In response to the biblicism of some corners of Christianity, other Christians have wrongly pitted Jesus against the Bible. Do you know what biblicism is? It’s a careless way of handling the Bible concerning what to believe and how to behave. It assumes a no-creed-but-the-Bible stance on doctrine or denies that we all come to the Bible with an interpretive lens. Biblicism produces problematic ethics and clumsy theology.

The remedy often given for biblicism is to emphasize Jesus over the Bible. Scripture is not God, the argument goes, so we must not venerate it as such. We must see that the Bible points to Jesus, but not the other way around. As stated by Brian Zahnd, a pastor who rejects the orthodox understanding of the Bible, Scripture is a witness to Jesus in the way that John the Baptist is a witness. Scripture, like John the Baptist, testifies about Christ.

Therefore, the argument goes, if we are going to read the Bible as a guide to life, we must read it in the light of Christ. Christ is perfect, not the Bible. Christ is the second person of the Trinity, not the Bible. There is one Mediator between God and man, and it is not the Bible. “The church must always be in conversation with Scripture, but to the end that we must submit to the rule of the living Christ,” Zahnd says. In this view, troubling passages are understood as submissive to Christ, and they therefore can be disregarded or weighted differently.

It may sound good to say we need to submit to Christ over the Bible, but there are deep problems with this view.

The Nature of God’s Word

To say that Scripture witnesses to Christ the way that John the Baptist witnesses to Christ fundamentally confuses what the Bible is. It’s not merely a witness that simply points beyond itself to something greater. It is the actual words of God. It is God talking. It is God’s self-revelation.

So then, when the Bible talks about itself as a witness to Christ, as it does, we must recognize that the Bible is written by men, in particular times and places, anticipating the person of Christ coming, and at the same time, God speaking about Himself and the Son. Scripture is not like John the Baptist pointing beyond himself to Jesus; it’s the very words of God.

Jesus’ Exegesis of Scripture

The main problem with talking about the Bible as a mere witness to Jesus is that Jesus didn’t talk about the Bible this way. For Jesus, the Bible is perfect and cannot be broken (John 10:35). It’s the truth in which Jesus prayed His Father would sanctify His people (17:17). Jesus called people for strict obedience to the Bible, not just to hearing and knowing the stories (Luke 11:28). Jesus never questioned the historicity of the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the flood, Jonah, or creation. He trusted the Bible as truthful in all that it says.

Jesus also treated the Scriptures as vital to the existence of His life and ministry. He gave Scripture the priority over His life. In the wilderness, while being tempted by Satan, Jesus said He needed Scripture more than earthly comforts—it was more fundamental to His life than bread (Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). When Jesus was experiencing the sufferings of the cross, He went to the Psalms for comfort. You can find more than a dozen direct quotations or allusions to the Psalms while Jesus was making sense of His suffering and persevering through it.

Jesus gave Scripture the priority over His life.

Jesus understood His identity through the story line of Scripture. The themes, institutions, and figures of the Old Testament were all part of His understanding of who He was and what He came to do. Just read how Jesus understood the Old Testament’s teaching on sonship, kingship, temple, divine presence, covenant, the sacrificial system, or the priesthood, or His references to individuals such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David. You will see that Jesus depended upon the grand story line of the Bible to understand and grasp who He was and what He would accomplish. When Jesus was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, He explained His identity and work according to the identity of the nation of Israel, their kings, their prophets, and the psalms they sang (Luke 24:27).

Jesus’ Obedience to Scripture

Christ was also devoted to the Scriptures as His rule of life. Those who say that Christ, rather than Scripture, needs to be our rule of life seem not to consider how Christ lived. He obeyed the Bible completely. Some may say, yes, but didn’t Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount contradict the Old Testament by saying, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .”? Didn’t Jesus lay aside old instructions for new ones? After all, He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27–28), and, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder. . . .’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (vv. 21–22). Isn’t Jesus contradicting the Old Testament? The answer is no. That would be a misunderstanding of what Christ is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

He is both showing the spirit of the law and intensifying it. In other words, contradicting the law would be, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, I am making some allowances for adultery.” But the lust of the heart is at the core of adultery. Jesus is saying, yes, don’t commit adultery, but if you want to be true to the law of God, do not even lust.

Jesus, then, doesn’t redirect our obedience to His commandments over Scripture; rather, His teachings push us further into the commands of Scripture.

The Root Problem: the Bible or the Human Heart?

Maybe the most common verse used to describe a Jesus-over-Scripture rule of life is from the gospel of John: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). The argument goes something like this: “You see, you had a whole community with the Bible but didn’t have eternal life. Why? Because only Jesus gives eternal life and the Scriptures point to it. Clear as day.”

The problem with that understanding is that it misses the point of what Jesus was actually arguing. The context of the passage is Jesus’ miracles on the Sabbath. The whole point of the passage is that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath; He’s what the Sabbath was pointing to. Jesus’ opponents were mishandling God’s Word and looking for eternal life by keeping a form of Sabbath laws. Jesus was showing that their problem was not their devotion to God’s Word—the problem was their heart. In other words, Jesus wouldn’t say, “Lessen your devotion to searching the Scriptures,” but, “Look for Me as you search the Scriptures,” because the Scriptures are a witness to Christ in the same way that the Father is a witness to Christ (v. 37). Again, the problem was not that they didn’t believe in the Father; the problem was their hearts: “You do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent” (v. 38), and, “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (v. 42).

If reading and meditating on Scripture is the means by which we are transformed from one degree of glory to the next, into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:12–18), then we must be devoted to it as it is, the Word of God, the power of Christ in us. It must be the place we are rooted to grow, like a tree planted by streams of water (Ps. 1), as a light to a dark path (119:105), and sweet honey to the taste (v. 103). We submit to it and obey it because we intend to follow Christ and no other.

Until We Meet Again, R.C. Sproul

The Stories We Tell