Have Jesus’s Attitude toward Scripture
The Christian doctrine of Scripture is an integrated account of the word of the living God given to us in written form through the conscious, creative, yet faithful agency of human servants especially prepared for this work, and attended at every point by the Holy Spirit. As a doctrine, it does not arise from isolated and unusual “proof texts.” Instead, it emerges from a broad and deep biblical theology and is ultimately anchored in the being and character of the triune God. At its center is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, who himself appealed to the written word, both endorsing and fulfilling the Old Testament and, through the commission he gave to his apostles and the promise of his Spirit, authorizing the New Testament.
The Christian attitude toward the Bible is part of Christian discipleship. To follow Jesus is to follow him in this too. Put simply, we want to have the same attitude toward the Bible as Jesus had. We must not pit the authority of Jesus—or the power of the Holy Spirit, for that matter—against the teaching of Scripture. Jesus himself turned to the Scriptures as the final word: sufficiently clear, true, and powerful to make known the person and purposes of God, and to direct a faithful response to what God has done for us in his Son. “It is written,” Jesus said. “What does the Scripture say?” asked his faithful servant, the apostle Paul.
Sit under God’s Word
This explains why Christians cultivate a specific posture in relation to the Scriptures, not standing over them as critics and judges, deciding for ourselves what is wholesome and true and discarding the remainder. Instead, we speak of “sitting under” the word of God, being shaped and formed by it as it recasts our perspectives and brings about a genuine repentance of both mind and life. We recognize that our own predisposition toward self-interest, along with the preferences and preoccupations of a world that refuses God’s right to direct our personal and corporate lives, needs to be challenged. We take seriously the folly and futility of all attempts to exclude God from consideration—whether these stem from philosophical systems, political and social structures, or public consensus—and the profound and lasting harm that they can cause. Instead, we acknowledge the authority of God to direct our understanding of him, our proper response to him, and the course of our entire lives lived as his redeemed and deeply loved creatures. This need not lead us into a narrow and legalistic fundamentalism that seeks to enforce compliance. True obedience flows out of faith, and faith is the work of the Spirit in the human heart. As Luther once said, it’s only when you’ve won the heart that you’ve really won the person.1 So, with confidence we commend God’s word to all around us as a good word. God has given us the Bible for our good, collectively as well as individually. It sheds light into the darkness and proclaims life-giving truth to counter ignorance, falsehood, and fear. It brings real freedom.
The Bible is not a burden, not a rule book that binds us, not a dark, unfriendly word that always and only leaves us broken. It is a source of deep, rich, full-throated joy.
The study of the Bible is properly undertaken with humility as well as intellectual rigor, with an acute sense that we are in the presence of God as we study his word and are accountable for how we respond. “This is the one to whom I will look,” the Lord said through Isaiah,
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word. (Isa. 66:2)
The study of Scripture is a spiritual and moral matter, not simply a matter of intellectual curiosity or the acquisition of knowledge.2 We need to remember who God is and that whatever we think or say about his word is thought or said in his presence. For this reason, the study of Scripture is best approached prayerfully, dependent upon the same Spirit who caused Scripture to be written in the first place.
Of course, this is in no way a defensive posture. It is not a cloak for refusing to face hard questions or to wrestle with texts that, for one reason or another, I find hard to understand or difficult to reconcile with what I read elsewhere in the Bible. The written word of the living God can withstand the most rigorous questioning, and as Warfield reminded us, it deserves nothing less. In an important sense the Bible is not “safe,” just as the living God is not “safe.” It is not something we can tame or master or mold to suit our own preferences. Nor should our study of Scripture be characterized by the kind of individualism that refuses to listen to those who have read the text before us or are reading it alongside us. We can learn even from those with whom we might ultimately disagree. They might alert us to our own blind spots and prejudices.
Our Source of Joy
Yet there is one other aspect of the Christian posture toward Scripture without which the picture would be not only incomplete but distorted. The Bible is not a burden, not a rule book that binds us, not a dark, unfriendly word that always and only leaves us broken. It is a source of deep, rich, full-throated joy. King David wrote of the blessed man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). Later in the Psalms we read,
Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps. 119:18)
I was struck by a question I heard from a platform many years ago now, long before I had children of my own. The conference speaker asked, “Do your children ever see you reading the Bible, not because you have to prepare a Bible study or a sermon, but simply because you love to read it and it brings you great joy?” Not obligation or burden, but real delight—an echo of what Jesus said about the gatekeeper: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).
It is fitting that this short introduction to the Christian doctrine of Scripture should end where it began, with words of the Protestant martyr Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He encouraged Bible translation, constructed a lectionary (a calendar of Bible readings), produced a liturgy saturated with Scripture, and wrote the homily “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture.” He was convinced that the word of God could transform an entire nation as well as a single human heart. Don’t be afraid of falling into error as you read it, he wrote.
I shall show you how you may read it without danger of error. Read it humbly with a meek and a lowly heart, to the intent you may glorify God, and not yourself, with the knowledge of it; and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect; and take upon you to expound it no further than you can plainly understand it.3
And a little earlier in the homily: “There is nothing that so much strengthens our faith and trust in God, that so much keeps up innocency and pureness of the heart and also of outward godly life and conversation, as continual reading and recording of God’s word.”4
- Martin Luther, “Sermon for Monday after Invocavit, March 10, 1522,” Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 66 vols. to date (St. Louis: Concordia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1955–), 51:76.
- . John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 87–91.
- Thomas Cranmer, “Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” in Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory (repr., London: SPCK, 1864), 7.
- Cranmer, “Fruitful Exhortation,” 4.
This article is adapted from The Doctrine of Scripture: An Introdction by Mark D. Thompson.
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