Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Holy Scriptures are by God’s grace sanctified to serve as his inspired Word and faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel. They are the fully reliable record of God’s revelation to humanity culminating in his self-revelation in the incarnate Son. As such, the Holy Scriptures are foundational to the church and infallible in all matters of faith and salvation.
This is a carefully worded statement, and we took a lot of time to formulate it. It is important in what it does not say as much as in what it does. You see, although as Christians we must take the Bible very seriously, it is also possible to get into trouble by regarding it as more than what it is. It seems that we know that the Bible is not equal to God even when we sometimes mistakenly behave or speak as if this were the case. No one prays to their Bible or believes the Bible will forgive their sin or raise them from the dead. But there have been some well-intended theologians who have regarded the words of the Bible as the highest or most direct revelation from God – in effect worshipping Father, Son and Holy Scriptures. This error even has its own name – bibliolatry.
This was the problem the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had. Jesus told them, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
Notice that Jesus did not say that the written scriptures give life. Regarding the scriptures, of themselves, in this way, misses the point. Scripture testifies to the truth and reality of God’s Word becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The scriptures point to Jesus who is himself the resurrection and the life. This truth was something the religious leaders refused to accept, and so their whole understanding went awry, leading them to reject Jesus as their Messiah. Like many people today, they didn’t comprehend the distinction between the Bible as the written revelation that prepares us for and directs us to Jesus himself, who alone is the personal self-revelation of God.
I realize that statement may raise eyebrows in some circles. Some may worry that it downplays the importance of the Bible. But it does nothing of the kind. Rather, it properly relates the two different forms of revelation. I have tried to explain it in sermons by saying that Jesus is the Living Word and the Bible is the written word. The written word conveys life to us only because its author (the Living Word) is personally present by the Spirit and speaks again to our very spirits when we read and listen to it.
In the Bible, the Living Word is revealed using human language, expressed in multiple literary genres (poetry, prose, etc.), from within various historical and cultural contexts. The Bible tells the story of how God has worked in human history, most especially in ancient Israel, preparing them (and us) to recognize and receive in faith the salvation accomplished on earth by God’s Son, the Living Word.
Thinking along these lines, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Reflections on the Bible). Indeed, the Bible is the only ancient book you can read where the author is still alive and with you, opening and guiding you to faithful understanding and holy communion with him.
This is the glorious purpose for the Bible and we err in trying to make it serve other ends. But we also err by not receiving it in faith for all that it is, namely, a God-inspired gift given to reveal a perfect God (and his perfect plan) even while using a limited, human media.
The apostle Paul, who knew the scriptures inside out, spent much time in his letters explaining how what we call the Old Testament needed to be interpreted in the light of Jesus, even if that meant jettisoning some “carved in stone” ideas that people held about Scripture. Ironically, many today still approach the Bible without giving due consideration to the nature of language, the importance of historical context and the particular reason the various authors wrote what they did.
We should not demand that the Bible serve purposes and function in ways that it does not claim for itself. We do not thereby honor Scripture even if we assert that by doing so we are giving it some kind of greater “perfection.” Examples of this kind of mistake would be turning the Bible into a textbook of science or history, or regarding it as a handbook of instruction about every aspect of human existence.
Let us value the Bible for what it is – a unique, reliable and authoritative guide that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, can make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). How marvelous that God can use human language, with all its limitations, to give us an authentic revelation of his Son! Without the risen Lord, the Bible would be just another ancient book and could not lead us to eternal life. But since this written word belongs to and faithfully serves the Living Word, as we hear it proclaimed we are led to the Savior in whom we put our faith, hope and love.
In Christ’s service,