When I was growing up, few things were more central to our faith than The Bible.
That’s an understatement of course. I suspect that the line separating idolatry from piety was sometimes crossed. After all it was ‘my Bible’ that we were encouraged to place our faith in, first and foremost. We trusted in Christ because we first trusted in the Bible- specifically that it was a particular sort of book. That now strikes me as exactly backwards.
‘The B-I-B-L-E; yes, that’s the book for me…. I stand ALONE(!) on the word of God….’
Alone? Hmmm. What of he who is the Word of God?
I’m sure that will aggravate some of my evangelical friends; and perhaps, rightfully so. ‘Scripture doesn’t replace Christ! Scripture points to Christ!’ they would say. ‘To speak of scripture is to speak of Christ!’ All true, and maybe the charitable assumption will be kept in mind when the same charge is brought against Xians who wish to honor the Mother of God; but I digress…
I truly have a point to explore: is the nature and function of what we have come to know as ‘The Bible,’ biblical? Do we actually find what we have come to know as ‘The Bible’ in scripture?
Surely, all Xians will agree. The Bible is biblical; and yet I think we need to pay a little attention to how it is so… and how it is not.
Recently, in my favorite local used bookstore, two old gentlemen hunkered down in the corner of the shop. They were both evangelists of the ‘Old Time’ variety, and the theme of their huddle was the miserable state of the modern Xian. I eavesdropped as one story of lamentation after another was swapped. Finally, the shorter gentleman summarized the situation adequately. He described an obviously compromised individual who approached him after a service to express how wonderful the message was. I listened with interest. An appreciation for the old preacher’s message seemed a counter-intuitive reason for him to label the ‘audience member’ (his word) a fraud. Turns out that the proffered approval wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the man had no Bible with him. How did he know that the message was any good! Apparently, compliments from this sort of Xian were simply affronts to the godly.
That strikes me as a helpful place to begin considering my assumptions about the Bible. Leaving aside the important presumptions about approaching truth critically a la Descartes, I hope you notice that we assume the Bible is a book. That’s what the word ‘Bible’ means.
* BIBLE: Does a bound, portable book, which is available for anyone to own for the sake of their own personal use appear anywhere in scripture?
Obviously not. Why?
Books are a relatively recent historical development. Mass printed books are even more recent, yet. Paper; printing- not to mention the education programs necessary to make literacy a common good… are all recent arivals. When our scripture was written, the required technology was still many centuries away. ‘Books’ were quite literally collections of scrolls, hand copied at a laborious rate. Priceless and difficult to store and transport.
Ok; so there’s no book-available to everyone and anyone- in the Bible.
But perhaps more to the point, the Bible is not only a bound book. It is an authoritatively bounded book. It is a closed canon.
* CLOSED CANON: Does a closed Canon appear in scripture?
Obviously not. Why not?
The New Testament is the expansion of scripture. The only church presented in scripture is a church with an open Canon. In addition, nowhere in scripture are we told what is or isn’t scripture; nor are we told that the writing of scripture would definitely cease. We have authoritative positions on these things, but we didn’t learn them from scripture.
It is commonplace to substitute the word ‘Canon’ for ‘Scripture,’ but the words refer to different things. Most religions have sacred scripture, but very few have a definitive closed Canon. I know of only three, and they are all related: Judaism, Xianity and Islam.
* SACRED SCRIPTURE : Do fluid, fuzzily defined and growing collections of texts, which religious communities use for sacred purposes, appear in scripture?
Of course. For believers both ancients and modern, scripture is understood to be sacred scripture.
Okay. So scripture knows of scripture, but not a closed Canon or an individually available volume to which persons might (must?) go to check up on things. Is that a big deal? Would nullifying either of the last two in the life of the church- especially the Evangelical tradition- be a big deal? Scripture undefined and open to addition! Scripture not available to the average believer unless mediated by another! I don’t think Evangelicalism could even exist in such a situation.
Since any mention of ‘scripture’ in scripture refers to something that is significantly different in one way or another from what we have today, is it fair to say that what we think of as ‘The Bible’ is biblically suspect?
Is the fact that the Bible knows nothing of an individually owned collection of Canonical writings an argument against their use in the modern church?
It seems to me that we must say that SCRIPTURE has an important place within the common life of God’s people. This was true before Christ’s first advent. It continues to be true to this day.
In addition Christ authorized the apostles to speak for him. What later came to be known as the New Testament was one result of that charge. Their teaching continues to be authoritative, and in need of both identification and preservation; but at the time they were living, this looked different from how it does today. The need and God given solution continued. Its form changed, necessarily.
What apparently is not a radical necessity- and I say this only because the church got along fine without it- was and is the individually owned and accessible artifact, which required many centuries before it became even a possibility. The same can be said for the practices and piety that revolve around it. Including- I would say to the two old gentlemen- carrying it to church.
(This of course says nothing to the value or legitimacy of such piety and practices in a person’s life. I very much believe that gospel issues can receive clarification through the pronouncements or practices of the church. Once the point is clarified, it can be rejected only by misunderstanding or abandoning something precious and radical. The Creed and Icons are an example. Our Bible is another.)
The Bible is biblical, despite not being recognizable in its final matured form in the Bible.
So here’s my real question: why doesn’t the same apply when it comes to the Episcopacy? No one expects to find the completed book while it is being written. It might not be surprising to find reference to a future, yet to be completed/compiled book, but we don’t have such a reference. Anyway, that being the case, why would anyone demand- bible in hand- that the Episcopacy be presented in all its post-apostolic fullness during the apostolic age. What happens to that Bible, if we start down that path? Why the special pleading?
It seems to me that in a way analogous to the reality of ‘scripture’ as we find it in scripture, we have the apostolic office. We find the gospel and authoritative need that gave rise to the office of apostle; and we have Christ’s commissioning of his apostles to meet that need.
* Without the apostles, something is missing from the gospel that the church proclaims.
* Without the apostles, identifying the church- body and faith- is purely a matter of casting lots and personal preference.
* We have the distinctive functions of the apostolic office being exercised and then extended to other men.
In a way analogous to scripture’s ‘open scripture’ and the church’s later post apostolic Canon, the need that gave rise to the office continued after the death of the apostles and was provided for by the Holy Spirit through the apostles.
And also as with the post apostolic canon, there is no question about how the church met that need. Universally and without exception the duties demonstrated by the apostle’s own example- at least according to the accounts of scripture- was extended to other men. Timothy and Titus were two examples. This continued. Wherever the gospel went- Egypt, Britain, India, etc.- the Episcopacy went with it.
We are right to honor our bible. We are right to make such honor a non-negotiable part of our faith. The same goes for the apostolic office. It is the Biblical thing to do.
Edit: recently reread this thoughtful post on how the printing press changed the nature of scripture: How Gutenberg Took the Bible From Us