There was a Body before there was a Christian “Bible.” This is a threatening fact for many. It is none-the-less, an indisputable historical fact. The implications can, and have been, argued for centuries, but the fact cannot be.
The body of Christ is the result of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, Spirit-outpouring, and Spirit-indwelling: the new creation. The Bible is the product of the Holy Spirit working in and through the body/church. In a historical sense, not a metaphysical one (the Church is eternal, as is the Logos), there was a community before there were writings. The writings came out of the experience of the community and the need to objectively capture the transmission of the apostolic proclamation of Christ, for future generations.
I am thankful for my heritage. By the grace of God, I have been devoted to Jesus as revealed in the scriptures for forty-five years. To the best of my ability, I have given my life to the disciplined study, honest exegesis, and honorable application of the scriptures. I am not anti-scripture. I am anti-ignorance and anti-nonsense.
However, knowledge and love must always go together. Love must be informed by accurate knowledge, and knowledge must be infused by, and expressed in, love. We must honestly admit that the Protestant Evangelical passion for the scripture (which I share) is not without some inherent difficulties and risks.[i]
Respect for, or worship of . . . The Bible?
While I am thankful for the “plus side” of what came out of the Reformation, there are some downsides as well. Bypassing for now the egregious misbehavior associated with some of the personalities involved in the Reformation, there is yet another downside consequence which is more contemporaneous. It’s the risk of bibliolatry: the worship of the Bible. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists would vehemently deny that this is an issue in their spheres, but it is a very present and serious issue.
For the majority of Evangelical Christianity the essence of our faith is presented as a set of propositional truths about Jesus, to which the unbelieving world must agree, or “go to hell.” “The Bible says” a lot of things. Understanding and applying what it says is always the issue. As Dr. Gordon Fee has succinctly said: “It’s all hermeneutics.”
I suggest, as did A. W. Tozer, that the specter of bibliolatry is always uncomfortably close at hand. Tozer called it the “tyranny of the scribe” and “textualism from which the human mind revolts.” [viii] Tozer is not alone. Paul Tournier described the real essence of Christianity as: “. . . the building of a new civilization in which the spirit of Christ will be in the inner source of personal, family, social, and individual conduct.”[ix]
Peter Leithart says it like this:
Christian community . . . is not an extra religious layer on social life. The church is not a club for religious people. The church is a new way of living together before God, a new way of being human together. What Jesus and the apostles proclaimed was not a new ideology or a new religion, in our attenuated modern sense. What they proclaimed was salvation, and that meant a new human world, a new social and political reality . . . Conversion thus means turning from one way of life, one culture to another . . . it is the beginning of a re-socialization . . . In the New Testament we do not find an essentially private gospel being applied to the public sphere, as if . . . it were a second story built on a private ground floor. The gospel IS the announcement of the Father’s formation, through His Son and the Spirit, of a new city—the city of God.[x]
Paul’s gospel had an empirical test built into it; if no one was transformed, then the message that announced the transformation could not possibly be true. The first and chief defense of the gospel, the first letter of commendation not only for Paul but for Jesus, is not an argument, but the life of the Church, conformed to Christ by the Spirit in service and suffering. A community of sinners whose corporate life resembles Christ –that is the Church’s first apologetic. The very existence of such a “city” is our main argument.[xi]
Truth Has a Body
The scriptures declare that the world is not waiting to be persuaded from the Bible.[ii] The world does not care about our “Bible” and our opinions about it. The scriptures tell us that the unbelieving world has a right to “taste” of us,[iii] to savor us,[iv] to see if the aroma of Christ[v] is present or not. The world is waiting to see a quality of life manifested on earth.[vi] The scriptures exist to reveal Jesus Christ for who He is, and to serve these ends. If we master the content of the scripture and have no savor or aroma of Christ, we are like a man holding a legitimate ticket, but who has missed his boat. It doesn’t matter how factual your ticket is, how everything on that ticket is true, how well you can explain the ticket, and defend its veracity. It exists to serve a purpose and you have missed it.
Truth has always had a Body.[vii] All Christian truth is incarnational (embodied). The correct apprehension of biblical facts is not the same as possessing the life of Christ. It’s possible to flawlessly explain Paul’s theology and possess none of his life. The church, the ekklesia, is supposed to be the pillar and ground of all truth. That does not mean it is to a library for the accumulation of scriptural knowledge. It means that in the Body, Jesus is to be seen.
Coffee and Charcoal
Without beans you cannot have a cup of coffee, but with just beans you still don’t have coffee! You have the potential for coffee. Disciplined study of scripture is like a cup of beans: necessary, but not the end of the matter. Scripture study is like charcoal. Without it, you won’t have a barbecue. But just having charcoal is not enough for a barbecue. The potential for heat and light that is in the charcoal must be ignited. It is our being knit together in love that turns beans to coffee and charcoal to heat and light.
Paul makes it clear in Colossians 2:2-3 that the unfolding of all the mysteries of God, the deep insights into His Person, plan and purpose, is not just a result of receiving the “preached word,” but is directly linked to our joining together in love (emphasis mine):
That their hearts might be knit together in love and UNTO all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Bible study can be intellectually intoxicating and lacking social context. Living well together in Christ is crucifying. There is more to our faith than the accumulation of teachings and a pursuit of “deeper understanding,” erroneously often called “revelations.” I am not interested in novelty for novelty’s sake. I am not introduced in esoteric speculations from the scripture. I would like to live well in the sure things from scripture that I already understand. Mark Twain once said that he was not so much bothered by what he did not understand about the Bible, but by what he did understand! Me too.
Regardless of how right we might be on a point of doctrine, or how “anointed” the meeting is, or how “cutting edge” our insight is, we are worthless[xii] to God and humanity if these things do not ultimately lead to transformation of our lives before God and humanity. There is a love that surpasses knowledge.[xiii] There is a power that surpasses what the natural can produce.[xiv] There is a service that transcends human sympathy.[xv] These things are neither difficult nor complicated. They do not require argumentative (and often endless) explanation. They require expression. For the world:
We are the message.
We are the argument.
We are the apologetic.
Jesus said: By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. This is to be the outcome of our commitment to scripture. We are the One Loaf the unbelieving world is permitted to “bite into” to taste and see if God is good . . . or not. [xvi] If our commitment to scripture does not result in an appropriate taste, our ship has sailed without us.
[i] Not the least of which is: “Who reforms the Reformers?” Every group thinks they have the last word from God – a fundamentally intoxicating proposition.
[ii] Rom. 8:19.
[iii] Ps. 34:8.
[iv] Matt. 5:13.
[v] 2 Cor. 2:16.
[vi] Rom. 8:19, 2 Cor. 4:10-11.
[vii] John 5:39-42, John 14:6, 1 John 1: 1-3.
[viii] A. W. Tozer, Keys to the Deeper Life, 1957.
[ix] Paul Tournier. The Healing of Persons. New York: Harper and Row, 1965, 42.
[x] Peter Leithart. Against Christianity. Moscow: Canon Press, 2003, 16.
[xi] Ibid., 99-100.
[xii] In the sense of utility for kingdom purpose, not in the sense of His affections.
[xiii] Eph. 3:19.
[xiv] Heb. 6:5.
[xv] Heb. 10:24.
[xvi] Matt 5:16; James 2:18, 20, 26. It is my understanding that the justifying works of James are not in conflict with Paul. The works James refers to are the works before humanity, not God. These works “justify” us in the eyes and ears of the world, and earn us a right to be listened to (e.g. Matt 5:16). Our behaviors will always speak more loudly than our philosophies: “See how they love one another.”
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