11 min. to read.
Not long ago I posted a comment on Facebook. It was meant to be encouraging to my Christian friends. I didn’t expect it to be controversial. I wrote:
“Christian: If your theology, doctrine or world-view is based on anything other than Jesus, it’s time to upgrade your operating system. Saying something is ‘Biblical’ is not helpful because the books in the Bible documents all kinds of beliefs, laws and stories, many of which aren’t meant to be prescriptive, or were prescriptive in a different time and culture, but are no longer. Everything we need to know about God, we see in Jesus. Our guide for how to treat others, we see in Jesus. Our hope is in Jesus. Jesus is God’s final word.”
Very shortly I received a comment that pushed back. “Wait…” they wrote. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness.” The writer challenged me: “To deny the validity…of any part of scripture requires we deny the validity…of Christ’s words…I believe Jesus is pretty clear that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid.” She ended with a powerful statement: “I think selective acceptance of the Bible is dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught.”
Unlike some people who correct me online, this person isn’t a grumpy troll. She is a thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate woman that I happen to know takes her faith quite seriously. Knowing something of her heart, her words felt significant to me, and worth reflection.
Her last statement has been turning over and over in my mind now. Did Jesus clearly teach that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid? Even asking that question feels heretical to some Christians. Something about her concern seems exactly right. Something also seemed off.
If I’m the authority, the Bible isn’t.
The question on the table is an important one. How are we to understand the authority of Scripture? This question lies at the heart of most every church controversies for the past two thousand years.
Christians all claim the Bible as the source of authority in their lives. Evangelical Christians, in particular, declare the Bible to be the never-changing, always perfect, inspired and authoritative Word of God. Yet, there’s wide disagreement about what it means to accept the Bible as an authority.
How is the Bible authoritative? Is every word authoritative in the same way, with the same weight? Or is there some kind of interpretive hierarchy within scripture? If there is, how do we avoid ending up with a subjective pick-what-you-like-avoid-what-you-don’t view of the Bible?
This is, I think, the core of truth and wisdom from the commenter. It’s nonsense to claim the Bible is an authority in my life, if I alone have the final say about which parts are authoritative. That’s just me, gleaning scriptural justification for the positions I already find attractive.
That left me in an interesting space. One the one hand, I believe and teach that the Bible is God-given, inspired, useful for teaching, and meant to have authority in our lives. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the Bible is uniformly authoritative–a “flat text” as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, puts it.[note A “Flat Text” is one where every single verse carries exactly the same weight, with the same authority, and is binding in the same way.]
So, how did I get there? Are these two ideas compatible? Am I falling off the deep end? (I sense a new blog series coming on…)
So, what did Jesus really say?
The starting point, at least for me, is Jesus. The person who commented on my post was, I think, correct to look there first.
Her words again: “I believe Jesus is pretty clear that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid…I think selective acceptance of the Bible is dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught.” But is that accurate? Is this what Jesus taught?
Jesus quoted Old Testament scripture as if it was authoritative. He quoted it to reveal and combat the lies of Satan. He referred to scriptural passages and stories as support for his teaching. He quoted scripture to resolve theological disputes. He said that the words in the Jewish scripture, commonly referred to as “the Law and the Prophets,” were lasting and authoritative. His words:
Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. — Matthew 5:17-18
While Jesus said much more about scripture, I think this is sufficient to at least agree that Jesus saw scripture as God-given, inspired, unchanging and authoritative. But is that the end of the story?
Jesus had an interesting relationship with the Torah, the collection of scripture in existence at his time. He declares it authoritative, he used it, quoted it and referred to it in the ways you would if you believed it to be authoritative, yet upon closer examination, it seems like Jesus didn’t see all of it as uniformly authoritative.
(Note: I’m not making this argument from the writings of Paul. Paul clearly goes on to redefine the relationship of the Christian to the law. Here I’m sticking with Jesus, what he said, and what he did.)
Let’s look at a handful of examples of what I mean.
Jesus seemed to see the Old Testament laws regarding cleanliness and defilement as secondary to some other higher standard. The Old Testament declared quite a number of things to be unclean, saying that anyone who touches them is defiled. But Jesus clearly and (it seems) intentionally violated these rules. Sometimes he even told other people to violate them!
Jesus touched a leper and he repeatedly touched dead people. Both of these were declared unclean in scripture. Not only would this make Jesus unclean, it also would make him guilty before God. Jesus violated these scriptural rules personally. He also challenged the religious leaders on how they saw and enforced these rules.
Another example. The Mosaic law gave quite a list of foods that were unclean. Eating them would defile a person, but Jesus said something different. It’s not what we eat that defiles us, he said. It’s the intentions of our hearts and the actions that emerge from them. He didn’t just clarify these rules about food. He directly contradicted them!
Jesus’ clarification and re-interpretation of well-known Old Testament laws didn’t end with matters of ritual cleanliness and food. He also radically challenged the rules about the Sabbath. This was controversial territory.
Sabbath-keeping was one of the most important markers of God’s people. Every Jewish child learned how to keep the Sabbath. The practice traced its origin back to creation. The Old Testament forbid work on the Sabbath. This wasn’t a minor rule[note If you respond to this post saying the distinction is that Jesus changed the “ceremonial laws” but not the “moral laws,” I’ll challenge you back. Find a scripture that establishes those two categories of laws. There isn’t one that I can see. This idea that the “ceremonial law” was a part of the Old Covenant, but the “moral law” continues in the New seems like a dodge to me. I know it’s a common statement. I’ve said it myself. But is it really Biblical?] It was embedded right in the Ten Commandments.
Yet, Jesus supported the breaking of this law on several occasions. Two examples: His disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain to feed themselves. Jesus defended them. In another case, Jesus told a man he had healed on the Sabbath to pick up his bedroll and head home, even though this was a direct violation of God’s decreed will.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we find the most famous example of Jesus re-defining the Old Testament commands. One by one, dealing with murder, adultery, divorce, serving others, and love for enemies, Jesus refers to an Old Testament statement. These different standards were all either direct quotes from the law, or Rabbinic interpretations that carried the weight of law in his community. In a powerful and authoritative voice, Jesus declared, “You’ve heard it said…” citing the law, and then said, “But I say unto you…” re-defining and expanding it.
In each cases, he actually makes the law deeper, applying to a wider set of circumstances, than was commonly understood. We often skirt around this by saying that Jesus was just correcting wrong interpretations or trying to get back to the original intention. This may be true, but is also can keep us from coming face to face with the truth that in at least two of these situations Jesus was quoting the actual words of the Old Testament, and replacing them with a much stricter and deeper command.
The lens through which Jesus read scripture.
Am I claiming that Jesus’ undermined the authority of scripture? No.
Am I claiming that Jesus didn’t believe that scripture was God’s inspired word? No.
It just seems to me from Jesus’ words and actions, that when Jesus said that God’s law was authoritative and final he meant something higher than just the “letter of the law.” It seems like Jesus was constantly appealing to this higher standard. This higher standard allowed Jesus to correct false interpretations, but it also allowed Jesus to update and in some cases even change Biblical commands.
Am I claiming then that we have the right to change or update scripture? Absolutely not.
I am claiming that if Jesus saw a higher standard in God’s law that served as the governing principle, then for us to accurately read scripture and obey it, we need to see the same governing principle as the high point.
What is this high point? We don’t need to infer. Jesus tells us.
And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:35-40
This is the filter through which Jesus saw all of God’s will and guidance for us. He says it himself. “All the law and the prophets,” (a Jewish phrase that simply means all of inspired scripture) hangs on these two thing. Love for God, and love for neighbor.
This lines up with Jesus’ final word on the command that governs our lives.
I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. – John 13:34
This is the lens through which we must look at all scripture. This is the interpretive guideline we must use, if we are to understand God’s counsel in accordance with Jesus’ view.
New Testament scholar Scot McKnight put it plainly:
The Bible is not flat; the Bible points to Jesus so to Jesus we must go! …It was Jesus himself – a person, born, living, teaching, acting, miracles, and all that, then dying and then rising and then glorified – who evoked faith and who then led to Scriptures through the Spirit and then guided the Church into those Scriptures. The first Christians didn’t believe in Jesus because they had a New Testament but they composed the New Testament because of Jesus and because they believed in him and because God’s Spirit empowered them to know the truth about Jesus. – Scot McKnight
This is a topic much broader than a single blog post can handle. So, yes, there’s much more than can be said. But this is the starting point.
Jesus didn’t teach that every single verse in the Bible is never changing. Jesus taught and showed us that what is never-changing is God’s highest and ultimate command for us. Everything else is an application to our lives in a particular time, place and circumstance. More soon.