Sunday, October 04, 2015

SA7: Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.

This is the seventh post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.

1. The New Testament believers clearly knew that Scripture was "inspired by God" and "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). However, they did not always find that teaching and correction in the plain meaning of the text. As an example, Paul did not hear a lesson about oxen in Deuteronomy 25:4, the literal meaning of that verse. Rather, he heard a spiritual, metaphorical teaching about how ministers should be materially supported while they do the work of the ministry.

Therefore, from the standpoint of the New Testament authors, the inspired point of Scripture was not always the literal meaning. Throughout the centuries, Christians have always believed that the Scriptures were inspired, that God "breathed" them. [1] They have believed that the Scriptures were authoritative and infallible. That is to say, they have believed that God's commands in Scripture hold authority over God's people and that God's word is both true and unfailing.

But they have frequently disagreed on what the Bible teaches and how we are to interpret it. Indeed, the exponential multiplication of Protestant churches into the tens of thousands suggests that the Bible alone cannot serve as a basis for the unity of the church. [2] This is because there are almost as many interpretations of the Bible as there are people reading it.

Many of the first Protestants strongly disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church on the allegorical or figural reading of Scripture. The problem here is that there is a fair amount of figural and allegorical interpretation in the Bible itself (e.g., Gal. 4:24). Similarly, many Christians in the last 200 years have read the Bible with an openness that God might speak beyond its contextual meaning.

So those who do not like non-literal interpretation must face the problem that the New Testament itself uses non-literal interpretation. The best among these admit that the New Testament sometimes reads the Old Testament out of context, but suggest that this practice was cultural. They would say that we today should not because we are not inspired. [3] There is of course no basis in the Bible for this position.

On the other extreme are those who see hidden meanings everywhere in the Bible and those who regularly receive a charismatic "word from the Lord." These individuals are not unlike the prophets of 1 Corinthians 14. The problem here is how to know "which spirit is of God" (1 John 4:1).

We find a tension in the latter parts of the New Testament between prophetic words of this sort (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:26) and the "deposit" of teaching from the apostles (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14). Augustine and other early Christians would call this deposit the "rule of faith" (regula fidei). God has developed a core collection of Christian understanding, the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Any spiritual words will surely fall within these boundaries and must be "tested" (1 John 4:1) by the corporate body of Christ.

So there are fundamentalists in their use of Scripture and there are extreme charismatics. God will judge them for their hearts, not for their ideas. But the Wesleyan tradition has historically been open to spiritual interpretations within the boundaries of orthodoxy, and the Wesleyan tradition has practiced historical-cultural interpretation, which reads the Bible in context.

2. A bone of contention in the twentieth century revolved around the word inerrancy. Although it is true that Christians throughout the centuries have considered Scripture truthful, twentieth century debates had a distinctly different flavor. The reason is that earlier Christians felt free to interpret the Bible in non-literal ways and earlier Christians were not reacting to the rise of the historical-cultural method of interpreting the Bible.

The earlier sense of the Bible being without error simply meant that, once we understand properly what God is saying through Scripture, that meaning is entirely truthful. In the twentieth century, however, fundamentalists applied this sense only to what they considered the "literal" meaning. And more importantly, the word was used to fight against modern ideas like evolution, source theories of the Bible, or difficult findings from archaeology.

There are some difficulties for this approach because it does not always do what it aims to do. For example, once you take genre into account, it may turn out that the plain meaning of a passage like Genesis 1 does not support the agenda of the literalist. Similarly, if the parameters of ancient history writing were different than the anti-modernist wants them to be, then the plain meaning of biblical narratives will not support the harmonizing goals of the fundamentalist inerrantist.

The best scholars even in the neo-evangelical community inevitably have nuanced their positions. A writer can be inspired in the use of sources, for example. We can also affirm the truthfulness of Scripture while recognizing that the theological precision of the New Testament is greater than that of the Old Testament and that the theological precision of the later Old Testament is greater than that of its earlier parts.

The contextual and incarnational nature of Scripture imply that the original inspiration must have been a very complicated thing indeed. Once we leave the more general sense that the meanings God wants us to see in Scripture are true, we inevitably find ourselves in complex debates over philosophical and historical nuances that, in the end, are generally neither helpful nor do they accomplish what the neo-evangelicals of the twentieth century wanted them to.

Such debates have rarely been spiritually uplifting. They have often displayed the factional spirit of the Corinthian church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:12-17). It does not seem that they have made the church more holy or Christ-like. They can be debates over minute ideas that threaten to miss the weightier portions of the Law (Matt. 23:23). The previous and next articles hopefully give a more balanced sense of how we might process the truthfulness of Scripture.

3. A colleague of mine once suggested that Christian traditions can get out of balance on any one of the four elements in the so called Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. [4] Charismatic traditions can get so focused on experience that they have nothing firm on which to ground their thoughts and actions. When it comes to the Bible, individual "words" that are supposedly from God can potentially go far astray from the rule of faith and the law of love, which are the deposit of Scripture in faith and practice.

On the other hand, the Enlightenment and an anti-supernaturalist approach to the Bible has at times used an unexamined and faithless reason to dismantle the very idea of revelation itself. Churches have become Deist, without any sense of God's involvement in the world at all. The books of the Bible became no different than any other book or the holy books of any other religion.

Ironically, the literalist can also find him or herself merely dissecting the Bible on the level of reason, analyzing it on a purely intellectual level, without any real effect on their life today. The Bible can become a mere book of ideas and propositions, a mirror of the reasoning of the interpreter.

Catholic traditions in the past have let their traditions wander far afield from the early church. The spark of the Reformation had to do with the sale of years off of purgatory. Neither Scripture nor the Christians of the first centuries believed in the existence of purgatory, still less that you could lessen your time there by giving to the church on the basis of the extra-righteousness of certain saints. Similarly, there is no clear biblical basis to require priests to be celibate or that the elements of communion become the literal body and blood of Christ, and many other ideas.

No doubt many who believe such things will be saved because Jesus is Lord in their hearts, but this is an example of tradition when it wanders from its original moorings. Of course there are Protestant traditions too. Indeed, we are all parts of interpretive traditions. We can hardly remove ourselves from them. So the offense is not tradition itself but a divisive approach to my tradition within the broader faith.

Finally, it is possible to be imbalanced in one's use of Scripture. John Wesley's use of Scripture has been described as "prima" scriptura more than "sola" scriptura. That is to say, while all discussion for Wesley began with Scripture and while Scripture was the ultimate authority for him, he valued the traditions of Christianity and he utilized both reason and tradition in his application of Scripture.

Fundamentalists arguably skew the use of Scripture when they both insist that it can only be interpreted literally and when they use it as a tool of violence. Any use of Scripture that violates the love of our neighbor is an unChristian use of the Bible. And it is possible to use the letter of the word to violate the weightier principles of Scripture.

4. A final word should be set about the contents of the canon. All Christians today agree that the books of the New Testament canon are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the Gospels. Acts is a history of the earliest church.

Then there are letters and sermons from Romans to Jude. First come the Pauline letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Hebrews may be a sermon. Then the General or Catholic Letters: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1-2-3 John, and Jude. Finally, there is an apocalypse, the book of Revelation.

However, Christians differ on the precise contents of the Old Testament. They all agree on the books of the Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They all agree that Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther belong in the canon. They agree on Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. They agree on Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi.

However, Roman Catholics, various forms of Orthodox Christianity, and Anglicans also consider Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well as additions to Esther and Daniel as part of the Old Testament canon. The church used these books from the very beginning up until the time of the Reformation. Around the year 400 Jerome suggested that these books were in a kind of "second" level canon--"deuterocanonical." They were thus not quite as authoritative as the others, but of more authority than the writings of, say, a church father.

Arguably, Luther downgraded them from the way they had been used before, while in response the Roman Catholic Church upgraded them to "protocanonical" at the Council of Trent in 1545. Perhaps Luther's principal motivation for downgrading them was the fact that 2 Maccabees 12 might be interpreted to give scant evidence for purgatory. Wesleyans have not considered them authoritative, although Wesley did not vilify them either.

There are some variations also many catholic traditions. The Greek Orthodox church considers 1 Esdras to be Scripture and the Ethiopian church considers 1 Enoch to be Scripture.

5. It is thus normative for Christians to consider the Bible to be Scripture, even if there may be some who make it to the kingdom while disagreeing. Christians have agreed on the vast majority of what books belong in Scripture. They have, however, varied widely in their interpretations of Scripture and they have varied in their method of arriving at interpretations.

Next week: SA8. The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

[1] The inspiration of Scripture was not seriously questioned until recent centuries. God knows the hearts of those Christians today who do not see the Bible as inspired or as completely inspired. Since we are not judged for our ideas but for our faith, there will no doubt be people saved who do not believe in inspiration with their heads.

[2] This is Paul Tillich's so called, "Protestant principle."

[3] E.g., Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), *. We consider a complete failure the feeble efforts of some to deny that the New Testament authors often read the Old Testament out of context. See Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, eds. Three Views on How the New Testament Interprets the Old (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

[4] Keith Springer.

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