But exactly how reading Scripture relates to following Jesus, how we should think about the Bible in relation to Jesus and Jesus in relation to the Bible, is a matter of some dispute. Evangelicals in particular are often accused of "bibliolatry," worshiping the Bible instead of God. Indeed, for some evangelicals this is a hard question: If you had to choose, which would you rather have: the Bible or Jesus?
Here's a proposition: "Scripture is prior to (though not always necessary for) knowledge of Jesus, but Jesus is primary in relation to Scripture."
Let me unpack that a bit.
"Scripture is prior to knowledge of Jesus." The Bible is the divinely inspired written witness to Jesus, and through Scripture one comes to knowledge of and faith in Jesus. Jesus is the one attested by "Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44), whose death and resurrection are "according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3-4), in whom the inspired Scriptures can make one "wise for salvation" (2 Tim 3:15-17). The Old Testament prepares for Jesus; the New Testament presents Jesus. The Old Testament tells a story in search of an ending; the New Testament provides an ending for that story in Jesus. Together, the Old and New Testaments are an authoritative written witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.
"But Scripture is not always necessary for knowledge of Jesus." Don't get me wrong here: as I've just said and I'll say again, we need Scripture to witness to Jesus, to make sense of Jesus properly. However, Scripture cannot be exclusively necessary for all knowledge of Jesus. If it were, at least in its full canonical shape, there could have been no knowledge of Jesus prior to the completion of the New Testament writings and the widespread use of all twenty-seven writings as authoritative. No one before at least the fourth century could have known of Jesus. If Scripture were necessary, at least for a basic personal knowledge of Jesus, one could not account for a common phenomenon: it seems most people do not come to a knowledge of Jesus or faith in him directly through the Bible but as mediated through people, through not only their speech but also their actions. The Church historic and universal, indwelt by the Spirit, is as much a witness to Jesus as the Scriptures, inspired by the Spirit. The Scriptures are our final authority for belief about Jesus, but they are not our only authority.
"Jesus himself is primary in relation to Scripture." This must be the case, for one simple reason: as Christians we believe Jesus is God; the Bible is not God. How can God's works be equal to or greater than God himself? The Triune God creates, sustains, rules, and saves; the Bible is a witness to this work of God and can be an instrument in the outworking of God's sovereignty and salvation, but the Bible is not Creator, Sustainer, Lord, and Saviour.
In practice, there is a "hermeneutical circle" that takes place between Scripture and Jesus—yet even here Jesus is primary, for Jesus is the entry point into that circle. It is Jesus himself, and particularly the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, that sparked early Christian theological reflection. Distinctively Christian theology did not develop primarily through reading Scripture, but because Jesus lived, taught, healed, was crucified, and was resurrected from the dead. The Scriptures were then read in light of these "Christ events," and the Christ events were further understood in light of Scripture, prompting a never-ending spiral of mutual interpretation that is at the heart of Christian theology. The same thing still happens today, as Jesus is made known through the proclamation of the gospel, and then by his Spirit sparks Christian theological reflection and Christian reading of Scripture, in turn leading to a greater knowledge of him. But Jesus himself was and is the impetus and centre for all Christian reading of Scripture and all Christian theology and practice.
Of course, as I asserted above, the New Testament pervasively presents Jesus as "the one to whom the Scriptures testify." But even this sort of assertion makes a distinction between the Scriptures as witnesses to Jesus and Jesus himself as the one to whom they witness. In other words, Jesus is presented as greater than Scripture, in that he is its goal, its telos.
Some New Testament texts present these ideas in even sharper focus. Take these two, for example, which every evangelical should commit to mind and heart:
- "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me [Jesus], yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:39-40)
- "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe." (Heb 1:1-2)
There is thus a profound distinction that must be made between Jesus and Scripture. Recognizing this does not create a "Jesus or the Bible" dichotomy, nor does it diminish the importance of Scripture. Rather it helps us place Scripture in its proper place within the totality of God's revelation of himself, a divine revelation whose pinnacle is Jesus.
I started with a proposition; let me finish with a summary statement:
The foundation of our faith and of the Church is Jesus Christ, not Scripture. The ultimate revelation of God is Jesus Christ, not Scripture. The written Word of God (inspired Scripture) is the primary witness of the Spirit to the spoken Word of God (the gospel of Jesus Christ) and the living Word of God (Jesus Christ himself), and it is in him, not Scripture, that all the facets of salvation find their source and every dimension of truly Christian theology and ethics is measured.This is a modified version of a post that appeared on my previous blog, the stuff of earth, on March 28, 2008.