Friday, July 31, 2015

The Bible Is Not Enough

I rarely use the phrase "the Bible" anymore.  This might surprise you coming from an ordained minister.  But it really shouldn't.  Especially if you know me.

I'll never forget the time a number of years ago when I, as an associate pastor, was preaching in my local church, and one of the primary texts I used for the sermon was from the book of Tobit.  Yes, Tobit is a sacred writing.  It's not in "the Bible" that many people I know use.  It is, however, in the Bible that many Catholic and Orthodox Christians use.  And I used it in a sermon, in a fairly conservative church, that did not use Bibles with Apocryphal works in them.  Let's just say that it did not go unnoticed.

The funny thing is, I hear (and preach) sermons all the time in which we use video clips from movies, audio from songs, quotes from current authors, and the like...and nobody seems to bat an eyelash at it.  But dare to use a quote from an...(gasp!)...Apocryphal, not-quite-sanctioned-by-100-percent-of-all-Christians-as-Scripture-book, and...well, let's just say it doesn't go unnoticed.

I have never really understood this contradiction.  But then, that could be said about many things in the church.  One thing I do know:  Although it is a 'funny thing', it is not so humorous as to shrug it off as no big deal.  Our understanding of Scripture, "the Bible," and sacred and spiritual writings is important, and far too few people have a good grasp on this, which leads to all kinds of problems.

I remember another time my wife and I were accused by people we had invested years of our lives into of "not following the Bible."  This hurt, but it was because of the relationship - genuine friendship - we had built with these people, and how they were now rejecting that friendship.  It wasn't because of what they actually said.  What they actually said was one of those funny things that isn't really all that funny: 

I am pretty sure Jesus did not call his disciples by saying "Come, follow the Bible" (after all, Jesus hadn't written the rest of the Bible yet.  Wait...)  Jesus did say, "Come, follow me."  Jesus, in fact, makes his thoughts fairly clear on this issue when speaking with the Jewish leaders (and that they were the leaders is a very important detail that should not be missed) as recorded by John in his gospel:
 "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40).  It is Jesus who gives life, whom we follow, who calls us to a life as disciples, being transformed into God's image. 

In much of Western-American Christianity today, "the Bible" is worshiped as if it were God (and not just a testimony about God).  Now, I don't really know anyone who has ever bowed to and worshiped a Bible, but I know many people who effectively treat the Bible not as Scripture, but as God.  How many times must we hear "the Bible says..."  The Bible doesn't say anything.  The Bible is silent.  But...God speaks!  And one of the most important ways God speaks is through Scriptures, and other sacred and spiritual writings.  But what is Scripture?

Scripture is what comes first when it comes to sacred and spiritual writings.  Scripture has supremacy (with a lower case 's'!).  Whatever clearly contradicts the Way of love in Jesus as outlined in Scripture must be put aside, and whatever agrees with the Way should be upheld, whether it is found in Scripture or in any other source.  Truth is truth wherever it is found, and all truth, if it to be truth, must be from God. 

Scripture is not what God beamed to us out of Heaven, nor is it words on paper that were dictated word-for-word by God and then perfectly preserved forever.  Scripture is the collection of writings that the Church believed were inspired by the Holy Spirit when written, and continue to be inspired by the Holy Spirit when read, to this day.  The Church decided these were authoritative for Christian life and practice, for living in the Way of love in Jesus, that these documents, and no others, would be considered as Scripture. 

There were heated debates over this.  There were vehement disagreements.  And truthfully, there still are (see my use of Tobit, above).  Some writings were really close to "making the cut" but for various reasons, just missed.  The Church does not dismiss these writings as uninspired, or unhelpful, or unorthodox, or spawns of the devil. They are very much sacred and spiritual writings. They just aren't Scripture.  They don't come first.  But many of them do come a close second, and can help us understand and interpret what comes first, even better.

One such writing is "The Didache." According to one commentary, Didache is the Greek word for "the systematic training that a mentor (or a master craftsworker) would give to an understudy (apprentice)" (Milavec, The Didache, 2003).  It is "teaching."  Or more specifically, as the first line/title of The Didache itself says, "Training of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles for the Gentiles."  The Didache is essentially the earliest teachings of the Church we have, formed in some of the very first Christian communities, as taught by the earliest apostles and disciples of Jeuss, and perhaps pre-dating even many of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Didache explores the question, "how do we live in the Way of love in Jesus in everyday, ordinary life?"  Sound like a valid question for those who are Jesus disciples today?  I think so.  In many ways, it is simply exploration of what Paul writes in Romans 12 as translated by Eugene Peterson is the Message:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you" (Romans 12:1-2).

Comparatively few Christians or Jesus disciples in my historical-cultural context have ever heard of The Didache, much less read it, or tried to learn from it.  I hope to change that, if only for a very few readers, here, at least to some degree.  Last week's #AncientFutureFriday introduced the AFF concept.  This week's very briefly introduces The Didache, which will be a regular feature of AFF's.  It is a sacred and spiritual writing that is worthy of our time, attention, and reflection.

When it comes to God speaking to us through writings, we need more than "the Bible," for the Bible is not enough.  What we find in Scripture - the story of God and God's creation, and redemption and restoration of that creation in and through Jesus Christ - reveals all that we need for salvation.  But to work out that salvation, as Paul instructs us to do in the Scriptures, necessitates we do more than "follow the Bible."  We must, again as Paul says, "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1). 

Life as a Jesus-disciple is never just about me-and-Jesus.  It is life in community.  It is life where we follow someone's example, as they follow Christ, and others follow our example, as we follow them.  That's discipleship, spiritual formation, transformation, and direction.  And that is what we all need.  The Didache gives us a gift of teaching formed in this very kind of community.  If you choose to journey with me and explore it together, it might just transform not only you...or me...but us.  I think that's a journey worth taking.


  1. I think you pointed to something really significant when you mentioned that we accept all kinds of books and media for our preaching and teaching, but sacred texts, outside of the Protestant canon are often viewed with aversion. I think it comes from some sort of fear that they will somehow contradict the Bible and make it less credible. This, of course, is ridiculous, because, as you also pointed out, truth is truth wherever it is found. But it begs the question, do people actually have such a *low* view of the biblical texts that they think they are so easily refuted?

    1. L - Thanks for this. Such a great question there at the end. I think part of that is people having so little confidence in their own faith or in the Scriptures, and that can often come from a lack of being taught good theology (or any theology at all) or learning what the Scriptures actually say. If we know what is solidly in the camp of "truth" shouldn't be hard for us to "test the spirits" so to speak and find what is true, and what isn't, in any source.