Nulla Scriptura Revisited

One of the keystones of traditional Protestant theology is the concept of sola scriptura.  This means literally “by Scripture alone”.  That is, all doctrines and practices of Christianity must be derived from Scripture.  Tradition, commentary, and development are not necessarily bad, but they may never be normative for belief and practice.  My post from some time back, “Nulla Scriptura” was a deliberate pun on this, as it means, “by nothing [of] Scripture.”

Back here, I said the following:

Of course, I’d say that open theism, as well as many other flavors of Protestantism, has too high a view of Scripture, anyway. I don’t mean that in the sense of saying that Scripture isn’t inspired, or of encouraging a “low” view of it. Rather, I mean the tendency to take it more or less as is without looking at context or the philosophical implications. I’ve read essays by open theologians in which they’ve gone so far as to say that if the theology or philosophy says one thing, and Scripture says another, then Scripture must be preferred, even if it seems to paint God in peculiar ways (e.g. limited knowledge, changing His mind, etc.). By that logic we’d have to jettison the value of pi!

What I want to do here is to elaborate on that concept, both in a general, theoretical way, as it pertains to Christianity and Christian thought in general; and also in a concrete, specific way, as it pertains to my own church, the Catholic Church, particularly in 21st Century America.

I start by asserting that the very idea of sola scriptura is inherently incoherent.  It makes, in effect, an unstated but important assumption, to wit:  The Bible is self-validating.  This is an extraordinary claim, and we’ll need to unpack it a little.

Everything expressed by humans, be it in language, gestures, mathematical symbols, musical notes, or any other mode of communication, is essentially a process of encoding and decoding.  I have a thought or feeling or mood; I encode that thought or feeling or mood into spoken or written words, or movements of my body, or equations, or music; and I transmit that code to one or more others.  Since written words and music notation outlive the author, I may even transmit the code to people long after my death.  In any case, after the code is transmitted, it is then received.  The receiver of the coded transmission decodes it–that is, she understands it–and communication has occurred.

This is a valid model for all human communication.  We may speak of using “more than words“, or words getting in the way; but even a touch or gesture is still a transmission of information.  Mystical traditions–most notably Zen–often speak, in the famous words attributed to Bodhidharma, of

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man:
Seeing into one’s own nature and attaining buddhahood.

Ironically, of course, the very assertion that the Zen transmission has “no dependence upon words and letters” is itself written in words and letters!  It may indeed be true that the great Zen masters–and in fact mystics in other traditions–receive mystic knowledge directly from God or the cosmos or whatever source one posits, with no need of intermediaries, of encoding and decoding.  However, at this point there is either no further communication at all–e.g. the “thundering silence of Vimalakirti“; or the mystic says or does something; which puts us back to encoding and decoding.

Now very, very simple communications don’t involve much encoding or decoding–they’re easily understood.  For example, “2 + 2 = 4” is perfectly unambiguous.  “I saw a German Shepherd walking down the road in front of my house yesterday morning,” is pretty straightforward, too.  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” is a bit more flowery, and uses archaisms (“thou”, “thee”, “art”), but it’s still relatively clear, if one understands the concept of metaphors.  Likewise, “My love is like a red, red rose,” reasonably makes sense.  But what does this mean?

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

It’s from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“.  Literally, you could say it means something like, “Mermaids are swimming around, combing their hair, and we’ve hung around listening to them; then human voices wake us, and we drown.”  Sounds less poetic, doesn’t it?  And even then, what does it mean?  My intent here is not to interpret T. S. Eliot; the point is that poetry is polysemic–it “means” several things at once.  Of course, Archibald McLeish would say (my emphasis),

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean   
But be.

So much for encoding and decoding, huh?

My point is that proponents of sola scriptura, without usually being conscious of it, have a model of all communication as saying, in effect, “2 + 2 = 4”, where the communication has a clear piece of information to be transmitted, there is no ambiguity whatsoever, and what the author or transmitter puts in is exactly what the recipient gets out.  Such proponents have a limited tolerance for metaphor and poetry (no one thinks that in John 15:1 Jesus was saying that he was a sentient grape vine!), but they are by and large distrustful of both.  It’s not a coincidence, I think, that Fundamentalism arose in a cultural milieu in which the scientific method had morphed into a whole ideological way of viewing the world (i.e., pure empiricism and literalism) and in which poetry progressively was losing its hold and the respect it had formerly had as a valid form of literature (how much good poetry has been written in the last century?).

Now at this point, defenders of sola scriptura might take issue with my bringing Fundamentalism into the mix.  Sola scriptura need not entail Fundamentalism, right?  Well, I’d argue that yes, it does logically lead to Fundamentalism.  As soon as you say, “But Christians have traditionally said that verse X means such-and-such,” or “But St. Augustine/Martin Luther/John Calvin/Pastor Bob said it means,” or “But the consensus in my church is,” then your scriptura is no longer sola.  You’re bringing someone or something else into the mix.  No matter how hard you try, you either reject sola scriptura, or you say that the Bible “means what it means”, nothing else needed.  The problem with that is, what, exactly does the Bible mean?  What does “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) mean?  The divinity of Christ was argued for over four hundred years!  What the hell does the Book of Revelation, or the latter half of the Book of Daniel mean?  What does the Song of Songs, as written, have to do with God?

Now there are plenty of people out there that are quite willing to tell me just exactly what those perplexing texts mean; and the same people, if I question their interpretation, will deny that they’re “interpreting” the text at all, and vehemently insist that the meaning is clear to anyone of good will, who just really, reeeeeally tries/opens themselves to the Spirit/asks God for understanding/etc.  It’s really hopeless to argue with such people, because they interpret without realizing they are interpreting.  It’s quite circular, a closed system.  They have assumptions and pre-existing beliefs on which they base their understanding of Scripture; but they do not realize, in fact, deny, that they have such pre-existing beliefs.  Everything, to them, is like “2 + 2 = 4”.

Of course, the irony is that the more meaningful and less abstract any statement is, the more ambiguous it is, of necessity.  To a mathematician or physicist,

\mathbf {J} =\int _{\Delta t}\mathbf {F} \,\mathrm {d} t.

is perfectly unambiguous.  It’s also perfectly abstract, and to a layman, perfectly impenetrable.  As soon as we go to “normal” linguistic statements, ambiguity inevitably seeps in.  In the example above, “I saw a German Shepherd walking down the road in front of my house yesterday morning,” anyone knows what that means.  But what time yesterday morning?  Was the dog grown or a puppy?  And so on.  That’s trivial; but when we get to things like we encounter in the Bible, the ambiguities are rife.

The point is that sola scriptura, taken to its logical conclusion, of necessity leads to Fundamentalism and literalism.  Those who hold otherwise are not being consistent with their own belief.  Actually, sola scriptura leads a bit further than Fundamentalism.  In general, Fundamentalists tend to be in agreement with each other on many things–e.g. young Earth creationism.  But agreement is something outside the text–you’ve smuggled in something besides scripture alone.  Even Fundamentalists, it seems, are inconsistent.  The real logical conclusion of sola scriptura is the Baptist doctrine of “soul competency“.  In a nutshell, this doctrine says (quoting the above-linked article):  “[I]n matters of religion, each person has the liberty to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right, and is responsible to no one but God for the decision that is made….”  Thus, my interpretation of the Bible is between me and God, and in making it I am responsible to no one else, period.

Of course, the problem with that is that in effect it means that each person gets to say that the Bible means what he or she says it means–or as William Blake put it, “Both read the Bible day & night,/But thou readst black where I read white.” (from “The Everlasting Gospel”)  At that point, reading the Bible at all for anything besides entertainment or literary merit is meaningless.

The point of all this is that no form of communication, outside of highly abstract modes such as mathematics, or very, very simple statements in ordinary language, can avoid ambiguity.  That’s the nature of the beast.  You always have to have some kind of standards and criteria outside the text itself in order to understand the text.  Given this, I assert that no text, sacred or otherwise, either is or can be in principle, self-interpreting, let alone self-validating.  Various religious believers think otherwise–they might quote “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16), or “That is the Book, wherein is no doubt, a guidance to the godfearing,” (Qur’an 2:2, Arberry translation), or “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right,” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8) depending on whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Mormon, respectively.  No such claims that a book itself makes can, as a matter of fact, prove it to be true, let alone free from all error, as is often asserted of the Bible and the Qur’an.  One may believe a holy book to be true on other grounds; but not on the grounds of the actual contents of the book in question.

As a matter of fact, no religious text of which I’m aware is free from all error; none is completely true.  There are demonstrable errors of fact in all holy books, to say nothing of morally questionable episodes.  This is well-known to anyone who has actually bothered to read such scriptures.  That includes the Bible, the topic of this post.  I posted a “Quote for the Week” a little while ago.  It’s from a letter of C. S. Lewis to a correspondent, and though it’s been posted already, it’s so much on point to what I’m discussing that I’ll quote it here, too, my emphasis:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

Another quote of his which I posted, from Reflections on the Psalms, also my emphasis:

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.

These quotes, taken together, express my own views quite nicely.  They also segue into my second topic, the problem, to be blunt, of being too Biblical; or more precisely, of being too Biblical in the wrong way.

I certainly think that Protestantism, by and large, has much too “high” a view of the Bible.  This is endemic not just to Fundamentalists, it’s important to note.  Even highly intelligent Protestant scholars have defended the indefensible and taken issue with basic philosophical issues on the basis of an excessively high view of Scripture.  William Lane Craig, a very intelligent and erudite man, has defended the supposed command of God to the Israelites to slaughter all the Canaanites, including innocent children.  In the article linked above,  he says, my emphasis:

The problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a command, then the biblical stories must be false. Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not. In other words, this problem is really an objection to biblical inerrancy.

Let that sink in.  The problem isn’t whether the God we worship ordered genocide, and whether that’s, you know, appallingly wrong; but whether the Bible is inerrant!  Further down in the same article, he says (once more, my emphasis):

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

Farther down yet, when someone brings up the issue of Muslim terrorists, Craig responds, my emphasis,

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God. If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him.

So the notion that the hijackers on 9/11 were right to destroy the Twin Towers because God told them to do so is not a problem for Craig–he just thinks they were wrong about what God wanted them to do!  Unlike the God of the Bible who supposedly ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, Amalekites, and others, innocent children included.  When such apologies for genocide are vigorously promoted by well-educated, intelligent people who are considered spokesmen for Christianity, it’s no wonder that atheists take us to task.  As the author at the last linked page puts it (emphasis in original),

That so violent a command can have educated modern people like Craig feel sympathy only for the people commanded to do it, shows you how psychopathic religious belief can be in how it forces one to think god is always right no matter what he does or commands.

As a theist, I can only agree with this.  People like Craig don’t seem to get, as Lewis mentioned above, that there is real wickedness mixed in with Scripture; and they fail to properly read Scripture “under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have….”  In my opinion, better not to read the Bible at all than to read it like Craig reads it.

A more innocuous example of the warping influence of an excessively high view of the Bible on an otherwise intelligent man comes from here.  The topic is whether God, in accordance with classical theism (the universally held view in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, most magistral Protestantism, and much of Jewish and Islamic philosophy), is not a being, however exalted, but Being itself.  The author, Roger E. Olson, says, once more my emphasis and my statements about what is being said in brackets:

I have often felt pressured to rise above my “simple Biblicism” and primitive picture of God as a personal being, even if the greatest of all beings, transcendently surpassing in greatness and glory all creatures, and confess God as Being Itself–not the Supreme Being at the top of a great chain of being but something entirely different…. I have even been told that my childhood picture of God borders on idolatry. [It does!]

The assumption underlying much of that thinking (of God as Being Itself) was expressed by Alfred North Whitehead who said that while Buddhism is a metaphysic in search of a religion, Christianity is a religion in search of a metaphysic. That is, the underlying assumption is that the biblical narrative does not give us an adequate, or any, metaphysical world picture, account of reality-itself, but expresses especially transcendent reality in myths, symbols and images which must be interpreted through the lens of some ontology borrowed from outside the Bible. [Exactly–which is why the great philosophers such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas did  their work] One obvious candidate in early church history was Middle or Neo-Platonism. [I’m all for that!] Another, especially in the Middle Ages, was Aristotelianism. Whitehead’s, of course, was his own organic philosophy of process.

What do all those attempts to bring Athens to Jerusalem have in common? All assume that the biblical portrait of God cannot be taken seriously; [To a large extent, it can’t] it must be supplement if not replaced by a philosophical picture of God which is then interpreted as “what the Bible really means.” Practically speaking, then, all biblical references to God as personal are relegated to the realm of anthropomorphisms–figures of speech that depict God in human terms whereas God is not really much like humans at all.  [In Christ, God becomes one of us; but in His essence, He is indeed not much like us at all.  Anthropomorphism is indeed something to be avoided.]

Farther down, in the comments, he says:

You are dealing with concepts that lie outside the scope of the revelation Christians believe in and accept. I do not call God “infinite;” nothing in our Christian revelation requires it. Did you read the last paragraph? Nothing I wrote requires that God be “finite.” “Finite” and “infinite” are mathematical and philosophical concepts alien to Christian theology (even though they have too often been imported into it from alien sources).

??!!  As a committed Neoplatonist Christian, all I can say is that my mind reels….

I understand the author’s basic notion–that the God of the Philosophers is rather a cold abstraction, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Christ, to whom we can come in time of need, to whom we can pray in adoration, who is described as Abba, “Father”.  As I usually say in theological contexts, it’s not “either-or”; it’s “both-and”.  God as such–what the Orthodox call His “essence”–is indeed not very much like us at all.  In fact, God in His essence is totally beyond comprehension or even language.  Even the pronoun “He” is arbitrary.  As St. John of the Cross said, you can’t even say God “exists” in the same way we do–all you can do is say “¡Nada, nada, nada!” (“Nothing, nothing, nothing!”)  In His energies, however–the ways in which He relates to us–and supremely in Christ, God is indeed personal–a true Person to whom we long to–and can–relate.  A paradox; but we can speak of God only in paradox.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not surprising that such notions as we’ve been discussing, abominable or incoherent as they may be, crop up among Protestants.  Doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and a reluctance or outright opposition to bringing tools (such as philosophy) from outside the Bible itself in order to understand the Bible, both typically Protestant outlooks, inevitably lead to results such as Craig’s defense of genocide, or Olson’s insistence on God as a being among beings.  What is surprising is when it crops up in Catholicism.

In general, the Church, for all its sins and defects over the centuries, has not had a problem with an excessively high view of Scripture.  The Bible was foundational, of course; but it was understood that it was comprehensible only within the matrix of Church Tradition, the depositum fidei, the teachings of Church Fathers, saints, councils, popes, and so forth.  Literalism was rarely used in Biblical interpretation, and inerrancy, in the Protestant sense, was a non-starter.  True, there were bumps here and there–remember Galileo?–but by and large, the Church was able to adapt to changing science and history.  The geocentric theory was quietly dropped, and in a better-late-than-never move, Pope John Paul II apologized on the Church’s behalf for its behavior towards Galileo.  The same pope, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said that evolution is “more than a hypothesis”.  Between the time of Galileo and John Paul II, the priest Georges Lemaître developed the Big Bang theory–quite a long way from the six days of creation of Genesis!  Finally, the Second Vatican Council, in the document Dei Verbum, says (paragraph 11, my emphasis):

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.

So the Bible teaches faithfully and without error that which is necessary “for the sake of salvation”–e.g., the existence of God, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and so on–but it is not to be understood as a historical record or a science textbook.  Dei Verbum further emphasizes this in the following paragraph:

[A]ttention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.

So the official Catholic teaching is far from a naïve, or even non-naïve literalism.  So what’s the problem?

Traditionally, lay Catholics, with the occasional exception, were not noted for reading the Bible.  Until the Renaissance, most Catholics–most people–couldn’t read at all.  The Reformation and the printing press changed all that.  Literacy spread and books became more available than at any previous time in history.  The Church fought back, authorizing Bible translations into vernaculars–e.g. the Douay-Rheims in English.  Still, by and large, the Church was at most lukewarm to widespread Biblical literacy.  The fear was that people would read the Bible and misunderstand it, becoming sectarians and coming up with goofy beliefs, or both.  In light of the splintering of Protestant churches after the initial phase of the Reformation , and phenomena such as young-Earth creationism and feverish predictions of the Apocalypse (most recently–and incorrectly!–set for 23 April 2018, as of this writing), the Church might have had a point.

In the 20th Century, things changed.  The Papal encyclical Divino afflante spiritu, issued by Pope Pius XII in 1943, officially allowed translation of the Bible by Catholics from the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  Before this, translation had been allowed only from the Vulgate, the Latin Bible.  Twenty years later, the Second Vatican Council issued the document Dei verbum, which among other things encouraged wider spread use of the Bible by the laity.  Meanwhile, popes and bishops throughout the second half of the 20th Century and into the current century have repeatedly encouraged the laity to read and study the Bible, while numerous Catholic translations of the Bible have proliferated.  In and of themselves, none of these things are bad.  However, I think the actual implementation of increased Biblical literacy for Catholics has left a bit to be desired.

First, the Catholic translations–at least those available in English–leave something to be desired.  I won’t go into detail, having discussed Biblical translations before.  Suffice it to say that in my view the official translation of the American bishops, the New American Bible, is mediocre; the Good News Bible, Catholic Edition, is appropriate only for those with low reading skills; the substantially better New Jerusalem Bible is not widespread in this country (a further revision of the New Testament of the New Jerusalem Bible has just come out, and not having yet read it, I have no comment on in yet); and the Revised Standard Bible, Catholic Edition, while probably the best available translation, is not approved for use in the lectionary in this country (this is probably why it doesn’t seem to be popular among Catholics, despite its superiority).  Thus, from the git-go, the primary resources are not the best.

More problematically, the tendency for Catholic Bible study has been to go in much the same direction as many forms of Protestant Bible study.  What do I mean by this?  First, there is a tendency towards a sort of emotionalistic, “what does this passage mean to me” approach.  I wouldn’t say there’s no value at all in this; but I think it tends to be overdone.  Certainly, it doesn’t suit my temperament.  I was in a Catholic Bible study for a few months several years ago, and my least favorite part was discussing what the passage or chapter in question meant to me.  That’s the kind of touchy-feely thing that I tend to dislike.  Better, more structured forms of this can be done in group versions of lectio divina, admittedly, and there is some growth of that, often associated with the Centering Prayer movement; but still, it doesn’t predominate.

Second, there is far too little emphasis, in my opinion, on the history and interpretation of the Bible.  Too many people know very little about the history and composition of the Bible; and far too many have naive and literalistic beliefs about the Bible.  I’d expect that among many strains of Protestantism; but I have encountered Catholics who believed, for example, in a literal Flood and Noah’s Ark.  I don’t expect the average person to become a Scriptural scholar, please note; but it would be good if they were given a better grasp of the Church’s teaching on the Bible, which explicitly emphasizes the necessity of understanding genre and not reading Scripture in a slavishly literal manner.  Unfortunately, much of this is connected, in my view, with a reluctance among the hierarchy to rock the boat.  Partly, there’s still some of the residual discomfort with turning the laity loose with the Bible; and partly there’s a reluctance (as has long been the case with Protestant clergy) to bring the insights of modern Scriptural scholarship to the masses, out of fear that they will react negatively to it.  The fear, I suppose, is that the masses are incapable of sophisticated thinking about Scripture, prone either to naive and simplistic beliefs on the one hand, or losing faith altogether on the other; so that given the choice, the former is better.

Personally, I think it’s best to confront head on the challenging aspects of the Bible, and as early as possible.  Ignoring historical errors in the Bible and glossing over narratives (such as the early chapters of Genesis) that cannot be taken literally just sets people up for worse difficulties later, especially in this day and age of militant atheism and the instant connectivity of the Internet.  People will encounter attacks on their faith; and naive views of the Bible will not, in general survive such attacks.  This is as it should be, in a sense–naive and incorrect views do not deserve to survive.  The point is that if people are not given tools to understand the Bible in a non-literal and theologically sophisticated way, their faith will not survive such attacks.  If they learn to integrate their faith with a mature and nuanced reading of the Bible, they will not lose their faith when they encounter attacks on literalist readings of the Bible later on.  More importantly, they will have a better and deeper understanding of their own faith, one not based on naivety or simplistic views.  I, personally, have made sure that my fifteen-year-old daughter knows quite well that much of the Old Testament needs to be read as myth (the True Myth, as C. S. Lewis puts it, but myth nonetheless).

I will close this extremely long and somewhat rambling post with a quotation from theologian Stanley Hauerwas, courtesy of here:

No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.

Them’s fightin’ words for most American Christians!  But as the linked article points out,

Hauerwas wants to remove bibles from the pews because he is worried that individualism—the conceit of self-sufficiency—has thoroughly corrupted American Christians’ ability to interpret Scripture.

Lost in the smoke, American Christians “feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read.” This despite centuries, if not millennia, of church teaching that a rule of faith is necessary to preserve orthodox theology. In the end, it was not so much a commitment to Scripture that separated out the world-hating gnostics from those who worshipped God enfleshed, nor raw assent to scriptural authority that separated out the Arians from the Trinitarians. All sides used the Bible to make their arguments. In the end, it was the rule of faith, the pattern handed down across time by the apostles, that enabled Christians to interpret Scripture rightly.

By taking the Bible out of the hands of Christians, Hauerwas hopes to remind them that the Bible can only be read well when it is handed down. Interpretation, where it is faithful, always occurs within a tradition. As G. K. Chesterton would remind us, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (Orthodoxy). Hauerwas has no patience for individualism, for it denies the necessity of thinking with those who merely happen to be dead. But even more crucially than Chesterton’s point, individualism forgets that we are indebted to the dead, those whom the tradition gives voice, for collecting, preserving and passing the Bible, as well as its proper interpretation, along to us. We inherit a set canon from those who came before. Without the tradition, we would not have a Bible.

I could not put it better myself.

So, just to be clear:  Read the Bible, but do so carefully, don’t be a literalist, and, though you should not go in for mindless obedience to what someone else says, take the tradition, the work of scholars, and the  wisdom of those who went before us seriously.  And if you’re ambitious, learn the original languages, too!

Part of the series “The Pretty Good Book

Posted on 27/05/2018, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, poetry, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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