“Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Yesterday I was accused of making a “serious” category mistake in theology, namely to speak of “Bible believing Churches”. Geoff Thompson, who teaches Systematic Theology at the Uniting Church’s college here in Melbourne, wrote a respectful critique of my recent article on Bishop Michael Curry and his royal sermon.
The focus of Thompson’s piece was on a phrase I used, “Bible believing Church”. I was encouraging people who were struck by the wedding sermon to seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving Church, as opposed to one that is not. Geoff Thompson has taken issue with my encouragement, saying,
“Christians are not called to ‘believe’ the Bible; they are called to acknowledge its authority, and to listen to it through the filter of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. It is a serious category mistake to talk about ‘believing’ the Bible.”
I certainly agree with his statement about acknowledging the Bible’s authority and interpreting Scripture through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but those things do not denude the phrase, ‘Bible believing’, in fact, they accurately reflect part of what it means to be a Bible believing Christian.
Does Geoff Thompson have a case? To answer, I thought, well, what does the Bible say? Let’s take some examples,
“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain”. (1 Corinthians 15:2)
“After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken”. (John 2:22)
“I look on the faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word”. (Psalm 119:158)
“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:20)
“And because of his words many more became believers”. (John 4:41)
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10)
“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God”. (Acts 11:1)
It is clear from these verses (and many others could have been used) that God wants us to believe his word. Accepting and trusting the Bible (which is God’s word) not only pleases God, it is one of the ways God differentiates between his people and those who are not. Indeed, when his people reject his word, he calls them to repent and to return to the word. Receiving, believing, and obeying the word is one of the Bible’s ways of describing who is Christian.
This word is from God and is about God, and especially his son Jesus Christ. God’s call to believe his words, both Old and New Testaments, is never merely about intellectual assent, but is about understanding, trusting, desiring, and obeying. In fact, prior to our response the word, the word must firstly begin a work in us, as the book of Hebrews declares,
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
The word is not only God working in the human heart but it is God saving, creating, and ruling. More than that, as many of above Bible references explain, when Jesus, the Apostles, and the Prophets talk about believing the word, they don’t divide belief in the word and belief in God; to trust in the Scriptures is to believe God.
In short, the Bible does talk about believing the Bible and it does so in a very positive and necessary way. To speak of Bible believing Christians and Churches is one way of talking about men and women who accept the Bible as God’s authoritative, true and good word, and who now commune with God by his Spirit through his word about his Son.
Wouldn’t it be odd for someone to respond, “Oh that’s not Murray, that’s just his words…I believe in Murray, but not his words.”
Yes, there is a question of ontology, but nonetheless, we don’t divorce a person from their words. What does the Apostle Paul say to Timothy?
“14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Far from being a category error, “Bible believing Church” is a phrase which accurately reflects the Bible’s own presentation of the relationship between God, His word, and his Church. It doesn’t say everything, and neither is it intended to. Like any Christian idiom, it can be misappropriated, but that doesn’t mean it’s theologically wrong or misleading. Yes, it is possible for someone to believe the Bible is true or useful without having personal faith in Jesus Christ; our society is filled with such people. But is this what we mean when referring to Bible believing Christians and Churches? The only people I know who might talk about being Bible believing are those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ. If anything, it could be used, not adjectively, but as another way of describing a Christian.
The real question is, why do some Christian scholars want to discourage this identity marker? Why is it the case that when God can define his people as those who believe his word, there are Christians telling us that it’s wrong to describe ourselves as Bible believing? Geoff Thompson explains, it’s because he doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible. No doubt, the task of interpreting the Bible is incredibly important but that doesn’t mean it’s “seriously” wrong to talk about “Bible believing Churches”.
He argued, “When a church presents itself as ‘Bible-believing’, it is often a fairly blunt proxy for legitimating its interpretations of the Bible without acknowledging that they are interpretations.”
While that can be the case, it doesn’t have to be, and normally it is not. Thompson’s argument is more red herring rather than substantive.
On the other hand, when it comes to hermeneutics, the opposite can be true, “when a church wants to teach and practice revisionist morality, they often present the Bible as having many and varied meanings and we should accept validity in all interpretations.” Indeed, some are honest enough to admit that they no longer believe in certain parts of the Bible.
I don’t know Geoff Thompson or the hermeneutical grid he uses to interpret the Bible, and how broad his theological canvas is in accepting divergent interpretations, so I won’t offer speculation. My purpose here is not to delve into those questions (as important as they are), but it is to correct the alleged correction, that it is wrong to speak of “Bible believing Churches”. Do we not want our Churches believing the Scriptures? I certainly pray so.
7 thoughts on “Should we speak of “Bible Believing Christians”?”
Do you have a citation for that last wuote:
“when a church wants to teach and practice revisionist morality, they often present the Bible as having many and varied meanings and we should accept validity in all interpretations.”
Hi Matt, Speech marks are sometimes used not to denote a specific quote, but as a literary device summarising a point of view. Using speech marks here makes clear to the reader that the sentence is drawing a comparison with what was written directly beforehand, namely quotation from Geoff.
Thanks for clarifying.
So the intimation is that Geoff’s hermeneutic is driven by his desire to endorse revisionist morality? That’s probably not a fair dig at the UCA.
No, that’s not what I said or meant
Would you be able to clarify the restate / clarify the point?
My more developed thoughts on this post as a whole centre around the way you use Scripture.
Taking the passages out of context at the start makes it difficult to parse what exactly each is saying. I might cite an adage from D. A. Carson: “text without context is pretext for prooftext.”
There is significant slippage, for example, between references to “the word of God” in the context of the New Testament, a different context in the Psalms, and then again the usage of terms like “Scripture.”
Failure to attend to these significant differences seems to treat Scripture quite poorly – perhaps a low view or Scripture is operative. How we use Scripture matters, and I’m not sure this passes muster.
The context, both textual and historic, matters here. Because what each text means in references to “the word of God” or “scripture” is going to have a significant effect on what conclusions we are able to draw from these passages.
In every case “Scripture” can only reasonable be understood to refer to the Hebrew Bible. We cannot ignore the historical reality that the text of Timothy predates the NT canon: there was no New Testament when the New Testament was being written. Timothy can only really be read as referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). References to the importance of Scripture seem to at best impress on us the importance of the Jewish Scriptural inheritance of Christianity.
References to the “Word of God” in the New Testament are also more complicated. While citing John to support your defence of Scripture you fail to note that within the context of John’s Gospel it is Jesus himself who is understood as God’s Word – and not Scripture (let alone the NT).
The word/s of Jesus and Paul seem to refer to the original proclamation – what Bultmann calls the ‘kerygma’ (transliterating the Greek for preaching). The location of that proclamation is not clear. Is it in those red letters in the Gospels? Is it in Romans 1-8? Or is it found in the faith of the Church, carried by the Church and articulated in creeds, and theological documents throughout history?
It seems important to note that Paul himself did not seem to see a need to write such a summary, but rather refers back to his literal proclamation to the communities he writes to. Even if we grant that Paul did write such a summary it’s not clear he means any specific text within his corpus. The incomplete Corinthian correspondence reminds us we don’t have the complete body. It’d be a pretty big stretch to suggest Paul knew which of his texts were to be later canonised, and so chose to write “the Word of God” in the bits that would be preserved.
Even with the word of Jesus, John’s Gospel effaces itself. Reminding us that Jesus was so profound it couldn’t be all recorded. What is the status of those words lost to history? Not canon and so not important?
This slippage between the Bible as the Word of God, and the Word of God as Christ and his kerygma is something that a proper engagement with this issue really ought to address.
This sets aside the important question of whether the Psalmist meant the same thing as John’s Gospel.
This also sets aside questions of the livingness of the Word (again, understood as the Bible? the yet canonised NT? the risen Christ?) also needs to be interrogated. Does God still speak? Or has revelation been ossified in papyri?
This bundle of issues seems to raise serious doubts about the foundation of your argument, and so in turn the ordering of “God, His Word, and his Church” that you propose.
So overall the treatment of the key terms at issue – word of God and Scripture – is ill-defined. This lack of clarity conflates a whole range of passages as if they were referring to the same thing, which it’s not clear they are. I think, then, that this overly simplistic way of treating the Bible fails to respect the Bible as a collection of documents breathed into life in particular historical contexts. This leaves your conclusion sitting on a faulty foundation in a way that lacks clarity.
Thanks for your article.
It is great to see some interaction between Melbourne based bible scholars of differing persuasions.
I dare say that the difficulty Geoff has with your phrase ‘bible believing churches’ is that you have vastly different views to him (and what he claims is the earliest Christians believed) on what the bible actually is and how therefore it is to be read.
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