creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food
by Eric Daryl Meyer
Despite the contemporary desire to treat it this way, the Bible did not fall out of the sky. Christians are not “people of the book” in the same way that Muslims or Mormons are. The Bible is not eternal truth dictated word for word from the clouds to faithful scribes waiting pen in hand. Christianity’s attitude toward its book is significantly different.
As a starting point, we need to realize that the Bible wasn’t written for us. At least not primarily. Paul was not thinking of you when he wrote (or dictated) his letter to the Romans. We abuse scripture itself if we refuse to let Paul write to his friends at Rome, and recognize this as a conversation that we’ve been allowed in on. And if we start there, we had better understand what his friends would have understood from his writing before we start proof-texting individual verses out of context. That means hard work and study.
For some reason, learning about the historical process of scripture’s formation is threatening to many believers. I think that this discomfort reveals an unbalanced view of scripture (which this post is attempting to counteract…). The Bible came into existence through a real human process (involving real humans!). That is not to say that God was absent and uninvolved, nor is it to deny that the Bible is genuinely God’s word. It is only to insist that God’s word is made of real human words.
The early church dealt with a huge range of documents. As bishops and pastors dealt with matters of faith, worship, and church discipline, they came to rely on certain documents as authoritative in ways that others weren’t. The early church placed a huge importance on the teaching of the apostles – those people who had been with Jesus and had been commissioned to continue his ministry. The documents that had demonstrable apostolic connections had greater authority than those without. Early documents held more sway than later ones. The church came to the conclusion that these particular letters, gospels, and exhortations were inspired by God in ways that others weren’t. That is not to say that the other documents weren’t inspiring – or worth reading and contemplating.
The tricky thing is this: the people who were involved in the formation of the canon are the same people who brought the creeds together. One way or another, you are stuck trusting the judgment of early Christians as authoritative (whether you choose to recognize it or not).
Either you trust their judgment about the apostolicity and authenticity of the New Testament or you do not. If you do, why should you distrust their understanding of its teaching? If you do not, then this whole discussion is probably of little interest to you as a whole. This has always been the argument of the Roman Catholic church against the protestant rallying cry, “sola scriptura.”
“What do you mean, ‘sola scriptura,'” they say. “There would have been no Bible apart from the church’s tradition, so there is no way to read the Bible outside the church’s reading of it.” Tradition shaped scripture, scripture guides tradition.
I am less comfortable with notions of ecclesial infallibility (the idea that the church can’t go awry) than much of the Catholic church is. For that reason, I still prefer scripture to stand above tradition. Nevertheless, the point stands – the Bible is a product of the church. And the Bible is a product of the same church that produced the creeds. Furthermore, the beliefs that shaped the canon shaped the creeds, they go together.
It is a foolish mistake to separate scripture and the creeds as if one is the “pure” word of God and the other is a historical “extra.” This attempt falls apart when we recognize that scripture does not interpret itself; nor does scripture plainly answer every question that we bring to it. We need help to read well. The lens that we bring to our reading is not irrelevant – it often determines what we get out of it.
The best example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity (though we could certainly choose others). Christians of all stripes consider belief in the Trinity as fairly basic to what it means to be Christian. But scripture never states that God is three co-equal persons co-inhering in one being.
Nevertheless, as the church wrestled with its experience of God in Jesus Christ, struggled to understand their scriptures (by which the early church meant the Old Testament), and began to read the apostolic writings we’ve come to know as the New Testament, they agreed on a few things. Something like the doctrine of the Trinity is simply the best lens for reading the whole of scripture without falling into mistakes that pit scripture against itself, or deny aspects of the church’s experience of Christ. Reading the Bible outside the creeds, outside the teaching of the church leads one to unnecessary contradictions and confusions.
In other words, if we ditch the creeds we are liable to face gnostic, arian, docetic, monarchian, and modalistic readings of scripture (more than we already do). The people that the church knows as heretics were no strangers to scripture (neither are contemporary representatives like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and pseudo-Christian cultic groups). It would be convenient if heretics had red eyes, breathed smoke, and broke crosses in half where ever they went. Unfortunately, heretics look mostly like well-meaning and sincere Christians. Please don’t misunderstand my language, I love heretics (I may be one for all I know!), but false teaching is dangerous. Bad theology kills people.
The creeds are indispensable because they represent the best way to read scripture as a whole. Tossing the creeds out of the church is a bit like pretending that you can use your computer without virus software or the operator’s manual. You will manage just fine until the first hiccup. At that point, it’s much easier to have the right software in place (or the necessary information at hand), than to try to learn code and reprogram the whole thing from scratch. That would be a bit unnecessary and foolish, would it not?
This post is aimed mostly at the understanding of the Bible that I think is most dangerous within the church. I’m tempted to write another post directed toward the understanding of the Bible that I find most often on the fringes of the church. There is a reductionist temptation at least as pervasive as the “God said it, that settles it” position. We “enlightened” sorts like to reduce everything down to the scientific-historical level that fits with our rational scope of control. We are always in danger of missing God’s voice and God’s presence precisely where it is clearest – simply because we are skeptically bent on de-mythologizing everything down to the lowest common denominator. But, I shouldn’t get too far down that trail tonight…