In his recent book “We Make the Road by Walking” Brian McLaren says that Jesus does not believe that the Bible is “infallible”. His view is that Jesus teaches us to see the Bible as a “conversation” through which we learn and grow. In a recent article he refers to Walter Brueggemann (whose work I often find really insightful) and appears to use his language of dialogue among the Bible’s writers, speaking of the different “voices” in Scripture:
“Their statements and counterstatements are not contradictions; they are conversations. Wisdom emerges from their unfolding conversations over many generations.” Rather than seeing these differing perspectives as situational and complementary, he goes on to invoke Jesus’ use of the Old Testament to support his argument that “orthodox” Bible readers are reading it wrong:
“Jesus not only saves us from sin; he saves us from unhelpful ways of reading scripture. When he says, ‘You have heard it said…but I say to you’ in Matthew 5:21-22, and when he challenges traditional Sabbath restrictions in Luke 14, he is challenging traditional understandings of the Bible and introduces what we might call ‘a new hermeneutical principle’: namely compassion.”
“Paul is no less bold in following Jesus’ approach to scripture. When he says in Galatians 5:6 that ‘circumcision counts for nothing; the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love’, he is not tweaking Levitical laws, where circumcision is absolutely important. He is correcting them.”
He argues that the Bible should be read in a fresh way setting aside traditional views, saying “Jesus said that people often reject the new wine because they say the old is good enough.”
I find McLaren’s passion to let the Bible speak today in fresh ways attractive, but his use of Jesus and Paul to justify his critique of its inspiration deeply wrong.
Is it right to argue that the key to interpreting the Old Testament is “compassion”? It is one key, perhaps, but surely in the “but I say to you” sections of the Sermon on the Mount to which McLaren refers, Jesus’ issue is not simply lack of compassion among the Bible interpreters of his day (the scribes and pharisees) but lack of attention to the spirit of the commandment through focus on its letter. The same is true of Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.
And to say that Paul is contradicting Leviticus in Galatians is to ignore Paul’s Jewish heritage (which he rethought but never failed to prize) as well as Jesus’ bold words, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law: I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17).
I cannot help feeling that the approach to reading the Bible advocated by McLaren is not so much bringing us new wine in place of old, but water instead of wine.
So, having reviewed the doctrine of Scripture’s “inspiration and infallibility” in an earlier article, we ask: how does Jesus regard Scripture?
Jesus fulfils the Bible
The Old Testament does not just reflect the experience of God’s people, it is also a fresh “word” of God to them in the midst of that experience. Through Scripture, Israel was given order for society, structure for worship, wisdom for life, rebuke and promise by the prophets, and songs to express every faith emotion from joy to lament1 . Yet all these words point ahead to Christ: the big theme of the Bible is God’s plan to renew His covenant with humanity, introduce his kingdom among humanity, and restore His creation around humanity. All in Christ.
So when Jesus appears announcing that “the kingdom has come near, the time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:14), He is proclaiming not just that a few isolated prophecies came true in His life, but that the WHOLE Old Testament is fulfilled because He has come. New covenant, new creation, new kingdom: all have begun at His coming.
If we are to take Jesus seriously as Christians, we must also take every word of the Old Testament seriously. We can’t limit our Bible (as McLaren seems to want and the unorthodox sect of the early church, the Marcionites, did) to the New Testament.
Jesus unlocks the Bible
In Matthew 22:43-44 Jesus makes another bold claim about Himself,
“How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him “Lord”? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet'”.
Jesus assumes the authority of Scripture (quoting here Psalm 110), attributing King David’s words to the Holy Spirit. Then he claims that the author speaking is God, and that the Messiah referred to by David as “my Lord” must be his superior. The Messiah must be more than a human messiah – he must be divine, too2. So Jesus unlocks the meaning of David’s words.
Jesus is the key that unlocks the Old Testament (at this point perhaps McLaren agrees).”You study the Scriptures thinking that by them you have eternal life: these are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).
Just as it is wrong for Christians to try to follow Jesus without reading the Old Testament, it is wrong for us to read the Old Testament without Jesus. He unlocks the meaning of the Bible .
Jesus honours the Bible
“Scripture cannot be set aside” (loosened or “broken” – Greek luō). John 10:35 reveals that for Jesus, no Bible texts can be set aside or broken. Although the context (his quotation of a phrase about “gods” in Psalm 82) is opaque, Jesus’ respect for Old Testament Scripture is clear. He uses many similar phrases to introduce quotations from His Bible, the Old Testament (“Scripture”, “the Scriptures”, “the Law”, “the Prophets”, “God said”, “Moses said”, as well as “it is written”3).
Here are further examples of how Jesus honours the Old Testament Scriptures:
Jesus and Scripture’s authority. In Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 4 ,tested by the devil, Jesus thrice quotes Scripture in response, “It is written...”. The perfect tense of the Greek verb (gegraptai) signals an event in the past with continuing force in the present. For Jesus, what Scripture says, God says4; and that ends all discussion.
Jesus and Bible study. In controversy with the Pharisees and the Sadducees of his day, Jesus criticises their understanding of the Scriptures, but never calls their appeal to Scripture into question. The Pharisees are at fault not for keeping the law but for “neglecting its weightier matters” (Matthew 23:23). The Sadducees are judged not for studying the Bible but for doing so without the illuminating help of God and His power (Matthew 22:29).
Jesus and ethics. When asked about how to live to please God, Jesus responds not with a new commandment but by underlining the Old Testament summary: love the Lord your God, love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40, cf Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus and prophecy. Jesus, before and after the resurrection, sees the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in the events of his life, death and resurrection. So in Luke 4:21 he quotes Isaiah 61 and concludes with the words “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing“. He more than once predicts his betrayal, death and resurrection as if destined by Scripture, “everything written of the Son of Man by the prophets will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him…and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-33).
Jesus and Bible history. Whilst some Old Testament stories may not be intended as historical in every detail (arguably, Genesis 1-3), Jesus refers to many in the gospels with the apparent assumption that they “really happened”. These include Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Isaac and Jacob, the manna and serpent in the wilderness, David eating the sacred bread in the tabernacle and writing psalms, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha and Jonah. For example in Matthew 12:41, Jesus says that the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, and will condemn those who reject Jesus, because “one greater than Jonah is here“5 . Rather than being fiction, Jesus clearly regards Jonah’s ministry as historical.
Did Jesus really not treat Scripture as infallible?
1 Scripture and the Authority of God by NT Wright (2005) p.27
2 See DA Carson in “Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 8 – Matthew” (1984) p.468
3 See “Our Lord’s use of Scripture” (Pierre Ch. Marcel), Ch. 8 in Carl FH Henry “Revelation and the Bible” (1959) & “Christ and the Bible” by John Wenham (3rd Edition 2009), Ch. 1
4 A phrase first used by Augustine, “Confessions”, XIII, 29
5 T.T. Perowne, quoted in “Christ and the Bible” by John Wenham, Ch. 1