Response to Dan Owen’s Article in the Gospel Advocate

In the December 2019 issue of the Gospel Advocate, Dan Owen offered a brief response, in part, to my recent book Searching for the Pattern. I thank Dan for reading the book, and I am grateful for his article as it calls attention to an important concern about how we read the Bible. I wish I could link to the article for my readers, but it is unavailable.

Dan quotes this sentence from Searching for the Pattern (p. 119), which he finds problematic: “In other words, the rule or canon by which Christians walk is not fundamentally or foundationally the New Testament as a written document.” He then quotes another sentence: “The rule or pattern, according to the apostle Paul, is not a detailed blueprint pattern for church practices, but the cross of Christ and the inauguration of a new creation.”

Dan does not question whether there was a rule or canon before the New Testament existed as Galatians 5:15-16 indicates. His point, however, is that the New Testament comes to us as a rule or canon that contains the teaching of the apostles. Consequently, he thinks I proposed, “to some degree, a false dichotomy” (40).

However, I do not dispute that the New Testament is a rule or canon. It is the teaching of the apostles handed down to us through divine inspiration. The question is what within the New Testament is essential, normative, and necessary for the faith and practice of the church. As Dan notes, we must read each biblical text in context and in the light of the whole story of the Bible (42). Consequently, we must discern through a contextual and wholistic reading of the Bible what is required for Christian faithfulness today. In other words, we must discern what in the New Testament canon is an essential rule for the contemporary church. What I claim is that the rule is, in summary, the cross of Christ and new creation.

Dan wrote, “Those who reject the apostolic documents as inspired and immediately authoritative for our lives will travel down a very different religious road from those who accept only the theological ideas in the core gospel as normative” (40).

I believe, as I affirmed above, that the apostolic documents are inspired. I am not exactly clear, however, what “immediately authoritative” means. If one means something like, “when it is clear that the apostles intended to require X as normative for all churches in all times by writing Y, then we ought to obey.” I affirm that. The question, then, is how do we discern that?

But if Dan means that whatever is asserted or taught by the New Testament is “immediately authoritative” in the sense that “when the Bible says X, we automatically and without discernment do or replicate X,” then this is problematic because the Bible tells us to do many things we do not do, including women wearing veils, enrolling widows and only those over fifty-nine, or greeting each other with a holy kiss among many other particulars.

Where Dan and I agree, I think, is that through contextual and wholistic study of Scripture, we seek to discern what God requires of us and the kind of life and practices into which God calls us. The truth of this contextual and wholistic study, I suggest in my book, is summarized in the gospel (e.g., the work of God through Christ in the Spirit; the rule by which we walk, according to Paul, in Galatians 5). This is the means by which we discern what is and is not normative for the practice of the contemporary church. I believe this because this is what I think the inspired apostolic documents teach.

Where Dan and I disagree, it seems to me, is not so much about the inspiration and authority of the Bible but how to discern what is normative and required from reading the Bible. At the same time, we share lots of common ground. Through a contextual and wholistic reading of the Bible we may, as committed disciples of Christ, see the grand story of God as the truth, and that truth is the mystery of God’s reconciling work in Christ through the Spirit.



8 Responses to “Response to Dan Owen’s Article in the Gospel Advocate”

  1.   Andy Derryberry Says:

    Lots of powerful thinking here. Well, I’m still working on the first two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

  2.   Mickey Cox Says:

    John Mark Hicks, you are one of our best advocates for interpreting the word through the Word. Every thing I have read & heard from you has been paradigm-shifting and has helped move faith and belief from intellect only to my heart. You are such a blessing to our movement. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
    He is risen!

  3.   Dwight Says:

    John, the over all theme of the N.T. is grace and love and this is the only thing we have that is really codified as Law, by command, when Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Ironically, we can look in the O.T. and see that God is not vague about giving laws for or against things, but for some reason when we get to the N.T. it appears God is vague and wants us to piece together law, that He could have easily stated, just like in John 13:34. Also, ironically, the list we are given such as in Gal.5 in the works of the flesh/fruit of the Spirit, there is nothing in that list or any other about the church and worship in particular.
    God Bless

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Foundationally, I affirm your point. At the same time, the NT documents do work out what it means to love God and love neighbor in particular situations as well as in the orientation of life. This would include works of flesh and the fruit of the Spirit among other ethical engagements with the churches. The NT documents model for us how to live out the ethical demands of Christ, which are summarized in (as they summarize the Law and the Prophets) in the two greatest commandments.

      •   Dwight Says:

        Yes, this I think is the point “orientation of life”. We have a tendency to focus on the orientation of what happens in the assembly and the things pertaining to that and thus we place out righteousness within this context of this “worship/service”.
        The scriptures do give commands, but these aren’t the commands we generally focus on as we like to deduce what we should be doing from non-commands. We are like the pharisees who “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel”.

  4.   Jerry Jones Says:

    Until we decide to interpret the Bible through the lens of creation, we will not be able to see the thrust and the message of scripture.

  5.   Al Cornell Says:

    If the blueprint for church practices concept were required for salvation, many of the great heroes of faith in the Gospels would be totally dependent on primarily randomly accepting the concepts of the right scholars. The woman who threw two lepta into the (corrupt?) treasury, the tax collector who went up to pray, Mary of Bethany, and many more were not just lucky to have followed the right ‘professor’s pronouncements concerning who is saved. There is something greater at work in the Word related to salvation. The common people can get it.

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