Part 3: Response to The Gospel as Center, Chapter 3: “The Gospel and Scripture”

Part 3: Response to The Gospel as Center, Chapter 3: “The Gospel and Scripture”

This is the third of a series of responses to the book The Gospel as Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming our Ministry Practices edited by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller.  All the authors are members of The Gospel Coalition.

Chapter 3, “The Gospel and Scripture: How to Read the Bible” is by Mike Bullmore, pastor of Crossway Community Church of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

I approached this chapter expecting a defense of the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy, but those are not its subject. The author states the purpose of the chapter near its beginning: “this chapter suggests and unpacks two particular connections between Scripture and the gospel: the gospel is a cause of Scriptural revelation, and the gospel is an effect of scriptural revelation. In other words, God’s great, eternal purpose of redemption (which is expressed in the gospel) gives rise to the Bible, and the Bible serves to accomplish God’s purpose in the gospel.” (p. 41)

I found nothing particularly objectionable in this chapter which is mainly about hermeneutics. The author posits a fairly radical Christocentric interpretation of the whole Bible. He says that every passage of the Bible points to Jesus. (p. 49) Also, without the influence of the Holy Spirit it is impossible to understand the Bible. (p. 51) He affirms the verbal inspiration and infallibility of the Bible without using those terms. (p. 44)

According to Bullmore, we should follow two approaches when reading the Bible: 1) Read it as continuous narrative (or history), and 2) Read it as a compendium of God-inspired perspectives (or theology). (pp. 51-54) “The real narrative is the unfolding of God’s purpose and plan.” (p. 51) Thus, we should read “along the biblical narrative.” But we should also read “across the Scriptures.” The first approach seems to be about grasping the “big picture” of Scripture’s story which is “the unfolding of God’s purpose and plan.” The second approach seems to be about deriving a system of truths from Scripture. “In the end, both approaches lead us to Christ.” (p. 53)

Except for the implicit assumptions of verbal inspiration and inerrancy, this chapter could have been written by Karl Barth. The author tries to tie “the gospel” and “Scripture” together, but he also seems to be promoting a distinction between them. The “gospel” is the Sache (subject matter) of Scripture. I was expecting more emphasis on the Bible’s inerrancy as a propositional revelation.

Now, let me digress a moment to relate this chapter to a Baptist controversy that I think also has to do with the larger contemporary controversy among evangelical theologians.

In 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention revised its Baptist Faith and Message. It was first written in 1925 by a committee led by E. Y. Mullins, then president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mullins was a moderate Baptist by today’s standards (which is why he is out of favor by both conservatives and “bapto-Catholics”). The BF&M was revised in 1963. The 1963 version says “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” The 2000 revision says “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation.”

My argument would be that the Bullmore’s chapter on Scripture fits both statements. At the end of it, a person is justified in believing the author is saying that Jesus Christ is the only right way to understand Scripture. “The Bible is all about Jesus.” (p. 49)

Why did the 1999 committee that revised the BF&M change the wording to delete the 1963 statement that “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ?” The reason I heard was that the committee thought that statement was misused by neo-orthodox professors to deny the plenary inspiration and authority of Scripture and its inerrancy. I have never been able to understand that. That Jesus Christ is the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted seems perfectly orthodox to me. All the church fathers would have agreed. Certainly Luther would have agreed. The Anabaptists would have agreed. It seems to me Mike Bullmore would agree. If it’s in this book, surely Carson and Keller agree.

The general thrust of this chapter is completely acceptable to me. I may disagree with a secondary point or two, but even in those cases it would depend on what is meant. The chapter is very broad and vague about flashpoints of controversy such as inerrancy. The closest the author comes to affirming inerrancy is that “the Bible is trustworthy and true.” (p. 44)

I would like to know why this chapter, written in this specific way, is included in this book. The book is written to correct evangelicals who have strayed or are straying from the gospel. Which evangelicals would have any problem with this chapter (except perhaps fundamentalists who would want a stronger statement of inerrancy?)

I, for one, completely agree that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the Sache of Scripture and that it should be the criterion of biblical interpretation, which, I judge, is the import of this chapter even if the author doesn’t say it quite that way.

  • David Rogers

    Why did the 1999 committee that revised the BF&M change the wording to delete the 1963 statement that “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ?” The reason I heard was that the committee thought that statement was misused by neo-orthodox professors to deny the plenary inspiration and authority of Scripture and its inerrancy. I have never been able to understand that. That Jesus Christ is the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted seems perfectly orthodox to me.

    I would agree that indeed Jesus Christ is the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted and applied to the life of a Christian. However, I think I may have some insight into why this was changed. (Even though, I think they should have clarified it rather than delete it).

    I went to a moderate to liberal Baptist university from 1982-1986. The faculty was at best condescending and at worst outright hostile to anything that resembled what appeared to be conservative-traditional orthodoxy. One professor even went as far as saying that there was no such thing as conservative “scholars”. Jesus was shaped in their own image and their reasoning seemed to proceed that however they saw Jesus was how the rest of the Bible was to be dealt with. Jesus never said anything against homosexuality. Jesus was accepting of all people. Therefore, anything in the Scriptures that was negative toward homosexuality had to be interpreted according to Jesus and thus Jesus accepted and approved of being homosexual.

    They constructed a progressive Jesus of Liberal thought and used it as a condescending or PC club to denounce or ignore the intelligence of anyone who would deal with the texts directly and come to any conclusions that had resemblance to any traditional orthodox conclusions.

    Jesus became a shield and founder of any progressive theology or ethic they needed to construct. He was a rather useful hermeneutical tool. This is what I encountered there. (It actually was a pretty decent academic school; it just wasn’t particularly Christian or even Baptist. It did make Playboy’s top party school designation one year though. Woo Hoo! What a source of pride for me.)

    Unfortunately the conservative-fundamentalist reaction to it was overblown and too heavy-handed. From my perspective the SBC conservative-moderates didn’t see enough of a problem in the colleges and seminaries, and the SBC neo-fundamentalists got the reins of power and cleaned too much of the house. The conservative-moderates and the liberal-moderates formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship which I now think is on the edge of dividing or collapsing as the conservative-moderate wing ages, retires and dies.

    At least that’s how I have seen it. I am open to any clarification or correction.

    • Theophile

      Hi David.
      You said: “They constructed a progressive Jesus of Liberal thought”, well Jesus did say there will be “many false Christ’s”. It’s good for us He mentioned which is the right one, when He said: “Moses and the prophets, they testify of me”!

    • traveller

      Mr. Rogers, your explanation is certainly plausible. As you suggest the reaction was an overreaction. Indeed, I would suggest that those who removed the professors you reference are just as condescending of ideas and interpretations that fall outside their thinking as you suggest your professors were while at university.

      As to the possible collapse of the CBF this may be true but I would suggest that the SBC is just as close to a collapse as the CBF. The issue is a much broader one than the narrow conflict between conservative/fundamentalist Baptists and more moderate Baptists. All institutions in society today are under great strain and being undermined by many aspects of a rapidly changing culture. This includes the institutional expression of church. So, any denominational collapse may have a contribution from the unique history of Southern Baptists over the 40 years but it is likely only a small contribution compared with the larger cultural issues putting institutions under stress.

      It does appear to me that the CBF understands these larger issues better than the SBC. A perfect example of the focus of the SBC is on the study of a possible name change which resulted in no name change and proposing the authorization of the use of Great Commission Baptists by churches and the denominational structures. As Wade Burleson has so clearly stated it is unlikely anyone in our greater society will have any idea what GCB means and will associate it with the title of a new television program. See link: http://www.wadeburleson.org/2012/03/gcb-name-change-and-gods-sense-of-humor.html

      • rogereolson

        And then there’s the Baptist General Conference that changed its name to “WorldConverge.” Huh?

      • David Rogers

        I would suggest that those who removed the professors you reference are just as condescending of ideas and interpretations that fall outside their thinking as you suggest your professors were while at university.

        I agree with that. For awhile now I’ve thought that we’ve suffered under the influences of two warring factions infected with investigational laziness.

        The “liberal” side has been convinced of the “assured results of higher biblical criticism” which has de-mythologized and “progressivized” (actual word?) the Christian faith and thus there is little need to do any more rigorous biblical exegetical work on biblical doctrines. All that is needed is to progress the faith into the new century.

        The “fundamentalist” side has been convinced that all the “right” answers of orthodoxy have been arrived at and thus any new rigorous biblical exegetical work on biblical doctrines are both unnecessary and heretically dangerous. All that is needed is to preserve the faith from the threats of destructive secular and pagan forces.

        Willingness to look with fresh eyes at the biblical texts as a genuine source of divine revelation and a willingness to ask both old and new questions that may upset some traditions may require one to venture outside one’s established theo-political comfort zones.

  • http://campusrenewed.wordpress.com/ Charles Yu

    Dr. Olson,
    I haven’t read the book, but your description of the two ways of reading perhaps is the author’s rebuke of those who evangelicals who emphasize reading “along the narrative” over “reading across Scriptures”—Narrative over theology. I am perhaps among the those rebuked. I believe the main message(s) of the Bible is accessible through tracing the overarching narrative, and “reading across Scriptures” is apologetics, establishing coherence and answering questions that the Bible does not explicitly address.

  • Rick

    “I would like to know why this chapter, written in this specific way, is included in this book. The book is written to correct evangelicals who have strayed or are straying from the gospel. ”

    Are they the only groups? Could it not also be a refresher for those who have not strayed, and a learning resource for those trying to learn more about the faith (maybe seekers or new Christians)?

    • rogereolson

      Theoretically, yes. However, if that’s all it is for, why did the publisher send me a copy?

  • J.L. Schafer

    Thanks again for another fine installment. Does this book offer any help or guidance for dealing with the objectionable passages and teachings of the Old Testament, the so-called texts of terror that you recently wrote about?

    As a newcomer to this blog, I have been reading with interest many of the excellent articles you have posted over the last few months, including the series on evangelical-Catholic dialogue. Tonight at 8pm Eastern time, John Armstrong and Cardinal George will hold a public conversation at Wheaton College on evangelical & Catholic unity in Christ’s mission. The event will be streamed live: http://www.act3online.com

    • rogereolson

      Ah, sorry I saw this too late for people to watch it live. I assume it’s available to watch after the fact, though.

      • J.L. Schafer

        Watched it live and it was great. Webcast on demand should be available in about a week.

  • http://www.radicallynormal.com Josh Kelley

    I am not sure that I agree with him (or you) on “…every passage of the Bible points to Jesus.” Said that way, it seems to champion an eisegetical approach: Let’s not worry so much about the intended meaning for the original audience, but more on how we interpret it on the other side of Christ.

    Am I missing his and your meaning?

    • rogereolson

      Of course, that is the way most early church fathers interpreted the Bible. However, I would mean it in a much more Barthian sense: not as a license to allegorize but as a requirement to read the whole canon in the light of Jesus.

  • http://www.gentlewisdom.org/ Peter Kirk

    When “He says that every passage of the Bible points to Jesus”, what does that imply about passages like Isaiah 7:14 and Psalm 2:7 in context? Is he saying that these must be interpreted as referring to Jesus, and not to people in the author’s own time? If so, he is saying something controversial, something which I would reject, while agreeing, as an evangelical, that in a more general sense these verses are “a testimony to Christ”.

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure he means “in a more general sense.” I do.

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    The inerrancy of scripture, vs the inerrancy of the Bible as “The” word of God, is somewhat overlooked. Why for instance was the book of Enoch excluded at Nicaea, (when it’s quoted from in Jude), yet Solomon’s song, written by a guy who had 7oo wives and 300 “kept women”, and arguably went down the lists of Moses, and Samuel, doing everything prohibited by God, is included?
    Sorry for using Solomon again, but growing up in the church I heard quite a bit about the greatness & wisdom of Solomon from the Bible, but Kings 11 was never expounded upon. I can’t help thinking about that when I read The Proverbs of Solomon, but then I realize they weren’t named “The Proverbs of God, written down by Solomon”.
    I was thinking Roger, about what if Arminian freewill & Calvinism is both true?
    What if God, in His eternalness, has trillions upon trillions of future scenarios played out, each of them set in motion by our individual choices. Kind of like how You can “save” a video game, right before the part where You have trouble, and replay that scene until You get past it without problems. Perhaps God has all these “saved” alternate futures, in store “to convince all the ungodly” on judgment day. Would it be so hard for God on judgment day, to have each of us “relive” the lives of others we have interacted with, or affected, to see the effect we “really” had on them? Perhaps God has played out every possible future for His creation, and all that’s in there, and those entering hell have rejected Him, in all those possible freewill scenarios. Then the question of an unjust God, creating vessels to be destroyed, moves to maybe God would be unjust not to give them at least a chance to “prove” themselves.

    • rogereolson

      All I can say to that is “very interesting.”

  • Gun

    The purpose of what I wrote yesterday as a comment (not found there today) to Part 2: Response to the Gospel as Center, was to point out that God cannot be glorified through the “right doctrine”. Neither God nor we need doctrines at all. Doctrines are something that someone has interpreted regarding texts from scriptures. The reason for forming doctrines or dogmas in any religion is always the belief of someone, that he must interpret scriptures to others, otherwise people do not comprehend them. It is to underestimate our brothers and sisters to believe that they cannot understand texts by themselves. Jesus had no doctrines. He knew that the message he wanted to convey about the “kingdom of heaven”was simple but difficult to describe using ordinary sentences and therefore he often used parables. He wanted to convey what the God’s kingdom was like and where it was to be found. The parable of the prodigal son is one
    showing us clearly, that it is up to us finding the way back home where we always belonged.

    Man has always created images of God outside of himself and there has been created as many “gods” as there are men, as man creates gods in his own images = angry, in need of sacrifies before granting forgiveness etc. As Jesus had found God inside of himself he knew that God was in every human being and that everyone can find God there as he had. We are all sons of God, he said. And therefore we have to stop seeking God anywhere else than within. Jesus also knew that we have to calm down our mind in order to step into that stillness, where the deep peace and trust can be felt and where there is knowing that we can rely on the Allmighty I AM in the same way as nature does. “Look at the flowers and the birds…” he said. When we find God within us we feel the ONENESS and as He is in me, so God is in everyone. Thus this truth makes me love everybody as God loves me and all of us. This is the metafore of becoming conscious. In this way God reveals himself in us being his creation = through our soules as being parts of Him. Such a revelation cannot be described using words nor be stated in doctrines or dogmas to be believed. This revelation can not be handed over to anybody else. However by saying “Seek the kingdom of God within you”, Jesus knew he was conveying the most importat truth, that this oneness already is a fact in everyone but it’s up to everybody (him/herself) to reveal it. He knew this new view of all life being ONE would be transformative and enable men to create a more balanced life on earth. Feeling the ONENESS makes LOVING ALL natural.

    I have had the gift of this revelation and it was like coming HOME finding a COMPASSION unlike anything experienced before. And I also felt I was that home and that compassion. And the most astonishing I knew answers to everything! By experiencing this I was in my soulbody and now I know as a fact: There is no death. We can experience this ONENESS when our mind is in complete stillness. Jesus knew how important it was to be alone resting in this stillness in order to be refreshed for his short but important mission as a Master, messenger and as a forerunner.

    • rogereolson

      Is that your doctrine that no one needs at all?

      • Gun

        By listening to what Jesus tells through his parables we are given his own message, how to find the kingdom of heaven within us. All we need is to follow his advices by practicing them daily and find out if what he says is true. There is no doctrine in that. Doctrines are made to get power. The message of Jesus cannot be organized by any religion through doctrines, but having found the Light within we love to live a life in balance.

        • rogereolson

          Is that your doctrine?

          • Gun

            To follow the advice of Jesus to seek God and the kingdom of heaven within us is no doctrine. Jesus had no doctronies but a lot of good advices to be practised or not according to free will.

          • rogereolson

            It seems that for you a “doctrine” is a belief someone else holds.

          • Gun

            As it is said in “The Divine Iliad” by Walter Russell, (“the man who tapped the secrets of the universe”):
            “When they shall know the light of Me in them, then they shall be Me and I them”.

            That state is knowing.

            Thus the end of believing and the end of doctrines.

          • rogereolson

            Hardly. Those are his and your doctrines. And this is pure gnosticism.

    • John Inglis

      “his short but important mission as a Master, messenger and as a forerunner.”

      No mission as God-Man?

      • Gun

        The mission of Jesus as God-Man was to show us the way to the insight or the state of knowing that we are all God-Men.

        • rogereolson

          That is clearly a doctrine. And it is gnostic.

          • Gun

            I was born in a family where it was very important to have the “right” belief and there was an on-going fight in the township between two different directions, both belonging to the Lutheran Church. One emphasising grace and the other deeds. They were totally isolated from eachother because of their different doctrines. And we know that there are hundreds of sects in what we call Christianity. To make a long story short, in my thirties a started seeking by all my heart wanting to know what life was all about. My praying was heard and I had the revelation described above. You may call it gnostic or whatever but I know that I ever since am feeling a loving precence and I need no other explanation than to say: Jesus were right when stating that the light of God is in every man. Like him we may seek it “alone in the wilderness and stillness” finding the insight, that we have power to learn choosing LOVE instead of EGO, in the same way as he did.
            In order to do so, we must leave behind the worst doctrine: “We cannot”, or the inherited sin.

          • rogereolson

            There two different interpretations of what you are saying here. One is the mystical, radical Reformation view of the “inner light” adopted by the Quakers (but going back to Schwenkfeld during the Reformation). In that Christian mystical view, there is a presence of God to every person. The gnostic interpretations (going back to the second century Christian gnostics and existing as an “alternative reality tradition” alongside orthodox Christianity for 2,000 years, regards the inner light or the light of God as the very substance of God himself such that every person is a “spark of the divine.” These sometimes sound similar, but they are very different ontologies. The Christian mystical tradition always preserves the divine-human distinction. The gnostic, “new age,” esoteric tradition, which sometimes comes labeled “Christian” and sometimes does not, identified God and the human person with the only difference being our ignorance of our divinity. The former preserves the transcendence of God; the latter effectively denies it. The latter cannot be authentically Christian whereas I judge the former can be.

          • Gun

            What is the need of labeling ouselves or others by different names politically as well as in religious terms? Why do we need to psycologically separate ourselves from any other man? Why do we need to build invisible walls between us by putting us in different boxes, each content of a box labelled by different names judging the content of another box? Is our mind seeking “security” in this division unaware of the fact, that these boxes become prisons built by ourselves. But we talk about freedom not seeing that we, by separating ourselves from others, made us prisoners.

            When we open up to the light within, we begin understanding that these invisible walls (religious, racial, political etc.) made by our minds are the cause of all wars and all inbalance in the world. Is it possible that there could be an awakening in every man by becoming aware of the fact that it is the unconcious habit of our mind that is causing this division? Such a perception is seeing things as they are and I cannot see things as they are, if I am creating conclusions, images.

          • rogereolson

            The Kingdom of God is not yet.

          • Gun

            If we, in the same way as Jesus had, have found the Kingdom of God within, then it is there NOW and is reflected by our new way of living. And other men get interested in seaking and finding it within them one by one. Knowing thereafter that we are one with God and every other man, all judging stops. Oneness only is felt in the Kingdom of God. There can be no separative action anymore, (no labelling, no differentiation) only love, joy and trust that each brother and sister also will find their way home.

          • rogereolson

            Ironically, however, you seem to be judging those of us who disagree! Show me one passage of Scripture that says the kingdom of God is “within” people generally. Scripture nowhere says or implies such.

          • Gun

            I cannot see that I am judging anybody. On the contrary. After what happened to me I started feeling that I can accept everyone, knowing that every man is just where he is on his/her way back home. The greatest hindrance are the doctrines, as they make us feel that we must follow other people. But the fact is that we must become our own authority as Jesus had, because it all can be found in our heart. That is what Jesus meant by saying that we, like him must be the light of the world.
            We are all made in the image of God and when our consciousness is awakened we get a different insight as before. You would not therefore want to judge anyone who also is a part of you. Therefore Jesus could say with the whole of his heart: Father forgive them, they do not (yet) know what they are doing. Therefore the Kingdom of God is in us but it must be awakened by our own eager longing for it to happen. And then we must first throw away every belief and be empty, open to let the light in.
            I said: Father let me know what life is all about. But everyone has question of his/her own.

          • rogereolson

            I didn’t say you were judging; I said you, too, like everyone else, have a doctrine. There’s no escaping it. Doctrine is what you believe is true.

          • Gun

            You wrote: “you seem to be judging those of us who disagree”. You have said very little of what you disagree about, but you have offered some boxes. I need none of them. By observing and finding out the fact that doctrines always separate man and man we drop them. I know for sure that it was not the intent of Jesus that the message he wanted to convey, should be separating but instead uniting men. By finding the inner light showing the fact that we are all one, the idea of separation is gone. There can be no oneness in organized religions creating hundreds of small boxes, where men are putting themselves and others. There is free will to do so, but is there no longing for enlightning how to stop such separative actions?

          • rogereolson

            Matthew 10:34 is probably best translated “I have come not to bring unity but division.” Jesus doesn’t strike me as someone who thought we should all just put aside our differences and have a big group hug. His words to the legalists of his day were sharp and divisive.

          • Gun

            You wrote: “you seem to be judging those of us who disagree”. You have said very little of what you disagree about, but you have offered some boxes. I need none of them. By observing and finding out the fact, that doctrines always separate men, we drop them. I know for sure that it was not the intent of Jesus that the message he wanted to convey, should be separating but instead uniting men. By finding the inner light showing the fact that we are all one, the idea of separation is gone. There can be no oneness in organized religions creating hundreds of small boxes, where men are putting themselves and others. There is free will to do so, but is there no longing for enlightning regarding how to stop such separative actions?

          • Gun

            Once again:
            The only need, the only key for everyone is opening to the light and love within.

            The state of knowing this fact is no belief but an insight got by using that key.

            A warm hug, God bless you!

          • rogereolson

            But your statement that “The only need, the only key…” is a doctrine whether you call it that or not.

  • J.E. Edwards

    “…without the influence of the Holy Spirit it is impossible to understand the Bible.” (quote from above) This is ultimately true. For sure the Bible is black ink on white paper like any other book, except it is the only book inspired by the Holy Spirit. Even David asked God to open his eyes so that he could behold wonderful things from it. (Ps. 119:18) If he needed God to do this certainly we do. Jesus did this for his very own disciples in Luke 24:45. Prov. 3:5 says not to lean on our own understanding. Someone could say that those passages do not necessarily imply that this is always the case. That’s a really poor answer. The Holy Spirit definitely works through the human mind, but the human mind minus the Holy Spirit will only get so far in understanding and believing the Scriptures.

    • J.E. Edwards

      Side note: I meant to also add, that when we speak of the human condition we are saying and meaning different things.

      • rogereolson

        As I have explained so much already, I don’t see how that is so.


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