Tue 14 Aug
Radical Christians and the Word of God (Part 1 of 3): Authority
We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.
This is the first of three blog posts on the authority, inerrancy, and application of the Word of God from an Anabaptist Christian perspective. Anabaptism is a 500 year old movement that primarily formed on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, and became known as the Radical Reformation. “Radical” is a good word to describe Anabaptists, since it comes from the Latin, radix, which means “root”. The Radical Reformers were and still are about getting Christians back to our roots as Jesus followers. If the Protestant Reformation was about getting Christians to rally around the Bible, the Radical Reformation was a further call for Christians to rally around the Jesus they read about in the Bible. (For more on the Radical Reformation, see our teaching series here.)
When Radicals (or, Anabaptists) hear or use the phrase “the Word of God”, we tend to think of three things in descending order:
- The message of God contained in the Bible
- The Bible
When Reformers (or, Protestants) hear or use the phrase “the Word of God”, they typically think of similar things as Radicals, but in reverse order:
- The Bible
- The message of God contained in the Bible
Ever since the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformers and Radical Reformers were differentiating from one another as alternative Christian expressions, this simple shift in emphasis showed itself to have significant, real world ramifications.
One critique that Radicals sometimes make of Reformers is that Protestants tend to talk about the Bible in ways that Christians should really talk about Jesus. Many Protestant Christians say things like “We follow the Bible”, or will talk about the “authority of the Bible”, or say that Scripture is “inerrant”. As a Radical Christian, these are things I would tend to say about Jesus first and foremost. I follow Jesus. Jesus holds all authority. And Jesus is the perfect one, without error.
"Most Anabaptists combined a tremendous love for Scripture with a refusal to place it above or even alongside Christ as the Word of God."
~ Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition
Sometimes when Protestants find out that Anabaptists don’t tend to use the word “inerrant” to refer to Scripture, they assume we must be theological liberals (where “liberal” is one of the worst things you can say about a fellow Christian). In their minds, there are only two camps: 1) theological conservatives who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, and 2) theological liberals who demean Christian Scripture in order to import progressive (i.e., worldly) ideas into the Christian faith apart from biblical support. For many Protestants, it never occurs to them that there might be a third option: a group of deeply committed Christians who hold the Bible in very high regard as God’s inspired gift to the Church, but who also hold Jesus in even higher regard than Scripture and who use their language intentionally to reflect this. Maybe you’ve been part of this way of thinking. If so, I can relate.
This was me when I first heard about the Anabaptist denomination I am now a part of – Be In Christ Canada (formerly, the Brethren In Christ). I was an Evangelical with Reformed/Calvinist theology at the time I heard about the BIC. As a Baptist pastor, I had been slowly questioning some basic Evangelical assumptions, especially the role Jesus should play in how we interpret, understand, and apply everything in the Bible. It seemed to me that a Jesus-centred reading of Scripture should lead Christ-followers to fully embrace, among other things, the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. So when the leadership of the BIC invited me to dialogue with them, I was excited to learn about this 200 year old denomination, and to know that it was part of a 500 year old movement of Christians who prioritized precisely that – the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. But even though I was thrilled with what might become my new denominational home, as a transitioning Evangelical I remember being suspicious when I couldn’t find the word “inerrant” in the BIC’s statement of faith. “I knew they were too good to be true!” I remember thinking to myself. Inerrancy, I had been taught, was the litmus test of orthodoxy. Look for a clear and bold proclamation of the inerrancy of Scripture and you can be more assured that a church was preaching the true gospel. Today I’m so glad I didn’t run away from the issue or suppress my questions, but leaned into Scripture and the ongoing conversation around Scripture with my new Anabaptist family.
I learned that Radical Christians were far from theological liberals, but in fact the early Anabaptists would have considered the Protestants to be the liberal side of the divide, because they dismissed, disregarded, or otherwise excused themselves from following the most obvious aspects of Jesus’ teaching and example. Protestants were just as violent as Catholics at the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation, and they rationalized their violence by appealing to the Bible! Repeatedly, Protestants found biblical justification for violence which they used to overrule the clear nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus.
Anabaptists, on the other hand, had been willing to die at the hands of fellow Christians for generations because they refused to bear the sword in self defense or national defense. Their kingdom was the Kingdom of God, the war they waged was not against flesh and blood, but against a spiritual enemy (Ephesians 6:12), and their only king was King Jesus. Anabaptists believed that Jesus was God’s ultimate self-disclosure (John 1:18) and that all of Scripture should be relentlessly interpreted through the Jesus lens. I realized that, whether or not I would come to agree with Anabaptist theology on every issue, mistaking them as theological liberals would be insulting to this branch of the Christian family tree.
Well, that’s my introduction. (Thanks for making it this far!) Now let’s talk now about the issue of AUTHORITY…
"Anabaptists have a high regard for the Scriptures and an even higher regard for Jesus. Jesus, even more than the Bible, is our final authority."
~ Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials
Anabaptists (Radical Reformers) read the Bible, study the Bible, memorize and meditate on the Bible. And yet, we don’t think in terms of following the Bible – we follow Jesus. Why do I think this distinction matters? Because I want to align my language with Jesus, as recorded in the Bible. Let’s flesh this out a bit more in three ways…
Firstly, Jesus-following is our identity as disciples of Christ. We are Christ-ians, not Bible-ians (Acts 11:26). This aligns with what Jesus himself said – “follow me” (Matthew 4:19). It seems to me that this should be Christianity 101 and not at all a controversial idea.
"Come to ME, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you and learn from ME, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light."
~ Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)
Secondly, Jesus said clearly, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). He then went on to base his Great Commission to his disciples on this one tremendous truth, when he said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus then goes on to say that the the process of making disciples includes “teaching them to obey everything *I* have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t mean we just read the red letters of the Bible, but it does mean we read the entire Bible differently, as a pointer to Jesus, the one who holds all authority over our lives. Radical Christians believe that, as disciples of Jesus, our central commitment is to learn from JESUS as his apprentices. And, catch this, what we learn about Jesus from the Bible should inform how we read everything else in the Bible.
Thirdly, in the Bible we see examples of Jesus taking authority over the Bible. Consider the six-antitheses in Matthew 5 (where Jesus six times uses the pattern of “You have heard it said… but I tell you…”). Also notice the reaction of the crowd at the end of the Sermon on the Mount – that Jesus taught with authority, unlike other religious readers (Matthew 7:29; also see Mark 1:22, 27; Luke 4:32, 36; ). Or consider Jesus’ statement that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), which he does apart from the sacrificial system mandated in the Bible. Or consider Jesus’ authority to singlehandedly reverse the dietary laws of Moses in Mark 7:19. Or consider Jesus overruling Moses’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in his discussion with the religious leaders in Matthew 19:8-9. Or consider Jesus’ self-alignment with the authority of God who lives above the law in John 5, rather than see himself as merely a man who must submit to and live under the authority of the law.
"So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. … And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man." (John 5:16-18, 27)
Later in this same chapter, Jesus challenges the religious leaders who loved and learned and studied and memorized and followed the Bible…
"And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:37-40)
This is serious. Jesus says it is possible to follow the Bible, love the Bible, study the Bible – and never hear the voice of God. Furthermore, it is possible to memorize and meditate on the Bible, and never have God’s “word dwell in you”. Let this sink in. Unless we use the Bible as a pointer to Jesus, and then come to JESUS for our life, we are misusing the Bible.
As a Christ-follower, when I open my Bible I don’t ask “God, what are you saying to me through the Bible?”, but “God, what are you saying to me through Jesus in the Bible?” This simple distinction means that I read everything from Genesis to Revelation differently.
A PROTESTANT OBJECTION…
It’s worth pointing out that those who identify as Protestant are not monolithic on this issue. For instance, on the issue of biblical authority, NT Wright sounds as Anabaptist as he does Anglican. Still, some Protestants object: “Wait a minute! You Radicals are using the Bible to establish the authority of Jesus! Doesn’t that mean you treat the Bible as authoritative?” Now let me be as clear as I can. In the category of written documents, the Bible is uniquely and absolutely authoritative (as our BIC statement of faith asserts). But remember, as Christians, no written document is our absolute authority – Jesus is! Because the Bible is uniquely breathed out by God we trust it and use it, as Paul recommends in 2 Timothy 3:16. So yes, as far as written documents go, the Bible is authoritative – as far as written documents go. But we have a relationship with more than a written document. No written document, including the Bible itself, created the heavens and the earth and entered into our human condition and lived the perfect life and died the loving death that brought us salvation, and rose again as Lord of our lives. The Bible says, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).
The Bible does not give us Jesus; Jesus gives us the Bible; and the Bible then points us directly to Jesus. The Bible is not a Christian’s ultimate authority, but our penultimate authority, pointing to Jesus as our ultimate authority.
"The Bible is to us what the star was to the wise men."
~ Thomas Adams
This relationship between Jesus and the Bible is similar to the relationship between Jesus and the star that led the magi to Jesus. Or, to use another analogy, the relationship between Jesus and the Bible is similar to the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he pointed and cried out…
"Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'" (John 1:29-30)
John didn’t give us Jesus; Jesus gave us John, and then John pointed people to Jesus. Again we read…
"The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus." (John 1:35-37)
Because John’s disciples listened to him and followed Jesus, this doesn’t mean they saw John’s authority as absolute. They simply trusted John enough to listen to his insight and turn to follow Jesus as their absolute authority. Because they trusted John, they submitted to Jesus. And that’s what we do every time we read the Bible and follow Jesus.
When John the Baptist told his disciples to follow Jesus, no one played the word game of saying, “But if we listen to John’s word and we follow Jesus, aren’t we just following John? Doesn’t that mean John has equal authority to Jesus if we’re listening to his instruction to follow Jesus’ authority? So let’s just say we are equally followers of Jesus AND followers of John.” No. Please no. This is silly. Because they listened to John and trusted John and believed what John said, they followed Jesus as the authority of their lives. And yet today many Protestants make the same objection. When Radical Christians say, “Jesus is our sole authority” some Christians respond, “But you only know about Jesus from the Bible! So the Bible must equally be your authority!” No. We trust the Bible, like John’s disciples trusted him, and we do what the Bible instructs us to do – submit to the authority of Jesus.
So why is this way of thinking important? Is it all just word games and academic exercise? I wish it were. I love word puzzles, and academic exercise is the only kind of exercise I like. But this discussion is more important than that. History has shown us that when a group of Christians champion the idea of the “authority of Scripture” as did the Protestant Reformers, they get no closer to following Jesus on some very important issues, like the issue of the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. During the 16th Century, we might explain Catholic violence by appealing to the influence of the Pope, who represented (or should I say, misrepresented) the authority of Christ in the Church. The Protestants, however, rejected Papal authority and clung to sola scriptura, meaning “Scripture alone”. This is a real world case study. With the Pope’s influence out of the way and with Scripture as their sole authority, what became of Protestants? More unity? No, more division (there are now thousands of different Protestant denominations). More Christ-like enemy love? No, more violence (wars, witch-hunts, and heretic burnings were not abandoned by Protestants). The Protestant Reformers missed such central teaching of Jesus because they balanced it with every other teaching in the Bible as a way of maintaining their commitment to “the authority of Scripture”.
I recently heard a well known Protestant Christian pastor preach on the Sermon on the Mount. He expounded on the radical nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. I was impressed. Then he made this maneuver – he said, “Now, we know this isn’t an absolute mandate for all Christians at all times, since we can see that God gave very different instructions to his people through Moses and David and other Old Testament saints.” Then he went on to talk about Old Testament examples of violence as justification for Christian participation in violence today. Why was this pastor trying to balance the teaching of Jesus with other teaching in the Bible? Because he was following the Bible, rather than allowing every teaching of the Bible to point him to Jesus. And today, if Christians are to truly repent of our religious violence, our national violence, and our verbal and attitudinal violence, we will need to go beyond just following the Bible and zero in on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Dear Christians, we are not “People of the Book”. This phrase is an Islamic designation of Christians and we are not constrained to adopt a Muslim misunderstanding as our identity. No, we are not “People of the Book” as much as we are “People of the Person”. We are not (or at least, should not be) a bookish faith, lived out primarily by reading. This approach to spirituality favours the academically and economically privileged around the world and throughout history. Yes, “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and so those of us who can read and can afford our own Bibles should make much of that privilege. And while we read the Bible, may it always lead us to Jesus, the living, active, and authoritative Word of God.
Maybe you are or aren’t Anabaptist, but maybe you are “Anabaptish” – a growing Radical Christian who sees Jesus at the centre of it all. If so, I would love to hear from you. Comment away!