At the heart of the dialogue between Progressive Christians and Evangelicals is a question about how we ought to interpret scripture. That question breaks down into several others – what are scriptures in the first place? Does the Bible teach that those works identified as scripture are inerrant (without error)? Why are there different versions of the Canon? I’m going to keep it simple – if Jesus is our perfect example, we should treat the scriptures as he did.
Jesus Revered the Hebrew Scriptures
It is clear that Jesus greatly valued the scriptures available to him, which would have been Hebrew works we now consider to be part of the Old Testament. He quoted them often, interpreting them through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At the age of 12 he was found debating with his elders at the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem; to announce the commencement of his ministry, he quoted Isaiah 61; when tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he used scripture to send the enemy packing. There’s no getting around it – Jesus saw the scriptures as essential to a life of faith, interpreted them through the insight of the Holy Spirit, and kept them close to his heart each and every day.
That said, he didn’t treat scripture as many modern day Christians do, considering them to be beyond reinterpretation or question. His use of scripture can be split into two categories – applying the Hebrew Law and interpreting the Prophets. When it came to the prophets, he was reliant on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, just as we are today – until the Holy Spirit reveals the meaning of a passage to our hearts, it is just a collection of words.
A Complex Relationship with the Hebrew Law
Jesus’ approach to the Hebrew Law was markedly different. As Paul taught in Romans 7, the purpose of the Law was to make people realise they could not attain perfect righteousness by their own efforts, causing them to turn to God and receive grace instead. Romans 7:13:
Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognised as sin, it used what is good [the Law] to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
The Law’s single purpose is to set a standard none of us can reach, so that we accept our need for grace and embrace the gift of righteousness through Christ. For those wanting to explore this further, I’ve written on the subject in a previous article. In this sense, the Law was both a trap and a mirror, and though Jesus insisted that the Law would remain until its purpose was fulfilled (to turn us to grace), he didn’t attempt to live by it. In fact, he scrawled all over it with his words and deeds.
In Matthew 5, Jesus instructed the gathered crowd to disregard the strictures of the Law and embrace a new measure of righteousness. Matthew 5:38-45:
‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’
Jesus was forbidden by the Law to commune with Samaritans, and yet he met and ministered to a Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.
In John chapter 8, religious hypocrites dragged a woman caught in adultery before him, demanding that she be stoned to death (which was the righteous course of action, according to the Law). Jesus evaded their trap, saved her from execution, and refused to condemn her. He turned the Law on its head, refusing to obey it. John 8:2-7:
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
‘No one, sir,’ she said.
‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’
Of particular interest is a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Sabbath. Mark 2:23-28:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’
He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’
Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’
Jesus not only directly disobeyed the Hebrew Law, but used a scriptural story as a basis for why he was doing so. He let the Holy Spirit be his guide and reset the whole agenda for understanding and living by the Hebrew Law. When asked which were the most important commandments, Jesus boiled everything down to love. Mark 12:29-32:
‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’
Let’s not pretend that these were slight reinterpretations. We cannot read the Gospels honestly without accepting that Jesus broke, reinterpreted, and overrode the Law as part of his teaching and ministry. I have to conclude then that though Jesus loved the scriptures, meditated on them, memorised them, and quoted them, he did not see Old Testament writings as inerrant in the way that many modern Christians do. The notion of Biblical inerrancy was not preached or even perceived in Biblical times, nor for the majority of church history. Many are surprised to discover that it is a relatively modern invention, concocted in the USA in the 19th century and further consolidated in the 20th. We do not have to believe or think this way – Jesus didn’t (and therefore doesn’t)!
What about the New Testament?
The early church didn’t have a full canon of scripture to draw from for hundreds of years after Jesus’ ascension. They had letters, Gospels, prophecies, and Old Testament scriptures to draw from, but there was no real consensus over which works were scripture and which were not. In the 4th century, the Council of Rome canonised the Bible, including books that Protestant denominations do not study or consider scripture today. During the reformation, key figures such as Martin Luther disagreed on which books ought to be in the Bible. Currently, there are numerous versions of the ‘final’ canon of scripture, depending on which expression of Christianity is followed.
This kind of talk would have horrified the teachers of my youth, but I can’t see a cause for alarm if we have the Holy Spirit to lead us into all the truth. Just as Jesus himself relied on the Spirit to connect the dots and draw together a Gospel narrative, we are called to walk closely with the Lord and ask him to illuminate out minds and hearts through the scriptures. Personally I adore the books of the Bible, and spend much time in the presence of God, meditating in them. What strength they contain! What liberty! What love!
How should believers treat the scriptures today?
I believe we are called to walk exactly as Jesus did – to love the scriptures, to meditate in them and sow them deeply into our hearts, to use them to defend ourselves against evil and temptation, and to interpret them through the revelation of the Holy Spirit. The question of inerrancy is a fallacious one – a straw man of our own making, the defence of which only confuses our understanding of the wonderful truths flowing through the books of the Bible. I believe we need to deepen our connection with the Holy Spirit, and then deepen it again, drawing from divine wisdom and focusing our efforts on love alone. We need to cast aside denominational boxes, revere the Spirit as God Almighty, and let him lead us into all the truth, as Jesus always intended.
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