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).

 

 

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