When my appointment to St Andrew’s Cathedral was announced about 18 months ago, a godly old Methodist minister wrote to me. He kindly thanked me for my ministry in Wollongong but added this note of caution: “Don’t let your boast be, ‘We are a Bible teaching church’. But rather, like St Paul... ‘We preach Christ, and him crucified’.”
Was my older Methodist colleague right? Are teaching the Bible and preaching Christ somehow alternate priorities? Does one somehow trump the other? 1 Corinthians 8:1 says we can possess knowledge on a big Bible topic like idolatry, but knowledge can puff up, while love builds up. And in 1 Corinthians 13:2 it says:
If I... can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge... but do not have love, I am nothing.
There is a warning here against pride in knowledge – even Bible knowledge. But I think that, in the end, my pastoral colleague was probably posing a false choice. Here’s my bottom line on a proper methodology for theology:
The best way to be a Jesus-preaching church is to be a Bible-teaching one. And the best way to be a Jesus-trusting Christian is to be a Bible-based one.
To see if that is so, go right to the heart of our faith: to the attitude of Jesus himself on the Scriptures!
At the start of his public ministry, Jesus said:
“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.”
(Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
Now, we need bread to live. But Jesus says we need something more to survive and thrive – we need the word of God. Scripture is live-giving.
He then teaches that Scripture proceeds from the mouth of God. It is “God-breathed”, as the Apostle Paul later says. Humans like Moses may have written it down but Jesus believes the words of Scripture come from God. What the Scriptures say, God says!
So thirdly, we don’t live by some of God’s words. No picking and choosing. We are to rely on every word that proceeds from his mouth.
And so, many times, Jesus tells those who opposed him that it’s inexcusable to set aside parts of Scripture that don’t suit their desires or beliefs.
Move next to the famous Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matt 5:17)
When Jesus came as a man, he lived a perfect life. It climaxed in his death for sins and his resurrection as Lord. That fulfils what Moses’ Law required and is what the Prophets pointed to. Therefore, his coming may change the way we learn from and apply, for example, the Old Testament laws. But Jesus adds:
“For I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18)
He’s very definite about what was written. No Plan B or evolving morality here!
Next turn to Matthew 22:29. How did Jesus answer a tricky hypothetical from the resurrection-denying Sadducees? By quoting from Old Testament Scripture. And he introduced his quote by saying, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures”.
It wasn’t simply that the Sadducees were unaware of what the Old Testament said. They knew it, all right. It was that they disregarded the bits that didn’t suit. They just filtered them out. So, Jesus says error comes from ignoring the Scriptures.
Some might ask about the Scriptures that were still future at that stage, for the New Testament was not written in Jesus’ day. Did Jesus ever suggest there would be any Scripture written beyond the Old Testament? Again, the answer is “Yes”.
Soon after his resurrection, in Matthew 28:19-20, he tells his first followers to go and make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. So, Jesus tells his apostles to pass his teachings on. Right here you have the impetus behind the writing of the Gospel biographies of his life by people like Matthew himself.
Christians are people who have come to love Jesus; people who want to be more like Jesus. So, anyone who wants to be like Jesus will want to share his attitudes.
What other source do we have for knowing Christ than the Scriptures? The best way to be a Jesus-preaching church is to be a Bible-teaching one. And the best way to be a Jesus-trusting Christian is to be a Bible-based one.
How do we do it?
The application of all this starts by determining that you will adopt this attitude: what Jesus believes I must believe. Anything else is inconsistent. We cannot claim to love Jesus, but to dislike parts of the Bible. It’s why gospel Christians must agree that the Bible is our final and highest authority. It rules over tradition – the way we’ve always done things. It rules over reason – what seems reasonable to us. It rules over experience – what feels right.
And this applies to all the tricky debates where people dismiss or marginalise what the Bible says about predestination, about gender, about sex, about the sanctity of life; above all, about believing Jesus really is the only way to God; about it being impossible to serve God and money; about loving Jesus more even than your family. All these things need care, of course, in the application. But they are clearly taught in Scripture. Often by Jesus on earth!
We all have our blind spots on this. But the One we follow says we live by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. And the place to begin and end whenever we struggle with something we find hard in the Bible is to ask if we really trust Jesus. For if we really do trust him as a good Lord and Saviour who died for us, then we will say: what Jesus believes, I must believe.
So, the Scriptures are our basis of faith.
The Very Rev Sandy Grant is Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.