Texas Baptists Committed Convocation

at Ramada Hotel in Fort Worth, Texas

June 1, 1996

 

THE PRIORITY OF SCRIPTURE

by Dr. Bruce Prescott

 

I am to speak this day about the priority of scripture.  This is a subject that is dear to my heart and dear to the heart of every Baptist.  Baptists are people of the book. We love and respect the Bible.  It holds a special and unique place in our lives.  This book points us toward God and opens the world to our understanding.  It is the world in which we live and move and have our being.  The Bible is separate and holy to us.  But, we must not elevate the Bible to the point that it becomes an object of worship.  Before anything else is said about scripture we must recognize that it does not have first priority.  First priority belongs to Christ and to Christ alone.  The authority and priority of scripture is secondary to that of Christ.  This should be so obvious that it goes without saying.  But it must be said because many Baptists have forgotten it or never knew it.

 

For more than a quarter century Baptists have been battling over the Bible.  We are gathered this morning as a direct result of that battle.  The battle for the Bible has divided the Baptist family into two opposing armies.  One army is determined to defend the Bible.  The other is equally as determined to keep it free.  We are engaged in a civil war waged with ballots instead of bullets.  And, there is not a single soldier in either army who has not been wounded.  We just got our wounds in different battles -- one army was decimated in the SBC, the other army has been crippled in the BGCT.  But, there is enough life in both armies to fight on.  The only fatality in this war has been the strength and credibility of the Baptist witness in the world.

 

The deepest tragedy about this battle is that it never should have been fought.  There never would have been a war if Baptists would have kept first things first.  There never would have been a war if some Baptists had not made the Bible to an idol.  Now that is a bold statement.  Let me back it up.  Have you ever been to one of the pastor’s conferences before the SBC meets?  How many times have you seen the Bible lifted up in these conferences and waved around like a banner?  How many times have you seen a Baptist preacher lift up the Bible and say, “If the Bible had even a single error it would destroy the church and make faith in Christ impossible?” 

 

The truth is, some Baptists have got the cart before the horse.  They put faith in the book first, and faith in Christ second.  And that is Bible idolatry.  It makes the Bible an idol.  The Bible has become a mediator between God and man.   The apostle Paul insisted that there can be only one mediator.   He wrote Timothy, “There is . . . one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5 NAS)  That is about as unequivocal as you can get.  No if’s, and’s, but’s or maybe’s.  First priority belongs to Jesus.  The priority of the Bible is secondary.  If all Baptists would get that right, there would be an unconditional surrender, the battle for the Bible would end, and revival would break out among Baptists.  

 

It is time for all Baptists to reconsider the priority the Bible has in our lives.  It is time to stop making the Bible an idol.  It is time to set aside the heresy of inerrancy that led us to lift up the Bible like a golden calf.   It is high time that we examine what the Bible really says about the place it has in our lives.  The best text for that is Isaiah 55:8-11:

 

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.  For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it." (NASV)

 

The central thing to notice here, and in every passage in which scripture speaks about its power and work, is the use of  “living” metaphors.  “Living” metaphors convey the living and dynamic character of God’s word.  The scriptures have authority and priority because God gives them life and power.  God speaks through them to accomplish his purposes.  The first sign of life is that,

 

Scripture Fulfills God’s Intentions

 

The documents in the Bible were written by many different authors.  Each wrote in his own language and words.  Each wrote in his own style and with his own unique pattern of thought and understanding.  Each had his own intentions and purposes for writing.  But, the meaning and significance of what they wrote is not limited to their own personal purposes and individual intentions.  Scriptures are scriptures because we recognize the Spirit of God at work in them.  Scriptures are inspired by God.  This is a “living” metaphor.  Literally, scriptures are theopneustos -- God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16).  They are filled with the breath of God, they resonate with the voice of God, and they reverberate in our hearts to accomplish God’s purposes and intentions.   Scriptures are full of life and power because God gives them life and power.  In another “living” metaphor God’s Word is said to be “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)  Scripture has authority and priority because God gives it life and power.

 

When you are familiar with the Bible’s “living” metaphors, then you will know how silly it is to try to defend it.  God’s word is not weak and puny.  The Bible does not need to be defended.  We were never commanded to defend it.  We were commanded to live it and proclaim it.  That is the only way its power is known.

 

Those who defend the Bible say it is under attack.  I’ve never seen the Bible attacked, but I do see two things that are undermining the credibility of the gospel.  The first is that too many people proclaiming it do not live it.  The second is that too many people proclaiming it insist on replacing the Bible’s “living metaphors” with “dead metaphors”.  Inerrancy is a “dead metaphor”.  Neither the word nor the thought it summarizes is used in the Bible.  No matter how many times the SBC votes to breathe life into it, God never breathed it.  It is a “dead metaphor,” it stinks to high heaven, and our Baptist forefathers will never rest and peace and modern Baptists will never be at peace until it is buried.  It has nothing in common with the “living metaphors” of the Bible.

 

The people trying to defend the Bible need to pay attention to the Bible’s “living metaphors.”  God’s Word is living and powerful because God gives it life and power.  It doesn’t need to be defended.  It needs to be lived and freely proclaimed.  The only thing we should worry about is seeing that the gospel does not lose credibility because it is so poorly reflected in our lives.  God’s purpose for scripture is that it work in our lives.  God’s desire and intention is that His Word to transform us and conform us to the image of His Son.  He does that by insuring that,

 

Scripture Nourishes Human Understanding

 

The text uses an organic metaphor to describe God’s intention.  It likens God’s word to water that nourishes a seed enabling it to sprout and grow.  This is a “living metaphor.”  It compares the process of growth in nature with the process of growing in faith and understanding.  It shows us that a mature faith is not static.  It grows.  Faith begins with simple childlike trust and acceptance.  The “good news” is like a seed planted in our hearts.  God’s word is like rain that waters the seed.  In the world of nature, rain and sunlight work together to empower seeds to spread roots below the surface and branches above the ground.   In the realm of the Spirit, the scriptures and God’s spirit work together to empower faith and understanding to take firm root in our hearts and branch out into every area of our lives.

 

Little growth in either world comes without a struggle.  The conditions of life are not always kind. In the realm of nature there is both rain and snow.  Snow is cold and harsh.  The coldness of the snow tests a plants strength and endurance before its waters nurture another spurt of growth.  In the realm of the spirit the basic orientation of faith is tested by the disorientation of adversity and doubt.  Adversity and doubt test a soul’s strength and endurance before nurturing another spurt of growth.

 

In natural life, some plants don’t have the stamina to survive the cold.  They have a short lifespan unless they are sheltered in a hothouse.  In spiritual life, some Christians don’t have the stamina to survive adversity and doubt.  They never mature enough to bear much fruit.  I am afraid that much of the Christianity in America is of this variety.  And this is the reason for the decline of the church in our land.  The decline of Christianity in America has little or nothing to do with what TV preachers rail against.  It has nothing to do with the separation of church and state or with the lack of prayer in public schools.  It has much to do with churches becoming hothouses that shield Christians from the elements that will enable them to develop the maturity and strength they need to bear fruit in the real world.

 

Faith never grows strong without facing adversity.  Understanding never grows deep without facing doubts and difficult questions.  That is why what has happened to our seminaries is so devastating.  Education needs to raise doubts and difficult questions.  That is the only way the mind can be stretched and understanding can grow to maturity. 

Immature Christians have no business in the pastorate.  Seminary education is supposed to be for the most mature Christians and it needs to expose them to the deepest doubts and the most difficult questions.  Instead, all six of our SBC seminaries have been turned into hothouses designed to protect the fragile faith of insecure and immature men.  (Note that I limit the fragility to the men, any woman who can survive in that atmosphere is sure to have faith as solid as a rock.  I should define this more.  Not every man at seminary is immature.  There are a lot of good men at the seminaries.  But they can’t learn anything because the professors are not free to teach them.  It is the trustees that I am talking about -- and the trustees have been attracting men like themselves.  The reason so many churches have wilted over the last fifteen years is because they didn’t know any better or didn’t have any alternative than to call one of these new hotheaded, hothouse preacher boys to be their pastor.  Few of these new preacher boys know how to survive in the real world and fewer still can lead a church to minister in the real world.)  If the church is going to survive in the real world, particularly in the world of the 21st century, then churches need to start hiring some of the women whose faith has been proven by fire and start looking to Truett, Logsdon, Central, Garder-Webb, Mercer and Richmond to find their ministers.

 

In the meantime, there is one sure and true way to identify someone who has had a good education and whose faith has begun to mature -- they don’t have all the answers.  Those who have all the answers aren’t educated, they are indoctrinated.  People who are educated learn to ask the most profound questions and then they spend the rest of their lives searching for the answers.  This is particularly true when it comes to understanding the Bible.  No mature Christian would dare presume to have all the answers about the Bible because,

 

Scripture is Inexhaustible in Meaning

 

That is what the text says in verse eleven.  Literally, it says God’s Word is shuwb reyqam (Hebrew).  Shuwb reyqam is a “living metaphor” and it is hard to translate.  The KJV translates it “return void.”  God’s word is never void of meaning.  The NIV and NAS translators use the words “return empty.”  God’s word can never be emptied of meaning.  Both the word “void” and “empty” capture something of the meaning of reyqam, but not very well.  To say that scripture is “unemptiable” or “unvoidable” sounds strange.  It does not resonate in our ears.  Even that old, “dead metaphor” “inerrant” sounds better.  And that is unfortunate because shuwb reyqam is a “living metaphor” whose meaning is diametrically opposed to what is understood by “inerrant.” 

 

To say the Bible is “inerrant” is to put an end to questioning. It is the conclusion of one brand of human logic.  It is the answer to the only question a fundamentalist knows to ask.  Once this conclusion is drawn, inquiry is ended and nothing further needs to be discovered, discussed or explained.  For those who put faith in this brand of logic, “inerrancy” is an “exhaustive” summary of the Bible’s truth and meaning.

 

The claim that any human logic can provide “exhaustive” answers is precisely what shuwb reyqam denies.  God refuses to be confined to the limits of human reasoning: 

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts." (Isa. 55:8-9)

God’s logic is not the same as human logic.  There can be no end to inquiry because God’s Word can never return reyqam.  God’s word cannot be replaced by an “exhaustive” summary.  God’s Word is “inexhaustible.”  “Inexhaustible” is the English word that I think best conveys the meaning of the “living metaphor” in the Hebrew phrase shuwb reyqam.  God’s word is “inexhaustible.”  When I am “exhausted” I am “out of breath.”  God’s word is never “out of breath.”  God never ceases to breathe meaning into scripture.  This complements what Paul said to Timothy.  In 2 Timothy the scriptures are said to be “God breathed,” here it says they are never “out of breath.”  There is always a surplus of meaning in scripture.  There is always more in scripture than we can fully comprehend or understand. 

 

Our Baptist forefathers knew this well.  That is why they refused to write and adopt creeds.  Unlike their step-children, they had the humility to know that there was always more in the Bible than they could understand.  They knew what it was like to read the Bible again and again and always find something fresh, something new, something deeper than they had seen before.  They knew that no pope, no priest, no preacher, no committee, no council, and no convention -- could ever wade more than ankle deep in the depths of scripture.  They knew that the scriptures were “inexhaustible” in meaning.  That is why they insisted on the competency of every believer to interpret scripture for themselves.  They knew God’s Word was living and dynamic and insisted that it be free to exercise its power in their lives.

 

Each of us needs to know and experience the power and dynamism of God’s Word in our own lives.  This, as I conclude, is the deepest reason for returning to the Bible’s  “living metaphors.”  Only “living metaphors” are adequate to describe the process that takes place when we read the scriptures with understanding.  God’s Word is “inexhaustible.” 

 

Inquiry never ends because at the deepest and most profound level all questions are addressed to us.  We may come to scripture with our own questions, but when we begin to understand it, we quickly find that the tables have been turned.  In the end, God does the questioning.  We are the ones who are called into question.  

 

God’s Word is living and active.  It penetrates to the division of soul and spirit, to the very “thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  Our hearts. 

 

We are the ones who are called into question.  And, God’s Word never returns exhausted because the “living” Word never tires of searching our hearts. 

 

Then, as we respond in faith to His questioning,

 

there is an emptying -- our hearts are emptied of sin;

 

and there is a filling -- our spirits are filled with a power that transforms and makes us new;

 

and there is assurance -- our souls are assured of a salvation that can never be voided. 

 

 

That, more than any other reason, is why the scriptures have priority in our lives. 

 

 

 

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