Reading the Bible as if Jesus matters

A response to: Bradley Jersak. A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. Whitaker House, 2021. 287pp.

This is a most helpful, even liberating, guide to reading the Bible with Jesus as the center. Bradley Jersak, a theologian and pastor who has traveled a fascinating path from Pentecostal fundamentalist to Eastern Orthodox with a stint among Mennonites, draws on his own evolving experiences with the Bible. Jersak presents us with an approach that walks the line between the authoritarian literalists on one side and the cultured despisers on the other side, and he provides an empowering and enlivening understanding of the Bible as witness to the healing path of Jesus.

The entire Bible witnesses to Jesus

Jersak calls his approach to the Bible “the Emmaus Way,” referring to the story in Luke 24 following Jesus’s resurrection. The risen Jesus encounters two his disciples walking on the road from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. They don’t recognize him, taking him as a stranger to the area. They share their grief at Jesus’s death until he finally reveals himself and tells them not to grieve, that what happened was totally in line with message of the Bible. That is, the Bible—all of the Bible—points to Jesus as its center.

So, Jersak presents an approach where we take Jesus at his word and read the entirety of the Bible in light of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection. When we do so, we will find the Bible come alive as a life-shaping guide to wholeness, generosity, mercy, and creativity. In harmony with Jersak’s message that the Bible is about joyful living, the writing style of A More Christlike Word is engaging, humorous, accessible, and encouraging. We learn a lot about Jersak’s own checkered journey of moving from a narrow, fearful reading strategy to his present open-hearted, welcoming, and gracious approach.

While the book has a popular, easily understood tone, it is also grounded in serious scholarship and perceptive theological and historical analyses. We learn a lot about the Christian tradition, including strengths and weaknesses of various prominent reading strategies over the centuries. We also learn a lot about the content of the Bible itself. Jersak’s sense of how it all fits together allows for differences within the canon in the context of an overall harmony. And, crucially, this overall harmony gives a positive, generous, life-giving message of God’s mercy embodied in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

So, this is a fine book. I have no hesitation with recommending it highly. It should appeal to a wide range of readers—from students to interested lay people to scholars. It is a nice companion to Jersak’s earlier enlightening book, A More Christlike God—a powerful presentation of the God whose very character is revealed definitively in the peaceable Jesus of the gospel stories.

A somewhat different path

For all of my affirmations of this book (completely sincere), I was also stimulated by it to imagine taking a somewhat different approach should I ever try to write at length about my reading strategy for the Bible. The two big issues where I would diverge from Jersak have to do with his general disposition toward the creeds of the Christian tradition and toward what I will call the “Old Testament.” In both cases, I would say that I want to follow the core logic of Jersak’s insights to their logical conclusion—and recognize that that logic puts me somewhat at odds with the Christian tradition the emerged once Christianity severed its relationship with Judaism and allowed itself to be conformed to the imperial sensibility of the late Roman Empire.

Placing the story of Jesus at the center, I believe, should lead us to question the creedal emphasis with its tendency to jump from Jesus’s Virgin Birth to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, leaving his life and teaching without mention. It can hardly be coincidental that most Christians since creedal times have willingly supported warfare in spite of Jesus’s own peaceable teaching and practice. As well, if we focus on Jesus’s own teaching, we will realize that for him, “the Scriptures” (the term Jersak helpfully uses for what we typically call the Old Testament) were fully compatible with that peaceable way. That is, the Old Testament should not be a problem for Christians but is in fact a book of peace. I think Jersak would have done well to emphasize that Old Testament itself as a peace book perspective more than he does.

Though Jersak helpfully emphasizes that what matters most in interpreting the Bible is reading all of it in light of the gospel, he remains a bit ambiguous in what he understands the gospel to be. I suggest that the portrayal of the gospel in the gospels is best summarized as “love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” The portrayal of the gospel in the Christian tradition as shaped by the creeds and confessions of Christendom is better summarized in terms of belief in doctrines about Christ (e.g., his divinity, his place in the Trinity, his pre-existence). I suspect Jersak would argue that these two portrayals of the gospel are pretty compatible. I believe more that they are in tension, that we are forced to prioritize one over the other, and that our priorities will greatly shape how we read the entire Bible and how we apply the “Emmaus way.” Jersak does not give the reader a sense of this tension.

Jersak appropriately insists on shining the light of the gospel on scripture, on reading everything in the Bible in light of God’s love. However, I read his positive allusions to the creeds and other doctrinal elements of the Christian tradition as indicating that he is not careful enough about shining the light of the gospel on that tradition. In my understanding, shining such a light leads to criticism of the supercessionism all too present in the Christian tradition and of the doctrinal focus that has marginalized the life and teaching of Jesus in the Christian tradition.

I would say there is a deep tension between a Jesus-centered reading of the Bible and the post-biblical Christian tradition that has focused more on doctrines about Jesus. I greatly appreciate the consistently irenic approach Jersak takes in this book, but I wish he had been more attentive to this tension. An irenic, emphasize the positive, approach to the Bible might actually have an effect of pushing us to take a more critical, agonistic, even negative approach to the theological tradition—or at least pushing us to explain why we shouldn’t.

Even in light these questions, though, I strongly recommend A More Christlike Word and expect it to have a very positive impact among its readership and beyond.

3 thoughts on “Reading the Bible as if Jesus matters

  1. Rob

    Good review, Ted. As you’re probably aware, Brad is both a friend and someone whose work I greatly admire. I recently finished reading this book and am due to write a review just as soon as I have time.

    Regarding your divergences from Brad’s trajectory, I’d love to hear a critical (in the best sense) discussion between the two of you, whether in writing or in person. I think such an exchange could be very productive all round. I wonder whether it’s something you and/or Brad might consider?

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      Thanks, Rob. I would enjoy such a conversation with Brad. I also admire his work and have found him to be an enjoyable person to interact with. I appreciate his Canuck sense of humor!

  2. Pingback: Reading the Bible as if Jesus matters | WE BELIEVE ANGELS VISIT US!

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