It’s not hard to understand the reasons why this shift has taken place. At the level of ideas, more than a century of suspicion has been generated by the likes of Marx (it’s all about gaining financial advantage), Freud (it’s all about sex), and Nietzsche (it’s all about personal or group power). We ve become used to questioning the motives of those who tell us things, often with very good reason. Strangely, one of the only things we are prepared to take on face value is the insistence that there are no such things as facts, only interpretations. At another more basic level, the ugly face of religious bigotry was forced into our consciousness by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A more general assault on all religious claims since then has been reinforced by one report after another of sexual exploitation by clergy and the concerted efforts of a rejuvenated atheism (the new atheism is in fact just the old atheism made sexy).
In such an environment it is tempting for Christians to soft peddle a bit on our insistence that the Bible is the word of God and the word of God is worth a hearing. In our efforts to distance ourselves from the religious zealots — whether the violent type or just the dogmatic type — we concede too much to the masters of suspicion. We can be taken in too quickly by claims that human language is too fragile to convey the truth about God, that the real involvement of human beings in writing the Bible necessarily involves error or ignorance, or that these are just the words of believers bound in their own time and space which must be supplemented or revised if they are to be taken seriously in our time and space. So it is worth taking a moment to remember why we treat the Bible as the word of God and why we take what it teaches so seriously. Quite simply, Christians do this because Jesus taught us to do this.
Time and again the Gospels have been shown to have all the hallmarks of reliable eye-witness testimony. The experience of Christians through the ages has been confirmed by careful study of the Gospels. Even their differences of perspective, the reporting of different details, and the little personal touches which are embedded in each of these four accounts of Jesus life and ministry, reinforce this judgement. In the Gospels we are confronted with the real Jesus, with what he actually did and actually said. If we want to know what Jesus thought about the Bible (such as it was in his time — the New Testament had not been written yet), the responsible thing to do is to turn to the Gospels.
Three things stand out. Jesus taught us that the living God is a God who speaks. Of course, he taught this in common with the faithful Jews of his own time. Unlike the idols of the nations, the God who made all things, redeemed Israel and sent his Son into the world, is not silent (Jer. 10:5; Is. 55:10 -11). He is not simply present and active in the world. He allows us to know and understand who he is and what he is doing in the world by using human language to address us. Jesus reminded his religious opponents that God spoke to Moses from the bush that did not burn (Mk 12:26). God used ordinary language that Moses could hear and understand. Jesus insisted that he himself came speaking the truth that I heard from God (Jn 8:40). When confronted by the tempter in the wilderness he countered with Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Mtt. 4:4). Language is not just a human invention. It is God’s gift which he himself uses to relate to us.
Jesus taught us that the Bible is the written word of the speaking God. Jesus had no difficulty in referring to the Old Testament as the word of God (Mtt 15:6; Jn 10:35). He did this without minimising the involvement of the human writers such as Moses or David or the Prophets. Yet he regularly appealed to texts from the Old Testament as the word from God which settles any question about God’s purpose or his character. The temptations of the satan in the wilderness are answered at each point by a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy (Mtt. 4:4, 7, 10). He chided those who challenged him about marriage and divorce by referring to the Book of Genesis as a record not only of what God did but what he said (Mtt 19:4 -5). His personal commitment to live by the Scriptures and his call to those who heard him to do the same flows out of this understanding that they are the written word of the living God.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in today’s climate, Jesus taught us that the God who speaks and whose word is written for us is the God who loves us and is committed to our welfare. It is true that in places God speaks and acts in judgement. God’s words can be terrifying to those who refuse his claim on their lives. Yet the most basic truth about God which frames all else he says and does is that he loves all that he has made and is full of compassion, gentleness and forgiveness toward those who turn to him. God’s word is not vindictive or restrictive or oppressive. It brings new life and nourishes that life by attuning our minds and wills to character and purpose of God. God so loved the world , Jesus said, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). He told his disciples on the night he died that … the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God (Jn 16:27).
There is much more to be said. Jesus commission of his apostles in time generates the New Testament which is placed alongside the Old Testament as the word of God. There is a movement from promise to fulfilment with Jesus at its centre which means the parts of the Bible must be read in the light of the whole if we are not to distort its message. Nevertheless, at this key point we can and must say that Christian discipleship involves a willingness to take seriously the Bible as the word of God and to allow our thinking, and speaking and behaviour to be shaped by it in every context in which we find ourselves. What God has to say is always more important than what we have to say. What’s more, because he is good and loving and generous, what he has to say is good and loving and generous. We do not have to concede ground to the skeptics or the purveyors of suspicion.
Mark Thompson is Prinicpal and Head of Moore College’s Department of Theology, Philosophy and Ethics.