Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we hear the demanding words that we should never go beyond the Bible (1 Corinthians 4:6), or ne supra quam scriptum est, as the old Latin Bible puts it [St. John of Damascus (676-750), De Fide Orthodoxa, I.1]. But these words are also very controversial [J. A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (2008) pp. 215-216]. And so these constraining words from St. Paul will never illuminate our lives, as they’re supposed to do (Psalm 119:105), unless we can first see (1) why they were said, and (2) how we might heed them.
So why are we told this? Why can’t we go beyond what the Bible tells us to think and do? Isn’t this pretty bad advice? We’re not book worms, after all! We learn from more than books – even the Good Book! We take in all kinds of facts from all around us and then sort them out, for the greatest good, for the greatest number. So why should we hit the brakes and confine ourselves to the Bible – as our “only judge, rule, and norm” for all doctrines, so that we can know what’s “good or evil, right or wrong,” as the Lutheran Confessions say [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 465]? Why tie ourselves up in this straightjacket?
Now if we were free of all damning character flaws, we might have a point here. But that’s just not the case. We instead are all slaves to sin, with no good in us at all (John 8:34; Romans 7:18). “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness” in us (Isaiah 1:6; BC p. 309)! Now that’s a stinging word if there ever was one! And so we have to giveup on all self-reliance (Jeremiah 17:5; Luke 18:9). When properly grasped, this leaves us in utter darkness and despair (Colossians 1:13; Romans 7:24).
Now it is precisely because of this forlorn state – our deep unreliability – that we need help from on high. Left to ourselves we will foul up our lives over and over again. So we need, as Martin Luther said long ago, a word that doesn’t “spring from the soil of the earth” (Luther’s Works 22:484). That is to say, we need help from somewhere that isn’t contaminated by our corruption and sin.
Such a pure, reliable word is what we have in the Bible – a word that is free from our foibles and failings. Written by many different people – all right – but fully and truly inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), the Bible is his very word to us. “Thus saith the Lord,” we hear in it (Jeremiah 2:5; Acts 9:5; Revelation 1:10), and rightly so, for it is God speaking to us through the words of such suspect characters as King David and St. Paul. That makes it unlike any other book on the face of the earth – in that it is the only one that we “have not invented… ourselves” (LW 12:186). And so we say it’s holy or godlike, if you will. Luther even argues that God binds himself to this word (LW 12:352) and so – in fact – is the word himself (LW 13:386; 17:93; 21:190; 46:276)! For that reason we are to confine ourselves to what the Bible says as St. Paul charges us to do – ne supra quam scriptum est! Going beyond the Bible in matters of life and faith, then, would be foolhardy in the extreme.
But over the years many from both outside and inside the church have mounted a mighty onslaught. The mere fact, they say, that God used sinful people to write his holy words taints them. Or the fact that the books of the Bible weren’t even set until hundreds of years after Jesus, discredits it [Jaroslav Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? (2005) p. 117]. And so we have Gerd Lüdemann’s book, The Unholy in Holy Scriptures (1997) and Bishop Spong’s The Sins of Scripture (2005) – and from over a hundred years before them, lest anyone should think this is only a modern problem, we have William Henry Burr’s Self-Contradictions of the Bible (1860, 1987)!
Just think of it – Christians ripping up their sacred book! Even so, just as Jesus took on sinful human flesh (Romans 8:3) and yet was still fully divine (Colossians 2:9; John 5:18), so too the Bible, while written by sinners all right, still comes from God. So don’t look at the Bible and see just another book from a bygone time and place, for that would be to make the same mistake as those who looked at Jesus, the great Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32), and saw nothing but a common carpenter’s lad (Matthew 13:55)!
How then should we read this unusual book and see it for what it is – the very word of God? Well, it says of itself that it doesn’t want to be interpreted, tampered with or cheaply disseminated (2 Peter 1:20; 2 Corinthians 4:2; 2:17). Or as Luther said, we must not turn it into a wax nose that we can form into any shape we like – so that it says whatever we want it to (LW 10:36; 14:338; 39:81; 42:63). Now if that’s the case, how shall we pick it up and read it? Luther charts the following course in his Easter Monday sermon of 1534 [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:30-31]:
To understand the Scripture, there is need for the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment, as the true interpreter [otherwise the Bible is] like flint and obscure gloom…. [So] we should gladly… receive Holy Scriptures [as] God‘s Word…. If we will approach it with earnestness, we will find to our heart’s great joy that we perceive Christ rightly, how he bore our sins, and how we shall live everlastingly,… if only we remain simple students and fools…. There’s no room, therefore, for a smart intellectual… when it comes to this book…. God gave other disciplines – grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine – in which we can… question as to what is right and what is not. But here with Holy Scripture… let… questioning cease, and say, God has spoken; therefore, I believe…. [Therefore] be baptized, believe on the woman’s seed, Jesus Christ, true God and man, so that you might have forgiveness of sins and everlasting life through his death and resurrection. Don’t ask, Why and how can this be? If you [stop such questioning], your heart will burn within you and you will rejoice. But if you want to dispute and ask, How is this possible? you will distance yourself from the truth…. [So] bind [yourselves] to [the Scriptures] and obediently accede to what [they say. Then] the Word [will] penetrate mightily within [you]… so that [you] are buoyant, on fire, and glad…
There you have it – “God remains custodian of the word he speaks and can by the Holy Spirit effect things through a word delivered once upon a time, heeded or unheeded, at yet a later time” [C. R. Steitz, Figured Out (2000) p. 32]. No one else can do this. So St. Augustine (354-430) was right – I trust in God to understand him, or credo ut intelligam – and never the other way around (De Symbolo, IV). We don’t figure out the Bible first by doubting it and then making our own sense of it (contra J. Collins, The Bible After Babel, 2005). No, we must be ever vigilant against the “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him” – irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo [The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (October 2009) p. 858]!
Unbelievers are always free to dabble in this, if they want, and at their own peril, for Christians allow for freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). But in the church, you must toe the line and walk by the rule (Galatians 6:16). Otherwise our time will be like Luther’s, when
everything was so confused and upside-down with sheer discordant doctrines and strange new opinions that no one could know any longer what is certain or uncertain, what it means to be a Christian or not a Christian…. For proof of this [Luther says] I refer to all the books of [the] theologians…. If you can learn from them correctly [any] one part of the Catechism, I will let myself… be shredded (LW 34:28).
In the face of this threat, we must “stick rigidly” to the Bible (LW 19:45), keep it upon hearing it (Luke 11:28) – or “wait” until we can (LW 22:283), since the Bible’s hard to absorb. For as students of it know, it aims to “affront, perplex, and astonish” us [T. Merton, Opening the Bible (1986) p. 11] in order to “radically change [our] whole life on a prodigious scale” [Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination (1851), Kierkegaard’s Writings (1990) 21:31]!
But even though the Bible’s tough, its Savior Jesus still brings us salvation. For only he was crucified to make peace with God for us (Romans 5:1-2; Acts 4:12; BC p. 292; LW 69:262). So believe in him (John 14:1). And know also that he’s here today in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, which brings strength and refreshment for you (BC pp. 447, 449). So receive him with joy!
And in gratitude for this mighty Savior, memorize the holy words which bring him to us today (BC p. 339). But don’t struggle on this alone – instead link arms in the church, which is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23). Don’t peer into the Bible alone – thinking that your eyes are the only ones that matter (1 Corinthians 12:17). Instead, ponder the Bible together in church [S. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture (1993) p. 27]. Pray it together at home. And trust in the Bible for it is eternal and applies to all times and places, just as Luther says (LW 14:290). Even though few who hear it ever assent to it (LW 16:95), find in the Bible, with the whole church on earth, wisdom worth sticking to for all of eternity [Sermons of Martin Luther (1905), 8 vols, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 1:288]. Amen.