How would you identify yourself—your confession, your belief “system,” your religion—to someone who is not a Christian? If asked, of course you would identify yourself as a Christian. Christian—even with all the assumed baggage that Christianity carries in the United States—means that you belong to Christ. You do not belong to Buddha, or Mohammed, or Krishna, or to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or to any of their books. You belong to Christ and so you live by the Words (the Scriptures) that testify to Him. You do not belong to Luther any more than you belong to any other Christian teacher. No matter who the person is, ancient or modern, the Scriptures are the ruler by which you measure any human being’s teaching.
It is good to recognize in a world that barely knows Christianity—let alone its various stripes and differences—that our identity is always and only in Christ and not in any man, certainly not in Luther. But this can sometimes mislead us. Perhaps we will say, “I am a Lutheran-Christian,” where “Lutheran” modifies “Christian” to tell us what kind of Christian we are. Or perhaps we will say it another way: “I am a Christian first and a Lutheran second.” On the one hand, this is a good impulse: we want to be identified by what belongs to Christ, and not what belongs to human beings. But, on the other hand, it can mislead us. Such statements can very easily assume that Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic are additions to Christianity. In other words, we assume that there is a core of what we call “Christianity,” and then various people added various, other, more secondary teachings to the central Christian faith. It very well might be the case that human beings have built wood, hay, or straw onto the precious foundation of Christ. But it is not necessarily so.
“In many and various ways long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets; in the last of these days He spoke to us by the Son” (Hebrews 1:1). How does God tell us what He wants us to know? How does He make known to us His will? How do we discern what really is God’s word to us, especially when all sorts of people are running around telling us that God has said this or God has said that?
This past week we discussed the first two questions on p. 6: Is the Gospel an announcement of good advice to be applied, or an announcement of good news to be believed? And: Is the Word of Christ information upon which I have to act, or is that Word something that acts upon me?
Both of these questions get to the heart of how we treat the Scriptures. Is the Bible an inert book, that waits for us to read the words, figure out how they apply to our lives, and then apply them? Or are the Scriptures–as Hebrews says–a living and active word, which the Holy Spirit applies to us in order to do something to us, to give us the Truth (Christ) to believe, and to sustain our faith in the midst of all the things over which we have no control?
This led us into a discussion about how we use the Bible as individuals. We recalled that for most of Church history, individuals never had a Bible which they could open in the privacy of their own homes and read silently. They heard the Scriptures of Jesus proclaimed to them, they believed them, and the Holy Spirit brought them into the story that God is telling in the Scriptures.
We also talked about how individuals understand what they are reading. With Acts 8:31 in mind, we wrestled with how individual Christians ought to read the Bible. I made the distinction between reading the Bible as an individual member of the Body of Christ and reading the Bible as an individual isolated from the Body of Christ. It is helpful to keep in mind what is the greater danger in our particular time and place. Is it that Christians will not be able to hear the Scriptures in their own language because “the Church” is controlling the Bible and simply telling people what it says and what they ought to believe (as it was, at least in part, prior to the Reformation)? Or is it (as I believe) that individual Christians, cut off from the history of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Body of Christ, will read individual passages of Scripture out of context and figure out how the words apply and fit into their lives, as if our lives were the main story, rather than the Scriptural story?
The topic gets complicated! It is wound up with the history of how the Scriptures came to be, the challenges to the primacy of Christ in various ways, the history of interpreting the Scriptures, and many other things.
We agreed that that sort of information is probably not where we’re going to start when discussing the Gospel or the Scriptures with unbelievers! And yet, if it is in the Scriptures–all the words that testify of Jesus–then we can’t ignore the words or stop trying to increase in our understanding of them.
Join us next week as we continue our discussion!