Jesus vs The Bible
Evangelicals can be guilty of forgetting that scripture and the Savior are dual authorities – and instead pit them against one another Robert Keay asks whether we can end the war
When Steve Chalke’s charity Oasis was asked to leave the UK Evangelical Alliance two years ago, it was symptomatic of a major rift that had developed in the Christian landscape. The decision centred around Chalke’s affirmation of same-sex relationships, but was seen by many as the culmination of a series of disputes between the church leader’s increasingly liberal theological views and a conservative view of scripture held by other evangelicals.
In recent years Chalke and other likeminded Christians such as Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren have defended their changes in stance by drawing a distinction between scripture and the person it reveals, Jesus Christ.
In a dialogue article with New Frontiers leader Andrew Wilson, Chalke wrote in this magazine: ‘If it doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not God. Ultimately it turns out, the “word of God” is a person, not a manuscript. So it is Christ – his life, example, character and teaching – which is our guide and our primary lens, not only for biblical interpretation but for doing life.’
Although we may disagree on all manner of points of doctrine, all evangelicals acknowledge the authority of scripture (we just disagree over how best to interpret it). In doing so we identify Jesus and the Bible as two ultimate authorities. The scriptures speak of Christ (John 5:39) and Christ fulfils the scriptures (Matthew 5:17).
So how should we approach these two voices that come to us? Are they in competition? Do we sometimes have to ignore Jesus in order to obey scripture, or does following the character of Jesus sometimes negate parts of the Bible? No. I believe that we should hold these two voices as dual authorities, rather than understanding them as duelling.
As evangelicals we should be able to stand together on this foundation, discuss our differences and work towards greater unity. We exist across the denominations and have welldefined but differing views on many theological topics, including baptism, the gifts of the Spirit and the nature of hell. Consider the flood of books with titles like Four Views on… written by evangelical scholars for an evangelical audience.
Our common confession that Jesus is Lord and the Bible is the word of God has almost always preserved a sense of unity in kingdom work. However, there have been times when we have been divided because we cannot agree on how the two are related.
Somehow, at times, Jesus and the Bible seemed to point in different directions, and it appeared that one had to choose to follow either Jesus or the Bible. Such moments in history are turning points. They either lead to tragic schism or they bring a new direction and potency for evangelicalism.
As a pastor in America I witnessed first-hand the increasing dissolution of evangelical unity as a result of the failure to maintain the harmony of our dual authority. While evangelicalism in the UK has generally been more successful in maintaining its unity, there are signs of disintegration that warrant serious attention, lest our witness be weakened.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Baptists (despite doctrinal differences such as predestination and eternal security) maintained unity and cooperated throughout the States to promote the gospel. However, discerning the proper Christian response to the slavery question ultimately led to a division between Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists. The Northern Baptists believed they were following Christ in supporting abolition and the freedom of slaves; the Southern Baptists believed they were following scripture in defending the existence of the institution. Rather than stand together on common ground – their common confession of dual authority – and find a way to properly relate Christ and scripture, the two sides divided permanently and thereby weakened their witness for Christ and their work for his kingdom.
Everything Moses said somehow relates to Jesus
This failure to engage was a lost opportunity and a portent of future schisms. We never actually resolved the theological question, we simply stopped talking about it when government agencies took charge and war decided the matter. Even to this day, although all evangelicals would be glad slavery ended, many still cannot provide biblical support for abolition in light of the New Testament’s admonitions: ‘Slaves, obey your…masters’ (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).
The controversy over women in ministry followed a similar pattern in some quarters. Some saw Jesus bringing freedom for women held back by sin-cursed patriarchal social structures (Luke 10:38-42); others focused on biblical texts that maintained contemporary social structures (1 Timothy 2:12). When framed in this way, the debate threatens evangelical unity, because it becomes a matter of either following Jesus or following the Bible.
THE RED VS BLACK LETTERS
Tony Campolo’s Red-Letter Christians movement highlights Jesus’ words (printed in red in some Bibles), particularly those concerning compassion for the poor and the outcasts. The Red-Letter Christians group places a huge emphasis on the authority of Jesus. But are they neglecting the authority of the rest of scripture? Stan Guthrie wrote: ‘Sure, Christians understand that Jesus the incarnate Word fulfills the written Word. But if all scripture is God-breathed, then in principle Jesus’ inscripturated statements are no more God’s Word to us than are those from Peter, Paul, and Mary – or Ezekiel.’
The reaction from Christians to the much-documented Ashers Bakery case in Northern Ireland is an example of how schisms could develop among evangelicals in the UK. Ashers – a Christian-owned bakery – had refused to bake a cake with the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ on it. One group of Christians believed that baking the cake violated God’s command against gay marriage. The other group thought that baking the cake expressed Christ’s love for people. This latter group even offered the ‘bake two’ response (‘If someone forces you to bake a cake for a gay wedding, bake for them two’) based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38- 41. Both sides seem entrenched and unable to engage constructively in dialogue towards finding a way forward.
Paul saw the whole of scripture as a continuous, progressive, developmental narrative about God
But there is also the possibility that our disagreements could lead to greater understanding of how Jesus and the Bible together, as our dual authority, guide our attitudes, actions and progress towards Christlikeness and kingdom living. Steve Chalke’s debate with Andrew Wilson two years ago about the relationship between Christ and the Bible was for the most part constructive. Both leaders agreed that the Bible and Jesus must be brought into unity, and that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of Jesus. They even shared ideas on where that unity might be found, discussing such concepts as progressive revelation and accommodation. This is where the discussion needs to go: towards a greater understanding of Jesus within the biblical narrative.
We need to find a way to clarify how Jesus and the Bible are related to each other and not in competition. Both sides agree that ‘either/or’ cannot ultimately prevail, and will inevitably lead to division, but currently we do not agree on how to understand the ‘both/and’ perspective.
We must find a way to express and uphold the authority of both Jesus and the Bible. We must avoid the polar errors of either equating the Bible and Jesus so that whatever the Bible says, Jesus says (Jesus’ position on the dietary laws and the Sabbath demonstrate the difference), or dislocating Jesus and the Bible so that whatever Moses once said becomes irrelevant for the follower of Christ.
Jesus actually provides us with clear guidance about his relationship with the Bible when he says: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). This means that within the scriptures there is progress, development and movement towards an end goal of fulfilment. Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament, but neither did he come merely to validate or exegete it. He came to bring the whole Old Testament to its ultimate fulfilment in himself and in the kingdom of God, and that means there will be something new and different, something better, as we reach forward towards the perfection of the kingdom. Not one jot or tittle is to be regarded as irrelevant or treated in isolation from Christ. Every jot and tittle is undergoing the transformation of fulfilment; everything Moses said somehow relates to Jesus.
TO LIVE IS CHRIST
The Christian’s lifestyle must be guided by the end-goal vision. And the end goal is most clearly seen in the person of Christ and in the kingdom that is our true home and citizenship. The Old Testament was intended to drive the Israelites to Jesus: ‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me’ (John 5:46). Paul makes it clear that the believer is being transformed to be like Christ (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Therefore, we must seek to imitate him (Philippians 2:5; 1 John 2:6) and live as citizens of the kingdom of God (Colossians 3). Jesus is not only the one who saves us, forgives us and reconciles us to God; as the Son of Man, he exemplifies true humanity and teaches us how to live as citizens of the kingdom in the midst of a fallen world: how to love and how to express grace, forgiveness, humility and gentleness, especially among those who need to receive God’s love the most (Luke 5:27-32).
Slavery can exist only in the world of fallen sinful humans; it will surely not exist in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated and will reach fulfilment in the future. It is right for Christians to seek its abolition, despite previous biblical allowances due to accommodations to human sinfulness. Such allowances were not expressions of God’s ultimate intention for humanity, but expressions of his patience and wisdom in dealing with hard-heartedness and moving people towards genuine humanity as was most fully revealed in Jesus. Thus, Moses’ statements about slavery do not represent the end of the story. Instead, they are early and prophetic statements pointing beyond themselves to a greater day, which Jesus effects through his life, death and resurrection. His followers seek to implement this in their lifestyle.
This is how Paul worked through the Sabbath commandment, and thereby continued to honour Jesus as Lord and the scriptures as the word of God. Paul saw the whole of scripture as a continuous, progressive, developmental narrative about God and the salvation of his creation, and the accomplishment of that salvation through Jesus Christ.
Jesus and the Bible are related in Paul’s mind in terms of shadow and reality. Where the Old Testament law gave a thin shadow of God’s purposes among his people, Christ’s fulfilment of that law sheds glorious light on how we can live out God’s purposes today. It could be a framework for how we must proceed in the current evangelical debates. We must ask: how is the biblical narrative being fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ, and how do we follow Christ in fulfilling his kingdom programme?
FINDING A WAY FORWARD
WWJD (What would Jesus do?) is not a trite question to be dismissed lightly. Neither is it a cloak for liberalism. It is the question that drives every disciple of Christ. It requires much prayer, Bible study and discussion with the wider body of Christ in order to discern what is best.
Following Christ sometimes means walking surprising roads, and there will always be people who disagree. Both Jesus and Paul faced opposition that charged them with going against Moses. But neither saw the situation as an either/or matter. Jesus interpreted Moses in an organic way, as prophetic reaching towards fulfilment, and therefore transformation (Matthew 5:17-20) and Paul interpreted Moses as the shadow of a greater reality found in Jesus (Colossians 2:17).
How should we respond when we cannot agree? Paul dealt with plenty of doctrinal disputes between believers in his own day. In Romans 14 he offers this help: ‘He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’ (Romans 14:6, NIV 1984).
When believers who seek to honour Jesus and obey scripture are convinced of different positions, they must realise that they are not each other’s judges, but that God alone can judge. We must be content in knowing that the decision was made with the desire to honour God. If we follow Paul’s guidance we can preserve our unity for the sake of the gospel and the honour of Christ, and hopefully end the civil war we’ve created between Jesus and the Bible.
ROBERT KEAY holds a PhD in New Testament from the University of St Andrews and has been a pastor and college lecturer in the US and UK. He now lives in Northern Ireland