Wednesday, December 27, 2006

11. The Sense of the Church

Most of us who grew up going to church have absorbed far more than we might think. We have picked up "the rules" for how and how not to apply the biblical text. Many Christians talk about the idea of the "Bible alone," but they are unaware of the degree to which they bring these rules to the Bible with them. Give a Bible to a person who knows nothing of Jesus or Christianity, send them away to read it. Apart from a miracle of the Holy Spirit, they will likely come back ready to start a cult.

Christians throughout the centuries have exercised the "spiritual common sense" we mentioned earlier. One person's prophetic sense of the Holy Spirit can turn out to be authoritative, but imagine the collective spiritual sense as it has been tried and tested for 2000 years! That doesn't mean that the collective church universal cannot ever be wrong. Those of us who are Protestants believe in particular that some of the correctives of the Protestant Reformation were right on track.

This sense of the one holy, universal, and apostlic church is found most noticeably in the common creeds of Christendom, the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These creeds ironed out things like the Trinity and the nature of Christ's divinity, the essential "dogma" of historic Christendom. But even beyond these creeds are beliefs that are commonly held by almost all who have historically called themselves Christians: belief that God created the world out of nothing, belief that we are conscious in between death and resurrection, doctrines that are the "consensus of the church."

These beliefs constitute the "rule of faith" and set boundaries for how we appropriate the biblical text. Evangelicals have tended to use their intelligence and skill to make their interpretations of Scripture come out to teach these things. However, this tendency sets up a kind of paradox in which a particular view of the biblical text--meant to elevate the value of the text--leads one not to listen to the text in deference to one's theology.

A far more honest method is to let the text mean what it meant and then acknowledge that there is a flow of revelation that moved not only from the Old to the New Testaments but also into the church as well. We have already discussed these dynamics in our section on hermeneutics.

So the "rule of faith," the consensus of the church, stands as a boundary for how we can appropriate the teaching of the Bible. We must always allow for prophets like Luther to prevent the church from the rigidity of having to justify beliefs that have been commonly held in the past but which we now can see to be phases of history or even inappropriate trajectories. For example, there was a time when it was the consensus of Christendom that ministers should not marry. This may have been appropriate for the medieval phase of Christendom, but it seems problematic today. In situations like these, the original meaning of Scripture can play a crucial role in the debate, as it did in the Protestant Reformation.

If the rule of faith provides the rules for belief, the "law of love" constitutes the rule and boundary for ethics and action. The law that a believer should do nothing that contradicts love of God and neighbor not only has the dominant hand in the New Testament, affirmed by Jesus (Matt. 22), Paul (Rom. 13), and James (2). But it has been reaffirmed by prophets of the church like Augustine.

These two "rules" form the boundaries of how we can appropriate Scripture. Our appropriations must cohere with the rule of faith, the consensus of the church as regards our beliefs. They must also cohere with the royal law of love. No appropriation of Scripture that is inconsistent with love of God or neighbor can be properly considered Christian.


Mark O Wilson said...

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Dr. D said...

Dr. Schenck - "Apart from a miracle of the Holy Spirit, they will likely come back ready to start a cult." It's nice, it's safe, but it's totally conjecture- so, is this you being funny?

S.I. said...

would appreciate your take on my latest post...

Ken Schenck said...

Dr. D. This is a comment based on the polyvalence of words. You may know the story of the New Guineans who admired Judas as the kind of hero of the story when they first heard the gospel. An orthodox Jew would view the New Testament as an aberrant group rather than the dominant perspective from which to interpret the Old (which they would not consider old). I remember as a teen a fellow whose home schooled family wandered in and out of various churches looking for a place that would agree with his understanding of prophecy and Christianity. Then there are the over 25,000 different Protestant denominations all with their individual interpretations. And the original meaning of words like "save," "I," "grace" is already different from the "traditional" ways Protestants and Catholics have come to define them. David Koresh was an inerrantist.

In short, I think the evidence is quite massive that the words of the Bible, especially when organized into a system, can take on countless different meanings, since the meaning is a function of the mind bringing its "dictionary" to the words. This is the scandal of Protestant theology, the deconstruction of sola scriptura, an after the fact argument that shows that Luther loses his argument with Erasmus.

On the other hand, I am willing to believe that God regularly performs the miracles of which I spoke too!

Dr. D said...

Dr. Schenck: Professor you once again, as you always have, prove how powerfully, fearfully and wonderfully you, and we, were made. Thank you for the response it is marvelous, full of your depth and compassion about the reality of our God. Happy New Year and many,many more to all!
Ah and yes I did get it that you weren't being, serious challenge, the cult bit isn't likely- my sense is that if a person actually read the entire Bible, they would come back prayerfully and quietly, listening for the voice of the almighty. IMHO

Ken Schenck said...

Happy New Year, Dr. D and all as well!