I just got a sample of a booklet entitled, “About Being Baptist” in the mail. I read the book and thought, “Wow, I’m a pretty awful baptist.” Or, as my friend and mentor Frank would say, “You’re NYTB (Not Your Typical Baptist).” I pretty much knew that already (when you have friends who are Catholic and Orthodox wondering why you’re still Protestant it’s hard to miss), but when you get a booklet entitled “About Being Baptist” in the mail and agree, really, with only one or two (I’m still undecided on one) of the major points of the book it’s time for some reflection.
The first point that I struggle with is one to which just about every Evangelical will nod their head vigoursly, “The Bible is the sole authority of faith and practice.” Now, please understand – I have no problem saying that the Bible is authoritative or normative. My struggle is with the modifier “sole” in front of it. Let me explain a bit. To make things a bit simpler let me just talk about the New Testament, as the Old Testament really has a different set of criteria for canonicity than the New – and one which I’m not as qualified to talk about (though maybe my good friend Jim would like to talk about his blog):
- The New Testament (NT) is a derived authority. This makes sense, given that in Matthew 28 Jesus himself says that all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to him. If the Bible is the “sole” authority, we take Jesus out of the loop! It also makes sense that the NT is a derived authority given that the Church actually pre-dates the Canon of the NT. The gospels were not written until decades after Jesus’ death, and the epistles are written to established Churches. Where was the authority before the NT came into being (literally centuries later to get to the form we have it in)? The argument that the Bible could be the “sole” authority can one be made after the process of canonization is completed – and even today you have to ask, “Which canon?” The Ethiopian canon has 90 some odd books in it! Compared to the Protestant 66.
- The Bible is never read “alone.” Even when we shut ourselves in our closets (figuatively speaking) we take with us the web or relationships that has helped form our understanding of Scripture. Parents, friends, pastors (past and present), teachers, and even the team that translated the version we are reading all are present with us when we read the Bible (this is true for both OT and NT) For the Bible to be the “sole” authority, there shouldn’t need to be so much interpretation going on when we read it (and interpretation is going one whether we know it or not).
- It’s important to remember that the Bible in general, and the NT in particular, is the “Church’s Book.” The NT is the end result of a long struggle within the Church to recognize this normative compiliation of the Apostolic Tradition (a tradition which, as I alluded to earlier, actually pre-dates the NT itself). Reading the NT (and, really, the OT as well) apart from the fellowship of the saints actually undermines the nature of it’s own contents. Jesus’ call was always to a shared life of discipleship, and the letters of Paul, Peter, and John (1 John in Paticular) highlight this call to oneness (this is why Paul was so frustrated with the Corinthian factions and the circumcised Galatians, for example – they screwed this up). Anytime we read Scripture without both Jesus and the Church (which is, “the Body of Christ”) in our scope of vision then we miss the very heartbeat of the Bible. This is a real pitfall for both academics and laity alike – and springs from a toxic outworking of the Bible being the “sole” authority. The Church loses it’s place in the interpretive process of the very book it compiled to be the normative repository of it’s Tradition. I struggle with this because we need to remember that the Church itself has an authority that is derived from the Lord of Heaven and Earth (given to us in his Great Commission).
- I’ve never seen this actually put into practice. In fact, as far as I can tell the very people who shout the most about the Bible being the sole authority of faith and practice are just as likely to have traditional beliefs that aren’t found in Scripture as those who think the Bible is a nice (if somewhat embarrassing) book. Views on alcohol, dancing, and the presence of instruments in worship are simply a few of example of places where the “sole” authority of the Bible is trumped to uplift community appearances. I have come to understand that if you want to see what people really believe, then you watch what they do not what they say – and I’ve not see this teaching work out in the way people act and teach.
- Even worse, when applied poorly (as it so often is) this understanding of Scripture holds to the untenable position that the Bible in General (and the NT in particular) simply dropped out of the sky direct from hte hands of the Lord. In an era where popular non-fiction books about “Lost Christianities” and conspiracy novels like “The DaVinci Code” are hitting the New York Times bestseller lists it’ not a position the Church can afford to take. If we’re not aware of the Church’s role in the formation of the NT canon, and that the are books out there (even some Gospels) that didn’t make the cut, then we’re going to find ourselves defenseless against people who suddenly have a set of facts that we can’t even comprehend. This is a dangerous position for the Church to be in – and I’m frankly tired of reading (or listening to) yet another former Christian who, when their theology of the Bible collapsed through the realization of extra-biblical material, decided that the whole faith was bunk and jumped ship to unbelief.
So how do I think we should use Scripture as Christians? Well let me describe this with a story. One of the best Children’s sermons I ever saw was at a Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, PA. Now, personally, I can’t stand children’s sermons so when such a sermon is positively etched in my psyche it’s a remarkable event – but in it this one sermon pastor read several snippets from the childhood of Jesus. Several were from the canonical gospels, the the others were from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The pastor brilliantly led the children on a path of learning that let these children that the NT was not always as we have it today, and she was able to deftly demonstrate why these other stories were not in. In so doing she upheld the nature of the Bible’s derived authority, showed the children that the Church had a role to play in the formation formation of the canon, and showed the children why it was important to read the Bible with the communion of the saints. As I said, it was brilliantly done – and a much-needed lesson!
What do I believe about Scripture? If I have trouble seeing it as the “sole” authority, can it have any authority for me or for the Church? Yer darn tootin it can! As I alluded to above, the NT (let me speak just of the NT at the moment) is the normative compilation of Apostolic Teaching, which is to be used in the Church’s worship, and teaching so we might be formed into the image of the one who has all authority in Heaven and on Earth. It is absolutely essential for Christians to know both the content and context of the entire Bible, as well as being aware of the Church’s role in the formation of our specifically Christian Scripture – the NT. Without such deliberate efforts, it will be difficult (not impossible) for the Scripture to point us towards the one from whom it’s own authority derives.