The Five Fingers of Salvation: Forgiveness

Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candor in television, Marghanita Laski, a well-known British secular humanist and novelist, said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.”  (John Stott in The Contemporary Christian.)

Forgiveness. It seems so desirable, yet sort of old-fashioned.

Isn’t it better to be “unforgiven?” Doesn’t this make us stronger?

In Walter Scott’s five fingers of salvation, the first three were “Faith,” “Repentance,” and “Baptism.”

The fourth finger for Scott was “Remission of Sins.” He was using a old English word from the KJV, “remission,” which means “release.” It was a term used in the business world to describe the release from debt or obligation. It is ironic that the word has now migrated to the medical world, and means “release” from an illness as in, “My cancer is in remission.”

A better translation for us today is “Forgiveness.”

What is Forgiveness?

Psalm 32 is sometimes called a “Penitential Psalm,” meaning a cry of repentance. This psalm was the favorite of St. Augustine, whose ideas of sin, repentance, and forgiveness have influenced the church since the fourth century:

 Psalm 32:1-2 A psalm of David,
Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

St. Augustine, who loved Psalm 32 so much, was always conscious of his status as one who had been forgiven by God. He was once asked why he loved the psalm so much and answered, “The beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner.” We begin by acknowledging that before God, we are sinners. This is a move of faith (finger one). We respond to this knowledge by asking for God to forgive us. This is the move of repentance (finger two). When our hearts have repented, we are washed in the waters of baptism (finger three). Then we may truly experience God’s pardon, divine forgiveness.

David gives three ways of describing the blessing of divine forgiveness:

  1. Forgiven has the sense of released. It is like taking a bird out of a cage and tossing it into the air, allowing it to be free.
  2. Covered has the sense of being hidden. Both the sin and its effects are no longer on display. The cause for embarrassment is put away. God no longer sees us as sinners. We are freed from even the reminder of our sin.
  3. “Whose sin the Lord does not count against them.” This has the sense of a debt forgiven, a bill cancelled. It would be like your credit card company calling and saying that someone else had paid your bill.
  4. And the result is “no deceit,” NLT: a “life lived in complete honesty:” a new, clean slate, a fresh start, a record wiped clean.

Forgiveness in the Bible

Jeremiah 31 is one of the most startling prophecies concerning the New Testament, the era of the church. It speaks of this in terms of a “New Covenant,” a fresh start for God’s people.

Jeremiah 31:34 

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah foresaw that this would be a time when God’s people have knowledge of him in their hearts, each and every one of them. And here’s why: they will know they are forgiven people. The New Covenant is the Covenant of Forgiveness. The New People of God are the Forgiven Ones.

We, the church, the New Testament people of God, are transferred from the darkness of sin to the Kingdom of the Beloved Son, for we have been forgiven.

Walter Scott Revisited

On Walter Scott’s “Hand of Salvation,” all five things are essential. But none of them is more key than this one, the ring finger.  Unless I am forgiven, I am not saved! Faith alone will not save me. Repentance by itself will not save me. And certainly, Baptism as a merely ritual act has no saving power. I am saved when I am forgiven. I am free from the penalty of my sins only when God releases me from that penalty. I am free because he has set me free. That is the new covenant, the promise of forgiveness.

We can be freed from the bondage of sin, the sin that separates us from God. We can we washed clean, have a new start in our relationship with God. Forgiveness means we are no longer enslaved by sin! We are free. We have been released! We have been given a new life! We are saved!

A Step further: We can forgive others

In the world without Christ, there is a huge need to experience forgiveness, not just from God, but from each other. Remember Marghanita Laski: “I have nobody to forgive me.” Oh yes, you do! This is what the church is all about! Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer that if we ask God to forgive our sins, we must be willing to forgive others.

If you are unwilling to forgive others, you will never feel completely forgiven.

Do you have remembered injustices, times when your heart was hurt?

Have people wronged you and never apologized or even hinted they were sorry? They don’t have to apologize for you to forgive!

Forgiveness is “letting go.” Let go of those things that have haunted you, that have embittered you, that have disabled you emotionally, that have even paralyzed you. Accept God’s forgiveness, freely offered to you, and give it to others. Let the church be the “Fellowship of the Forgiven.”

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for being willing to forgive us, rebellious sinners who have disobeyed and ignored you. Help us to feel released from sin, forgiven from its horrors, and then forgive others. Fill our hearts with forgiveness. We pray in the name of the one who forgave sins while among us, Jesus the Savior, Amen.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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The Five Fingers of Salvation: Baptism

Large Question: When do we become a Christian?  If a Christian is one who is fully committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, when do we go from being non-committed to being committed?

For some, this is a problem of growing up in the Christian faith: We have no conversion experience to give a testimony about. We don’t remember ever not being Christian. We might be the most desperate asking, when do we become a Christian? How do we know for sure we are Christian?

Modern Solutions

  • Sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus into your heart. Problem: this is not what Peter says when asked, “What must we do?” Acts 2:37-38.
  • Gift of tongues: when received, you are a Christian. Problem: this is not a supported by the New Testament in any conclusive way. The New Testament gives evidence of Christians who did not speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30).
  • Some type of dramatic spiritual experience. Problem: the only real example in the New Testament is Paul.
  • Join a church. The problem seems to be the medieval belief that the bishop was the church and there no salvation outside the church, therefore the bishop/clergy controlled both who was a member of a church and who was saved.

Biblical Pattern

The New Testament pattern is Very Simple. It is BAPTISM

Baptism is the Church’s rite of commitment to Christ.
(Jack Dean Kingsbury)

There are lots of misunderstandings about baptism in the Christian world today. In the 2,000 years of church history, baptism has been distorted in many ways:

  • Misunderstanding #1: That proper baptism is something other than full immersion in water. In changing this, the primary significance of baptism is lost and the baptismal experience is diluted. The early church understood the importance of going under the water fully, the symbolic bathing of every part of the body. It also likened this to a burial, of being buried with Christ. The symbolism is rich and deep and is watered down when we sprinkle or pour water on the head.
  • Misunderstanding #2: That babies should be baptized as a remedy for their sin. This misses the most important finger in Walter Scott’s hand of salvation, the thumb: FAITH. Baptism is a response of faith. The New Testament knows nothing of proxy baptism based on the faith of the parents. The New Testament knows nothing of baptism as a magic bath that washes away the curse of original sin.
  • Misunderstanding #13 That baptism is a way of joining the church and has nothing to do with my relationship to the Lord. In this, baptism is like taking the pledge to become a Rotarian or undergoing hazing to be part of a football team. I never baptize anyone saying, “I baptize you so that you can now be a member of our church (as long as you tithe).” I say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins.”

And despite these distortions, let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Baptism is a watery act with deep symbolism. Baptism is closely related to the forgiveness of sins. And baptism does open the doors for becoming part of the body of Christ, a member of his church.

If baptism is such a great thing, why do people resist being baptized? Why are people unwilling to be baptized by immersion as adults, the pattern of the New Testament? Here are reasons I have encountered in ministry:

  1. No one has ever asked them. Are we embarrassed about our teaching on baptism?
  2. Pride (baptism is a humiliating act). The older you get, the more humiliating it seems!
  3. Concern about family members who have not been immersed. What about my Lutheran grandmother, my Catholic mother?
  4. They have come to a position the makes baptism theologically unnecessary. If I don’t understand completely why baptism is necessary, it must be unnecessary. My need to understand trumps the teaching of the Bible and the practices of the early church. If your theology tells you not to be baptized and the Bible tells you to be baptized, to whom should you listen?
  5. They realize what baptism symbolizes: a complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They reject this commitment. Which is, perhaps, the only valid reason: You don’t want to be a Christian.

There are many texts in the New Testament about baptism, but let me focus on one from Paul from the neglected book of Titus:

Titus 3:4-7 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Very important phrases:

  • Goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared: Christ came in the flesh, God in flesh, as a human.  Christ’s work on the cross was a work of unspeakable kindness and love.
  • He saved us: Christ came to “seek and to save.”  His atoning death on the cross yields salvation for us.
  • Not because of any works of righteousness we had done: We cannot possibly earn our salvation.  What we have earned is death
  • According to his mercy: Our salvation is always dependent upon the mercy and grace of God our Savior
  • He saved us through the water of rebirth: Our baptism shows us and all who witness it that we are forgiven people, saved, that we are part of the people of God
  • He saved us through the renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior: God’s Spirit gives us the spiritual strength to change our evil lives in ways we could never do through our own efforts.
  • Having been justified by his grace: We are counted whole and clean and righteous by the grace of God.
  • We become heirs: and this is what we inherit:  eternal life.

When do you become a Christian? When do you know you are a Christian? Paul neither lifts up baptism as the most important thing nor does he toss it aside as of little importance. In his description of the salvation journey for any believer, it is right in the middle.

Walter Scott reduced the necessary elements of salvation to five points, and used the hand to illustrate them, the five fingers. For Scott, Baptism was the middle. The first two fingers, Faith & Repentance, were largely our actions. We make a decision for faith. We develop a heart of repentance. The last two, Forgiveness & the Gift of the Holy Spirit, were God’s actions, things we receive through his grace. The middle finger was baptism, which included both our action and God’s action. Scott was convinced (and so am I) the Bible taught that baptism was the place where God meets us. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the voice of God came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, and I am very pleased.” He is present with us in baptism, and it is here that he pronounces, “You are my Child, and I am pleased, I am delighted that you have come to me.”

God has designed a way for you to show your commitment, and it is more than mental commitment. It is even more than heart commitment, emotional commitment. It is to make your faith known to others and to be buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. It is to be raised from that watery grave and walk in newness of life.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Repentance

“Repentance” is not popular today. One internet blogger called repentance, “the most unpopular message in the history of mankind.” Why is this? What is it about calling people to repent that rubs us the wrong way?

Biblical Idea of Repentance

In Walter Scott’s Five Finger system, the first finger was Faith. The second finger is Repentance

Scott based this on Acts 2:36-38:

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

We cannot repent without or before faith, for repentance is an act of faith, a move of trust. We are saying, “O God, I’m wrong and you are right.” It seems fitting to me that this is represented by the “pointer” finger, for repentance is pointing us in a new direction, we are pointed to God and not to ourselves. We are saying, “That’s the way I’m going to go. I’m going to follow Jesus and serve him, not myself.”

There are four things that happen in repentance.

1.    I experience deep sorrow or regret for my sin

Job 42:6 Therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

This is where our pride comes in. We must lay down our proud ways and submit to God and his ways. We must feel a pain for our sin. Repentance is not simply a logical exercise, it is a condition of the heart. This is what Joel is talking about when he says, “Tear your hearts, not your clothes.” Repentance is an emotional response.

2.    I turn away from my sin and turn to God

Ezekiel 14:6 “Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

This is a matter of allegiance, of loyalty, of orientation. It is not turning from one sin and replacing it with another. It is repenting on the broadest level: turning back to God, resolving to serve him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Repentance is an act of submission.

3.    I align my thinking with godliness

Luke 5:32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

The idea of metanoia (translated “repentance” here) is to “rethink,” to think a new way in regard to sin. This is Peter’s famous call in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized.” When we repent in this way, we admit our error. We admit that our acceptance and enjoyment of things that displease the Lord were wrong and destructive. We seek holiness and righteousness. We have new standards by which we measure our decisions in every area of our life.

This is the attitude that was expressed in the WWJD movement, based on the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. For some it might be helpful to ask, “What would Jesus do?” in a given situation, but more important and focused is to ask, “What would God have me do?” Repentance is an act of mental renewal.

4.    I claim a promise

Acts 3:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord … 

Two terms are given here, both representing repentance. First is metanoia again. We re-evaluate our lives with tears and sorrow. We give up our pride and our love for things that are ungodly.

The second idea (epistrepho) is very clear here. It has the sense of turning around, turning to God. We were walking away from God, and we turn around and walk toward him. This second word is equivalent to the Latin-based term, conversion. Conversion is not accepting a new religion. It is not joining a new church. It is an act of asking for forgiveness.  Repentance leads to the freedom of forgiveness.

Then and only then, Peter promises that we will be refreshed and renewed. How can we feel forgiven if we have not repented? If we are in denial about our guilt, about our sin, how can we feel forgiven? How can we be set free?

Repentance is not a one-time act. It is a life. We are called to be people of faith and repentance. It is like the old advice on how to quit smoking: “If at first you don’t succeed, quit and quit again.” We as believers are called to repent, repent, and repent again.

Repentance begins and ends with humility, a humility driven by our sense of unworthiness. It moves to a deep regret and sorrow for the ways we have offended God through our pride, our greed, our selfishness, and our lack of love. Repentance is complete when we resolve in our heart to change, to leave behind the sins that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is an act of faith, spiritual contrition, and confession. It is a cry for forgiveness.

To repent, you must first see yourself as God sees you—as the Bible describes you. We don’t like what we see: prideful, rebellious, selfish, defiant, moral ugliness. We can change when we repent. We can begin to clean up the filthy garments of our lives. And God will help us. He does not expect us to clean ourselves up so that we will be acceptable to him. He wants us to give him our hearts, to yield to him, and let him begin the transformation.

Prayer

Change our hearts, O God. Where we have loved sin, may we love you. Where we have loved ourselves, may we love others. Break our hearts and change our minds. More of Jesus, less of us. By your power, transform us into your image. We pray in the name of Jesus, AMEN.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first one on April 29 (Faith) and the second one on May 6 (Repentance). This week (May 13), Derek Beebe is preaching on the third finger (Baptism). You are welcome to come. For more info, follow this link.

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Faith

What does it mean to be a Christian? How do I become a Christian? Is this something that I do, following a predetermined pattern, or is this something beyond my efforts alone?

In the next five weeks, I would like to introduce five essentials for becoming and being a Christian. These are from a 19th century evangelist, Walter Scott, who brought many people on the American frontier to Christ. Scott did this by boiling the many elements of the Christian faith to five. I plan to use his system as he did, relating each of the five to the fingers of a human hand, therefore the “Five Fingers of Salvation.” The first of these is Faith.”

We have many secular faith issues in America today. 

  • Can we trust the news media or is it all “fake news”?
  • Should we trust the roadways if we are sharing them with “self-driving cars” and “driverless trucks”?
  • Who can we trust with our personal information online when we find out it is bought and sold like a commodity, or that credit bureaus or banks suffer “data breaches?”

What is faith, though? More importantly: is there anything commonly shared in faith? If the church is a community of faith, does that mean we all believe the same thing?

There is a word cluster in English that represents what we are talking about when we consider biblical faith: Faith, Believe, Belief, Trust, Confidence, perhaps Commitment. How do we apply these, however? How do we enact them in our lives?

Allow me to break this down a little. I think there are three ways Christians have traditionally understood faith:

1. Acceptance by evidence that certain things are true. We therefore believe these things are true. Example: my car is blue. If you were here with me, you could go to the parking lot and check this for yourself. This “evidentiary faith” is the basis for what Christians call “apologetics.”

Yet we seemed to have moved beyond this in many ways. Science, even the concept of objective truth, is under attack today. We have moved to what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” where we are willing to accept something because it “feels true.”

We have long recognized that evidence-based faith has its limits. There is a well-known story of the strident British atheist of the early 20th Century, Bertrand Russell, in which he was asked what he would say to God if he found himself standing before God after he died. Russell answered: “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.” Not enough evidence, God!  If faith is entirely logical and evidentiary, who decides what is a necessary pile of evidence in order to demand belief?

2. Confidence that the future will conform to what is promised. I can believe that certain expected things will happen before I experience them. Example: the sun will come up tomorrow. This faith in a promise does not always hold true, however (see video). “Try it, you’ll like it” offers a promise that may not come to pass. We should understand that the key to our confidence in the future rests on our confidence in the person who gives us the promise. This is this is the essence of biblical faith, of Christian faith. And it moves us to the third option.

3. Trust in a person. As Christians we are sometimes asked what we believe. We might list many things:

  • God created the heavens and the earth
  • The Bible is the Word of God and without errors
  • God is revealed to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

But there is another way of expressing this:

  • There is a God, a personal living God.
  • This personal God is willing to have a relationship with me.
  • God cares for me and loves me

I believe in God: I am trusting him with my future.

Belief that God exists may be the starting point and the controlling factor, to be sure. But Christian faith, saving faith, is to be found in our trust in a person.

  • We are not saved by believing there is one God.
  • We are not saved by being a member of a certain church.
  • We are not saved by believing the Bible.

Christian faith is personal, but not turned inwardly to say we believe in ourselves. Christian faith is faith in a personal God. Christian faith is trust in God’s Son for salvation and no one else.

We can understand this by looking at Psalm 78, a rehearsal of Israel’s failure to trust God during the Exodus from Egypt:

Because they had no faith in God,
and did not trust his saving power.

Psalm 78:22

They did not believe that God could save them. They did not trust in his saving power.

Everything in the Christian life depends on faith, on trusting Christ. Everything we do as Christians flows from our faith. Our Christian commitment is to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one we have trusted as our Savior, the person we believe will save us. This is a great commitment, a risky move. We are placing our future in someone else’s hands, but, as Kierkegaard said, “No risk, no faith.” When we believe in Jesus Christ, we are trusting him with our lives. We are saying, I believe you can save me, and I am going to follow you. You will be my Lord. I cannot save myself. Only you can save me.”

Luther said that,

“the only faith which makes a Christian is that which cast itself on God for life or death.” 

May we have that faith.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first on on April 29. You are welcome to come for the last four. For more info, follow this link.

The Future of the Bible in the Evangelical Church

It is time to close this series of blogs with a projection of the role of the Bible in the evangelical church as we move forward. Let me start with my analysis of where we are today, the current ground game in play. I will do this by asking two defining questions.

First, where is the locus of authority in the evangelical church today? As mentioned above, Martin Luther and those who followed him used the Bible as a means of redirecting the authority in the church from trained hierarchical teachers to the individual believer. This is still true today (and will continue), but things have changed from Luther’s day. Now, men and women who have training and degrees in biblical studies have a small or non-existent voice of authority in the church. This may sound like sour grapes to some, but I have experienced this more than once in ministry. It is at the scholar’s peril that he or she challenges a cherished but unbiblical belief in a local church. I rarely do this anymore, but when I have, my advice will often be rejected in one of two ways. First, the church leader being challenged (exposed) may intimate that my Ph.D. in New Testament has corrupted me and turned me into a liberal, so I cannot be trusted. Second, a church leader will basically answer, “And so say you!” meaning, “Even if I’m wrong, I’m not changing my position.”

However, a strange corollary to this has emerged in the last decade, the nationally influential scholar/pastor. There are a few dozen evangelical pastors who have achieved a national platform through publications, blogs, tweets, conference speaking, and other media. While the university professor’s authority is dismissed, the pastor’s knowledge and authority are accepted. After all, he has written two books! This is a mixed bag, for some of these guys (and they are almost all male) are well educated, and I don’t know where it will come out. I admire hard working pastors and their dedication to preaching the gospel and building the church. Sometimes, though, the personality characteristics that lead to a megachurch (narrow focus, self-confidence, independence, flamboyance) make it difficult to participate in a community dialog about the meaning of biblical texts. Grant Osborne exhorted his students (including me) to always practice a “hermeneutics of humility,” realizing the best exegetes may make mistakes. We need more of this today.

All this is to say that the Bible is often a tool for the most influential authorities in the evangelical church, the influential pastors and their disciples. Most church members have no interest in Luther’s ideal of careful Bible study by the educated and godly layperson. They want their doctrine and theology delivered in 140-charcter bites, sometimes a series of these tidbits strung together as a sermon. (We used to call this “proof-texting,” which hatched a flock of bad approaches to the Bible that have now come home to roost.) I don’t see this trend changing soon. I await a rediscovery of the Bible and its authentic authority for a future generation.

Second question, what do evangelical church people want from the Bible? It is easier, maybe, to say what they don’t want. Many don’t want the Bible to stand in criticism to the way they live their lives. Rampant materialism, covert racism, excuses for immorality … please don’t bring any biblical truths to challenge these things! Many want comfort from the Bible, to know that God loves them and they don’t need to change anything to please him. Even more, many want to keep the Bible at arm’s-length so that its light of truth does not shine too brightly on their lives. This seems to me to be the role of the Bible for most Evangelicals for the foreseeable future. It is like the wise uncle who lives out of state. He may have good advice, but we don’t want to hear it, and it is easy to ignore him.

I do believe, however, there is a growing hunger among evangelical church members for a healthy meal of biblical truth. They have been fed baby food for too long. They want a biblical steak, or at least seasoned and sautéed sliced eggplant (for vegans).

I am encouraged by a couple of things that have happened in my church, Wildewood Christian Church in Papillion, NE. First, our pastor, Ron Wymer, has committed himself to include more doctrinal and theological meat in his sermons. He is doing a D.Min. degree and was challenged in a recent class to bring theology back to the pulpit, and he has been doing this. But Ron preaches from the Bible, not a systematics textbook. I applaud him, even if I disagree with him some time. For me, it is better to have a sermon where I might disagree a little, than a sermon that has nothing worth disagreeing about.

Also, this church has been gracious to allow me to teach in its “Wildewood Academy,” a Wednesday night program for adults who are desiring serious study of the Bible. We have been wading through the book of Revelation, and I am amazed at the response. We have almost outgrown our classroom. We are tackling some tough stuff, places in Revelation where I have to say, “I’m not sure what this means.” But we are seeing this great book of theology and worship in ways that speak to our lives and our faith. These faithful, Berean-type church members are a great encouragement to me and the church.

So there is hope …

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (part 3)

This is the fourth installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. Recently we have been looking historically at the early church’s practices concerning Scripture. The early church, before the completion and collection of the New Testament, esteemed the Scriptures from its Jewish roots, using the Greek translation of the Old Testament we call the Septuagint. At the same time, words of Jesus were accorded special, Scriptural-like authority before our Gospels were written. The writings of the apostles were also esteemed and began to be treated as Scripture. Beginning in its early centuries, serious Christian writers were both using Scriptural citations in their polemic and apologetic writings to define and bolster their positions. Great scholars like Origen began to do systematic exposition of Bible books, using predefined methodology to interpret the meaning of Scripture for their readers.

Skip to the sixteenth century. The church is in the final stages of emerging from the “dark ages,” a development influenced by many things. Not the least of these factors is the invention and continuing perfection of the printing press. In the 1450s, the first major publishing project began using movable type. The publisher, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, chose his first book carefully and his choice is instructive. He printed the Bible in a grand fashion, impressively large and luxuriously bound. What is important for our study is that he chose the Bible as his first project and that the version he used was the Latin Vulgate text, which included the books of the apocrypha.

The cost of Gutenberg’s Bibles and the limited production meant they found homes in large churches and libraries, not in homes (for the most part). Even with papal approval, the Latin text made it inaccessible to all but the learned. Yet the printing technological revolution had begun, and there was money to be made in producing smaller and less expensive books. This spurred something of a revival of biblical scholarship, partly because printers needed reliable texts to publish that would be accepted by the church and the public.

At the same time, the authority of the church in Rome was being questioned on many fronts. This can be attributed to factors such as rising nationalism, abuse or neglect of spiritual authority, crusade fatigue, rediscovery of classical pagan philosophers by the humanists, and the extravagance of building projects in Rome and elsewhere despite grinding poverty in much of Europe. This set the stage for a German-speaking Augustinian monk, Martin Luther.

It is not overstatement to say that Martin Luther changed the entire trajectory of biblical scholarship, and that his influence continues until today. Luther did this in two primary ways. First, he began to study the texts of Bible books in something like an objective, modern way. He wanted to know what the author said and meant when the author originally wrote. Luther did not feel bound by traditional interpretations that were sometimes intended to benefit the church establishment.

Second, Luther believed that Scripture needed to be widely available to all Christians. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the church was his German translation, later called the Luther Bible. For the first time in 1,500 years, Christians might be able to own a copy of the Bible in their home and read it in their language. In both of these things, we like to think that Luther shifted the locus of authority from the Roman Catholic church and its magisterium to Scriptures, but that is not really what happened. As we shall see, the Scripture is now seen with a new level of authority, but the shift was from the authorized church interpreters to individual Christians as interpreters. If a semi-learned layman could read Scriptures for himself, then he could interpret it for himself, too.

This is the beginning of the evangelical tradition of today: Scriptures widely available in common translations and at low cost for a literate church membership. In America, one of the motivations for public schools was to produce a literate people who were able to read the Bible for themselves. Protestants have little patience for official, church-decreed interpretations of Scripture. We can read it for ourselves!

Next: Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 2)

This is the third installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. The last blog indicated that “Scripture” for the early church was what we would call the “Old Testament” today. The functional Scripture of the church was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (LXX). This indicates a couple of things. First, that the idea of “Scripture,” the written word, as having unique authority was retained by the church from its synagogue origins. Second, the idea that we must study the Old Testament in the original language (Hebrew/Aramaic) has little historical basis in the earliest church. Third, that our mania to have absolute exactitude concerning every word of Scripture and its original meaning also has little basis in the earliest church.

How did we get where we are today, where there is a sincere desire to recognize authority in the Bible while tolerating a low level of biblical literacy in our churches?

This blog can only use a big brush and very broad strokes in this, but let me point out a couple of developments. First, the words of Jesus were accorded special respect and authority in the early church, even before the Gospels were written. For example, in Acts 20:35, Luke portrays Paul as ending his discourse to the Ephesian elders this way:

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

This little saying, attributed to Jesus himself, is not recorded in the Gospels. It is significant that Luke himself did not include it in his first volume, what we call the Gospel of Luke, for he often foreshadows material in Acts with material in Luke. If Luke is writing in the late A.D. 70s, he pens this forty years after Jesus said it, but he gives us no context for Jesus making this assertion. He is also writing twenty years after the event in which he portrays Paul as quoting it, and here the context is important. Paul is speaking with apostolic authority to a group of church leaders and ends his discourse with this verse. Quoting Jesus finalizes his argument and both compliments and surpasses his own authority.

We also see this in some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings. One example is Clement of Rome, probably writing in the AD 90s. Possibly the co-worker of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3, Clement writes to the church in Corinth in a letter we call 1 Clement, a book saturated with scriptural quotations and allusions. Decrying divisions in the Corinthian church, Clement makes this statement:

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. (1 Clement 46, Ante-Nicene Fathers translation).

This seems to be a quotation of Matthew 18:6 (perhaps Mark 9:42), but not with the precision we would demand today. What it shows us is that this early church leader (Clement) and his fellow Christians saw authority in the words of Jesus, and that Clement used a written source (Matthew or Mark) for these words.

Second, in the centuries following Clement, other church leaders and scholars used both the Old Testament and the writings that became the New Testament with authority. Sometimes the New Testament authors were quoted to bolster a command or teaching. Others did lengthy, systematic expositions of certain books. For example, Origen (flourishing c. A.D. 200-250) wrote lengthy expositions on books of the Bible from the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Genesis, Lamentations, John, Romans). His exegetical method may seem inadequate today (referred to as “allegorical” or “spiritual” interpretation), but the fact that the greatest scholar of the church’s first two centuries would expend so much effort on biblical studies is significant. Origen’s efforts also included his famous Hexapla, a six-columned work showing the Hebrew text, a Hebrew transliteration in Greek, the Septuagint text, and three other Greek translation of the Old Testament. Now lost to us, the Hexapla’s purpose seems to have been to establish the best possible Greek text of the Old Testament for use in scholarship and in the church. This, again, is an attestation to the high esteem in which Scripture was held in the early church and the seriousness of the scholarship devoted to it. It is also a move to raise the stakes for the exact words of Scripture, to have a trusted text that is the basis for interpretation.

Next: Biblical Authority in the Reformation

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University