Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Is the Bible the word of God? (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

Christ, the apostles, and the Bible
At the end of his post, Tim connects "seeing the Scriptures as how Christ saw it" with "rediscovering the very essence of the Gospel." Tim, I’m really, really glad you affirm that, because that’s exactly where we’ll be going!

Firstly, let’s consider who Jesus is. In the Gospels, we see the authoritative nature of Jesus’ words: he can cure disease, calm storms, resurrect the dead. He is the Son of God, vindicated when God the Father resurrected him (Romans 1:4). These are the basic beliefs of Christians. Clearly, then, Jesus possesses real authority. Yet Jesus clearly saw the Old Testament as authoritative. In Mark 7, for example, in his debate with the Pharisees over the nature of ritual cleanliness, Jesus refers to the OT explicitly as the "word of God" (v.13). He treats OT history as inherently reliable. So in Matthew 19:4-5, again in answer to the Pharisees who seek to trap him, he answers them: "Haven’t you read...that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’" He also treats the story of Noah as historical (Matthew 24:37-39). Indeed, he rebukes those who do not affirm the Scriptures of their divine authority. So, in answer to the Sadducees trying to trap him on the question of the afterlife, he says, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God" (Matthew 22:29). In fact, in this very passage, Jesus reverence for the Scriptures comes through clearly, as his response to the Sadducees depends on the tense of a particular verb!

"But about the resurrection of the dead – have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." (Matthew 22:31-32)
Quoting Exodus 3:6, Jesus emphasises that the Scripture reads : "I am the God..." not "I was their God", and therefore, there is an afterlife! I don't think any of us would want to accuse Jesus of simply being pedantic!

Nor did Jesus ever pit his personal authority against that of Scripture. In John 10:35, in reply to charges of blasphemy, he agrees that the "Scripture cannot be broken" in defending his Messianic claims (v.36-39). Now this is pretty important, because Jesus not only never pits the two against each other, but his own Messianic claims are modelled on OT teaching. So, earlier on in his teaching, he says: "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:14). This doesn’t just happen to be a good metaphor; Jesus is recalling Ezekiel 34 (also Isaiah 56:8), where God himself claims to one day rescue his flock. His Jewish hearers should not miss the implications when they hear Jesus say this! It is the OT that helps us make more sense of the acts of Jesus.

Finally, we see ample evidence that the distinction that red-letter Bibles make simply doesn’t hold true, and there is no need to distinguish between what God explicitly said in quotation marks and the rest. This is shown in how the OT and NT often identify both God and Scripture together. Galatians 3:8, for eg., reads: "The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." (emphasis mine) This is a citation of Genesis 12:3, where it is the Lord talking to Abram (12:1). There is also the marriage example I cited earlier (Matthew 19:4, citing Genesis 2:24). One more example. In Acts 4, we find the early Christians praying and quoting Psalm 2:1-2, attributing it to God speaking.

When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
" 'Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.' (Acts 4:24-26)
What about the NT? Is that inspired? In the Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17), Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit, whom he assures will be with them after he is gone. "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come." (John 16:13). Now we can’t be certain on this text alone, but this might be a hint of things to come, specifically, the writing of what we now know as the NT. In any case, the important thing to remember who Jesus is, and that his promises carry authority, and so we can be certain that the Holy Spirit did, indeed, lead the disciples into "all truth". Interestingly, Paul, in 1 Timothy 5:18, could already cite Luke 10:7 – "The worker deserves his wages" and call it Scripture explicitly, as did Peter regarding Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:15-16). Paul himself seemed to be aware that what he was writing was invested with divine authority, so for instance, in 1 Corinthians 14, in addressing the controversy surrounding tongues and prophecy, this is how he regards his advice: "If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command." (v.37).

I think it’s worth quoting Tom Wright at length here:

God accomplishes these things [of putting the world to rights], so the early church believed, through ‘the word’: the story of Israel now told as reaching its climax in Jesus, God’s call to Israel now transmuted into God’s call to his renewed people. And it was this ‘word’ which came, through the work of the early writers, to be expressed in writing in the New Testament as we know it.

…The earliest church was centrally constituted as the people called into existence, and sustained in that existence, by the powerful, effective and (in that sense and many others) ‘authoritative’ word of God, written in the Old Testament, embodied in Jesus, announced in the world, taught to the church. This was the heart of the church’s missions (Israel’s story has been fulfilled; the world must therefore hear of it); of its common life (the first ‘mark of the church’ in Acts 2:42 is ‘the teaching of the apostles’); and of the call to a holiness which will express both the true-Israel and newly human dimensions (‘renewed according to God’s image’) characteristic of the new identity.
At this point, let me interact a little more with some of Mat’s points. I think we can see now that we treat Paul (and the other apostle’s) writings as authoritative because that’s how the apostles themselves and the early church treated them. There is no reason to pit Paul against Jesus, as many critical biblical scholars have done in the past century. Paul saw his words as clearly being in continuity with Jesus. Again, let me just cite one eg. One of the most striking features of Romans 12-15 is the number of times he either directly cites or alludes to the teachings of Jesus. I won’t have space to quote them directly here, but here’s a partial list of comparisons:

Romans 12:14 / Luke 6:28
Romans 12:17 / Matthew 5:39
Romans 12:18 / Mark 9:50
Romans 12:20 / Luke 6:27
Romans 13:8 / John 13:34, Matthew 22:37
Romans 13:11a / Luke 12:56
There’s more, but I’m sure that’s enough to establish my point. (with thanks to The Message of Romans, John Stott. Sorry for lack of linkage, am starting to flag!)

Indirectly touching on this issue, and a good read to boot, is Tim Keller’s The Gospel in All Its Forms.

Mat suggests there are only 3 people who could perfectly channel the word of God, and that God does not override the will of anyone (Btw, I don't understand what you mean about them overcoming the "curse sin within their own body"). This is not consistent with the Bible’s own witness. Paul himself reflects on the marvellous grace of God in his own ministry when he says: "But we have this treasure [i.e the gospel] in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." (2 Cor. 4:7). In 2 Peter, a letter about dealing with false teachers, Peter makes the observation that "above all, no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origins in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:20-21) The prophets were not making educated guesses (as the false teachers of Peter’s time probably were), they were acting as God’s mouthpiece.

Although Jesus never saw fit to put pen into paper, the early disciples did. Luke makes it clear that he writes as a historian and as a careful investigator.

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)
I want to agree with Mat here that the New Testament is at the very least, historical documents. I think they're more than that, of course, but they're certainly not less. The credibility of the Gospels are strengthened when we consider that they were describing events relying upon very early oral and written sources, and that the apostles had little to gain and everything to lose by proclaiming that Jesus was indeed Saviour and Lord if it was not true.

I’m more hesitant to speak on issues of canon as I am not at all well-versed here. But I was interested in the way Rob Bell frames it in the excerpt Tim quotes (which I assume is from Velvet Elvis, which I’ve not read). Tim will have to correct me if I mischaracterise him, but Bell seems to be fairly simplistic here – “oh, the canon didn’t actually exist till 300, by a bunch of guys who voted on it. So, errr, no sola scriptura, folks!” But as I’ve shown from the earlier section, the NT writers already regarded their writings as authoritative and inspired, and key for Christian living. Even the most critical scholars wouldn’t date their writings beyond the early part of the 2nd century. In fact, because of the circulation of Gnostic gospels, the early church was most concerned about which documents were authoritative. (Interestingly, contra the NT documents, the Gnostic Gospels are pretty anti-OT). When the councils finally met, they were merely formalizing what local gatherings of Christians were already affirming. It was the culmination of a period of reflection. Interestingly, as far as I understand it, the Apocrypha was considered profitable reading, much as we consider reading good Christian books today, but it was not considered inspired.

Now, I won’t pretend that answers every possible question, and it’s possible that Bell might disagree with how I’ve just framed the story, but it would be good if he can provide a compelling alternative narrative. It seems to me from that excerpt that he simply glosses over the issue a little too glibly. Btw, there is also a need to distinguish between sola Scriptura and solo Scriptura. The former, which is affirmed by the Reformers, acknowledges the role of tradition, reason and experience in our spiritual reformation, it simply states that they cannot take precedence over Scripture. The latter doesn’t, but too often people think sola Scriptura means solo Scriptura.

Part 4

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