This week, I'm doing a series on how I approach Scripture. Today, a disjointed rumination to get our feet wet over where my belief points before we get into some of the more tangled topics the rest of the week.
I make a radical assumption, one I admit is impossible to argue convincingly: the mediative, prayerful rumination upon the Scripture, the inspired voice of God given unto His people, should be the fundamental, forming influence in the life of a Christian.
I say that this is impossible to argue for it is a claim that is only justified by the words of the Text itself and by those who experience it.
The Lord speaks to Joshua: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
The message of the Scripture about itself is prevalent, either from the poetry of God who says that what He has given as His Truth shall be inscribed on doorposts or upon hearts, or from the psalmists, the epistle writers, praising the light the Text imparts and the delight to live by its guidance. As Christians we often take these remarks for granted. We have a passing, intellectual awareness of obligation to read the Scripture, which may come from the words of the Text itself or in the form of fundamentalist compulsion, fiery sermons, or half-hearted mugs of coffee in which the only prescription for struggle is reading more, as if the pages shall bring forth divine intervention by simply having them employed.
A common rally-cry in the protestant branch of the Church is the availability of the Scripture to the average person. While this was a crucial and blessed desire of the Reformation thinkers, it is prudent to consider that in our modern age our freedom to possess the Scripture in our own hands has not always been met with the joy of actually receiving the gift we have been given.
Surveys in recent years point out that though the prevalence of the Bible in the hands of believers is on the rise, the consistency of readership beyond Sunday morning is in sharp decline.
We have traded the Text for versions of it. Not translations, but transcriptions. Now we read novelizations of the Scripture that leave out places that are identified as either boring or of lesser importance. Or, in hope of reaching the current generation, we replace the perceived difficult language of the Scripture with modern sensibility or perspective, resulting in variations of the Bible such as screenplays or summaries.
While these expressions of modern Christians desiring to engage their congregations and the unreached with the message of Christ are commendable in intent, and in conversation with the full Text can lead to healthy and positive growth, too often the expressions are taken as the Expression, the summary as the Sum.
It is now more easy to read the Bible in one’s own language and within one’s own country than any time previous in history, yet more sermons preached on Sundays are geared toward series-based thematic approaches that use Scripture as a trump card or proof-text to validate a point as opposed to regarding Scripture as the generative field from which all Truth grows unto harvest. The over availability of the Text has, to what should be our shame, made us complacent toward it.
And I contend that the result has been that our theological imaginations are truncated, our vision of the world weakened, and our sensitivity to the mystery of the Faith grown dull.
We know historically that when there is need, there is response, and therefore it is little surprise that words like story and journey have become touchstones popular in the Christian ecumenical exchange--the common desire to reclaim a sense of rootedness and orthodoxy. However, the desire for rootedness rarely returns to a conversation of faithfulness, which is how the prophet Jeremiah described it: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.” Often, the conversation excludes questions of faithfulness in favor of what sounds to be Gospel application, the essential to-do list of the Faith: love one another, feed the hungry, tend the sick.
While on the surface these are essentially wonderful and good things, it is not often pointed out that they are possible to achieve, at least in part, outside of a faithful relationship with God. One can love, feed, and tend without necessarily needing the presence of the Almighty active within the process. In turn, the need for Scripture becomes unapparent. If our rootedness comes from our performance of certain actions that have Gospel sounds: love, feed, tend, then who is in need of the intervening power, discernment, and transformative work of the Holy Spirit?
Our churches and individual lives are mired in our desire to have a plan of action that looks like good religion while all the while we have lost the original call of the Spirit upon our lives, which is at once staggeringly difficult and remarkably simple: be transformed, ever and always, into the image of Christ our Lord. Indeed, a transformation that is not about having a memory bank of Scriptures to use to patch any situation or a categorical understanding of doctrine and dogma, but a quiet, daily transformation of the whole being in which Scripture is the formative influence of how we live and move within our world.
But we cannot forget, ever, in the midst of all of this, that only Jesus is the means of our salvation.
Scripture is only and ever in the service of Him.
The Word of God is not the Bible.
The Word of God is Jesus Christ.
A conflation of the words for Scripture and Word have made us poor exegetes and engagers with the biblical text. When God says that His word does not return void, in the larger context of the passage it means that the action of redemption he has set in motion shall not fail. That action, of course, is Jesus Christ, something that John seemed to be aware of when inking his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word.
The Bible, like John the Baptiser, testifies to that Light, preaches of that Light, but is not that Light.
How goes the old hymn?
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, after Jesus is baptized He departs for the wilderness by the direction of the Spirit, where He fasts for forty days and forty nights before He grows hungry and the Tempter comes to Him: ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’
To this, Jesus quotes a portion of Deuteronomy 8:3, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’ There is extensive commentary on this passage, brilliant commentary, but I would like to suggest something simple: when Christ is first shown to us as being tempted, His response is not to quote Scripture as proof text but to quote Scripture as an exercise in active engagement with the Text itself. He does not simply know the Text in passing, but He speaks forth the Text with authority and discernment.
This is further revealed to us by what happens next.
Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’’
Here, Satan quotes Psalm 91:11, 12. He knows the Scripture as well. Instead of his previous temptation based on the physical, immediate needs of Jesus, he now suggests that the Scripture gives permission for what he proposes.
But to this Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16, ‘On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’’
Returning to our simple proposition that Christ’s knowledge of the Scripture is beyond rote knowledge and is active engagement, we see that He puts the Scripture in conversation with itself. A portion of the Text does not exist in isolation, but in direct relation to all other passages. Accordingly, Christ’s dismissal of the Tempter upon his third attempt follows the same momentum.
If we continue in Matthew, this passage leads into the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and the calling of the first disciples. (We’ll return to this later.) But in the Gospel of St. Luke, there is an interlude between the temptation and the calling of the disciples that I think imperative for our discussion of Scripture as central.
We read in Luke:
And He came up to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach
the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release
to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind.
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of
And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
I find it interesting that Luke orders his Gospel with a careful progression: Christ first shows His authority over the Scriptures by revealing His understanding of them against the Prince of this world. He then shows that same authority over the leaders of this world. Therefore, by the time He calls the first disciples, we have been introduced not only to the Messiah as One who heals the sick and raises the dead, but as One who fulfills the Scripture by completely understanding them and interpreting them with perfect clarity.
As modern Christians, we perhaps take this for granted; but, if we are reading or hearing these Gospels as first or second century believers, we are being introduced to this Man—fully human, fully God—and it is telling that emphasis is placed on revealing Him as intimately engaged with the Scripture that speaks of and points to Him.
Familiarity and understanding comprise the habit of being Christ embodies toward the Text. Whereas He could have rebuked Satan through His authority as God, He rebukes Him through His authority anchored in the Scripture. Whereas He could have stood in the synagogue and declared Himself the Messiah, He reveals this exceptional mystery through the authority of the Scripture.
Could it be, then, that when He called us unto Himself, as He would soon after call the disciples, that it was to this same reverence, engagement, and understanding?
Juxtapose this sort of Scriptural thinking with the modern condition and we may see a disconnect. The end goal is not a set of arguments or the weight of proof, but an approach of openness to the Scripture whereby we read it with the expectation that it is alive, inspired, vibrant, and is in the process of reading us as much as we are attempting to read it.
The Scripture is opening us, changing us, causing us to inhabit the world differently, approaching the creation with a heart being molded into that of the Creator.
While the expressions—the summaries and screenplays and novels and films—have been designed to remind us to love, feed, and tend, they have not been designed to adequately replace. We must still affirm the words of Christ: ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’
The first to the last, even the boring bits, even the hard bits, even the things we wish we could ignore or explain away.
There is a church somewhere that begins its services with the congregation raising their Bibles over their heads and reciting a short statement of faith that its contents determines who they are.
They are people of the Book.
They are a people who affirm who they are by the Book.
While I understand the desire, while I understand the sense of rootedness, the love I too have for the Scripture, what is most important is that who I believe in is Jesus Christ.
I am eternally grateful for the Bible. I believe the Bible is true, is gift of God for His people, but the Bible does not determine my salvation.
The Bible does not determine if I'm a Christian.
The Bible does not determine everlasting life.
I am a believer in small things.
That is, I think even tiny changes in history have huge consequences, that the flapping of butterfly wings has everything to do with motion of the seas and the price of gas in south Texas.
In 1646 the Westminster Confession made a theological choice when they began their statement of faith first with an affirmation of Holy Scripture and then with an affirmation of God.
Though they were well-meaning, they may have thumbed their noses at the whole of the Tradition that came before them. For all the ills of the historic creeds of the Church, at least the variations all had the good-sense to put God first.
We believe in one God, begins Nicene.
I believe in God, begins the Apostle's.
But Westminster confesses the Scripture before it confesses the Saviour and if we draw out the lines, Westminster became the confessional position of the puritans, became the internal logic of those who boarded ships in search of religious freedom, who settled in America, and these people of the Book became the same people, generations later, who thought the Bible was synonymous with the Word because their confession, if taken at face-value, meant that the Bible was where there faith came from.
I'll point out that Scripture itself doesn't stumble into this problem.
In the beginning, God.
You said live out loud, and die you said lightly,
and over and over again you said be.
I have gestured toward a proposal here, that Scripture is the crucial, transformative instrument of the Holy Spirit to change us from glory to glory into the image of our God, to journey beyond the start of life and tread careful toward our hour of death, to inhabit this space between with the active purpose of being, of living in the midst, in the context, in the imagination the Scripture imparts to us.
But I have also said that faith is rooted first and foremost in Christ Jesus.
This is the tension, to be people of the Book without being people without a Saviour.
To read the Scripture is to pray the Scripture, for the apostle writes the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Surely, the Spirit turns within us when we enter into the words of the Text, surely it quickens us, even if we should not know it. Those groanings, those things we cannot see in present time that are journeying us forward into relationship with the extraordinary God in our ordinary lives, the wonder of the Incarnation made known to us day by day, again and again.
We are on the path of this being, as Rilke called it. This abiding.
But, again, rooted first in Christ.
As Jesus said to the disciples, I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Faith is not dependent on the Bible alone.
If it were just me, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit for the rest of my life, I am absolutely certain I'd be a heretic.
It's too easy to read the Gospel of Luke and think that Jesus isn't divine, just sent by God. It's too easy to read the Apocalypse and presume that those flying men with the scorpion tails are helicopters.
And when I say Bible, what do I mean?
Do I mean an English translation? A combination of Hebrew and Greek?
If I say the Old Testament, do I mean the Septuagint or the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Bible did not save me.
Jesus Christ saved me. Jesus Christ is the Messiah. And for all the Bible is, it is not the Source of my election in Christ, it is not the means by which I have been grafted into the family of God.
Not by works of righteousness--nor by a handful of texts--but according to His mercy.
I believe in Jesus Christ.
I broaden, refine, explore, nurture that belief through faithful study and engagement with the Scripture that attests to, testifies to, and witnesses to that once crucified, eternally risen Jesus.
But were all the Scripture to be lost, were we like a sojourning people under a Josiah rule vagabond seekers without a Law, God would be no less God, His Messiah no less His Messiah, His Spirit no less His Spirit.
I love the Scripture, but I love Jesus more. I love the God that Scripture proclaims more than the Scripture itself.
I heard tell once of a commandment: Love the Lord your God ...
Not a Text. Never first a Text.
Delight in the Text. Love by the Text. But the commandment is first a love of God.
Were I never to see a word of the inspired again, He would still be near.
He would still be not far from me.