The Incredible Shrinking Bible

In discussions with my more liberal (and often Emergent) Christian friends about contentious topics like abortion, gay marriage, and war and peace, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: They keep trying to confine the discussion to the words of Jesus alone.  They don’t like Paul (misogynist!) or the Old Testament (violent!) and instead prefer “just Jesus.”  

There’s no doubt this is an alluring concept — and one in keeping with an increasing trend to reject even the word “Christian” in favor of phrases like “follower of Jesus” or “Christ-follower.”  After all, if one can transform the Holy Bible into Christ’s Pamphlet, it is much, much easier to deal with the thorny issues of life by referring to your own conscience and preferences.  Jesus addressed very few moral issues with specificity, he delivered sweeping but sometimes vague commands, and His parables are subject to varying interpretations by context.  In discussions with leftist Christians over sexual morality issues, for example, how many times have you heard: “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”

While there are multiple problems with this Bible-shrinking approach, I’ll focus on three.

First, it ignores Christ’s own clear reverence for Hebrew scriptures.  In fact, the Gospel of Matthew often reads like an argument for Christ’s divinity based on the very scriptures that many Christians now minimize and ignore.  (Unless, of course, they nonsensically have a high view of those parts of Isaiah that prophesy Christ and a low view of those parts that prophesy, say, Israel’s looming tribulations and God’s judgment).

Second, it confines Christ’s recorded work and words to a discrete time period and ignores His work throughout history.  John 1 of course begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  That means Christ was there — as part of the Triune God — for the creation, for the flood, for the Exodus, for the conquest of the promised land — for all the allegedly nasty parts of the Old Testament that modern Christians too often reject, minimize, or otherwise explain away.

Third, it’s arrogant.  It never fails to amaze me how we Protestants (and of course some Catholics) decide that we can basically “reinvent” church or “reinvent” the faith to engage our time and our culture.  What special insight do we possess that allows us to reject so much of the biblical canon and to ignore almost two thousand years of church practice and church teaching?

Several weeks ago, I posted a piece called “Homosexuality, Morality, and Talladega Nights Theology” in which I lamented the common practice of worshipping the Jesus we want rather than the Jesus who is.  By shrinking the Bible we enable this simplistic, almost infinitely flexible “theology.”  All of the scriptures reveal Jesus to us, not merely the red letter words, and by limiting our study to the red letters, we’re quite simply limiting our study of Christ.

  • Larry Farr

    Uhm…didn’t He mention somewhere in His own words something about not taking away or adding to anything in the Scriptures?

    Reads very much like He meant it, from what I recall…

  • Seth

    Great points. God’s words don’t have a beginning and an end. They didn’t start with Genesis, and certainly wouldn’t end with Revelation – they were merely compiled in that order when the Bible was canonized. God, being the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), would continue to reveal “his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7) and even have them written as he did in the past. The Word of God is priceless to those who live by it, so would God ever stop revealing more of his word to those who chose to listen?

  • Mark

    Dont settle for the change, come on back to the Catholic church. ;)

    • Andrew

      Love it

  • Chris Robin

    Sounds like they’ve become Thomas Jefferson “Christians”. Or to use a more proper term, Marcionism, where Marcion and his followers rejected the OT and large swaths of the NT.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    David, while you mention only your “liberal” or “emergent” friends, am I reading too much into your post to see a critique of Anabaptist theology as well? Of course, Anabaptists do not appeal ONLY to Jesus, but rather give interpretive priority to the Jesus as prophet, priest, king, and teacher. And even though you rightly point out his reverence for the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus did not hesitate to challenge and even introduce a new standard in several instances for his followers (“You have heard it said…but I tell you…”).

    Of course, to your second point, this does see God’s revelation as progressive and most fulfilled in the church, which does not follow the laws or rituals or practices of the nation of Israel–but I suspect you agree with this in part, for I assume that you do not follow all of the Old Testament laws and rituals that the Triune God gave.

    And your final point is just too vague to engage with. Again, I suspect that you believe and do many, many different things than the ancient Israelites, the early Church fathers and mothers, and medieval Catholics. You would not call those changes arrogant–you would call them appropriate contemporary applications of biblical principles as based upon your INTERPRETATION. Discussing and disagreeing with interpretive frameworks and conclusions can be helpful. But I don’t see how asserting that unspecified contemporary changes (at least those that others make) are arrogant is useful at all.

    • David French

      Brantley, I don’t know much about Anabaptist theology . . . Aside from being familiar with a wide variety of Christian pacifist arguments. So this was targeted mainly at the sources of red letter arguments that I’ve heard or engaged. As for my final point, I wasn’t arguing about interpretive differences but instead a different kind of act altogether — functionally voiding large chunks of scripture simply because they aren’t in the gospels.

  • Rod Bennett

    Good thoughts, David. The “Red Letter Christian” thing is, as you said, quite the fad these days. I always respond to it by reminding folks that the same people who wrote the “red letters” wrote the rest of the Gospels as well; and if, after all, they were the kind of people who’d lie about the rest, then they’d also lie about what Jesus said, too. The books were, after all, written 10 to 60 years AFTER Jesus left the earth and there weren’t any tape recorders in those days. So there’s no escaping it: we are completely dependent for everything we know about Jesus Christ on His Apostles and on their successors (just as Jesus intended us to be: “In the same way that the Father sent Me, even so do I send you”, “Whoever hears you hears Me, whoever rejects you rejects Me and Him who sent Me”)…and these same apostolic men passed down to us (via the Church’s tradition) their list of which writings are and are not the Word of God. It’s that list (now printed in our Bibles as “the contents page”) that counts, not anyone’s private opinion of what *ought* to be in or out.

  • Patrick

    It’s a good analysis of some modernist views. I think they are flawed, however, it is also true we have to be very wise in how we handle the OT.

    For example, I think lots of the OT is what Yahweh tolerated, not what He desired.

    Ben Witherington had a good example where the Pharisees asked Jesus about Moses allowing divorce a lot and Jesus replied, “It was not that way in the beginning, Moses allowed that due to the hardness of your hearts”. God was flexible with the Jews as He is with us all. I’m sure He had good reasons.

    However, the “Adam and Eve” paradigm clearly was God’s highest and best for humanity. Not polygamy, not easy divorce, yet all 3 are in the OT text.

  • Joel Cannon

    I am reminded of the joke, – if English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for America.

    It is easy to forget that the books of the Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and it is impossible to completely and fully translate all of the original intent. Anyone who has ever tried to translate a joke will know exactly what I mean. Aramaic is a multidimensional language rich with symbolism and innuendo, which loses much when literally translated into English.

    There is also the historical and culture context that is also lost to most contemporary readers of the Bible. And there is also the inherent ambiguity of human language.

    Which explains the many legitimate (and even contradicting) interpretations of the Bible today.

  • Scott Stenson

    It sounds like some moderns need a crash course in prophetic and apostolic authority.

  • Agkcrbs

    One comes to realise that it’s a narrow mind indeed, that never once saw Jesus, but seriously maintains, “Jesus NEVER said ANYTHING about so and so.”

    Obviously, for specific effect, we can claim that a given portion of scripture does or doesn’t contain something.

    But Jesus “never” saying something (and therefore he would have said the opposite)? The Man lived thirty and three years, and an eternity before and after, and we have several dozen pages to account for it — and we think we know everything he said? By his father, he created and saved the world — by his word, the earth is upheld and man lives — his Spirit enlightens every inventor and poet, every wise old man and babbling child — and we think we can overthrow morality, because we’re lucky enough to have a tiny bit of a Bible, like the picture above, and some of us a bit more — and despite all it manages to teach on a moral subject, a certain section of it doesn’t mention a certain word? Thus man damns himself from knowledge, by making up rules for God… by making up God.

    The Books taught a radically opposite idea, obvious and undeniable once considered; and as with Jesus’ acts, so with his words:

    “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (KJV John 21:25).

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