Is the Bible God’s Word or does it contain God’s Word? The latter scenario allows humans to decide which or what portions of the thirty-nine Old Testament letters and twenty-seven New Testament letters are true and which originated in the mind of humans. A recent book by the Rev. Adam Hamilton illustrates the position and its results well.
Hamilton is a person whose love for God and people is evident. He is kind, articulate, and persuasive. On this topic, however, he speaks outside both an historical orthodox Christian understanding and his own faith tradition, the United Methodist Church. In “Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of the Scripture Today” he proposes three “buckets” into which all Scripture falls. One contains the Scripture that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. One contains Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. Bucket number three is filled with Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God. Many others agree with his basic premise that the Bible contains God’s Word rather than being a revelation from God through human authors of His will and way to a full and eternal life.
If the Bible is God’s Word, the difficult passages, what they meant to the original audience and how that applies to readers today must be wrestled with. If, however, they may be placed in a bucket of one’s own choosing, the approach to Scripture is that it contains God’s Word and we can decide what He did and did not say; what we want to believe is true and what we choose to believe is false.
Hamilton’s lens and similar others are extraneously imposed upon the historical orthodox listing of Scripture says Dr. Bill T. Arnold, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. None of them can claim the accuracy, authenticity and validity of the orthodox view that all of the sixty-six books commonly referred to as Scripture have for centuries. The question was closed in the Western church by the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. and in the Eastern church by the year 500 A.D. They used a high bar for inclusion.
The first criterion for inclusion in the New Testament section of the Bible was apostolicity. Was it written by an apostle or one so related to an apostle as to raise the book to the same level of authenticity? The Gospel of Luke would be an example. In the second place its contents must be of such spiritual character as to elevate it above all merely human writing. Thirdly, it had to be universally received in the church. This criterion alone is staggering. What nuclear family, much less the world wide church, find it easy to agree on what to have for lunch, much less what should or should not be considered the voice of God? And, finally, it must give evidence of being divinely inspired.
In Matthew 19:5 Jesus tells us that in Genesis “God said” that “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” The human but inspired author of Genesis did not say “God said”. To Jesus, however, what Scripture said in the Old Testament, God said. Jesus used it to regulate every step and detail of his life (John 19:28). Paul generally affirmed the Old and commonly accepted letters of the New Testament as the product of the breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Similarly, Peter affirms God’s active involvement when he writes that “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). The contents of the Old Testament were set when these New Testament writers spoke and the contents of the New Testament were largely in place before the last of the original apostles died although not confirmed by the church at large for a number of years.
Adam Hamilton’s denomination officially views the Bible “’as sacred canon for Christian people,’ specifically the ‘thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament”. This is not merely an academic exercise. To agree with Jesus, the original Apostles, and the recognized leaders of the early church that the Bible as we have it is God’s Word brings confidence to follow it even when we do not always understand it.
Orthodox Christians follow all the Bible in things small and great knowing it comes from an all loving, knowing and powerful God who “loves us with an everlasting love”, came that we might have “life to the full” by “directing our steps” in order to live with us now and into the ages of ages. As such it is not just a guide to Christian faith. It is a means of grace for nurturing life.
John Wesley expressed the hearts of Orthodox Christians when he wrote, “I am a creature of a day, passing through life, as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till a few moments hence, I am no more seen! I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, the way to heaven: how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book! O give me that book! At any price, give me the [unedited] book of God!”