Why I don’t trust mystics

August 10, 2016

Around the same time I wrote this blog post from last week, I commented on John Frye’s original post over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. My comment was an abbreviated version of what I wrote on this blog. I said:

John, you affirm the following from Enns:

“God is bigger than the Bible” (149).

“Jesus is bigger than the Bible” (170).

“For Christians, then, the question is not ‘Who gets the Bible right?’ The question is and always has been, ‘Who gets Jesus right?’” (227).

While I agree with the first two statements, how is the third not a false choice? What do we know about Jesus outside of the Bible? How can we possibly get Jesus right except by getting the Bible right?

I also wonder if your daughter Leah isn’t confusing inerrancy with fundamentalism. While I’m an inerrantist, I believe that the Old Testament is factual history only where it purports to describe factual history. Of course we look at context. Of course we consider genre.

But this isn’t the same thing as implying, as Leah does, that we inerrantists “believe that each word of the Old Testament is an historical fact.” Even poetic words? Apocalyptic words? Figurative words? Hyperbole? Idioms?

Frye, among other commenters, said:

Brent, you apparently assume because Enns questions some portions of the OT regarding hermeneutical issues that he has bailed on the whole Bible. Do you recall he taught at Westminster Theo. Sem. for 14 years?! Because he’s pushed the envelope on some OT texts, he now can’t find his way to Jesus in the New Testament? Your panic is uncalled for.

To which I replied:

Who’s panicking? Besides, I wasn’t responding to Enns so much as your post. I don’t know whether Enns can “find his way to Jesus” in the NT by reinterpreting the OT, but that’s beside the point. Many of Jesus’ own words about judgment and hell, not to mention most of Revelation, fit comfortably alongside the passages in the OT on which Enns seems eager to “push the envelope.”

Again: Can we “get Jesus right” apart from getting the Bible right? Do we know anything about Jesus that isn’t revealed there? This is why we Protestants have insisted from Day One on the primacy of scripture. We’re not, historically, mystics—and for good reason.

Frye then wrote:

Brent, I hear stories of Muslims who can’t get near a Bible getting Jesus right because he shows up to them and they convert at the risk of their lives. Is that too mystical for you?

I responded:

You’re not suggesting that these Muslims are converting to Christianity without even hearing the gospel, are you? Reductio ad absurdum. Illiterate people can be converted without reading a Bible. You know that’s not my point.

Is there something that these Muslims (or any other converts) are learning about Jesus to which scripture itself doesn’t also bear witness?

I guess some people just like to argue (he said, without a hint of irony). 😉

Another person, Andrew Dowling, who has trolled me nearly every time I’ve commented on McKnight’s blog, wrote:

Christians for 300+ years knew lots about Jesus absent any Bible.

I said:

Not really. They had portions of the Bible. They had some gospels. They had some epistles. They had preachers proclaiming God’s word. They had teachers teaching it. They had memories of apostolic witness. Absent anyone telling them anything, what would they know about Jesus?

I should also have pointed out that they had the Old Testament. Regardless, he said:

Most Christians relied on oral tradition. Which was filled with material different from or absent from what made it into the canonical Gospels (although it also included a wealth of material that is in the canon). And I’m not talking Gnostics.

Oxyrynchus 1224, the Fayyum Fragment, Gospel of the Hebrews, and various Patristics quotes of Jesus sayings not In the Bible point to a robust, proto-orthodox oral Gospel tradition that does not begin or end with what eventually made it into the official Canon.

I said:

Fine. And inasmuch as these extrabiblical words and documents were truthful witnesses to Christ, then they were good and useful to the early church. I’m not sure what your point is. From my perspective, the Holy Spirit saw fit to preserve all necessary oral tradition in the books that comprise our New Testament, without which no one today would be able to “get Jesus right.”

The fact is, there are many progressive Christians who want to insist that the Bible isn’t God’s Word—that Jesus (alone) is God’s Word. Why do they do this? It’s a false choice.

Can someone please name one thing we know about Jesus that isn’t revealed in the Old and New Testaments? Just one thing? 

Of course this knowledge isn’t the same as having a saving relationship with God through Christ. Of course people who don’t possess Bibles—or don’t know how to read—can be converted. Of course conversion itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, who draws people to Christ. But can people be converted without someone proclaiming the gospel to them? How is the gospel not the means by which they’re saved? “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Or elsewhere:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear (B)without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 ESV)

By all means, “knowing Jesus” is more than words and knowledge; it is a spiritual event and an ongoing relationship. But it isn’t less than words and knowledge.

4 Responses to “Why I don’t trust mystics”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    The fact is, most who say “Jesus is bigger than the Bible” aren’t really relying on the “Patristics” and the like. Instead, they want to DELETE some of the things the Bible says, as opposed to “supplementing” it. On what basis? That they don’t like it. Basically that is it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Of course. And they want to play off the New Testament against the Old. As if! As if Jesus doesn’t say more about judgment and hell than anyone!

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    And Jesus paints a pretty dark picture of what hell is like!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Right. Christians often speak as if the OT presents a “problem” that Jesus alone corrects—as if Jesus doesn’t often intensify it! It’s such a highly selective reading of the Bible.

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