Spring 2002
Volume 2, Number 1

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My Quest to Understand Scripture

C. Norman Kraus

When I was a student at Duke University studying for my doctoral degree, I heard through the grapevine that I was being called “Bible Boy” by some of my classmates. I plead guilty. From the cradle I have been nurtured in the Bible.

The first serious attempt at Bible study I remember was copying the day-by-day order of creation events from the King James Version of the Bible. I was about ten, and I distinctly recall copying the verses onto the pages of a small two-and-a-half by five-inch book that fertilizer companies sent to farmers to record their fertilizer applications.

Long before that, of course, my mother had seen to it that I learned my weekly Bible verse to say in Young People’s Meeting on Sunday evening, and we memorized passages in summer Bible school. To this day, some sixty years later, I recall Bible verses in the King James.

Biblical exposition was at the heart of the Mennonite preaching I absorbed as I grew up. Every Sunday morning to the best of his ability (the preacher was always male in those days), the preacher explained a given biblical text according to the Mennonite tradition. The preachers might use illustrations to make their point, but they did not stray far from the biblical content. The whole focus of the sermon was on Scripture’s meaning for our lives.

As a lad I tired rather easily during long sermons but enjoyed the well-
illustrated and forceful preaching of Bishop George R. Brunk I. I’m sure he agreed with the words of one of my Eastern Mennonite School professors who affirmed, “Scripture says what it means, and means what it says!”

Knowledge of Bible facts was highly valued. What we today might call “Bible trivia” was a favorite and edifying game. I remember standing in front of the church house when Amos Brenneman, a kind of bachelor-uncle figure, assured me the Bible had an answer for any question one could ask. It even told how to catch fish! (Our community was on the banks of the Warwick River, so catching fish had relevance.) Bishop Brunk wrote a book titled Ready Scriptural Reasons, and Daniel Kauffman wrote Bible Doctrine. No one talked about “theology.” The question was, “What does the Bible say?”

Only later, when I entered the Eastern Mennonite College four-year Bible curriculum, did I begin to become conscious of theology as a discipline. Even then, the most prized theological courses were Old and New Testament theology, and for most students the “book study” courses were still more basic. The school motto was and is “Thy Word is Truth,” and we were taught that the Bible in its original languages is the “Word of God” verbal, inspired, without any error.

So you will understand when I say that my journey with the Bible has taken me beyond literal Bible knowledge in a King James rendering to search for a deeper understanding of the truth to which Scripture bears witness. My quest has been not to forsake the Bible but to try to understand it from within the perspectives of a broader historical and cultural setting. The Bible has been far more than a personal, serendipitous, spiritual inspiration for me. It has been a cultural, ethical guide and a theological source.

As I set out on my journey, I began to see that from the Christian point of view the Bible is the church’s record of the Word of God that finds its climax in Jesus, the embodied Word. Thus, as Martin Luther noted, the Bible is “Word of God” only in a secondary and derivative sense. Jesus Christ is the primary Word. To speak of Jesus as the embodied or incarnate Word shifts the ground of authority from the Bible to him. The Bible bears witness to Jesus and finds its fulfillment in him.

The Bible is the authentic record of and witness to Jesus, the embodied Word, as his disciples experienced him. The church recognizes this record to have been inspired by the same Spirit which now indwells the body of Christ, the church. The Spirit of Christ that indwells the ongoing church is the same Spirit that inspired the first disciples to recognize and testify to Jesus as the Christ of God.

The Spirit, then, is the mediator and guarantor of the biblical witness to the church. Jesus is not recognized to be the Christ simply through the literal historical record of the New Testament. The Spirit authenticates the biblical record, and in response the church canonizes that record, the Bible, as its authoritative witness to the Christ.

Now this Bible comes to us in the cultural garb of the ancient Near East. It speaks God’s word in their languages to their situations and issues, and through them it speaks to us. Because it was communicated in the first place to people whose worldview and customs were in many respects foreign to ours, we must translate and transfer it into our varying global cultural situations. This means that as our cultural location changes historically or geographically—in time or space—we need to reformulate and apply its message.

As a missionary, I tried to learn how to read the Bible from a multicultural perspective to communicate its truth across cultures. I soon found that some of what I had been taught “the Bible says” in my American setting simply did not communicate an authentic biblical witness in Asia.

For example, even a word like forgiveness had a different import in a shame-based culture like Japan. And the theological concept of the deity of Jesus Christ had to be re-imaged in a polytheistic society where nature itself was considered divine. I had to accept the freedom of the Holy Spirit to speak through the Bible in fresh ways to these cultures in their own thought forms. This process is sometimes referred to as “contextualization,” and I became convinced that this, indeed, is the basic task of Christian theology.

This contemporary missional necessity to communicate the message in local cultural forms helped me understand why the Bible itself contains differing and sometimes conflicting points of view. It was written over a long period of time in a variety of changing cultures and social situations. God’s Word to us is inevitably filtered through particular human cultures and historical situations, and yet it is a word for all humanity.

As the gospel of John says, God has never left himself without witness in any human culture. We have the great advantage of having the truth embodied in Jesus, but that does not mean other “non-Christian” cultures have received nothing of God’s truth. We need to understand how the word of God embodied in Jesus and recorded in the Bible is mutually related to the universal witness.

Fortunately, the multifold biblical record gives us our clues for making such a correlation by presenting Jesus in the changing context of his history. It shows us how Jesus is related to people of different times and cultures, people such as Cain, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Daniel, Paul, Apollos, Prisca, or Philemon.

My changing perspective on reading the Bible raised further questions for my theological and ethical understanding. It changed my focus from Scripture to Jesus as the ultimate authority for Christian life and thought. It suggested the potential for a new openness to the possibility of God’s truth being disclosed in the future. This in turn refocused my attention on the importance of the church as the continuing historical body of Christ. And it began to transform my attitude and perspective on other religions and their place in God’s plan for the world.

Over my years of contact with Asian and African cultures, this reality of God’s truth beyond the biblical tradition made me re-evaluate my opinion of truth in other religions. How does the truth of the biblical witness relate to the truth also evident in religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam?

I remember especially conversations with Muslim scholars in India who were wrestling with many of the same issues we Christians were. And one of the most beautiful prayers to God I have ever heard or read came from such a scholar! As I visited Gandhian ashrams and villages, also in India, I became aware of the profound insights its members had into God’s truth—some of which they assimilated from the biblical picture of Jesus.

I had to learn that people of other religions are also intelligent, sincere, and committed in their search for God; they feel certain of their glimpse of truth, just as we do! Of course there was much untruth as well, but that is also the case in Christianity.

So my quest to understand the Bible has led me to a heightened awareness of the significance and relevance of Jesus; to the recognition that the Holy Spirit continues to reveal the dimensions of truth disclosed in Jesus; to a dynamic view of the church as the community of the Holy Spirit seeking to understand and live by God’s truth; and to a greater appreciation of the universal disclosure of truth by the Creator-Savior God.

—C. Norman Kraus, retired in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a Goshen College professor emeritus and has taught in numerous other settings in addition to being a pastor, missionary, and widely published author.


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