Five hundred years ago, in September 1522, Martin Luther published his translation of the New Testament. It was not the first German Bible translation; nearly 20 others had appeared before his. But his translation was radically different because he had translated it from Greek into the common German language.
Instead of translating the New Testament from the Latin, a common practice at that time, Luther used Desiderius Erasmus’s published collection of ancient Greek manuscripts that had made the Greek New Testament possible. Luther, an effective communicator, also translated into the most widely understood German, for at that time, there existed numerous dialects. His translation was not only of monumental importance to the religious world but also a historic literary achievement.
Luther’s translation inspired others to provide the Bible in their own languages. Today, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has the Bible in their languages. But the Bible’s availability is not the primary challenge we face today. Rather, it has to do with its authority. Is the Bible the standard for our theology? Do we accept it and the Lord of the Bible as the foundational authority for our faith? And if we do, how do we implement that in our ministry?
The authority of the Bible
In 1936, a time when a ruthless dictator and his followers challenged God, the church, and the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher: “First of all I will confess quite simply—I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself.”1
The “Bible alone,” as Bonhoeffer indicates, was an affront to a godless regime. Today, the secular culture that knows neither the Bible nor the Lord of the Bible also resists Scripture.
What about the future of the Bible? Church administrator Ted N. C. Wilson writes, “One of the biggest battles we will ever face is over the authority of the Word of God.”2 That challenge has already started and, in fact, has existed for some years and continues to intensify.
The Bible, the preacher, and God Himself seem to be in deep trouble. Theologian Raoul Dederen, however, is more optimistic when he writes, “All down the ages Christianity has considered itself to be a revealed religion. And divine revelation was formally defined as the supernatural communication of truths in propositional form.”3
Has the Bible lost its authority, or do we accept the positions taken by Bonhoeffer and Dederen? If we accept their positive views of Scripture and God’s supernatural communication of truths, how do we communicate that to our congregations, let alone those not part of the church? Are preachers still defenders of the Bible? More importantly, does the Bible need defenders?
Present the Bible—God will explain it
How do we present the Bible to a world that does not recognize it as a message from God? Even churchgoers, all too often, do not study the Bible on a regular basis. To present it effectively, preachers and teachers of the Bible must have a deep knowledge of it. The acceptance of the message, however, is the role of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who opens the mind of the reader or hearer and helps the person understand and accept the message.
I was holding public lectures in a city auditorium where those coming were mostly individuals who did not attend church or regularly read the Bible. In order to introduce them to the Bible, we had a supply of them for the attendees. After several days, I noticed a pattern—each night a significant number of the audience came early, checked out their Bible, and read it in the poorly lit auditorium (an ongoing military conflict limited the availability of electricity). I asked some of them why they arrived early to read the Bible. Their responses:
“I have never read anything like this.”
“I find it fascinating.”
“I enjoy reading it.”
It surprised me that individuals who had not read the Bible up to that point (and they had not!) had such positive attitudes toward it. Was it my lectures that created their response to the Bible? Hopefully, the lectures helped, but their reaction was much deeper. Why did the messages in the Bible so captivate them? I believe that was the work of the Holy Spirit. John C. Brunt shares how the Holy Spirit assists us when we read the Bible:
“First, the Spirit helps us open our minds and be objective. Look at what Luke says that Jesus did for His disciples after the resurrection:
“ ‘Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures’ (Luke 24:45).”4
“A second way the Holy Spirit helps in our Bible reading has to do with our hearts. God’s purpose in giving us the Bible is not just to provide information but also to transform our hearts and minds.” Brunt then quotes Romans 12:2.5
“Third, it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the courage to act on what we find in the Bible.”6
Once we present the Bible, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit will open the mind, transform the heart, and give courage to each hearer or reader to respond. Those who present the Word of God have a critical part to play, but the Holy Spirit and only the Spirit has the lifesaving role of opening the heart and mind of the reader or hearer.
What about church attendees?
I have described an approach for those who are not regular worshipers or Bible readers. But what about those who do attend worship services? What should preachers do to help them hear and apply the Word of God?
How much of a standard is the Bible for those who attend church? We know that the general population is reading the Bible less and less.7 Only about 30 percent of Protestant churchgoers in the United States, for example, read the Bible every day.8 Bible reading among Roman Catholics seems to be even lower.9
Such trends should challenge preachers and teachers to creatively plan the worship service, keeping in mind that a significant number of those present do not regularly read the Bible. We can declare that the Bible and the Bible alone is our standard for belief and practice, but if it is not central in the lives of the worshipers, such a proclamation is of little value. However, I will share two ways that preachers and churches can make the Bible central.
First, the preacher must make the Bible the foundation of the sermon. That may seem like an unnecessary point, but all too often, sermons seem to be discourses searching for a biblical passage. The speaker must resist the temptation of inserting a message into the biblical passage. The message must come from the Bible directly.
One time in a homiletics class I was teaching, the students pointed out to one of their colleagues that the message he had just presented did not appear in the biblical passage selected. The student responded, “But that is what I want to tell the congregation.” The student preacher had imposed a personal view on the biblical passage. Some experienced preachers are also guilty of such abuses of the Bible.
To ensure faithfulness to the Scripture sermon, the preacher must follow a disciplined approach to sermon preparation. A fruitful method is to study the passage, outline its inherent message, develop a sermon outline or manuscript faithful to the text, and then deliver the sermon.
The second way to make the Bible the standard of our beliefs and practices is to incorporate Bible reading into the worship service. Some denominations have prescribed Scripture readings or lectionaries, but others leave it up to each congregation. It seems as if many congregations choose minimal or no use of Scripture as part of their worship. That is unfortunate, especially since Bible reading, in general, is on the decline.
Incorporating Bible reading into worship involves more members in worship, and for some, it may be the only Bible passage they hear that week. Be creative in selecting those who read the biblical passages—use families, children, seniors, and others not normally on the platform. In other words, use a variety of individuals. The congregation will not only be blessed but also hear the Word of God.
Scripture proclaims the depth and breadth of its authority: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). Author Ellen G. White commented, “The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union.”10 Indeed, Scripture must be the source of our preaching and worship.
- Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020), 136; emphasis in the original.
- Ted N. C. Wilson, “Our Sure Foundation: The Solid Word of God,” Adventist World, January 2, 2020, 16.
- Raoul Dederen, “Toward a Seventh-day Adventist Theology of Revelation—Inspiration,” (paper, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Bible Conferences, 1974), 3.
- John Brunt, Enjoying Your Bible: Finding Delight in the Word (Westlake Village, CA: Oak & Acorn, 2020), 3.
- Brunt, 5.
- Brunt, 5.
- Ryan Foley, “American Bible Society Survey Finds ‘Unprecedented Drop’ in Bible Reading,” Christian Post, April 7, 2022, https://www.christianpost.com/news/american-bible-society-finds-unprecedented-drop-in-bible-users-report.html.
- Aaron Earls, “Few Protestant Churchgoers Read the Bible Daily,” Lifeway Research, July 2, 2019, https://research.lifeway.com/2019/07/02/few-protestant-churchgoers-read-the-bible-daily/.
- “Do Catholics Read the Bible? (Percentages Explained),” Christianity FAQ, accessed November 28, 2022, https://christianityfaq.com/do-catholics-read-the-bible/.
- Ellen G. White, “A Missionary Appeal,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 15, 1885, 2.