A few weeks ago, Michael Spencer posted an essay entitled “Reduced to Jesus”, in which he argued for the priority of the gospels over the rest of the New Testament.
Now, Michael was spot-on in arguing that we should read the rest of Scripture, Old and New Testament, in the light of Christ. However, given that the whole of the Bible is the word of, and about, Christ, we have to be careful not to fall into the old liberal error of pitting Christ against Scripture. (And I should stress that Michael has made it clear he is not falling into that error himself.)
This can be a difficult balance to maintain in terms of theoretical principle and argument (“All Scriptures are equal, but some are more equal than others”?). The relationship between Christ and Scripture, and between the gospels and the rest of the Bible, is best expressed liturgically and devotionally.
Liturgically, the priority of the gospels is expressed by having the gospel reading as the last of the three Scripture readings at the Divine Service, by the congregation standing during the gospel, and by ensuring that the sermon generally takes the gospel reading as its text. In this way, the church week by week lives out the balance between the priority of the gospels and the continuing value and importance of the rest of Scripture, rather than merely arguing for it in ways that can be misunderstood.
In our own personal devotional lives, the priority of the gospels is best expressed by ensuring they have a high place in our own devotional life, particularly our personal reading of Scripture. I admit this is an area where I have tended to fall down, with months on end passing in which my reading takes me nowhere near the four gospels.
But I’ve been reinspired to ensure that the gospels form part of my daily diet by the following words from the Roman Catholic writer, Michel Quoist. These are taken from the chapter entitled “The Encounter with Jesus Christ”, from Fr Quoist’s book The Christian Response. In this chapter, Fr Quoist describes the value and purpose of regular reading of the gospels as follows:
Precisely because you read your favourite newspaper with regularity you begin to adopt its ideas and attitudes as your own. Precisely because you admire a man, you soon begin to react and to think as he does. Precisely because you like a friend, you begin to act like him and imitate him. If you make the gospels a regular reading companion, slowly you will begin to think, to feel, to judge as Christ does. In becoming familiar with the gospels you must of necessity begin to resemble Jesus Christ.
Fr Quoist also counsels against expecting instant results from our reading of the gospels:
The more you meditate on the gospel message, the more Christlike, the more apostolic you will become. You don’t say: I’ve just eaten and yet I don’t feel any stronger. Then don’t say to yourself: I’ve been reading the gospels each day for the last week and nothing is changed in my life.
What response do you expect from your show of love other than to be loved in return? The gifts will come in due time. Don’t always be trying to get something out of everything you do. Meditate on the gospels in a spirit of generosity; simply try to be faithful to God’s revelation of his love for you.
In the same way, our aim in reading the gospels should not be to find points of immediate application and relevance for our life that day:
If you try to “apply” the gospel message to your life in some artificial way, it will not be the gospel which inspires your life but some merely human conception of it. Let the Holy Spirit breathe where he will, and in his own good time.
The highlighted sentence there is of critical importance. Is it really the word of God that is guiding our lives, or is it our interpretation and understanding of that word, the framework we erect around it? That is certainly a challenge for me.
These principles also extend to our reading of the rest of Scripture. The main purpose of reading the Bible for ourselves is not to get daily moral guidance (do we really need a daily Bible reading to tell us how to live decent lives?), but to be shaped by Scripture over time, in ways we can hardly detect ourselves.
And, as Fr Quoist demonstrates, this is especially true of the four gospels, where we see and hear Christ directly, rather than veiled in Old Testament promise and apostolic proclamation.