Philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that “man is only a reed, but at least he is a thinking reed.” Likewise, on the great tree of Christianity, the Church of the Nazarene is only a leaf, but we are a colorful leaf. Our emphasis upon holiness of heart and life, evidence of God’s transforming grace radically at work in us, helps us bring color to the branches of the Christian tree.
Sometimes as Nazarenes we get caught up on what makes us different from other Christians, on being the colorful leaf. We can forget that leaves are part of trees. The Church of the Nazarene shares much in common with Christians of other traditions, particularly those that bear the name “Protestant.” One common element is the emphasis we put upon the Bible as the benchmark for what we believe, how we “do church,” how we hear the Spirit’s voice and how we decide questions of ethics and morality. In theology talk, we accept the Bible as our “rule of faith and practice.” [See discussion in Randy Maddox, “The Rule of Christian Faith, Practice, and Hope,” in Richard P. Thompson and Thomas J. Oord, eds., The Bible Tells Me So: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Kindle edition (Nampa, Idaho: SacraSage Press, 2011), location 2098].
What is God like? To answer this question, we don’t refer to an economics textbook or a bank ledger. Such resources are useful in their respective areas but teach us nothing about Christian faith. For that question, we go to revelation God has given as we find it in the Old and New Testaments. As those in the Wesleyan tradition, the most important thing to know is that God loves us, wants to reconcile us and make us like Christ. And so the Nazarene Article of Faith on Scripture affirms that the Bible reveals to us without error “all things necessary to our salvation” (Article of Faith # 4). On this and dozens of other theological topics, the Bible is our “rule of faith.”
Yet the Bible’s role is far larger. Historically, Christians have searched its sacred pages to learn about worship that is pleasing to God. In Scripture, we hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to the Church, guiding her in how she can most effectively serve and live out the Gospel message. And for deciding moral issues, the Bible is a “lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Ps. 119:105).
N.B. – To properly use that light requires some rules of interpretation, rules we’ll look at in future posts.
Christians have learned across the ages that the message of Scripture, whether through specific instructions or general principles, serves as a compass to point the people of God to the right path, a path that respects a God who is both holy and loving and a God who expects the same of us (Mark 12:29-31, 1 Peter 1:16).
The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene affirms the Bible as our timeless guide to holy living. In paragraph 27.1, under the “Covenant of Christian Character,” the “Word of God” is called the “rule of faith and practice.” “Practice” is first defined positively, including loving God and neighbor, working for the salvation of the lost, and caring for the needs of the poor. Likewise, our practice (as prescribed by Scripture) will avoid all evils, including quarreling, profanity, destructive habits, and sexual immorality — see paragraph 27.2.
The Nazarene view of Scripture as the arbiter of both faith and practice appears again in paragraph 26.2, part of the “Agreed Statement of Belief.” Those joining the membership of the church assent to the Old and New Testaments as containing “all truth necessary to Christian faith and living.”
In a future post, we’ll look at reason, tradition, and experience. These three elements, though subordinate to Scripture, are helpful tools as the church discerns the voice of God. Understanding this caveat, we can still affirm the thrust of an 1880 statement by John Charles Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool:
NEXT to praying there is nothing so important in practical religion as Bible-reading. God has mercifully given us a book which is “able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. iii. 15). By reading that book we may learn what to believe, what to be, and what to do; how to live with comfort, and how to die in peace. Happy is that man who possesses a Bible! Happier still is he who reads it! Happiest of all is he who not only reads it, but obeys it, and makes it the rule of his faith and practice!
Bishop Ryle’s statement notwithstanding, we should not be naive about the difficult parts in Scripture. Proof texts have been cited to support slavery, recommend genocide and subordinate women. Yet it is a red herring to cite past abuse of Scripture to rule out the proper use of the Bible in the moral debates of our day. John Wesley (1703-1791) understood that the most difficult passages of Scripture must be understood in-light of clearer passages and certainly in-light of the Bible’s “whole tenor.” On this basis, for example, he could argue against predestination, knowing that whatever specific debated passages might mean, they could not contradict the “whole tenor” of the Bible’s message, which affirms the love of God for all God’s creation. Likewise, slavery could not be justified based on isolated passages in Paul’s writings since to do so violated the broader message of Scripture, namely, that all persons are created in the image of God, implying equality of being. On the same principle, women as fellow bearers of God’s image cannot be subjugated to men.
Over time, consensus of interpretation was reached on slavery and it was understood to be out-of-step with the character of God. In the same way, the Church of Jesus Christ is nearing consensus that women should be included in all roles of ministry. These lessons should not be forgotten as we face new challenges. Because Scripture is our rule of faith and practice, we must resist the temptation in the heat of debate to discard the Bible as irrelevant to how we live our lives in the 21st century. The people of God do not outgrow the Bible like an old shoe. Cultural trends do not trump Scripture. Instead, the church must do what it has always done, weighing them in the balance of God’s timeless principles as laid out in the whole of Scripture.
We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God of the Bible. That being said, theology when done right must be biblical theology. As Nazarenes, we turn to the sacred page to inform our faith, our worship, and to discern the voice of the Spirit. Yet beyond this, we look to its timeless principles to answer the question posed by Francis Schaeffer: How then shall we live? Let’s keep looking to the Bible as our compass, and let’s make sure we calibrate it properly with the hard work of interpretation. We won’t be disappointed.