by Al Maxey
Issue #829 -- September 14, 2021
In the midst of our applauding the feats
of civilization, the Bible flings itself like a
knife slashing our complacency, reminding
us that God, too, has a voice in history.
Abraham Joshua Heschel [1907-1972]
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
Over the many decades of my public ministry, and even before (during my university years), I have been fascinated with the history of the formulation and transmission of the Bible. I studied it in some depth during graduate school, and I have taught the course many times. Having a strong background in the behavioral sciences, I am particularly interested in how people have perceived the Bible, and how much authority over their lives they have been willing to grant it. The Bible is "the collection of writings to which the church attaches canonical authority. The limits of this collection have varied considerably at different periods, and there are profound differences within the church over the degree of authority which is to be attributed to the collection and to particular books within it" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 407]. Some disciples of Jesus own several copies of the Bible in a number of different and differing versions and translations, which is quite useful when doing comparative analysis of the biblical text. Others may own a copy or two of the Bible, but rarely read it, while not a few follow a program of daily Bible reading and reflection. There are some, however, who hold the Bible in such high regard that it truly borders on idolatry (or "bibliolatry," as some would characterize it). Some would even take it further, suggesting that only one version of these collected writings is worthy of any kind of reverential treatment (which can be seen in the "King James only" sect).
George Santayana (1863-1952), a Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, was an atheist perhaps best known for his many maxims and aphorisms, such as: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (sound advice many today within our nation would do well to heed). Though he did not believe in God, he did value to some degree the moral guidance of the church and its affect upon society. As for the "sacred" Scriptures, however, his view was expressed thusly: "The Bible is literature, not dogma" [from the introduction to his work The Ethics of Spinoza]. Some of you might differ with me on this, but I think he makes a good point! Too many within Christendom read Truth (or, more accurately, one's own view/version of Truth) back into the Bible, which "truths" then quickly become dogma (which is defined as "any principle, conviction, belief, creed, or tenet laid down as incontrovertibly true, and therefore authoritative"). God never intended for these various writings of His people to become some leather-bound Book of LAW to be forever bound upon all of humanity regardless of time or place or circumstance! It is, rather, a Self-revelation of our Creator to His creation; a powerful narrative, a sacred story; literature of the highest order. But it is not law, and it is most certainly not dogma.
Dr. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), an English physician, writer, and social reformer, observed, "The text of the Bible is but a feeble symbol of the Revelation held in the text of Men and Women." The apostle Paul phrased a similar thought this way: "What may be known about God is plain" to mankind, "for God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:19-20). The most effective way of revealing ultimate Truth is visibly, not verbally: in a Body, not a Book. Yes, these collected writings do indeed reveal our God and His purposes for His creation, but these truths can also be seen in His work of creation that surrounds us daily, and in His people, and especially in the person of His Son Jesus the Messiah. In the past, "God spoke" to mankind "at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son. ... The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being" (Hebrews 1:1-3). Yes, sacred scrolls and books serve a purpose, and we should never diminish the importance of their place in His plan for us, but they are not the epitome of His Self-revelation. That spot is reserved solely for His Son: "Hear ye Him!" Even nature itself "preaches" more powerfully than any text: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" (Psalm 19:1-4).
We humans, however, especially those within the realm of systematic, institutionalized religion, have a tendency to establish "authority" by means of a "book, chapter, and verse" scrutiny of our religious writings. We like things to be "written down;" carved in stone; ink on paper/black on white. We can thereby refer to it, quote it, even lift it from its context and weaponize it for use in our sectarian squabbles. It is easy for such people to fail to perceive the Savior standing right before them, for their focus is entirely upon the Scriptures lying before them. Jesus took some of the leaders of His day to task for this very thing. He even prefaced His powerful statement to them by saying He had "a weighty testimony" for them: one from the eternal realm and the eternal Father. "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" (John 5:36-38). These rigid religionists were poring over piles of "sacred" scrolls, assuming that God's presence would fill them from that source. They were wrong then, and such persons are just as wrong today. Jesus told them, "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; yet it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). The Scriptures were never designed to save anyone. That is not their purpose. They were designed to reveal the One who can save!! Paul told Timothy, "From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15).
Our life (a spiritually fulfilled, fruitful life here, and eternal life in the new heavens and earth hereafter) is found in intimate union with God through His Son, with untold blessings derived from the personal indwelling of His Spirit. "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (1 John 5:11-12). John then immediately wrote that what he was writing to them (which thankfully has been preserved for us in the Bible) was written so that they, who already had come to "believe in the name of the Son of God ... may know that they have eternal life" (vs. 13). These words of the apostle John contained in his epistles were not for the purpose of bringing eternal life to these believers; they were simply written for the purpose of assuring these believers that they did indeed already have eternal life. While the writings in the Bible may assure, enlighten, and comfort us, they most certainly do not save us! Our salvation is not from the written word, but from the living Word Himself. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). "IN HIM was life, and the life was the light of men" (vs. 4). "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name" (vs. 12). "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (vs. 14). These were all realized realities already in place before a single word was written in the New Covenant writings, realities pointed to in the pages of the Old Covenant writings. The Scriptures, both old and new, most certainly have the power and ability to reveal, but they in no way redeem. This "Word of Life" (Jesus - John 1:1) was the focus of the apostle John's writings, and "these things we write so that our joy may be made complete" (1 John 1:4). What greater happiness than to know that the One we know, love, and serve is daily revealed through our testimony (spoken, written, and lived), so that others may know, love, and serve Him too! John, I'm sure, never anticipated that the words He wrote would be revered by some who read them centuries later. He only sought to shine a light of understanding and appreciation upon the Light that had come into this world to guide us back to the Father.
Some will likely take me to task for this, for it goes against the dogma of some fundamentalist denominations, but I personally do not regard the Bible itself as being in any way salvific, but as being one of a number of God-ordained, God-directed, and God-breathed ways that the Father seeks out sinful men and points them toward the ONE Who IS the source of our salvation: the Son. The Holy Spirit also is a powerful source of our knowledge and understanding of God's loving gift of grace through His Son, and that insight is not gained from the Holy Spirit operating only through the Bible, as some claim. The Spirit of God is not bound by/to a book. We don't remove His "gag" when we open the Bible, or silence Him again when we close it. That dogma is a godless absurdity. I also believe that, just as men and women in the past were called by the Lord to share the Good News with others, utilizing both spoken and written words, so too does God continue to use "called" men and women to share His divine Message. The Bible itself is NOT the "Word of God," as I have heard it called countless times; rather, it points to the One who IS the "Word of God" become flesh!! When God said, "Hear ye HIM," I think He meant just that. The Bible itself is NOT the "message" from God, but it most certainly CONTAINS that Divine Message, a message which we too are commissioned to share with others in our teaching and in our personal witness as we live lives consistent with the attitudes and actions of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I love that we have been blessed by God with the preservation of these 66 books known to us today as the Bible. I feast on the narratives and revelations contained therein daily!! They are enlightening, challenging, and comforting. I don't search them for laws, rules, and regulations to govern my life or a "worship assembly." I study them prayerfully to simply gain a better insight into the nature of my Father and His Son, praying that my life may resemble theirs more fully and faithfully every day. In these writings I see His love, mercy, grace, kindness; in Jesus I see how these qualities were manifested in the flesh by this One who is the "Word of Life." "HE my great example is, and pattern for me!" No, I don't "hate the Bible," as some claim that I do. No, I don't want to have a public bonfire into which we toss the Scriptures. No, I don't think the Bible is "irrelevant" and "out-dated" for those of us living in modern societies. It's just that I simply refuse to place this book on a pedestal and bow before it. It is not an idol, and I refuse to worship it as though it were. I don't believe the biblical writers went into a trance, at which time God dictated to them every letter and word, or that the grammatical structure of every sentence was given by Him. He used Spirit-filled, called-of-God men and women to share with others the Message, just as we who are called-of-God today share that same powerful Message!! The Bible itself is NOT "the Message of God," but it does contain it. To the degree that I, and others like me, preach and teach (spoken/written) that same Message, we provide the same service as those who came before us and were similarly employed by the Lord. No, I am not equating myself with Paul or John, but neither am I elevating those men or their writings to a position of special prominence. "What/who then is Apollos? What/who is Paul? Merely servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one" (1 Corinthians 3:5).
Peter informs us that "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21). This would include their writings, as Peter also noted. He even dared to state that "our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you in his letters ... speaking of these things, some of which are hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:15-16). Yes, the Spirit of God was moving within them as they sought to share the Message of the Father. Peter was NOT seeking to elevate Paul's letters to such a high status that they would be revered by the "common folk." Rather, he was stating that when God breathes His Message into the hearts and minds of His called/chosen servants, and they speak and write that Message, these teachings should be given respectful, reflective consideration (as should ALL such Spirit-guided teaching, whether written or spoken). No, I am not saying that I view my own writings as "the very words of God Himself." I do not sit down at my keyboard, fall into a trance, and then wake up to find a fully written, spiritually flawless, Reflections article. God doesn't move my fingers, using them to type ultimate, infallible Truth. Nor would I suggest such of any other writer or speaker either! I do not believe we should take the collected writings of ancient fellow believers, whose writings are preserved in the Bible, and regard them as flawless, divinely mandated "Law" to regulate the church in every area of its work and worship until the end of time. Surely, every OT and NT writer would have been horrified at the thought that what they penned would be so perceived, and so manipulated, and so imposed upon others.
Sadly, too many within the One Body of Christ Jesus seem to regard the Bible (and the NT portion especially) as a Law Book for worship style, instead of a Guide Book for lifestyle. The Bible is not all about God "laying down the Law," but about our God, through His Son, laying down His life. We live in a dispensation of grace; our "law" is LOVE; our service to Him and those around us is our worshipful expression, and NONE of these are regulated, restrained, or restricted by volumes of rigid religious LAW. Indeed, our dispensation is not about establishing a new religion (one better than the heavy-handed yoke of Judaism), but about reestablishing mankind's relationship with God. As in the past, the Lord calls some to share that message in spoken and written form for the enlightenment and encouragement and equipping of others within the unique time, place, and cultural circumstance of each. He does not control our every keystroke, nor dictate every word we speak or sentence we write, but through the aid of His indwelling Spirit, we carefully and prayerfully share, using our best methods and mediums, His proclamation of grace! In this way, we stand forever together as one with that cloud of faithful-unto-death witnesses who have gone before us, and who, like us, sought only to convey and testify to those Truths He had revealed to them.
With the above in mind, let me share an email from a dear friend and brother-in-Jesus (who was recently out here to visit with me - one of several trips he has made here over the past several years). He wrote, "Al, as a believer that God still 'speaks' to us and is constantly involved with our lives today, I would suggest the canon put together as The Bible is no more important to us than the words you write in your Reflections, or the words you speak in your sermons, classes, and lectures (and this is equally true of the words written or spoken by other godly men). I find it difficult to believe that the sum total of God's Word for all people throughout all time and in every place is found in its entirety in the book we call 'the Bible.' The Word of God was being spoken and shared for a long time prior to the Bible, and men and women like yourself are sharing it with others today, effectively tearing down the traditions we have bound on each other from the flawed way we have read and interpreted the Bible. If, as I believe, the Word of God is still active and being given to us today, then your words (and others like you) are simply part of God's way of showing (through you) how His message can address the Christian life in the face of the challenges of 2021. We must now be like the Bereans (Acts 17) and examine such teaching, as they did with Paul, to see if it's consistent with the nature and will of God as He has revealed that nature and will to us. The Bible, and other associated writings, simply give us background and context for those truths still being proclaimed and examined today as we grow in our great relationship with our God. Love you, brother, and expect to see you again the next time I pass through your area."
Let me be clear: I have the utmost respect for, and I highly regard, the writings contained in the Bible. I do indeed believe them to be "God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). God has revealed Himself to us in these writings, just as He has in His creation, and through the work of the prophets, and through the guidance of the indwelling Spirit, and through the life and teachings of His Son. He still reveals Himself in countless ways! In each of these areas, both in the past and in the present, He requires us to be discerning disciples: to examine teachers and teachings to determine if they are accurately representing His Message. "Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). J. B. Phillips, in his translation, states, "Never despise what is spoken in the name of the Lord. By all means use your judgment, and hold on to whatever is really good." The Message reads, "Donít stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, donít be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only whatís good." That Message from our God and Father is not complex; indeed, it is quite simple. God is love, and He calls us to be a people of love (for both Him and others). He took care of the sin problem through the loving sacrifice of His Son, and forgiveness and redemption are given freely and graciously to all who embrace it by faith. If our message is consistent with His Message, then we are part of all those past and present who have been called to communicate His love and grace and mercy to others, regardless of the medium or method employed! I am greatly encouraged and enlightened every time I open up my Bible and read this revelation of the nature of my God and the accounts of those who lovingly served Him. As previously noted, however, I do not regard it as a source book for the establishment of LAW for the governing of the church and its acts of worship and service. The "Gospel" is not the sum total of all the rules, regulations, and restrictions that men infer, deduce, and assume from their "searching of the Scriptures." I am not a "Biblicist," which is a term that many use to describe one who views the Bible as the source of our "authority" for all we say and do (especially as it pertains to the Sunday "worship service"). The transition from "Biblicism" to "Bibliolatry" is a short one, and too many have taken that path.
I do not bow before the Bible. It is not an idol; it is not worthy of reverence. It is a book. However, and I stress this, it contains a revelation/message that IS worthy of my reverence! It points to the nature of my Father and the redeeming work of His Son, and I readily bow before them!! I value the Bible as a powerful source of ultimate Truth. The Bible itself is not that ultimate Truth, but it contains it!! It is not a book of regulations for a new religion, but a book of revelations about a renewed relationship between fallen men and a faithful Father through the gifts of the Son and the Spirit. It is a LOVE book, not a LAW book, for those in a dispensation of GRACE. Many today, like the religionists Jesus rebuked in John 5:39-40, search the Scriptures thinking that "in them" they have salvation. They were wrong then, and they are just as wrong today. The Scriptures are not the source of salvation; they merely point to the One who IS. I revere the latter, not the former. I find great value in the Bible, for it serves a divine purpose: it reveals Good News. It affirms and confirms that glorious Good News in a number of ways, and for that revelation I have great love and respect, just as I do for all those called of God to ministries of affirmation, confirmation, and proclamation of that same Good News. The Bible is a compilation of writings, diverse in nature and style, containing the God-breathed Message of a God-sent Messiah. JESUS is the "Word of God" sent forth into this world; He is the way and the truth and the life. The Messiah IS the Message, and the writings of the Bible, as well as the writings and teachings down through the ages of those He has called to share this Good News, all point to HIM. It is to Him we are added, and it is by Him we are saved, thus it is about Him that we speak and write! Yes, "Jesus loves me; this I know; for the Bible tells me so" ... as do all the many witnesses God sends forth with this same eternal Message! Lord, please help us to show respect for this revelation we call the Bible, but please help us even more to reserve reverence for You alone!!
From a Reader in North Carolina:
I was looking at your Facebook profile picture (about which someone posted, "I wonder what he is thinking?"). I'm guessing you're wondering about who has that evasive LIST of things that we must follow to be saved! I read that point that you made in your writings about ten years ago, and it was a very significant insight that helped me to come out of legalism. Thank You!!
I wish I could tell you what was going through my mind when that picture was taken, but I really don't remember. It was taken during one of the annual Legislative Prayer Breakfasts for the state of New Mexico, an event where I was honored by being asked to be the keynote speaker three years in a row. I was being introduced by one of our elected officials, and was probably just thinking, "I hope I don't blow my speech, or say something stupid!!" (LOL - I guess my wish worked, though, for I received a standing ovation at the end of my speech). Anyway, the "list" that this reader from North Carolina mentioned is that list of particulars that make up "the pattern" that the legalists declare all men must follow precisely if they are to be saved, and if they are to be allowed into fellowship with "faithful" Christians. I have for many, many years been asking the legalistic patternists to provide me with that list, and to provide ALL of the particulars of that list, since they claim leaving any of them out can result in our eternal damnation. Thus, if what they say is true, then we all need to know exactly what is on that list so that we can fully comply. After all, if failing to keep them all can cost me my salvation, then I want the whole list!! Well, guess what?! That's right: they REFUSE to give me that list. I have been requesting it for decades, and NOT ONE of these legalistic patternists will give me that list. In fact, they get mad at me for even persisting in my request for it. One would think they would be thrilled to provide it to anyone who asked, right?! After all, didn't Peter advise us, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). Yet, I suppose what Peter ordered is not part of this elusive "pattern," since these people refuse to follow his instruction. I have documented my quest for this list in six Reflections articles which can be found on my Topical Index page under the heading "Requesting Legalism's List." I am thankful that this has led several, including this reader from North Carolina, to finally perceive the fallacy of legalism. His email to me made my day!! -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Georgia:
Your article on "The Crown of Thorns: Cruel Mockery of Our King" (Reflections #828) was a very interesting read. The lingering thought that I had was that one day, when Jesus returns in triumph and every knee bows, He will put on that same crown of thorns! It would be, at least for me, my greatest trophy! Love ya, brother. Keep stompin' out ignorance!
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