Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Bible and Me Part IV - Scripture vs Tradition

[I've struggled for a long time with my relationship with the Bible. It has been a rich source of insight and spiritual nourishment to me, but also at times, a source of deep doubt and confusion. My intention in this series is to share a little of how that relationship has developed over time. If you're a Christian and you're trying to work out your own approach to the Bible then it won't give you all the answers, but it may give you some questions and insights that could help you along the way. If you're not a believer, but you're interested in the Christian faith - or in Christians in particular - then it may give you a little insight into how some of us tick!]

[The Bible and Me Part I - Beginning to Question]
[The Bible and Me Part II - Creation]
[The Bible and Me Part III - Inerrancy]

As I've discussed in my previous posts in this series, evangelical Christians tend to have a very high view of scripture, often including the idea that it is inerrant - i.e. free from even the tiniest mistake or untruth. This perspective was quite a big part of my evangelical upbringing, but it wasn't until some time later that I started to wonder where this belief had come from. The Bible doesn't make this claim about itself, and in any case it wouldn't be able to because - as I pointed out in my previous post - the Bible isn't a single book; it's a library of many different books, the full list of which wasn't agreed until a long time after they were written. The authors of most of them were not even aware that all of the others existed! So if the Bible doesn't teach inerrancy, then where does this belief come from? To answer that question, we need to go back about 500 years to the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Here is a very brief overview of those events:

At that time there was basically only one church - The Roman Catholic Church - in Western Europe, but it had become apparent to many of its members that in many ways it had become very corrupt. The reformers wanted to challenge this and to change the church from within, but the church basically decided that it didn't want to be de-corrupted, thankyou very much, so it kicked them all out. And so, the Protestant church was born! This took different forms in different parts of Europe and produced - among others - Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists and - for fairly strange and dubious personal/political reasons - the Church of England in the UK. Over the centuries, many more denominations have spun off from these original roots, including all of those that we would now generally bracket under the term "evangelical" (for a pretty good definition of the word "evangelical", see here).

Prior to the Reformation, authority/legitimacy in the church had basically derived from 3 sources: the Bible, church tradition (i.e. the accumulated wisdom/teachings of the church) and the church hierarchy, in particular the Pope, who the church believed was the spiritual successor to the apostle Peter (Peter was the first leading elder in the early church, who had been effectively entrusted with this responsibility by Jesus himself). But since the reformers had now been cut off from "the church", this left them with a bit of a problem: they could no longer appeal to the church hierarchy (which they didn't trust anyway), and some of the church's teachings seemed to have diverged a long way from, and in places to be very much at odds with, what the Bible taught. At least partly (and perhaps mostly) in reaction to this, the reformers developed the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura", which states that the Bible alone is the supreme authority in all matters of Christian doctrine and practice. This became one of the founding principles of the early reformation movement, from which all forms of evangelical Christianity are ultimately derived.

Sola Scriptura does not automatically imply inerrancy - the doctrine of inerrancy was developed and formalised at a much later date - but it's easy to see the appeal - perhaps even the necessity - of inerrancy, once the Bible has been elevated to such a lofty place. There are a couple of problems with this though:

Firstly - as I mentioned at the beginning of this post - the doctrine of inerrancy is itself extra-Biblical, and so fails the Sola Scriptura test! There are certainly passages in the Bible that refer to "scripture" (meaning The Old Testament or parts thereof, as the New Testament was not compiled until much later) in glowing terms, but no claims anywhere within the Bible itself that it or any of its constituent parts are completely error free.

Secondly though, and perhaps even more importantly, Sola Scriptura fails its own test! It is itself a doctrine about how the Bible should be used, which originates in church tradition (albeit Protestant, rather than Catholic), and is not found anywhere in the Bible!

To add to this, there is the problem of the Biblical canon - i.e. the accepted list of books that make up the Christian Bible. Based on my somewhat limited knowledge, there seem to me to have been some very sensible rational and historical reasons why some books have ended up being included and others excluded, but the fact remains that the canon has been chosen by the church! So the Biblical canon, which Protestants - and particularly evangelicals - seek to elevate above church tradition, is itself a product of that tradition! If you want to go a step further, it wouldn't be unreasonable to make the point that the entire contents of the Bible are themselves a part of Christian and Jewish tradition, to which those traditions have decided to assign a special significance! To further compound matters, there are 66 books in the Protestant Bible, 73 in the Catholic Bible, 76 in the Eastern Orthodox Bible, and 81 in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible - so all of those traditions have come to their own conclusions about which books "the Bible" ought to consist of! Martin Luther - who is widely acknowledged to have started the Protestant Reformation, and who was one of the leading proponents of Sola Scriptura - wanted to drop the book of Revelation from the list (but was unsuccessful in doing so) because he didn't believe it was inspired by God!

So if the doctrines of Sola Scriptura and Biblical inerrancy, and even - at least to an extent - the Bible itself, are no more than a product of historical circumstance and (varying) church tradition, where does all that leave us in our attitude towards the Bible? What principles should we apply when deciding how to use it and how much weight to give to it?

Well, first and foremost, Christians are followers of Christ. If we can't take Jesus' teaching seriously and at least try to do what he says, then we cannot in all honesty carry that label. The best approximation we have of his teaching is in the 4 gospel books which are contained in the New Testament. The rest of the New Testament consists mostly of the deeds and letters of his early followers as they both lived out Jesus' teaching, and further developed it in the light of his death and resurrection, under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit. Without them - and obviously without Jesus - there would be no Christian faith and no church, and their accomplishments - if we choose to take them seriously - are a powerful testimony to the Spirit of God at work in their lives. With all this in mind we cannot help but hold in very high regard the writings that they have left behind.

Secondly - as I mentioned in my previous post - both Jesus himself and his early followers held the Old Testament in extremely high regard, and interpreted Jesus' life and mission in the context of the over-arching story that it contains. In which case - as Jesus' followers - we are also compelled to do the same.

Thirdly, we could take some advice from one of the passages in the Bible that is often quoted in support of the doctrine of inerrancy. This is found in the New Testament book of 2 Timothy, which is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the early church leader of that name:

"... from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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." - 2 Timothy 3:15-17

This is undoubtedly very good advice! Just in case we should be tempted to read too much into it though, there are a few things we should take note of: First of all, Paul says that scripture is "God-breathed", but he doesn't clarify what he means by this. He doesn't say it is God-dictated, and he doesn't say it is error free, but certainly we should expect to find and encounter God through its pages. Secondly, he is not trying to make a definitive doctrinal statement here; he is giving Timothy some practical advice about the importance and usefulness of scripture in his day to day life and ministry. Thirdly, when Paul says "All Scripture", he is referring to the Jewish scriptures which Christians now refer to as The Old Testament (since the New Testament didn't exist at this point), although given the comments I've already made about the New Testament it doesn't seem unreasonable to extend the principle. Fourthly, the Old Testament Paul is referring to is probably not quite the same one we have today. Paul and Timothy were from outside of Israel and would probably have been most familiar with the popular Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures known as the Septuagint (which the New Testament often quotes from). This contains several books which are not in the Protestant Bible, but are included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. So if we're going to claim inerrancy on the basis of this passage, then we probably also need to claim it for several books that we've subsequently decided to leave out!

Finally, it was noted in a comment on my previous post that the Holy Spirit has a very important part to play in all of this. This is probably the most important, and perhaps the least tangible factor in properly understanding and applying scripture, and of course in knowing God and living out the Christian faith. In the end Christianity is about a relationship with God, made possible by Jesus, and facilitated by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who leads us into truth and who teaches us - through scripture and in many other ways besides. But this is something that I do not think I can fully explain, and which I suspect can only fully make sense to those who have experienced the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit for themselves.

[The Bible and Me Part V - Job]
[The Bible and Me Part VI - The Difficult Bits]
[The Bible and Me Part VII - The Supernatural]
[The Bible and Me Part VIII - Noah and the Flood]

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