If you want to know God, read his book--the whole of it: many Christians feed on the Bible like sparrows, which leads to an emaciated faith.
God's people and God's book
The early church Fathers understood the Bible this way. Justin Martyr (d.165AD) regarded the Gospels as the "Voice of God." In Apology, he wrote: "We must not suppose that the language proceeds from men who were inspired, but from the Divine Word which moves them."
Irenaeus (c.130-202) was an influential figure in the development of Christian doctrine, and his role makes him key in understanding how Scripture was regarded in the early church. In Against Heresies, he wrote about the authority of the New Testament: "For the Lord of all gave the power of the Gospel to his apostles, through whom we have come to know the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God ... This Gospel they first preached. Afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures, to be 'the pillar and ground' of our faith."
It was not only the New Testament that was understood to be the revelation of God, but the Hebrew Scriptures first and foremost. When the New Testament refers to "the scriptures," it is pointing to the Hebrew Scriptures because the New Testament did not yet exist. The Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures) is not called old because it is out of date but because it predates and anticipates the New Testament. One of the early church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215), said of the Old and New Testaments in Stromata: "There is no discord between the Law and the Gospel, but harmony, for they both proceed from the same Author ... differing in name and time to suit the age and culture of their hearers ... since faith in Christ and the knowledge of the Gospel is the explanation and the fulfillment of the Law."
The Reformers picked up the early church Fathers' emphasis on the Bible (both testaments). John Wycliffe's (c.1320-1384) life's work was directed toward the translation and distribution of the Scriptures, which he believed to be the very word of God. He believed the Bible alone in the hands of the people would be adequate for the Holy Spirit to use among them. He advocated the Scriptures as the only law of the church.
The Protestant Reformation was built on the foundation of the centrality of the Bible. The battle cry of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures alone), and it meant the freedom of Scripture to rule alone as God's word in the church. Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke of the supreme importance of the word in Table Talk: "The Word comes first, and with the Word the Spirit breathes upon nay heart so that I believe." In Three Treatises, he also noted: "Let us then consider it certain and conclusively established that the soul can do without all things except the Word of God, and that where this is not there, there is no help for the soul in anything else whatever. But if it has the Word it is rich and lacks nothing, since this Word is the Word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of righteousness, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of power, of grace, of glory, and of every blessing beyond our power to estimate."
In the Presbyterian tradition, with roots back to the Reformation in Geneva and Scotland, the doctrinal centrality of the Bible is expressed this way in the Book of Forms: "The Presbyterian Church in Canada is bound only to Jesus Christ, the Church's King and Head. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as the written Word of God, testifying to Christ the living Word, are the canon of all doctrine, by which Christ rules our faith and life."
A problem and a project
However you express it, the Bible is foundational for faith and knowing God. And never before has the Bible been so available to people. In my library, I have more than 15 English translations. Geisler and Nix list over 430 translations of the Bible or significant parts of it into English between 1900 and 1986. (1) The Bible is also abundantly available on audiotape, videotape and computer. Yet I believe the most critical crisis in the church today is biblical illiteracy. Many Christians hear or read bits and pieces of the Bible but seldom read much of it, let alone the whole of it. They feed on the Bible like sparrows and, as a result, their faith in God and knowing of God is emaciated. Without the nourishment of the word of God, Christians of the 21st century appear to have become spiritually anorexic.
So last October, our Cariboo house churches in British Columbia began a new project we called Birthed From the Bible--Reading Through the Bible in Nine Months. It took the average reader only 15 or 20 minutes to read about four chapters each day. In nine months, we read Genesis through Revelation. Participants each selected their "working Bible" (a different version if they had read through the Bible before). They began each daily reading with a short prayer for God to help them and each person in their house church involved in the project. All received a reading plan listing what to read each day and checked off the daily passage as they read it (the reading plan was easily designed with Logos Bible Software). If they missed reading one day, they could make it up the next. If they missed too much to catch up easily, they were encouraged to begin again at the place where they should be on the schedule. The emphasis was: "Do not give up! God wants you to do this! Other members of your congregation are praying for you to succeed." As participants made their way through the Bible, they highlighted one verse per chapter that was special for them. Some were reluctant at first to mark up their Bibles, but the highlighted passages became like gold when they were finished. They ended each reading session with prayer, thanking God for his word for the day.
Parallel with this reading project was another project: Preaching Through the Bible in Nine Months. Each week, I focused on a passage from the past week's reading assignment. I tried to land on many highlights in the Scriptures over the nine-month period, providing much hermeneutical fuel for our house church discussions. We proceeded with our Bible reading/preaching project expecting what the apostle Patti promised: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).
On June 30th this year, we ended the most significant event of my 21 years in ministry. I cannot recommend this initiative strongly enough for the Year of Education. Having virtually everyone in a congregation reading through the Bible at once and preaching each week on texts as everyone reads through them is a powerful spiritual experience. And most of the people in the house churches I pastor (about 70 people, ages 12 to 90) completed the program. Most used the printed word, but three people used audio-cassettes.
The project provided some interesting preaching challenges for me, like how to preach Christmas and Easter sermons from the Hebrew Scriptures. Christmas found us reading 1 Kings, so I preached the Christmas sermon on Solomon's prayer of dedication before the temple (1 Kings 8:22-30). I used some words from Solomon's prayer for my title: "But will God indeed dwell on the Earth?" Easter was just as rich as we were in the Minor Prophets. I picked up on Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15, where he says Christ died and rose on the third day according to the Hebrew Scripture. In the sermon, Easter According to the (Hebrew) Scriptures, I focused on resurrection prophecies from the Minor Prophets.
Here is what some participants had to say:
"Reading through the Bible from the beginning through to the end has given me a whole overview of our God, not just bits of him from the Old Testament or a New Testament view of him." (Lesley, age 25) "It was enlightening to have a sermon on our daily Bible readings each week and then be able to discuss it with other members. Some of the Old Testament was heavy going but one has to remember the times and society it was written for and try to understand the real meaning of the text." (Mary, age 70) "It was the first time that either of us have read the Bible all the way through. Both of us enjoyed the task and grew spiritually a great deal through the Scripture reading and the daily prayer time." (Gordon, age 57, and Marion, age 86) "I enjoyed the nine-month Bible reading project. I found it very interesting and easy to do. It also gave me a better insight into God's whole personality." (Chelsea, age 13) "The time frame for the project was very good; it kept me interested [and] it didn't drag on. With a very short time span, the Bible stayed fresh in my mind from beginning to end as I read it. I feel I gained a whole lot more Bible understanding with this reading/preaching project. It was a very rewarding experience for me and I highly recommend it" (Jack, age 59) "The Bible reading/preaching project was a very exciting challenge for me. I have read the Bible through every year for quite a number of years but it has never before been opened up to my understanding like it was this time! I found God speaking to me in some new way every day. I really fell in love with the Old Testament as I discovered it abounding in examples of God's grace." (Ginny, age 57)
(1) A General Introduction to the Bible (Moody, 1996)
The Holy Bible
A Bible reading plan such as Through the Bible in a Year (Canadian Bible Society pamphlet) or any Series X package from Logos Bible Software (www.logos.com/)
Rev. David Webber is a contributing editor to the Record. He is a minister in the Cariboo house church ministry in British Columbia.
Check the Year of Education website at www.presbyterian.ca/flames/education for updates of ideas, resources and events.