Recently, Church Leaders published a troubling blog post from Brian Jones titled, The Ridiculous Emphasis Christians Place on the Bible. The essential thrust of the post is summed up nicely in the title, though he offers several reasons as to why he makes this argument. The idea being that we have strayed far from the intent of Christianity in that we assume being a Christian means we must “…have a relationship with the Bible instead of the risen Jesus.”
How has the church come to this conclusion? In summary, Jones argues:
We assume the New Testament was plopped down from on high in a compendium rather than coming to a complete canon in 367 A.D., when Athanasius finally graced us with the 27 New Testament books we currently have. He delves a wee bit further into the church’s historic stride to draw out his main point: It is highly unlikely that any common lay-person owned their own copy of the completed canon in the early church unless they were wealthy enough to afford one or privileged enough to be literate.
Therefore, we place a ridiculous amount of emphasis on studying the Bible today – far more than the early church did. He then asks the logically consistent question, “What if one of the reasons we’re so spiritually dead and the church is abysmally failing at its mission is not because we study the Bible too little, but too much?” It is within this context that he draws the argument to a close in asking a series of pithy questions, leading up to the conclusion that faithfully studying the Scriptures can lead one to neglect application of the Scriptures due to some measure of moralistic-therapeutic deism wherein the faithful Bible reader soothes their conscience by tacking off the “to-do” list in their reading plan.
While it is entirely possible that one read the Scriptures regularly and miss the point (see John 5:39), I know of no faithful expositor or church goer that believes they should be reading the Bible without obeying its contents. Any preacher/teacher worth their salt will continually call their flock to examine themselves in light of the Scripture’s teachings so that they will abide in obedience. While there are many would-be preachers in the Western world ill-equipped to the task, this is indicative of a failure to take the Scriptures seriously enough. It presents a stark opposition to the message of Brian Jones.
Several recent polls from Barna and LifeWay have statistically shown people’s opinions on the Bible have changed. Even in the midst of unprecedented access to the Scriptures, professing Christians are less likely to read their bibles than ever before and many that do embrace heretical teachings condemned long ago. When asked to rate the statement, “Good works result in going to heaven,” nearly 3/4 of the people surveyed answered other than “strongly disagree” even though the Bible explicitly teaches that salvation is apart from works. If this were not enough, here are some alarming stats to go along with it:
- 76% of people surveyed believe the Bible discourages Prostitution.
- 63% believe the Bible discourages pornography.
- 59% believe it discourages slavery.
- 56% read the bible less than four times in a year (32% didn’t read it at all); 52% listened to the Scriptures less than four times in a year (25% didn’t listen at all).
- 30% felt they never have enough time to read the Scriptures, while only half who actually do gave meaningful consideration of how the text applies to their life.
- 78% of people surveyed, in some capacity, believe the Bible, Koran, and the book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths (17% agree strongly; 39% agree somewhat; 21% disagree somewhat).
This too, seems in stark opposition to what he suggests. Nothing quite suggests piety and devotion to honoring God and being a “sold-out, fully devout, and willing to die a martyr’s death, follower of Jesus” than believing heresy and capitulating on basic, moral principles… It would seem that many are not fundamentally, “…consumed with it…obsess[ing] over its details…(cue the obligatory knock against expositional study) study[ing] its root words and the historical data underpinning every sentence, every chapter, and every book…” (Emphasis mine). Contrary to the opinion of Jones, a lack of emphasis on the Bible has been the problem all along. People don’t obey what they don’t read or believe.
Sadly, Jones also uses a faulty historical argument to draw the faulty conclusion that Christians place too much emphasis on studying Scripture. Not only is there convincing evidence from Michael J. Kruger that around 250 A.D. Origen compiled a list of the 27 New Testament books we know today (an even earlier date than Athanasius’ compilation), the criteria for determining canonization is not solely relegated to who compiled what lists. Instead, scholars generally propose six criteria when it comes to canonization:
- The literature was written by a recognized prophet or apostle.
- It was written by those associated with a recognized prophet or apostle.
- It was deemed to be truthful in all its contents.
- It was in complete harmony with previously recognized canonical writings.
- It was confirmed by Christ or another canonized writing.
- And finally – it was recognized as authoritative within the early church and found circulation among them.
Secondly, this misleading depiction reduces the primacy placed upon the Scripture’s prominence within the early church. It is not as if the apostles gathered the church so they could sing sweet songs of nothing into their ears; the foundation of the church was set upon faithful proclamation of the revelation of God. The apostle John wrote his gospel with the express purpose of the reader’s belief (John 20:31; 1 John 5:13); Luke wrote to Theophilus so that he would know the exact truth of what the “…eyewitnesses and servants of the Word…” handed down to the church (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2). If one looks elsewhere within the New Testament, several other purpose statements arise as the biblical authors seeks to address the given needs of the church community.
While it is true that many would not own personal copies of Scripture in this time, a historical study would also reveal that churches didn’t meet just once a week. The Didache, in accordance with Acts 2:46-47, even shows they often met on a daily basis – sometimes multiple times in a day. It would be conjecture to deduce every meeting was always accompanied by oratory proclamation of the Scriptures, it nonetheless serves to demonstrate the point. During the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and in the lives of other notable preachers in recent history (i.e. Charles Spurgeon), sermons were also heard multiple times a week, if not daily in some cases.
Yet all of this, thus far, is secondary evidence at best. The ultimate question, though not surprisingly missing from Brian Jones’ post, is what do the Scriptures teach on the matter?
Resoundingly, the Biblical case is clear that there was an emphasis on regular, studious application of the text being well-pleasing to God. The things revealed by God belong to us and our children forever, so that we may observe it (Deut. 29:29). Christ revealed that the Scriptures testify of Himself, from Genesis to Revelation (John 5:39; Luke 24:25-27). The Bereans were considered noble-minded for their diligent study of the Scriptures in seeking to approve the Apostle Paul’s message (Acts 17:11). Even Solomon gives us the simple principle that it is the glory of kings to search out a matter (Pro. 25:2). Why? Because the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge are unsurpassable and lead to praise (Psalm 119; Romans 11:33-36). Those pesky psalmists in Psalm 119 surely placed a ridiculous emphasis on the Scriptures…
The reality painted time and again within the Scriptures, the early church, and the historic church – is what Jones would likely classify as a ridiculous emphasis on the Scriptures, yet it actually had the reverse outcome of what he suggests. The early ecumenical councils safeguarded the church from heretical teachings; the Patristics gave a wealth of resources for us to read today. The Medieval Period produced some of the most influential philosophers and biblical thinkers; say what you will about Aquinas – but his nickname did not indicate stupidity.
The Reformers produced a wealth of biblical commentary and brought the gospel out of the trenches of the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans surely expressed a breathtaking amount of emotional and theological depth. The modern age has also played host to some incredibly brilliant and devoted, studious men and women, contributing to the church’s depth.
Guess what has been central to them all? The Word of God; both the Incarnate Word and the Word as revealed in the Scriptures.