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Friday, January 21, 2005

Will he ever stop posting about the Word?

Take out your copy of Scripture, and tear out a few pages. Rearrange the order of the books. Mix up the order of the chapters. Find a copy without verses and subtitles, and start segmenting whole phrases and thoughts with numbers, sections, colors, descriptive headings, and even observational notes.

When you're finished, let the book flop open and start studying. Ask yourself the question: Now that I've done all this editing, am I reading the Word of God?

What do we mean when we confess sola scriptura? I grew up in a church that taught me that creeds were worthless and confessions divisive. "Here, we only believe in the Bible," teachers would say to classrooms full of new members-in-training. "This book," one instructor might proclaim while holding a leather-bound NIV high in the air, "is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword."

Since joining the confessional Lutheran church, I've become more and more baffled by this sort of emphasis on "the good book" that excludes any advice on how the book should be read. Certainly, I believe that Scripture is God-breathed, infallible, and sets forth the foundation of our faith. But when we say "I believe..." in our confession of the creed, we don't confess a belief in a certain set of words, but in a certain trinity of God. The book is not an end in itself, but a means to an end separable from ink spilled on paper.

To understand what I'm getting at, take out that mangled copy of pages that we started with, formerly known as a Bible. During our process of copying and pasting, trimming and editing, rearranging and recoloring, at what point did it cease being the Word and start being only a collection of words? Was it when we tore something out? Or only when we chopped it to bits with numbers? Or when we colorized it? Or was it when we translated it from Greek and Hebrew into English?

As Christians, we believe that the Word is truth, absolutely. Truth does not exist in shades of gray. Furthermore, we recognize that Truth exists not in one language, one sentence structure, or one annotated, authorized copy, but in one person named Jesus Christ. We speak Truth when we say something that properly describes Christ. The Scripture is Truth committed to pages because it properly describes Christ to the reader.

But all written words, even Scripture, must be interpreted. The reader must know the writer's language, understand his grammar, and have some sense of his thesis. Bad readers miss a good author's point. As terrible readers, the Pharisees just could not get the point of Scripture's author, God the Father. From John 5:

37And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41I do not receive glory from people. 42But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"

Contrary to what I formerly believed, making Sola scriptura my battle cry is just not enough. It must be preceded by solus Christus, the living Word who existed before the alphabet was even imagined. Without the objective fact of His existence -- prophesied, born, lived, died, and resurrected -- all we've really got is words on a page. He is God's great statement of Himself, the thesis of all Scripture.

Some people wonder why we Lutherans insist on reading every Scripture with Christ as our lense, the cross as our lexicon. It's because apart from Him, we're reading the histories of a bunch of dead men who can only instruct us in the way of death. It is only in Christ that we have the Word of Life. It's not narrow-mindedness. It's good reading.