Growing up, I was always told that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. What is meant by this is that it is without error or fault in all of its teaching (seeThe Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). Without even getting into what is considered “correct” canon—as that is not even agreed upon—if something in Scripture says “God said,” then that means “God said.” And if something says “God did,” then that means “God did.” So, for instance, in Numbers 25, when the writer says that God said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun,” then that means this conversation happened just as it is written. God literally, at one point in history, commanded murder so that his anger can be assuaged. And then, when Phinehas does just as God commanded, he is given a peace covenant.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
But this is just one of many stories like this contained throughout the Scriptures—where God commands others to spill blood in his name. And in theory, I guess it is possible that God is like this. It is possible that all of the stories in the Bible, where God is depicted as a bloodthirsty deity, are true. But then what do we do with the first-century pacifist name Jesus, who lived his life in servitude for others, never once committing an act of violence? Is his Gospel not a gospel of peace (Eph 6:15)? And is he not what God is like as a human? And did Paul—taking for granted he wrote Colossians—not describe him as the fullness of God in bodily form (paraphrasing Col 2:9)? And did Jesus himself not say that no one has ever seen God except for him (John 1:18)?
So what do we do with this?
Well, we could do what most Christians in the West do, namely create a Janus-faced God. We could say that Jesus reveals one side of God (i.e. his merciful side), while failing to reveal his wrathful side. Or, we could say that during one epoch of history (the Old Testament), God is vengeful, and then in another epoch (the first century) he is merciful—and then per the book of Revelation, he will return to vengeful.
But answers like these fail to get to the heart of my questions above.
Moreover, they fail to do us any good if we are supposed to think of God as a Father, or as Jesus so affectionately called him, Abba. And they fail to do us any good if God is to be thought of as the same yesterday, today, and forever, just as Christ is described by the writer of Hebrews (Heb 13:8). Because these answers don’t do a damn bit of good for us at all, we need to rethink our approach. We need to start with Jesus and work backward, so to speak.
Let’s start with John 1.
The writer begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Now, to state what should be the obvious: the Word here is not the Bible. It is the Christ. It is not a book. It is a human.
John 1:1 is also a “rewrite” of Genesis 1:1, where “in the beginning” God created something. Now, in the beginning was already a something, the Word—Jesus Christ. The writer is telling us where to begin, not with an authority of Scripture, or a hermeneutical approach, or any doctrine or dogma, but with a person, a walking, talking, breathing person.
When we start here, then, we have the correct foundation for when we approach something like the authority of Scripture. We have the cornerstone, if you will (Matt 21:42). And this cornerstone has a very specific way of interpreting things. Let me point to just a few passages so that you see what I mean.
First, Luke 4 has an interesting story about Jesus’ initial teaching after his testing in the wilderness. After Jesus enters the synagogue, it eventually comes time for him to read, so he is given the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He turns to what is now Isa 61:1–2, and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release from the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he stops, and rolls up the scroll—midsentence. What he “should have” read was the phrase “And the day of vengeance of our God.” But he doesn’t. And this is not taken in kind by the once eager listeners. In fact, his interpretive method nearly gets him tossed off a cliff, because for God’s vengeance to be omitted is for the enemies of Israel to not suffer what is promised them.
But the wrath of God of course had to befall those oppressing God’s people. This was a theological given.
But not according to Jesus.
One other theological given—based on clear Scriptural truths—was that those who were afflicted with illnesses were in such a state due to their sin. Thinking like this comes from places like Deut 28:15, 20–24, 59–61. But what Jesus teaches in John 9:3 is that things don’t work like this. Jesus, instead of likening blindness to sin, says that blindness is a part of life so that God can show God’s self to be a healer, a reconciler, a peacemaker. After all, God sends his rain on the righteous and the wicked, and blesses sinners and saints alike (Matt 5:45). He doesn’t, as the Proverb clearly states, reserve curses for the house of the wicked and blessings for the house of the righteous (Prov 3:33).
Not according to Jesus.
He was not bound to some presupposed authority of Scripture, no matter what his interlocutors thought and said. Sure, the Scriptures taught certain things about God as if they were objective truths, but Jesus often countered these with his own teachings. The Sermon on the Mount is notorious for this.
“You have heard that it was said . . . but I say unto you.”
Over and over he does this, where he replaces one set of teachings with new, progressive ones. And he can do this because he speaks on behalf of the Father. In fact, he only says and does what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19). And what he sees the Father doing is showing mercy to all (Luke 6:36).
That is why Jesus goes to the cross speaking the message of peace and grace (Luke 23:34). His Father is doing the same. In fact, his Father has always been doing that because his Father never changes. That is the theological reorientation Christ gave us, and it is also the reason I cannot believe, for one damn second, everything said about the Father in what we call the Bible is true. Or, quoting the prophet Jeremiah, “the lying pen of the scribes has surely distorted it” (Jer 8:8).
So if we are going to say Christians are to be followers of Jesus, then we need to follow his scriptural teachings. When we do, we will find that he had a specific and unique approach. And it was far from “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Sorry, it’s not that easy folks. It actually takes diligent work to “rightly explain the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).