What It Means to Read the Bible like the Apostles

Convention 2019 Three of Four

 by Layon Friesen

We often hear that the Bible divides the Church. Christians around the world can’t agree on when to baptize their children, on whether Christians should go to war, on women in ministry, on divine sovereignty, on the place of the pope, on what the Lord’s Supper means, or on how sinful we are actually. We can’t even quite agree on what books should be in the Bible.

As we seek out what is simply Christian we are discovering the ancient, global, bedrock convictions of the Church that unite us as Christians. But doesn’t the Bible divide us?

A Different Angle

Maybe we need to look from a different angle. The Church worldwide has by now 34,000 different denominations and conferences. That’s a lot of division. But let me ask: how can we explain the fact that all of those churches agree that God is a Trinity? God is Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s not just a simple basic idea. That is the end-result of a complex reading of Proverbs 8, John 1, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1.

How can we explain the fact that virtually all those churches believe that Jesus is the Son of God who became a human for our sake, through his life, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection was shown to be the Messiah, and that he thus defeated Satan, death and sin? Or that as the ascended Lord he is the judge of all people? That is a specific interpretation of Acts 2, I Cor. 15, Daniel 7, Psalm 110, and a peculiar reading of Isaiah 7.

How is it that all these churches believe the Church is to be the Spirit’s witness to the living presence of Jesus (Acts 1, Matthew 28), that the Church is to gather each week to proclaim the story of this Jesus, to eat a supper together of bread and wine, and that everyone is to be baptized with water (Hebrews 10, Acts 2, I Cor. 11, Romans 6)?

All these convictions shared by all the churches are not general religious ideas that people drift into naturally in the lazy course of things. These are peculiar and complex interpretations of the Bible that are not obvious to everyone. But these are so universally confessed that if churches do not believe them they are not Christian churches. How do you account for this amazing unity of biblical interpretation? The short answer is that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Key to the Scriptures

Let me show you one way the Spirit has worked. The early Church believed that not only had God given the Church this collection of books, the Old and New Testament, but Jesus had also shown the apostles how to read the Bible.

Jesus gave the apostles a key, a kind of password to the Bible and they passed this on to the Church through their teaching. If the Church would read the Bible using this key they would find the necessary unity in their use of the Scriptures.

In the second century the pastor Irenaeus wrote that a mosaic of the king’s face was an example of how this worked. A mosaic is a picture made up of thousands of small pieces glued together in just the right way. In those days the pieces of a mosaic were shipped in a box with a guide or rule. The rule was the key to putting the pieces together to result in the true face of the king. You have to use the rule, Irenaeus said, or the face of the king might end up looking like a dog.

Now this was his analogy of the scriptures. The Bible has many pieces and you could put them together for all kinds of wild nonsense. But if you use the guide, the key, the Bible would yield a glorious picture of the King, Jesus.

The Rule of Faith

The apostles, Irenaeus said, through their writings, had given the Church a key to the mosaic. This was called the Rule of Faith. If we use the Rule of Faith to read the Bible, the Bible becomes a mosaic of King Jesus, but if we do not, we end up with what looks like a dog—and we are heretics. Heretics used the Bible too. They just put the pieces together wrong.

So what was this Rule of Faith? Here is how Irenaeus described it:

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” Ephesians 1:10, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” Philippians 2:10-11 to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” Ephesians 6:12 and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against Heresies, Book I, chapter 10)

Ancient Faith Convictions

These are the ancient, faith convictions of the Church from which the creeds developed. This Rule of Faith (in its various expressions) became the key to getting the Bible right. It’s a key that comes from the Bible, but it not just the Bible. It’s the central core of the Bible’s vision of God and His salvation as seen by the Church. It reflected a deep, almost instinctual sense for the condensed biblical account of the Triune God’s creative and saving work, of the Church, and of the final destiny of the world. It gave the Church a basic, common reading of the Bible in spite of incredible diversity in the early church.

This Rule does not solve all our disagreements about the Bible, but over time the Church has found that interpretations that disagree with this Rule end up misleading the Church. The Bible is not a book to do with whatever we want—this inner apostolic spine is what the Bible is about.

Down into Our Bones

The Church has found that when we get this Rule of Faith down in our bones and it becomes our instinct, when it becomes the doorway to a lived encounter with the mystery of God, we become the kind of people who can be trusted to read the Bible in the way the Spirit meant it to be read. The Bible becomes for us a beautiful mosaic in which the face of King Jesus emerges.

So be baptized in the name of the Trinity! Enter the mystery of the apostle’s Rule of Faith, this inner guide to the glorious beauty of Jesus emerging in the Old and New Testament. To love this faith is to be simply Christian.

Layton Friesen

Layton Friesen, PhD, is the EMC’s conference pastor and was the 2019 convention speaker in Picture Butte, Alta. This series is based on his convention sermons. Layton lives in Winnipeg, Man., with his wife Glenda and their two young adult children.

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