The Unbreakable Bible
Jesus said: “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came– and Scripture cannot be broken”
-John 10:36, English Standard Version
When we are on holiday, my children love to go to a supermarket, and head straight for the pick n’ mix sweets counter. Pocket money is rapidly used up, as they pick their favourite sweets, (bribing Dad with some pieces of fudge). Pick n’ mix is great fun when it comes to sweets; but it is not good as a way of approaching the Bible. For many people, the Bible is a resource book: they pick the bits they like and find comforting, and leave the bits they find uncomfortable or challenging, (rather as I take the fudge and leave the liquorice).
A pick n’ mix approach to the Bible is ruled out by Jesus in John 10:22-42, the passage that I will preach on next Sunday, 26th August. In verse 36, Jesus has been threatened with death for blasphemy because he has claimed to be one with God his Father, and in his defence he appeals to Psalm 82:6. His defence rests on a single word- “gods”, and he adds as an aside “the Scripture cannot be broken”.
“The Scripture” is what we call “the Old Testament”- the first two thirds (roughly) of our Bible. Jesus is simply saying that if the Bible says something, then it must be correct. If the Bible says something is true, it is true. It cannot be contradicted, or falsified, or nullified, or set aside. Moreover, that isn’t true simply of the general sense of the Bible, this unbreakability extends to its exact wording. The Bible, both in its whole and in its parts, is the word of the God of Israel, who is always faithful in what he says and does, and cannot lie; therefore his word contains no mistakes or deceptions. It cannot be broken.
Jesus clearly expected this to be common ground between him and his opponents. There could be controversy between them over what the Bible meant, and who he was, but he expectected no disagreement on this point. Most Jews at the time of Jesus would have agreed that the Old Testament was God’s words, and therefore could not be broken. Jesus was not afraid to disagree with his contemporaries, even at great risk to himself; if he thought that they were wrong about this, he would surely have said so. But he did not, instead he confirmed what his fellow Jews thought. So he based his whole life works on the idea that the scripture was unbreakable, and completely reliable down to the last detail. For Jesus, to be able to say “it is written” settled the argument (e.g. Matthew 4:4). When asked about the permanence of marriage, he quoted the words of the human author of Genesis 2:24 as the words of God (Matthew 19:4-5).
The implications of this for Christians are immense. There are some today who refer to themselves as “red letter Christians”. They would claim that their authority as Christians is the words of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels, and that the rest of the Bible is on a lower level, with less authority. The irony is that Jesus himself disagreed to this, and held the Old Testament to have absolute authority. Furthermore, as BB Warfield points out in his classic essay “The Real Problem of Inspiration”, if Jesus was wrong about this, he is discredited, and he is not a trustworthy guide to what we should believe. The truth of the Bible is not a trivial matter; it was central to Jesus’ mission and ministry. If he was wrong about this then we have no reason to believe what he says about (for instance) God’s love. The same applies to the writers of the New Testament, who also held to this view of the Bible.
A Christian is, at the most basic, someone who says from the heart “Jesus is Lord”. If we dismiss Jesus belief that the Scriptures are unbreakable, or try to evade its authority by cherry-picking the bits we will accept as authoritative, we are denying that Jesus is Lord. Therefore, it is not a matter on which Christians can have “good disagreement”. This is what the disputes in the Anglican Communion and other churches are really about. On the surface, they are about human sexuality, but underneath they are about the unbreakableness of scripture, and therefore about the Lordship of Christ. In 1998, after the Lambeth Conference of bishops had passed its excellent resolution on sexuality, one American bishop opposed to the resolution infamously remarked “The church wrote the Bible, and the church can re-write the Bible”. That is a denial that Jesus is Lord.
My old friend Charles Raven has put this very well in a recent article, which I would urge everyone to read (https://www.gafcon.org/news/standing-on-the-authority-of-gods-word). He calls on the Gafcon movement to remain faithful to God’s word because “true spiritual life ebbs away when the authority of the Word of God is set aside”. Then he reveals why this is such a personal issue for him: his wife Gillian is dying of ovarian cancer, and has only weeks to live. Charles writes:
“she is ready to go home and the promises of Scripture become more and more precious… what matters now is what God’s word says, not what she is able to think and feel when pain and loss threaten to overwhelm… The dying need to know that the promises of God are absolutely solid realities which God has clearly revealed in his Word, not just one way of reading the Bible amongst many”
But as Charles writes, one cannot take a “pick n’ mix” approach to the Bible. If we think that the Bible is unreliable when it speaks about sexual ethics, then we have no reason to think that it is reliable in what it says about suffering and the glory that awaits us after death. Only an unbreakable Bible can give us unbreakable confidence when faced with the last enemy.
So I hope that Christ Church Düsseldorf will not pick n’ mix, but continue to say and live “Jesus is Lord”, without compromising his unbreakable word.