For several years, Brian McLaren has been challenging evangelicals with a ‘new kind of Christianity’. In conversation with Andrew Wilson, he explains why we shouldn’t...
At a time when the authority of the Bible is increasingly questioned, Andrew Wilson says we should follow Jesus’ example when reading the scriptures.
Christianity is all about Jesus. As Christians, we always want our lives, our words and our beliefs to line up with what Jesus said and did. So when it comes to forming a view of scripture, the best place to start is not with contemporary culture, modernist foundations or the postmodern rejection of authority (although we have to think these things through eventually). The best place to start is with Jesus’ view of scripture.
That’s what I’ve tried to do in Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said About the Word of God. The Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus quotes, explains, talks about and challenges people with the scriptures, which paint a remarkable picture. In the book I take 11 of these stories and explore the view of the Bible held by
RED AND BLACK LETTERS
When Jesus is tempted by the devil in Matthew 4:1-10, he responds three times with the phrase ‘It is written’, followed by a quotation from the Bible. This forms an interesting contrast with Eve, who was bamboozled and led into sin by the question, ‘Did God really say…?’ (Genesis 3:1).
When Jesus quotes Psalm 110 in Mark 12:35-37, he attributes it to ‘David…in the Holy Spirit’, revealing both the human (David) and divine (the Holy Spirit) aspects of biblical authorship. He regards the scriptures as sufficient to prompt repentance (Luke 16:31), as fulfilled in his life and ministry (Matthew 5:17-20), and as truthful, even when they are describing scary acts of divine judgement (Luke 17:22-37). In one fascinating story, he describes the scriptures as ‘the word of God’, which ‘cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).
The red letters, in other words, repeatedly affirm the black ones: as inspired; as truthful; as God’s unbreakable word.
THE BIBLE ISN’T TO BLAME
None of this means that people always interpret the Bible properly. In one debate with his opponents, Jesus accuses them of trying to get eternal life from the scriptures rather than from Jesus himself, to whom the scriptures all testify (John 5:39-40). In another, he shows how people can get in a muddle if they ‘do not know the Scriptures or the power of God’ (Matthew 22:29). They can end up thinking that Jesus is teaching something that contradicts the Torah, when he isn’t.
Even his followers sometimes get in a hopeless tangle with his teachings, because they are blinded, ignorant, defiant or just a bit dim (Matthew 16:9-11,23; Luke 24:25-26). But notice: Jesus never says that this happens because the Bible is flawed. He says it happens because we are.
WE DON’T FIND EVEN A HINT THAT JESUS THINKS THE WORD OF GOD CAN BE CORRECTED
‘You’ve made void the word of God by the tradition that you’ve handed down,’ he tells the Pharisees in Mark 7:13. As he drives people from the temple in Matthew 21:13, he exclaims: ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a “den of robbers”’ (ESV). In these stories and many others, Jesus identifies the problem squarely with the people, not with the text. Throughout history, we have added things to the Bible (like the Pharisees) and taken things away (like the temple traders). But that’s our problem, not the Bible’s.
THE MISSING OPTION
That’s why I disagree so strongly with Brian McLaren when he says, ‘We want something greater than infallibility: we want corrigibility, something that is able to be corrected.’ When we read the Gospels, we don’t find even a hint that Jesus thinks the word of God can be corrected, or adjusted, by his disciples. (Nor was Paul ‘correcting’ Leviticus, in my opinion, but that’s another story.) Quite the opposite, actually: the disciples’ misunderstandings come because there’s a problem with them, not because there’s a problem with scripture. The difference is enormous.
Post-evangelicals often present the options as (1) an infallible Bible and an infallible Church, or (2) a correctable Bible and a correctable Church. But if we were to present these options to Jesus or Paul or Moses – or Gregory, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon and the rest – I suspect they would splutter in astonishment and tell us about option (3): an infallible Bible, and a correctable Church. That, surely, is the way to preserve divine authority and human humility; a word from God that never fails, and people that frequently do.
CORRECTED BY SCRIPTURE
Many of the failings of the Church, of course, are easy to see. Crusades and conquistadors, inquisitions and indulgences, pogroms and plantations: hopefully nobody needs convincing that Christians haven’t always followed Jesus as we should. But alongside these failures we should notice two other things.
Firstly, travesties like this did not emerge because people were honouring the Bible too much, but too little (and in many cases, because the Bible was hardly read at all). And secondly, when change came, it came through the work of Bible-reading, Bible-believing, Bible-honouring men and women; people who were convinced, like Jesus, that while God’s people are always broken, his words never are. As such, the best way of protecting ourselves from twisting the Bible to fit our agendas, which is always a danger, is not to continually try to correct it, but to continually seek to be corrected by it.
Jesus, as always, is at the centre of Christianity. So if we are confused about something – like how we should view the Bible in a generation that dislikes authority, for instance – we can turn to him. My hope is to describe a Jesus-based theology of scripture, exploring its authority, inspiration, coherence, canon, clarity and even its dangers. But if all that sounds complex, simply open your Bible.
TRUE LIKE JAZZ
Consider a jazz musician who can play all sorts of different instruments. Nobody, listening to Louis Armstrong, would ask whether the music was being made by Louis or his trumpet; everybody knows that the breath and the tune come from Louis, but the instrument through which the breath passes, in order to become audible, is the trumpet. The Bible writers, if you like, are the instruments of revelation – a trumpet here, an oboe there, a saxophone here – and they all make different sounds. But the musician, the skilled artist who fills them all with his breath and ensures the tune is played correctly, is the Holy Spirit. That’s kind of how inspiration works.