A New Testament Perspective
An address by the Rev'd Dr Dorothy Lee on June 26, 2010
I want to approach the question of whether Scripture is enough from a New Testament point of view—and from the perspective of New Testament theology. And I also want to approach it in a hands-on kind of way rather than theoretically, although I hope the theoretical aspects will emerge as we go. We can't really answer the question of whether Scripture is enough with a simple 'yes' or 'no', because a whole lot of things need to be said before we can begin to answer the question.
We need to begin with the diversity of the biblical witness. The New Testament—which is my special area of concern—does not speak with one voice only, but with a plurality of voices. It is, in other words, multi-vocal rather than uni-vocal. It does not simply present one view on a matter, or one emphasis, but rather presents a number of views, not all of which can be easily reconciled.
Let's look today at three examples of this 'multivocity' or pluralism within the New Testament (the situation is, of course, more complicated when we draw in the Old Testament); and then look at some theological issues that bear on the question of 'Is Scripture enough?' Basically, we're asking the preliminary question of what the Bible actually is. And one thing we can say from the start is that it's not one doctrine, one theology, one perspective. It has a range, admittedly a limited one, of diversity within its unity.
The first example is that of the Mosaic law. The New Testament has more than one perspective on the law. We need to be subtle about this, because there's been a good deal of theology around that has suggested that there's a contrast between law and grace in the New Testament, where the law represents that which is old and irrelevant (our attempts to reconcile ourselves to God) whereas grace represents the new and relevant (God's definitive reconciling of us, regardless of our merits). This view, usually attributed to the apostle Paul, comes very close to saying that the God of the Old Testament is a God of law and wrath, whereas the God of the New Testament is a God of grace. Actually, in the early Church, that kind of attitude was seen as heretical and not part of orthodox faith. And I don't believe the New Testament justifies it in any way.
Nonetheless, even when we may not want to go in that direction, with that kind of dichotomy, we can't ignore the fact that the New Testament speaks with more than one voice on the issue of the ongoing relevance of the law for Christian living. In Matthew's Gospel, for example, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says that no part of the law—not even the smallest letter or mark—will pass away: all of it still alive and vibrant for discipleship (5:17). This is an important statement, and comes fairly early in the Sermon, soon after the Beatitudes, and immediately before the series of seven antitheses (5:21-48), where Matthew's Jesus authoritatively and magisterially declares his own interpretation of the law, using a number of examples of the 'better righteousness'—'unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven' (5:20). The antitheses represent, if anything, not a revoking but a radicalising of the law: not just love of family and kin, but love of enemies, not just adultery but the adultery of the heart, not just avoiding murder but the 'murder' of the heart. What Matthew's Jesus demands of the Church is a living out of the law, not just externally, but in the heart. If anything, the Sermon on the Mount seems to make it harder—although later the Matthean Jesus will summon people to his 'easy yoke' which is the law in his interpretation of it (11:28-30).
Matthew's whole concept of righteousness is thus about living in accord with the law, fulfilling the law in word and deed. And that is what Jesus does in this Gospel—he lives out the law; he goes to the heart of the law, to mercy and justice and faithfulness, and interprets if fully in his own life of righteous obedience: in word and deed, in his teaching and his healing ministry. This becomes very important for Matthew's Christology. Jesus saves us precisely by his re-living of the law, his achieving what the people of God could not achieve in the past, indeed which no human being could achieve. Only 'Immanuel', God-with-us (1:22-23), can render that obedience to God for which God searches and longs. Therefore Matthew does not condemn the scribes and Pharisees for their tithing of dill and mint and cumin (23:23)—he doesn't despise their concern for the minutiae of the law; but what troubles him is their ignoring of the 'weightier matters of the law' and their binding of burdens on others (23:4). It's their religious hypocrisy that's the problem, not their concern for the law.
One might well imagine from this and other aspects of the Gospel that Matthew's community was serious in adhering to the law. Indeed, some scholars have argued that Matt's community stands still within Judaism (Christian Jews rather than Jewish Christians): sabbath-keeping, tithing, perhaps even circumcision—for all its openness to the Gentiles.
In contrast, other New Testament writers take a somewhat different attitude to the law. In Mark's Gospel, the best example is in regard to the Sabbath. Within the controversy cycle of Mk 2:1-3:6, Jesus comes into conflict with the authorities—particularly the scribes—over his seemingly lax attitude towards the Sabbath and his permissive approach to his disciples. (Of course, Judaism itself was not unanimous on some of these issues). At the end of the story of the disciples' plucking grain—and therefore 'working' on the sabbath—the Markan Jesus says to their critics: 'The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath' (Mk 2:27). That saying is not found in Matthew in the equivalent story of the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath (Matt 12:1-8). I think that Matthew, using Mark to write his Gospel, may have been a little uneasy about that statement—about what he sees as the dangers of misunderstanding it. Mark's attitude to the law is not dismissive, but certainly more 'laid-back' than Matthew, less prescriptive: the law is there to serve human needs, not the other way round.
Similarly, with Paul whose attitude to the law is admittedly rather complex. Paul states unequivocally in one context that the law is 'holy and good' (Rom 7:12), but at the same time, he speaks of the 'new age' dominated not by law but by the life-giving Spirit (e.g. Rom 8:1-11). The 'old age' is dominated by law which only shows people their captivity to sin and death (like a mirror) but is powerless to transform them. Only the death and resurrection of Christ brings into being the 'new age' through the powerful working of the Spirit. Yes, the law still has a function for Paul but it's rather a negative one. In Romans 7-8, Paul is drawing a contrast with the old age ('flesh') and the new age ('Spirit'). We have 'died' to the law in the sense that we are no longer held in bondage by its impossible demands and the judgement that follows our failure to keep it. Now we are alive to the Spirit, who writes the law on our hearts.
As a consequence Paul does not regard things like circumcision or sabbath observance or keeping of specific Torah traditions as essential for Christian life. Indeed, he himself shows a great deal of freedom on issues that clearly other Christians did not. Eating meat offered to idols or eating kosher food are both examples where this kind of diversity is to be found—although the best example Paul uses is that of circumcision. Paul does not believe that observance of the law is necessary for his beloved Gentile converts; and refuses to allow Jewish Christians to impose it. He even criticizes the apostle Peter, in Galatians, for his rigid adherence to food laws and refusal to eat with Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14).
Subsequent Church history has shown the result of this tension within the New Testament in the different attitudes taken towards the law—think of the difference between a strict Calvinist and an antinomian Christian who considers the law no longer significant: Protestants have generally divided on that very point, some of them inclining to a more Matthaean view and others to a more Markan or Pauline. And something of this diversity can also be seen within Catholicism, though not, I think, to the same extent.
Our second example of the diversity within the Bible is that of 'eschatology': the life of the world-to-come. One of the unique features of the New Testament is its attitude to the 'last things' (the last judgement, eternal life, resurrection, and so on). In apocalyptic forms of Judaism, the picture is fairly straightforward. There is the present, in which we now live, a time of suffering and persecution, and there is the future, God's future, when God will finally intervene, overcome sin and death in a last battle, and inaugurate the reign of God. Christianity messes up that nice, neat picture by presenting Jesus—his incarnation, ministry, cross and resurrection—as the intrusion of the new era, the reign or kingdom of God. It has already dawned in him; yet it has clearly not come in all its fullness. Otherwise, we would not be waiting for the Lord's return, for his coming (which is what we celebrate during Advent, his past coming and his future coming). As a consequence, the New Testament has differing views on where and how that past and future come together in the present moment, and where the emphasis lies.
The strongest contrast is between the Gospel of John and the apostle Paul. The Fourth Gospel, for example, takes a view strongly focused on the present. For John the evangelist, the One who is to come in glory has already come in the incarnation (1:14); through his resurrection the dead, resurrection is available now for believers. 'I am the resurrection and the life', the Johannine Jesus says to Martha when she reproaches him for not arriving in time to save her brother Lazarus from death (11:25-26). Resurrection is not just a future event but can transform the present moment, in the here-and-now. This is based fundamentally around Jesus himself and the sublime identity he has in this Gospel. Resurrection, in John's view (to put it technically) is both Christological and eschatological; it revolves around the identity of Jesus and the presence of the end-time in the here-and-now.
By contrast, Paul points to the future as the place of resurrection and transformation, not just for believers but for the whole cosmos: 'if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him' (Rom 6:8); 'we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him' (Rom 8:17). Similarly Paul uses the language of inheritance: we are 'heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ' (Rom 8:17). The imagery points to the end-time, when what has been definitively begun in Jesus—particularly, for Paul, his death and resurrection—will, through the presence of the Spirit, come to fulfillment in God's time and God's future.
For Paul, then, much of the emphasis lies on the future, on the glory that awaits us, and awaits the universe. Note, however, in both cases it's not a question of either/or but of stress and emphasis. For John, glory and transformation are accessible now; for Paul, we are given a foretaste (an aperitif) in the Spirit, but what we long for is in God's future that comes to meet us and will ultimately transform us and our world. So, two rather different emphases and points of stress in John and Paul on the where and the what of the Last Things: a tension not easily resolved.
The third example today of biblical diversity—and the briefest—is that of Mary, the mother of our Lord. We don't want to buy into Reformation polemics at this point; just to illustrate the different ways in which the same figure is regard in two (and more) different texts.
For Mark, the earliest Gospel, Mary does not seem to play a significant role at all. There are no birth stories in this Gospel, and her only appearance within the narrative of Jesus' ministry comes across as rather negative. Jesus' family, hearing the rumours that are circulating about him—specifically, that he is demon-possessed—try to take hold of him and bring him home. They're concerned with the family honour, which is being sullied by the accusations, and by Jesus' own provocative behaviour. At the point when they're standing outside demanding him, he turns to those inside and says: 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers and sisters? Whoever does the will of God, that one is mother and brother and sister' (Mk 3:33-35). In other words, the Markan Jesus speaks here of the new family of God which outweighs the claims of the old family, the biological unit. And, indeed, it's not even clear from Mark's text that Mary belongs with that new family.
When we turn to Luke, however, we find a much greater emphasis on the figure of Mary. She is present (obviously!) at the birth narratives, and is in fact a key player, the hero of the story, who contrasts favourably with Zechariah the priest; she's deferred to by an older woman with greater status (Elizabeth); and, most of all, she accepts the angelic message with an astonishingly open faith and obedience: 'Behold the servant of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word' (Lk 1:38). Later in the Gospel, Jesus makes clear that what qualifies one for discipleship is precisely the capacity to hear and keep the word of God (8:21; 11:27-28). Mary, in other words, is the first Christian in Luke's Gospel. Similarly, she's present at Pentecost, at the birthday of the church, along with other relatives of Jesus and, of course, the Twelve (Acts 1:13-14).
John's picture is not so very different from Luke. Although Mary is not mentioned in the Prologue, she appears first at the wedding of Cana, where she plays an important role in instigating the first miracle of the Gospel, the first occasion in which Jesus reveals his divine glory (Jn 2:1-11). Then, towards the end of the Gospel, the mother of Jesus again appears, at the foot of the cross, alongside the beloved disciple; and Jesus, from the cross, gives them to one another as mother and son, indicating the beginnings of the Christian church, born from the foot of the cross (19:26-27). Mary, in other words, plays an important role in two passages, one at the beginning and one near the end, which is concerned with the formation of the Christian community.
So here we find the figure of Mary—negligible in Mark, not even clear that she's included among the disciples, whereas in Luke and John she plays an important role, not just or even primarily for her biological motherhood, but because of her extraordinary faith and trust in the word of Jesus.
These three examples illustrate, I hope, something of the diversity within the Bible. The issue it raises very sharply is one of interpretation. How do we live with the multi voices of Scripture? How do we live in the tensions set up within Scripture, a few of which we've touched on today: the polarities that play in and around the biblical text. Is Scripture really that easy to decipher? The early Church speaks of the Bible as a pool in which an elephant can swim and a lamb can paddle. The Scriptures are easy to decipher at one level; yet again, at another level, they are difficult and challenging; they resist us, they don't adapt easily to our schemes and structures that we lay over them; they are always slightly beyond our grasp.
And that's where wider theology comes in. Because there are a number of additional theological factors in this discussion. In the first place, we need to begin any discussion of Scripture as the word of God with Jesus Christ himself. First and foremost it is Jesus who is the divine Word. As Karl Barth has said (dependent here on Martin Luther), strictly speaking, Scripture is the prophetic and apostolic witness to the Word who is Jesus Christ. And that means that already we're laying an interpretative principle over the text. We don't read the Old Testament, for example, in the same way as Jewish people do, although there are important points of overlap. In the end, we interpret the text from the hermeneutical principle ('method' if you like) which is Jesus himself. We cannot have the testimony without the One to whom the testimony points. In this sense, we can speak of the Bible as icon: the window through which we encounter Jesus Christ.
Secondly, we need to have a dynamic sense of the Holy Spirit who illumines us in our reading and interpreting of the biblical text. Inspiration is not just about what the Holy Spirit did two thousand years ago and more in creating the Bible. The Spirit, we believe, remains with us, teaching us, reminding us, revealing to us, with us when we read, when we seek to understand, when we interpret the text.
Thirdly, we need to interpret the Bible within the context of the household of faith, the life of the Church, out of which the Scriptures arose and continue to be read and proclaimed and lived and struggled with. The interpretation of Scripture is not fundamentally an individualistic task; it belongs within the Church. The Church, after all, in one sense gave us the Scriptures, shaped them, gathered them, kept them safe, laboriously memorized them and copied them over centuries. Though the Church stands under obedience to the Scriptures, and to the Word that is Jesus Christ to whom the Scriptures point, the Bible is also 'the Church's book'.
Fourthly, we need to take much more seriously the biblical principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture. There's a great danger in taking one biblical text and running off with it, leaving the rest behind. We take to draw in the very diversity we've been speaking of. Not to err on one side, but to find a way of living within the tensions; reading and interpreting the parts in the light of the whole.
And finally, we need to take seriously our purpose in reading and interpreting the Scripture. When the Bible is used a handbook for science or anthropology or secular history, we mistake the genre—and that can have serious implications. When past generations opened the Bible at any page and pointed at random to a verse in order to make decisions, they were treating it as a kind of superstition, something that still happens today.
In the Book of Common Prayer, Article 6 says that the Scripture 'containeth everything necessary for salvation'. That's a wonderful and very succinct statement. We look to the Bible, from within the community it generated and generates, for salvation, and we know we won't be deceived or led astray or let down. The Bible contains all that we need for salvation—for ours and for the world's.
If this is how we understand the Bible—as something not easily grasped or deciphered, something we need to struggle to interpret, something that has within it a 'canonical' range of diversity, then I would answer that Scripture is enough. If we take seriously that the word of God is the witness to the Word of God, which holds the diversity of the Bible in unity, we can say yes to our question. If we allow for the working of the Spirit within and among us as the church, we can answer in the affirmative. If we believe that the Bible contains all that we need 'for us and for salvation', and if we interpret Scripture by Scripture, then we can answer today's question with a firm yes.
Scripture is enough, but only if we understand it in this broader sense, and only if we're aware of how we're interpreting it: through what lens and with what presuppositions. Only if we're prepared to live with its complexity; only if we're prepared to search it together, for our salvation, with all our heart and soul and strength and mind.