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Primacy of Scripture

By Rev. Richard Boone


Early in the Protestant Reformation movement,  leaders described the role of the Bible as being the final rule of the faith and practice of believers in the slogan sola scriptura - Scripture alone.  Not the leaders of the church, not the traditions within the church, and not some one’s personal experience of God - but Scripture alone is the final authority for how Christians believe and live their lives.  Within The United Methodist Church today, people sometimes say, “We hold to the primacy of Scripture.”  The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church understands “the primacy of Scripture” as a modern affirmation of the reformation principal of sola scriptura.  At the other end of the theological divide within The United Methodist Church, “the primacy of Scripture” may mean they refer to the Bible more often than other sources of divine light like personal experience, their own understanding of justice, and the recent traditions in their local church.  Primacy merely means first among equals.  An individual’s present experience of God may carry more weight in discerning God’s will than the Bible.

Lyle Schaller has recently commented the number one question facing The United Methodist Church is: “Is the Christian faith a revealed religion that was disclosed by God . . . in the Holy Scriptures for all generations to come?   Or is Christianity a religion that both expects and obligates each generation to reinterpret and redefine the faith?”  When explaining the reason for his resignation from The United Methodist Church, Rev. John Christie observes “there are two religions in The UMC, one based on Scripture, and one that feels we are in a new age with new truths.”  For Rev. Christie what divides us is not a single issue, but a foundational difference on the nature of biblical authority.  In the paper “In Search of Unity”, produced by a small group of people within The United Methodist Church ranging from leaders in the Confessing Movement to liberals, the liberal side claimed Christians are capable of receiving new and expanded revelation beyond the cannon of Scripture, while the more conservative side maintains Scripture is God’s definitive revelation for all generations.  The paper “In Search of Unity” concludes:

    “We believe we may experience substantive disagreement around a variety of theological issues:  the nature of the Trinitarian faith; the meaning of incarnation; and our views of the saving work of Christ, to name a few.  All these arise out of differing understandings of Scriptural authority and revelation.  However in this document, we have turned to the practice of homosexuality as illustrative of our divergence because it is the one most visible presenting issues in United Methodism today.”

In other words the conflict over a Christian response to homosexual practice is best understood as a surface issue which is arising out of a much deeper level difference in understanding Scriptural authority.

Both liberals and conservatives claim “the primacy of Scripture,” but the two ends of the spectrum have a widely different understanding of Scriptural authority and revelation.   Can both groups be correct at the same time?  Is the truth somewhere in the middle?   Have the conservatives merely invented their position?  Ultimately, believers need to decide if it is optional for Christians to believe in the authority of the Bible!

As one small argument in favor of the conservative understanding of Scriptural authority,  let’s begin by looking at John 3:22-36.  In John 3:26, the disciples of  John the Baptist come to him and complain that everyone is going to Jesus to be baptized.  In 3:27, John the Baptist replies, “A person can receive only that which is given to them from heaven.”  What is that which is given from heaven?  In the context of John 3:22-35 and the whole Gospel according to John, several things all refer to “that which is given from heaven”:  (a) John the Baptist’s own mission and vision of Jesus;  (b) the Holy Spirit, and (c) the person of Jesus.   However, the most often repeated and discussed gift from heaven in the immediate context is Jesus.   Jesus is that which is given from heaven.  So John the Baptist is in effect saying his disciples should believe in Jesus.

But, what is authentic faith in Jesus?  Many different people have met Jesus in the first three chapters of John -  Nathaniel, the mother of Jesus, the Jews, Nicodemus -  but not all of them have fully accepted Jesus.  John 1:5 warned us that although Jesus is the true light of salvation sent from God, not everyone will welcome the light.  In John 3:22-36, John the Baptist provides an example of authentic faith in Jesus in his words of 3:29,  “the friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.”  The repeated use of terms referring to speech;  namely, listens, hears, and voice - emphasizes the words of Jesus.  Referring to Jesus as the one sent by God from heaven, 3:34 says, “the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God.”  A person with authentic faith accepts the words of Jesus as the word of God.  This is not too surprising in a Gospel which starts off in 1:1 saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  In the Gospel of John those people who accept the words of Jesus are examples of authentic faith:  (2:5) the mother of Jesus tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you” and (2:22)  the disciples believed the Scripture and the words which Jesus had spoken.  In contrast those who do not accept the word of Jesus are not positive examples: (a) in 2:18 some Jews at the temple say, “what miraculous sign can you do to prove your authority”; and (b) 2:23 clearly states many saw the signs and believed, but Jesus would not trust Himself to them, because faith based on signs is not authentic faith.    Even the disciple Nathaniel is chastised in 1:50 because his faith was based upon the miraculous sign of Jesus knowing his actions without being present with him.

Francis Moloney in his commentary Belief in the Word:  Reading John 1-4 summarizes the proper response to Jesus in the Gospel of John this way, “The truth about Jesus and John the Baptist will not be discovered in messianic gestures, precursors, messianic titles, and signs.” In other words, nothing a person can experience about the Jesus physically present with them will lead them to authentic faith.  Referring to 3:27 Moloney goes on to say “It is on the basis of what has been received from the only source of authentic revelation, ‘from above,’ that anyone can be in a proper relationship with God.”  A person comes into a proper relationship with God when they accept the word of Jesus as being the truth sent by God for their salvation, just as John 3:16 says.  John 3:34 says God makes the “word” known through the spoken “word” of the one sent - Jesus.

Moloney’s commentary shocks me out of my comfort zone when he concludes, “as the reader comes to the end of this section (3:22-36)  he or she finds a reflection showing interest in “the word” rather than the person of Jesus.”   How could the word of Jesus possibly be better than experiencing Jesus in person?  In the Gospel of John, all those who rely upon the traditional wisdom of what the Messiah would be like (Nathaniel, Jews at the temple, and Nicodemus) have trouble accepting Jesus.  All those who rely upon seeing Jesus perform miracles do not truly accept Jesus (2:23-24).  Even those who physically had Jesus right there with them could not base what they believed about God on their culture, or their personal experience of signs and wonders.  As the Gospel of John tells it, even for those who had the physical Jesus present with them, only those who accept the word of Jesus are examples of authentic faith.  How much more should we, who do not have the physical Jesus, need to accept the word of Jesus.   Of course, the word of Jesus is the Scriptures, the Gospel of John is part of the Word of Jesus.

God primarily intends to reveal Himself to us through the Bible! How God has acted in the past is in the Bible.  Why God does things in the present is explained in the Bible.  What God will do in the future is revealed in the Bible.  Jesus is the one who comes from God, is God, and perfectly reveals to us God’s will.  We know about Jesus from the Bible.  The words of Jesus are in the Bible.  The Bible is a sufficient source of salvation:   meaning everything we need to know about God and God’s will for us is contained in the Bible.  The Gospel of John is one source of the conservative view which regards the Bible as revealing God’s will to people of all generations and cultures.

Lest we try to take the speck out of our brother’s eye, and fail to see the log in our own eye; consider the following.  How have you experienced God in the last several weeks?   Most Christians respond to this question with some story from their personal lives.  Many people in the church believe their personal experience of God is the most significant way of knowing God.  This, however, is the basic tenet of liberalism!  Biblical Christianity maintains that God primarily intends to reveal Himself to us through the Bible.  When asked how they have experienced God lately, shouldn’t Bible believing Christians describe how they have encountered God in the Bible?  This is the good news:  God has revealed Himself to us in the words of Jesus found in the Bible.  We don’t have to figure God out all on our own based upon the experiences of life.  Even a young person can know about God, because God has revealed Himself to us, and given us the Bible to read, study, and memorize.

Furthermore conservative Christians can demonstrate a lack of integrity when they do not regularly attend a group Bible study.  How can a person say with their mouth that the Bible is the final authority for the faith and practice of the church, and not practice the regular study and encounter with the Bible?  Far too often Christians are substituting their own experience of God lately, for God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture.   Encountering the Word should transform our lives, it should kill the old self, and transform us from one degree of glory to the next.


Dr. Richard G. Boone is:

  • pastor of the Obetz-Faith Charge in Columbus, Ohio;
  • is a probationary deacon in the West Ohio Annual Conference;
  • a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, M.Div.,
  • and Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation
  • and a John Wesley Fellow
  • e-mail:  faith_pastor@yahoo.com

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