What constitutes Scripture and how is it to be read?

In thinking about the interplay of revelation through nature, miracles and Scripture, we discussed what it is that constitutes Scripture. Once again the question arose (see our earlier blog entries): before you are two books – let’s say the Bible and the Qu’ran – and you are asked, “Why this book, why not that book?” – the rules of engagement are that quoting from your book of choice to justify it over the other is not allowed (because then quoting from the other book to justify it over your book is fair game, and we just go round and round citing our own favorite text in the face of citations from someone else’s favorite text). This question is likely to surface over and over again unless we can address it in some reasonable way.

We discussed some of the terms that are often used to describe Scripture: inspired, infallible, authoritative, inerrant, and so on. It seems that claims such as inerrancy based upon “original autographs” aren’t especially helpful because any “original autographs” that might once have existed are no longer available to us and hence the claim of inerrancy can never be disputed if it is positioned this way.

We began to think about the different ways in which religious language has been understood over the years and how our understanding of language influences our reading of Scripture.

One position is to see religious language as moral discourse. Thus, language about God is really language about how people should behave towards each other. Here, the notion of God serves as a “regulative ideal” to grant validity to ethical imperatives. R. B. Braithwaite, Immanuel Kant, and Albrecht Ritschl all held this position.

Another position is to claim that language is equivocal. Human language cannot refer to the infinite. This route is taken by some mystics and is representative of the via negativa. St. John of the Cross is a good example of one who held this position.

Yet another position is that language is univocal. There is no problem with human language referencing God. Words which refer to God and to humanity have exactly the same meaning. Carl F. H. Henry holds this position.

Alternatively, language can be seen as analogical. One can postulate that there is an analogy between what a word means when it applies to humanity and when it applies to God [theory of analogical predication]. This use of language assumes that there is a “proper proportionality” to language describing God’s attributes and activities and human attributes and activities. St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest proponent of this perspective.

Some claim that metaphysical language is meaningless. Only propositions which can be empirically verified have meaning. This is the position of the Logical Positivists. A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap held this position.

It has been claimed that all “language games” exist within particular “forms of life.” Wittgenstein argues that speaking a language is a kind of activity. As such, “meaning” is best understood as “use.” (Wittgenstein said “Words do not have meaning; they have usage.”) Thus speaking about God (in the context of a religious community or life) is as valid as any other activity. Paul Holmer and Paul van Buren hold this perspective.

Also, some say that all religious language is metaphorical and symbolic. Language contains helpful metaphors and symbols about God, but there is no way to substantiate them ontologically. This is the position of Paul Tillich. Tillich does not believe that we can talk about God as a “being” the same way that we are “beings.” Rather, for Tillich, God is the “ground of being.”

Some agree with the ontological distinction which is made by Tillich but deny the linguistic distinction. For them, religious language is a “mode of signification.” Reality can be signified by language, but not completely. (e.g., We can know that God loves, but we cannot know how God loves.) This is the position of William Alston.

To keep it simple, we might take the position that there are two types of language: Propositional language as used by theological conservatives with an emphasis on “factual nature”, “verbal inspiration”, being “literally true”, words which are “revealed by God”, and so on; and experiential-expressive language as used by theological liberals with an emphasis on “aptness” or “adequacy” of language to describe religious awareness where this aptness or adequacy is a matter of degree. [Note that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are just labels for convenience and not pejoratives!].

The philospher Mounce, writing on Wittgenstein, said, “What is of fundamental importance cannot be stated; it can only be shown. Therefore one must be silent before what is of fundamental importance”. Alister McGrath says something similar, “…the transcendent can never be wholly captured in finite language, so that we are obliged to rely upon images and models which elude precise definition”.

With reference to the statement “God is love”, McGrath asserts that: (i) it is not merely a declaration of allegiance to a community that affirms this statement regardless of what God might actually be like; (ii) it is not merely an affirmation of a personal attitude towards God regardless of what God might actually be like; but rather (iii) it is an affirmation that the statement is an “authentic and valid insight into the character of God” [McGrath allows for myth, metaphor, etc. as nonliteral forms of representation].

It seems we need to think more about what language is and does if we are to approach Scripture in ways that are appropriate. In general, we saw that reading Scripture in community may be a helpful approach, while attempting to determine the trajectory of Scripture and joining our lives into that narrative trajectory may be the way to best live into the narrative as Christians.

There is a lot to think about here!

25 Comments

  1. Cliff

    Could not God be acting in our world under the laws of the universe that he created? Just because something happens that we precieve to be outside of the physical properties of what we know does not necessarily mean that any physical laws were broken. Our knowldge of the universe is limited; therefore, a miracle may be just soemthing that we cannot expalin but nevertheless does not violate any law of physics. Have you ever seen a bug walk on water? Perhaps Jesus figured out how that is done.

  2. Julian A. Davies

    If God acts in the world through the laws of nature (“immanentism”), whether we understand them or not, then we might ask if there is any way to comprehend the extent/limits of divine action. For example, if a group of people pray for two individuals with cancer and one goes into remission and the other does not, is there any understanding of why? The process of remission may well fall under the laws of nature but is it simply randomness that governs who goes into remission, or is there actual divine action (and if so, why in one case and not the other).

  3. Rob R

    It occured to me the benefit of the idea of an innerrant original autograph isn’t just for the reasonably questionable idea of defending innerrency by making it impossible to disprove but it gives us a reason to continuously attempt to get back to the original text which will improve our vision of the message.

  4. Julian A. Davies

    Good point Rob – the quest for “manuscript integrity” is an important one, I think. Although, the idea that there was originally “one manuscript” may not be correct in all cases. One could envision early writers recording certain narratives that they had heard and then a “group of manuscripts” floating around that eventually are edited and redacted into one that is accepted by the community. In such a case it is hard to determine which, if any, is the “one” to call inerrant. I think particularly of the Book of Acts with its different manuscript traditions and, from the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Daniel, which is very different in the Septuagint (Greek version) than in the Hebrew version.

  5. Brad

    Setting aside the linguistic/philosophical issues for the time being, I’d like to consider the question, “How is Scripture to be read?” Let us also set aside questions concerning which texts should or should not be regarded as Scripture and simply examine the texts that have been included in the Protestant Bible. Do the texts themselves provide any direction concerning their reading? There are a few observations to be made: 1) Among the NT texts, only Revelation claims to be revealed by God. 2) None of the NT texts give any indication that a NT canon should even be established. 3) There are differing theological positions toward various issues, such as suffering and evil, throughout the Bible. Given these observations, the Evangelical doctrine of Biblical Infallibility seems to be an extra-biblical concept. How, then, should we read the Scriptures? I suggest we read them as a collection of texts that document the evolving theology of the ancient Israeli people, culminating with the apostolic community. From the Bible, we can learn that the answers are never final, that every generation should continue to ask questions about God and seek to more fully understand God.

  6. The Edz

    Brad, excellent question…how is scripture to be read?
    You suggested we read them as a collection of texts that document the evolving theology of the ancient Israeli people, culminating with the apostolic community.
    I dont believe God’s teaching evolved in the sense that it changed. Rather, his dealings with theocratically-run Israel was much different than Jesus’ dealing with his followers and the kingdom of heaven teaching he gave them. Besides, Jesus referenced OT teachings as true (yes, even Adam and Eve as real people), but challenged their “evolved” interpretations by the teachers of that day.
    You mentioned only Revelation calls itelf inspired, yet Peter mentions that Pauls writings were “scripture”. So there was an early sense developing that these first century writers were inspired.
    I also would aske the question..which books should be considered scripture? This is one that I wish more protestant Christians would ask themselves.
    I studied this issue years ago when I left the Roman Catholic church for the protestant faith, because the Catholic church has extra books in their Old Testament that support distinctly Catholic teachings (eg, praying for the dead).

    The final canon of Christian scripture seems to generally close during the 300’s.
    The last Apostle died by around 100 AD, so it took a couple hundred years to take it’s final form.

    For the New Testament: How do we know these early church fathers made the right decision regarding which books should have been included in the New Testament?

    As I understand it, the ancient church used 3 basic rules for determining whether a book was scripture:

    1. Was this particular book or letter in use among the churches?
    2. Did it contain apostolic teaching, the common sense of what the catholic (universal) church taught and believed?
    3. Was it written by an apostle (or his associate)?

    For example, the “Shepherd of Hermas” was in common use early on, but the book couldn’t claim apostolic authorship, so it was not included. The Gospels of Peter and Thomas claimed apostolic authors, but doctrinally they didn’t jive with the catholic (universal) faith, so they were not included.
    Jude, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, and Revelation were contested, but eventually were included due to apostolic authorship.

    If we all profess that the Holy Spirit guided these brothers to include these books as scripture, then the issue is solved.

    Even though the Church Fathers were “not in unanimous agreement” about Revelation and some other books, they eventually made the final decisions, guided by the Holy Spirit. And we can see that the harmony between the scriptures today shows that God’s hand was on this process.

    BTW, the canon was not “decided on” at Nicea (as Dan Brown would have you believe), but rather what had been considered inspired for years prior was confirmed officially. Nicea did not make any “new” decisions in this regard. Arius and his teachings was the prime topic.

    There were differences in the ordering of the Gospels (this still exists today – some churches place the gospels in order of length, beginning with John and ending with Mark, such as the native church in India) but they were pretty well in agreement on which of the ones we still have with us.

    I believe that if there were other books that God wanted included as His inspired word to us, they would have been included during the 300’s when the canon was closed.

    Here’s another question then for y’all…does God reveal/inspire writings today that should carry the same weight as the books of the bible?

  7. Julian A. Davies

    The Edz asks, “does God reveal/inspire writings today that should carry the same weight as the books of the bible?”

    If you ask a Mormon who knows his/her stuff, you should get this answer: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God” The Articles of Faith, #8, in “The Pearl of Great Price”.

    In Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health” is elevated to a high position of authority also.

    In mainstream Protestantism I think it is the case that the canon is closed and the Bible, as it stands, is seen as containing all that is necessary for salvation (I think that post-Vatican II Catholics would agree with this statement too, although I’d prefer to hear it directly from one…). If one accepts that the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation then while some new or even newly discovered yet ancient texts might be very helpful, they would have nothing to add. So, while I think that God inspires people to do all sorts of things (and so, I guess that would include writing), I don’t think that such writings would “carry the same weight” as the books of the Bible because they can add nothing to what is known to be necessary for salvation.

  8. Brad

    In response to the Edz, I recognize that Peter may have referred to Paul’s writing as Scripture, but I do not think Peter was suggesting that Paul’s writing was inerrantly dictated by God, or anything like that. Nowhere do any of the texts articulate a definition of “inspiration”, other than to say that the inspired Scriptures are “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) and that the prophecies of Scripture originated from “men and women moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20). The doctrine of infallibility makes much stronger claims than supported by these texts.

    As for the claim that the Catholic Church’s canon has extra books, a more accurate statement would be that Protestant Bible has fewer books. Contrary to what many Protestant churches teach (note that I speak as a Protestant), the “Apocryphal” books were not “added” to the “true” Scriptures by the the “corrupted” Catholic Church. The process of canonization has been a far more complicated one one than most recognize. Toward the end of the fourth century Jerome was commissioned to prepare a Latin translation of the Scriptures for which he distinguished the Apocryphal books because they were not part of the Hebrew canon. However, many of the Eastern churches immediately contested his distinction, and many subsequent Western theologians did likewise. Furthermore, the recent Protestant biblical scholar, Albert Sundberg, observes that even the Hebrew canon was not solidified by Jesus’s time as many had suspected. Sundberg goes on to point out that Luther did not denounce the Apocryphal texts as non-canonical until he was losing a debate concerning Purgatory and, in his desperation, claimed that the supporting texts were invalid evidence. The Reformed churches soon afterward justified their dismissal of the Apocrophal books by referring to the supposed canonized Hebrew Scriptures to which Jesus and the apostles would have referred. When we can demonstrate, as Sundberg has, that the Hebrew canon was still fluid until approximately the second century, the Reformers’ argument loses merit. Therefore, the Catholic Church did not include the Apocrophal texts to justify particular Catholic beliefs; on the contrary, one could argue that the Reformed churches dismissed these texts to challenge particular Catholic beliefs they found disagreeable on other grounds.

    Either way, our conception of God should not be one that necessitates a canon that needs to be precisely delineated in order to fully understand God. The apostles did not need a New Testament canon, for they understood that the Holy Spirit would speak anew to each generation. Insistence that the Bible be the infallible Word of God easily leads to overlooking the Spirit’s ongoing inspiration to the Church. The Bible provides all the truth needed to direct us toward salvation, but to approach it as if it contains all truth is to impose on it a meaning and a purpose the various writers never seem to have intended.

  9. Brad

    There is another point that I must make: When we speak, as the Edz did, of the Holy Spirit having guided the canonization process during the fourth century, we rarely discuss the differences between the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the councils and the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the biblical writers. Were the councils guided in the same way as the writers? If so, why are the councils’ decrees not included in the canon? Furthermore, if the councils were guided by the Holy Spirit in a like manner, why do Protestants not follow all of the councils’ direction? While canonizing Scripture, the councils also made decisions on such issues as church hierarchy, baptism, church membership, etc. Conservative Protestants are especially guilty of inconsistenly selecting which orthodox doctrines to uphold.

  10. The Edz

    Hello Brad,
    sorry to take so long to respond…I am not a blogger who will be able to post regularly, but I’ll try to get here at least once a week. I enjoy the conversation…iron sharpens iron.

    Brad wrote: In response to the Edz, I recognize that Peter may have referred to Paul’s writing as Scripture, but I do not think Peter was suggesting that Paul’s writing was inerrantly dictated by God, or anything like that.

    Brad, check this out:
    2 Peter 3:15-16: Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

    Brad, I cant speak for Peter regarding his definition of infallibility, but he obviously puts Paul’s letters on equal footing with the Old Testament when he refers to Paul’s letters like the “other Scriptures”.
    As for your statements on the Apocrypha, right on.
    You are correct that the process of canonization has been a far more complicated one than most recognize. And there is the question: What happened between the books of Malachi and Matthew?
    As for the OT, many point to the Jewish Canon being established at the Jewish Council of Jamnia (c. AD 90) based on the Masoretic text. Thus they would say the Apocrypha (found in the Septuagint) of the Old Testament (1st Maccabees, etc.) should not be considered as scripture since the Jewish scholars at Jamnia didn’t consider them either. I know there is contention as to whether the Jamnia scholars should really be looked to as final authority, but it is still an instructive moment for us as Christians and regarding the authoriaty of the Apocrypha.
    You are right about St. Jerome; he himself called attention to the evident difference between the inspiration of the canonical writings and the less significant spiritual value of the Apocrypha. Further, New Testament writers may allude to the Apocrypha (e.g., Jude), but never quote from it as Holy Scripture. Although some Church Fathers (Ireneaeus, Tertullian, etc.) accepted them as scripture, some also didn’t (Origen, Jerome, Augustine’s later writings, etc.).
    Further, isn’t praying for the deceased (2 Macc. 12) in direct opposition to Luke 16:25,26 and Hebrews 9:27?
    Ultimately, I don’t think we can say so dogmatically that they should or shouldn’t be included, because it can be argued both ways. However, based on the evidence, I would still lean toward not considering them on par with scripture. Valuable history, yes. Scripture, no.

    Brad wrote: The apostles did not need a New Testament canon, for they understood that the Holy Spirit would speak anew to each generation. Insistence that the Bible be the infallible Word of God easily leads to overlooking the Spirit’s ongoing inspiration to the Church.
    Of course, I would disagree. The Spirit provides illumination of God’s written word, but not new revelation (in addition to the scripture).
    If there is no reed, no canon, no measuring stick, then I suppose you would support the Mormons and others who believe that the revelation of God’s word continues in their newer writings, on par with the OT and NT? Or Rome’s continuing revelation through the Catholic Church? And if not, then what is your basis?

    Brad wrote: “Were the councils guided in the same way as the writers? If so, why are the councils’ decrees not included in the canon? Furthermore, if the councils were guided by the Holy Spirit in a like manner, why do Protestants not follow all of the councils’ direction? While canonizing Scripture, the councils also made decisions on such issues as church hierarchy, baptism, church membership, etc. Conservative Protestants are especially guilty of inconsistenly selecting which orthodox doctrines to uphold.”
    Brad, I agree that many conservative protestants are inconsistent on those doctrines, and sadly ignorant of the origins of the canon. But to directly answer your question, the writings of the councils should not be conisdered on par with scripture based on the limus test I posted on previously: the ancient church used 3 basic rules for determining whether a book was scripture (divinely inspired):
    1. Was this particular book or letter in use among the churches?
    2. Did it contain apostolic teaching, the common sense of what the catholic (universal) church taught and believed?
    3. Was it written by an apostle (or his associate)?
    Church council decrees written hundreds of years after the apostles simply do not meet the criteria that was set forth.

    On a lighter note..I hope you all are having a blessed Christmas season thus far…am I the only one amazed at the spirtually based Christmas music being played on 101.5 the River! Awesome.

    The Edz

  11. Brad

    I like this dialogue. Others should become involved as well.

    1) Regarding the three mentioned criteria for determining a text as scriptural – did the Holy Spirit guide the councils in selecting these criteria? If so, how was that guidance different from the actual texts’ guidance? Why were the councils right about determining scripture but wrong about – well, if we look at the differences between Orthodox Christianity and Protestant Christianity – pretty much everything except the Trinity?

    2) I think, but maybe I am mistaken, that most of the councils did consider the Apocryphal texts scriptural. Can Julian or Dr. Gaillardetz comment on that? The early Reformers, over a millenium afterward, were the first cohesive movement challenging them. All prior contentions were isolated theologians, and most Bibles included the Apocyphal texts.

    3) What is the difference between inspiration and revelation? I am inclined to argue that while all the biblical texts, including the Apocryphal texts, were inspired, none of them were revealed. The Bible is not revelation; it is a record of revelation. The Exodus, the Incarnation, etc. – these were revelations, and the biblical writers recorded these events and experiences. Furthermore, as has already been mentioned, the Bible conveys all that is necessary for salvation, or redemption, or atonement. Period. The Bible was not intended by the councils to be perceived as the answer to everything. They understood that the Bible directs us toward salvation, and the Spirit directs us through life.

  12. Rick Gaillardetz

    I am impressed by the subtlety and sophistication of the many posts on this question. I thought it might be worthwhile to make a brief post from a Roman Catholic perspective. Julian is certainly correct in his claim that Roman Catholics today would agree that Scripture is a “closed canon” that reveals all that God wishes to offer us for the sake of our salvation. The function of tradition in the Catholic church (all appearances to the contrary!) is not to “add” to scripture as do the Mormons and/or Christian Scientists. Catholics believe tradition to be the dynamic unfolding of that which is testified to in scripture. So for example, when Catholics (and many Protestants, I believe ) see the Nicene Creed as a normative articulation of our faith, it is not because we believe the council of Nicea “added” to scripture but rather that it clarifed and rendered more explicit teachings that were at least implicit in scripture. On the question of the canonical status of the “apocryphal” books or what Catholics refer to as the Deutero-canonical books, I have to say that Brad’s comments reflect the latest ecumenical research on this question. The Edz’ reference to the council of Jamnia as an “instructive point” in the closing of the Jewish canon, a centerpiece in traditional Protestant apologetics, is increasingly problematic. Recent scholarship not only casts into doubt almost every decision that was in the past attributed to Jamnia but it also challenges that council’s influence on early Rabbinical Judaism. We have no documentary evidence that the “council at Jamnia” ever produced a list of canonical texts. Contemporary scholarship now suggests that the Jewish canon was not truly fixed and universally accepted as such until the end of the second century CE, at which point Christianity was well on its way to determining its own canon. Indeed, even if we accept the traditional claims for what happened at the council of Jamnia, it begs the question why this should be of significance for Christianity. We are, after all, speaking of the Christian canon. Consequently, the question that should concern us is not primarily what early Judaism thought was canonical but rather what Christians of that time period thought was canonical. Given the widespread influence of the Septuagint, there is fairly persuasive evidence that the majority of Christian churches in the early centuries accepted the development of the broader canon with Jerome holding a minority view (I question the basis for the Edz’ claim to find support for Jerome’s view in Augustine’s later writngs). Finally, prooftexting doctrinal disagreements between the deutero-canonical texts and other biblical texts on questions such as Purgatory as a way of justifying decisions to not accept the later books as canonical is, it seems to me, not particularly helpful. One could line up ample texts within the accepted canon and create the same apparent contradictions. A more comprehensive reflection on what is taught in these texts is demanded.

  13. Brad

    Dr. Gaillardetz’s comments transition well into the next point I want to make. He wrote that one can line up ample texts within the accepted canon and demonstrate the same apparent contradictions as there are between Apocryphal texts and other biblical texts. For example: the Edz has raised concern about the passage from 2 Maccabees that mentions praying for the dead, which seems to oppose particular passages in Luke and Hebrews. Well, I am glad this was his example, because he sets another one up very easily. Consider 1 Corinthians 15:29: “Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” Not only are people praying for the dead, they are being baptized for the dead!?!? As Dr. Gaillardetz concluded, “A more comprehensive reflection on what is taught in these texts is demanded.” There are apparent contradictions within the Bible and probably also blatant contradictions. The Bible is a collection of texts that reveal not God’s dictation but rather the ongoing questioning, contemplating, and struggling with the big questions that the ancient Jews and early followers of Jesus experienced. God’s inspiration was present through all of this, yet there were sometimes different answers. We learn from the ongoing discussion in the Bible that the answers aren’t always fixed, that God is in the questions, and that the Spirit guides each generation to answer those questions in such ways as needed by God’s people at that time.

  14. Brad

    I want to raise a question in light of the fact that the Hebrew Bible was not closed until at least 90 CE – probably later, as Dr. Gaillardetz pointed out. Consider the passage from 2 Peter cited by the Edz. Peter refers to “the Scriptures”. He does not refer to the Law, or the Torah. (Or does he? Will someone who knows Greek comment?) Throughout the epistles and letters, the most common references are to the Law. Might this indicate that first-century Jews distinguished Scriptures from the Law? Especially given the points made above about the Hebrew canon, this seems possible. What seems certain is that we often read our own understanding of Scripture into the biblical texts. So, to be more straightforward: 1) The Hebrew Bible was not determined until well after the apostles had died. 2) Thus, when Peter refers to “Scriptures”, he is referring to an open collection of texts not equated with he Law. 3) Thus, we should not impose a modern conception of revelation or infallibility onto the texts. I do not think I articulated this as clearly as I wanted, but I hope you all understand nonetheless.

  15. Julian A. Davies

    [Posted for the Edz who was having trouble with getting into the blog today….]

    Sorry it has been so long since I visited this site…I’ll try to get here more often…but probably wont!

    Whew, a lot of discussion going on since my last post. I’ll try to catch up!

    Brad asked “did the Holy Spirit guide the councils in selecting these criteria? If so, how was that guidance different from the actual texts’ guidance? Why were the councils right about determining scripture but wrong about…everything except the Trinity?”

    Good question Brad. Perhaps you want to dive into which specific councils you are talking about, and what items are in disagreement. Because, as I can tell you already know, the canon of scripture isn’t a result of one council that made a proclamation that all agree on, and then the council battled over other issues that we don’t agree on. The New Testament was not the product of one official assembly or even of the studies of a few theologians and scholars. It reflects and expresses the self-understanding of the whole Christian movement … united over time in accepting these 27 diverse documents as expressing the meaning of God’s revelation.

    You said most Bibles included the Apocyphal texts before the reformers. Jerome wrote in his preface to the books of Solomon: “As the Church reads the books of Judith and Tobit and Maccabees but does not receive them among the canonical Scriptures, so also it reads Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus for the edification of the people, not for the authoritative confirmation of doctrine.”

    I have also read that many of the Greek fathers included some apocryphal books in the Septuagint with little distinction made between them and the rest of the Old Testament. Origen, Clement and others cited some apocryphal books as “scripture”, “divine scripture”, “inspired”, and the like. On the other hand, teachers connected with Palestine and familiar with the Hebrew canon excluded from the canon all of the Old Testament not found there. So it appears to have been a “regional thing” early on (long before the Reformation).

    Also Brad, I agree with your comments on inspiration and revelation, and their differences!

    Rick wrote “when Catholics (and many Protestants, I believe ) see the Nicene Creed as a normative articulation of our faith, it is not because we believe the council of Nicea “added” to scripture but rather that it clarifed and rendered more explicit teachings that were at least implicit in scripture.” I agree that the Nicene (and apostle’s creed) are good ecumenical summaries, even though the version used in the west is a later edit (around 381) of the Nicene creed, and the apostles creed is a summary of their teaching, not penned by them.

    Rick wrote: The Edz’ reference to the council of Jamnia as an “instructive point” in the closing of the Jewish canon, a centerpiece in traditional Protestant apologetics, is increasingly problematic. Recent scholarship not only casts into doubt almost every decision that was in the past attributed to Jamnia but it also challenges that council’s influence on early Rabbinical Judaism. Yes, I agree Rick, and thus I acknowledged this as controversial in my previous post. However, this may all relate again to that “regional thing” above….that teachers and fathers in the Palestine area tended to exclude the apocrypha early on more than the Greek fathers.

    Rick also wrote: the question that should concern us is not primarily what early Judaism thought was canonical but rather what Christians of that time period thought was canonical. Rick, that is a great point. And yet, it is instructive to see what early Judaism thought of this, since we came from the same cloth. What the early Christians thought is definitely important, but with the Gnostic influences on early Christianity abounding, we have to consider the whole palette.

    You questioned my basis for support for Jerome’s view in Augustine’s later writngs…I’ll have to look that up and get back to you…dont have that handy.

    Rick also wrote: “prooftexting doctrinal disagreements between the deutero-canonical texts and other biblical texts on questions such as Purgatory as a way of justifying decisions to not accept the later books as canonical is, it seems to me, not particularly helpful. One could line up ample texts within the accepted canon and create the same apparent contradictions. A more comprehensive reflection on what is taught in these texts is demanded.”

    Rick, if you want to get into these “same apparent contradictions”, please go ahead and provide some examples. Such as Brad’s…

    Brad wrote: Consider 1 Corinthians 15:29: “Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” Not only are people praying for the dead, they are being baptized for the dead!?!?

    Brad, do you really want to get into this verse? We both know the Mormons rest heavily on this to support their practices. As a protestant, I don’t view it as the mormons do. I assume you view it the same as me, as a reaction to pagan practices north of Corinth, and in relation to Paul’s previous verses on resurrection. Hence this is not a contradiction of scripture, but requires more research into the historicity of the verse than the plain reading.

    You also wrote: “There are apparent contradictions within the Bible and probably also blatant contradictions.” Since you continue to return to this idea, throw out some examples for us to discuss.

    Brad, Rick, Julian, and all my brothers and sisters in Christ…have a blessed Christmas celebration this weekend!

    Edz

  16. Brad

    The history concerning us herein begins shortly after Jesus’s ascension. During the following ninety (?) years or so many texts that eventually became compiled as the Christian scriptures were written. The texts themselves reveal no intention to be included within a canon, nor do they claim to be revealed or infallible. Many of them refer to the Hebrew scriptures. One of them indirectly refers to the apostle Paul’s writings as comparible to the Hebrew scriptures. However, the canon of Hebrew scriptures was not yet determined. Thus, what Peter understood as scripture when he referred to Paul’s writings requires a more in-depth investigation. Moreover, using one fallible person’s writing to determine the status of another’s does not seem like very careful reasoning to me.
    Our story continues a couple hudred years later. The Jesus movement had increased dramatically and soon the emporer would convert to Christianity and establish the Christian Church. (Also important to note is the fact that while the Jesus movement had begun among Jews, the Church became almost entirely Gentile.) During the fourth and fifth centuries many councils were held, bringing together Church leaders to determine the structure and beliefs of the Church. These councils were not without biases; they were fallible. Notwithstanding this fact, to the best of their knowledge and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they determined the significant doctrines of Christianity and established many canons. The canons they established were those of the saints, of the icons, of the scriptures, etc. While agreement concerning the scriptures was widely held, there was some disagreement between leaders and councils. Yet, most Bibles printed during the next millenium were similar. They happened to include some or all of what Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha.
    During the eleventh century, the first major split in the Church ocurred when Rome was divided from the Eastern churches, resulting in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. About five hundred later, a priest named Martin Luther decided to initiate another split, reacting to corruption within the Roman church. Among other counter-theologies propagated by Luther, he challenged the comprisal of the Bible. He and his followers argued that, because the Jewish councils did not deem the Apocryphal texts scripture, the Church was wrong to have included them. From the Protestant perspective, the Church had added those texts, yet from the Roman perspective, the Reformers took them away.
    About four hundred years later, near the turn of the twentieth century, American Evangelicals took the original Reformed positions concerning the Bible to a new extreme. In response to what they considered to be the threat of modernism, they responded in an ironically modernistic way by developing the doctrine of biblical infallibility. Also known as Biblical literalism, this idea imposes meanings far removed from the original context of the scriptures into their readings. It ignores the fact that neither the texts nor the councils claimed an infallible status, yet renders the texts that status regardless. The Bible is, for biblical literalists, the revealed word of God; the biblical texts contain the perfect truth about God. Biblical literalists attempt to justify this extra-biblical doctrine by referring to the early Church councils. But the councils were also fallible and, notwithstanding, they were not even unanimous. Additionally, as overviewed already, the councils approved some of the texts the literalists deny. Furthermore, as mentioned in previous posts, the councils established other doctrines. Even more emphatic than the canon of scriptures, the councils established a particular Church hierarchy. Yet, the literalists do not affirm that aspect of Orthodoxy. The councils also established canons of icons and canons of saints; again, the literalists dismiss those.
    Obviously, the doctrine of infallibility has little merit, and biblical literalists are left without a valid argument. The doctrine of infallibility is a modern (perhaps even modernistic) fallacy. Divorcing ourselves from biblical literalism, we can approach the Bible from a more profound perspective, and really take it seriously. We can examine the evolving understanding of God over the several hundred years (or more?) during which the texts were written. We can leave aside concerns about whether or not certain texts (like the one about prayer for the dead) are “true” and instead ask ourselves: How did God’s people understand God during this time? How is that similar or different to how we understand God now? How has the Holy Spirit influenced God’s people differently throughout the ages, responding to the different needs that present themselves? We can take comfort knowing that even when the Spirit’s answers are different, the Spirit’s presence and guidance remain constant.

  17. Brad

    Reference

    Two scholarly works representing the most comprehensive ecumenical biblical scholarship are:

    Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism
    by James Barr

    Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology
    by William J. Abraham

    More readable treatments of the subject are:

    Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
    by Marcus Borg

    Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?
    by William Countryman

    An excellent, concise overview of recent scholarship concerning Paul is:

    Reinventing Paul
    by John G. Gager

  18. Brad

    I should mention again that this is an excellent discussion, and I appreciate the Edz posts, as well as his an others’ committment to pursuing the truth. My criticism of certain positions should not be interpreted to mean that I do not respect those holding those positions, and I apologize if ever I come across condescending. Recognizing my own fallibility, I remain open to criticism and stand by anyone seeking truth and will seek truth with him.

  19. The Edz

    Alright, finally back…been quite a while…sorry.
    Brad, thanks for your responses, and kind words. I also appreciate your posts, and as you said, I have tremendous respect for anybody seeking truth (even if their conclusion differs with mine).

    Speaking of differing conclusions (LOL), let’s take a look at your comments:

    Brad wrote: “The texts themselves reveal no intention to be included within a canon, nor do they claim to be revealed or infallible.”
    I agree no specific canon was foreseen by the writers. They probably never expected a reason for a canon anyway, since they probably expected the return of Jesus to be in their lifetime, so why bother with a “canon” for later generations of Christians to use? That still does not negate the truthfulness that they believed they were using in their writings, and how infallibly they wrote. Look at Luke’s words at the beginning of his Gospel…the truth of what he wrote about was extremely important to him, even if not necessarily God-inspired. Yet what he learned from Paul was considered “from the Lord”.
    They do tend to know they are revealing God’s word at many times (even though they themselves were fallible men like you and I). We already discussed Peter’s mention of Paul’s “scriptures”. But also take note of Paul saying that his words were from the Lord, or from Paul (see 1 Cor 7:10 and 7:25).
    Most of all, how could they think they were not writing infallibly? If they thought they were writing fallible words, then they were being deceitful.

    Brad wrote: “the canon of Hebrew scriptures was not yet determined.” As I mentioned in the previous post, it may have been a “regional thing”, but still, the synagogues and temples had a set idea of what was scripture, what was canon. They just were not always completely in agreement with each other (like the early Christian groups).
    Ultimately, they probably used writings in the synagogues and temples that were in the languages of the people of that region. And the writings closer to the Jewish language probably omitted the apocrypha (due to Jamnia’s council?). And the Greek speaking Jews probably used the Septuagint. So I think they did have “canons” that were dependent on their regions.

    Brad wrote: “From the Protestant perspective, the Church had added those texts, yet from the Roman perspective, the Reformers took them away.”
    But again, what of early church fathers who also questioned the Apocrypha’s inclusion, especially Jerome? (who was no protestant 😉 I don’t think the reformation Protestants were the first to question the Apocrypha’s inclusion in the OT canon, as you propose.
    Probably the Jews understood them to be the texts of a specific period, from the time of the return from the Exile to the time of the Roman occupation.
    Question: were these the only historic documents existing for that period of their history (Maccabeans, etc.)?

    Here’s another question to ponder: Did the early Orthodox or early Catholic Churches really consider these apocryphal texts to be on equal footing with the Old Testament or the New Testament? Curious how it was viewed after their official split.

    Brad wrote: “Near the turn of the twentieth century, American Evangelicals took the original Reformed positions concerning the Bible to a new extreme.”
    Was this the original Reformed positions taken to a new extreme, or the same extreme as early Christianity? I know fundamentalism is considered a recent event by more moderate and liberal elements. But weren’t the original Christians also literally following the scriptures, as the Jews did before them with the OT? Yes, the Early Church fought over how to interpret texts, but it was still mostly over how to “literally” interpret them, don’t you think? Is that really an “extreme” position to take?

    Brad wrote: “In response to what they considered to be the threat of modernism, they responded in an ironically modernistic way by developing the doctrine of biblical infallibility.”
    Again, was that really the first time the idea of the scriptures being infallible came to prominence? Not developed until the “turn of the 20th century”?

    Brad wrote: “We can take comfort knowing that even when the Spirit’s answers are different, the Spirit’s presence and guidance remain constant.”
    Brad, this whole evolving revelation idea you agree with seems to undermine God’s absolute truth, don’t you think? It buttresses Mormonism, Mary Baker Eddy, even Islam, who claim that their later development shows that God has now revealed the latest truths to them. How can the “Spirit’s answers be different” as you put it, and there still be such thing as truth?

    Brad, since you seem to view the evangelical Protestants as ignorant and fundamentalist, and the Orthodox and Catholic faiths as reasonable, ponder this thought:
    Isn’t it true that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches believe they each follow an “infallible” authoritative tradition that is above (or equal) with scripture (and of course above each other’s tradition)? If they don’t view the scripture as infallible, they certainly do view their tradition that way, don’t you think.
    Even their names define their positions each took in opposition to the other:
    Orthodox = correct thought
    Catholic = universal.
    So one states their thinking and positions are the correct ones, while the other claims that their positions are the ones of the True universal Church. And I won’t wander into the papal infallibility issue, since I think much has changed since Vatican II.
    But here’s my point: Does this claim of infallibility of tradition bother you at all the way Evangelicals claim infallibility in the scriptures? Why or why not?

    How is that better than the evangelical view? I would rather stick with God’s word first, and then look at tradition if there is a contradiction (or confusion on meaning). Even Jesus frequently quotes the OT scripture as his authority on matters (e.g., Matthew 4:4-10)
    Also, Matt 21:13 (quoting Isaiah 56:7 & Jer. 7:11). And Mark 9:12.
    I could go on, but I suspect you are familiar with all of Jesus’ OT references and quotes.

    If Jesus is constantly quoting scripture for his source of truth, then shouldn’t we also today? Especially rather than tradition (consider Mark 7:13: “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”).

    I think when all the facts are laid on the table, looking to the original 66 books of the OT and NT as infallible is the best way to ascertain the truth about who God is. The apocrypha and additional tradition is helpful, but not necessary. I like the idea of trying to get back as close as possible to the early church, as found in Acts, and starting there, before the layers of tradition quickly got heaped onto the history of the church.

    I hope this post does not sound anti-Orthodox or anti-Catholic, because it is not meant to. I hope that the liberal protestant view of evangelicals keeps in mind that evangelical zeal about the scriptures is not much different than the Orthodox and Catholic zeal for their traditions. In fact, I often have much more respect for the Orthodox and Catholic positions and doctrines than my own liberal protestant brethren, who don’t seem to even be comfortable with foundational teachings like the trinity, virgin birth, resurrection, or even the deity of Christ!

    Ok, enough for today. May the peace of Christ be on you, Brad.

    Happy MLK day!
    The Edz

  20. Brad

    The Edz wrote: “Brad, this whole evolving revelation idea you agree with seems to undermine God’s absolute truth, don’t you think? It buttresses Mormonism, Mary Baker Eddy, even Islam, who claim that their later development shows that God has now revealed the latest truths to them. How can the “Spirit’s answers be different” as you put it, and there still be such thing as truth? “

    First of all, I do not think I would use the term, “evolving revelation”. My argument is that our understanding of God evolves, and that the Spirit inspires each generation as they need inspiration. I do not equate inspiration with revelation. Allow me to use a movie to explain my point. In The Matrix, the Oracle tells Neo he is not the One. Later, he figures out that he is and is consequently confused. Morpheus explains that the Oracle told him exactly what he needed to hear. Perhaps the Spirit’s influence works something like that. The Spirit inspires us as we need it. Our needs are different from those of Christians in the past and in the future. The Christian life is challenged much differently for affluent Americans than it was for persecuted Jews under the Roman Empire.

    Absolute truth is a concept emerging from Modernism. Modernistic thought believed science could establish the absolute truth. Then, Fundamentalists appropriated the idea of absolute truth but claimed the Bible established it. Across disciplines, most scholars recognize as valid the post-Modern critiques of absolutism, whether scientific or biblical. Yet, accepting such critiques does not support relativism, as many Evangelicals claim. Truth need not be either absolute or relative. See Nancy Murphy’s Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism.

    My position in no way buttresses Mormonism or Islam. Those religions believe they have inerrant revelations, and I am as critical as them as I am of Christian Fundamentalism. I don’t believe there has ever been an inerrant revelation in the form of words. God’s revelations were the Exodus and the Incarnation.

    A thorough study of the early Church demonstrates without a doubt that Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura and the Fundamentalist doctrine of biblical inerrancy are new doctrines. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Church established other canons, not just canons of scriptures. There were canons of saints and of icons, among others. The early Church understood that the Spirit would continue speaking through the Church. Ecclesiatic structures were put in place to discern the Spirit’s guidance. Tradition is understood as the Spirit’s guidance. To understand Christianity with only the Bible and without its Tradition is like trying to comprehend a book by reading only its first chapter. The early
    Church did not perceive the scriptures as God’s final inspiration, nor do the Christian scriptures indicate that they are such. The Christian scriptures, rather, point toward the Spirit’s guidance and do not claim inerrancy.

    Before writing much more commentary about infallibility and inerrancy, I am going to research the definitions of those terms. I definitely challenge the concept of inerrancy, but I may be okay with infallibility.

    For now, I will answer the question posed to me by the Edz: “Does this claim [from the Roman and Orthodox Churches] of infallibility of tradition bother you at all the way Evangelicals claim infallibility in the scriptures? Why or why not?”

    No. It doesn’t bother me the same way. Both the Roman and the Orthodox Churches understand Christian tradition as evolving. The Spirit continues to inspire. The Roman Church uderstands the Scripture as instructing Christians concerning all that is necessary for salvation. Beyond issues of salvation, we must look to the Spirit’s ongoing inspiration, expressed through Christian tradition.

  21. Brad

    One more note: I do not see Evangelicals as ignorant. Rather, I see particular tenets of Evangelicalism as wrong, just as I see particular tenets of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism as wrong.

  22. Brad

    I want to retract some of my comments about absloute truth and modernism; I don’t think I was quite right there. My position, revised, is that fundamentalists and often evangelicals over-estimate what constitutes as absolute truth. God exists, God is love, God became incarnate in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in the world – these are the basic tenets we might identify as absolute truth. But to say that the Epistles convey absolute, or universal, truth is to misread them. Paul does not indicate that his various instructions to churches and people are to be used to dictate Christian praxis across the ages. His letters were directions addressing specific situations. The Spirit has influenced others just as it influenced him. The truth we need now is the truth we will discern from the Spirit.

  23. The Edz

    Whew, been gone a long time…was involved with a regional worship arts conference this past weekend, so that took up all my lunches for this type of thing for the past month. But back now. I want to jump back a few posts first. I like what Brad had to say about absolute truth, but before diving in there I want to finish the thoughts previous to that.

    Brad, good question: What is the difference between Inerrancy and Infallibility? An age-old question, isn’t it?
    Here’s how I understand the definitions as they relate to this topic:

    Inerrancy = exempt from error
    Infallible = “incapable of error” OR “will not fail to achieve the goals and purposes which God intended for it.”

    So it seems to me that the more literal view that not one word is wrong in the bible texts we have today would relate to inerrancy, where infallible seems to relate to the original documents being correct, but possibly corrupted a bit today (though not enough to change doctrines and important teachings…thus God’s “goals and purposes” are still achieved). Anyway, that’s my take…would like to hear other folks views.

    Now, this comment that the main purpose of the Scriptures are to make man wise unto salvation, and therefore, the scriptures are errant, and should not be made to harmonize with science and history, is not a new view.
    I have many good friends who hold this view, and I appreciate their efforts to follow it. I think many people (not all) ultimately say this in response to attacks on scientific and historical portions of the Bible. With this struggle, it is easier and more comfortable for many Christians to say that only the “spiritual” parts of the bible are inspired. This then allows the scientific and historical parts to not have to be defended in order to keep the inspiration of Scripture true. And they don’t feel like they have to be looked upon as some uneducated fundamentalist.

    But here’s my question: If the Bible is shown to be false in those areas that can be checked on (some history and some science), then why should the bible be believed in the areas that cannot be checked on (the spiritual parts)? Seriously, this is a very fundamental question on this topic. How do you justify that separation?

    Can theology and history in Scripture really meaningfully be separated? History is often revelatory (e.g., the Exodus, the crucifixion of Christ, etc.). But if the authors can’t be trusted to give accurate information about secular areas, why should they be trusted in “spiritual” areas? Not sure that even Jesus made any distinction between the historical and revelatory parts of the Old Testament in His quotations of it. I have read that Jesus quotes from Gen. 1-11 over 80 times. I doubt any of his references to the OT say that the OT’s main purpose is to make man wise unto salvation. That is definitely part of the purpose, but is it really the only purpose? Luke seemed to make a big deal about using accurate history to prove his version of the story.

    I do believe the intent of the scriptures is not to be a scientific or historical textbook. But I believe it is also truthful in all areas that it affirms. Granted, there are some obvious historical and scientific challenges in the Bible. We’re not going to solve those issues here, but I do want to generally point out that the “errors” could be due to a current lack of data which, when discovered, will answer the “problem”. Of course, faith is therefore required at this point.

    Brad, you make a summary of church history that is not a new idea….namely that a view of the bible as inerrant or infallible is a recent development, and was never intended to be the means of viewing the bible until the last 100 years. You claim the total inerrancy view was the formulation of rationalistic Western thinking of late 19th century Fundamentalist theologians and therefore should not be equated with orthodoxy.

    The view held by various periods of church history is of interest. So let’s look at Augustine. Do you think he believed the Bible was completely infallible or inerrant? I am no Augustinian scholar, but here’s a statement by Augustine: “It seems to me that the most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the Sacred Book. If you once admit into such a high sanctuary [or authority] one false statement there will not be left a single statement of these books.” Hmm..I don’t think Augustine was a fundamentalist from the 19th or 20th century. How about this one:”The authority of the Divine Scriptures becomes unsettled if it once be admitted that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us could, in their writings, state some things which were not true.”
    And another: “I have learned to yield with respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture. Of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.”
    In light of those statements from Augustine, how can you say that he didn’t believe in the inerrancy or infallibility of the entire Bible?
    Now, we could probably go back and forth with historical quotes like this.
    My overall point is just to say that I don’t entirely agree with your recasting of earlier church history as never having the faith in the scriptures’ inerrancy the way modern (and many postmodern) evangelicals do.

  24. Brad

    I am really busy with school, so I have not had time to respond, nor do I have much time now.

    The Edz asked, “If the Bible is shown to be false in those areas that can be checked on (some history and some science), then why should the Bible be believed in the areas that cannot be checked on (the spiritual parts)?”

    I ask, why not?

    Writers from the biblical eras did not have the technological and social resources to investigate the details of the historical claims they made, nor did they have the scientific method and instrumens to investigate the natural world, as we have. We are unfair to hold them to the same standards we hold modern researchers.

    2 Timothy 3.16-17 reads, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

    Scripture prepares us for good works. It is not a history or science text. Mistaken historical and scientific claims throughout the Bible are incidental. Concerning the Bible, Charles Augustus Briggs wrote, ” It does not follow, however, that circumstantial, incidental errors, such as might arise from the inadvertance or lack of information of an author, are any impeachment to his credibility.”

    The Edz makes a valid of my account of the Bible throughout Church history. I therefore briefly revise it: There has not been a singular, dominant position, conservative or liberal, concerning the Bible maintained throughout Church history. The Edz cited Augustine, whose position differs quite significantly from that of Origen, who came before him.

    Furthermore, to bring this back to several posts prior to this one, I am arguing that Augustine’s, as cited by The Edz, and the positions of modern fundamentalists’ and Evangelicals’ is not biblical. In other words, their statements regarding the Bible do not actually find support in the Bible – at least, as the Bible is objectively and thoroughly interpreted.

    A biblical statement regarding the Bible might read something like this: The biblical texts were written over several centuries by men guided by God’s inspiration and are valuable resources for spiritual formation and for understanding the ways God has directed God’s people.

Thanks for visiting!