Friday, August 19, 2011

Scripture Without Dependency

Had an interesting conversation yesterday about things such as the validity and reliability of Scripture. It got me thinking about how many Christians effectively entrust the content of their faith to Scripture and Something. 'Something' might be 'the church' or 'tradition' or 'Calvin' or 'the Thirty Nine Articles' or 'the Church Fathers' or, especially since the Enlightenment, 'critical scholarship.' The something else I am speaking of is a kind of 'extra authority' which sits alongside Scripture, or even over Scripture and gives us confidence that Scripture is valid and is reliable. A variation, however, concerns, critical scholarship: for some this is a kind of radical testing of Scripture in which  Scripture passes the test, for others this is a radical testing of Scripture in which Scripture fails the test but that emboldens them to invest new meaning into the words of Scripture (cf. Geering, Spong, Cupitt). In the latter case critical scholarship is an anti-authority rather than an authority in keeping with (say) tradition or a great theologian.

So here is the next thing that strikes me: if Scripture is what many of us believe it to be, then Scripture is God's Word written and needs no additional authority alongside it or over it. In terms of development of faith or growth into Christian maturity, it could be argued - provocatively, if not dangerously - that our development is constrained if our reading of Scripture is dependent on another authority, if we need, so to speak, the security or warm blanket of the church or tradition or our favourite theologian or creedal statements or those sometimes strange grandfathers and great-uncles of our faith know as the Fathers. Even the bracing winds of critical scholarship can be a heat pump circulating the warm air of satisfaction of knowing that our reading of Scripture has contemporary academic respectability. These additional authorities are helpful and assist us along the pathway of Christian development, but my point or question is whether, in the end, we should depend on one or more of them?

Is God calling us to read Scripture as God's direct means of communication with us? Do human authorities stand in the way of the (so to speak) stark, piercing voice of God speaking into our souls?


liturgy said...

Thanks, Peter.

You are going to the heart of the problem with “scripture alone”.

The Bible does not teach, scripture alone.
Those who teach “scripture alone” do not practice it – they write lots of books supplementing and interpreting the Bible, advocate for particular “study” bibles which interpret the Bible (rather than trusting the Bible “alone”).
If the scriptures were sufficient “alone” – why are there thousands of protestant sects all disagreeing with each other about what the Bible actually says, and all saying they are following the Bible “alone”?



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
All you say is acknowledged by me. What I am trying to do is to push beyond 'Scripture alone' as often understood (with the attendant problems you mention) to thinking about the possibility of Scripture being God's voice to us in an unmediated manner which may only be received by us when we have grown beyond certain dependencies.

I acknowledge that I am struggling to get the words together to explain what I mean!

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

" ... the possibility of Scripture being God's voice to us in an unmediated manner which may only be received by us when we have grown beyond certain dependencies."

Part of the difficulty I have with this, Peter, is that scripture itself seems to teach that we are not and will not be in a position to receive God's voice in an unmediated manner until the life of the world to come. I'm thinking in particular of St. Paul when he writes:

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).

We will have "grown beyond certain dependencies" when God's purpose for the world (inaugurated and foreshadowed in the resurrection of our Lord) comes to fulfillment. Of course, when that day comes, we will no longer need scripture.

liturgy said...

I wonder, then, Peter, if part of what does this is the tradition of Lectio Divina

Here we listen individually to what God is addressing to us through the scriptures. We also do this as a community whenever we gather around the scriptures as a community and hear what the Spirit is saying to us as a community.



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bryan
One response would be to explore how many 'dependencies' God has given us!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
Yes - lectio divina fits very well with what I am exploring here.

Brother David said...

thinking about the possibility of Scripture being God's voice to us in an unmediated manner

Sorry Peter, Moses broke those scriptures in a fit of anger. Everything else since then has been mediated.

Brother David said...

We also do this as a community whenever we gather around the scriptures as a community and hear what the Spirit is saying to us as a community.

The Anglican churches in North America have done so and are now considered heretics by many other Anglicans.

Paul Powers said...

But David, God gave Moses another copy.(Deuteronomy 10).

kiwianglo said...

"Do human authorities stand in the way..." - Perter Carrell -

What's all the fuss, Peter? Human beings have been standing in the way from the time of the canon of the scriptures was fisrt authorised, surely. Is is any different today? Or are you offering a stalking horse on the issue?

Anonymous said...

Cool post Peter - I think I hear what you are saying...

When I first became a Christian through an amazing encounter with God I didn't know anything about Jesus/God/The Bible/etc - other than what I had just encountered on my first day at church. I realised though that I quickly needed to learn about this God that I had just met and so found a dusty plain old RSV hidden on a shelf at home. Someone pointed me in the direction of the Gospel of Luke and I aimed to read a chapter a day.

I still remember the sense of awe I had each day, of how much it spoke to me both in terms of God revealing himself, and in challenging me to live as a follower of Jesus.

Over the years of course I was given various study Bibles and have enjoyed the extra notes in these, and dipped into commentaries here and there. However I do remember the day when I suddenly felt like I was spending more time reading other people's views on Scripture than I was reading Scripture itself. as helpful as those notes, etc were, I did find that I missed the directness of just engaging myself with the Word guided by the Spirit and returned to largely reading a Bible without notes.

Even as I did a part of me wondered how I ever got anything out of Scriptures as a 16yr old kid with no background knowledge and no "Something extras" to guide my reading. And yet I did! Most of the insights I had then are still foundational to me today even after years of study, learning and preaching etc.

God Bless


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks, Ben. You 'get' it!

Hi Ron, I have no idea what the stalking horse would be in this context.

Brother David said...

Correct Paul. Somehow I got it in my head that God dictated the second copy!

Brother David said...

Food for thought -

Bible shaped by competing forces
Charles W. Hedrick

Most people need a "safety net" affirming their religious faith and practice. The "net" must provide the believer certainty, to ensure that faith is based on "Absolute Truth." The stakes are too high to allow for anything less.

Generally, for Protestants, the safety net is the Bible, regarded (some poetically; others literally) as "the (inerrant) word of God." For Roman Catholics the "net" is both Bible and church tradition. In Catholic faith, the church produced the Bible, and thus is its authorized interpreter. And so it has happened that a fourth-century collection of ancient Graeco-Roman texts, the New Testament, continues to define Christian faith and practice.

Faith unexamined, however, is akin to self-delusion. And this observation, if true, encourages a close look at the ancient collection.

The story "about" the Bible raises significant issues. From the historical records, the collection does not appear to be a deliberate product. A plausible case can be made that the church stumbled into the collection, a process lasting more than 300 years, and the Christian Bible was perhaps not finalized until the 16th century. The collection was shaped by competing religious factions, economics, personal ideologies, politics, the influence of larger churches and more. Many texts were eventually excluded.

Nevertheless, the fourth-century collection is still religiously quite diverse with four competing gospels, and Paul's undisputed letters vying with later texts in matters of faith and practice. Surprisingly, second-century Christians included texts in the collection based on their pre-Scripture faith; yet today's Christians judge the validity of modern religious experience by Scripture and creedal confessions.

Virtually all surviving New Testament manuscripts are from the third century and later, even though they were composed more than 100 years earlier. No original manuscripts exist. All we have are copies and no two are exactly alike. Hence, New Testament texts read in church today are constructs by modern scholars, who make them by bringing together parts of later copies.

Reassessing the collection seems justified because from Jesus to the fourth century there was neither a common "Christian Scripture" nor megalithic institutions to shape Christian religious experience. Christian Scripture was not generally available until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Few Christians had access to Bibles until relatively recently.

Thus the Christian God was not always experienced through text and creed. Is that still possible — to live a Christian existence apart from mandates of ancient texts and modern institutions, apart from Biblical constraints and ecclesiastical creeds? Possibly, but probably not for people unacquainted with the history of how we got the Bible.

For them, the Bible will always be a holy relic, commanding religious awe and obedience, but forbidding critique and dialogue. The question is: Should the history of the Bible influence how we regard and evaluate it?

Charles W. Hedrick, Springfield, is emeritus professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University

Peter Carrell said...

That is food for thought, David, and I am contemplating a response in my next post ... though a certain amount of busyness means I am not sure when I can next post!

Paul Powers said...

David, you may have been thinking of the Angel Moroni and Joseph Smith. ;-)

Pageantmaster said...

Oh my – what a muddle we do get into!

This is what happens when we forget who we are and where we come from. Consider what our parents, grandparents and their parents knew and taught us:

Articles of Religion of the Church of England:

VI. Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
HOLY Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of Holy Scripture, we do understand those Canonical books of the Old and New testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church….

XX. Of the Authority of the Church.
THE Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God's word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ: yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.


“What you heard from me keep as a pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
[2 Timothy 1:13-14]

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange doctrines”
[Hebrews 13:7-9]

John Sandeman said...

"Nevertheless, the fourth-century collection is still religiously quite diverse with four competing gospels, and Paul's undisputed letters vying with later texts in matters of faith and practice."

The use of the word "competing" about the gospels tells volumes to me. It says a lot about the professor emeritus.
And his comments about Paul makes him out to be a religious version of Louis Althusser who did a similar job on Marx. How very 1990.

Brother David said...

John those understandings of the canon go a lot farther back than the 1990s. They predate your understanding of scripture by centuries, which is of relatively recent date.

Father Ron Smith said...

Have just managed to get back on board this conversation. The idea of a stalking horse, Peter, came to me as perhaps your intention to revive the old saw of 'Sola Scriptura'.

Surely this concept does not need another airing here - or anywhere?
The Word of God made flesh in Jesus is more potently powerful than any sectarian view of what God said through the writers of Scripture.
The words in The Book are a guide which have had to give way to the Living Word in Jesus Christ.

This is why the Eucharist is such a powerful tool of redemption, to be neglected by no serious advocate of the Christian Gospel.

This is why the late Bishop Sir Paul Reeves maintained his integrity and credibility as a Christian priest after he became Governor-General of N.Z. - He continued to celebrate the H.C., knowing its power to equip him for the tasks to which God called him in the wider world.

Anonymous said...


You are bringing up this chestnut again???

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) I thought does not mean that Scripture is the only authority, but that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority in matters of faith and doctrine. The other authorities (e.g. tradition, reason, experience) may have an ancillary role, but are subject to Scripture’s ultimate authority.

To take Sola Scriptura to mean that there are no other authorities at all and that tradition has no value at all I think is this Nuda Scriptura, the radical ana-baptist view that the reformers did not agree with.

Michael Jensen (across the river from me and across the ditch from you) wrote this:

"Scripture is the final authority to which all Christian thinking must be subject. However, it’s either arrogant or simply naive to imagine we are the first readers of Scripture, or that we can or should read it without reference to that tradition. And if a reading of Scripture is proposed that breaks with the witness of the tradition of faithful Christian readers down the two millennia of its being read, we do well to hear alarm bells ringing."

Brother David said...

"And if a reading of Scripture is proposed that breaks with the witness of the tradition of faithful Christian readers down the two millennia of its being read, we do well to hear alarm bells ringing."

Of course Mr Jensen wants to be the determiner of just what that faithful witness for 2000 years was. There is where many of us disagree. It is easy for conservatives to claim that the Church has believed thus and so for 2 millennia, but there are a number of occasions that we have gone back and actually looked for the documents that support that claim and they do not exist, or they tell us something else.

liturgy said...


To state my first comment in a different way, then:

All protestants agree with each other in believing sola scriptura
they just can't agree with each other what that scriptura actually teaches.

Cool eh!


Fr. Bryan Owen said...

"It is easy for conservatives to claim that the Church has believed thus and so for 2 millennia, but there are a number of occasions that we have gone back and actually looked for the documents that support that claim and they do not exist, or they tell us something else."

Brother David, it would be helpful to know what some of those occasions you refer to are. And who is the "we" that has done this critical historical inquiry?

Anonymous said...


That (cough cough) probably sums it up.

Reminds me of debates I have had over points of theology.
1) Appeal to Scripture
2) If appeal to Scripture is unsucessful, appeal to other authority (see point 3)
3) Appeal to one of the below (depending on your decade)
a) J.I Packer
b) Don Carson
c) J. Piper
d) M. Dever
e) T. Keller
f) M. Driscoll

We seem to have our 'paper-popes' don't we? Though they are now 'pod-cast popes'.

Bryden Black said...

Re “saws”, “horses” (Trojan or otherwise) ...

In good old Anglican style (Art XIX), I have strenuously tried to integrate my ministry of word-&-sacrament through my ordained life, while also trying to convey the necessary integration of these two key ‘means of grace’ to parishioners and others.

One maxim I have come up with is: the word without the sacraments ceases to be alive and risks a certain aridity; the sacraments without the word cease to be mystery and reduce to mere mystification. For both, in their necessary and respective ways, reveal the Living Word-made-flesh (Jn 5:39-40; the role of “signs” throughout the FG; 1 Jn 1:1-4).

As for “sola” talk: Yes, Peter, I do see what you are stumbling towards. And the talk of other “dependencies” is surely one approach to the heart of the issue. For are we necessarily “dependent” upon the Roman Curia, for example. Even Ron and I would agree on that one, as being answered negatively! Yet - to go to another extreme - to cite AE McGrath’s book title, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”, what is there to stop us this side of the Parousia from endless sectarian fragmentation - especially when we couple this with an Enlightenment mentality, of ‘autonomous individual reason’? Each becomes their own authoritative Pope!

Yet, the ‘solution’ is not just to cite “three-legged stools/three-fold cords”, as some Anglicans do. Three key texts of the last decade give the lie to that stooge: Telford Work’s Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Eerdmans, 2002), John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (CUP, 2003), and Tom Wright’s The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (Harper, 2005) [alternatively, Scripture and the Authority of God (SPCK)]. Should any wish to pursue my own take on these, plus the role of the NT Catechism itself in our performance of Scripture, via a 90 page essay, Lions Work - Scriptural Authority as a Form of Life: How the Word and the Holy Spirit realises the Life of God among one holy catholic and apostolic Church, sing out and I can post you a copy ...!

Brother David said...

Bryan, I have neither the strength, nor the gumption to go farther than I have gone at this point. Ring around the rosie has gotten very old. Rehashing has also gotten very old. I say, you say has never really gotten me anywhere. (Boswell always comes to mind. Too bad that I cannot read all of the footnotes.)

And I am sorely in need of a cardiac procedure whose date approaches next Thursday morning and I am still mentally preparing for that trip and appointment. I am too young (47) to have a bad heart, no!

Peter Carrell said...

Prayerful best wishes, David!

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear David, my prayers are for your successful surgery and a complete recovery. We need you on board to continue the task of preaching the liberality of Christ in the gospel.

Go well, dear friend. Blessings!