Even Christians who regularly read and attempt to follow the teachings of the Bible can easily take for granted the fact that we have a Bible. I dare say that no other book in history has been so vetted and analyzed, picked over and scrutinized as the Bible. And we in the present are the benefactors of these many centuries of meticulous preservation and reverence. But holding and reading and following the Bible is not the only way that Christianity has found its direction and inspiration. In fact, the entire book of Acts is a chronicle of people without the benefit of the New Testament at their disposal, and it remains one of the most remarkable and effective times in the history of Christianity.
How is that possible? How could Christianity survive without an ordered text presenting a coherent, though not systematic, understanding of our faith? Amos Yong suggests an answer to this in his book, “Who Is the Holy Spirit,” as he comments on the relationship of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts:
…the earliest believers lived out of their memory of Jesus…inspired by His Spirit-filled life, ministry, and teachings as they negotiated their own challenges of being in but not of the world.
Christianity in its infancy faced a unique situation. Without any sort of systematic or time-tested doctrinal statements, without any “elevator speeches” about what they believed, and without any sort of handbook on “How to Start a Movement in Three Easy Steps” – without any of these things we see them proceeding forward into the darkness of the future. And the only thing on which they had to base their future direction was their past experience with Jesus. How did He live? What did He care about? What did He do? What did He say? These were the questions that they had to ask themselves, it seems, as they were trying to navigate their own calling and spiritual vocation.
I am glad that we have the Bible, but I also think that even with the Bible in our possession we could stand to learn something from those 1st Century fathers and mothers of Christianity who seemed to be pretty successful without a codified, written expression of belief and theology.
We tend to want to let the present define us. We can easily feel trapped by the issues and problems and unique predicaments that our cultural moment is consumed with. As Christians in the Western Church we seem to be deeply compelled to have an answer for every nuance of culture and for every breeze of public opinion. I fear this mentality as a Christian. And I don’t fear it because I’m afraid that “standing for the truth” will render me an outcast in my own culture, but I fear it because it seems to be so distant from what consumed the Christians in the book of Acts.
It is conspicuous to me just how little Jesus, Paul, John and Peter spoke explicitly about the cultural problems around them. It seems that they didn’t feel compelled to gripe very much about how the pagan, greedy, sexualized and power-hungry Roman culture would become the death of the world. Peter didn’t say that Christians should be ready to have an answer for why worship of Caesar was evil and wrong, but he said that we are supposed to be ready to answer someone when they ask us about the radiant hope that we have in our lives (1 Peter 3:15). This hope has everything to do with the grand beauty of Christ and very little to do with the shrunken, counterfeit expressions of power and pleasure that the empire displays. The hope that the early, Bible-less Christians had came from their support and embrace of something, Someone beautiful, not from their chest-thumping rejection of things that the culture had accepted and promoted (which, for my more fundamentalist friends, is not to suggest that they didn’t disagree with many of the pagan practices that went on).
What did it mean for the early Christians to rely on their memories of Jesus as their chief guide and primary informer of their beliefs? It meant that their hearts were filled with wonder, surprise, confidence, joy, love and grace. It meant the clearer their recollection of Jesus and His life and ministry, the less intimidating was Israel, Rome or any other empire or kingdom that tried to smother them. It meant that the more they looked backward the easier it was to live forward.
The Bible gives us the ability, though we are two millennia removed from the His physical life, to remember Jesus. To see who He was, to hear what He said, to let our hearts linger on the things that He did. The Scriptures allow us to join with the disciples and look backward so that we can find the kind of hope, strength and grace to courageously live forward. This was, presumably, why the Gospels were penned in the first place: to give all generations the privilege of steeping themselves in the memories of who Jesus was and what He accomplished.
Have you read the Gospels lately? They’ve been surprising and re-surprising readers for more than 1,600 years. Have you lingered on and contemplated the words and acts of Jesus? I wonder how our lives might change, as Christians, if we backed away from the ledge of our cultural moment for a while and allowed this Man’s life and words to draw us into a sense of what is eternally important and to care about those things which are truly transcendent.