Tag Archives: Scripture

Is The Old Testament Christian Scripture?

A while back a fellow Methodist pastor said he thought it inappropriate for Christians to claim the Hebrew Bible as our own Scriptures. He learned this in seminary, and I had heard the argument before too. The term he used to refer to what Christians have traditionally and generally called the Old Testament, “the Hebrew Bible,” is one way that some Christians have tried to avoid making such a claim, or at least to show respect for the Jewish people. A couple of weeks ago I saw a video of another Methodist pastor talking about the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31 while trying to say that it was a promise only for the Jews on the one hand, but also somehow trying to claim that the principle was applicable to modern Christians, and even then making an argument that the law that God would write on our hearts today would be a law of love not really in continuity with the law revealed in the “Hebrew Bible.” While trying to respect the Jewish faith he ended up belittling it by arguing that his notion of the law of love written on the heart is so much better than the law recorded in the “Hebrew Bible.” It was confused and, therefore, very confusing on a number of levels. The idea that claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is inappropriate actually comes with more problems than the ones it attempts to solve.

Sometimes our solutions to perceived problems are more problematic than the perceived problems themselves. The problem in this case is if it’s true that claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is wrong then we also have to dismiss the New Testament, including the claims of Jesus. The New Testament and Jesus as recorded therein repeatedly claim that Jesus came to and is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus himself clarified that this did not mean that he came to abolish the law and set up a completely different religion. He insisted that the law, the psalms, and the prophets were pointing to him all along. He claimed to be and his apostles proclaimed him to be the one who fulfilled the promises of God found therein. Jesus insisted that the Scripture (i.e. the OT/Hebrew Bible) must be fulfilled and in instituting the Lord’s supper he claimed that the New Covenant promise found in the Old Testament was to become a reality through his sacrificial death on the cross and through the power of his resurrection. Just read the Gospels for Christ’s sake. I mean that literally.jesus_reading_isaiah

You can’t get past the second chapter of Matthew before the importance of how Jesus fulfills Old Testament Scripture becomes evident (see the work of Richard Hays “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” to understand the subtle and nuanced ways the Gospel writers reference OT passages). Jesus himself said with regards to his own actions that the Scriptures must be fulfilled (Matt 26:54; Mark 14:49; Luke 22:35-38). In 1 Corinthians 15, Saint Paul, emphasizes “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with  the Scriptures” (v. 4). And this, along with Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection, Paul insists was of first importance. Jesus taught the Scriptures and recovered and revealed their true meaning in contrast to the distortions of the varied traditions and false interpretations that were prevalent during his earthy ministry. The New Testament authors quote the Old Testament commandments as an authority for Jewish and Gentile Christians over and over again throughout. They also use the negative example of the failure of God’s people in the Old Testament stories to be faithful to God’s commandments as warnings for the New Covenant people of God (i.e. 1 Cor 10; Rev 2-3).

And when they talk about love it is never to pit love against faithfulness to God’s commandments. Jesus clearly commended the commandments summed up in the Ten Commandments for obedience on specific occasions (Mark 10:17-23). When he said the two most important laws were to love God fully and love ones neighbor as oneself, he wasn’t setting aside the other commandments, rather he was summarizing what they were all about. Jesus is the one who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 1 John 5:). He didn’t say that in a vacuum so we in our postmodern times could fill it with whatever meaning we want. The apostle Paul rightly understood what Jesus would have meant when he says:

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Romans 13:8-10 ESV  (emphasis obviously mine)

Yet in spite of this clear connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the continuity between the two declared in the latter, some still want to rend asunder what the Holy Spirit has joined together. A United Methodist seminary professor wrote an article arguing last summer that the Church had faith before the Church had Scripture (Can’t find the link now, unfortunately). Wrong! Faith in Christ as the fulfillment of Scripture was there from the very beginning of the Church.

On the very day of his resurrection, what does Luke say Jesus said to his disciples?

“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  Luke 24:25-27 ESV

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’” Luke 24:44-49

When Paul in 2 Timothy says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (3:16-17),” he is referring to the Old Testament!! The Church has always had Scripture, even before and as the New Testament was being written.

So if it is wrong for Christians to claim the “Hebrew Bible” as their own Scriptures, then the New Testament and Jesus were wrong! I don’t believe that to be the case, but that is the logical implication.

I think so much of this just comes from the fact that we fail to understand the Old Covenant found in the law (Hebrew “Torah”) promised a new covenant all along. There are hints of this throughout the Old Testament. The logic of it is contained in the promise God made to Abraham that in and through the covenant God would establish with him and his descendants through Isaac, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12, 15, 17, etc.). God established a covenant with Abraham and his descendant through his son Isaac, whom had been promised by God and delivered by the miraculous power of God. From Isaac God would choose Jacob who would become Israel and the founding father of the nation of Israel. All along God intended to set Israel apart to be a light to the rest of the nations by way of their righteous and just living. Holiness by way of righteous living according to the moral law of God was at the heart of why God had chosen Abraham from the very beginning of their covenant together. In fact holy and righteous living in obedience to God’s word would be the means through which God would fulfill his promises to Abraham.

“For I [God] have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” Genesis 18:19

Of course Israel as a nation would fail to live in such a way that God’s promise to Abraham could be fulfilled. But where Israel failed, their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth succeeded in living a life of perfect obedience to God’s will revealed in Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets. Through faith in Jesus, people of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, are part of the family of Abraham and receive the promise of the new covenant, forgiveness of sins, a new heart with God’s law written thereupon, and the infilling of God’s very own Spirit. The promise of what Jeremiah would eventually call the new covenant was already alluded to in Deuteronomy 30. Jeremiah reiterated and expanded upon it as recorded in Jeremiah 31:31 ff, and Ezekiel (36-37) did as well. In fact Ezekiel 36:25-27 is probably also the background to Jesus’ teaching about the new birth in John 3. In every case the promise of the new covenant is that God’s people would be equipped and empowered for obedience to God’s law, Torah.

Although there is already a clear implication that there would be some differences between the two covenants, the Old and the New, as is self-evident in the term “new” itself, there is also a definite and substantial continuity. Eventually the church would discern through the Spirit and careful study of the Scriptures (i.e. the OT), a difference between the laws specifically for the ethnic, Old Covenant nation of Israel and the burgeoning international New Covenant community made up of Jews and Gentiles (See Acts 15; Galatians). This distinction, although there is some potential for misunderstanding, is captured in Articles 6 of the United Methodist Articles of Religion, which declares a harmony between the Old and New Testaments and that

“although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites, doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (p. 67 UMBOD 2016).

One potential misunderstanding is the idea that the ceremonial laws were wrong. That’s not the case; they fulfilled their purpose, but are not applicable to or necessary for all people everywhere for all time. Moreover, we still fulfill their symbolic purpose of being markers or badges of holy identity through faith and can learn from them more of what Christ’s sacrificial death means for us, for example. Another major potential misunderstanding could be that we are justified and saved BY obedience to the moral law. That is not what this means. We are saved not saved BY obedience to God’s law, but we are saved FOR obedience to God’s law, as Israel also was. We are saved by grace through faith for obedience to God’s law (see Eph 2:8-10; Romans 8).

Instead we seem to find more and more ingenious and/or disingenuous ways to make the law void through grace and faith (see Rom 3:31 in KJV; also Rom 6). John Wesley identified and offered reproof for this tendency toward antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness) in his two part sermon series entitled, “The Law Established through Faith” (Sermons 35 & 36). Wesley understood, along with Saint Paul, that Christian faith does not “overthrow the law.” Rather through faith, “on the contrary, we uphold the law” (see Rom 3:31 ESV). In his first sermon on that topic, Wesley goes through the ways we can make the law void through misunderstanding justification by faith, which he insisted is the cornerstone of Christian doctrine. One of the primary ways Wesley said we can make the law void instead of upholding it is to not preach the law and warn about the judgment to come so as to lead people to faith in Christ. Another is to so emphasize what God has done FOR us in Christ so as to utterly ignore what God’s grace does IN us in terms of transformation for holy living from a purified heart.

Again, Wesley is quick to point out:

“‘But are we not justified by faith, without the works of the law?’ Undoubtedly we are; without the works either of the ceremonial or the moral law. And would to God all men were convicted of this! It would prevent innumerable evils; Antinomianism in particular: For generally speaking, they are the Pharisees who make the Antinomians. Running into an extreme so palpably contrary to Scripture, they occasion others to run into the opposite one. These, seeking to be justified by works, affright those from allowing any place for them.

But the truth lies between both. We are, doubtless, justified by faith. This is the corner-stone of the whole Christian building. We are justified without the works of the law, as any previous condition of justification; but they are an immediate fruit of that faith whereby we are justified. So that if good works do not follow our faith, even all inward and outward holiness, it is plain our faith is nothing worth; we are yet in our sins. Therefore, that we are justified by faith, even by our faith without works, is no ground for making void the law through faith; or for imagining that faith is a dispensation from any kind or degree of holiness.” Sermon 35 Section II:5-6

Holiness, righteous living according to the moral law is a result of justification by faith, not the cause of it. Martin Luther also taught this truth. In his “Treatise on Good Works” he said Christian faith fulfills obedience to the first commandment from which obedience to the rest of the commandments flows. This he said is the content of the good works which are the fruit of genuine Christian faith. Salvation by grace through faith doesn’t give us a license to ignore the law; it gives us the power to fulfill it!

Yes, there is a difference between ceremonial, ritual, and civil law meant for the nation state of Israel and the moral law of God, which is universal and timeless, and by which he judges all people. This is not to say that it wasn’t immoral for an Israelite to flout ceremonial law, and that point of potential confusion is not an excuse to declare that “moral law was a category completely unknown to the ‘Hebrew Bible'” as another of our United Methodist ministers recently did. While the distinction is not as clear-cut as our sometimes shorthand language may imply, it is quite evident in the New Testament itself. For example, in Ephesians, while Paul can say “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” that separated Jews from Gentiles has been abolished in chapter 2 (v. 11-22), he also says in chapter 5, echoing the Ten Commandments:

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”  Ephesians 5:3-11 ESV

So of course the Old Testament has plenty of ongoing significance for Christians and should be considered Christian Scripture without any qualms, even as we respect the fact that Jews still rightfully claim it as their own and were the ones originally entrusted with it (see Rom 3:1-2) as well. That being said, another way that Wesley said we can make the law void, is by failing to teach the whole counsel of God, which would certainly include all of the Old Testament, which contains plenty of law but also plenty of the gospel. The same can be said of the New Testament as well. To call the Old Testament old should not be construed to mean that it is obsolete or has been corrected. Rather it is to emphasize that its most powerful promise, the promise of the New Covenant, is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the Messiah and the Savior of the world, and about whom the New Testament bears witness.

If we could break our addiction to prooftexting and be delivered from our penchant for pulling Biblical texts from their contexts and plugging them into the faddish religious and political narratives of the day, we could find our own place in the story of God’s love for His covenant people revealed in His word. And we could see how Jesus fulfills the promises of God to Abraham and his family, of which we can be a member through faith. Then we would see that all of God’s story is our story too.

“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—  so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit[e] through faith.” Galatians 3:7-14 ESV

The Encouragement of the Scriptures

It’s been a while since my last post – several weeks. With a wife and five children and as the only child of an elderly mother, who fell and broke her hip the Sunday after Thanksgiving – I just brought her home today! -, my life has a way of getting hectic quick. This fall in addition to teaching a discipleship class at my church each week, I also preached at a few other churches’ revival services. I’ve also been working on papers for the Board of Ordained Ministry for many weeks now as I continue on the long and arduous process toward ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church – I just turned the document in yesterday. So I haven’t given my blog the attention I would have liked. Nonetheless, there are couple of thoughts I’d like to share over the next couple of days – hopefully anyway.

One is how blessed I have been as I have preached through Advent and into the Christmas Season thinking about how much of the prophecies of Scripture have already been fulfilled by Jesus. I especially have the Old Testament in mind here. Isaiah in particular comes up so often during Advent and during the season of Christmas (December 25th – January 5), especially regarding the birth narratives. Matthew, for example, draws our attention to Isaiah by book ending the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his preaching ministry with Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:1-2 (Matthew 1 & 4). The former refers to a virgin giving birth to one who would be called Immanuel, which means God with us; the latter speaks of those who walked in darkness witnessing a great light. By quoting these verses Matthew is not just focusing our attention on these specific verses, but to the broader sweep of these passages, some of which had an immediate fulfillment in Isaiah’s day, but they were ultimately fulfilled in the way they prefigured the ruler to come who would bring everlasting peace on the heels of pure righteousness judgment by Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah 9 goes on to say:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Is 9:6-7 ESV).

Matthew is telling us that this is Jesus, the one who also fulfilled the prophecy of Micah5:2 by being born in Bethlehem of Judea, and the one whose way was prepared by John the Baptist, himself, according to Matthew, a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3.

Of course so much of what Isaiah prophesied has not fully come to pass. Swords have not been turned into plowshares and nations have not given up the gruesome art of war (Isaiah 2:4); world peace still seems to be the dream of the naive. For this reason many have rejected the claim that Jesus was and is the Messiah that Israel had so longed for. However, the one that Isaiah envisioned coming as the righteous judge who would bring justice to the poor and the meek and destroy the wicked (Is 11:4), was also the one who would be “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation” (Is 49:7), “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3), who would die for the sins of the world and bring healing to his people and ultimately to all the nations of the world by his wounds (see Isaiah 52:13-53:12). There is so much that Isaiah saw that still seems to be a pipe dream, but there is also much else that he saw that has been fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.

Lee Stroble, in his book, “The Case for Christ”, tells the story of Louis Lapides, who is Jewish. As a young man he rejected the Jewish faith of his upbringing and embarked on a journey into eastern religious mysticism and psychedelic drugs . After a hard life and many dead-ends had left him feeling hopeless but still desperate and hungry for meaning, he accepted a challenge to read the Bible. He refused to read the New Testament initially, however, because he had gotten the impression that it was the equivalent of a Nazi training manual. As he read through the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, he began to note the references and allusions of this prophet and king to come.

Throughout his life he could never understand why Christians were so enamored with Jesus and the crucifixion. As he began to read Isaiah, especially what scholars refer to as “the servant passages”, he came to believe that Jesus was the one that Isaiah had been talking about all along, even several hundred years before he was born. He began to see what Jesus himself had revealed to his earliest disciples and apostles: that he was the fulfillment of what had been prefigured and predicted in the law and the prophets all along (i.e. Luke 24:13-49). He came to see that Jesus had fulfilled so much already, and that he is the one who will fulfill the remainder of the promises yet to be fulfilled.

In an interview with Stroble, Louis said, based on the calculations of Peter Stoner, that the likelihood of Jesus fulfilling just eight of the dozens and dozens of prophecies of the Old Testament by accident was 1 in 100 million billion. This, he said, would be equivalent someone blindfolded finding one uniquely marked silver dollar in a knee deep sea of silver dollars the size of the area of the state of Texas.

The more I study Scripture the more I see how uniquely Jesus of Nazareth is the one about whom the law and the prophets testified in many very specific and in many more very subtle and nuanced ways. He has fulfilled so much of Scripture already; we can be confident enough in faith to have a sure hope that he will bring the rest of it to pass.

I think this is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote:“For whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4 ESV – I encourage you to read the context).

Christmas is a reminder that so much of Scripture has already been fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah. He truly is a light to the nations and through him God’s salvation has spread to  nations all around the world and is still spreading. Jesus came as the Savior of the world; he will come again as its rightful Lord and its righteous Judge and thereby bring in the everlasting peace of the kingdom that has no end. In this new year, may your life be filled with the present assurance of faith, the confident anticipation of steadfast hope, and an overflowing abundance of God’s great love in Christ. Indeed, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

 

Faith and Scripture

Jesus calls for others to believe in him, to trust him. In John 14:1 he says, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” You see this, as well, throughout each of the four Gospels, whether it be calming a storm on the sea, healing the blind, the sick, and the demonically oppressed, or in his warnings to his disciples about coming persecution. Would be disciples of Jesus are called to trust in him personally. Matthew 28:17 shows that after his resurrection this call to faith culminated in his disciples worshiping him, though some initially lingered in doubt, Thomas the most famous among them (John 20:24-29). John makes it clear that this was the very reason he wrote his Gospel. John 20:31 “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (ESV).

The life of which John speaks is the abundant life, the eternal life, which, for the one who believes, begins in the present. It is a real foretaste of the glory of the life to come in the fullness of the kingdom of God with its corresponding joy in the here and now. Hallelujah! Faith in Jesus allows us to receive and enter into God’s kingdom even now, but it is a faith in Jesus as he is revealed to us in the Bible. Faith in Jesus will also require trust in scripture as it describes and points to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh who reveals the Father and His will (John 1).

Inevitably, therefore, the question of whether we should trust Jesus will bring us to the question of whether we can trust the canonical written accounts of his life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised second coming. This especially includes the Bible’s claims about his significance “for us and our salvation,” to quote the Nicene Creed. Can we trust the Bible? A question that is really at the crux of much controversy and conflict in the world, even in the Church, today.

One of the central claims of Islam found in the Quran, for example, is that the Bible has been corrupted by Jews and Christians and can no longer be fully trusted to reveal the truth about who Jesus really is or what God is really like. Initially, it seems, this may have been understood to mean that Jews and Christians had just misinterpreted the original meaning of the Old and New Testaments. Eventually Muslim scribes and scholars would argue that the biblical texts themselves had been altered from their original message and therefore have been corrupted. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, many centuries later, would make similar claims regarding the relationship of the Book of Mormon to the Bible. The founder of The Way International, the group I was once involved with, also made similar claims, that the Bible had been misinterpreted by orthodoxy and that many passages in English translations had been intentionally corrupted by conspiratorial Trinitarian translators. He penned a little booklet called, “Forgers of the Word” where he leveled these charges. He also gave his own “translations according to biblical usage,” as he called them, that drastically altered the traditional understanding of passages like the one found in John 1 in other publications.

Many others in various forms and for a variety of reasons have made similar claims, questioning either the mainstream orthodox interpretation of the Bible, or the reliability and truthfulness of the biblical texts themselves. Some don’t doubt that the Bible says what it’s original writers intended to convey as much as they just doubt the Bible accurately reflects who Jesus really was and what God is really like, if they believe God exists at all. In some cases the doubt is only centered around certain parts of the Bible, in others the entirety of the Bible’s depiction of Jesus and God generally is suspect.

Saint Irenaeus in the second century contended with those who, apparently, initially tried to argue from scripture that Jesus was a being quite different from the one that the universal church had come to believe in, and that the God revealed in him, according to the writings that would come to be included in the New Testament, was different from the God revealed in the pages of the Old Testament. In other words, they at first, it seems, claimed that the Jesus described in the New Testament revealed a God of compassion and mercy that was different from the God of wrath and vengeance found in the Old Testament. They also denied, according to their Gnostic worldview, which discounts the value of the physical world as an illusion from which we need to be set free, that Jesus was really human. Traces of some of these ideas can be found being opposed by the apostle John in 1 John, where he warns the church to be discerning, to “test the spirits” because of the false prophets who claim that Jesus did not come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). From what Irenaeus says they at first try to make their case from scripture, but when they cannot sustain their arguments from the scriptures they resort to attacking them  to justify holding to their unbiblical beliefs.

“But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition.” (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

This is a common pattern that comes up again and again throughout history. You see it with the rise of Islam and the claims of its prophet Muhammad; you see it in the claims of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and various other movements, religious and political, that have sprung up over the centuries to challenge the longstanding interpretations of the Bible, and/or to challenge the authenticity or the truthfulness of the claims of the Bible itself. You see it in the scholarly movement called “The Jesus Seminar,” which paints a portrait of the so-called historical Jesus that bears barely even a faint resemblance to Jesus as he is actually described in the New Testament. While the Gnostic Jesus only appeared to be human, the phantom of “The Jesus Seminar” was entirely and utterly human, but none too prophetic, at least not in the Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic sort of a sense. The same pattern can be found in contemporary “progressive Christian” movements that inevitably end up progressing beyond the Bible, at least those portions they deem distasteful.

Nevertheless, the Bible as we have it must be the measure and standard for any claims to faith in Jesus. If we are going to trust Jesus and faithfully follow him we must trust the documents in and through which he is revealed. Thus, you will find throughout the history of the Church, statements about scripture which indicate its function as a guide and rule for what is genuine Christian faith and practice.

Referring to the writings handed down from the apostles or their close associates, Irenaeus said:

“All of these handed down to us that there is one God, maker of heaven and earth, proclaimed by the law and the prophets, and one Christ the Son of God. If anyone does not agree with them he despises the companions of the Lord, he despises the Lord himself, refusing his own salvation, as all the heretics do.” (Against the Heresies 1.2)

Here Irenaeus not only holds up what would become New Testament scriptures, but, importantly, also those writings with which they were in harmony as they unveil their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, namely the law and the prophets (i.e. The Old Testament). In the conclusion of his work, “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius, the fourth century defender of the full divinity of Jesus against Arius and his associates who declared that prior to his incarnation Jesus as the Word of the Father was the first created being who then created all other things, invites his readers to prove the truth of what he had written “by the study of the scriptures”, which he declared were inspired by God. The same must still be done today by orthodox believers in the face of the claims of Arius’s modern heirs like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The articles of religion (Articles 5 & 6) and confession of faith (Article 4) for my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, express this same idea, that the scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, which are explicitly declared to be in harmony, are to be the ultimate standard and guide for faith and practice.

Church fathers like Irenaeus and Athanasius didn’t develop this idea of testing claims by scripture on their own. They rightly discerned this rule from the Bible itself, even from Jesus himself, that is as he is revealed in the pages of the four canonical Gospels. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus birth and events surrounding it fulfilled scripture. Jesus fended off the attacks of the devil himself, who confidently, albeit wrongly, referenced scripture as one of his tactics to deceive, by quoting scripture as it was meant to be understood in its proper context (Matthew 4 & Luke 4). He also chastised religious leaders not for adhering to the law, which he himself knew to be the word of God, but for rejecting the word of God in favor of their traditions, which Jesus judged to be contrary to the original intent of the law (See Mark 7 & Matthew 15). In one confrontation with religious leaders who were judging him by their traditions, Jesus said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain they do worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8 ESV).

Unquestionably, Jesus, as he is revealed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had the highest regard for scripture, the law and the prophets. He knew them to be the very word Jesus pointing to scrollof God and he believed himself to be the one in whom they find their ultimate meaning and fulfillment. He courageously allowed his own arrest and went to the cross that the scriptures might be fulfilled (Mark 14:48-49). After his resurrection he lovingly reproved his disciples for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). Then he took them on a journey through the law, the psalms and the prophets, the whole Old Testament. This helped them to understand the scriptures so they could know him and understand who he really is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean for their salvation and for the salvation of those to whom they would be witnesses (see Luke 24 and Acts 1).

His apostles and those who would come to believe because of their testimony and preaching would continue to state the importance of testing all things by scripture. In Acts the Bereans are held up as a model for all believers in that they eagerly received the word, and also examined the scriptures daily to authenticate the preaching and teaching of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:10-11). In 1 Corinthians Paul, in defense of bodily resurrection, reminds them, with what was apparently a confessional statement handed down from the first apostles, that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection happened “in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3-4). Moreover, in his second letter to Timothy, in the context of warnings about false teaching and false teachers (2 Timothy 3:1-9), Paul encourages Timothy to continue in the scriptures (here the OT), “which,” he says, “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). Timothy can trust scripture as a reliable and trustworthy guide and standard by which not only to test the claims of false teachers but also by which to live a godly life and to help others do likewise. Why? For “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (v. 16-17).

papyrus p66 JohnCan we trust the Bible? Jesus thought so, and so did the apostles; and they were referring to the still much maligned Old Testament! As mentioned above some will wonder whether we can trust the Bibles we have today to say what was in the original manuscripts, which are no longer in existence. With only a few significant exceptions that don’t affect any major Christian doctrines, which are usually noted and explained in newer English translations, experts who study and compare the thousands of manuscript copies assure us that we can be confident that what we have now reliably and accurately reflects the original manuscripts.

But can we be confident that the Bible accurately conveys the truth about who God is and the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of God. In more personal terms should we trust the Bible with regards to Jesus’ significance “for us and our salvation,” what we should believe and how we should live. Jesus and his earliest apostles believed that to be true for the Old Testament, the law, psalms, and prophets. The early church fathers after the apostles believed that to be true of the Old Testament as well, and also for the testimony of the apostles of Jesus handed down in the documents that would eventually comprise the New Testament. Again, they believed the New Testament to be in harmony with the old, a harmony that Augustine tried to express in the dictum, “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.” This is like the relationship between a seed and its mature fruit.

Because they believed the Bible was inspired by God, church fathers like Augustine believed the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, to be completely truthful and trustworthy, even without error or superfluity, the later meaning the Bible doesn’t contain anything that it shouldn’t. In a letter to Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, Augustine said referring to the canonical books of scripture that he believed the authors “were completely free of error” and that of these book alone he was bound to submit to their teaching without suspicion of the slightest mistake or intent to mislead. If he found something therein that seemed to be at odds with the truth, what he would call the analogy of faith, the entirety of the harmonious teaching of all of Scripture, he would assume either a copyist’s error in the manuscripts, an unclear translation, or an error in his own understanding. Thus he trusted that the original manuscripts would have been without error. It was a matter of faith based on the best available evidence.

Church historian, J.N.D Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978) says, “it goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired,” which led to the view that it was also without error and that not even a “jot or title” according to Origen or a “syllable, accent, or point” according to Jerome is superfluous. In the 18th century, the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, echoed these convictions in a sermon warning about the dangers of downplaying or ignoring passages that speak against “fashionable sins” by saying the Bible is “unquestionably true” and that there is nothing superfluous in it, relating either to faith or practice” (“On Corrupting the Word of God” Sermon 136). In his preface to his explanatory notes on the Bible Wesley said:

“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”

Its unerring truthfulness cannot be judged by any outside criteria, neither can it be perfectly explained or comprehended without running into paradoxes, which are also inescapable with other major Christian doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation and predestination and free will. The reliability and truthfulness of the Bible can only be experienced as we seek to master it and in the process find ourselves mastered by it as it leads us to daily surrender at the foot of the cross. All of it is inspired, and therefore without defect; thus, all of it is profitable for us and our salvation; none of it is to be disregarded, certainly not discarded.

As Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself.” Without the whole thing, you won’t have the real thing, and it’s only the real thing that is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). In light of John 5:39, I don’t think John would mind me saying, these, all of the scriptures, were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).