A crying need for rich interpretersIt makes good sense to say you can’t simply take a text from somewhere in the Bible and say it is binding on us today. No matter what you hear, and no matter who you hear it from, it just isn’t that simple!
All the rules about gathering manna in the Wilderness are gone with the manna. All the laws about setting up the Tabernacle, how it was to be dismantled and who was to carry the materials—they’re all gone with the Tabernacle.
You can’t just take a passage written to slaves (say, 1 Peter 2:18-24), calling them to endure physical and other abuse and apply it as it sits to a present-day employee. The slaves didn’t have the freedom to move to another master if they didn’t like the one that had them. So what use is such a text? It’s part of the business of the church prayerfully to reflect on such a question.
Christ told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money away. He said if someone (anyone) wanted to borrow from you that you were to lend it to them and not expect to get it back. He said if a man sinned against you seven times in one day and came saying, "I repent," you were to forgive him. All of these texts need worked with before they’re made a burden. Enough illustrations.
Whatever the difficulties in applying texts, the Spirit of God through the church (OT and NT) has given us the Bible and we rightly declare ourselves to be under its authority. And it doesn’t matter one whit that the scriptures are ancient—they’re no less binding. And it doesn’t matter that the scriptures are addressed to specific generations or groups of people in circumstances different than our own. God has invested his authority in the scriptures.
Matthew 4 tells us of Christ meeting Satan in the wilderness. It won’t hurt to say that the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (see Mark 1:12). There as elsewhere, Satan functions as God’s message boy, and maybe G.Campbell Morgan was right when he said that the Devil would like to have avoided the meeting. He wasn’t facing Adam and Eve in the Garden now or a peevish Israel in the wilderness. This was Jesus of Nazareth.
What’s of particular interest to us at this moment is that Jesus quoted ancient scripture that addressed people in the wilderness setting under Moses. It didn’t matter to Christ that these words were written centuries earlier or that they were addressed a generation long dead. It didn’t matter that they weren’t addressed to him personally as he would address personal words to, say, the rich young ruler. It didn’t matter that there was no one else around and that the situation was dealing with his own personal and inner world. The ancient texts had authority. He made it clear that they had authority with him. He was never slow to claim he had authority or to call people to obedience to his word but he made it very clear that he too was acting under authority. God’s authority! Of course; but the authority of God came to him in the covenant scriptures as well as in other personal ways.
That we have to wrestle with scripture at times to make sure we are understanding them and using them correctly is no excuse for our sidelining them and substituting our own moral opinions. The authority of scripture is profoundly richer and more powerful than "a dictionary of answers to moral questions". The Bible is smarter than we are no matter how brilliant we think we are. The Bible has the experience of the ages embedded in it and it has Spirit-inspired interpretations of events that are critical for the life of humanity as well as the church. Nations and generations have fed on the Bible and been sustained and transformed during the best of times and the worst of times.
To take the Bible seriously requires more than quoting a ream of texts every time we open our mouths. ("Ah, yes. Now that’s Bible preaching. He quoted ninety-eight verses in a twenty minute lesson." A pox on it!) Bible preaching requires working with those texts, allowing them to be a part of their own narrative. It requires us to listen well to them and to learn to listen well. This means we need scholars! Scholars sometimes need to write and speak for other scholars so that what they write and speak can be tested. But there’s a crying need for scholars who will write and speak for the rest of us; to write and speak so we can feed on rather than test the writing and speaking. Most of us aren’t up to weighing the accuracy of deeper studies and if scholars keep writing for scholars the rest of us will starve, barely living off the crumbs that fall from their tables.
But it’s the biblical Story we need and in our better moments want. Those who minister the Word to little assemblies all over the world need help to feed their churches. Those who’ve been blessed with large congregations that can really make a visible difference need help to sustain and transform such churches. Whoever can help us drink of the richness of the Message of our faith is doing the world a service.