Wineskins Archive

December 19, 2013

Back to the Bible (Apr-May 1997)

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by Joel Stephen Williams
April – May, 1997

Martin Luther always said things in a bold, dynamic way. As a scholar Luther’s greatest achievement was his German translation of the Bible.1 In his preface to the German New Testament, Luther attempted to give some guidance to the reader toward a proper view of the nature of the Bible and the two distinct parts we call the Old and New Testament. Luther knew quite well that if people approached the New Testament with a wrong understanding of its nature, they would read and interpret it wrongly.

Luther said one must be shown “what to expect in this volume, lest he search it for commandments and laws, when he should be looking for gospel and promises.”2 The Old Testament contained laws and commandments and “the records of men who kept them, and of others who did not. On the other hand, the New Testament is a volume containing God’s promised evangel, as well as records of those who believed or disbelieved it.” He then warns: “Beware lest you make Christ into a Moses, and the gospel into a book of law or doctrine.”

Luther was well aware that the New Testament contained concrete instruction and truth. As he put it: “Christ in the gospels, and Peter and Paul in their letters, set forth many doctrines and regulations, and expounded those regulations.” But this does not mean that we are saved by rule keeping or that the New Testament documents are designed to be a code of law. Luther wrote: “It is not knowledge of the gospel if you just know doctrines and rules of this kind. But you will know the gospel when you hear the voice which tells you that Christ himself is yours, together with his life, teaching, work, death, resurrection, and everything that he has, does, or can do ….It is evident that the evangelion [gospel] does not form a book of laws, but a proclamation of the good things which Christ has offered us for our own.”

If God had meant for the New Testament to simply be a new book of law, we might ask: “What was wrong with the first law he gave us?” The law which God gave through Moses was a good law. It served well as far as a law can serve the purpose of teaching and saving humankind (Romans 7:7-25). To view the New Testament primarily as law is to imply that God’s first law was deficient, not only due to man’s weakness, but also due to God’s imperfect giving of the law. But the New Testament is not a law of the same character as Leviticus or Deuteronomy. To view the New Testament as a law code is to pervert its nature. This view, which is called “patternism,” leads to a legalistic mindset and a prooftexting hermeneutic.

The plea “Back to the Bible’ is a good one, but one must understand the nature of the New Testament for this plea to be implemented properly. Roy Bowen Ward has pointed us in the right direction: “One might attempt to ‘restore NT Christianity’ by attempting to understand NT theology and then apply this theological insight to the present situation. This approach is not to be confused with a simplistic proof text method or artificial constructions of patterns (where they do not appear explicitly in the NT). It would involve an inside understanding of the life, thought, and practices of the apostolic churches. It would involve, if possible, finding the central and motivating forces of those churches and restoring these to the present church.”3

Consider some illustrations of these two approaches. The approach of patternism will lead to church splits and division over trivial and insignificant matters such as one cup versus multiple communion cups, methods of funding orphan homes, and a myriad of similar matters. The gospel approach will rejoice in remembering the Lord no matter what containers are being used, and will “look after orphans and widows in their distress” whether the work is funded by church treasuries or individuals (James 1:27). The law code approach seeks to justify the individual because right acts are done in right ways, as the law code directs. The gospel approach will justify because faith in Christ and his promises brings salvation into a loving heart which then acts in loving ways toward one’s fellow man.

What is the New Testament? It is not a law code. It is not a detailed, exhaustive pattern of every word we must say and every deed we must perform. Instead it is the good news that God has acted in history for the salvation of mankind. It is a witness to Christ and to the character and nature of God, which form our pattern for truth and life. This latter approach is not bothered by the numerous textual variants present in the manuscripts. It is not bothered by the fuzzy edges to the canon that we will discern if we study canon history carefully. This latter approach dovetails well with the only way that mankind can be saved: by grace through faith.

“Back to the Bible” does not require us to go back to temporary or cultural forms and expressions of Christianity in the first century. It does require us to go back to the pinnacle of history, God’s revelation of himself in Christ, which is revealed in the set of documents we call the New Testament.

1 E. Harris Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956) 103-135.

2 All quotations of Martin Luther are from John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961) 14-17.

3 Roy Bowen Ward, “’The Restoration Principle’: A Critical Analysis,” Restoration Quarterly 8, no. 4 (1965) 209.
Wineskins Magazine

Joel Stephen Williams

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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