One of the distinctives of people and churches who are “evangelical” has always been submission to Scripture as God’s Word. Indeed, from the beginnings of Church history, regardless of differing conceptions about how to best interpret the Bible, those who were “evangelical” consciously attempted to listen to the message of the Scripture through meditative reading, study and submission to those called to the teaching and preaching of the Word. This basic perspective has always required Christians to seek for the new in the old. That is, to look to and hear the ancient text of Scripture (old) as authoritative for the formation of their understanding of the dynamic power of God proclaimed in the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ (new).
The Apostle John seemed to be teaching this basic principle of the new in the old (with a different point of application) when he stated,
“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have heard from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2:7-8, NRSV)
Another example of this is when Paul reminds Timothy to pay careful attention to reading and studying the Scriptures which can make him wise for salvation (see 2 Timothy 3:14-15). We modern readers and biblical interpreters often overlook the fact that he is here referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Paul was reminding Timothy to never neglect the “old” even as he pressed into understanding and teaching the good news of the Lord to the churches he was leading in Ephesus. Paul valued the Scriptures because the good news was buried in the “old” and waiting for God’s people to dig into to find.
What is it then that we will find? Through most of Church history, with the exception of the modern period, Christians would unambiguously declare that it is the Person of Christ. The Patristic Fathers and the Protestant Reformers, to name just two especially important influences in Church history, emphasized this point: Scripture is primarily a testimony to the Person of the Lord Jesus. The “new” (Christ the Messiah) has broken into human society in history and confirmed the authenticity of the Scriptures by fulfilling and confirming their veracity (see John 5:39). Thus Christ himself and his testimony becomes the means to properly understand the old. This is possible when by faith we read the Bible through the eyes of the Lord himself.
One aspect of my background in evangelical circles seems relevant to this point. Having studied the broader scope of Christian thought, I think it is remarkable how recent the drive to demonstrate the historical reliability (or truthfulness) of the biblical texts with archeology, comparisons with ancient literature or to explain discrepancies has been. Prior generations of biblical interpreters were aware of historical questions and discrepancies (to be sure) but they did not sense any urgent need to explain everything in the Bible to establish its authority. The sustained attach on the credibility of the Bible in the last couple hundred years from various intellectuals has warranted some kind of credible attempt to answer—and I have read and benefited from this remarkable scholarly writing. However, I wonder if this emphasis has not also led many professing Christians (and skeptics) to not recognize the primary purpose of the testimony of Scripture.
Ignatius, whose letters were preserved from the early second century, made a remarkable statement(s) which I want to quote at length.
“I was doing my part, therefore, as a man set on unity. But God does not dwell where there is division and anger. The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if in repenting they return to the unity of God and the council of the bishop. I believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, who will free you from every bond. Moreover, I urge you to do nothing in a spirit of contentiousness, but in accordance with the teaching of Christ. For I heard some people say, ‘If I do not find it in the archives, I do not believe it in the gospel.’ And when I said to them, ‘it is written,’ they answered me, ‘That is precisely the question.’ But for me, the ‘archives’ are Jesus Christ, the inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith which comes through him; by these things I want, through your prayers, to be justified. The priests, too, were good, but the High Priest, entrusted with the Holy of Holies, is better; he alone has been entrusted with the hidden things of God, for he himself is the door of the Father, through which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets and the apostles and the church enter in. All these come together in the unity of God. But the gospel possesses something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection. For the beloved prophets preached in anticipation of him, but the gospel is the imperishable finished word. All these things together are good, if you believe with love.”[i]
Notice what Ignatius emphasized and consciously attempted to stay rooted in! The “archives” that is the Person of Christ himself. He identifies the content of what the gospels narrate about the Son of God as “the inviolable archives [which] are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith which comes through him; . . . he alone has been entrusted with the hidden things of God, for he himself is the door of the Father, through which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets and the apostles and the church enter in. All these come together in the unity of God [through Jesus Christ].”
Ignatius can rightly assess the content and the value of the Scriptures (OT) because he knows and practices faith in the Lord and knows that “the gospel possesses something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection.” We confused moderns should heed this wise example and counsel.
So much of modern theological thought and biblical interpretation, it seems to me, is actually little more than sophisticated arguing among ourselves over the meaning the biblical texts without reference to the Lord’s own teachings. This tendency in biblical studies, pioneered by German scholars, has taught us educated Christians to dissect the biblical narratives and treat them as separate literary units. So we pit Paul against Jesus, Paul against James, the Old Testament against the New Testament and the gospels one against the other. Theologians have developed different hermeneutical models that quickly become outdated because they are constructed on shifting assumptions (philosophical or cultural norms).
I grant that there is some value in a kind of comparative approach to different parts of Scripture, for that helps one to understand the unique emphasizes of the different authors. Reading the text from this vantage point has helped me see how the different human authors have testified to the truth as it is in Jesus. However, I have been able to glean such insights precisely because I did not read Scripture at the expense of interpreting the whole together.
I propose we go back to ancient practice of the Church and allow the Lord’s teaching and example be the lens by which we seek to understand the Scripture—both the first testament (Hebrew Bible) and the second (Greek writings of the Apostles). The Gospels make it possible to make sense of them both; for the Lord came not to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it! In this way, we can learn the Father’s will in much the same way that the first disciples of the Lord did.
What did Jesus model? He routinely cited and explained the meaning of the Scriptures—in the context of his own teachings. He expected the disciples to hear and interpret the Bible in light of his teaching about the Kingdom—which included his place in it as the King and their relationship to the Father through him. His own consuming aim to walk in complete obedience and to take the cross dominates the gospel narratives and his own teachings. That example became for the apostles a paradigm for what it means to be his disciple.
This emphasis is what marks evangelicals historically. This is vital to remember and to cherish. May our Lord himself never let us forget his self-sacrifice and that he suffered on our behalf as a ransom due to our sin so that we can enjoy living in the life of God! When we know this we can then appropriately discern how to handle theological and historical questions concerning Scripture. For then we will be joyfully submitted to the Holy Spirit and glad to yield our wills and minds to the Father. And the Father is delighted to give us all that we need and desire when we are fully yielded to him.
[i] Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, 8-9; cited from The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd Edition, translated by Lightfoot and Harmer & Edited and Revised by Holmes (Baker:1989), pp.108-109.