The Open Bible
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
GLORY TO THE FATHER AND TO THE SON AND TO THE HOLY SPIRIT, AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, IS NOW AND WILL BE FOREVER, AMEN.
A young man was packing his suitcase for a trip when his friend entered his room.
“Well,” the traveler said, “I am just about packed. But I need to take a guidebook, a map, a compass, a mirror, a microscope, a telescope, a hammer, a volume of poetry, a few biographies, a songbook, a set of devotional works and the history book that I have been reading.” The man’s friend looked down at the suitcase and said, “That’s impossible. You have only a small space left.” His friend took his Bible and put it into the suitcase and said, “The Bible contains all the things I just mentioned.”
Sir Walter Scott said to his son-in-law as he lay dying, “Bring me the book.” When the young man asked the great author, “Which book sir,” Scott replied, “there is only one book, the Bible. Bring it to me now.” It was said of John Wesley, a scholar in many ways, that he was a man of one book. That book was the Bible.
The Protestant reformation was a movement to recover the Bible for the Church and the Bible for individual Christians. I remember the original Martin Luther movie which was shown every year on Reformation Sunday in our church—you may remember it too, black-and-white; it was produced by the Lutheran Church in 1953. There were many frames showing the Bible as a “closed book.” Then, in one scene, the actor who played the young Luther walked toward a chained Bible. He opened the book. Then Luther was shown in the pulpit preaching from an open Bible, proclaiming the Gospel message. It was clear that the producers of the film wanted us, the viewers of the movie, to understand that Martin Luther broke the chains of a closed book, a forbidden book, to preach the pure Word of God to people hungry for the message of a loving God.
We are a church of the Bible, the open Bible. The Scriptures are not an object of devotion, not just the source for doctrinal propositions, but a book to be read and learned and taken to heart. The Bible is given to us to read and study and memorize. It tells us what God wants us to believe and do, and the Bible says it clearly. The technical term is the perspicuity of the Scriptures—that simply means that what God wants you to know and do is clearly stated in the Bible. There is really no guesswork in the Scriptures, the important things are clear; other things that are not so clear may not be so very important.
Jesus says to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” The Scriptures are God’s Word written to bear witness to Christ. The Old Testament bears witness to the Christ to come; the New Testament to the Christ who is Jesus of Nazareth and to the Christ who will come again in glory to judge and to save. The Word of God has the power to build faith. It is the means by which God’s grace works in us. As the Small Catechism teaches us, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel…”
God’s Word calls us, gathers us, enlightens and sanctifies us. The power of God comes through the Word of God. As Luther noted, “While I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” It is God’s Word, preached and proclaimed and believed that builds faith and our faith is based on what the Bible proclaims.
Didn’t I just say to you that the Bible was clear in what it teaches? Then why are there so many different interpretations? The Lutheran Church wants to say that it is the Bible Church, but Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Disciples want to say the same thing. The Bible does need to be interpreted, even the doctrine we hold about the Scriptures: namely that the Bible interprets itself, needs to be explained.
The best way to approach the Bible is to see Jesus Christ at the center of the Scriptures. He is the tool for evaluating and interpreting the whole. The risen Lord appeared to his eleven disciples and showed himself to them; he was not a ghost but a man. He pointed to his hands and feet, ate a broiled fish. Then he opened “their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…'” The Scriptures could only be understood by these men who had been with Jesus, witnessed the miracles, and heard his teaching, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then the Bible became clear. We come to understand the Scriptures only when we see at their center a crucified and risen Lord.
With our reading and studying of the Bible, we must bring our faith. Many people can study the ancient writings as historical documents, as literary texts, as religious writings among other religious documents. But the point of the Bible is not to prove science or history, nor is it to disprove the findings of historians or scientists. The Bible is a book of faith written for the faithful. It is only when the disciples believed that Christ was truly risen, that they began to see how the Bible made sense. Then their minds were opened to a right understanding of the Scriptures. The open Bible is a book of faith for God’s people.
Commentators of our passage from Luke have made much of the fact that Jesus is saying the Law and Prophets and Psalms bear witness to Him. They are also quite astounded that Jesus says that the Hebrew Scriptures testify to a suffering and dying and rising Messiah. To be honest, there are no clear quotes from the Old Testament which say these things. What does Jesus mean when He says that the Scriptures testify to what has happened on Good Friday and Easter?
Perhaps Jesus means that the spirit of the Bible so testifies to a loving, sacrificing, forgiving God, that the cross and empty tomb bring to its most explicit what has been implicit throughout the Scriptures, that God’s love is free and unconditional. God’s grace is self-giving. God’s people have always been faithless and fickle but God has always been forgiving and sure. What happened at the cross and resurrection is what happened, in part, in God’s saving Noah and his family, Moses and the children of Israel, in the return from exile. It is faith which tells us of God’s faithfulness and our eyes of faith that can look at the words of the Bible and see God’s personal and saving Word to us.
The Bible is an open book. It both judges and forgives. The Scriptures both kill and make alive. We as Lutherans look at the Scriptures as Law and Gospel, the Word rightly divided. God’s Word calls us to repentance and over and over again tells us that we fall short of God’s intention for us. The Word convicts us of sin. The Bible also tells us in even stronger terms that we do not need to save ourselves but we have a loving Savior, Jesus Christ, who died for all our sins and offers us life and salvation. God’s Word tells us that we are loved and accepted and saved through Jesus Christ. The message that we proclaim is not our opinion—certainly not the minister’s politics or pet issues, but the message of the Scriptures.
C.F.W. Walther, the founder of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reminds us, “The Biblical method, being biblical, is the Lutheran method. For the Lutheran Church is nothing else than the Bible Church. It does not deviate from the Bible, does not take anything away or add to it, but stands squarely on the Word of God. That is the leading principle which the Lutheran Church carries out in all its teaching and in its practice.” The Lutheran Church is the Bible Church, the Church of an open Bible. It sees Jesus Christ crucified and risen and coming again at the very center of the Bible. It believes the Bible is clear in what it teaches and demands and offers. It is the book of faith for faith, God’s Word to us, God’s people.
Bishop Nikolai Grundtvig put it so well:
God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever.
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant while worlds endure,
We keep its teaching pure
Throughout all generations.
Copyright 2006 James D. Kegel. Used by permission.