People of the Book
Why do Christians take the Bible so seriously? Despite some variety in how they might frame their doctrine of Scripture, debates about its nature and function, and differences in their understanding of particular passages and what emphasis should be placed upon them, Christians have, right from the beginning, been “people of the book.” The Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously insisted, “Christianity has always been and only been a living religion when it is not ashamed to be actually and seriously a book-religion.”1 Why is that so?
The first and most compelling reason for this is that Jesus, our Savior and Lord, had this attitude. He endorsed the Old Testament scriptures of his time. He appealed to them as the word of God as he taught his disciples, confounded those who opposed him, and explained why he had come and what he had come to do. He spoke of “the law, the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44), alluding to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible. He asked the Pharisees repeatedly, “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12, 19, 22). He insisted “it is written” (Matt. 4, 11, 21) and “the Scripture must be fulfilled” (Luke 22:37).
Yet Jesus also commissioned his apostles to take the gospel of the kingdom, the message of salvation accomplished with its attendant summons to repentance and faith, to all nations until the end of the age (Matt 24:14; 28:19–20). On the night he was betrayed, he prayed not only for them but for those who would believe in their word (John 17:20). He promised that the Spirit would remind them of all that he had taught them and give them the words to say when the time arose. They would be his authorized witnesses and their words would nourish the new communities that he would gather as the gospel was proclaimed. This gospel commission and the gift of the Spirit resulted in the New Testament, which from the beginning was read alongside the Old (Col. 4:16; 2 Pet. 3:15–16).
Jesus Is the Center
Jesus Christ himself stands uniquely at the center of the Christian doctrine of Scripture. It is not possible to follow Christ faithfully without turning your attention seriously to the Scriptures because that is precisely what he did. The suggestion of some that they follow Jesus not a book fails to pay careful attention to who Jesus is, what he said, and how he lived. Jesus positioned himself against the background of the Old Testament promises of God. He lived a perfect life of obedience to the will of God as revealed in the Old Testament. Yet we have access to his life, words, and work only through the testimony of his apostles, moved to write by the Spirit. He commissioned them to be his spokesmen, taking the gospel out from Jerusalem to Judaea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That’s why we have the New Testament.
The Christian theologians whose work has stood the test of time have invariably seen themselves as servants of the written word of God. Their reference point has typically not been each other but the Scriptures. They seek to test current ideas against the teaching of Scripture. Understanding Scripture to be the word of God, the God whose self-revelation is of necessity both coherent and true, they trace the connection of ideas in Scripture, pursue the consequences of those ideas, and seek to preserve the proportions of Scripture (this is systematic theology at its best). They may have indeed used other language not found in Scripture in order to convey those things—words such as Trinity come to mind—but they self-consciously sought to expound Scripture in this systematic and conceptual mode. Unlike the Scriptures, the work of Christian theologians is not infallible. Each contribution needs to be tested against the actual words of Scripture read in their proper context. In that sense, then, the “great theological tradition” is a history of reading Scripture. They are our conversation partners as we speak to each other about what God has made known to us in the Bible. But it is the Bible, the written word of God, that remains in the foreground. It’s always a little odd when the conversation partners become the conversation.
Jesus Is the Way
So our attitude to Scripture turns out to be a specific expression of our Christian discipleship. Following Jesus means taking the Bible seriously. It is not something reserved for just a few. That is why Scripture is publicly read when God’s people gather—and a lot can be said about that practice and its sad decline in some church traditions. That is why we delight to read Scripture privately and in our homes and with our families. It is why any theological education worth its salt involves a deep and sustained immersion in Scripture over the course of its program. It is why, when my thoughts or behavior are shown to be contradictory to the teaching of Scripture, my proper response is to repent rather than find ways to relativize or revise what is said.
Jesus himself is the way into our understanding of the Bible. After all, he is himself the center of the Bible’s message. All God’s purposes, from the beginning to the end, find their focus in him. He is the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and the lamb standing as if it were slain in the middle of the new creation (Rev. 5:6). The broad biblical-theological sweep from promise to fulfillment converges on him. Jesus himself pointed that out when his opponents appealed to the writing of Moses as the justification for their behavior and commitments (John 5:45). Of course, the Bible speaks about many other things. Yet each of those things have a proper place in the bigger picture of the Bible’s testimony to Jesus and his work of salvation. The Bible is not first and foremost about us. We are not its central character. God is. Yet God has made himself known definitively in his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1–2). And we can only know this Jesus (as opposed to a Jesus of our imaginations) as he is presented to us in Scripture, the God-breathed writing that is as a consequence the word of the living God (2 Tim. 3:16).
So the encouragement comes to us who gladly follow Jesus to refresh our serious attention to the Bible. It is not an alternative to close, personal fellowship with the Lord Jesus. It can never be a matter of Jesus or the Bible. A classic Old Testament parallel might help us at just this point. When Moses died and the leadership of God’s people passed to Joshua, God promised to be with him as he was with Moses (Josh. 1:5). There is no question of Joshua being less resourced than Moses for the task. Yet the same God who promises to be with him exhorts him to meditate on the Book of the Law (the Scripture available at that moment) day and night (Josh. 1:8). Walking closely with the Lord God and serious attention to the word he has given was to characterize Joshua’s leadership. Walking closely with Jesus and serious attention to the word he both endorsed and commissioned should characterize our discipleship.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:495.