As Christians, we believe the Bible is the foundational way in which the Creator God has chosen to be revealed. It records the working of God in creation and with humanity, whom He created in His image. The Bible itself records the power of the reading of these words of God. Think of Jeremiah, and Josiah, when the Book of the Law was found. Think of Ezra reading to the people when they returned from exile. Think of Jesus as a boy in the temple, asking perceptive questions. Think of the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,”.
Think of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:18, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”. Prayerfully reading and submitting to God as revealed in the Bible is a key element to the Christian life.
I personally can describe myself as merely Christian. Referencing C. S. Lewises, Mere Christianity. I read broadly, and have had the good fortune of benefiting from close friends of many different denominations. While I certainly have strong opinions on many subjects in the Bible, I can hold them with a loose fist because I know many people whom I respect and look up to who may hold different opinions altogether. As long as we understand Jesus as the only son of God, through whom alone we are saved, we can agree to be Merely Christian.
What I want to draw attention to here is two extremes of how we read our Bibles. This issue is often divisive among Christians. The first extreme is Scripture Alone. On the extreme of this pendulum the most literal and simple reading of the Bible is always best. On the other extreme are those who view the Bible as a Historical Document. They still believe firmly who Jesus is, and that the Bible is the inspired word of God. They believe that the Bible is full of nuance and that historical context is key to understanding the heart of the message of the Bible. What I hope to show is that very few of us are actually fully on one or the other of these extremes. I would suggest that as we read the Bible well we tend to land somewhere in the middle.
Scripture Alone is an important doctrine in Church history. For a great deal of the last two millennia, a very small portion of people had access to the Bible or even the ability to read at all. Christians were at the mercy of those who taught them. In many cases these teachers were good men who cared for their congregation. In some cases, teachers became tyrants who usurped God’s authority and the authority of the Bible and ruled with an iron fist. In both cases, much of the clergy have a very minimal education, sometimes finding themselves leading congregations having never read or understood the Bible for themselves. This is the environment in which the Holy Spirit through the reformers rediscovered the doctrine of Scripture Alone. This doctrine is firmly anchored within the scriptural authors themselves, as well as the writings of many of the church fathers. Every believer has the ability to understand the teachings of the Bible and apply them to their own lives. We are the people of God, a nation of priests and kings who do not need to be subject to religious tyrants build their kingdoms on the ignorance of the masses. The articulation of this doctrine led to massive societal shifts, the invention of the printing press, (first used to print Bibles for the people), Education was soon encouraged for every class, with Christians leading the charge. The original meaning of Scripture Alone, was not that we need nothing but the Bible. The original meaning was that every Christian has the ability to read the Bible without becoming a priest or interpreting it through Catholic traditions. The reformers believed strongly that the people needed to be taught how to read the Bible well, as attested to by their vast writings. It is important to note also that the reformers read and used more than just the Canonical Bible in their teaching. They used every available resource to teach and to read the Bible well, although to our standards their library was somewhat limited. The Deuterocanonicals, Augustine, Jerome, letters and papers from church fathers and many other sources were all used extensively. Today Bible colleges with an emphasis on the doctrine of Scripture Alone tend to focus on systematic theology. It is a shame that it is often possible to fulfill the requirements of these schools without actually ever sitting down and reading the entire Bible. In this the reformers would be appalled. In the worst cases a student’s adherence to a certain formula of scriptural interpretation is valued higher than a student’s relationship with God. In these extremes Scripture Alone has been replaced with what is supposed to be the one true reading of scripture, often leaving very little indeed up to the individual doing the reading. Despite the pitfalls that are present, many powerful leaders have been raised with these backgrounds. Including John Piper and R. C. Sproul. s
On the other side of the pendulum, the Bible is treated as a historical document, best understood in its context. This view is very old indeed. Origen working in the third century went to great lengths to collect the different translations then existent and sought to rectify any discrepancies. He assembled a Bible that sometimes swelled to twelve columns of different translations. Either of languages or wording. Even the Biblical authors themselves refer to the historical contexts and implications of older Biblical writings. However, in our day it has become increasingly necessary to learn about the context in which the Bible took place. Our culture and customs are much farther away than at any other time in history. Even a hundred years ago Americans growing up in an agricultural environment would inherently understand Biblical truths that we must learn. No one had to tell them that sheep are not especially smart, or that an ox and a donkey will plow really crooked furrows if they are hitched together. Government, war, economy and many other historical concepts were largely similar until the last few hundred years. Thankfully by the grace of God, information has become increasingly available as well. Not only can the average person own a Bible, they can also read many other historical documents that can help us access the Biblical world in fresh ways. Along with the wide availability of documents, good books are being written that explore the historical context of the Biblical world. When these books are written and read well, they challenge our perceptions and invite us to read the Bible with fresh eyes. Parts of the Bible that once seemed confusing suddenly make more sense. At its best, we don’t feel we are learning something new, but rather, we are watching as Biblical truths and stories click together. At their worst, institutions with an emphasis on the Bible as a historical document often have faculty that do not profess to believe the Bible to be true. They have no respect for the Bible as the word of God, and dissect it like a middle school frog. They bring with them a great many presuppositions about the nature of the universe that do not leave room for God and it severely affects their interpretation of the text. In these schools Textual Criticism takes the place of Systematic Theology in importance. A student can still graduate without ever reading the whole of the Bible, or ever believing in God, as long as they can dissect the passages they do read well. Despite the challenges to these environments they have produced church leaders like Deitrick Bonhofer, N. T. Wright and C. S. Lewis. All of whom are balanced by a firm understanding of who God is as received in church tradition.
When it comes right down to it, reading the Bible expectant of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is where we must start and finish as believers. Systematic Theology, Quiet Times, Historical Studies, Prayer, these are all disciplines that God may use to increase our ability to follow Him. Nobody is capable of understanding every aspect of the Bible, much less God, for themselves. As we study in community appreciating one anothers gifts our prayer must be as Paul’s prayer in Ephesians.
14 For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, 19 and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
None of us have all the answers for ourselves, not even one denomination has all the answers. We all emphasize different aspects of who God is. As we learn to appreciate one another, we also learn a great deal about the beauty and diversity represented in churches around the globe. In this we are faced with ever deafening appreciation for who our God is, as well as our own insignificance as anything other than His children.
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