Okay, did you hear that? That was me fulfilling a vow that I never quite got around to making. I thought about making the vow, but I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat, and I was afraid that if I made the vow, I’d be too much of a coward to actually fulfill it. So I never made it. After all, you’re supposed to keep your vows. But maybe a scream in print, which is what I just did, is kind of like fulfilling a vow you intended to make but never did. Perhaps.
So, here’s the story. Several years ago, I heard someone say in a public lecture that they believed the gospel that Jesus preached, but not the gospel that Paul preached. This was the umpteenth time I had heard something like that, this attempt to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul. So I almost made a vow, right then and there, that the next time I heard somebody say something like that in a public setting, I would immediately stand up, and let out a loud groan, or a scream like a banshee or an angry chicken, and then sit right back down again, calmly, as if nothing had ever happened. Like I said, I didn’t made the vow, because I knew I wouldn’t follow through on it, because, I’m like, you know, a coward.
However, over the past few years, I added another almost-vow to my list of almost-vows. And it was along the same lines. This time the almost-vow had to do with driving a wedge between Jesus and the Bible. You’ve heard people say things like this, right? “I worship Jesus, not the Bible.” Or, “I don’t follow the Bible, I follow Jesus.” Or, incredibly, “Jesus is the word of God, not the Bible.” So I made an almost-vow for this one as well, identical to the one I almost made for the Jesus/Paul wedge. The next time I heard someone say something like this in a public setting, I would stand up, let out a load groan, or a scream like a banshee or an angry chicken, and then sit right back down again, calmly as if nothing had ever happened. But I never actually made the vow.
Well, I heard it again this morning. I didn’t actually hear it; it was on a blog. It went like this:
I came to the realization that Jesus, not the Bible, is the foundation and center and standard and goal of genuine Christian faith and life.
What an incredibly naïve and uninformed thing to say (I actually have some other choice adjectives, but I’m too timid to use them).
Consider the following:
Sweetheart, I love you an awful lot. But I really don’t care all that much about the things you say, or all those love letters you wrote me.
Boss, I’ve got total respect for you. But I really don’t need all your memos and directives about how I’m supposed to do my job.
Hey, Prof, I think you’re an absolutely awesome teacher, but I could really do without your lectures and assignments.
I have great appreciation for you, officer, but I really don’t need all these laws you keep talking about. By the way, is this ticket you gave me anything I need to pay attention to?
Hey, Jesus, I love you, and worship you, and adore you. You’re the foundation of my genuine Christian life. But the things you said through your prophets and apostles; well, they just aren’t that big a deal for me. I like you a lot, I’m just not that crazy about all the things you said through your prophets and apostles by your Holy Spirit.
I have already written in other blog posts about how the word of God (Scripture) and the Word of God (Jesus) cannot be dichotomized, and I won’t repeat that in this blog post. See here and here, and here. But, I’ll just reiterate in this post that the attempted dichotomy is one that Jesus did not authorize and would not recognize—this Jesus who built his church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20; the prophets here are probably New Testament prophets; but I think the point still holds).
So, I’ve decided to let out a silent scream in this blog post. You see, I’m courageous in print, but less so in an actual public setting. In fact, as I write this, I realize now that I have a bit of affinity with the Apostle Paul, whom the Corinthians called “timid” in person, but “bold” in his letters (2 Corinthians 10:1). Oh well, maybe I’ll eventually muster up the courage to make the vow and carry it out. But until then, a silent scream will have to do.
July 2, 2014
Hi, Jerry. It’s me, Michael. Michael Pahl. You know, the one who said those “naïve and uninformed” words?
I’m disappointed in your response, Jerry. In part that’s because we’ve known each other for some time. You could send me an email and offer your critique that way. Or you could even push back in the comments on the blog itself, maybe with a, “Do you really mean what I think you mean?” But no, you’ve chosen to do it this way. So I’m commenting here in response—I hope you choose to publish this comment, or even to change or remove your post.
That’s because I’m also disappointed that you have taken these words out of their context, making a caricature of them. If you had read the next sentence, you would have read this—“paradoxically, the Bible matters less even as it matters all the more”—and maybe that would have been a signal that I don’t think we can get at Jesus fully or reliably without the Bible. Maybe that would have even prompted you to read everything that had come before, in which I describe how reading the Bible in large sections, reading biblical passages in their larger biblical context, is what drove me to Jesus. Clearly I believe the Bible is important, even absolutely vital—the question is how, in what way, this is so.
I wonder if you would do the same thing with these words: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11)? Or these: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb 1:1-2)? Or that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3)? Or texts like John 1:14-18, or 5:39-40, or Colossians 1:15-18, or many others like them? (Even your Ephesians 2 text describes “Christ Jesus himself” as the “cornerstone.”)
Would you also take them to task for their theological imprecision, saying, “How naïve and uninformed! Of course there is no foundation for the Church other than Jesus Christ, but we need Scripture to know about Jesus! Of course in these last days God has spoken by a Son, but we need Scripture to know about this Son! Of course all wisdom and knowledge is found in Christ, but we need Scripture to know about Christ!”
Somehow I doubt it. No, you’ll give John and Paul the benefit of the doubt, and you’ll read them charitably. You’ll even just read them in context.
I’ve chosen to believe that you have simply taken my words out of context in one of those visceral reactions we have to those “triggers” for things that really get on our nerves. I’m sure you haven’t done so deliberately.
I’ve also chosen to believe that we are probably closer to each other on this than your post lets on, that you don’t really think that Jesus and the Bible are of equal priority theologically or ontologically. Because if you did, that would truly be naïve and uninformed, or worse.
P.S. If you do publish this comment, others might find it helpful to read the full text of what I said: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2014/07/aha-moments-biblical-scholars-tell-their-stories-4-michael-pahl/
Hey, Michael. Thank you very much for contacting me and making this response. I have been meaning to reply to you before now, but just haven’t had the time. So, I thought I better at least do this much. I’ll try to get back to you by tomorrow night with a fuller reply. But for now, let me just apologize for offending you; it really wasn’t my intention to do so. So, my sincerest apologies, brother. Fuller reply coming tomorrow. Blessings, Jerry.
Okay, I’m finally getting back to you with the promised longer reply.
(1) First, I again apologize for the offence I caused. I did not mean to, and this is why I simply quoted the statement in my blog post, without attributing it to you. I have a comparatively small readership, and did not think the post would circulate enough to get back to you. My complaint was with the statement as representative of a type, and not with you personally. But, again, I apologize.
(2) However, my charge still stands. I’ll back off a bit from “naïve” and “uninformed” and replace them with “not very well thought through” and “misleading.” And beyond this, I would even go so far as to say “dangerous.”
(3) I neither think that I quoted you out of context, nor that I made a caricature out of the quote. Indeed, it was this quote, abstracted from the rest of the article, that I first saw on Facebook. And I know that some of the individuals who have either shared or reposted your article do not have very high views of Scripture, and this kind of statement simply confirms them in that low view. I know that we cannot be held responsible for how people run off with our statements in directions that we did not intend and would not agree with (a la Rom 6:1); but that does not lessen our responsibility to make it hard for them to do so. And I think this kind of statement encourages misuse. What, at least a few people, will take away from a statement like this is that there is a dichotomy between Christ and the Bible such that we can now come to an understanding of who Christ is that may be different from the one presented by the Bible.
(4) And that next sentence really does not help things. You refer to the paradox of how the Bible “matters less even as it matters all the more.” I’m all for seeing paradox where paradox exists, but I don’t think one exists here. How does the Bible matter less? You explained in the article how you came to a re-evaluation of things you were taught the Bible says, such that you no longer believed it really says those things. And that’s perfectly fine. But how does this make the Bible matter less? Because the Bible is the word of Christ, I myself cannot imagine any way in which the Bible matters less. In your response to my post, you talked about how the Bible is “important, even absolutely vital.” But how does this then translate into “non-foundational,” or “mattering less”?
(5) You ask why I might give the benefit of the doubt to the authors of a number of passages where Christ is referred to as the foundation, and not take them to task for their theological imprecision, but not extend to you the same charity. The answer to this is pretty simple. In none of those passages are the authors being theologically imprecise. And none of them attempt to introduce a dichotomy between the person of Christ and the activity of Christ in speaking to us in his holy Scripture. I find it unthinkable that they would have had the thought in their minds. The passage that perhaps comes the closest to this would be Heb 1:1-2; but it does not do so. It draws a contrast between how God spoke through the prophets and how God has spoken through Christ now, but this is a matter of methodology, and not content, as the rest of the book of Hebrews clearly shows. Numbers 12 sets up this contrast between the prophets who received the word of the Lord by vision, dream, and riddle, versus Jesus, the prophet like Moses, who even goes beyond Moses as the Son over God’s house, the one who truly sees God face-to-face, the exact representation of the Father. But this, in no way, diminishes the foundational importance of the Old Testament. And, of course, it in no way draws a contrast between Christ and the revelation that comes in the pages of the New Testament. Again, I find it unthinkable that any NT author would have ever have said anything like, “Christ is our foundation, not Scripture.”
(6) And the reason they would not have drawn this dichotomy is that they regarded Scripture, not simply as word about Christ, but word of Christ. That the person of Christ could be the foundation of our faith, in some way abstracted from what he said and did—I don’t see any NT author thinking in this way; it would not have occurred to them. So, my problem with the statement of yours that I quoted is not that it is theologically imprecise; rather, it’s that I can’t make any sense out of it all. Further, my concern is not so much that this kind of statement undermines the authority of Scripture as that it undermines the authority of Christ. Christ is Lord of Scripture, the Canon behind the canonical Scripture; and in some way, I suppose this formally corresponds to the statement I’ve taken exception to. But only formally so. Christ is Lord and Christ is Canon, but the way he manifests himself as Lord and Canon is through the canonical Scriptures. So, on a practical level, Christ cannot be abstracted from his word.
(7) Finally, you mention that you’ve chosen to believe that I “don’t really think Jesus and the Bible are of equal priority theologically or ontologically.” However, there is a problem here in that you have changed the discussion from one about the foundation of our faith to one of ontology. Of course, there is an ontological priority of Jesus over the Bible. But theologically and foundationally? The “thatness” of Jesus Christ is not foundational for my faith. What is foundational is Jesus Christ through what he has said and done. The psalmist does not say that he loves God because of his ontological goodness, but because, when he cried out to God, God rescued him and saved him. This is why I think it is nonsense to make a dichotomy between the person of Christ and the saving and revelatory activity of Christ. I love the Jesus who died for me. I love the Jesus who has spoken to me through his word. I don’t know of any other Jesus.
Your response was somewhat encouraging with regard to the level of importance you attach to the Bible. But what I get from both your response and the article is that the Bible is important to you because it is testimony about Christ: “we need Scripture to know about Jesus”; “we need Scripture to know about this Son”; “we need to Scripture to know about Christ.” But for me, Scripture is not simply about Christ; Scripture is by Christ, and, therefore, cannot be abstracted from him.
I’ll look forward to seeing your reply should you choose to do so. Blessings.
Hi, Jerry. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Apology accepted, by the way. I’ll take “not very well thought through” and “misleading” and even “dangerous” any day over “naïve” and “uninformed.” 🙂
I’m curious about your idea that the NT authors saw the Scriptures as a “word of Christ.” Clearly they saw them as a “word about Christ” – that we can agree on, with the NT’s abundance of “witness/testify,” “fulfil,” “in accordance with,” etc. language connecting the Jewish Scriptures to Christ. But “word of Christ”? The closest I can think of to this is 1 Peter 1:11, where it says “the Spirit of Christ in [the prophets] was pointing” to the sufferings and glory of Christ.
The NT “word of Christ” language refers not to Scripture but to the orally proclaimed message about Christ crucified and risen, i.e. the gospel. In fact, most of the “word of x” (of God, of the Lord, of truth, of grace, etc.) language in the NT refers not to Scripture but to the orally proclaimed gospel message. The apostles took up the OT language which most often referred to prophetic oracles (occasionally to the Law of Moses or a particular commandment, sometimes other referents), and transferred it almost exclusively to speaking about the gospel – probably because they saw the gospel as the final “prophetic word” for the world.
There are a few ambiguous uses of “word of x” language in the NT, but most of these are still best understood as referring to the gospel message. Occasionally that language is used to refer specific Scriptural commands or promises, but never clearly to Scripture conceived of as a whole. Hebrews 4:12 is probably the best candidate for this, but even that’s not clear. And then of course there is the distinctive “word/word of God” language to refer to Jesus in John’s Gospel – quite provocative given all these other uses, given the “Word became flesh” of John 1:14, and given the contrasts and comparisons John makes between the Law/Scripture and Christ (John 1:17-18 and 5:39-40 – no, Heb 1:1-2 is not the only passage that makes some such form of contrast/comparison).
By the way, if you’re interested you can see the results of some of my work on the NT “word” language in my JSNT article here, or you can find more in-depth discussion in my LNTS book here. Not really “naïve and uninformed,” or even “not very well thought through,” if I do say so myself. 🙂
In any case, your notion of Scripture as a “word of Christ” isn’t really supported by the language of the NT, and, it seems to me, not really by the underlying theology of the NT either. I realize that’s been one perspective historically, but it’s not really borne out by the biblical text itself. Even the now-common language of “word of God” as a way of describing Scripture conceived of as a whole is scarce in the NT, if present at all.
Rather, the NT itself points to the perspective I am advocating: Scripture functions as the God-breathed prophetic and apostolic written witness to the crucified and resurrected Jesus (OT anticipating, NT proclaiming), who in turn becomes the lens through which we read Scripture, and who as the living Christ is the centre of the gospel, the source of our salvation, the foundation and head of the Church, the Lord to whom we submit, and thus the norm for our theology and ethics.
Hi Michael. Thanks for the reply. I’m going to be fairly busy the next two or three days, but just a real quick response. There are two articles/posts I provided links to in the original post. They are entitled “Christ as Hermeneutical Criterion,” Parts 1 and 2. If you check these out, you’ll see my reasoning (not must mine by any means) as to why I regard OT and NT as “word of Christ.” The second of these two posts deals with the 1 Peter passage you mentioned. The first one deals with the NT via the upper room discourse. I’ll look forward to reading your articles as soon as I can. Also, for some reason, your last post came through as needing moderation; I’m not sure why, but sorry for it’s not showing up right away. Thanks, and blessings.