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American Evangelicalism, Bible, Biblical Inerrancy, Bibliology, Christ, Christ at the Center series, Christocentricism

>Christ at the Center pt 2: The Word of God in Christ and Scripture

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The Evangelical Theological Society began with one doctrine to affirm: the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Since the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates of the early 20th Century, it is nearly indisputable that the defining characteristic and center focus of Evangelicalism in America is Bibliology. The evidence is hard to miss. Look at the first doctrine of most churches. Look at the signs and symbols of many Evangelical seminaries (like here and here) and institutions and can even dominate the images and signs of churches. I even saw on the back of a Christian catalog this phrase: “The Bible alone is the Word of God”

And what else would we expect? Isn’t the Bible the Word of God and the basis of our knowledge of God? I would like to suggest such a formulation, and especially that phrase I quoted from the back of the catalog, is insufficient and under-developed. The Christian faith certainly centers around the Word of God, but the Word of God is not primarily defined as a book…I would also like to contend, that this American Bible-central focus is not healthy and not, at heart, Reformed.


One may get the impression that Reformed theology deserves some credit for this Bible focus. Take a look at the major Reformed Confessions, and you will see the first Article is usually one on Scripture. This is wholly appropriate. For the foundation of our particulars of our theology of God is based on written Scripture.

Scripture itself, however, does not testify to itself as the pinicle and end of faith. For Muslims, the Koran is the perfect Word of God and the means of salvation. We are not Muslims, and the Bible is not merely the Christian Koran. Jesus Christ tells the Pharisees that this was their great sin. John 5:39 puts it beautifully: “You search the Scriptures, for you think in them you have everlasting life. And they are the ones witnessing concerning Me.”

At minimum, we should see the Scriptures do not claim themselves as the center of our faith, but are our sure and faithful guide to our true center: God, especially revealed in the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ.

I say nothing new here, in fact I say things very old. Perhaps so old we have forgotten them. And perhaps we would readily agree that the Scriptures point to Christ. Would we go further and admit that we have sometimes neglected to assign to Christ a title given to Him by those Scriptures: Word of God?

But of course, Christ is the Word of God in John 1, and so the Word of God incarnate. The Scriptures on the other hand are the Word of God written, a totally different discussion. They need not be thought of in the same thought, let alone the same class, day, month or even year.

This seemingly valid distinction has unfortunately become a division. If we trace the language of “Word of God” in the Early Church, we find not a division, but a union so tightly knit together that it confuses the modern reader. Take for instance Clement of Alexandria. When quoting Scripture, Clement often used phraseology like: “The Logos has proclaimed this loudly through Moses…” Clement uses Logos, not as an inanimate noun, but as a Personality that proclaims. The Word of God incarnate was so closely associated with the Word of God written, the two occupied the same thought and breath so intricately that to speak of Scripture proclaiming something was to see the words as imputed to Christ Himself. The starting point of faith was in the Personality rather than the written word. The inspiration of Scripture was based on the divine nature of the Logos as God rather than any internal structure. Our Bibliology requires a foundation in our Christiology, as part of the work of Christ:

Our reading of the Scriptures lack this close association. Read Hebrews 4:12. Does this immediately first make you think of Christ or Scripture? I have yet to find an early church father that took this as pointing to Scripture, all see Christ. From the entirety of the canon, this interpretation follows the Biblical usage, as this phraseology is actually used of Christ first in Luke 2. Is the Bible a piercing sword? Yes. Is Christ a piercing sword? Yes. Because the Word of God is a piercing sword.

But again, I claim no new teaching in this regard. Pelikan summed up the mind of the early church on this matter thusly:

‘Word of God’ was, of course, one of the most important technical terms for Jesus Christ in his relation to the Father; and when ‘the gospel’ or ‘Scripture’ was equated with the ‘word of God,’ the presence of Christ in this means of grace was seen as in some way analogous to his presence in the flesh…Christ was the preaching of God.” (Christian Tradition Vol 1 – pg 161)

But also importantly for us, this is not merely the teaching of the early Church. Dutch Reformed theologican Herman Bavinck writes:

He [Christ] is the Logos in an utterly unique sense, revealer and revelation alike. In him, all revelations of God, all words of God, in nature and history, in creation and re-creation, under the Old and New Testaments, have their ground, their unity and center. He is the sun; the particular words of God are its rays. The word of God in nature, in Israel, in the New Testament, in Scripture may not for a moment be detached or thought about apart from Him. God’s revelation exists only because He is the Logos. He is the principium cognoscendi [the principle of knowing], in the general sense of all knowledge, in the special sense, as logos ensarkos [the word infleshed], of all knowledge of God, of religion and theology, Matt 11:27. (Reformed Dogmatics – Vol 1, pg 402)

So I stand by my original blog post: Christ is the center of our faith. Even as the Scriptures are our text to understand our faith, even as our Christian epistemology may wonder if our Scriptures are the only true basis for our knowing – ultimately Christ is the basis of our knowing.

The important question we have to ask is: have we allowed the “Word of God” merely to mean God’s commands or instructions in a book? Or does “Word of God” mean a Person who pierces us to our soul and look for this Person in our Scriptures. Muslims also believe in the Word of God as revealed writings, but we are Christians and we also believe in the Word of God made flesh. This does not lessen our view of Scripture, instead the Scriptures gain more power when we realize that in reading them, we are not ruled by a book, but by the Lord Christ that book reveals, and Whose words they are.
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Discussion

25 thoughts on “>Christ at the Center pt 2: The Word of God in Christ and Scripture

  1. >chiefssuperfan said: “The concern I have had with taxonomies is that they unintentionally imply a lessor importance from one doctrine to another. Which sometimes results in a lessor respect for those truths.”I understand but I disagree. I respect any truth. You cannot do anything against the truth, only for it (2 Cor 13:8). However, not everything is at the importance of the doctrine of slavation. Whether one believes as the Calvinist or as an Arminian, both are still within the realm of “Christian.” However, a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon knocking at your door will probably prove what is essential and not essential in distinguishing what is and is not “Christian.” In essence, who gets to define and say what is and is not as important is a legit question. But again, your comment does not negate the fact that it is a person who fulfills a promise, not the piece of paper the contract is written on.

    Posted by P. Smith | June 26, 2008, 7:24 pm
  2. >Quick clarification:There is a sense in which if I were to reword the first apologetic scenario above to this it would be true:I confess to an unbeliever, “I trust God?”He responds, “Who is God?”To which I respond: “If you don’t know God, how can you know to ask this question? He is the beginning of all knowledge. Since you can ask, you must already know, though you may be suppressing the truth in unbelief.”There is a sense in which this is true. All of our knowledge is predicated on a prior knowledge of God. God’s self-revelation is the source of all norms for truth.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 26, 2008, 2:53 pm
  3. >Priority in doctrine should only shed light on other doctrines, and indeed strengthen them, not lead to neglect.Excellent!

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 25, 2008, 6:40 pm
  4. >Chiefsfan- I can see what you are saying. That is really the problem of developing a Christocentric approach is not to neglect other areas. Just as a Bibliocentricism ignored other areas (sanctification, ecclesiology) so we don’t want to get to a point where we say: “oh, you deny the inspiration of the Bible and the Trinity and salvation by grace alone, that’s ok you love Jesus and think He’s God.” Priority in doctrine should only shed light on other doctrines, and indeed strengthen them, not lead to neglect.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | June 25, 2008, 6:19 pm
  5. >I need to jump back into some other more pressing things, so I want to add one more comment and then disappear for a few days.The concern I have had with taxonomies is that they unintentionally imply a lessor importance from one doctrine to another. Which sometimes results in a lessor respect for those truths. Ummm…does that make sense?

    Posted by ChiefsSuperfan | June 25, 2008, 5:58 pm
  6. >I have not read all the responses but I would agree witht he original post. Wallace calls it “bibliolotry” if I remember correctly. Read his JETS article called the “Gospel According to Bart.” You can find two versions of it over at bible.org too.In that article and from class time and even internship face time, I gather that Wallace has picked up on this too and has done a good job of pointing this out. I agree with his analysis. In fact, it may be something that needs to be reconsidered in light of people like Ehrman who may have had their dominoes lined up incorrectly. When the first domino fell (bibliology/inerrancy) then all his dominos fell. ALthough if you listen to the Greer-Heard debates you will find out Ehrman explains his leaving the faith in other ways. Before interacting with Wallace’s teaching I was reminded of the need to reallign my dominos. I remember struggling with the doctrine of sanctification and how deal with a temptation. I remember thinking about the essence/root of what sin is. At its root sin is unbelief (Rom 14:23; John 16:9). That means at some point, the sin I commit is an action based on a doubt about God and his character or something he has revealed or will reveal about himself in the future. And this does not exclude God’s actions.This makes a lot of sense because it is faith that saves us. That is the solution to unbelief. But I also know not many people actually think through faith/trust/belief. What is it? It is not just faith in a promise, it is faith that the one who gave the promise will fulfill his end of the promise. I can promise you a million dollars. But being the poor former college student I would not expect you or anyone to believe me. That is because I don’t have a million dollars to promise. Hence I do not have the ability to fulfill that promise if I were to offer that to someone. But someone who can fulfill a promise is worthy of trust.The Bible records the promise of eternal life for us, but it is not the promise giver. The promise giver is God and he fulfills the promies. And he is personal. I think that is something that has really stuck out to me over and over again. 2 Cor 3:18 means a whole low more in Greek than we realize it has in English.While some the discussion above may have touched on this, I would also like to say that the Bible is not the complete record of revelation. Many great revelations have occurred and a selection of even those are in the Bible. God’s glory is manifest second by second. He is to be worshipped. The Bible, a selection of revelation in its own right is not to replace God’s revelation. I would much rather have Jesus personally before me than the Bible. Moses himself longed for such a personal manifestation fo God to him and God did let him see his backside!

    Posted by P. Smith | June 25, 2008, 5:33 pm
  7. >A thought (which surely is not creedal worthy):The development of systematic theology throughout church history has seen changing “taxonomies” according to the hotly debated issue of the day.During the formative years of the Bible church movement from which I hail men such as Machen and Lindsell were battling liberal attacks on the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Thus came seminaries and colleges with a Bibliology first taxonomy.Our recent dearth of Christological themes has given rise to what I think is a grand and welcome movement towards Christocentric theology (which explains the popularity of Reformed theology). One can hope and pray this actually translates into real life and that we in Laodicea will actually start to put Jesus first.Of course, in school systematic theology was the rage and we began with either Bibliology or Theology Proper (depending on the prof). The pastoral ministry is not quite so neatly segmented. Neither is the discipleship of a new believer.And so it is that I read this post and subsequent comments with an ear towards the discipleship needs of a new follower of Jesus. For it is there where I have most seen the need for us to transition from Biblio-centricity to Christ in the middle. 20 years ago new believers functioned well under a solid course from “The Fundamentals of the Faith” by MacArthur or J. Dwight Pentecost’s “Bible Themes.”But, today, it has been most effective to present Christology first because concepts of missional living, doxological purposes for life, and the like so readily emanate from Jesus. So, to echo a bit of the sentiment here: my approach to discipleship has changed in much the same way my taxonomy has evolved. I’ve moved from being Bibliology first to being Doxological, Christological, and at some point soon after Bibliological as I seek to mentor new followers of Jesus.

    Posted by ChiefsSuperfan | June 25, 2008, 4:18 pm
  8. >Away with your Jedi blasphemy! I am a Sith Lord. “The personal force is with us.”I agree that all revelation is personal. God is personal. In a certain sense, I suppose we are passive recipients of revelation. For instance, with regard to general revelation, we wouldn’t exist without the action of God. And, with regard to special revelation, we come to know God as he helps us understand it (what has been called “illumination”). But in another sense we are active in discovering God through his revelation. God has given believers certain means for us to actively employ in order to know him (e.g. the bible, preaching, prayer, etc.).

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 24, 2008, 2:40 am
  9. >Personal Force – noun: the warm fuzzy feeling in all of us. In general usage: “The Personal Force be with you.” or “Use the Personal Force Luke.”I mean that it is not passive waiting for our perception, but active and has personal initiative behind it. I do not mean it is not God itself if that’s what you are wondering.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | June 23, 2008, 11:53 pm
  10. >Honestly, I’d rather be reading this than translating Ruth.Ha! This is keeping me from a sermon on John 8:1–11. I’m trying to decide whether it is canonical/authoritative. The Spirit as Third Person in the Trinity seems submitted to will of Christ as Christ is to the Father. Just a little pseudo-subordinationism to irk JayLike I said above, I completely agree with Barth’s critique of natural theology–God is only known when He chooses to reveal himself. But I am having a tough time swallowing the idea that all revelation, therefore is necessarily through Christ. I think each member of the Trinity is active in revelation. Sure, the Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ, but I don’t think that this necessarily demands that His actions are always subordinate to those of the Son (I am not an ST guy, so I reserve the right to retract any statements later deemed heretical). I think that John paints a picture of the Father sending the Son and then the Son sending the Spirit. I think that this means that the Spirit continues the work of the Son in the church. Thus, in some ways the Spirit is an extension of the ministry of the Son, but only in the same way that the Son could be considered an extension of the ministry of the Father. Ultimately, if you are going to say that the Spirit is pseudo-subordinate to the Son, I think you have to say that the Son is pseudo-subordinate to the Father so that the Father is ultimately the revealer.While I acknowledge that the Logos is preexistent and active before the Incarnation, this does not demand that all revelation before the Incarnation is through the Son. To me, this seems like forcing trinitarianism on earlier texts.

    Posted by Matt | June 23, 2008, 11:35 pm
  11. >I’m fine with a little subordinationism so long as it is only economical. Beyond that, consider me seriously irked.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 23, 2008, 11:14 pm
  12. >Matt – interesting, I will have to read his critique. This is an area of growing understanding and formulation so I appreciate all the feedback I can get.That said, I will say I think Barth was on to something in his doctrine of the word (although I do not swallow it all). That there is revelation before the incarnation is no disqualification for this formulation as Christ existed, and existed as the Word of God, before the incarnation. Christ agency is not new to the church era and though the Holy Spirit may be involved in these certain roles, we should also not forget that the Holy Spirit is often refered to as “Christ’s Spirit” and that being baptized in the Spirit is being baptized by Christ in the Spirit. The Spirit as Third Person in the Trinity seems submitted to will of Christ as Christ is to the Father. Just a little pseudo-subordinationism to irk Jay 🙂

    Posted by Jared Nelson | June 23, 2008, 10:59 pm
  13. >Yet this self-revelation is not merely a set of facts in nature or the Bible, but a Personal force.How do you define “Personal force”?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 23, 2008, 10:53 pm
  14. >Loving the discussion. Honestly, I’d rather be reading this than translating Ruth. No disrespect intended toward the “sheath of the sword of the Spirit.” 🙂 In order to give myself a little treat I just checked out Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, G. Vos Anthology, Bavinck’s Ref. Dogmatics, and Heirs of the Covenant by Susan Hunt thrown in for good measure. I know I won’t really get to read them but I can tell myself that if I do X amount of translation, vocab, etc. then I’ll allow myself some pleasure reading. Plus, I’ve accumulated 4 gift cards to Barnes & Noble and Amazon so this will give me a chance to see if I want to buy those books. I’ve got about $100 to play with so let me know if you guys have any other suggestions. Back to the discussion.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | June 23, 2008, 10:50 pm
  15. >And this association is not in a manner of objective knowledge of Christ as in your apologetic senarios, but more in terms of agency. Christ is the revealer. He may reveal by means of his Spirit by the preached word or Scripture, yet he is acting through them as the revealer, as the Image.Pannenberg notes two ways in which Barth’s notion of Christ the revealer goes too far. First, as I mentioned above, the Christ event makes no sense as revelation apart from the accompanying words expressing its significance. Second, his view goes against the way in which the concept of “revelation” is used in the Scriptures.I agree that God is only known when He reveals himself. However, God revealed himself in many ways before the Incarnation (Heb 1:1–2). Further, the Father reveals things (Luke 10:21) and the Spirit reveals things (Luke 2:26, 1 Cor 2:10, Eph 3:5). I think that saying these are merely agents by which Christ reveals God puts the theological cart before the biblical horse.Barth was rightly reacting against natural theology, but I agree with his critics that he went too far.

    Posted by Matt | June 23, 2008, 10:47 pm
  16. >Though we talked in person Jay, I might recap that here I advocate a closer relationship between Christ and revelation. And this association is not in a manner of objective knowledge of Christ as in your apologetic senarios, but more in terms of agency. Christ is the revealer. He may reveal by means of his Spirit by the preached word or Scripture, yet he is acting through them as the revealer, as the Image. It is not that by reading 1 Chron 3:3 – “the fifth, Shephatiah, by Abital; the sixth, Ithream, by his wife Eglah” we see Christ by numeriology or word jumble. We just know that we know God by His self-revelation. Yet this self-revelation is not merely a set of facts in nature or the Bible, but a Personal force. Comparitively, we say that we that Christ is present in the Eucharist. We can know Christ through the Eucharist, but yet the Eucharist is not itself Christ without his agency and His Spirit. Perhaps I come close to Barth here, but if one without Christ’s Spirit reads the Bible, while it remains God’s revelation, it has no power to that effect for that person. So it is similar to the unbeliever present at the Eucharist, who is truly at a Eucharist service where the church is communing with God, yet the Eucharist is not effectual to that unbeliever. The unbeliever requires Christ to baptize them in the Spirit for a true encounter with Christ through those means of grace. So yes, other factors must exist epistomologicaly requiring our sensory perception of them, but my contention would be that these too are dependent on Christ’s baptism of them.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | June 23, 2008, 10:16 pm
  17. >Matt has pointed to an area of overlap between modes of revelation. When Jesus, the incarnate Word, spoke as our prophet, his teaching was recorded as the written Word.Here’s another: The written word exists in what? A book, with paper pages and ink. A book that’s existence is part of the general revelation. Special revelation, if one takes it to be the text itself, exists in the form of general revelation.Again, God uses all of these things in relation to one another to reveal himself. However, I think the different modes of revelation are qualitatively different. On the whole, none is more important than the others, but Scripture does distinguish between levels of specificity. No matter how long one studies the creation (i.e. general revelation), without a special revelation he will never arrive at a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 23, 2008, 7:28 pm
  18. >Pannenberg also points out that Christ as Word of God makes no sense apart from the written/spoken Word of God.If Jesus hadn’t said, “I and the Father are one,” no one would have understood Him as revelation–he would have just been another wonder worker/messianic figure. The words are necessary to the revelation.The words of the prophets were considered revelation long before Jesus came on to the scene. I think that we can only understand Jesus as “revelation” or “Word of God” by comparing His life to others kinds of “revelation” and “Word of God.” The words of the prophets are the concrete image by which the metaphor “Word of God” can be understood when applied to Jesus.By implication, then, I don’t think the Scriptures take a second tier to Jesus when it comes to revelation. Sure, God is revealed most fully in the life and teaching of Jesus (Heb 1, John 1), but that does nothing to discount the other ways in which God reveals himself.

    Posted by Matt | June 23, 2008, 6:58 pm
  19. >Jay,Excellent comments! Funny too!

    Posted by Mark Mathews | June 23, 2008, 6:11 pm
  20. >Oh also, I wanted to throw this out there. I recently read The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan. He presented the Word of God (along with Calvin according to McGowan) as three-fold: (1) incarnate Word (Jesus Christ), (2) written Word (the Bible), and (3) spoken Word (preaching). McGowan points out that this is the way of the Second Helvetic Confession.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 23, 2008, 5:45 pm
  21. >Let me also briefly clarify by saying that I, along with Frame, understand these multiple perspectives as revelational. In other words, it is not as if we human beings know ourselves or our world from a position of objective neutrality. We know ourselves and our world world only through divine revelation, whether general or special revelation.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 23, 2008, 5:30 pm
  22. >I think we may be confusing two ideas: (1) starting point(2) centerThese need not be equivalent terms. For instance I think Christ is the center of God’s revelation to us (according to Scripture :-), of course). But confessing that is not the same as confessing an absolute epistemological starting point (i.e. a point from which all our knowledge must begin). That was all my original comment was about. I believe finite creatures, by definition, cannot have absolute epistemological starting points. We need multiple referents or perspectives from which to know. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation in which I converse with an unbeliever: First, from the perspective of equating Christ as the “center of faith” with Christ as “absolute epistemological starting point”:I confess to an unbeliever, “I trust Jesus Christ?” He responds, “Who is Jesus?” To which I respond: “If you don’t know Jesus, how can you know to ask this question? He is the beginning of all knowledge. Since you can ask, you must already know.”To which he answers, “What? I don’t know Jesus.”To which I respond, “Yes you do, you must know him to know anything at all. And since you are communicating with me, you must know something, therefore you know Jesus.” To which he responds, “Whatever, you’re crazy.” Or, thinking about epistemology from a multi-perspectival perspective:I confess to an unbeliever, “I trust Jesus Christ?” He responds, “Who is Jesus?” To which I answer, “He is the one who has changed my heart by his Spirit (an existential perspective).” Then, hopefully, the unbeliever would encourage me to share about how Jesus has changed my life. In that process I would communicate the doctrines of the mercy, grace, and love of God (among other doctrines). I know these doctrines, because I have experienced them (though that’s not the only way I know them). But suppose the unbeliever then asks, “Where did you learn of these doctrines? Who taught them to you?” I might respond, “From the Bible (a primarily normative or principled perspective).” To which he would, hopefully, say, “Teach me these doctrines from your Bible.” Then I would take him to different passages of Scripture and try to help him understand what it teaches concerning Jesus Christ. But perhaps he then asks, “How can I know that this Jesus was a real historical figure?” Then I might respond, “Well let’s look at the facts (a situational perspective).” I would then offer some arguments for the historicity of Jesus. So we have three distinct (yet overlapping) basic perspectives from which we might know Jesus Christ: (1) the normative, (2) the existential, and (3) the situational. These are the three epistemological perspectives John Frame discusses in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (which I highly recommend). I think Frame may be on to something.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | June 23, 2008, 5:26 pm
  23. >I had in mind more traditional vehicles such as election (for the soteriologically-focused) and the Church (for the ecclesiologically-focused)that sometimes become their own foci rather than deferring to Christ. But you’re right that feel-good Bible-tainment is not unrelated to loss of focus.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | June 23, 2008, 3:34 pm
  24. >I’d have the usual answers: revelation (general and special) and the Holy Spirit. I just tend to think that most problems in Christendom (the Todd Bentleys and Joel Osteens of the world) come from a lack of this focus. If gaining Christ is our focus, we will not be seeking such low things as sporatic emotional psychological experiences or material blessings. Christ and His gospel in the center is the cure for those diseases.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | June 23, 2008, 3:22 pm
  25. >Good post and good series. I still think that your analysis begs the question of vehicle (i.e. by what means does one come to know Christ) for which ecclesiology and soteriology are, for various traditions, parts of or entirely the answers, but you offer a valid reminder that the vehicle must itself lead not to itself but to Christ.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | June 23, 2008, 3:01 pm

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