same point with respect to what are known as “the imprecatory psalms” – those psalms that vent anger and pray for calamity and pronounce curses on enemies.) God is showing us a picture of his own strength and the writer’s weakness in the same verses. So, while we should rebuke laziness and lying, we should not get caught up in culturally popular racist judgments about particular groups of people being lazy liars without exception. Paul is also caught up in a logical paradox: he quotes and affirms the truth a Cretan poet (Epimenides) who say that Cretans are ALWAYS liars. If Cretans are ALWAYS liars, then the Cretan statement that Cretans are always liars is itself a lie. But Paul not only quotes this Cretan, he says this statement is true. Perhaps Paul is being intentionally cheeky. Perhaps he is having a bad day. Either way, God is showing us through this inspired text that God uses imperfect leaders to point to his perfect gospel: a gospel that opens the doors to a new world where, as Paul tells us elsewhere:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:28)

WRAPPING UP

As an Anabaptist, I care less about converting a fellow Christian away from the doctrine of inerrancy than I care about all Christians holding up Christ as the centre of Scripture and Lord of our lives. If that’s where you’re at – Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox or Anabaptist – then Jesus makes us family. Whether you end up sounding more like an Evangelical or an Anabaptist, either way, neither approach is officially “orthodox” and the other “heretical”. They are different ways that different groups of God-honouring, Bible-loving, Jesus-following Christians talk about the Bible.

It’s true, the Protestants used to burn the Radicals for being heretics and false teachers, and the Radicals assumed Protestants must be wolves in sheep’s clothing for departing so far from the nonviolent, enemy-loving, peace-making way of Jesus. Today I hope that both groups have matured, in faith, in love, and in a wholehearted willingness to fight for unity, despite our disagreements. In the end, if the cross of Christ is powerful enough to bring Jews and Gentiles together into one new body of believers (Ephesians 2:14-16), surely it can bring together Evangelicals and Anabaptists as family on mission together.

Anabaptists and Evangelicals (and other Christians) may disagree about how we talk about the Bible, but if we listen closely to each other, look past the rhetoric, and try not to kill each other, we’ll see brothers and sisters with a similar heart to honour God’s Word.

Peace,

 

NEXT POST – READ PART 3…
Radical Christians & the Word of God (part 3 of 3): Application

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radical christians & the word of god (part 1 of 3): authority

Bible gun

We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.

This is the first of three blog posts on the authority, inerrancy, and application of the Word of God from an Anabaptist Christian perspective. Anabaptism is a 500 year old movement that primarily formed on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, and became known as the Radical Reformation. “Radical” is a good word to describe Anabaptists, since it comes from the Latin, radix, which means “root”. The Radical Reformers were and still are about getting Christians back to our roots as Jesus followers. If the Protestant Reformation was about getting Christians to rally around the Bible, the Radical Reformation was a further call for Christians to rally around the Jesus they read about in the Bible. (For more on the Radical Reformation, see our teaching series here.)

When Radicals (or, Anabaptists) hear or use the phrase “the Word of God”, we tend to think of three things in descending order:

  1. Jesus
  2. The message of God contained in the Bible
  3. The Bible

When Reformers (or, Protestants) hear or use the phrase “the Word of God”, they typically think of similar things as Radicals, but in reverse order:

  1. The Bible
  2. The message of God contained in the Bible
  3. Jesus

Ever since the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformers and Radical Reformers were differentiating from one another as alternative Christian expressions, this simple shift in emphasis showed itself to have significant, real world ramifications.

One critique that Radicals sometimes make of Reformers is that Protestants tend to talk about the Bible in ways that Christians should really talk about Jesus. Many Protestant Christians say things like “We follow the Bible”, or will talk about the “authority of the Bible”, or say that Scripture is “inerrant”. As a Radical Christian, these are things I would tend to say about Jesus first and foremost. I follow Jesus. Jesus holds all authority. And Jesus is the perfect one, without error.

Most Anabaptists combined a tremendous love for Scripture with a refusal to place it above or even alongside Christ as the Word of God.
~ Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition

Sometimes when Protestants find out that Anabaptists don’t tend to use the word “inerrant” to refer to Scripture, they assume we must be theological liberals (where “liberal” is one of the worst things you can say about a fellow Christian). In their minds, there are only two camps: 1) theological conservatives who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, and 2) theological liberals who demean Christian Scripture in order to import progressive (i.e., worldly) ideas into the Christian faith apart from biblical support. For many Protestants, it never occurs to them that there might be a third option: a group of deeply committed Christians who hold the Bible in very high regard as God’s inspired gift to the Church, but who also hold Jesus in even higher regard than Scripture and who use their language intentionally to reflect this. Maybe you’ve been part of this way of thinking. If so, I can relate.

This was me when I first heard about the Anabaptist denomination I am now a part of – Be In Christ Canada (formerly, the Brethren In Christ). I was an Evangelical with Reformed/Calvinist theology at the time I heard about the BIC. As a Baptist pastor, I had been slowly questioning some basic Evangelical assumptions, especially the role Jesus should play in how we interpret, understand, and apply everything in the Bible. It seemed to me that a Jesus-centred reading of Scripture should lead Christ-followers to fully embrace, among other things, the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. So when the leadership of the BIC invited me to dialogue with them, I was excited to learn about this 200 year old denomination, and to know that it was part of a 500 year old movement of Christians who prioritized precisely that – the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. But even though I was thrilled with what might become my new denominational home, as a transitioning Evangelical I remember being suspicious when I couldn’t find the word “inerrant” in the BIC’s statement of faith. “I knew they were too good to be true!” I remember thinking to myself. Inerrancy, I had been taught, was the litmus test of orthodoxy. Look for a clear and bold proclamation of the inerrancy of Scripture and you can be more assured that a church was preaching the true gospel. Today I’m so glad I didn’t run away from the issue or suppress my questions, but leaned into Scripture and the ongoing conversation around Scripture with my new Anabaptist family.

I learned that Radical Christians were far from theological liberals, but in fact the early Anabaptists would have considered the Protestants to be the liberal side of the divide, because they dismissed, disregarded, or otherwise excused themselves from following the most obvious aspects of Jesus’ teaching and example. Protestants were just as violent as Catholics at the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation, and they rationalized their violence by appealing to the Bible! Repeatedly, Protestants found biblical justification for violence which they used to overrule the clear nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus.

Anabaptists, on the other hand, had been willing to die at the hands of fellow Christians for generations because they refused to bear the sword in self defense or national defense. Their kingdom was the Kingdom of God, the war they waged was not against flesh and blood, but against a spiritual enemy (Ephesians 6:12), and their only king was King Jesus. Anabaptists believed that Jesus was God’s ultimate self-disclosure (John 1:18) and that all of Scripture should be relentlessly interpreted through the Jesus lens.  I realized that, whether or not I would come to agree with Anabaptist theology on every issue, mistaking them as theological liberals would be insulting to this branch of the Christian family tree.


Well, that’s my introduction. (Thanks for making it this far!) Now let’s talk now about the issue of AUTHORITY…


 

Anabaptists have a high regard for the Scriptures and an even higher regard for Jesus. Jesus, even more than the Bible, is our final authority.
~ Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials

Anabaptists (Radical Reformers) read the Bible, study the Bible, memorize and meditate on the Bible. And yet, we don’t think in terms of following the Bible – we follow Jesus.  Why do I think this distinction matters? Because I want to align my language with Jesus, as recorded in the Bible. Let’s flesh this out a bit more in three ways…

Firstly, Jesus-following is our identity as disciples of Christ. We are Christ-ians, not Bible-ians (Acts 11:26). This aligns with what Jesus himself said – “follow me” (Matthew 4:19). It seems to me that this should be Christianity 101 and not at all a controversial idea.

Come to ME, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you and learn from ME, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.
~ Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

Secondly, Jesus said clearly, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). He then went on to base his Great Commission to his disciples on this one tremendous truth, when he said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus then goes on to say that the process of making disciples includes “teaching them to obey everything *I* have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t mean we just read the red letters of the Bible, but it does mean we read the entire Bible differently, as a pointer to Jesus, the one who holds all authority over our lives. Radical Christians believe that, as disciples of Jesus, our central commitment is to learn from JESUS as his apprentices. And, catch this, what we learn about Jesus from the Bible should inform how we read everything else in the Bible.

Thirdly, in the Bible we see examples of Jesus taking authority over the Bible. Consider the six-antitheses in Matthew 5 (where Jesus six times uses the pattern of “You have heard it said… but I tell you…”). Also notice the reaction of the crowd at the end of the Sermon on the Mount – that Jesus taught with authority, unlike other religious readers (Matthew 7:29; also see Mark 1:22, 27; Luke 4:32, 36). Or consider Jesus’ statement that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), which he does apart from the sacrificial system mandated in the Bible. Or consider Jesus’ authority to singlehandedly reverse the dietary laws of Moses in Mark 7:19. Or consider Jesus overruling Moses’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in his discussion with the religious leaders in Matthew 19:8-9. Or consider Jesus’ self-alignment with the authority of God who lives above the law in John 5, rather than see himself as merely a man who must submit to and live under the authority of the law.

So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. … And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. (John 5:16-18, 27)

Later in this same chapter, Jesus challenges the religious leaders who loved and learned and studied and memorized and followed the Bible…

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37-40)

This is serious. Jesus says it is possible to follow the Bible, love the Bible, study the Bible – and never hear the voice of God. Furthermore, it is possible to memorize and meditate on the Bible, and never have God’s “word dwell in you”. Let this sink in. Unless we use the Bible as a pointer to Jesus, and then come to JESUS for our life, we are misusing the Bible.

As a Christ-follower, when I open my Bible I don’t ask “God, what are you saying to me through the Bible?”, but “God, what are you saying to me through Jesus in the Bible?” This simple distinction means that I read everything from Genesis to Revelation differently.

A PROTESTANT OBJECTION…

It’s worth pointing out that those who identify as Protestant are not monolithic on this issue. For instance, on the issue of biblical authority, NT Wright sounds as Anabaptist as he does Anglican. Still, some Protestants object: “Wait a minute! You Radicals are using the Bible to establish the authority of Jesus! Doesn’t that mean you treat the Bible as authoritative?”  Now let me be as clear as I can. In the category of written documents, the Bible is uniquely and absolutely authoritative (as our BIC statement of faith asserts). But remember, as Christians, no written document is our absolute authority – Jesus is! Because the Bible is uniquely breathed out by God we trust it and use it, as Paul recommends in 2 Timothy 3:16. So yes, as far as written documents go, the Bible is authoritative – as far as written documents go. But we have a relationship with more than a written document. No written document, including the Bible itself, created the heavens and the earth and entered into our human condition and lived the perfect life and died the loving death that brought us salvation, and rose again as Lord of our lives. The Bible says, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).

The Bible does not give us Jesus; Jesus gives us the Bible; and the Bible then points us directly to Jesus. The Bible is not a Christian’s ultimate authority, but our penultimate authority, pointing to Jesus as our ultimate authority.

The Bible is to us what the star was to the wise men.
~ Thomas Adams

This relationship between Jesus and the Bible is similar to the relationship between Jesus and the star that led the magi to Jesus. Or, to use another analogy, the relationship between Jesus and the Bible is similar to the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he pointed and cried out…

Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ (John 1:29-30)

John didn’t give us Jesus; Jesus gave us John, and then John pointed people to Jesus. Again we read…

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. (John 1:35-37)

Because John’s disciples listened to him and followed Jesus, this doesn’t mean they saw John’s authority as absolute. They simply trusted John enough to listen to his insight and turn to follow Jesus as their absolute authority. Because they trusted John, they submitted to Jesus. And that’s what we do every time we read the Bible and follow Jesus.

When John the Baptist told his disciples to follow Jesus, no one played the word game of saying, “But if we listen to John’s word and we follow Jesus, aren’t we just following John? Doesn’t that mean John has equal authority to Jesus if we’re listening to his instruction to follow Jesus’ authority? So let’s just say we are equally followers of Jesus AND followers of John.” No. Please no. This is silly. Because they listened to John and trusted John and believed what John said, they followed Jesus as the authority of their lives. And yet today many Protestants make the same objection. When Radical Christians say, “Jesus is our sole authority” some Christians respond, “But you only know about Jesus from the Bible! So the Bible must equally be your authority!” No. We trust the Bible, like John’s disciples trusted him, and we do what the Bible instructs us to do – submit to the authority of Jesus.

SO WHAT?

So why is this way of thinking important? Is it all just word games and academic exercise? I wish it were. I love word puzzles, and academic exercise is the only kind of exercise I like. But this discussion is more important than that. History has shown us that when a group of Christians champion the idea of the “authority of Scripture” as did the Protestant Reformers, they get no closer to following Jesus on some very important issues, like the issue of the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. During the 16th Century, we might explain Catholic violence by appealing to the influence of the Pope, who represented (or should I say, misrepresented) the authority of Christ in the Church. The Protestants, however, rejected Papal authority and clung to sola scriptura, meaning “Scripture alone”. This is a real world case study. With the Pope’s influence out of the way and with Scripture as their sole authority, what became of Protestants? More unity? No, more division (there are now thousands of different Protestant denominations). More Christ-like enemy love? No, more violence (wars, witch-hunts, and heretic burnings were not abandoned by Protestants). The Protestant Reformers missed such central teaching of Jesus because they balanced it with every other teaching in the Bible as a way of maintaining their commitment to “the authority of Scripture”.

I recently heard a well known Protestant Christian pastor preach on the Sermon on the Mount. He expounded on the radical nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. I was impressed. Then he made this maneuver – he said, “Now, we know this isn’t an absolute mandate for all Christians at all times, since we can see that God gave very different instructions to his people through Moses and David and other Old Testament saints.” Then he went on to talk about Old Testament examples of violence as justification for Christian participation in violence today. Why was this pastor trying to balance the teaching of Jesus with other teaching in the Bible? Because he was following the Bible, rather than allowing every teaching of the Bible to point him to Jesus. And today, if Christians are to truly repent of our religious violence, our national violence, and our verbal and attitudinal violence, we will need to go beyond just following the Bible and zero in on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Dear Christians, we are not “People of the Book”. This phrase is an Islamic designation of Christians and we are not constrained to adopt a Muslim misunderstanding as our identity. No, we are not “People of the Book” as much as we are “People of the Person”. We are not (or at least, should not be) a bookish faith, lived out primarily by reading. This approach to spirituality favours the academically and economically privileged around the world and throughout history. Yes, “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and so those of us who can read and can afford our own Bibles should make much of that privilege. And while we read the Bible, may it always lead us to Jesus, the living, active, and authoritative Word of God.

Maybe you are or aren’t Anabaptist, but maybe you are “Anabaptish” – a growing Radical Christian who sees Jesus at the centre of it all. If so, I would love to hear from you. Comment away!

Peace,

 

 

 

NEXT POST – READ PART 2…
Radical Christians & the Word of God (part 2 of 3): Inerrancy

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