The Authority of Scripture and the Evangelistic Task
Reflect on these two questions:
1. What is the good news for you in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
As we share our responses, what have been the most important elements for us? What have we affirmed in common?
2. How would you explain the Christian good news to an average non-church-going Australian?
How have we fared? Would any "average Aussie" have believed the good news because of our explanation. What are the differences between the way we relate the good news in our own life, and the good news to the "average Aussie"?
At the heart of the evangel is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and his call to all people to repent and believe.
At the heart of evangelism is the need to find timely words for this timeless message.
At our Presbytery Retreat a fortnight ago, one of our leaders reminded us that Australians can't stand "crap". Personally, I'd have just said that you have to be "fair dinkum". They want the timeless message in words they can relate to - and they want us to say what we mean and to mean what we say.
Our theme in this session is the authority of Scripture. We need a couple more questions.
1. How important are the Scriptures to your understanding of who Jesus is, what he has done for you and what the Christian life is all about?
2. To what extent and in what way do you use the Scriptures in sharing the Christian good news with an average Aussie who has no particular view of the Bible?
I believe in the Scriptures. I have no trouble accepting them as the Word of God - more of my reasons for saying that shortly - but I want to say clearly that quoting verses from the Bible isn't necessarily being Biblical.
I have brought with me copies of two addresses prepared for special ecumenical Australia Day celebrations with a significant number of non-church Bible-indifferent people (Fair Dinkum and Straight from the Horse's Mouth). I hope these illustrate what I mean - you can judge for yourself whether I have successfully found "timely words for the timeless message".
God has Spoken
At the heart of the Christian faith is an affirmation that God has revealed himself. The Bible is not the record of the human intellect's exploration for ultimate meaning, nor of the human psyche's search for personal and emotional fulfilment and satisfaction, nor of the human spirit's quest for spiritual enlightenment.
If God has made himself known, then we are all called (whether Aussies or Eskimos) to that one sure source of knowledge of him. As John Wesley wrote in the introduction to his Forty-Four Sermons,
I want to know one thing - the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: "Lord, is it not Thy word, 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God'? Thou 'givest liberally, and upbraidest not.' Thou hast said, 'If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.' I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will." I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, "comparing spiritual things with spiritual." I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.
In recent times, a great deal of study and effort has gone into probing and understanding the background, interests and characteristics of the human writers of the Bible. Scholars have tried to grasp the ways in which Biblical stories might have been used in the life of the early Church (their Sitz im Leben or life-situation). A number of them have made an implicit assumption that the human writers have (or would have) adjusted the stories to their own interests or that the Sitz im Leben of stories within the believing community has shaped and changed the record to emerging needs. The effect has been to put the scholar above the Word rather than under the Word. In practice, Biblical authority is greatly reduced. I take to myself the right, not so much to understand, interpret and apply what the Bible says, but to decide for myself what is the Word behind the Bible and then to modify it in response to my present situation.
We reflect on the meaning of para. 5 of the Basis of Union -
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which she hears the Word of God and by which her faith is nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, her message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom man's salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon her members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits her ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.
We may well ask, What is meant by "the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments..."? In what sense does the Church "hear the Word of God" in the Scriptures? By what means is the Word of God "heard and known from Scripture"? What is meant by saying that the Church's message is "controlled by the Biblical witnesses"? J. Davis McCaughey in his Commentary on the Basis of Union seemed unwilling to spell out specifically the answers to some of these questions.
The authority of scripture is in a sense indirect. The books of the Old and New Testaments contain the witness of prophet (here clearly implying the whole of the Old Testament) and of apostle (implying the whole of the New): as the Church listens to these voices, she hears a Voice not of human origin, the Word of God. She knows herself to be addressed: faith is quickened, obedience is made possible. Her life is nourished and regulated. She can recognise no authority which transcends this (pp. 29-30).
The Word of God Written
The Bible bears witness of itself that it is the Word of God written, preparing the way for and setting forth Jesus Christ the living Word.
The Old Testament prophets attested that "the Word of the Lord came to me" and they spoke their messages as if directly from God. Strikingly, however, the Hebrew Old Testament is called "The Law, the Prophets and the Writings" and we discover that the section "the Prophets" is divided into two, the first section of which - "the Former Prophets" - contains what we would have called the historical writings. God is seen to be revealing himself in and through the history of his chosen people, the Israelites - through obedience and disobedience, through kings good and bad, through wars and struggles... as well as through special spokespersons who bring the Lord's word of guidance, warning and promise.
In the New Testament we note the great respect in which Jesus held "Scripture". Note carefully what Jesus said to the Jewish authorities who were angry at his healing on the Sabbath (John 5). He cited three witnesses to his authority. The first is John the Baptist (vv. 33-35). And second, "the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me" (v. 36b). But there is a third witness - "the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent" (vv. 37-38). But if they "have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in them", how has the Father testified concerning him? This cannot be a reference to the events of his baptism. In any case, there is no evidence that anyone other than Jesus and John the Baptist heard or understood the voice from heaven. However, we note that the evidence that the Father's word doesn't dwell in them is that they don't believe in the one he sent (i.e. Jesus). Jesus goes on, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (vv. 39-40). Jesus is saying that the Scriptures are the Father's testimony concerning him. They have been diligent students of the Scriptures for the purpose of framing their life-style, rather than for the purpose of recognising and welcoming the one through whom alone there is life.
Following the Easter events, we hear the stranger on the road to Emmaus saying, " 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Lk. 24.25-27).
They went back to Jerusalem to the eleven disciples and Jesus appeared to them. "He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high' " (vv. 44-49).
There is no reasonable question that Jesus and the apostles regarded the Scriptures - the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (of which Psalms is the first book) - as the Word of God given through the words of men. The process by which this revelation became Scripture - this revelation through history and prophetic utterance, through vision and dream, through parable and poem - has involved what we call "inspiration". This is not a question of what we find "inspiring", but rather the work of the Holy Spirit within the personalities of the human writers to produce the Word of God written.
Peter had been writing about the experience he had, with James and John, on the mount of transfiguration. "We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain," he writes (2 Pet. 1.18). He then goes on to say, "And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (vv. 19-21). The expression "carried along" in v.21 is also used, for example by Luke in Acts 27.15 and 17, where they "let the ship be driven along".
Peter is saying far more than does the poet or artist or painter or composer who "gets a bit of inspiration". He is describing the much more profound and compelling work of the Holy Spirit so that the final writing is in the truest sense the Word of God.
The Letter to the Hebrews begins, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs" (Heb. 1.1-4). The letter highlights throughout the superiority of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, in relation to angels, Moses and Joshua, priesthood, covenant, and sacrifice. The letter begins by portraying Jesus as the final revelation of God. "God has spoken..." The diversity of times and means of the earlier part of God's self-revelation is alluded to, but the fullness of the revelation "by his Son" (lit. "in [one who is] Son") is graphically highlighted - "the radiance (lit. 'the shining forth') of God's glory and the exact representation (or 'the very stamp') of his being."
Yet now that the complete revelation has come, the validity and importance of the old is still affirmed - "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will" (2.1-4).
Paul writes to Timothy, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3.16). The NIV gives the literal translation of Paul's Greek word as "God-breathed" (theopneustos). Our English word "inspiration" seems to imply God "breathing into" the writer or writing. The force of the Greek word is of God "breathing out" - which is, in fact, the normal way we speak. This does not mean that the human writers were like type-writers, or that their personalities, interests and styles became invisible. Rather, the product of their work is the result of God's Spirit, the Divine pneuma - it is the Word of God.
These statements, of course, were written specifically about the Old Testament Scriptures, but they apply equally to the New. Indeed, within the New Testament period we already begin to see the letters of Paul regarded as Scripture. For instance, Peter is writing about the Second Coming of Christ - "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3.15-16). Paul's letters are not just to be viewed as the letters of Paul - they are Scripture and the consequences are serious if they are not treated appropriately.
In modern times, much study has gone into the human element in the Scriptures - seeing them as human discovery of the divine (or of spirituality) rather than as divine self-revelation to humankind. As a result, the Scriptures come in many ways to be viewed as products of their particular times. This has led to a radical (and tragic) change of teaching in which we then set out to discover our own spirituality and to make our own "picture of God". This is not the historic Christian faith which has strongly emphasised the Word of God written and the Word of God incarnate.
God has spoken. This self-revelation has come through history and prophet "at many times and in various ways". Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, the human writers have produced the Word of God written.
The Bible does not "become" the Word of God when it is read and used. Indeed, we will be judged both for our neglect of it and for our misuse of it. However, it is not just the Father's Word to us. The Bible prepares the way for, sets forth and expounds Jesus the Son of God - the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Father continues to tell us, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Mt. 17.5). The Bible is the Word given through the Spirit, brought to our remembrance and applied to our lives.
Word and Spirit
There is a close relationship between Word and Spirit in the historical view of the Scriptures.
Already we have noted that it was the Spirit who "bore along" the people who spoke from God. Peter has been talking about "Scripture" and so is presumably including what was written as well as spoken. He writes, "No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation." These words were used by the Roman Church to assert that the Church itself was the custodian of the true interpretation of Scripture - in the words of the Council of Trent, to the Church alone "it pertains to judge concerning the true sense and interpretation of Holy Scripture." It was therefore taught that there was danger in lay people (not having been seminary-trained) having free access to the Scriptures. Today it is not so much popery as academic (and liberal) snobbery that has tended to close off the written Word to the ordinary Church-member. Who can read it for themselves when we have found new ways of getting around what is so clearly and plainly taught?
So what does Peter mean? It is so clear, really. Prophecy is not the prophet's personal opinions or personal spiritual "high" which we are at liberty to take or leave as we will. "Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man." The prophet was being impelled by the Spirit of God.
In Jeremiah 20 the prophet gives us an insight into what it is like to be a prophet. He has no delight in the message of divine judgement he is called to bring - nor in the unpopularity and ridicule it brings him. "But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (v.9).
Or we think of the scroll that Jeremiah dictated to Baruch for him to read in the Temple (ch. 36). Eventually the scroll was read to King Jehoiakim who thought to destroy the effect of the prophecy by cutting it off as it was read and burning it in the fire. But even if the scroll is burned, the Word of God which was written on it is still in effect. So the scroll was rewritten with additional judgements added to it.
The Holy Spirit is at work before people come to faith. He is at work to bring them to faith.
Jesus said to his disciples, "When he [the Counsellor] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned" (Jn. 16.8-11).
We can jump in so quickly with all our preconceived (or deduced) ideas about "conviction of sin" and fail to hear what Jesus is saying here. The word "convict" (NIV, Gk. elengcho) has been variously rendered - from King James with "reprove", RSV "convince", GNB "prove wrong"... Büchsel, writing in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, states, "The word does not mean only 'to blame' or 'to reprove,' nor 'to convince' in the sense of proof, nor 'to reveal' or 'expose,' but 'to set right,' namely, 'to point away from sin to repentance.' It implies educative discipline" (II, p.474).
Leon Morris points out the three principal ways in which the Greek underlying these verses may be taken. "It may mean 'He will convict the world (of wrong ideas) of sin, in that they do not believe', 'He will convict the world of its sin because they do not believe' (i.e. their unbelief is a classic illustration of their sin), or 'He will convict the world of its sin (which consists in the fact) that they do not believe' (i.e. their unbelief is their sin)." He inclines to the second and goes on to say, "The world is guilty, but it requires the Spirit to sheet this home. The Spirit convicts the world in two senses. In the first place He 'shows the world to be guilty', i.e. He secures a verdict of 'Guilty' against the world. But in the second place we should take the words to mean also that the Spirit brings the world's guilt home to itself. The Spirit convicts the individual sinner's conscience. Otherwise men would never be convicted of their sin" (The Gospel according to John, p.698).
So the Spirit is actively at work to bring people to repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ. And the person who comes to repentance and faith undergoes a "new birth" - described in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus as being "born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3.1ff). (Incidentally, I have always found the desire to find a reference to Christian baptism a distraction here. I was present for the birth of two of my children and know well that they were born "out of water" (Gk. ex hudatos). The reference in v.5 to being "born of water and the Spirit" parallels the statement of v.6 - "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit".) Whether we regard vv. 14-21 as the words of Jesus or the reflections of the evangelist, these verses clearly present "faith" as the only necessary human precondition by which the promised "eternal life" is received. Paul's statement in 2 Cor. 5.17 - "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" - likewise sees the transformed life in the context of faith in Christ (though even here the sacramentalists would want to interpose a reference to baptism).
Within the Christian life the Spirit brings to mind the word of Christ - Jesus said to his disciples, "All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (Jn. 14.25-26) and "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you" (16.12-14).
We notice here the very close interconnection between the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Spirit's work is not independent but interdependent with the work of the Father and of the Son. There was, of course, special fulfilment of these promises during the apostolic period in the recording of the words and works of Jesus Christ and in the emerging understanding and interpretation of the significance of his ministry (including his death and resurrection) and of the nature of the Christian life. In this the Holy Spirit was fulfilling a role similar to that in the production of the Old Testament Scriptures.
For us, the Holy Spirit is not now producing new "scripture", but continues to take the written Word and to apply it to our life and situation. As the hymn (AHB335) reminds us,
We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind
the Lord has yet more light and truth
to break forth from his word.
The Word is deep and rich. As we read, we need to be open and teachable. We are reminded in Heb. 4.12-13, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." Paul, in his description of the Christian's armour, names the Word of God as "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6.17b).
Of course, the Spirit does not simply use Scripture to attack sin and unbelief in the world. The Word is also his tool in cleansing us from sin and in bringing about Christ's character within us. It is for good reason that he is known as the "Holy" Spirit. He works to produce his "fruit" in our lives - "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5.22-23).
The Timeless Message
Christianity is not a religious philosophy, seeking by reason to probe the ultimate meaning of "life, the universe and everything". Nor is it centrally about human searching for and encounter with the divine. It is far removed from eastern mysticism and the New Age Movement and the attempt by meditation and mantra to tap the spiritual resources within. Christianity has to do with revelation - God searching for the human race which has turned away from him and is lost, unable to turn back. The revelation has to do with the nature of this God and his relationship to this created world. It has to do with sin, with divine love, redemption and the way of repentance and faith...
Christianity is a religion of the Book - holding that distinction with Judaism and Islam. But unlike Judaism, the Book has a second part which presents the promised Messiah and the way of salvation. And unlike Islam, the revelation has been given through many people and many centuries; it has come in an historical context and offers, not simply a way of life but a Saviour. (Incidentally, don't let anyone play down the Biblical message because it has come in that historical context. Part of the glory of the Biblical revelation is that God has revealed himself in and through history.) "Give me the book of God," John Wesley said. If God has revealed himself, if God's revelation is committed to a book, then knowing and grasping the timeless message which is central to that revelation - to that book - is essential to the task of evangelism.
Many religions express a fear of the divine. The Macdonald's at Maroochydore featured for a time a collection of large gruesome masks from New Guinea long houses - "to frighten away the spirits". In contrast, we affirm that God is love - and can selectively quote all the Bible texts to support our statement.
Yes, God is love. Yet the Scriptures also show God as the moral Ruler - as Lord and Judge. A good deal of the Bible tells us that God has expectations of us, that there are absolute rules of right and wrong, that to turn away from God and his standards is sin, that sin has consequences...
When I did New Testament Honours thirty years ago, I was expected to search the New Testament for what is there, whether it agreed with my theological inclination or affirmed my lifestyle. I wasn't to go looking for support for my own ideas, but was to draw my conclusions from what was actually there. My lecturer had trained under C.H. Dodd and his methodology was rather rigorous.
Too often in the life of the church today, we come with our own presuppositions and ideologies, seeking to revise what is there to suit our inclinations or society's latest popular idea. This revisionism is a modern symptom of what I described earlier when the scholar puts himself above the Word.
It seems so simple (and relevant) to delete the unpopular reference to sin or judgment, but that has a radical effect on our understanding of redemption - on what we talked about at the beginning - on what we regard as the good news in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We noted para. 5 from the Basis of Union, "When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, her message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom man's salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture..." Specifically, grasping the authority of Scripture is imperative for the evangelistic task.
As a much younger Christian, I recall being deeply impressed by the words in Ezekiel 3.17-19, "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, 'You will surely die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself."
These words come afresh to us today as we face the dangers of popularism and revisionism in the life of the church. We hope by these means to find relevance and acceptance in our society and culture.
The Biblical good news is that there is forgiveness and new life waiting for the sinner. In the Old Testament it was the whole point of the sacrificial system. The prophet Isaiah said that "he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (53.5-6).
The New Testament writers affirmed that the Suffering Servant was in fact Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
The risen Christ charged his followers that "repentance and forgiveness of sins" are now to "be preached in his name to all nations" (Lk. 24.47).
Don't change the message. It is timeless. It is still the only real hope of the world. It is therefore truly relevant. It is God's action, God's way - there is no other! Don't cheapen the message by talking about affirmation and acceptance.
Christ has died for our sins. All people are to be called repentance and faith. Let us, however, seek to understand our own culture so that we can find timely words for this timeless message so that Aussies will hear, repent and believe.
© Peter J Blackburn, Elective in the "Evangelism for Tomorrow" Seminar, Nedlands Uniting Church, Perth, 2-3 July 1997