It is good that we recognize Jesus as the sovereign Lord. But is it justifiable to start with Jesus when it comes to forming theology? Many Christians assume that is the place to start. For example, I was once listening to a podcast and the subject was raised about how we formulate our theology. One speaker said something like, “We must get our theology from the life and person of Jesus who is God incarnate. If your theology does not match with who he is, then go back to him and start over.” This is such a popular idea, there is even a book available that is entitled, Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology.
In the previously mentioned podcast, one of the reasons this particular individual wanted to start with Jesus was to circumvent the validity of other parts of Scripture that seem to be quite clear. For example, this individual rejected places in the Old Testament where God commands Israel to eliminate other nations (e.g., 1 Sam 15). His reasoning was that he could not imagine Jesus (as God) commanding the destruction of a nation, therefore the Old Testament needed to be explained away somehow.
Other examples of this exist as well. Pro-LGBT Bible readers often argue against the so-called “clobber passages” which speak against homosexuality, and read them in light of the love and compassion of Jesus. This love and compassion of Jesus shows us that God would not condemn anyone for choices that they make.
The assumption behind this reasoning is that we must interpret other passages of Scripture in light of who Jesus is. Because Jesus is the hallmark of love, kindness, and compassion, passages that do not fit with our notion of what that looks like must be adjusted toward our preconceived notion.
I will gladly affirm that Jesus is the epitome of love, kindness, and compassion. But our definition of love is not God’s definition of love. Furthermore, Jesus is also the perfect embodiment of justice and holiness (e.g., Rev 1:12-16). We cannot pick and choose which of Jesus’ attributes to use as a paradigm to read Scripture.
In fact we should not start with Jesus at all! The starting point of proper theology has to be Scripture at face value and interpreting it in its literal, grammatical context. Here are two big reasons that this has to be the case.
1. The only way we know about the character of Jesus is through God’s inspired Word.
We have a big problem when we think we must start with Jesus. What Jesus are we talking about? Are we talking about my Jesus, or your Jesus? Or, maybe Muhammad’s Jesus? Which Jesus are we talking about?
Jesus repudiated the Jews for not knowing Him, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39). It is important to observe that His reprimand comes when the Old Testament was the only Scripture available. According to Jesus then, the Scriptures (even the Old Testament) testify of who He is.
The answer to the question, “How are we to know Jesus?” is simple—through Scripture. This is why Scripture has such a high value to the believer, and has to be the starting point for theology. Jesus affirmed the value of Scripture by saying that, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Later, He also acknowledged that through the Word comes the sanctifying influence in the believer’s life (John 17:17).
The Old Testament paints the same picture of the supreme value of God’s Word. The end of Psalm 138:2 reads, “You have exalted your word above all your name.”
The Scriptures are valued with such esteem because it is only through them that we can have a theology of anything. It is the Scriptures that teach us of Jesus and everything else. Our theology cannot start with Jesus, because the Jesus we know is only as accurate as the Scriptures are accurate.
2. Scripture does not allow a “pick and choose” approach.
The last point leads directly into this one. If we try to pick and choose which Scriptures to believe or to base our theology on, then our theology will be wrong. A view that assumes passages like 1 Samuel 15 are inferior to the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus is playing judge and jury on the validity of Scripture.
With a view like that, what is to stop someone from rejecting the portions of the New Testament that teach on Jesus? I can just as easily dismiss a story about Jesus because it does not coincide with my picture of who Jesus should be. In other words, what is the standard for whether or not Scripture is authoritative at that point? Ultimately, the standard for a view like that is that Scripture must match with our own preconceived notions.
But that is simply not true. Scripture stands in its entirety. Jesus treated Scripture as a whole. Early believers treated Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures as co-authoritative. There is no reason to elevate certain passages of Scripture over others simply because they affirm our preconceived theology.
Ultimately, theology must start with God’s Word, because it is only through the Word that God has articulated His revelation. If the Word is corrupt, our theology will corrupt. If we cannot trust God’s Word, we cannot trust our theology. However, because the Word is secure and sure (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21), our theology will match with the entirety of Scripture. That includes both the person of Christ and the Old Testament passages.