Jesus and the Bible

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It seems strange why anyone would want to pit Jesus against the Bible, but in recent weeks the question which of these two is primary, Jesus or the Bible, has once again taken center stage in many circles. I am hesitant to weigh in on this issue since I have not published any major monographs on the subject, but the debate is important enough for me to venture a few thoughts to address the current debate.

Just as many argued when this issue was debated in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years (where some argued that Jesus is properly at the center somehow apart from Scripture), so some argue now that Jesus (not the Bible) is properly at the center of Christian theology. If so, the Bible cannot be equally at the center and in comparison with Jesus is a more peripheral doctrine (though still very important).

One argument advanced in this regard is that if the Bible were central, how could people have come to faith in Jesus Christ before the New Testament was written? On one level, I would argue this is a moot point for us today since today the New Testament has been written (and has been for 1900 years), and it is our primary source (in more ways than one) for information about Jesus. Also, while the New Testament may not have been written, the Old Testament was, and the early Christians presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scriptures from the beginning.

In fact, in my view it is this observation that is at the very heart of the problem those have who argue for the supremacy of Christ over Scripture, doctrinally speaking: How do we know Jesus in the first place? Arguably, the only way we know Jesus truly is through Scripture. Conversely, if we think Scripture is deficient in some way, then our Jesus will look different from the way in which he is presented in the Gospels. If Scripture is our only reliable and authoritative source for who Jesus is, then how can we say that Jesus is more important than the Bible or pit the two against each other?

This is very obvious, I think, when we look at books about Jesus written by scholars who do not hold to a high view of Scripture. With this major constraint in their apprehension of Jesus gone, their “Jesus” is predictably different from the way in which he is presented in Scripture, and a gap between Jesus and Scripture opens up that drives a false wedge between the two and should never be there in the first place.

This, by the way, is not tantamount to requiring belief in inerrancy as a requirement for salvation. It does mean that we acknowledge Scripture as primary in the sense that it alone is our fully trustworthy and authoritative source of information about Jesus. I am also not sure how helpful it is to pit inductive against deductive approaches to inerrancy. Surely there is room for both approaches, and what we have here is a false dichotomy, especially if the nature of Scripture is properly understood within the purview of the doctrines of God and revelation.

Jesus or the Bible? What a choice! Is it possible that the slogan, “Just give me Jesus,” can for some become an illegitimate escape route to evade a firmer accountability to the totality of biblical teaching? Some say they like Jesus, but they don’t like the church. We rightly say this is illegitimate, for the church is central in Jesus’ plan (Matt. 16:16). Are some now going to say that they like Jesus, but they don’t like the Bible? (Or is it wise to open the door so others may say this?)

Personally, I doubt that Jesus himself would have subscribed to a view that placed him above Scripture. Rather, in the words of Schlatter, he would have placed himself as “beneath Scripture,” as the one attested by Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and as the one to whom the Scriptures testify (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46). The apostles, too, saw it this way. Paul could speak of “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching . . .” (2 Tim. 3:15–16).

If it was good enough for Jesus, the apostles, and the early church to find the coming of the Messiah predicted in the Scriptures, and to identify Jesus as the fulfillment of these predictions, should it not be good enough for us?

5 Comments

  1. Many thanks for this. To me any argument about “How did people become Christians before the NT was written?” ignores the evidence of the NT itself. Before the NT was written the OT was the Bible of the early church and was their authority (e.g. Acts 17:11).

  2. I must agree with Mike Bird. A Christocentric hermeneutic is more central to Christian faith. I am painfully aware of this ongoing discussion in Baptist life. Behind the scenes, the debate is not so much about Jesus versus the Bible, but about whether or not the sayings or teaching of Jesus are as authoritative as the rest of scripture. Jesus indicated in the Sermon on the Mount that previous “inspired” teachings from the OT were misunderstood and in some cases not even to be taken as authoritative any longer. He reinterpreted commandments regarding divorce, oaths, etc. We need a hermeneutic as Baptists which keeps Jesus at our center. We cannot say that Ecclesiastes is equally authoritative in the life of believer as the clear teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.

  3. Andreas,

    Hmmm. I’m not so sure on that. I certainly agree that any dichotomy between Jesus and the Bible is unnecessary. The Word incarnate and the Word encovenanted are both the Word of God afterall. I equally dislike the “I don’t need your Bible verses or theology, jut give me Jesus” attitude which is ignorance masquerading as piety.

    On the other hand, I cannot find any reason to postulate a bibliocentric theology over a Christocentric one, which is like confusing the messenger with the message (though I’m not suggesting you advocate this). Jesus is the centrepiece of Scripture and is simultaneously the goal of Scripture and the lens through which it must be interpreted through. When you write: “I doubt that Jesus himself would have subscribed to a view that placed him above Scripture” – I have to disagree. The formulae in the Gospels, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you …” presupposes the authority of Jesus over Scripture to either (a) provide the proper interpretation of Scripture; or (b) to intensify or nullify certain commandments in light of the new eschatological situation that Jesus himself has inaugurated. A question I often set my students is: “Does Jesus ever prohibit what the Law allows, and does Jesus ever allow what the Law prohibits?” The answer of course is ‘Yes’! Jesus’ actions on the sabbath, though obviously exceptional and not anti-law per se, are anchored in a sense of unmediated divine authority that not only circumvents the Law and Prophets but even surpasses them. That’s not piting Jesus against the Bible, but Jesus speaks both for God and as God and where the imperatives of Torah and Kingdom conflict, Jesus can overrule.

    Likewise, the comment: “if the Bible were central, how could people have come to faith in Jesus Christ before the New Testament was written?” is hardly moot but a good point. We cannot anachronistically retroject our own circumstances into the first millenia of the Christian era. Not all Christians had access to all the Scriptures. The lists of Christian writings in the papyri and codices make that much clear. Did Christians who knew the Apostles creed but didn’t have a copy of Matthew-Revelation at their disposal know Jesus? Did Christians who only had copies of the Pauline letters know Jesus? I think Jesus is known from both the word proclaimed and the word inscripturated – in the NT both are treated as the authoritative “Word”.

    That’s my take on the subject. Thanks for that thought-provoking post. Anything that gets Christians talking about and discussing the Bible and Jesus has to be good. Perhaps you should write a monograph on the topic afterall!

  4. Andreas, this is a really well written post and I’m glad this was my entry point into this issue. Somehow comparing Jesus to the Bible is strikes me like comparing Chevy to Beethoven!

  5. To pit Jesus against the Bible is counter intuitive, but so often that is where the discussion digresses. This does not limit Jesus to just what is written, but it does correctly locate that all knowledge about Jesus is controlled by the biblical text. Thanks.

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  1. Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » Jesus is God and the Bible Is Not - [...] A friend called my attention to a blog, Biblical Foundations, where Dr. Andreas Kostenberger posts. There he has a…

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