My current ACT 3 Weekly article, sent by email subscription on Monday each week, is a continuation of the series I am currently doing on “Understanding the Bible.” This series, and previous issues, are all archived and available on the ACT 3 website.
Many Bible-reading Christians seem to think that if you know the text of Holy Scripture, and exegete that text with care and precision, you clearly understand the message of the Bible. I have suggested that we best understand the Bible when we understand the story of Jesus. But we cannot even stop there, talking about the story of Jesus revealed in the Bible. We must see how that story impacted generations of people after the close of the canon. We must, to put this plainly, move from the world of the Bible into the everyday life of the church and God’s mission to all people everywhere. Simply put, we must move beyond the pages of the Bible, to the life of the church and the witness of Christians for seventy generations. Why? Because we know that the Holy Spirit cannot be (entirely) bound by events in the past and by methods of Bible interpretation that lead to a radical, individualistic reductionism.
The Early Context
The New Testament is situated in the context of Jewish tradition, the Old Testament Scripture and the Roman Empire. When the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 things began to change very quickly. A new sect of the Jews, a small group that had gathered to follow Jesus the resurrected teacher of Israel, would eventually become a major religious voice in the world. When the Roman Empire collapsed, a few hundred years later, many thought that the world was about to end. (It did, at least as they knew it in Rome!) But St. Augustine was raised up by God to write about “two cities” (the city of man and the city of God). He was mightily used to prepare Christians for new, and much darker, times.
The centuries that followed Rome’s collapse in the West brought ruin and devastation. (The story of the East is different and often unknown or misunderstood by Western Christians.) The only moral force the people often knew was that of their bishop, “the defender of the people.” In most instances only priests remained as educators. Books were scarce. They were unread by the masses. The Holy Scriptures were preserved in monasteries, virtually unknown.
The church became the soul of this dark society, keeping alive the values of constructive work, seeking to restore civil order and protecting women and children. But the church was not without fault. She was invaded by superstition and moral corruption. Bishops and priests were eventually compromised just like non-Christians around them. Even popes exercised poor judgment, some even becoming cruel tyrants. But what was sown by the apostles and martyrs was never entirely lost. As with Israel so now with the church, the covenant community would be corrected by God. The monastic movements arose as a positive answer to corruption and as a result the so-called Dark Ages were not nearly as dark as secular historians have told us. Much light remained and the Scriptures were finally preserved.
The Great Schism
The Eastern part of the Roman Empire resisted the barbarian invasions that swamped the West. Over several centuries the church in the East, called Greek or Orthodox, would evangelize Russia, further dividing over the cultures that already separated the people. In time there were two churches, different in culture, language and practice. Yet they both sought to keep the faith and preserve the understanding of the Bible. Sadly, both churches paid so much attention to their own customs that their common faith did not keep them in fellowship. A schism formally divided the East and West in A.D. 1054. (This division had been developing for several centuries.) Tragically, this schism remains in our day even though the Catholic and Orthodox are very close in so many ways.
In 1460 one of the most important discoveries ever made transformed the way people heard and understood the Bible. With the invention of movable type, and Gutenberg’s famous press, the Bible could now be printed in book form. What was kept alive in stained glass and sculptures was now available for literate people to read.
For centuries the church had been a heavy religious system that stifled intellectual research and evangelical renewal. Many wonderful people protested and sought reform, generally to little avail. Some of these Christians were even put to death by the church itself! It seemed, for several centuries, that the more often people called for reform the more the church simply hardened its response. But then the Bible was printed! People began to read and discuss the Scriptures again. Many “people movements” for reform and renewal followed the printing of the Bible. Sadly, it was these movements that eventually prompted a more hostile reaction that caused a division in the Western Church that plagues the mission of Christ to the present day.
Martin Luther was right to give the Bible to the people. But the people were wrong in how they often used it. The Catholic Church had argued that this would happen and it did. Within Luther’s own lifetime more divisions came and schisms soon became the norm. Each church, and eventually each person, began to think that they alone understood the teaching of the Bible. The Bible became the book that divided Christian from Christian rather than a book that united them in their love for Jesus Christ.
The Catholic Reformation
A few decades after the division in the German Church, the Catholic Church responded to this schism by reforming itself. To a large extent this was successful, especially in terms of the moral changes that were so desperately needed. But still the Catholic Church had a difficult time encouraging the whole church to listen to the Word of God. The role of the Christian laity continued to be downplayed rather significantly. (This has slowly begun to change since Vatican II.) I believe that the greatest fruit of the Catholic Reformation was a new wave of preachers and missionaries that took the gospel to many new people and places. But in spite of this development, the church stressed the role of knowledgeable experts over that of all the people becoming servants of the Word of God who sought together to discover the riches of truth revealed in the Bible.
Sadly, the Reformation brought about more divisions, many of them over how the magisterial reformers interpreted and applied their “fresh” understanding of the Bible. What is noteworthy here is that most of these Protestant Reformers stressed the languages of the text, careful study and solid exegesis. But much of the church, generally speaking, still failed to grasp the teaching of Scripture. Within a few years very few Protestants knew the Bible well and new spiritual renewals were needed as the years passed. Rigid scholarship raised up new forms of control that prompted further divisions and the repetition of old problems.
The Teaching of Sola Scriptura
The Reformation has been popularly understood through the so-called five “sola” slogans. One of the most important, and controversial, was “sola scriptura.” The idea behind this slogan has been variously defined, and hotly debated. I define it here by using an edited version of the entry that you can find in Wikipedia. It gives us a good basis for understanding this term.
The Latin term sola scripture (“by scripture alone”) is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. Consequently, sola scripture demands only those doctrines are to be admitted or confessed that are found directly within or indirectly by using valid logical deduction or valid deductive reasoning from scripture. However, sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing the Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God.
When rightly understood I believe this principle. I do not believe the pope, church councils, or even creeds, have authority over Scripture. But the important phrase in my first sentence in this paragraph is this: “if rightly understood.” What I do not believe in is Bible proof-texting that limits theological development to specific texts in the Bible alone. I submit that few serious Protestants actually believe this idea either but “in the churches” this is what many preachers and lay people actually practice.
The Bible Alone
Various responses to the question of how to understand the Bible have been offered down through the centuries. Let the reader be aware of this before we assert that we know everything revealed in Holy Scripture with certitude. A little less hubris is called for if we are truly honest. This hubris has so terribly misled many Christians that we have given the world the notion that we know the mind of God pretty well. This is one reason why we continually tell people that we know who is and is not, going to hell.
Many will passionately respond, “No, no, the Bible alone! There is no other way to know God or build a proper Christian theology but on the basis of the Bible alone.”
But there have been other Christian voices since the apostolic age saying more than the Bible alone. These voices are plainly reflected in the definition of sola scripture that I have given above. In the definition above did you pay careful attention to these words: “[doctrines] are found directly within or indirectly by using valid logical deduction or valid deductive reasoning from scripture?”
Ironically, there is clear biblical precedent for heeding the principles we hear in these other voices. Let it be clearly noted that no one clings to the Bible alone, at least not consistently. Such a position is not plausible or workable. I hope you’ve already seen that over the course of these practical articles.
Since the death of the apostles, and long before the canon of Scripture was formally agreed upon, the church has always sought to listen to, and comprehend, the clear teaching of Scripture. People have done this by discovering apostolic doctrine through the apostolic writings, namely the Holy Scriptures. At first they did this almost entirely through oral tradition. Later they only had portions of what became the New Testament. Finally, the clergy had hand-written copies of the New Testament, but not until centuries after Christ’s earthly life and the age of the apostles. It wasn’t until fifteen centuries later that people had printed Bibles but even then few could read them.
Thus the question I ask is simple: Can this old, old book still function with power in the lives of both ministers and people? I believe that it can and I believe that it will when we adopt a healthier view of its role in our lives. I believe this happens when we correctly understand the purpose and intention of the Bible itself. More on this next week.