As Presbyterians, we have a strong heritage as a people of the book. That is, we are a people whose sole authority in matters of faith and life is the word of God revealed in Holy Scripture. This has kept us on track, for the most part, in being faithful in living out our lives in integrity according to the revealed heart and mind of God. By being rooted in the word we have been challenged along the way by a voice other than our own in discerning what God desires of us. This is not unique to us but was standard in the ancient practice of the early church as well. William Webster noted that the early church fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, the Didache, and Barnabas) taught doctrine and defended Christianity against heresies. In doing this, their sole appeal for authority was scripture. Their writings literally breathe with the spirit of the Old and New Testaments.
In the writings of the apologists such as Justin Martyr and Athenagoras, the same thing is found. There is no appeal in any of these writings to the authority of tradition as a separate and independent body of revelation. Our own Presbyterian confession, Living Faith, places the same emphasis on the authority of the word when it says: “The Bible has been given to us by the inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life. It is the standard of all doctrine by which we must test any word that comes to us from church, world, or inner experience. We subject to its judgment all we believe and do. Through the scriptures the church is bound only to Jesus Christ, its king and head. He is the living Word of God to whom the written word bears witness.”
The confession correctly goes on to say that the Holy Spirit, who both persuades us of its authority and empowers the word to come alive in and through us, must accompany the Bible. This has always been our Presbyterian heritage (though sometimes neglected) begun by this same strong emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in the writings of John Calvin.
N.T. Wright, in a lecture, said, “Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through His people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus. We must look, then, at the question of stories. What sort of authority might they possess?”
In Romans 15, Paul says, “That by patience and encouragement of the scriptures you might have hope,” because scripture brings God’s order to God’s world. He goes on to say that the stories of the Bible are transforming words.
It isn’t enough that the Bible be seen as a ‘rule’ book telling us what to do. We must ourselves enter the story and have a worldview that reflects the reality that calls us to act in ways we never thought possible. As we tell the story to others, they too will be taken hold of by the words and the Spirit and be changed. What I am speaking of is so much more than mere stories that change people’s thinking. It is the living and active God moving in and through His word that empowers and changes. These are changes of eternal consequences. It is Jesus who made an important distinction when he said that the letter of the law kills but the Spirit gives life.
If we believe we are keeping faith with Presbyterians and others of faith who have gone before us, how do we respond to this unique book that shares both concrete script and life – giving Spirit when it is read or heard?
Wright suggests that we “soak ourselves in scripture, in the power and strength and leading of the Spirit, in order that we may then speak freshly and with authority to the world of this same creator God.”
They offer, as all genuine Christian storytelling does, a worldview that, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters their own worldview. Stories determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how they experience God and the world, and themselves and others.
It isn’t that we simply figure things out for ourselves—we are a people of the word who are led by the word. It is with alarm then that I see whole congregations that seem to ignore the word and in decision – making fail to be guided by the word.
Let us, in this month that focuses on love, make a resolution to be faithful, to lovingly respond to the One who has given us His word in scripture by valuing this gift of love as we commit to having it guide and transform us in our personal and corporate life as the church.