Is Holy Scripture Sufficient?

The expanse of 2000 years of Church history means that one is forced to be more precise and specific than some prior ages might have required, because as Thomas Schreiner has written, “controversy is the furnace in which clearer theology is formed.” Distinguishing between the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of it is one of those furnaces, and indeed, while both are doubted, there is a need to parse the implications of saying Scripture is neither primary nor enough for our knowledge of Jesus. I recently interacted with a few people on Twitter after something I said about Scripture. My statement was this:

Have you heard someone say that the incarnate Word is greater than the written word?   The only way we know about the incarnate Word is from the written word.

My intent with this was to counter what has become a common sentiment with some, that Jesus is greater than Scripture, and that the true Word of God is Jesus Himself, with an intent to downgrade the Scriptures as a way of knowing Jesus. Of course the Son of God is the fullest revelation of God to us—but this does not imply a contrast with Scripture. This is what I object to. I did get some questions asking whether Jesus is not known through the sacraments, or in the worship of the church. In these cases, it is still an appeal to Scripture, because the establishment of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are grounded in Scripture, as well as how we know how to worship. The person posing this question agreed that these do not represent different ways of knowing about Jesus, only derivative ways (from Scripture) of knowing.

An example of the position I am critical of is expressed by Brian Zahnd, in his foreword to Keith Giles book, Jesus Unbound. “With Sola Scriptura as a defiant battle cry there always lurked the temptation to place more weight on the Bible than it could bear, or worse yet, a temptation to deify the Bible and make an idol out of it… So while pretending to ‘take the Bible as it is,’ the fundamentalist reads the Bible through thick lenses of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological assumptions— interpretive lenses they are unaware of wearing.”[1]

(I cite Zahnd only because he has spoken publicly, but there are many others expressing the same or similar views.)

As one reads on, one sees that “placing more weight on the Bible than it could bear” seems to be interpreting Scripture in ways Zahnd disagrees with. Moreover, everyone comes to Scripture with many assumptions, including Zhand. Stating it as he has gives the impression that while others are blind to their own biases, he is not. If he believes this, it is as much hubris as he avers proponents of biblicism to hold. I am reminded of the illustration of the 3 blind men feeling their way around an elephant, each describing it differently. Every person only has a limited perspective on the truth, and we are blind to what we don’t see. What is needed is a perspective that sees the whole of it. Tim Keller exposes the folly of this, however. “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”[3] Are critics of “biblicism” alone able to see the whole elephant?

Identifying false dichotomies

Zahnd goes on to say, “we don’t start with the Bible; we start with Jesus and the church. Why? Because Jesus is Lord, not the Bible. Christians worship Jesus, not the Bible. Jesus is the head of the church, not the Bible.”[2] To say that Jesus is the true Word of God while Scripture is not, or is in some lesser sense the Word of God is to embrace a division that is both unnecessary and unhelpful. A variation on this theme is to say that it is the Spirit that guides us into the truth, and the Spirit was of course doing this before the canon of Scripture. Both of these positions create a false dichotomy that makes no sense. One wonders in saying, “Jesus is Lord, not the Bible” whether Zahnd means to affirm that the Bible does not carry the authority of Jesus, or that he is not, through the Holy Spirit, speaking in and through the Scriptures? The contrast Zahnd draws is a false one. The church he encourages us to start with has always believed Scripture to be the revelation of God not in contrast with Jesus,

Consider the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. At the conclusion of it, the rich man, in torment in Hell, begs Abraham to send Lazarus—dead as well—to warn his brothers. Abraham counters that they have Moses and the Prophets, “Let them hear them.” It isn’t too much to say that the rich man asks for a miracle, indeed, for a demonstration of the supernatural, of the working of the Spirit.

But Abraham again demurs, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:27-31) In other words, the Scriptures and the witness of them are able to convict and convert them, apart from seeing someone rise from the dead. The Scriptures are the means of conviction and indeed, conversion. What the rich man desires, the Scriptures are able to do, indeed, by the Spirit’s enabling.

The book which Zahn wrote the foreword to contains more such downgrading of Scripture. Keith Giles casts doubt on the idea the only way we can know God is through the Scriptures.

“If the Word of God is Jesus, and if Jesus now lives within me, then I have the Word of God inside of me. Maybe this means that we can know Christ the way we know our own voice, or our own heartbeat, because He is alive within us. The Scriptures also tell us that we “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) right now and that we can discern “the things that come from the Spirit of God…because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:15) and this Spirit is now alive within us.”[4]

Again the question is whether the voice we hear within us will lead us in ways that are contrary to Scripture? There have been many throughout history who have claimed to speak for God. Is Islam, with a view of God that is very different from what we read in the Christian Bible, an example of hearing God’s voice? Mohammed believed God revealed truth to him. Joseph Smith, too, received a revelation he believed to be from God. Is the Mormon view of God one we should embrace? What criteria would one use to determine this?

Giles also suggests, “not only can we all hear our Master’s voice individually, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit who “leads us into all truth” (John 16:13), as Jesus promised us.”[5]

But this is at odds with what Zahnd says in his foreword—that was start with the church. Starting with the church means listening to the witness of the church as to the truth of Scripture and of whom it speaks. Affirming that the witness of the Spirit within believers will work apart from Scripture runs counter to what the church has always believed.

The Edge Cases: We shouldn’t make the exception the rule

I want to say a word about those views which I believe are the edge cases, but don’t represent any kind of commonly held position among evangelicals, and which may in fact be little more than poor expressions of a truth. A friend tweeted that “the Bible is not God”—and promptly got a few people who did insist no, “the Bible IS God.” I think these people are, in the main, likely expressing a view on the authority of Scripture, but expressing it very poorly indeed. They know that Scripture is God’s Word, and want to affirm that, but to say the Bible is God is nonsense. Consider a legal affidavit that is signed and notarized, specifying the wishes of one who issued it. Assume it is for the disbursement of funds, yet the agent will not accept the affidavit, wanting to hear from the owner himself. We would say that the affidavit carries all the authority of the one who issued it, and in the affidavit, you do hear from the owner. I suspect those equating the Bible with God are trying to avoid such a situation—one, in fact, that Zahnd’s position can indeed lead to: Scripture is not as authoritative as God.

Moreover, I have doubts that those expressing this are in fact worshiping their Bibles, bowing down to them, praying to Scripture. It is as ridiculous as it is unlikely. This, too, makes me think that saying God is the Bible is but a ham-handed attempt to affirm Scripture. This is not to say we shouldn’t correct wrong thinking such as this.

The other edge case bears hardly a mention, but those who equate God’s word with only one translation of Scripture also fall into a kind of idolatry. It is foolish, but here, too, the solution is not to downgrade the authority or sufficiency of Scripture, but to correct this misunderstanding, while affirming what is true of the Bible.

Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?

When the disciples were with Jesus and he spoke some hard sayings, many drew back. He asked the Twelve if they also wanted to go away. Peter answered that they knew Jesus alone had the words of eternal life. How does one go to Jesus today for the words of eternal life? The eyewitnesses are long gone from the scene, and in their stead we have what Peter calls “the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” (2 Pet 1:19)  That Peter is speaking of the Scriptures is clear from what he next says. “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” (2 Pet 1:20)

Paul, also, speaks of the same sure ability of Holy Scripture to guide us when he says to Timothy, “you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:15-16) In both cases, Peter and Paul are speaking of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. If this power is there for that part of Scripture, does anyone believe it is not the case for the New Testament?

Perhaps the largest unanswered question with an approach that says Jesus is the Word of God rather than Scripture is this: Where does one turn to know about Jesus? Where do I find his promises, his warnings, his imperatives? How might I know him? Giles and Zahnd have no cogent answer if they dismiss the sufficiency of Scripture in the life of Christians. While they say Scripture is very important, they also repeatedly affirm Jesus is known apart from and outside of Scripture. But Jesus himself pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of what he did and said. On the Emmaus road,  he said to the two, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27) The apostle Paul did the same, “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass.” His ministry and message were ground in the Hebrew Bible. Here, too, we find no division, no false choice of Jesus or Scripture. Rather, Jesus through Scripture.

The approach that says we can or should know Jesus apart from the Bible, that we should demote its place in the life of the Christian, such an approach doesn’t solve any of the challenges in reading Scripture, and indeed, few deny the challenges are there. Rather, it shifts the locus where we look for truth to something other than God’s revelation in Scripture. Whether it’s the inner voice, or other people, these are ultimately not as trustworthy as God’s Word. This approach doesn’t clarify, it only adds one more voice to the interpretive din.

 

[1] Keith Giles. Jesus Unbound. Quoir. Kindle Edition., p. 11.

[2]Ibid. p. 13.

[3]Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 9.

[4]Giles, p. 43.

[5] Giles, Loc. Cit.

 

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