October 25, 2020

Brian Zahnd: Axiomatic Thoughts on Christ and the Bible

Hilander Icon adjBrian Zahnd has written a wonderfully clear article on the distinction between biblicism and Christianity, called Scripture as Witness to the Word of God.

I commend it to you in its entirety. As a taste, I present this list of “axiomatic thoughts on Christ and the Bible” with which he opens his post:

The Bible is the word of God that bears witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ.

The Logos-Word became flesh — not a book.

Jesus is God. The Bible is not.

The Bible did not create the Heavens and Earth — the Word (Christ) did.

We worship Jesus; we do not worship the Bible.

The Bible is not a member of the Trinity.

The Bible is not God. Jesus is God.

The Bible is not perfect. (There are parts of it we now regard as obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.)

Christ is the perfection of God as a human being.

What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus Christ.

There is one mediator between God and man…and it’s not the Bible.

The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

Zahnd stresses the importance of maintaining this distinction by reminding us: “Biblicism can be a clever way of avoiding the rule of Christ in order to maintain the status quo. It is the living Word to whom we must submit our lives.”


  1. Now that is something that is stated very succinctly and with great relevance!!

  2. “The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ.”

    Yep, and if it’s inspired by God, it can hardly be wrong, so we shouldn’t add to it or subtract from it.

    Emphasizing alternative sources of revelation or doctrine and minimizing the inspiration of Scripture is an obvious way of avoiding the rule of Christ in order to advance human agendas. It is the living Word, as witnessed in Scripture, that we submit our lives. Any alternative is human invention.

    • I hope you read his article, boaz. I think he answers your concerns.

    • While I agree with you, boaz, I think you’re missing the point. Yes, anyone who interprets the Bible or puts out his own view of God/Christ/Spirit via his own book is one step (or more) removed from the real God/Christ/Spirit, but I think the point is that the Bible is itself just an ILLUMINATION of the real God/Christ/Spirit, too. (So really any interpretations and personal writings are essentially TWO steps removed from reality and truth.)

      • Aidan Clevinger says

        Hmmm…but I don’t think you can say that reading the Bible puts us one step beyond Christ and the Spirit, because Christ and the Spirit are present in the written and proclaimed Word. You can’t find them anywhere else BUT in the Word, whether that Word is in preaching, teaching, absolution, Baptism, the Supper, or, yes, in the text of the Bible.

    • I’m with you boaz. I was really liking these axiomatic sayings right up until I read:

      “The Bible is not perfect. (There are parts of it we now regard as obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.)”

      Everything in the Bible is revealed truth either about God or about man. Although there are things that are completed, there is nothing “obsolete.” And to say that the Bible is not perfect would seem to undermine another item in his list:

      “The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ.”

      If the Bible isn’t perfect then how do we know who Jesus was? My first reaction is that the Jesus Seminar folks would be very comfortable with these axiomatic sayings. But in all fairness I didn’t have time to follow the link and read the article. Maybe when I get home and read it I’ll find out that I am misunderstanding what Mr. Zahnd is saying.

      • OK. So I had some time to follow the link and read the full article. I loved what he said about the distinction between Jesus and the Bible that points to Him. I especially liked his comparison of the role of the Bible to the role of John the Baptist. But I was disappointed that he ended using the premise as an excuse to cherry pick which portions of the Bible he personally agreed with and which portions he wanted to throw out. He starts out wonderfully, but his application is lacking.

        He ends up doing one of the very things he is criticizing. How is Zahnd’s method any different than the slaver or warmonger who prefers their pet Bible verses and thinks that they reveal the “true” Jesus? We could all pick our pet verses (all too common in Christianity) or else we can do the harder thing, embrace the Bible as a whole, and try to see what God is revealing about Himself and ourselves through its words.

      • The word “perfect” is tricky. Its opposite may be “flawed,” or it may be “incomplete.” I do not believe the Bible is flawed, but I do believe it is incomplete — the story it introduces is still being told, and the story itself is only the context for the Person. People who believe in the Bible as the only perfect word of God may be missing the perfect Word of God. This seems to me to be what Brian Zahnd is saying.

        • I agree with you, Damaris. That word “perfect” seems to be a sticking point with several friends who I’ve shared this with. It seems to me even God’s creation isn’t “perfect;” however, maybe it IS perfect in the way He’s created it. In other words, we’re not perfect (being sinful and all that), but God created us the way we are, so maybe “flawless” isn’t the right definition of “perfection.”

        • I agree that “not perfect” COULD mean a lot of things. But it is pretty clear from his context (not perfect=obsolete, e.g. Levitical codes) that he is setting the stage to throw out the stuff he doesn’t like. He goes even farther down this path in the main post where he talks about ignoring certain scriptures in favor of others.

        • Christiane says

          DAMARIS, you are right.
          Even the Bible itself ‘says’ that it is not the complete record of all that Christ did:

          (John 20:30)
          “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book.”

  3. I SOOO like this. Too many people equate the Bible with “The Word.” It’s not. It’s just words on paper bound together. I don’t mind treating it respectfully, but it’s not to be worshipped.

  4. The Bible hasn’t taken Jesus’ place, it has taken the Holy Spirit’s place.

    • Oh mercy. Those poor faithful illiterates throughout history, let alone many deaf and blind, are screwed. I hadn’t heard the Holy Spirit moved over for Constantine et al’s collection to take over.

  5. Thanks for introducing Brian’s blog to us. I’m enjoying exploring it.

  6. Aidan Clevinger says

    And how do we know what the Living Word wants to tell us, if we don’t listen to the Word which was given by Him to the apostles and prophets?

  7. Who actually worships the Bible? I have moved in so-called “fundamentalist” circles all of my life, and not once have I ever met a card-carrying member of the Bible Worshipers. These axioms are aimed at strawmen.

    • Having moved in those same circles, I disagree. “Worship” may not be the right word, but there is a quality attributed to the Bible that is akin to divinity and there is very little honest acknowledgment of the human element in composing and editing its contents. IMO, our view of the Bible tends to be docetic and while this may not lead to “worship” per se, it does lead to platonic and gnostic approaches to the faith.

      • I agree with Chap Mike. Anyone who has heard someone say, “I only use the King James because it is the way God intended the Bible to be read” (or whatever translation someone says is “the best”) has, in a way, placed the Bible on a pedestal it shouldn’t be put on.

      • “[T]here is very little honest acknowledgment of the human element in composing and editing its contents….”

        There are many excellent Biblical scholars, both Evangelical and Reformed, who do acknowledge the human element without saying what Zahnd implies — that the Bible contains errors.

        • The whole idea of “errors” vs. “no errors” is wrongheaded, in my opinion.

          How can one speak of “errors” with regard to poetry or various other genres in Scripture? If a story contains elements that are not strictly historical reporting, is that an error? If authors or editors tell the same stories in different chronological order, or with different details, or in ways which technically differ in detail but contain substantially the same witness, is that error? If people wrote using ancient standards of science, historiography, the use of numbers, and not according to our current day standards, is that error?

          “Inerrancy” is not just bad doctrine, it is incompatible with the kind of book the Bible actually is.

        • By post-enlightenment standards of epistemology there ARE errors in the BIble

          That’s why the inerrancy doctrine is so sticky. Whose epistemology are we assuming when we call something ‘inerrant?’

          The answer is, we should never use any epistemology that is not in agreement with that of the authors. This requires a much more personal knowledge of the subjects of the stories, and the writers of the stories. For most, that will mean a complete change in the way we look at the ancient text. A change which some might call “repentance.”

          The doctrine of inerrancy will not do this- it will not bring you to repentance. All it does is grind into powder any real desire to know the Word on the altar of question-prevention.

      • Mike, have you read John Frame’s book “The Doctrine of the Word of God”? Frame lays out a doctrine of Scripture that is rooted in the Bible’s own testimony about itself. He stands clearly in the Princetonian tradition, but he’s not afraid to revise the tradition where he sees that Scripture itself warrants doing so.

        Frame’s approach is the best one produced in our generation, and I think his view would answer all of the concerns that these axioms are intended to address. I would recommend to the author that he seek to dialogue with the best of the tradition that he seeks to critique, not with caricatures.

        Further, I think it is a bit unfair to pit “Biblicism” against “Christianity,” as though the quasi-Barthianism that seems to be on display in this post is the real representative of historic Christianity. John Woodbridge demolished that assertion long ago.

        • Aaron, I have not read it, but I will take a look at it.

          I have to say though, at the start, that any approach based on “the Bible’s own testimony about itself” is by necessity flawed. The plain fact is that there was no “Bible” when any such statements in the Bible were written, thus making that approach extremely problematic if not impossible.

          Dr. Woodbridge was one of my favorite professors in seminary, but as I’ve learned more since then, I think he and Dr. Carson did not give enough credence to the fact that the modern doctrine of “inerrancy” depends upon philosophical foundations that were only in place after the Enlightenment.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I have to say though, at the start, that any approach based on “the Bible’s own testimony about itself” is by necessity flawed.

            Sounds like a variant on “The Bible is true because The Bible says the Bible is true.”

    • If you have “Inerrancy” in your statement of faith you are ascribing an attribute to the Bible which IMHO should only be ascribed to God.

    • That’s easy. All you have to do is relegate Christ to ‘functionally obsolete’ status, except when it’s necessary for someone to get saved. Then you present him as a transactional substitute, but only until the believer has the rubber stamp of having ‘made a decision’ for Christ or invited him into his heart or something.

      After that, you can just forget about him altogether and proceed to throw Bible verses around with a positive thinking “better life” spin on them. Or perhaps a “stop sinning and make yourself more holy” spin on them. in the service of getting people to do right, look right, sound right, or maybe adjust their level of satisfaction and personal wealth, simply refer to all sorts of imperatives from Paul and maybe Peter; an occasional obscure Old Testament King or prophet. “God” language will abound. “Jesus” language will not. Or if his name is mentioned, it’s to refer to nice circumstances that warm the heart, or his requirements for holiness or something, or a feeling inside of me.

      Listen carefully though, because the one thing he won’t be referred to as, is a human being bodily present with the church. One who rose from death and reigns. You will hear the Bible defended to the death though. “Every word in this book is TRUE!” A big deal will be made of its inerrancy as well. Hours-long discussions will be had about the Bible’s nature with nary a reference to Christ himself.

      The ongoing Christian life will be defined in such a way that doesn’t require Christ to have ever lived, died, risen, or done anything on earth at all. He’s now a wisp of powder that has disseminated into the aether. Personal Me-and-God-ism with Bible verses Bible as mediator, corrector, and sanctifier. That’s worship.

  8. The Word of God is, in this order:

    Christ Himself

    Christ present in preaching and teaching the gospel and in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion

    Christ in the Bible.


    The finite contains the infinite.

  9. I liked the article and agree about bible worship but the John Dominic Crossan reference creeped me out. Crossan denies the resurrection took place, called Jesus a “magician” – im afraid our avoidance of fundamentalism can sometimes push us too far to the other side.

    • Crossan is one of my favorite authors, even though I disagree with him on almost everything. He is very clear on his positions, very robust, and forces his audience to think. I enjoy his writing.

      • I like him for the same reasons, though, like you, I very much disagree with him. He’s bracing, though, and makes me think.

    • I had a Twitter conversation with Zahnd about Crossan and his more troublesome beliefs. Zahnd said there was a lot he didn’t agree with Crossan on, but that he read him because he made him think.

      • In seminary my professor would tell us that we had three years to be heretical. I miss those days when I could think freely and express myself without the crazy look. I do love these people that challenge us to think, I just wish people would listen rather than get defensive. I understand these questions to resemble monsters under the bed, better left ignored, but they really do help our faith and journey as people.

  10. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    Is this guy a Quaker?

    • Yeah, he does seem to have a pacifist agenda, given the quote from Crossan.

      Given what admittedly little I know about the subject, I don’t buy that Jesus was a “pacifist” in anything like the modern sense of the word, nor do I believe the early church was monolithic in its teachings about violence and war. I’m not an inerrantist when it comes to the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a pacifist when it comes to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

      I think you have to treat certain parts of the New Testament as if they are inerrant, and discount other parts, to believe that being a Christian requires being a pacifist. I do not believe that the Sermon on the Mount, or any other part of the New Testament, is a new law given to Christians as an outline for what it means to be a Christian.

      The purpose of the New Testament is indeed to point to Jesus, and that includes the passages that speak to the issue of non-violence and violence. Jesus was and is the only one who can in fact turn the other cheek; he’s the only one who can fulfill the twofold law of love, regarding loving God and our neighbor. He’s also the only one who can enter the Temple and violently expel the moneychangers from it.

      Whenever the church stresses pacifism as essential to the Christian life and faith, it inevitably becomes legalistic, as among the Amish and Mennonite, or it separates those who are expected to live according to the counsels of perfection regarding non-violence (the clergy and monastic) from those expected to live as second-class, non-perfect Christians (the laity) (remarkably similar to the organization of many ancient Manichaen and gnostic religions, with their distinction between the inner and outer circles of believers, and their distrust of the material world and what is required to live in it, also very legalistic).

      I think the article undermines its own point about the Bible by connecting is so closely with the call to pacifism.

  11. “Biblicism can be a clever way of avoiding the rule of Christ in order to maintain the status quo. It is the living Word to whom we must submit our lives.”

    Apart from the criticism of biblicism, with which I agree, I wonder how does “the rule of Christ” square with Lutheran idea that the Christian is not under law of any kind? Doesn’t this introduce an overpowering note of legalism, apparently in the name of pacifism in this particular case, that is not warranted by the gospel of grace?

    If “the rule of Christ” means that Christ rules, that’s one thing; if it means that there is a rule we must live by to belong to Christ, or to follow him, it’s another.

  12. Patrick Kyle says

    ” It is the living Word to whom we must submit our lives.” Yes, and how often we see the ‘Living Word” contradict the written one.

  13. I followed the link and read Zahnd’s article. I agree with his twelve axioms but take some issues with “The Bible is not perfect. (There are parts of it we now regard as obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.)”

    I grew up spiritually in a tradition that taught that the word “perfect” as used in 1 Corinthians 13.9-10, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” was a reference to the completed canon of Scripture, which would not be completed until the end of the first century and not accepted as a whole for another couple of centuries. In other words, these verses were interpreted to mean two things: 1) a justification for cessationism, i.e., Paul is saying that speaking in tongues, prophesy, etc., will cease once the New Testament is completed; and 2) the word “perfect” means that Scripture is “perfect.” For well over a decade now I see the flaw in this interpretation. So, using this passage to say that Scripture is “perfect” is bad hermeneutics.

    But that in and of itself does not disqualify the use of the word “perfect” with respect to Scripture. If the opposite of “perfect” is “flawed,” then, well, how can we say that Scripture is flawed because that would imply that a text can be both inspired and flawed. I won’t go there.

    Neither will I go into the issue of post autobiographical errors and inerrancy here, but I will simply look at his parenthetical explanation and illustration. He states, “There are parts of it we now regard as obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.” Whereas I would agree that the entire Old Covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8.13), it is still useful to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3.24) and (many of you will disagree with me on this, not doubt) it is also useful in pointing out right conduct (i.e., not as a motivating factor but as an illustration of what it looks like). Therefore, if the law is useful in some limited respects, does that render it obsolete? And if it is not entirely obsolete, does that support his premise that “The Bible is not perfect”?