Jesus or the Bible

Several years ago, around the time when he was President of the Baptist Union of Australia, I recall the Revd Tim Costello writing an opinion piece in response to an article by one of the leading Sydney Anglican heavyweights published in The Sydney Morning Herald.  I can’t recall the issue on which they disagreed, but I do recall Costello appealing to the supremacy of the living Christ as trumping the traditional Reformation doctrine of the supremacy of Scripture in determining true doctrine and good practice in the church.

At the time, I was pastoring the Blakehurst Baptist Church in metropolitan Sydney, and it is no understatement to say that its doctrinal stance was “conservative evangelical.”  Among other things this meant that the church gladly affirmed the confessional statement of the Baptist Union of NSW (the local Baptist association) regarding Scripture, which reads:

The Scriptures, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, are the infallible Word of God.  They were written by holy people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.[1]

This is a statement many Christians would readily affirm, since it defines the boundaries of the canon, identifies it as “infallible” without referring to the contested term “inerrancy,” affirms its supernatural “inspiration,” and identifies the preeminent locus of authority for questions of faith (i.e. doctrine) and conduct (or practice, at least in terms of church order and personal ethics).  But it says nothing about how this “supreme authority” is to be discerned, or to whom it applies. And, while the statement is the fourth of 13 sections in the 1979 NSW Baptist confession (coming as it does after summary declarations on the nature and unity of God, the deity and humanity of Christ, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit), it would appear that the statement of belief about Scripture is the foundation or source of all the other essential doctrines identified in the 1979 confession. In unmistakably clear terms, then, NSW Baptists are “people of the Book.”

It is perhaps not surprising that Tim Costello’s specific appeal to the supremacy of the living Christ came as an uncomfortable surprise to some Baptists, and I had one or two difficult conversations on the matter with individuals.  To me, his approach sounded Barthian, or neo-orthodox, and I did not identify with either of those theological labels, nor do I today.  It was evident to me that one could take Costello’s apparent position, or the official NSW Baptist position, but not both.  Yet I lacked a sense of the distinctive historical and ecclesial background that informs these two closely related ways of seeing, believing and deciding on matters of principle and policy.  We agreed that we were from Sydney and Tim was from Victoria, and he would not be the national Baptist President forever, and we moved on to the next compelling controversy.

That was more than ten years ago. Today it all came flooding back when I read an article by Stephen R. Holmes in the Baptist Quarterly, titled “Baptists and the Bible.”[2]  In the paper, Holmes, senior lecturer in theology at St Mary’s College, at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), argues that the Declarations of Principle of both the Baptist Union of Scotland and the Baptist Union of Great Britain claim a distinctive account of how Scripture should be read, an account that seems “uniquely British” but can be traced back to the beginnings of the Baptist movement. The article shows how (British) Baptists have typically understood Scripture as a mediation of Christ’s personal authority, appropriated pneumatologically through the gathered church.

Holmes begins with the startling suggestion that “If we were able to gather the data for churches in Scotland on any given Sunday, there would be less Scripture read in Baptist services than in those of almost any other tradition.”[3]  From my albeit limited experience of church services in other denominations, and of writing about liturgy, I suspect he is right. The same might be true of churches in New South Wales. When I was pastor at Blakehurst (from 1998 to 2002), I introduced a pattern of Old and New Testament readings to the order of the morning service, based on the recommended calendar of readings in the Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship: A Guidebook for Worship Leaders,[4] a Baptist guide to liturgy for pastors and church leaders.  The practice was welcomed by church members who noticed what I was doing, but was far from the norm among NSW Baptist churches where colloquial and extempore liturgies were more familiar indications of evangelical orthodoxy and the Spirit’s leading in corporate worship.

Holmes’ point is valid: that, in any Anglican church, by contrast with many Baptist churches, almost every word spoken in the liturgy will be directly and deliberately biblical – in the sense that it employs the actual words of Scripture.  Thus he asks whether Baptists are “less Biblical than our Episcopalian brothers and sisters, or just ‘differently Biblical’?”  The question is ironic because our reasons as Baptists for separate existence from other Christian denominations are historically based on convictions about what it means for a local congregation of Christians to demonstrate what it means to be “biblical” in its basis, structure and practices.

What especially caught my interest in Holmes’ article was his suggestion that a Baptist distinctive with respect to the (nature of the) authority of Scripture is its Christological basis.  This is not evident in the NSW confession, but is explicitly stated in the declarations of principle of both the Baptist Union of Scotland (BUS) and the Baptist Union of Great Britain.  For example, the BUS statement asserts:

That the Lord Jesus Christ our God and Saviour is the sole and Absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.[5]

Thus Scottish Baptists affirm that Scripture is to be interpreted and obeyed by the local gathered fellowship of believers, the key hermeneutic principle being defined as the guidance of the Holy Spirit who enables understanding and application of the “laws” of Christ, broadly defined.  This is a radical principle, for as Holmes observes, “neither our ordination nor our academic training makes us privileged interpreters of Scripture; the meaning of the text is available, in God’s purposes, to every reader.”[6]  Of course, God also gifts his church (both historically and in the present moment) with certain members possessing uncommon natural intelligence, academic training and insight; and in many congregations there will be those with “a lifetime of faithful attentiveness to good Christian teaching,” as well as trained and ordained pastors and other leaders, who will contribute to the discernment of God’s word in Scripture.[7]

The perspicuity or clarity of Scripture is an important doctrine without which the church as we know it would long ago have foundered.  For example, as Holmes observes, the Papal Bull that led to the Diet of Worms (Exsurge domine) denied the validity of Martin Luther’s interpretation of Scripture on the grounds that it conflicted with the exegesis of those whose interpretation was privileged due to ecclesial rank, with the best academic exegesis of the day, and with the church’s authorised interpretation of Scripture.  For his part, Luther simply appealed to the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture and the application of “plain reason” available to all Christians, and the rest is history.[8]

Now Baptists will insist that Christ alone is the head of the church.  It follows that, if Scripture is to be authoritative in the church, as it is, then the authority of Scripture must be understood in relation to Christology.  Hence the question posed in the title of this paper: Jesus or the Bible?  Holmes responds by asserting that, for Baptists, “authority in the church is primarily the authority of the living Christ, who makes His way known to His gathered people through His Spirit in His Word, the Scriptures.”[9]  Holmes suggests that Baptists are, in principle, opposed to any formal account of biblical hermeneutics, and are instead committed to divine sovereignty with respect to biblical interpretation and application.  Thus

what we cannot do, ever, is predict in advance how Christ will choose to speak to us in His Word when we are gathered in His name. We can of course be fairly confident about a lot of things He will not say, and probably about a lot of ways He will not speak, but we cannot confine His sovereign voice to certain modes of address which we happen to find intellectually acceptable.[10]

In my opinion Holmes overemphasises the point in his absolute denial of our ability to know how the word of God will be mediated in the church meeting, or what God’s word will be seen to declare on many specific issues, but we should certainly not fall into the twin traps of presumption or censorship in pursuit of personal or sectarian agendas.  Further, Holmes suggests that God’s word in Scripture

captures us in unexpected ways; it subverts our expectations, evades our classifications, and overturns our assumptions.  Our task is, in humble, prayerful dependence on God’s Spirit, to be open and attentive to the way in which Christ shall choose to address us today.  Any normative account of hermeneutics is an attempt, doomed to failure, to seize control of the living Word from the hands of Christ the Lord.  We engage in Biblical study to be shaped and remade by the Word, not to force it into patterns and shapes we happen to find acceptable.[11]

Similarly, Holmes observes that “British Evangelical confessional statements routinely speak of Scripture’s authority; our American brothers and sisters take their stand on its inerrancy.”[12]  It could be argued that the debate among Baptist in NSW over the nature and authority of Scripture, culminating in the 1979 Statement of Beliefs, was shaped by these two cultural poles rather than by objective questions of truth and heresy.  I have long sought to present the British view, emphasising the authority of Scripture under the Lordship of Christ, and not wishing to be unnecessarily weighed down by extrabiblical (and essentially modernist) arguments about inerrancy.  But I would add, and I suspect Holmes would concur, that it is our Christian responsibility to discern how any apparent discord or rupture between the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ may be reconciled, and in this task both the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the active participation of the gathered church are essential.

Returning to Holmes’ original question, I would conclude that Baptists are not less biblical than their Protestant brothers and sisters, but when they are most authentically Baptist (rather than merely echoing the principles and practices of other denominations) they are indeed “differently biblical.”  Our emphasis on discerning the mind of Christ through the reading and interpreting of Scripture in the context of the gathered community, and our experience of (and yielding to) the living Spirit of Christ in this process, is a distinctive practice of Baptists.  It is unfortunate that this is not clearly articulated in the NSW & ACT Baptist Statement of Beliefs.

[1] For the 1979 Statement of Beliefs, amended to incorporate gender-inclusive language in 2003, and reaffirmed as the Statement of Beliefs in a new Constitution on 30 March 2012, see (accessed 15 Oct 2012).

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, “Baptists and the Bible,” Baptist Quarterly 43, July 2010, pp. 410-427.

[3] Ibid., p. 410.

[4] Bernard Green (ed.), Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship: A Guidebook for Worship Leaders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[5] Holmes, “Baptists and the Bible,” p. 414.

[6] Ibid., p. 415.

[7] Ibid., pp. 417f.

[8] Ibid., p. 416.

[9] Ibid, p. 420.

[10] Ibid., p. 421.

[11] Ibid., p. 422.

[12] Ibid., p. 423.

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