On 23 July 2001 The Times newspaper reported that "a senior Church of England clergyman has been banned from preaching in a town's church after he had said in a sermon that the Bible was 'not the word of God'." The clergyman was Canon Derek Stanesby and the town was Uppingham, Rutland.
Derek Stanesby claims that "the Bible helps to point to the word of God, but it is not the word of God." He sees the Bible as "a rich and profound account of man's search for, and growing understanding of God ... It is one thing to hold that the Bible is an important part of God's ongoing revelation, but entirely other to maintain that God speaks literally and uniquely through its words."
Maureen Palmer, an ordained woman, spoke in support of Derek Stanesby:
"A lot of what he said in his sermon is what many clergy and lay people think. To say the Bible was written by different people and is therefore not the word of the Lord is not that unusual."
All this then generated a response from readers. One church dignitary argued that Canon Stanesby was "orthodox" and those who opposed him "should lose their licence"! Fortunately others replied explaining why it is right to say that the Bible is the Word of God. The debate then spilled over into the church press. There in the Church Times one correspondent, Howard Peskett, a former staff member at Jesmond Parish Church, helpfully said:
"the main reason why we trust and preach the Bible as the word of God is out of loyalty to our Lord himself, who placed his imprimatur on the Old Testament, and invested his apostles with his authority through the Holy Spirit."
Then on Sunday 12 August 2001 I had to preach at Jesmond on Psalm 119 in our evening series of studies. I had never preached on the Psalm before. Few people I imagine do preach on it at one go because of its length. But it, too, reminded me forcefully of how important it is that we get our thinking right about "God's word". For that Psalm is all about hearing and understanding God's word and the importance of framing our lives by it. Here is a sample of its teaching:
"How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word" (v 9).
"I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (v 11).
"Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens" (v 89).
"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (v 105).
But right at the beginning of the Bible is the lesson that the great temptation is to doubt God's word and so not obey it. The first words of the Serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden were: "Did God really say ...?" (Gen 3.1). And it was Luther who said:
"The word of God is seldom retained in its purity in any one place beyond the period of twenty or at best forty years. The people become accustomed to it, grow cold in their Christian love, and regard God's give of grace with indifference."
There is, obviously, huge confusion over the Bible in many places.
There is, however, no doubt that Jesus Christ held and taught that the Jewish Scriptures (what we now call the Old Testament) were God's word written and vital to spiritual life. In contrast to Eve (and Adam) in the Garden of Eden, Jesus would not question God's word. Rather he resisted the Devil by quoting from the Old Testament. He pointed out that "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4.4).
Nor is there any doubt that the concept of God communicating his ideas in written form goes right back to the giving of the Ten Commandments. These were inscribed on stone tablets and then, it was said, Moses was commanded by God to "record the stages" of the Exodus and then he "wrote down" God's law (Num 33.2; Deut 31.9). After that the Book of the Law was very significant in Jewish history. Of this there is no doubt.
Nor is there any doubt that the apostles of Jesus, just like Jesus, also saw the Jewish scriptures as God's word written. And after Jesus had taught them, they saw that Jesus was the fulfilment of these Jewish scriptures and that these scriptures, in God's providence, were God's word for them and for all believers. Nor is there any doubt that the apostles then saw their own, and only their own, teaching and writings as inspired in just the same way as the Old Testament was inspired. So it was natural for the early Christians to join their New Testament to the Jewish Old Testament as the final form of God's word written. None of this is open to doubt. The issue and the only issue is this: are we going to be true followers of Jesus or not?
Now there can be serious misconceptions. For when we are saying that "the Bible is God's word written" we are not denying it is the work of individual writers with different personalities and different ways and styles of communicating. Nor are we saying that every word was "dictated" by God in a mechanical way. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3.16:
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."
But that inspiration of the Holy Spirit (or "God-breathing") is not a matter of methods but results. That is to say, the text of the Bible that, from the human perspective, was generated in so many different ways results in, from the divine perspective, precisely what God wanted written. So in Acts 4.25, for example, we read this: "You [the Sovereign Lord] spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?'" That is a quotation from Psalm 2. But it is clearly believed that those words, although penned by "your servant, our father David", came about "by the Holy Spirit", and were what "you [the Sovereign Lord] spoke". Paul's personal experience of inspiration is described in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13:
"We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words."
Nor are we saying that when we interpret the Bible we must interpret it woodenly, ignoring the differences between history, poetry, wisdom or the more philosophical writings. Nor are we saying that every verse of every book is of equal significance. Verses that list genealogies are obviously different, for example, to verses like Psalm 110 verse 1 - "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet'." This is the Old Testament verse most often quoted, or alluded to, in the New Testament. Nor are we saying you can ignore the fact that in the Bible you have "cumulative" revelation. Hebrews 1 verses 1-2 say this:
"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son."
Four aspects of God's saving work
Nor are we saying that God does not reveal himself through actions and in history. Indeed, his "words" are only one part of his self-revelation as a saving God. There are at least four aspects to his saving work.
First, there is his work of acting redemptively in human history. The Bible says this began at the time of the Patriarchs and the Exodus from Egypt, but climaxed in Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection. However there were "words" both before and after the events as through prophets and apostles God warned about, prepared people for, and explained what he was, and is, doing.
Secondly, there is God's work of inspiring writers to record, celebrate and apply these actions and words. That is what you have in the Bible.
Thirdly, there is God's work in bringing to people's attention the message of the Bible. That is now done through messengers who proclaim or preach the truth of God's word which is there definitively for us in the Bible.
And fourthly, there is God's work in giving understanding to individuals when they read or hear God's truth preached so that they can then trust Christ as Saviour and Lord. Paul prays for this in Ephesians 1.17-19:
"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better."
Jesus Christ the centre
But what then are we saying? We are saying as Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England says:
"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."
And it is a book on salvation because supremely it is a book about Jesus Christ and has to be interpreted with him as its centre. The Old Testament points forward to Christ, even if not all the writers were fully aware that they were doing so and even if sometimes the pointing is indirect. The New Testament, of course, is explicit and direct about Jesus Christ both in what it records and how it explains his person and work. So the Old Testament or the Jewish Scriptures are certainly relevant to Christians. Paul writes to the Romans:
"For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom 15.4).
And he writes to the Corinthians, referring to the Exodus wanderings:
"These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10.11).
Nor is this just some quirk of Paul. It was Jesus who on his Resurrection day appeared to two groups of disciples and explained how the Jewish Scriptures had been fulfilled in him. We read in Luke 24.25-27:
"He said to them: 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself."
And we read in Luke 24.44-47
"He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.'"
The authority of the Bible
We are also saying this: there is a huge importance to getting our thinking right on the Bible. And this importance has to do with the issue of obedience - Christian obedience or practical Christian living.
Discussions about the Bible in the abstract can sound rather academic. But that is only until you go into the real world. As I was writing all this in late August I had to break off to be involved in a BBC Radio Newcastle discussion following Northumberland's decision no longer only to place children for adoption with married couples and single people: they would now consider people living together in "alternative life-styles".
But how do you decide about "alternative life-styles" - which in that discussion over adoption means sexual life-styles? Is it right to place children for adoption with homosexual couples or with cohabiting couples? I argue not only that such "life-styles" are not in the best interests of the child, but also that the Bible is crystal clear that homosexual activity is wrong as is all sexual activity outside marriage. However, the Church of England's Children's Society under its chairman, Jim Thompson, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, has decided against the Bible and is now committed to using homosexual parents.
This highlights the problem. And it is most acute when there are different views coming from people who all claim to be "Christian". Nor is this anything new. It happened in New Testament times. Jim Packer reminds us of the situations in Galatia and Colosse:
"Imagine the perplexity of the Galatian Christians the day they first had read to them the blistering sentences in which Paul goes after some who 'are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ' (Gal 1.7). 'As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!' (Gal 5.12). Imagine, too, how the Colossian Christians must have gulped when they first heard the words of Paul (whom they had never met) cutting down the teacher who was delighting in 'false humility and the worship of angels' and who was puffed up 'with idle notions' (Col 2.18). In each case Paul was squelching respected men whose teachings on faith and duty had hitherto been treated as true. Whom should they follow? Paul? Or their local pundits?"
So what do you do, as an ordinary Christian, when you find people claiming the name "Christian" but saying things that are quite opposite? How do you decide what, or who, is right? Who is to be the final arbiter or authority? There are three alternatives open to you.
First, there is having the church as the final authority. Some people treat the consensus of the church as decisive. So they make church tradition the authoritative guide for determining the will of God. These people make the Bible subordinate to the church. They carefully study the Bible but by the light of church teaching and, critically, make the Bible fit in with church teaching, even when it clearly doesn't. This, we would argue, has happened with the Roman Catholic church. For such people what the church says, God's says. The work of the Holy Spirit is, according to this view, to make you submissive in an absolute way to church authority.
Secondly, there is making your own personal views decisive. This is when people do not mind if they decide against either the church or the Bible. They simply take the Bible and church teaching as material to be considered as they make up their own minds. They then will reject what they don't like and accept what they do. They become the final arbiters. They are judges over the Bible and the church. This is Canon Stanesby's position. For such people what their own reason or imagination suggests in response to the Bible or the historic teaching of the church is decisive. The Holy Spirit's work, they claim, is to help you pick and choose from the Bible and the church's tradition.
Thirdly, there is making the Bible decisive and the final authority. This was the position of Jesus. This is the official position of the Church of England. It sees the importance of the church and church tradition as well as reason; but these have to be subordinated to the Bible. So Article XX of the Thirty-nine Articles says:
"The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation."
Here the Holy Spirit's role is to make you humble so that you are willing to learn from the Bible. You will submit both church ideas, and your own, to the judgment of the Bible. So with regard to homosexual adoption, because the Bible makes it clear that homosexual activity is wrong, that is sufficient for you as a Christian. Social science, actually, then confirms that ruling of the Bible. For God's rules are not capricious but according to the grain of his created order. You discover that in the best interests of the child children should only be placed with married couples or single people who will endorse the marriage ethic. Yes, it may be politically incorrect to say that sex outside heterosexual marriage is wrong. But what matters is the Bible's teaching, not the views of decadent social workers, TV producers, educationalists or other opinion-formers, nor the views of other churchmen who contradict the Bible.
All these considerations show why Canon Stanesby was wrong and why we need to heed Psalm 119. Let me conclude with some words of John Wesley:
"I am a creature of a day ... I want to know one thing, the way to heaven ... God himself has condescended to teach the way ... He has written it down in a book. O give me that book: at any price give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me ... I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book: for this end, to find the way to heaven."