This sermon is the second of two on Sola Scriptura, the classic Protestant (and ancient church) doctrine that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding Christian faith and practice. I contrast this doctrine with ideas put forward by Adam Hamilton in his recent book Making Sense of the Bible. From my perspective, Hamilton is misguided—dangerously so. As with my previous sermon, I hope to inspire confidence that the Bible is, as Wesley said, “infallibly true”—every word of it—and that we can built our lives on it.
Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17
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[Read Psalm 1 as an opening prayer.]
Paul begins today’s scripture with these words: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.” And what Timothy has learned, and what he has firmly believed, Paul says, is found in the “sacred writings,” our holy Bible. Remain there, Paul says. Remain in God’s Word. Don’t stray from its teaching. Don’t stop reading it, studying it, treasuring it. Don’t stop putting it at the center of your life.
Aside from the gift of eternal life in his Son Jesus Christ, God has not given us a greater gift than the holy Bible. And of course, everything we know about Jesus Christ and God’s great love for us, and God’s plan to save us through faith in his Son comes from this book. Don’t leave it! Don’t think that you can progress beyond it. Or find something better. There’s enough in here for you, every day, to last a lifetime.
Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?
My second-favorite movie about Christian faith is a movie called The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. It came out about twenty years ago. My first favorite is Chariots of Fire. You should see both of them. But The Apostle is wonderful: It’s about a deeply flawed but sincerely Christian pastor in the deep south. Someone gives him the deed to this tiny church in the middle of nowhere. And he starts preaching there, and slowly but surely more and more people start coming. But the they’re not the “right” kind of people—because most people in his congregation are black or Hispanic, and poor. And at least one person in town—a white supremacist played by Billy Bob Thornton—doesn’t like it at all. One Sunday, while the people at this church are worshiping, he shows up in a bulldozer. And he intends to literally tear the church down.
And Robert Duvall comes outside and places his black leather-bound Bible in front of caterpillar tracks of the bulldozer—daring the man to run over it on his way to destroying this church. And Thornton is like, “Move the Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” “Move that Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” The two men are at an impasse. Is Thornton going to run over the preacher’s Bible? Then, after several tense moments, Thornton gets out of the cab of the vehicle in tears. Duvall embraces him. This sinner repents.
Friends, I know most of us don’t own a bulldozer. And if we do, none of us is literally going to drive it over a Bible. None of us is going leave a Bible lying in the dirt.
But let me ask you this: are you treating God’s Word in a way that’s consistent with what you say you believe about God’s Word? Are you treasuring it? Are you placing it at the center of your life? Are you remaining in it? Or have you strayed far away from it?
Here’s a test: If someone were to observe us during the day, what would they say we treasure more: our Bible or our smartphone? Which do we believe—really believe—is more essential for our survival?
My task as your pastor—to convince you that this Bible ought to be the most important possession in your life—is not made easier by our culture, which demeans the Bible, mocks the Bible, seeks to diminish the importance of the Bible, at nearly every turn—movies like The Apostle notwithstanding.
Therefore it breaks my heart that in his recent book Making Sense of the Bible, Adam Hamilton, our denomination’s most popular pastor, and one of its most gifted, is effectively contributing to this culture of disdain for God’s Word!
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: In a chapter in his book, he discusses Paul’s words in verse 16: “All scripture is breathed out by God…” The ESV does an excellent job translating that Greek word, theopneustos. It literally means “breathed out by God.” If you look in our pew Bibles, you’ll see that the NRSV says “inspired by God.” It’s following the tradition of the King James. To say it’s “inspired,” though, would have meant more in the 17th century than it does today. Today we talk about “inspiration” like it’s an everyday thing: “That performance was inspired.” “She gave an inspirational speech.” If you look at the back of religious bestsellers, they will often be marked “inspirational” on the back cover.
Our frequent use of the word suggests that being “inspired” is an everyday, run-of-the-mill event. And that’s not at all what Paul means. In fact, Paul’s use of the word “God-breathed,” theopneustos, is the first use that we find in ancient literature. Scholars say that Paul invented the word in order to say something uniquely powerful about what God has done through the Bible.
By contrast, in his book, Hamilton asks what he describes as an “uncomfortable” question: “[D]o you think the scripture writers Moses, David, Matthew, and Paul were inspired to a greater degree or in a different way than we experience the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit as Christians today? When a pastor prays while preparing his or her messages each week, ‘Holy Spirit, guide me that I might speak the words you would have me share with the congregation,’ will the guidance he or she receives from the Spirit be less than or different from that received by scripture writers?”
How would you answer that question? I would answer it by saying, “Dear God, I hope so!” God forbid anyone think that the words of my sermon, however “inspired” they might sound, would ever be considered equivalent to God’s holy Word! So… the answer to both those questions is an emphatic yes! The words of scripture were inspired more than the words of any other “inspired” writing! It’s not even close!
But Adam Hamilton says the answer is no. He writes, “The Spirit’s inspiration of the biblical authors was consistent with the way the Spirit inspires human beings today.” He goes on to say that the writings of C.S. Lewis are no less inspired than the Bible.
I had a parishioner tell me one time that she was leaving the church. Among other things, she didn’t like my sermons. She said, “How can I put this tactfully? I don’t give a flip what C.S. Lewis says!” Because she thought I was quoting him too much in my sermons. Needless to say, I do give a flip what C.S. Lewis says. I love him and his books dearly. But I wouldn’t dare say that they were as inspired as the Bible! If he could come back from the dead, I can only imagine what he would say to someone like Adam Hamilton who compares his writing to the writing of holy scripture!
Hamilton goes on to say that the Bible has more authority than C.S. Lewis or other Christian writing only because it is closer in time to the life of Jesus. I kid you not. He makes the analogy to our country’s Founding Fathers: Their writings about our nation are more authoritative than anyone writing today because they were there when the nation was founded. He’s saying that God did nothing unusual—God didn’t intervene in any special way—to inspire the Bible’s authors.
Besides, even his emphasis on the inspiration of the biblical authors in talking about verse 16 is off the mark. When Paul says that “all scripture is breathed out by God,” he isn’t talking here about the extent to which its human authors were inspired: there are other scriptures that tell us that the biblical authors were inspired in a supernatural way; but in verse 16 Paul is making a far greater claim than that: He’s saying that the words themselves are “breathed out” by God. One takeaway from this is that we can be confident, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said, “We have exactly the Bible that God wants us to have.”
This doesn’t mean that God dictated the words of scripture to its authors: he let them write in their own individual style, with their own personality, with their own idiosyncrasies, from their own point of view, from their own unique set of life circumstances. God was working through their words to communicate his Word. Isn’t this the way God usually works through us human beings? Most of the time, we’re not even aware of how God works through us—except we can often see God’s handiwork in retrospect.
In his book, one argument of Hamilton’s is that the Bible couldn’t be uniquely inspired because, after all, most of its writers were unaware that they were writing scripture. Paul, for example, was writing letters to different churches and individuals to address specific concerns that they were facing. Whether that’s true or not—I think Paul knew that he was writing what the Lord wanted him to write, even if he never imagined that his letters would later become part of this collection we call the New Testament—but whether it’s true or not, it’s beside the point.
God works supernaturally through people, whether they are aware of it or not! Paul communicates this truth in 1 Corinthians 15:10: In comparing his work as an apostle to the other apostles he writes, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So Paul was doing the work, but not so fast: It wasn’t him; it was the Holy Spirit who was doing it. How can both those things be true? Because it’s not either the Holy Spirit doing the work or Paul doing the work. It’s the Holy Spirit doing the work and Paul doing the work. And this is the way it is when it comes to the way that the Holy Spirit ensured that the words of merely human authors could also be the very words of God!
Hamilton says that Paul didn’t use the word “God-breathed” to mean anything out of the ordinary, but how is that consistent with what Jesus himself says about the Bible? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…” I talked about Hamilton’s “three buckets” last week. Do you think that putting some of God’s law in Bucket Number Three, the way Hamilton does, and saying that some of God’s law was simply wrong and never reflected the will of God—do you think that’s “relaxing” the least of these commandments and teaching others to do the same? I can’t see how it’s not!
Iotas and dots were very small marks within the Hebrew text of the Old Testament: every one of them is important, Jesus says, and everyone of them will be fulfilled.
Or consider John 10:35, where Jesus is making an argument from scripture, and he says it must be true because “Scripture cannot be broken”—it can’t be shown to be false. Or consider Mark 12:36. Jesus is quoting Psalm 110, and he says that David was writing his words “in the Holy Spirit.”
Or consider Jesus’ astonishing words in Matthew 19: He’s talking about the meaning of marriage: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is quoting Genesis 1:27—God made them male and female—and Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man will leave his father and mother… and they shall become one flesh.”
But notice this: He says that the One who created them male and female—God—is also the same One who said the words written in Genesis 2:24. Except when you go back and look at that verse, you see that God himself is not the one speaking in it: Literally, the narrator of Genesis says that the “two shall become one flesh.” Yet Jesus attributes these words not to the human author, who is technically doing the speaking, but to God himself.
What does this mean? Jesus viewed these human words as the very words of God.
Brothers and sisters, I’m just scratching the surface here; there’s so much more I could say. But I want you to be confident that when you read this precious and holy book, you are reading the very words of God—even though they were written by merely human beings.
Last week, I talked about how John Wesley believed that the Bible was “infallibly true,” that it couldn’t have any mistakes. And some of you may have heard this and thought, “But what about science? Hasn’t science proven, for example, that the Bible’s description of the creation of the universe isn’t true?”
Not at all, and I personally have known or met scientists—professors at secular universities—who also believe that scripture is “infallibly true.” One of these is a chemistry professor at the University of Georgia, Henry Schaefer. He’s been nominated for a Nobel Prize. I met him when he spoke at Georgia Tech once. He pointed out that, according to surveys, scientists like himself attend church more often and in higher numbers than the population at large. The point is, scientists like him and many others have no problem believing in Genesis 1 and 2. Because they understand that those chapters are not intending to give us a modern, 21st-century, scientific account of how God created the universe. For one thing, such a description wouldn’t have made sense to anyone living three thousand years ago, and the God’s Word is for people of all times in all places. For another, science is constantly changing and revising its view of reality anyway. The Bible’s words are meant to be timeless.
Not to mention there’s a lot of great work that’s been done to show that—actually—Genesis 1 and 2, when properly interpreted, are consistent with our best scientific knowledge.
I could go on… But I’ll conclude with this.
I went to a United Methodist-affiliated seminary that—in general—did not have a high view of scripture. Many of its professors would have disagreed with Wesley and the vast majority of the church that the Bible is “infallibly true.” Not for good reasons, as I see now. But at the time I kind of just accepted their view of scripture, for many years. But God changed me back in 2009 when I read this nearly one-thousand page book by N.T. Wright called The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s a dense, academic book in which he makes a very compelling case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus—using all kinds of historical evidence alongside the Bible. God used his book to clear up some doubts that I had been carrying around for years. And I thought, “Everything the Bible says about Jesus and his resurrection is true. It all makes sense. Therefore, isn’t it likely that what the Bible says about everything else is also entirely true and trustworthy?”
My life has never been the same. God’s Word, which the Bible says is “alive and active,” “sharper than any double-edged sword,” has changed my life. God’s Word is changing my life every day as I turn to it.
I pray that it changes your life, too. “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.”
1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 137.
2. Ibid., 173.
4. Matthew 5:17-19a ESV
5. Hebrews 4:12