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Things Episcopalians Say: “The Word of God Is Jesus, Not the Bible”

By Garwood P. Anderson

One of the many reasons to avoid social media is that one of your friends will invariably post a meme like this one:

Social media nonsense doesn’t tend to bother me. I have low expectations of these media and choose to enjoy whenever those expectations are surpassed. I use “unfollow” liberally, since my primary interests are the grandchildren of my old friends and the faithful ministry of our alumni and my former students.

When I saw this posted, I thought to myself, “That sounds like a surprisingly facile thing for Lewis to say.” And with all the rigor of an eighth-grader the night before his book report was due, I searched for the quote to learn that my hunch was correct. It’s not quite what Lewis said. What he actually wrote in a letter reply to Mrs. Johnson in November of 1952 was quite good, better actually, if less meme-worthy — the bold selected to make up the meme part:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.[1]

Clearly the adumbrated meme version of the Lewis quote, “isolated from [its] context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the [book] in which [it] occurs,” is being brandished, with no trace of irony, as a weapon. And it is not hard to see that biblicism is the target.

Biblicism is a well-chosen target, since its opposition will gather into one family post-fundamentalists who are catholicizing, evangelicals who are liberalizing, and enlightened stalwarts whose Christian faith has long been energized by a knowing opposition to what they call “literalism.”

One reliable way to claim this turf is to oppose the not unproblematic equation of the “word of God” with the Bible over against the unmistakably biblical identification of Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1). It’s a rhetorical mic drop to out-Bible the Bible. And numerous biblical texts themselves subordinate texts of the Bible to the Son of God to whom they bear witness. Jesus is the supreme and unique incarnate revelation of the God of Israel, a theme given consistent witness in all corpora of the New Testament, though nowhere more eloquently than in the writings of St. John (John 1:14, 18; 14:7-9; 15:24; 1 John 1:1-3). It is Christ, after all, not the Bible, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15); Christ, not a text, who “interprets” (Greek, exēgeomai) the God whom “no one has ever seen” (John 1:18); and Christ, a son, not a second canon of texts, through whom God has spoken in these latter days (Heb. 1:2). Jesus himself castigates the Pharisees in that they “search the Scriptures,” supposing in them to have eternal life, when in fact the Scriptures bear witness to him (John 5:39). So, this preference for the living Word over a merely witness-bearing text finds plenty of support in the modesty of Scripture’s self-attestation.

Although the claim that “Christ himself, not the Bible, is the true word of God” could be a claim about the unique, unsurpassable revelation wrought by the Incarnate Son, there are reasons to think the meme intends something else. And the abridgement of the original third sentence is the dead giveaway. Taking the redaction seriously, it becomes clear that the meme’s goal is not an exalted Christology but a dig at the biblicists who have the Bible saying things that we are certain meet Jesus’ disapproval.

In one sense, no one should have qualms with this uncontroversial point. The Bible read authoritatively but Jesus-lessly is worse than a missed opportunity; not just missing the point, it is a begetter of evils. Jesus-less, the law of Israel’s theocracy is on offer un-normed and unmediated, and we are left to choose between the ancient heresy of Marcion or the modern enormity of theonomy. Jesus-less, we have our ancient texts but are without the New Covenant, the new commandment, and the new age. Even Saints Paul, Peter, James, and John can be contorted into unrecognizability, their texts brandished for ill-suited causes, when abstracted from the Lord who is their genesis and telos. Were this the point of our meme — and others like it — of course, we should have no objection, if perhaps some curiosity as to how we have backed ourselves into this zero-sum arrangement.

Even as a sincere attempt to take the high road, pitting the Bible against Jesus will always be the way of mischief and an odd cul-de-sac to choose when all the signs tell us there is no through street. The most obvious dead end is how we are to ascertain this Jesus who trumps our Bibles apart from the texts (in the Bible) by which he is most fully remembered and mediated. But, of course, that’s precisely what happens. A Jesus, not so much remembered and mediated, but imagined and projected, enters stage left (or stage right, as the case may be) to say that someone else’s appeal to the Bible is wrong, running contrary to what Jesus actually stands for. It turns out that Jesus is embarrassed by many of his followers, though, thankfully, not us. He also finds the Bible embarrassing in parts and, not unlike Dustin Hoffman in Ishtar hopes that he can be remembered apart from it, transcending the forgettable vehicle in which he is featured.

But to take this stand requires some place to stand — ideally, one would think, something Jesus is recorded as having said or done that contradicts another’s wrong-headedness. But, instead, we are offered two scoops of a vanilla Jesus Gestalt — unexamined, indefensible, a talisman, a mascot. He is malleable, manipulable, and promiscuous, and, not in spite of this but because of it, he is, above all, useful, a ventriloquist’s dummy, and we suppose no one can see us moving our lips.

[1] Available in C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963 (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007).


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