Baptists and the Bible 2 (Michael O’Neil)

This post, by my friend in Perth, Michael O’Neil, is about an excellent book on how Baptists read the Bible. Michael teaches at Vose Seminary, and is an engaging, fun-loving, devoted theologian who finds particular fascination with Karl Barth.

One feature in the excellent collection of essays from The “Plainly Revealed” Word of God? is an emphasis on christocentric interpretation of Scripture. Thus Christopher Ellis writes,

Just as the early church read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ, so our attempts at doctrinal formulation should always be in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God and the word of God. As James Gordon has put it: ‘To live under the rule of the Word is to practise a radical hermeneutic through which scripture bears final and decisive witness to Christ, and by which the living Christ, revealed in Scripture and encountered in the community of faith, becomes the hermeneutical crux and criterion (111).

So, too, Ian Birch writes,

In what has come to be known as the Baptist vision of Christian faith, commitments were made and loyalties affirmed at the earliest stages of Baptist life to a number of principles that subsequently shaped the Baptist reading of scripture. These have been to regard Christ as the hermeneutical key to scripture and to read the Bible with a view to imaginatively living in its story … the authority of the Bible [is] to be understood as the authority of the risen Christ, mediated and expressed through the Bible. Baptists do not live simply under the word of scripture, but under the authority of Christ who is known and encountered in scripture (157, 159).

How do you conceive the relation between Jesus Christ and Scripture, and how is this relation actually enacted in the life of the church?

Birch goes on to argue that Christ is within scripture, through scripture, above scripture, and before scripture.  There is no sola scriptura apart or independent from a thorough-going solus Christus. Jesus Christ, and especially his life and teaching, is the criterion of all scripture. There is an obvious mutuality in that our knowledge of Jesus Christ derives from the testimony of scripture. Still, this distinction is important:

The importance of this issue is that if scripture is regarded as the supreme authority in the church, then questions about belief and practice will be answered in terms of “what does the Bible say?” This legalistic approach has the tendency to create boundaries of orthodoxy and heresy between those who are perceived to be “biblical” and those who are not. However, rather than asking, “What does the Bible say?” if the church asks, “What does Christ say?” “What is the mind of Christ?” “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ in this situation and how can scripture help us to discern this?” the outcome of the process is a dynamic, communal submission to the Lordship of Jesus mediated through the word (166).

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  • Jeff

    My problem with asking “What does Christ say?” or “What is the mind of Christ?” rather than “What doe the Bible say?” is that usually we get the answer of our subculture not Christ which is why searches for the historical Jesus usually end with a Jesus that looks like the one searching. Though never free from bias, “What does the Bible say?” put us in greater subjection to a voice other than our own.

  • T

    I realize that the author is speaking a very large and diverse movement and with a historical perspective but this one line was not my experience growing up largely in Baptist churches: “Jesus Christ, especially his life and teaching, is the criterion for all scripture.” This may be true of anabaptists but for Southern Baptists, it’s especially Christ’s death and the need for and theory of penal substitutionary atonement that is the “scarlet thread” running through all scripture.

  • Scott Gay

    This seems similar to the central theme of the book of James. It was also at the heart of the WWJD phenomenon. It sometimes, unfornuately, divides along evangelical/social gospel lines.

    “How is this relation actually enacted in the church”? From Edwyn Bevan’s “Synbolism and Faith”…..” For Christians the human spirit reaches its highest possible point in Christ, and for that reason the Christian Church believes that in Christ may be seen that for which the whole universe has come into existence. I say advisably in this context Christ, and not Jesus, because the Christian view does not confine the life of Christ to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but regards it as continued in the Christian society. The full range of the Spirit could not be shown in the circustances and the years of the earthly life of Jesus, but it may be shown, according to Christian doctrine, in the world-wide Community, as ultimately made perfect, the glorified Community which will manifest, without any obscuration by sin or earthly infirmity, all the potentialities of the spirit of man, the full riches of the life of Christ for which it is the vehicle. This may be regarded as what the apostle meant when he said that the ultimate end to which the world- process moved was the summing up of all things in Christ”.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    It seems many of my Baptist friends more read the Bible from a sola Scriptura perspective than a sola Christus one. Many would feel uneasy about Christ as the authority over there innerant authority of the Word of God. There also is a problem of the “solas” in how they are often used today. Scripture cut off from the church and tradition left up to the private or Baptist interpretation of Scripture. And what about the Trinity in sola Christus? Trinitarian theology and practice is more and more being lost by a new generation of Christians that don’t even know what the term “Trinity” means anymore.

  • This identifies the necessary focus for the discussion of issues that currently divide Baptists. Better to think together about our hermeneutic principle than to argue fruitlessly because of divergent but unexamined starting points.

  • “How do you conceive the relation between Jesus Christ and Scripture, and how is this relation actually enacted in the life of the church?”

    I agree that Christ himself is the hermeneutical crux in interpreting every word, though I perceive that evangelical Christianity has had a chronicly narrow view of the person and work of Christ.

    I don’t think that the concept of Christ as the Eternal Word and Image of God is contemplated or taken seriously enough but that, as you say, we too easily fall into simply equating “Word” with “words”.

    Wheras the meaning communicated in words is invariably temporal and requires constant fresh translation, the “Word” is that which remains True in every culture, dialect, and time. The Word is the message, voice, action, character, and, in summary, eternally unchanging “I Am” of God. To equate the Word directly with the printed page is akin to a subtle (or maybe not) idolatry.

    The Word then is frustratingly difficult to define with words and, I would claim, impossible to know apart from personal, relational experience of the Word incarnated by another who is filled with the Spirit [another word we have too narrowly defined]. At its core then, I see the bible as a library, recording other’s accounts of their own (or their perspective of their community’s own) personal, relational experiences of the Word. To the extent that we are able to realize the very real humanity of the biblical authors, enter into their story, and empathize with their limitations, we are able to communally share their experience of God as Truly as they have without being limited to narrow, literal, contemporary misappropriations of their reflections and commands.

    I will admit to being skeptical though that this relational hermeneutic approach to scripture is sufficient to lead one to true, heart rending knowledge of the Word if one’s heart is not first softened and prepared by experience of the literal, physical, bodily incarnation of The Word in a real person in our lives. This I think is the key to inderstanding how to apply every word in the Bible and the central thrust of Christ’s call: We are to very literally (spiritually, but literally) BE the Word of God for them. If this is true, then I am called to BE the word before speaking it, that others may be given ears to hear. I have been enabled, in turn, by experiencing the Word of God in those who were called before me and incarnated the Christ in my midst.

    It’s incredibly important then that when we do hope to use words to speak the Word, or quote Scripture as the Word of God, that we do so sparingly and only as empowered by the overwhelming desire to BE the Word; which is to be filled with the Spirit. I guess, for me, this is the best understanding of what it means to be filled with the Spirit of God: to be in union with the substance and person that exists in the space cohabited by God’s Word and temporal, earthly, physical action.

    So, in the end, Christ IS preeminate, he is the alpha and the omega, he just IS. His physical earthly life defines God in the only terms possible and is the hermeneutical yardstick, but we have to be careful to allow Him to be bigger than His words.

  • So sorry for the many many words. Just some of my recent reflections. Didn’t realize how huge it would be in this format.

  • Ian

    As a one who did two years at a Baptist seminary in Boston (BBFI Affiliated) and finished my BS at Liberty, I would have to say that T (#2) and CGC (#4) are dead on with their assessment. I was actually surprised while reading this and thinking “wow, I wish I was taught this in seminary!” Greg Boyd more than anyone else has influenced my thinking in that Christ is the hermeneutical key to unlocking Scripture. His most recent sermons ( and blog posts ( have wonderfully articulated this topic in such a fresh and unique way.

  • Terry

    Jeff #1, you say: “My problem with asking “What does Christ say?” or “What is the mind of Christ?” rather than “What does the Bible say?” is that usually we get the answer of our subculture not Christ.” Though you offer the not free from bias caveat Jeff, my experience within the Baptist congregation that I pastored was that the overarching interpretation of the subculture/tribe often made Biblical citation/defense flat-out dishonest. It was in holding those interpretations up to Christ that there was occasionally pause.

    Nate W., some good thoughts. I have experienced first hand the “fall into simply equating “Word” with “words”” and to “equate the Word directly with the printed page” (which, as you said is akin to a subtle (or maybe not) idolatry.) I have watched folks break fellowship when this notion is questioned, fearful (like before the great and powerful Oz) for their own salvation and lives.

    To answer Scot’s question: how is the relationship enacted in the life church, I would say, from my experience, poorly overall. It is a place where, to me, folk religion reigns supreme. It is perhaps an overused phrase, but there remains too much “magic book” thinking among the church, or at least evangelicals in the circles in which I travel. Finding our way to Christ as the hermeneutic seems essential, but illusive.

  • Patrick

    How on earth can we know what Jesus thinks w/o the bible? Did someone else document His life for us?

  • T


    No one proposed discerning Christ without the Bible.

  • Michael O’Neil

    Jeff #1, I am sure that Ian Birch does not mean asking the ‘What is the mind of Christ’ question apart from witness to Christ in the Bible. I also note other commentators’ suggestion that the Christ whose mind we seek is the Christ of the whole Bible, that is, a theologically-described Jesus Christ. Apart from these qualifications I share your concern that we can read whatever we want into ‘the mind of Christ.’

    Further, that the act of asking the question is grounded in the community, perhaps provides a means of testing the various proposals that arise as possible answers to the question. For me, these proposals by Ellis and Birch provide a means by which we can begin to escape from a merely subcultural response to issues of faith and discipleship.

  • Wyatt

    How can properly discern the Bible without Baptists?

  • Hi, as one of the editors of the book, I’m finding this a fascinating read. Thank you to everyone for your comments.

    For what it’s worth, my take on this issue of ‘discerning the mind of Christ’ is that we do indeed encounter the risen Christ through the pages of scripture, and that this happens as the Spirit of Christ within us enlivens the text to us. It is in Christ that God speaks his word of salvation, and it is the Spirit of Christ that speaks that same word to us, as the words of life in scripture are brought to life in the community of the body of Christ.

    By my understanding, a Christological reading of the Bible is one which privileges the encounter with Christ through his Spirit above other attempts in the text to articulate the nature of God.

    So, for example, when addressing the question of whether God is a God of love or of violence (and both views can be found reflected in scripture), I look to the revelation of Jesus as providing the appropriate hermeneutical perspective.

  • Michael O’Neil

    Thanks Simon, well put.
    You raise another interesting hermeneutical question: the role of the risen Christ in the interpretation of scripture. To what extent can we allow the present work of Christ to be part of the hermeneutical process, including our attempts to understand the historical person and work of Christ. Ray Anderson wrote several papers along this line.