Five “Nots” from Krister Stendahl

Krister Stendahl tells how he came to love the Bible by first loving Jesus, rather than the other way around, and that Jesus first became his friend, then his savior. As a boy growing up in the Church of Sweden he would steal away to church — in his family it was thought Pharisaic to go to church! — and it was there that Jesus became his friend. He was awed by the Lord’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. He wanted to be like his newly found friend, and this lead him to the Bible. Someone gave him a New Testament, and “I was hooked for life.“ He came to love the Bible because it is about Jesus.It may strike one as odd, but Stendahl gives five “nots” in reference to his lifetime rendezvous with the Bible — “an ever transforming affair of the heart.” They read like principles of interpretation as well.

The first “not” is It is not about me, which he found especially liberating since he had been misled to believe that the Bible was about him. The story of the Prodigal Son is about the elder brother, not about us, and the story of Job is about Job. Reading the Bible this way — that it is about the way God has dealt with different people and different churches — gave him a renewed appreciation for the nature of Scripture.

The second “not” — It is not always as deep as we think — says that the Bible is often quite simple, in spite of our inclination to make it deep and ponderous. Of course, he admits, since the Bible is the word of God it is bottomless in its revelation, but it is nonetheless often couched in simple terms. Even when language may appear obscure, such as “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) — which he sees as “a wonderful statement” — the context make it clear. So, he loves the Bible because of its simplicity.

The third “not” is that Even Paul was not always totally sure. He points to 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul frankly states that on some matters he had a word from the Lord, while on others he was speaking on his own. He sees the apostle saying that he is doing the best he can. He is not sure, for he has no word from the Lord, but here is my advice for what its worth. Stendahl sees virtue in a Book that tells us that we sometimes have to think for ourselves, that everything isn’t settled.

The fourth :”not’ — Don’t be uptight — reveals that the professor finds little place for apologetics. He sees “defending the Bible” or “defending God” as an arrogant exercise. The Bible — and certainly God — need no defense. He sees it as shallow and silly for one to “help God.” He quotes an old Swedish saying, “It is pathetic to hear mosquitoes cough.“ He sees apologetics as mosquitoes coughing.There is no reason to get uptight about conflicts in Scripture, for it is part of the beauty of the Bible that we have different perspectives, he allows.

The fifth and last ‘”not”  is It is probably not as universal as we think. It is amiss to suppose that everything Paul wrote to a church — such as the Corinthians — applies to all situations for all time to come. I recall what another Harvard professor, Henry J. Cadbury, said, “It is not that we are to do precisely what they did (in the early church), but to do for our time what they did for theirs.”

From Leroy Garrett:

It is hard to believe that it has been a half century this year since I finished my PhD at Harvard. My professors at the time, understandably, have all passed on — all except one, that is. At the time Krister Stendahl became the professor who would guide me through the writing of my thesis — and at last give final approval — he was in his early 30s, three years younger than I. It was his first year at Harvard. He received tenure when only 35. He is now 85 and I 88. It must be a common stubbornness!


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Filed under Church of Christ, Internet Links I Recommend, Leroy Garrett, Religion

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