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The New Testament, Faith, and the Resurrection

June 3rd, 2007

Whenever I lecture on the topic of how the New Testament was formed I find myself having to address another ongoing debate that I have never really engaged academically, the issue of inerrancy. I will not attempt to explain the subtleties of any particular position - there are plenty of books, articles and web sites dedicated to this subject. I will state my philosophical position, not as a New Testament scholar, but as a church historian. I also do not intend to belabor my position with footnotes and other source materials - again, this is well-trodden academic terrain - it would not be difficult to find plenty of position papers. See The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy if you want to read a fully developed statement on this issue.

Inerrancy basically is the position that the NT documents are “inspired by God,” with “infallible divine authority,” and “is without error or fault in all its teaching.” While I certainly believe the scriptures are inspired by God with divine authority, there are many little problematic issues that make an inerrancy position difficult to maintain. But my real issue with this position has little to do with the actual texts in question and more to do with the philosophical and fundamental question - “What is our faith based on?”

Faith, not in the Text, but in the Resurrection

During worship this morning at my local church we sang a modern rendition of “The Solid Rock” by Edward Mote (1797-1874). [By the way, I like the traditional way of singing this hymn AND I like the modern rendition our church uses] I like many of the traditional hymns - and I really like this one:

“On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand”

I believe that Protestant conservatives and evangelicals have mistakenly taught Christians, by default, to place their faith in the biblical text. When I say “by default” I do not ever remember being taught that my faith was based on the NT, but this is indeed what happens. The earliest Gentile Christians, converts of Paul, did not have any scriptures, yet they believed. From what we can see in the writings of the first and second centuries, the NT documents were not well-circulated until the middle of the second century or later. I would guess that some people in the first and second centuries came to saving faith through reading the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas. Both of these documents were accepted as “inspired” text by some churches throughout the first two centuries. At the same time some churches/leaders of the first two centuries rejected some of the documents in our 27 book New Testament.

The Waodani Indians of Ecuador in the once again made famous story by the movie End of the Spear came to saving faith before the scriptures were ever translated into their language. I remember either hearing from a Wycliffe translator or reading it, but one particular South American Indian tribe did not have any word that would make sense for “grape” and “vine” as in the famous “I am the vine, you are the branches” text in John 15:5. The translator used "banana" and that particular fruit for this illustration. This is an example, albeit simple and crude, for why the individual “words” our NT text do not hold some kind of power. The word of God is not contained in the actual “words” - it is a concept, a high level message. Indeed, the power of biblical text comes from the original source - what John refers to as “The Word (logos) of God.”

To carry on, what about believers in the underground church in China through the years who did not have the scriptures? What was their faith based upon? I came to saving faith by the simple witness of a friend; only later did I read the scriptures. Yet I had faith.

The point is that our faith is NOT based on the biblical text - our faith is based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Actually, without the resurrection Jesus would only be another Jewish wannabe Messiah. It’s the resurrection that makes the difference, or to quote Paul, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor.15:14) But I just cited an NT document to make my point! Yes, the NT is critical for our understanding of faith, but is not essential for us to come to faith.

Faith is Enhanced by the Text
Almost everything we know about Jesus, and much of our understanding of how to live the Christian life, comes from the NT. It provides us with spiritual nourishment, by it we are encouraged in our faith, through the NT writings we learn and better understand what God expects of us, but let us not forget that we are supposed to be God’s epistles written to others. Even when I say this I immediately feel in my heart, “I cannot do this.” Exactly! This is also an important point:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesusí blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesusí name.

I cannot trust in my righteousness. I cannot trust in my understanding of what is good doctrine, or “right.” My hope is built on nothing other than Jesus and His resurrection.

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