Rev. John Williams
II Timothy 3:14-17 (NRSV)
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
Children’s Song: The B-I-B-L-E, Yes, that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, The B-I-B-L-E.
Do you remember singing that song as a child? I remember singing and my mind conjuring images of throwing a Bible on the floor and literally standing on top of it. Of course, that could never happen: first, I didn’t yet have my own Bible when I learned that song, and second; such an act would have been tantamount to punching Jesus in the face. We weren’t even supposed to lay a Bible on the table with the cover facing down…. In my childhood experience, the B-I-B-L-E was as important as God!
From the beginning of our history as Baptists, 400 years ago, we have held the Bible in high esteem. But, in our better moments, not so much as an object to be worshiped, but as the means of knowing the God who loves us.
So here we are. Soul freedom, Church freedom—and now, Bible freedom. Yet another of the Baptist distinctives that make us who we are. Baptists are, in a very real sense, “people of the Book.” It is to the Bible we turn when we have questions that need answering—about the church, about ministry, about the way God’s people are to conduct themselves. Without discounting the importance of tradition, we have consistently maintained that traditions and creedal statements always take a back seat to the Bible on matters of faith and practice. Because of our understanding of Soul Freedom, we do not turn to other “mediators” to tell us what we have to believe or how we must interpret the Bible.
When we talk about Bible freedom, we recognize it as “the historic Baptist affirmation or belief that the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and the church.” (Walter Shurden, The Baptist Identity) You, as a follower of Christ, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture. So like our other freedoms, Bible freedom comes with responsibility.
Bible freedom can be seen in four ways: freedom “under,” “for,” “of,” and “from.” Here’s what those mean:
When Baptists began, they insisted that Jesus was the only Lord of their lives. Therefore, we stand with an open Bible “under” the Lordship of Jesus. “The foundation truth upon which Baptists build is the Lordship of Christ over the individual believer. All other authorities are judged by the authority of the Son of God.” “The ultimate source of Christian authority is Jesus Christ the Lord.” Put another way, Jesus is the norm by which the Bible is to be interpreted. Or, as stated quite plainly: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
In the gospel reading this morning, The Message version paraphrases the text like this: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.”
Baptists wanted freedom of access to the Bible “for” the purpose of continuing obedience to God’s word. Because of the power of the Bible to make God’s will known to us, the Bible is a dynamic (ever-living) book. That means it is always relevant for every person in every place in every time. Unrestrained freedom to follow the Bible wherever the Bible might lead was of first importance to early Baptists. In a covenant John Smyth drew up for the newly formed Baptists in 1606 as “the Lord’s free people,” they pledged themselves “to walk in all His ways made known or to be made known unto them…whatsoever it should cost them.” In other words: these “free people” wanted freedom to obey new truth and light that might break forth from God’s Word.
Early Reformers were committed to the idea of sola scriptura or “Scripture alone.” This meant that they wanted to be free “from” all other religious authorities—no pope, no king, no human could hold more power than Jesus.
For Baptists, this means that we are “not a creedal people.” Historically, there was no Baptist creed or confession of faith that people were required to believe or sign in order to be a Baptist. We took this stance for two reasons. First, no creed or statement can summarize what the Bible says about faith and behavior. Second, creeds tend to become the “norm” and then people are forced to comply. American Baptists said it like this: “the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.” (Cornelius Woelfkin’s resolution adopted in 1922 by what was, at that time, the Northern Baptist Convention)
Baptists have no formal or informal teaching office that hands down “correct” biblical interpretation. Freedom “of” interpretation by each believer is fundamental to Baptist thought.
The Bible is open to all believers. If believers are to be guided by Holy Scripture, believers must be free to interpret Holy Scripture.
But here’s the rub. If I’m free to interpret the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so are you. Obviously, such freedom leads to great diversity of understanding and application. And with such diversity comes the responsibility to learn to live in fellowship with one another.
I was working with a pastoral search committee a number of years ago when one of the members of the committee made a comment about not considering women for ministry because the Bible said it was wrong. I reminded him that others interpret the Bible differently on that subject. “Well they just don’t believe the Bible then, do they?” “Be careful,” I said. “Just because someone doesn’t believe the Bible the same way you believe the Bible doesn’t mean they don’t believe the Bible!”
A friend of mine pointed out that as a child, everyone went to the church near their home, where there might be a multitude of different ideas held and expressed. But they loved one another and learned to get along. “Nowadays,” he said, “people drive past those nearby churches, sometimes for miles, to attend the church where everyone is the same. No one knows how to live with our differences anymore.”
Bible freedom is hard work—and that’s a part of where your responsibility comes into play. YOU are responsible to dig deep and study the Bible. What did this biblical statement mean in its original setting? When was it written? Under what circumstances? What thought patterns dominated the world of the writer? What do I need to know about world history, Bible history, and good principles of biblical interpretation in order to “rightly divide the word of truth”?
Paul told Timothy (and us), “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” It’s hard work. You can’t claim the privilege and freedom to interpret if you won’t do the work. Don’t succumb to the temptation to let others do the studying for you. The book of Acts says of the people of Berea, they “were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
There is a light on our path in this journey we share together. As we walk together in freedom, let us give one another room to walk in the light God reveals.