For forty years, I have devoted myself to preaching from and teaching about the Bible, and in recent years I have written books on how to read and live with the Bible. I have been long aware of the Bible’s iconic status in American cultural life, and I realize that the various ‘battles for the Bible’ have to do with the right to interpret and claim it for one’s own point of view. Over all of this, however, I have become increasingly aware that the Bible is a means, and not an end in itself, and that what the Bible ‘says’ is not as important as that to which it points.
Jesus, for example, was not a Bible teacher but as a preacher of the good news, and the Bible, insofar as it is important to Jesus, is so because it points to the good news, the gospel, the world as it is meant to be. Jesus never seems satisfied with the status quo, nor does he waste a great deal of time on critical and textual matters as far as the Bible is concerned; thus, if we follow the example of Jesus and how he used the Bible, we will always be encouraged to look beyond it and toward that to which it points. People are misguided when they try to reconstruct a ‘biblical’ worldview, for in that construction most are inclined to look back rather than ahead. What is ‘scandalous’ about Jesus is his emphasis upon a new dispensation, a new and radical future, and his opposition to the status quo and things-as-they-are. What is exciting and demanding about the Christian faith, as we find it in the teachings of Jesus, is the emphasis on the ‘new’ that corresponds to God’s original intention for creation.
When, in his model prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” he is inviting us into an imaginative construction of the world as God would have it, a place where love triumphs over hate, equity and peace are normative and not exceptional, and where those in power must remember that they cannot hold their power legitimately at the expense of the poor and the marginal.
Most Christians today, particularly Protestants, use the Bible to justify their own position in maintaining the status quo, while the preaching and teaching of Jesus, which was meant to introduce an age of radical risk-taking in which everyone takes the good news seriously, is often used to hold the line against any challenge to things as they are. Jesus always pointed beyond the text. Those who are obsessed with the text, and who fail to go beyond it to the ultimate challenge of the gospel, are wrong-headed and fail now as Jesus’s own critics failed in his time, to imagine and work for a world that is not yet. The Bible, and Jesus’s place in it and use of it, is not an exercise in history but a venture in prophecy that is – and should be – disturbing to those who like things, or simply accept things, as they are. It is far too easy to proclaim Jesus as a great man, a human and divine exemplar, and far more difficult and demanding to seek what Jesus sought and follow where he leads. Neither the abused term, ‘conservative,’ nor the term, ‘liberal,’ make much sense when we think seriously and conscientiously about the teachings of Jesus: the only appropriate word is one that frightens us all, and that is the word ‘radical.’ It means, as we all know, a return to the root of the matter, and that root is the good news, the gospel, which is at the heart of creation, God’s original work, and the preaching and teaching of Jesus.
If, then, we are to break out of our present malaise and mutual suspicions, we cannot simply ‘Go back to the Bible,’ as the old hymn put it, but must go to where the Bible and Jesus point, which is toward the gospel. Let us remember that Jesus came to proclaim the good news, the gospel, to which we must turn; and we must be prepared to go beyond the Bible to the gospel, and to the force and direction of scripture if we are to be faithful to the preaching and teaching of Jesus.
Whenever I preach and teach about the Bible, or invoke the name and authority of Jesus, I ask, “What has this to do with the good news? What does this say about the kingdom for which we pray, the world as God meant it to be?” This is admittedly risky business, as Jesus himself soon discovered, and while its implications may prove disturbing to the ‘churchy’ among us, this notion of the gospel beyond the Bible may prove encouraging to the faithful, which, after all, is the point of the gospel – genuine good news for those who are tired of things as they are. As is so often said in the much-abused Book of Revelation: “Let those who have ears listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” We all may be in for a few great surprises, and that is what makes both the Bible and the gospel so exciting.
Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. He is the faculty advisor to the Harvard Ichthus. Rev. Prof. Gomes has most recently published The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?, Harper, 2007.