(Inspiration and insight for this article came from Vítor Westhelle, “On the Authority of the Scriptures: More than Enough” in The Church Event: Call and Challenge of a Church Protestant, Fortress 2010.)
Let’s admit it, the Bible is really hard to read. It comes from a different time and from another part of the world. It is written in different genres that are unfamiliar to us. And often we don’t really know what it is we’re reading.
Lutheran Christianity gives us a great starting place. Our Lutheran tradition says the Bible points us to Christ. (Martin Luther said the scriptures are the manger that holds the Christ child.) Now, that doesn’t answer every question, but it does aim us in the right direction.
It can be hard to see how some Bible texts point to Christ. Martin Luther even pointed to some parts of Scripture that he felt did not convey Christ. Yet still… the broad sweep of Scripture reveals that: God is God of life and new life; God rescues, restores, liberates, and sets free; God has regard for the lowly and the powerless; God wants a relationship with God’s people; and when we mess things up, God works to bring us back. In all these ways, the Scriptures show that the way of God is indeed the way of Jesus Christ. In other words… the scriptures point to Christ.
The Scriptures show that Christ comes and restores us back to God (we call this salvation). We don’t earn it, deserve it, or make ourselves more acceptable to God. We are saved as a free gift of God’s grace. We grasp ahold of God’s gift of grace only by trusting and believing that the gift is real. This trust in God’s grace is called FAITH. Having faith is not a statement about ourselves; it’s a statement about God. God is worthy of faith because God is trustworthy and true.
Lutherans put these pieces together and say that:
Those four little statements (grace alone; faith alone; Christ alone; word alone) are Luther’s great insight and were the basis of Luther’s argument with the Roman Catholic Church of the 1500s and the reason there was a Reformation.
At that time, the Church taught that “there is no salvation apart from the church.” The Church had inserted itself between God and the people and claimed to have the authority to hand out salvation.
Luther argued that the Church does not save us! We are saved by Christ and Christ alone. Salvation does not come through our works and efforts; nor by the rituals, prayers, religious relics, or buying of indulgences offered (or required) by the Roman Church. Salvation is a gift from God by grace alone. Grace gives the gift and calls us to trust that the gift is real, by faith alone. And what is the basis and foundation of our faith? The hope, and the promise, and the truth of Jesus Christ, revealed in the word alone.
Luther’s message was important then (and still is today), but we need to remember that his argument belonged to a specific time and a specific issue. The issue was that the Church claimed it had the authority to hand out salvation and that religious activities and practices could help you “score points” with God and move closer to salvation. Luther’s argument was against the Church overreaching its proper authority. Instead, Luther pointed to Christ as the only way of salvation and the scriptures as the only reliable witness to Christ.
A lot has happened since the 1500s. Around the 1700s something called “The Enlightenment” occurred and people developed different ideas about what is “truth”. People came to think that only logic, reason, and hard observable facts counted as “truth”. The Bible came into question because at times it contradicted itself, some details were historically incorrect, and some stories defied “reason” or “logic”.
A good “Lutheran” answer to these doubts would have been to say that the Bible is “truth” because it points to God’s promises that come in Jesus Christ. To argue over every little dot and dash is meaningless compared to the much greater promise of the Good News of Jesus. But not everyone wanted to take this route.
Instead, some people opted for “defending” the Bible. They dug in, insisting every story was historically factual, every word correct, and the entire text was without error (inerrant). Rather than trusting the Bible because it pointed to Jesus, for them the Bible itself became the object of their faith. These “true believers” set themselves as the experts and made it their project to “prove” that the Bible is “true” (factual) in every detail; and to rebuff and reject those who dared to think differently. This is referred to as fundamentalism. For them, salvation is only for those who “believe in the Bible” and its “right interpretation”. They stole Luther’s “word alone” phrase and twisted it to mean that they would ignore logic, reason, science, or historical fact, and believe only the Bible (their interpretation of it). What gets lost is grace, and faith, and trust in Christ alone.
Fundamentalism distorts the Bible and distorts Luther’s teaching. It distorts Luther because “word alone” was never about rejecting logic and reason, but about challenging the authority of the Roman Church and returning authority to Jesus Christ and the witness of the Scriptures. Fundamentalism distorts the Bible because it makes a book, a created thing, into the object of faith.
It is important to know what the Bible is, for knowing protects us from trying to turn the Bible into something it was never intended to be. So then, what is the Bible? It is a book. To be sure, it is a holy book, but it is a book. The book points beyond itself to the hope and promise that is Jesus Christ, God’s Son. The book does not save us; God does. The book is not the promise; Jesus is. Jesus is light and life; Jesus is our hope and salvation; Jesus is God’s grace and truth made flesh. We have faith in that promise. We have faith because we trust that the witness of the Bible points us to Jesus Christ, our salvation.
Pastor Erick Swanson