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Quotables: The Significance of His Teaching

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It thus appears that Christ’s answer to the problem of authority can be summed up as follows:

  1. The Old Testament is to be received on His authority (over and above its own witness to itself) as the authoritative written utterance of God, abidingly true and trustworthy. Its divine authority and His confirm each other, so that not to accept both would be to accept neither.
  2. To learn what they must believe and do, His disciples are not to regard His words alone, but to take His teaching and the Old Testament together, reading the old revelation as the presupposition of the new and the new as both expounding and augmenting the old. In conjunction with Christ’s teaching, the written word of the Old Testament retains its full, divine authority.

Attempts have been made by some who reject Christ’s view of the Old Testament to evade the force of this conclusion. But this can be done only by denying Christ’s authority altogether. Christ’s claim to be divine is either true or false. If it is true, His Person guarantees the truth of all the rest of His teaching (for a divine Person cannot lie or err); therefore, His view of the Old Testament is true. If His claim is false, there is no compelling reason to believe anything else that He said. If we accept Christ’s claims, therefore, we commit ourselves to believe all that He taught—on His authority. The question ‘What think ye of the Old Testament’, resolves into the question, ‘What think ye of Christ?’ And our answer to the first proclaims our answer to the second.

Some, overlooking the organic connection between the two Testaments, have suggested that Christ’s deference to the authority of the Old should be understood as deliberate accommodation to the prejudices of His hearers: He appealed to the Old Testament, not because He accepted its authority Himself, but because He knew that they did, and hoped thus to gain a readier acceptance for His own teaching. But the hypothesis is impossible. It clearly assumes that the authority of the Old Testament was no essential part of Christ’s teaching, which ideally would stand on its own, independent of the Jewish Scriptures. But as we have just seen, the divine authority of the Old Testament was actually axiomatic for Christ’s thought and teaching about His own Person and vocation. He forbade men to view Him as anything other than the Fulfiller of the law and the prophets, for He id not believe Himself to be anything other than that. He was the divine Messiah of whom the Old Testament spoke; He had come into the world to fulfill the Scriptures, and that was what He was doing. He appealed to Scripture as the sole and sufficient warrant for the things that He said and did because it was in conscious obedience to Scripture that He said and did them. If we reject His attitude to the Old Testament, we are saying in effect that He founded Christianity on a fallacy. And if we say He was wrong here, we really imply that He was wrong everywhere; for His view of the nature and authority of the Old Testament underlies all He said and did.  If, on the other hand, we believe that His claims and ministry were comprehensively vindicated by His resurrection, we are bound to say that His view of the Old Testament was thereby vindicated also.

The theory of conscious accommodation, then will not fit the facts. Nor will attempts to evade the significance of our Lord’s attitude to the Old Testament by appeal to a ‘kenosis’ theory of incarnation. On this kind of view, the process of incarnation involved such a resignation of divine knowledge on the Son’s part that in matters of this kind He inevitably fell victim to the prejudices and errors of His own age. He became a man of His time, it is said, so that naturally His views about the Old Testament were those of His time; but they need not bind us. This is a common line of thought, but it is clearly inadequate. In the first place, it does not reckon with our Lord’s claim that all He taught was divine truth. It is true that He did not profess to know all things. He confessed ignorance, for example, of the time of His return. ‘No man, no not the angels…neither the Son’ can say when it will be. But the very context of this admission was a claim, made in the previous verse, that all He did affirm possessed the abiding quality of unchanging truth. ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.’

Secondly, this theory, like the other, fails to see the fundamental importance of the Old Testament for our Lord’s conception of His calling. It, too, assumes that Christ’s ideas about the Old Testament are unessential elements of His thought which can be jettisoned without loss to the real message or to His personal authority. But in fact nothing is more crucial to either. If Christ was mistaken in His view of the Old Testament, He misunderstood His own mission, and was mistaken all along the line. And, as Professor Tasker forcibly remarks, ‘If He could be mistaken on matters which He regarded as of the strictest relevance to His own person and ministry, it is difficult to see exactly how or why He can or should be trusted anywhere else.’ To undercut Christ’s teaching about the authority of the Old Testament is to strike at His own authority at the most fundamental point.

Others tell us that the final authority for Christians is not Scripture, but Christ, whom we must regard as standing apart from Scriptures and above it. He is its Judge; and we, as His disciples, must judge Scripture by Him, receiving only what is in harmony with His life and teaching and rejecting all that is not. But who is this Christ, the Judge of Scripture? Not the Christ of the New Testament and of history. That Christ does not judge Scripture; He obeys and fulfils it. By word and deed He endorses the authority of the whole of it. Certainly, He is the final authority for Christians; that is precisely why Christians are bound to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. Christ teaches them to do so. A Christ who permits His followers to set Him up as the Judge of Scripture, One by whom its authority must be confirmed before it becomes binding and by whose adverse sentence it is in places annulled, is a Christ of human imagination, made in the theologian’s own image, One whose attitude to Scripture is the opposite to that of the Christ of history. If the construction of such a Christ is not a breach of the second commandment, it is hard to see what is. It is sometimes said that to treat the Bible as the infallible word of God is idolatry. If Christ was an idolater, and if following His teaching is idolatry, the accusation may stand; not, however, otherwise. But to worship a Christ who did not receive Scripture as God’s unerring word, nor require His followers to do so, would seem to be idolatry in the strictest sense.

We conclude, then, that we must reckon seriously with the fact that Christ accepted the principle of biblical authority, on which the life of the Jewish Church was based, and embodied it unchanged in Christianity. Through His coming, new revelation was given, and new books were added to the canon of Scripture, as we shall see; but the principle that the people of God must live in subjection to the written Word of God remained unaltered.

J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 1958

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2 replies on “Quotables: The Significance of His Teaching”

Some good thoughts here, thank you. As I am soon to argue in discussing Marcus Borg, Scripture itself authoritatively demands submission and trust to its claims. Whether or not we accept that authority, those claims, is “properly foundational”. The only thing I’d add to the second to last paragraph, is that one must come to grasp with the authority of the NT as it functions to witness with utter reliability to Christ. So the reverse is also true that accepting the Scripture’s authority necessitates accepting that of Christ.

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