READING THE SCRIPTURES
In 2000, when I retired from the Houston Park Church of Christ in Selma, AL (and from full-time ministry after more than 42 years), Tom McLemore was chosen by the elders of the Houston Park church to succeed me in the pulpit. Tom has now been with the congregation for 20 years and has done a good work. He is an excellent student of the Scriptures and a good writer. For this week’s edition of “Hugh’s News & Views” I have chosen to run an outstanding article that Tom wrote and published in the April 2020 issue of the Houston Park church bulletin. I do so with his gracious permission. It addresses one of the most fundamental matters that can challenge our attention today, and I commend a careful reading of it by all. The scripture quotations in Tom’s article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. His article is as follows.
How Do You Read?
The Church’s Identity Crisis
An identity crisis is facing the church today, and it concerns how we are to read the Scripture. In the history of the restoration movement, this has always been the major issue. (A valuable resource for considering this matter from a historical standpoint is Homer Hailey, Attitudes and Consequences in the Restoration Movement).
The present study is in response to some recent statements. From a review of a new book, we have this revelation: “We came to realize that our approach to reading Scripture was naïve. We couldn’t just scientifically read Scripture and then put it into practice. The Bible had to be–of course–interpreted.” From the book reviewed, we have the following: “I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal brief designed to provide a specific blueprint for organizing a church to reading Scripture as a story into which we are invited to participate in the mission of God by imitating God.” Consider with me the issues raised by these affirmations.
Must the Scripture be Interpreted Before it Can be Put into Practice?
If interpretation means understanding what the Scripture says, then well and good. But if interpretation denotes rejecting, making void, leaving behind and explaining away what the Scripture says, then those who desire to obey Christ will have no use for it. (From their fruits, we gather that it is the latter that is being advocated by those quoted). Christ does not teach, “Read, interpret, and if it fits your interpretation, then do it.” Christ teaches, “Read and do.” “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered right; do this, and you will live’ ” (Luke 10:25-28). When Jesus asked, “How do you read?” he did not mean, “What is your interpretation?” He meant, “You have read it. What does it say?” The lawyer quoted what the Scripture says. Jesus acknowledged that he had answered correctly and said, “Do this and you will live.”
In Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6. He said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ ” Jesus was not urging his hearers to go and formulate an interpretation of this Scripture. He was compelling them to go and learn how to put it into practice. Go and learn what it means for you to live by this word of God and then live by it.
The revelation provided by God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit is not indefinite, inadequate, incomplete, or incompetent (John 16:13; 2 Peter 1:3; 2 Timothy 3:14-17). It does not need to be supplemented by human wisdom before it may be put into practice, especially by “interpretation” that suggests that it does not mean what it says or does not command what it commands!
Is the Scripture a Legal Brief or a Story into Which We Are Invited to Participate?
The Scripture is not one or the other, but both! The New Testament is replete with legal concepts. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Law is a legal concept. Justification is being acquitted (Romans 5:1). Justification is a legal concept. The concept of a new covenant is at the heart of the New Testament (Hebrews 8:8-13). Covenant is a legal concept. The New Testament is Christ’s will (Hebrews 9:16, 17). A will is a legal matter. The New Testament puts major emphasis upon the judgment (Acts 17:30, 31). Again, judgment is a legal concept.
The New Testament is a new law. It is the changed law that is now binding (Hebrews 7:12) and the law under which Christ is our high priest. It is the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21). It is the law of faith (Romans 3:27b). It is the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2). It is made up of God’s laws put in our minds and written on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). It is the perfect royal law of liberty (James 1:25; 2:8, 12).
The New Testament is also a story—a legal story! It is the story of how the Judge provided for the indictment against the ungodly to be nailed to the cross of his Son Jesus and for the condemned to be acquitted! It is the story of the church, the assembly of the justified, of penitent believers in Christ baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and of those who are in the new covenant as the result of having been justified by grace through faith. Every person who reads the New Testament is invited into the story to experience the acquittal and to lead others to experience it by proclaiming the message of God’s provision for justification in Christ.
Of course, the New Testament’s being a legal story does not suggest that we approach it legalistically. We are not to think that by reading the New Testament and doing what it commands we are justifying ourselves. Yet, the fact remains that becoming a Christian and living as a Christian is a matter of obedience to God’s instructions and commands that are clearly revealed in the New Testament in order that people may read them and obey them.
Is the Scripture Designed to Provide a Specific Blueprint for Organizing a Church?
Please consider carefully the principle of Acts 7:44 and Hebrews 8:5b. “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, even as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen….when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.’ ” This principle asserts that what is upon earth is to be according to what is in heaven. What was shown to Moses on the mountain was a pattern of the heavenly sanctuary. The tabernacle itself, then, having been made according to the pattern, was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” itself (Hebrews 8:5a; cf. Revelation 11:19; 14:17; 15:5, 6).
Jesus himself decreed that his church/kingdom would be built on the basis of this principle (Matthew 16:18, 19; cf. 18:18). “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The description of the church provided by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews reflects this principle (Hebrews 12:22-24). “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” The apostolic teaching is the revelation of the heavenly design (1 Corinthians 14:37; Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 7:17; 14:33b,34). [To these references I also would add 1 Corinthians 4:17, hf]. If an observer took note of the early church, congregation by congregation, one should be able to observe a pattern. The pattern should reflect a uniform observance of the apostles’ teaching. On this (“the foundation of the apostles and prophets”) depends the dwelling of God in his people as his holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:20-22). Just as surely as God’s presence came to dwell in the tabernacle when Moses had constructed it according to the pattern he saw on the mountain, God dwells among those today who are a temple built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
Persistently have we pled, “Let us speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” (1 Peter 4:11). May we never cease so to plead! Yet, first, we must let the Bible speak! It can speak for itself, and what it says we can and must put into practice. We are now being told that reading the Scripture and putting it into practice and conforming to the New Testament pattern is naïve. Well, Jesus teaches us to read what the New Testament says, do what it says, and live! To whom will you listen? How will you read?
Hugh Fulford, April 21, 2020