The Bible #3: Not a Book Club
A series of emails and podcasts about reading the Bible well.
|Kurt Willems||Oct 21, 2019|| 3|
This is a long series on the Bible. Here are all the previous parts, that you really need to check out in order if possible to get the full picture of what I’ve suggested about the Bible thus far.
Please Note: There is a podcast version of this series available as well.
The Bible is not the foundation of our faith. It is not why Christianity exists.
There, I said it. There’s more to the story, but we need to keep this clear.
So often we confuse our sacred book as the sacred center of our faith.
It’s not. Not even close.
I have little desire to degrade Holy Scripture. I believe the Bible is holy, set apart for an important purpose. But decentering the Bible is certainly something I’m passionate about.
Here’s what I’m not saying:
I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t inspired by God’s Spirit.
I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t our ultimate guide for how we practice our faith as followers of Jesus.
I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t trustworthy.
I’m not saying that the Bible shouldn’t be at the center of our teaching content within the church.
I’m not saying that the earliest generations of Christians had no interest in studying the New Testament documents that they had access to, of course they did.
I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t transformational for the lives of individual people who read it. It’s transformational in my own life with God.
I’m not saying that the core beliefs we hold, which the Bible gives witness to, are relative or need updating (I affirm every bullet point of the Apostles’ Creed, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus).
I’m saying that the Bible is not the point but does its job best when it points to the Point. Jesus is the Point. Jesus walked out of a grave in a resurrected body and launched new creation into the world. The Bible could never accomplish such feat.
The Bible tells the story of the Jesus Event but is not the Event itself.
The faith that came to be known as Christianity is not a book club; it is a Jesus Movement. The Jesus Documents come as a response to the Jesus Movement which is the response to the Jesus Event.
Don’t Join a Book Club. Join a Movement.
Why the Bible? Something compelling happened.
Early on, writers like Paul, Peter, John, the other John, Jude, James, the Gospel writers and the author of Acts, and the author of Hebrews added their voices to a series of first century documents that had a basic purpose: to give witness to the Jesus Event.
They wanted to document what had happened among them so that others who would come after them would understand the origins and the nature of the Jesus Movement that they were joining.
Each New Testament document is written for the sake of the Jesus followers who joining the Jesus Movement in the first generation, or for those who would join shortly after the witnesses to the Jesus Event had all passed on. (Sure, some nuances could be noted, but the gist of this idea is what is important for our purposes.)
What has happened in recent generations, however, is that we’ve tried to make the book itself the compelling part.
Read this book. It will change your life.
But it was quite a different emphasis during the first century.
Join our Movement with Jesus. It will change your life.
(And since you will need guidance, here are some written accounts of why we live the way we do.)
Think about this: until the printing press made the Bible readily available, the average Christian didn’t have access to a personal copy. There weren’t Wednesday night Bible Studies at Jacob’s house (don’t forget to RSVP to our Sign-Up Genius for the potluck!).
Personal devotions were prayer practices, not book studies.
Sitting in a circle and talking about the current chapter and verse of the current book in your ongoing book-by-book study of the whole Bible was simply not a thing people did.
I’m beyond grateful for the fact that I own a dozen different Bibles now (which I likely could stand to read and pray through more often).
Book clubs are great, especially ones that invite us to engage with Scripture in theological and practical ways.
But this is not why the church exists. The church exists as representatives of God’s renewal of heaven and earth which we anticipate in every act of love, mercy, truth, and justice. The church is a Movement on a mission, not a book club. The Bible exists to propel us into a life with Jesus and a sharing in his mission in the world.
Decentering the Bible
So what do we do with the New Testament and its role in our lives? Yes, decenter it.
We need to rid ourselves of a subtle idolatry that can take place when we center Scripture. At the center is Jesus because he is the full revelation of who God is and Jesus is the one who sends the Spirit.
Sometimes I wonder, as the old matra suggests, why some of our churches don’t pray in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Bible. Why not make it explicit? The truth is, we all know why: the Bible is not the center even when we treat it as though it is.
The Bible is central to understanding our Movement with Jesus, but it is not the Movement itself.
The Bible is a product of the Jesus Movement.
As a reminder from a the previous part of this series: The order of events matters. In short:
Jesus Event —> Jesus Movement —> Jesus Documents —> Bible
In the New Testament, we get some helpful cues to the purpose of the 27 documents that we consider Christian Scripture. One of my favorite places is the prologue to 1 John:
We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life. 2 The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. 3 What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
1 John 1-3 (CEB)
Notice the senses that John invites us to experience with him. He—and his community of disciples (along with the other witnesses to the Jesus Event)—announces something that was revealed to him directly.
John heard, saw, and engaged tangibly with something compelling that happened.
This Event led to the formation of communities that used the word “fellowship” to describe their relatedness to one another. This fellowship was ultimately defined by a shared union with God, the God who disrupted human history with the launching of a resurrection movement.
So, John, in a community where he knows that he won’t be around forever, writes down important aspects of the Jesus Event as it pertains to this pocket of the Jesus Movement receiving his document. For John, this and the next generation matters.
For John, Jesus matters. The definitive center of the “fellowship” of those in the community was not the completed Bible, but the shared “fellowship” they experienced connected to the source of their common existence: God as revealed by Father and Son.
John shows us that the source of our “fellowship” as Christians is the God revealed by Jesus. Knowing Messiah Jesus and stepping into his Movement of new creation is the reason we organize our lives together.
Jesus gave early Messiah-following Jews a new lens to read their holy texts in light of the Events that took place in the first century.
Just as the Hebrew Bible helped them to know what it meant to put God at the center (through Torah obedience, etc.), so also the documents that would emerge as a byproduct of their Movement (New Testament) would bear witness to the Jesus Event.
Thus, the Jesus Documents offered a wonderful resource—with Hebrew Scripture—to discern together what it meant to keep Jesus himself at the center of their “fellowship” together as their Movement added new members to their fold.
The New Testament tells us about the story of what happened 2,000 years ago. The Jesus Event was and remains utterly compelling.
Reading the Bible in study settings is a great thing, in light of that thing that happened. It is one of many wise and necessary responses to Jesus.
So, go join a bookclub centered on the Bible. But don’t call that church. Don’t call that the main thing. It is a thing that supports and augments the main thing: acknowledging Jesus at the center and joining his Movement.
May our book clubs augment our Movement but may they never become the definitive center.
Besides, if we learn anything from the trajectory of the Jesus Movement in the early centuries it’s this: the Jesus Event, carried forward by the Jesus Movement, is worth suffering and possibly even dying for.
Even the holiest of books isn’t worthy of that kind of allegiance on its own.