“Evangelicals have been raised to be suspicious of Christian tradition… Believers whose (unacknowledged) tradition is that the Bible is their only guide for faith and that there is not reliable Christian tradition must come to terms with how they got this view before they are willing to adopt the church tradition as their own.” –D.H. Williams¹
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When Protestants started breaking away from the Catholic Church they needed to establish what their authority was. Obviously it was still God, as it was with the Catholics, but something had got lost in translation and God was asking people to do what God doesn’t ask people to do. For Catholics, the Church was an authority that represented God as much as Scripture did. The Protestants, having seen human fallibility represented in the theology and practice of the Church, curbed that authority and developed the doctrine of sola scriptura, the bible alone being their source of faith. This blog post will attempt to bring to the surface some assumptions we have made on the basis of sola scriptura and some critical thinking that will hopefully in some way contribute to the Kingdom of God. Chur.
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One of the dangers of sola scriptura is the unavoidable consequence that biblical interpretation is no longer given to the individual by those who should know what they’re talking about; instead the individual interprets the bible personally. I don’t want to undermine the blessing of being free from uncritically received biblical interpretation though. It is surely a blessing that individuals read the bible and decided that God really did want women in church leadership. It is another blessing that a small group of people called Quakers read the bible and found out that God really didn’t want people to join in on all those wars. It is a great blessing that some devoted theologians over the centuries have again realised that you don’t have to do anything to be saved. It’s right there. It’s free. If we didn’t have individual bible interpretation then we wouldn’t have these things in Christianity to the same extent that we now have them. But one downside I suppose is that some guy read the bible and decided that God wanted us to keep most of those laws in the Old Testament, that Jesus hadn’t really abolished them, only some, and that we had to stop eating bacon. Another guy read the bible and told everyone that salvation isn’t for everyone, only those that God invited to the party. I’m still waiting for mine in the mail. And then this one guy read the bible and decided that if you give all your money to this church you attend then God will give it all back including triple and more, because the meek will inherit the earth or something. We probably wouldn’t have these if the Church was still an authority, or we would but to a lesser extent.
To be honest, I do certainly prefer the freedom of personal biblical interpretation. But what would I think if others hadn’t told me what to think? There are infinite controversies, including the topic of this blog, our ideas around the bible, which I need all the time in the world to do adequate research for and make up my mind on. Because it’s so important to have an opinion on anti-semitic sentiments expressed among the early church fathers… But really: People need to be told what to think about things. When necessary, you critique what you’re hearing. Other times, you assimilate it.
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“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Timothy 3:16-17).
Would I be right in citing this as the most popular piece in the bible for asserting its inspiration? Not only does Paul poetically describe the origin of Scripture, but he also provides Timothy with purpose of Scripture. What Scripture was Paul speaking of though? His Scripture would have been the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which included the apocrypha² (books which are rarely found in a Protestant bible but are part of the Catholic, Orthodox and other canons). Modern bible translation uses the Septuagint to double check dubious translations of the Hebrew and better understand quotations in the New Testament, as most quotations from the Old Testament appearing in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. The New Testament authors’ use of the Septuagint explains why we have Jude³ quoting from Enoch (vv.14-15), and Paul making use of the Wisdom of Solomon in Romans (1:19-20). This guy has some good examples, including the Romans one.
So Paul probably isn’t referring to the bible as we currently know it. Peter, on the other hand, uses the same Greek word for the Hebrew Bible, translated as ‘Scripture’ to refer to a collection of Paul’s writings (2Peter 3:15-16 — there is an uncanny numerical resemblence to the piece from 2Timothy). But what is Scripture? It is widely accepted that the Book of Isaiah had not one but three authors, concerning close but historically separate times in Israel’s history. The Book of Job is an ancient poem and parallels of it can be found in other literary traditions. Elihu, the young eavesdropper in the story who gets a word in to rebuke Job and his friends just before God turns up is not mentioned at the start when Job’s other friends turn up and nor is he mentioned by God, who should really approve of his actions. He was probably written in at a much later date. Should I still consider what he says when reading Job or just flick past him? The Comma Johanneum, in 1John 5:7-8, is a later insertion by trinitarians which can not be found in any early Greek manuscripts. Until recently it was included in English bible translations.
The Book of Revelation was still being disputed as canonical five hundred years after Jesus had risen. Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted in Eusebius, writes, “I, however, would not dare reject the book, since many brethren hold it in esteem, but since my intellect cannot judge it properly, I hold that its interpretation is a wondrous mystery.” Dionysius had an esteemable intellect. His view is a profound contrast to the dogmatic end-time theologies people have constructed around this book. Hebrews, because of its unknown authorship and theology around apostasy was also widely disputed. The Shepherd of Hermas was, along with other writings not included in our New Testament, widely read and accepted by many early Christians, but the Church later rejected it because of its adoptonist theology, that is implying that Jesus became God’s Son at baptism. Now that the Church is concerned by things other than orthodoxy it’s not such a big issue, so imagine if a new council arose in modern times and James was excluded because of theological leanings to works-based salvation or 1Timothy for asserting that women would be saved through childbearing.
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That is the crux of what I’ve been exposed to so far, but there’s a lot more learned people out there who can give a decent critique of our current canon. I hope you enjoyed the whirlwind tour. If anything, problems with inspiration, biblical unity and canon should point to something that we can all agree is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that the bible uniformly makes clear and which every saved soul has experienced: Love God; love others.
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¹The quote is a paraphrase. I came across it in ‘Deep Church’, a book that looks for a midway point between postmodern and traditional Christianity.
²I may be wrong.
³Earlier on in Jude, the author also cites a confrontation between Michael and Satan, not mentioned elsewhere in the bible. You may be interested to also know that Paul quotes three Greek (?) poets throughout his writings.