I think it’s fair to say that many Christians today believe that the Bible is a set-in-stone, non-negotiable document that is open only to the narrowest of interpretations and even then only by people who are ‘qualified’ to do so. Although, in practice, this is not actually the case – there are likely almost as many interpretations of Bible passages as there are individual Christians – still there are those who insist on their own interpretation being the only correct one.
Personally, I believe that if there is only ‘one correct doctrine’ (about anything) then God would have made it a lot clearer in the Bible than He did. By its very nature – many voices speaking of their own experiences of God – it can never present a unified voice on any matter, really.
Jesus had the same problem in His discussions with the ‘religious elite’ of His day. Even in a society where ‘robust’ (i.e. argumentative) theological discussion was actively encouraged, indeed taught, He came up against entrenched opinion and interpretation. Which, I suppose, is fair enough, given that most people like to have answers to Life’s Big Questions, where actually those Questions take a whole lifetime to glean even a sliver of understanding of their answers. You could say it’s part of human nature to want to be secure in our answers, where actually little such security exists outside the Relationship with God, where our security is in Him and our questions and answers will not disrupt that security in any way.
Anyhow, here’s a great piece by Russell Croft, expressing a lot of this sort of thing:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” — Colossians 2:8
There is a lot of fear in various Christian circles today that people are being deceived by false gospels that are not grounded in God’s word. It is a very heartfelt sentiment, one that is genuinely concerned for the fate of fellow believers and non-believers alike.
From this perspective, the answer is to stand on the word of God, to hold it sacredly, to believe that it is the ultimate God-breathed truth, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. We should not waver from the truth revealed within its pages and should always consider the whole counsel of scripture whenever preaching or debating the gospel. God’s word is God’s word, from beginning to end, the literal, infallible revelation of God to man. Anyone who abandons any part of the holy, inspired scriptures has been deceived and has believed a false gospel that threatens to lead others astray. One cannot argue with any part of the scriptures or consider alternative understandings of what they literally say without falling into heresy.
Revolution of Belief
Perhaps this is why the leaders of ancient Israel wanted to keep Jesus quiet. He would often take the scriptural understanding of the day and turn it on its head. In a culture that promoted robust discussion and even allowed for disagreement on scriptural interpretation, Jesus still ruffled too many feathers and rocked too many theological boats.
Jesus abandoned many of the well held positions among the religious people of his day. Instead of paying back the scriptural eye for an eye, Jesus told his listeners to love their enemies and forgive their debts. He admonished people for their methods of tithing, praying, and worship. He walked among the outcasts, the lepers, the prostitutes and sinners, telling them they were entering the kingdom of heaven before the others who had excluded them. He taught that God accepted and loved everyone, not just the upright Jew, but the unclean Gentile and the evil Samaritan. His was a message of Grace that had no room for religious striving or elitism under the law. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
So what was Jesus doing? A disregarded sacrificial system of spiritual duty lies wasted on the road to Calvary. His mercy is freely given to those who sacrifice him to their god of control, ending the old covenant based on human responses to God and ushering in a new covenant, where Jesus took on our responsibility and showcased God’s mercy, fulfilling both the human and divine sides of the ledger once and for all. Salvation or spiritual wholeness in this new covenant is based solely on what Jesus did, not on any attempt on our part to enter the kingdom of heaven.
A Conflict of Covenants
Here’s the problem: a literal, unmoving interpretation of scripture combines and confuses the old and new covenants, presenting a belief system that allows Jesus to do the initial work of salvation, but that must be continued by our ability or desire to maintain wholeness–or holiness–through repentance, prayer, tithing, worship, and belief. The old covenant is elevated to a position of equal importance to the new covenant, and appears to still supersede it in many ways. Scriptures declaring God’s goodness, love, and forgiveness of all humanity are accepted, yet overridden by passages portraying him as full of wrath for those who don’t accept his love.
But what if there was a way to hold the entirety of scripture in tension? To find the ways in which Jesus and the new covenant don’t necessarily abolish the old covenant, but fulfill it for us so that it is no longer a requirement? What if there was a way of rest, of faith and of trust in God to bless us, not because of what we do or believe, but because of what Jesus believed about us and did on our behalf? What if we really did have the fullness of Christ dwelling in us because of the reconciling work of the cross, which we just need to trust in, in order to see? A holiness that wasn’t dependent on ritual or repentance, but an already given, unbreakable union with Christ, which once recognized, leads to all kinds of love and selfless action that the old covenant could only hope to inspire.
Relying on Christ
Of course, we can still hold on to human traditions masquerading as old covenant practices. We can try to pull God down to earth or open heaven for some new blessing or spiritual breakthrough rather than relying on Christ, thus denying the fullness that has already been given through God’s grace. We can still hold to beliefs that we are only OK once we’ve said the magic words and dedicated our lives to denying certain aspects of human life. We don’t even need to call ourselves “Christian” to do so.
Or we can rest in the new covenant and allow Christ in us to provide the outworking of our faith. A faith that is really his faith, since it is Christ in us that provides the gift of faith in the first place. A faith in love. A faith that knows, even in the midst of doubt or suffering, that we are OK, because we have a God who loves all his children and a high priest in Jesus interceding for us, even if we are unable or unwilling to pray for ourselves. A faith that places the old covenant in its right place, as something that was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross and as something we need not fulfill ourselves today in order to remain within God’s blessing.
An excellent piece, I reckon. I hope it blessed you and maybe gave you some food for thought 🙂