Do we worship Jesus or the Bible?

heart-in-Bible-pages1You don’t have to be involved in a debate about some contentious issue, and what the Bible might say about it, for too long before someone chimes up:

Sounds to me like your worship the Bible! Shouldn’t Christians worship Jesus?

The accusation is that, if you focus on what the Bible says, you are making the Bible your ultimate authority instead of making Jesus your ultimate authority. There is a theological version of this argument and a practical version. The theological version is that it is Jesus, not the Bible, which is the ‘Word of God’—most notably expressed (as we will remember this Christmas) in John 1. The Word became flesh and lived amongst us—but if we focus too much on the Bible, we are in danger of turning the Word made flesh back into a mere word again. Instead of incarnation we become guilty of decarnation, of turning God’s word from something living and personal to something dry and propositional.

The more practical version observes what Jesus does with Scripture and what Scripture says about Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus appears quite happy to put the authority of his own words above the authority of the words of Scripture: ‘You have heard it said…but I say to you…’ (Matt 5.21­–37). On the other, Jesus claims that the whole point of the Scriptures is to point to him. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life. But it is these that testify about me’ (John 5.39). In other words, if we get too obsessed with what the Scriptures say, it is like standing in front of a signpost studying it rather than following where it is pointing.

A recent blog post put it like this:

Jesus is the thing. Scripture is the sign that points toward the thing. Scripture provides a series of portraits so that we will know the real thing when we see it. The difference between scripture and Christ is the difference between the menu and the food. The one describes the reality of the life-giving substance, the other is that life-giving substance.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider these metaphors. If you are in a restaurant, you would be foolish to think that the menu could in any way nourish you. And yet the experience of Christians is that reading Scripture is indeed nourishing. And there’s a good reason for that—Jesus himself compares what God says in Scripture to food. ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matt 4.4) he says, citing the Old Testament scriptures as this word from God. Paradoxically, Jesus also describes himself as bread from heaven (John 6.35), but perhaps this is the key. When Jesus claims to be God’s word, he is not displacing Scripture, but identifying with it. Jesus claims to be ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6) but he also claims that ‘the words I speak are spirit and life’ (John 6.63). Jesus and his words offer the same thing.

Paul appears to support this identification. Scripture is ‘God-breathed’, carried on God’s breath by his Spirit to us (2 Tim 3.16), just as anyone’s words are carried by the outflow of their breath (try speaking whilst breathing in!) And yet it is precisely studying these Scriptures which can deliver the experience of salvation through Jesus, if you read them aright (2 Tim 3.15). The writer to the Hebrews appears to contrast the way God has spoken in the past with the way God has spoken ‘in these last days’ through Jesus (Heb 1.1–2). But this cannot be a contrast of what is written with what has been incarnated; the only way we know of Jesus, his ministry, his teaching and the meaning of his life and death is through the scriptures of the new covenant. These verses looks less like a rejection of the written word than a case for the extension of the written word to include the testimony to Jesus we find in the gospels.

cs-lewisPerhaps this gets us to the heart of the issue. When Jesus challenges the ‘Jewish leaders’ (John 5.16) about the Scriptures which ‘point to me’, he highlights for us that they have two things before them: the Scriptures themselves, and Jesus who stands before them. We are not in the same position, since we do not have the incarnated Word standing before us. Instead we have the testimony to Jesus in the gospels and letters. If we believe in a cosmic Christ, disconnected from history and accessible in some ethereal, mystical way only, then the contrast with the Scriptures is one we could make. But if we believe in the historical Jesus, if we believe that the Word really did become flesh, then it is focusing on these Scriptures that leads us to Jesus. That is precisely why John later makes this point:

These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20.31)

C S Lewis sums it up with characteristic clarity, in a letter to Mrs. Johnson, written on November 8th 1952:

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… 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.

Notice Lewis careful qualification about how we are to interpret as well as why we need to interpret.

Contrasting Scripture and Jesus is as odd as contrasting what someone says with the person themselves. It is an imperfect analogy, but it would be very strange for me to say ‘I don’t need to listen carefully to what my wife says—after all, I married her and not her words!’ This kind of false dichotomy actually separates who God is from what God says, and if we divide God in this way we are heading for trouble—not least because the foundational belief of Scripture is that ‘God is one’ (Deut 6.4).

As it turns out, this kind of division is very often a prelude to then saying the Scripture is wrong, that it is an unreliable guide to what God says, and doesn’t in fact tell us the truth about God and Jesus. The question then follows: how do we know the truth? This then becomes a matter of private discernment by individuals, who can inform us in their wisdom which aspects of Scripture are reliable and which are misleading, rather than a matter of the shared discernment of God’s people by reading the Scriptures together. Instead of Scripture mediating the truth about Christ, the authoritative commentator does so. Expounding Scripture in a way which does not accord with the person of Jesus is as serious a problem as expounding the person of Jesus in a way which does not accord with Scripture.

Now, there is sometimes a problem with Christians focusing on the propositional rather than the personal as they read. But the problem here is not to do with separating Scripture from Jesus, but with reading Scripture poorly. Scripture, understood as God’s words to us, is less a manual for living than the act of communication of a loving father to his children, and we need to take is as such. It is given to us not just for information but for formation, to make us more like Jesus. But if we want God to make us more like Jesus by his Spirit, we need to focus more on what he has said in Scripture—not less.

A version of this article was first published on Christian Today on 4th December 2015.

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12 thoughts on “Do we worship Jesus or the Bible?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian – I completely agree. I often go to Luke 24:13-35 (the road to Emmaus) on this kind of issue:

    “[Jesus] said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

    I like the fact that the two disciples didn’t recognise Jesus until he had opened their eyes to the Scriptures. Then, after breaking bread, he disappears from their sight – in a sense, they don’t need the visible presence of Christ because they have his presence by the Spirit and through the Word.

    I think it’s becoming increasingly common for evangelicals (in the vein of Steve Chalke) to go down a ‘Jesus vs the Bible’ route, and I don’t think Jesus or the apostles would have us see any such tension.

  2. I largely agree with this except that many difficulties appear to arise from differences of *interpretation* and applying the correct cultural context(s) rather than the words themselves.

  3. Out of interest, Ian, d’you feel that you’ve chosen to invest scripture with authority; or d’you feel that scriptural authority’s been revealed to you, and therefore, to do differently would be to disobey God?

  4. Ian,

    ‘Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.’ Acts 17:11.

    Did scriptural evaluation really demonstrate the Berean Jews to be more noble than their Thessalonian counter-parts who roundly rejected St. Paul’s message?

    On what basis did the Bereans choose to invest scripture with authority, or feel that its authority had been revealed to them?

    Of course, skeptics will view the foregoing as ‘begging the question’: that it is circular reasoning to rely solely on the scriptural record of the prophets and apostles to establish their congruence with Christ.

    Instead, they resort to democratic scholarship to elect those verses should be attributed to the historical Jesus…and dare any of us question the objectivity of their rationalist criteria.

  5. The complication comes when people use words like ‘inerrant’ – a word that just does not compute with the kind of literature that the bible comprises. Tom Wright puts it well:

    “A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth. There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be. The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else. I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles. We don’t quite know what to do with them. Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not.”

  6. Andrew, thanks for the long NT Wright quote, which helps me to make sense of my own faith journey … even after I became an Anglo-Catholic, I was more of a Pauline Christian and I sensed that the Gospels were less important to me than the Epistles; this is a bit of a problem for a Catholic-minded Christian, because of the importance placed on the Gospel reading in the Mass or the Divine Liturgy! Looking back, I now realise that this is a result of my adult religious formation as an evangelical Christian, which has powerfully shaped the way I think … to be honest, I’m rather grateful for this as it has largely inoculated me from the liberalism that so many Anglicans and even Roman Catholics have fallen into. I’m now about to become Greek Orthodox and it will be interesting to see how my perceptions change once I become Orthodox and am fully immersed in a new religious culture, very different from the Western one that I’ve experienced in both its Catholic and Protestant forms.

  7. With the two disciples on the road to Emmause, I think the Greek actually says that Jesus interpreted the scriptures to them. He showed them how to read them through the lens or language of Christ.

    Hebrews 1:1-2 says that God spoke in many ways in times past but now He speaks “in Son.” Most translations say “in His Son”, but the His is not in the Greek. So, what the Hebrews author is essentially saying is like me saying I speak in English. God spoke in a lot of different ways in times past, but now He speaks in Son. Christ is the language that God is speaking in. The scriptures only make sense when understood in this language.

    Another analogy for Christ and the scriptures is that of a compass. A compass always points to the North Pole just like scripture always points to Jesus. The compass will keep you on the right path to finding your way just like scripture keeps you on the right path to finding Jesus. However, the North Pole exists independently of the compass. You could still get there without the compass, although it would probably be quite difficult and you might die before you did. But, the compass is worthless and unusable if there is no North Pole. So, they work in tandem but one is greater than the other. Jesus is to have to first place and preeminence in everything.

    The scribes and pharisees studied the scriptures intently for eternal life but couldn’t see Jesus standing right there in front of them. They had the written word but no living word. Interestingly, the disciples had the living word with them day and night for three straight years. Yet, they didn’t get what the living word, Jesus, was saying either. They knew He was the Messiah but still couldn’t get that He had to die. Hence, Jesus had to rebuke Peter sternly, “Get behind thee Satan.” But, after His resurrection, Jesus brought the living word and the written word together. The living word interpreted the written word for the disciples. It was then that their hearts burned within them.

    Again, the two work in hand in hand but one is greater than the other.

  8. Good piece Ian

    C.S.Lewis did indeed write:
    “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… 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.”

    and you have correctly noted:
    “Notice Lewis careful qualification about how we are to interpret as well as why we need to interpret.”

    The additional point is that your context is Scripture itself. So it is how we interpret Scripture as well as why we interpret Scripture”. We are not talking about other people’s reason or other people’s version of tradition, we are actually talking about Scripture.

    Jesus himself shows that he believes in Scripture, that it is true, and that he didn’t come to change it at all. The issue is to interpret Scripture with Jesus showing us the interpretation. Jesus is not saying that Scripture is untrue. Yet you correctly observe that “As it turns out, this kind of division is very often a prelude to then saying the Scripture is wrong, that it is an unreliable guide to what God says, and doesn’t in fact tell us the truth about God…” yet Jesus is NOT saying that Scripture is wrong and he is not disqualifying it as a guide to God, He is always making us think about our interpretation.

    Anyone who tells us Scripture is wrong because of Jesus’ example has themselves got it wrong!

  9. The Biblical text is inspired, for sure. But if we are not inspired to receive the spiritual message then we can easily miss it. The truth can be very subtle, and when the truth takes the form of written text then our fallible minds can miss the subtleties that require “ears to hear.” The message can transcend the words that describe it. Such is the nature of spiritual truth. God can easily get conceptualized by trying to describe Him with words. He Said that we need to be still to know that He is God. He did not say to read about Him to know Him. Gotta be careful not to get too scriptural, and miss being spiritual!

  10. Interesting.

    I wonder what those early Christians did for the first 400 years before the NT was compiled into a “book.” I also wonder what those Christians did throughout the Middle Ages since having a Bible was an extreme rarity due to the fact they were hand written and extremely costly. Having a NT is a very recent affair made possible due to Gutenberg’s printing press. The idea of one on every nightstand is something from the last 150 years or so.

    Most of the letters of the NT would never have been written if there wasn’t a problem needing to be addressed. The NT was never intended to be a “guidebook” in the sense of “follow the laws stated in this book.” No, they were letters of love and warnings to spirituality led people who were becoming worldly. These disciples were spiritual due to a life in the Spirit and not because they held a weekly Bible study. The scriptures dissected by the Bereans were from the OT. They were seeing if the prophecies about Jesus were in line with who Christ claimed to be. I PROMISE you they didn’t go to the nearest Lifeway and pick up a copy of the NT…and neither did the Ethiopian eunuch when he returned to Ethiopia after his dedication to Jesus.

    The message of Christ is simple: live by the Spirit. I figure if the first Christians can do so, then so can I.

    • Well, the evidence is that the writings which were thought to be inspired were already being collected together in the first century; we see hints of this in Luke 1, and there is external evidence to support this. The finalisation of the canon was the end of a long process, and all the evidence is that the content was well settled early on.

      The translation by Jerome was called the Vulgate because it was in the vulgar tongue which was widely understood. The commitment of those involved in the Reformation was to return rightful access to the Scriptures, hence Henry VIIIs command to have a Great Bible in every church.

      The message of Christ is simple: God created and loves sinful humanity who has turned from him. To draw him back he formed a holy people, who often failed, and so finally sent his son to die for our sins and was raised again to give us life. He poured out his end-times Spirit to be his sanctifying presence in our lives as we share this good news and await his return. But you cannot know all that, simple as it is, without reading your Bible.

  11. Thanks for your response, Ian

    No doubt about the fact those letters were written at the time they claim to have been written. (I find it interesting how so many refuse to accept the fact those letters are certainly legit.)

    The entire point of those writings is the fact we are called to live in the spiritual life, or spiritual world. It’s a world and realm which the written letter can’t even scratch the surface. It has to be experienced in the Spirit. I suppose my issue is that we have traded in the Spirit for a book, chapter, and verse. To many, it’s as if they feel they couldn’t exist without s Bible. It has become a god to way too many people. The early Christians experienced that world without any book. Of course, some received a letter from Paul (Corinth, etc). Yet, those certainly weren’t easily available to most others.

    Once we hear (through either a Bible or someone telling us about God being revealed in Jesus) we are led into an incredible world of life and the Spirit.



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