Sola Scriptura

by Alvin Kimel


Perusing the blogs today I came across a fictional dialogue on sola scriptura, written by the Catholic apologist, Dave Armstrong. It touched on a raw nerve. With the collapse of the Episcopal Church, I find that I am now having to reconsider many of my Anglican commitments–and especially Anglicanism’s confession of the formal sufficiency and perspicuity of Holy Scripture.

The bishops of the Episcopal Church believe that Holy Scripture permits the blessing of same-sex unions, that the biblical prohibition of homosexual unions are historically conditioned and cannot be imposed willy nilly upon twenty-first century societies. My orthodox compatriots are equally convinced that the Scripture is clear in its prohibition of homosexual unions and that this prohibition is universally binding upon all societies and all cultures.

Who decides which interpretation of Holy Scripture is correct? And here I have been forced to confront one of the fundamental weaknesses of my Protestant faith. Since my conversion, I have always considered myself as a catholic Anglican. In one form or another, I have upheld the dictum of Lancelot Andrewes:

One canon reduced to writing by God Himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period–the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.

For Andrewes, Scripture does not stand alone but is always accompanied by the creeds and the Fathers. The Bible is to be interpreted within the authoritative tradition. So I have believed. This sounds all wonderful, but is it anything more than words? My evangelical friends certainly acknowledge the secondary authority of the creeds; but they reject the teaching of the Fathers on the Real Presence, purgatory, prayer to the saints, amd the essential role of the historic Episcopate in the life of the Church, to name only four items. Their private reading of Scripture always trumps the patristic witness. Anglo-Catholics are more open to the testimony of the Fathers (why stop at the Fathers?); but they too are willing to reject patristic teachings and practices, if they are deemed unbiblical (i.e., “too Roman”). Thus the evangelical and Anglo-Catholic share in common the elevation of private judgment over against the authoritative Church.

And this, of course, is precisely what every orthodox Episcopalian shares with every revisionist Episcopalian–the elevation of private judgment over the Tradition and Magisterial teaching of the Church. This is, I am now convinced, the source of our present crisis. Our fatal problem is not the rejection of biblical authority. Our problem is the dual Protestant assertion of sola scriptura and private judgment. This is why the churches of the Reformation have been unable to maintain the catholic faith in the confrontation with modernity. The private individual will always be able to justify to himself and others a new interpretation of the Scriptures. Where did the revisionist learn to pick and choose his doctrines? From the Reformation, of course.

I have found helpful and persuasive philosopher Richard Swinburne’s little book Revelation. The Protestant rule “Scripture interprets Scripture” is philosophically hopeless, he says. Why? Because the meaning of a given text changes when it is incorporated into a wider collection of texts that is intended to be read as one book. It’s not enough, in other words, to determine the historical-critical meaning of a specific passage. The act of canonization effects a change in literary context and therefore in meaning. Every book, ever chapter, every verse must now be interpreted within the context of the whole. This means that even if St. Paul could come back and explain to us precisely what he meant when he wrote his Epistle to the Galatians, he would not be able to determine for us the true significance of his words. The meaning of this letter has been altered precisely by its incorporation into the collection of Holy Scripture. It is the entire canon that the Church proclaims as Scripture, not just individual texts. The Bible, in other words, is not an anthology of writings. It is one book and God himself is its ultimate author. Its audience is the Church, not just the Church of the first century but the Church of every century, until the Lord Christ returns in glory.

But how is it to be read properly? When I read a realistic novel, I know how to read it, because I am acquainted with the genre and know how the genre works. I know the hermeneutical principles for properly reading works of realistic fiction. But the Bible is sui generis. It does not belong to a class called “Scripture.” It is God’s unique creation. Swinburne writes:

The slogan of Protestant confessions, ‘the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself,’ is quite hopeless. The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books. We must have a preface. And if not a preface in the same volume, a short guide by the same author issued in the same way as the Bible, providing disambiguation and publicly seen by the intended audience to do so. Such a guide would be an extension of the original work. And that said, there is of course such a guide. It is the Church’s creeds and other tradition of public teaching of items treated as central to the Gospel message.

We need, in other words, an authoritative tradition to guide us in the proper intepretation of Holy Scripture. Lancelot Andrewes sought to find this authoritative tradition in the creeds and councils; but this recognition of a truly authoritative tradition can and will never be established within Anglicanism precisely because Anglicanism, along with all other Protestant churches, has denied the infallibility of the Church (see especially Articles XIX and XXI).

And so we come to our present crisis. We may disagree with the recent decisions of our ECUSA bishops; but these bishops are simply acting upon the central Protestant principle of private judgment, a judgment now liberated into the seductive freedom of modernity.

In responding to this crisis, it is tempting for the orthodox Anglican to invoke the example and confession of Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” But what if Luther is the problem? What if the Reformation was founded on a terrible blunder?

25 March 2004


In his fisking of Bishop Griswold’s vacuous letter to the Lambeth Commission, David Virtue writes:

Every Scripture has one meaning and one meaning only. There are different styles and genres like poetry, metaphor and so on. When Jesus rose from the dead He did so, literally. When in the gospels it says he is the door into life, nobody but a moron thinks he is a piece of wood swinging on hinges. That dominant tradition is the historical-grammatical method of interpreting Scripture which has stood the test of time.

I cite Virtue here only because I read his article today and he touches on something with which I have been wrestling for a good while now. Ten years ago I would have agreed with him that the meaning of Scripture is its historical-grammatical meaning, its plain meaning. This is simply sound Protestantism. And I certainly agree with him that the writers who address homosex plainly condemn it. Robert Gagnon has, in my opinion, established this beyond further dispute in his The Bible and Homosexual Practice. But it is one thing to say that specific writings within the Bible, say, Leviticus and Romans, condemn homosex. It’s quite another thing to say that the Bible plainly condemns homosex. The former is an interpretation available to all readers of the Bible, whether Christian or non-Christian. The latter, however, is an interpretation restricted exclusively to the Church.

The Bible is an artifact, a creation of the Old and New Testament communities of faith. These writings did not haphazardly come together. They were brought together into one collection by the religious leaders of Judaism and then Christianity. Not only were these diverse writings pulled together into one collection, but they were identified as one book, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Thus the canon is itself a hermeneutical act. It is the Church that recognizes, confesses, and interprets the Bible as Holy Scripture, as “God’s Word written.”

In my earlier post Here I Stand, I noted Richard Swinburne’s argument that the act of incorporating a specific text into the biblical canon effects a change of literary context and thus a change in meaning. (Swinburne, by the way, was an Anglican when he wrote his book on Revelation, but he has since converted to Orthodoxy.) The ever provocative Stanley Hauerwas has presented a similar argument in his book Unleashing the Scripture. Invoking Stanley Fish for support, Hauerwas writes:

We must acknowledge that texts themselves only emerge as the consequence of interpretive acts. In simple terms, Fish suggests that a play by Shakespeare, read as “literature” in a freshman English class, is quite different from a Shakespeare play performed for the entertainment of the groundlings. In like manner, the letters of Paul to the Corinthians are quite differently understood once they become Scripture and are located in relationship to the other letters of Paul in the New Testament as well as the Gospels.

Once Paul’s letters become so constructed canonically, Paul becomes one interpreter among others of his letters. If Paul could appear among us today to tell us what he “really meant” when he wrote, for example 1 Corinthians 13, his view would not necessarily count more than Gregory’s or Luther’s account of Corinthians. There simply is no “real meaning” of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians once we understand that they are no longer Paul’s letters but rather the Church’s Scripture. Such examples remind us, according to Fish, that texts only exist in a continuing web of interpretive practices.

Hauerwas is happy to admit what we might call the historical-grammatical meaning of a text; but he rightly refuses to privilege this meaning within the life of the Christian Church. As he notes, it is inadequate to say that canonical meaning of any biblical text is restricted to the historical-grammatical meaning of that text. After the historical meaning is determined, to the extent that such determination is possible, the Christian interpreter must still take the further step of determining its canonical or Scriptural meaning. This meaning, or meanings, can only be discerned by a community that has been reborn in the Spirit and discipled in the practices of charity, self-denial, repentance, prayer, confession, and Eucharist.

This is why the Protestant principle of sola scriptura is inherently unworkable. It divorces the Bible from the only community that is capable of interpreting it as the Bible. G. K. Chesterton put the matter this way:

[The Catholic Church] does not, in the conventional phrase, believe what the Bible says, for the simple reason that the Bible does not say anything. You cannot put a book in the witness-box and ask it what it really means. The Fundamentalist controversy itself destroys Fundamentalism. The Bible by itself cannot be a basis of agreement when it is a cause of disagreement; it cannot be the common ground of Christians when some take it allegorically and some literally. The Catholic refers it to something that can say something, to the living, consistent, and continuous mind of which I have spoken; the highest mind of man guided by God.

Only the Church, guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, can properly read and interpret those writings that were written under the inspiration of the Spirit and which have been collected together in the one canon by the action of the Spirit. The Bible, as Bible, only teaches anything because the Church teaches on the basis of the Bible and tells us what it means–or perhaps better, because God guides the Church to discern and express what he means in and by his Word.

It thus appears that the fundamentalist and the historical critic are in fact kissing cousins, two sides of the same Protestant coin. They both believe that the plain meaning of the Scripture can be known apart from a community that is truthful and holy.

I cannot escape the inevitable conclusion. There must be an authoritative Church if the Scripture is to function as Scripture within the life of Christian believers. Otherwise, we are simply left with everyone’s private opinions. In America, this is called “denominations.”

And so the Methodist Hauerwas concludes: “No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”

It’s time to return the Bible to the Church.

31 March 2004


Who will defend Scripture when the Church is confronted by two or more contradictory interpretations of Scripture? As Chesterton observed, we cannot put a book in the dock and ask it what it means. Here we confront a problem inherent in every text. When I preach a sermon, you can always ask me afterwards “What did you mean when you said _____?” I can then clarify, correct, or elaborate. You might then restate, in your own words, what you think I said, and again I will have the opportunity to explain further what I intended to say. And perhaps after more discussion, you will then decide to either agree or disagree with me. In these kinds of oral communication events, the speaker is present to “defend” his intentions over against the interpretations and misinterpretations of his hearers.

But when I write something down, as I am doing now in this article, my speech assumes a fixed quality. I am not present to defend my intended meanings over against your interpretations. I am not present before you; you only have this text. You cannot ask me “What do you mean?” You can only ask “What did the author mean, even if unintentionally, when he wrote this?” A text cannot defend itself. It is merely a bunch of signs, now detached from the speaker. In one sense, the reader ultimately agrees or disagrees with the text, not with its author.

I do not know if the above argument works for a living author with whom one can correspond to inquire further what the author meant when he wrote what he did; but I do think it obtains for all texts whose authors are now dead or unavailable for further questioning and explication.

This then raises the question, How does St Paul defend himself over against my misinterpretations of his letter to the Romans? How does any biblical writer defend himself against the misinterpretations of any Christian believer? Even if we believe, as I do, that St Paul is alive with Christ and that we enjoy communion with him and all the saints, he is still not present to field my questions and correct my interpretations of his writings.

Robert W. Jenson addresses this problem in his Systematic Theology. Who defends the text of Scripture? Jenson answers: The Spirit must do so. But how does the Spirit exercise this work of defense? Jenson answers: The Church as Church defends the text. It is the Church that must stand over against the believing interpreter and state authoritatively what Scripture means.

Consequently, the Church must have, argues Jenson, a living, personal voice that can authoritatively and dogmatically speak to its members in the name of the Church:

But if the church as community is to defend the text against the interpreting of the church’s associated members, the church must have a voice with which to speak for herself to her own members. Biblical authority–and mutatis mutandis ritual and dogmatic authority–are therefore not possible apart from a voice for the church as community speaking to the church as association, that is, in the church’s own language, apart from a teaching office, a magisterium. (I:40)

Magisterium! This is a word that all Protestants, including Anglicans, avoid like the plague, whether we are liberal or conservative. The liberal objects to the possibility of church authority squashing new and fresh interpretations of the Scriptures. The conservative objects to the possibility of church authority rewriting divine revelation in any way it so chooses. Both liberal and conservative appeal to the romantic memory of Martin Luther (anyone see the recent movie?) bravely standing against the corrupt and authoritarian bishops of his day. Sola scriptura! is our cry.

The irony is that it is the churches of the sola scriptura that are finding it almost impossible today to effectively defend Scripture against the onslaught of modernity, while the two churches that explicitly reject the sola scriptura, the two churches that are clearly founded on the Apostles themselves, are both standing firm in the ecumenical dogmas. Yes, individual believers (and sometimes many of them!) cross the the line into heresy, especially in America and Western Europe–though I must say that this does not appear to be much of a problem for the Orthodox–but both churches are able, through their bishops, to speak corporately and authoritatively in the name of the Church over against modernist critique and neo-Gnostic spirituality. Both understand themselves as being the Church and not a denomination. Both understand the Church as being, in a fundamental, living sense, prior to the Scriptures and yet utterly subjected to God and his historic revelation. Both understand the Church as possessing a teaching office that is charismatically endowed by the Holy Spirit. And both, at least to a large extent, have avoided the kind of heresy and fragmentation that is typical of the churches of the Reformation. This is not to deny the huge problems confronting both Catholicism and Orthodoxy; but it is to honestly observe that when it comes to defending the ecumenical faith of the Apostles, Catholicism and Orthodoxy win hands down. Is this a mere coincidence?

Who speaks in the name of the Church? Who speaks for the Scriptures?

1 April 2004


I figured that my final quotation from Stan Hauerwas in my article “No More Bible Reading” might provoke a reaction or two. :-)

I remember attending a lecture one summer given by Hauerwas at Princeton Seminary. There were several internationally known Scripture scholars seated in the audience. Hauerwas was asked what he would do to reform seminary education. He replied, “Fire all the Bible scholars!” Needless to say, the academics in the audience were not amused.

But I suspect we need not live in fear that Hauerwas will one day show up at our front doors with his goon squad hunting for illicit Bibles.

Why would Hauerwas outrageously say that the number one priority today is to get the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians? Because we have not acquired the spiritual and moral character and skills, which can only be acquired by a life lived within Eucharistic community, that would allow us to understand Scripture. Because we have not submitted both our hearts and minds to the Church. As Americans we retain the right of a final say. “Don’t tread on me!” Hauerwas again:

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient for “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about. As a result the Bible inherently becomes the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church….

I certainly believe that God uses the Scripture to help keep the Church faithful, but I do not believe, in the Church’s current circumstance, that each person in the Church thereby is given the right to interpret the Scripture. Such a presumption derives from the corrupt egalitarian politics of democratic regimes, not from the politics of the Church. The latter … knows that the “right” reading of Scripture depends on having spiritual masters who can help the whole Church stand under the authority of God’s Word….

Indeed literalist-fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation by the Church. The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, joined to the invention of the printing press and underwritten by the democratic trust in the intelligence of the “common person,” has created the situation that now makes people believe that they can read the Bible “on their own.” (Unleashing the Scripture)

That same week at Princeton I also attended a seminar taught by Hauerwas. I recall him remarking that it used to bother him that he had not read directly as much of the Bible as many of his evangelical friends. Then, he said, it occurred to him that that in fact he knew a great deal of Scripture but as mediated to him through the writings of St Thomas Aquinas–and this is not a bad way to learn one’s Bible! The necessity again of the mediation of the Church and of spiritual and theological masters.

Given the rampant neo-Gnosticism of American culture, which provides spiritual experience galore without true moral and spiritual conversion to Christ Jesus in his Church, is Hauerwas’s argument so far-fetched?

What I do not understand about Hauerwas is why and how he can remain a Methodist. He seems to understand well the need for an authoritative Church, yet he remains a theologian within a liberal Protestant denomination. Might it be because his absolute pacifism contradicts the consensual teaching of the Church catholic, both East and West? Just a thought …

2 April 2004


“What the Bible says, God says.” I encountered this dictum during seminary in a book by J. I. Packer. (I’m afraid I do not recall which one.) It’s a powerful conviction, the kind of conviction that energizes strong preaching and vigorous mission. It challenges and contradicts the cultivated ambiguity that lies at the heart of most contemporary theology and preaching.

“What the Bible says, God says.” As I wrestle with the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, I return again and again to the theme of private judgment. Given that the Bible is not self-interpreting, given that the Bible does not belong to an obvious genre that provides rules for its interpretation, given that one cannot put the Bible into the dock and ask it what it means, given that the Bible is open to conflicting interpretations, how do we confidently determine what the Bible says? The Arians and semi-Arians were convinced they had the Scriptures on their side. Anglo-Catholics are convinced that the Bible teaches the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist; evangelicals are as equally convinced that it does not. Are we not thrust back upon our own private judgment? Is the hermeneutical solipsism of a Bishop Gene Robinson the best we can do? (“The question is not what does the Bible say, but what do you believe the Bible is saying.”)

We Protestants love to debate the hermeneutics of Scripture; but we rarely get around to reflecting directly upon the sola scriptura dogma itself. It is surprising that we do not. Given the confessional battles within Protestantism over the past five centuries and the endless schisms and the making of new denominations, one would think that we would realize that 2+2 will never = 5, that our hermeneutical problem can never be solved by better theories or the return to old theories. Yet for some reason we do not question the fundamental Protestant assertion of the Bible’s formal sufficiency. How could there not be disagreement on Scripture among sinners? we think to ourselves. We thus find ourselves either forming new denominations of like-minded interpreters or embracing an ever-increasing inclusivity. If we are Anglicans, we acknowledge the secondary authority of creeds and confessions and the testimonies of doctors and saints to guide us; but only we can judge whether these other authorities have accurately interpreted Scripture and whether their interpretations are worthy interpretations for our time. In the end, each believer remains the infallible judge of God’s Word.

In his essay Faith and Private Judgment, John Henry Newman distinguishes between accepting a truth on the basis of authority and accepting a truth on the basis of one’s determination that it is true. He writes:

Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other;–to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more? Are not these two procedures distinct in this, that in the former you submit, in the latter you judge? At this moment I am not asking you which is the better, I am not asking whether this or that is practicable now, but are they not two ways of taking up a doctrine, and not one?

Newman then goes on to ask, Which state was characteristic of the first hearers of the Apostles? When the Apostles proclaimed to them the divine sonship of Jesus, when they announced his atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind and his resurrection victory over the powers of evil and death, when they taught the necessity of baptism and Eucharist and the nature of the moral life, did their hearers submit to the apostolic teaching or did they judge it according to their own self-chosen standards?

Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgement. No one could say: “I will choose my religion for myself, I will believe this, I will not believe that; I will pledge myself to nothing; I will believe just as long as I please, and no longer; what I believe to-day I will reject tomorrow, if I choose. I will believe what the Apostles have as yet said, but I will not believe what they shall say in time to come.” No; either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. To believe a little, to believe more or less, was impossible; it contradicted the very notion of believing: if one part was to be believed; it was an absurdity to believe one thing and not another; for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God. The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgement.

Faith in the direct teaching of the Apostles, therefore, required faith in the Apostles as authorized messengers of God. It was to believe that they were indeed sent by the risen Christ. How can one debate the original recpients of the divine revelation? What the Apostles say, Christ says. If the Apostles didn’t get the original revelation right, no one did. (See Why do I need the Apostles?) When I am confronted directly by the word of the Apostle, I can either accept his word as being the word of God or I can reject it as a mere human word. What I cannot do, however, is judge it according to my self-chosen criteria and select as true those parts that I prefer.

The relationship between the Apostles and the later believers obviously changes once the Apostles have died, bequeathing to us their witness in written form. Now we have the challenge of interpretation. What does the text mean? What does the Bible say?

Now, is it not certain that faith in the time of the Apostles consisted in submitting? and is it not certain that it did not consist in judging for one’s self. It is in vain to say that the man who judges from the Apostle’s writings, does submit to those writings in the first instance, and therefore has faith in them; else why should he refer to them at all? There is, I repeat, an essential difference between the act of submitting to a living oracle, and to his written words; in the former case there is no appeal from the speaker, in the latter the final decision remains with the reader. Consider how different is the confidence with which you report another’s words in his presence and in his absence. If he be absent, you boldly say that he holds so and so, or said so and so; but let him come into the room in the midst of the conversation, and your tone is immediately changed. It is then, ‘I THINK I have heard you say something LIKE this, or what I TOOK to be this’; or you modify considerably the statement or the fact to which you originally pledged him, dropping one half of it for safety sake, or retrenching the most startling portions of it; and then after all you wait with some anxiety to see whether he will accept any portion of it at all. The same sort of process takes place in the case of the written document of a person now dead. I can fancy a man magisterially expounding St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians or to the Ephesians, who would be better content with the writer’s absence than his sudden re-appearance among us; lest the Apostle should take his own meaning out of his commentator’s hands and explain it for himself. In a word, though he says he has faith in St. Paul’s writings, he confessedly has no faith in St. Paul; and though he may speak much about truth as found in Scripture, he has no wish at all to be like one of these Christians whose names and deeds occur in it.

Newman identifies the problem that we have seen discussed by Jenson, Hauerwas, and Chesterton–the problem of written texts that require interpretation. But note how this problem was a non-problem for the first hearers of the Apostles. They were confronted with authoritative messengers who spoke to them an authoritative message, to which they had to submit (or not). In the presence of the Apostle, who is present to both proclaim his message and to explain it in response to questionings, there can only be faith or disbelief. But when I have the written text of the apostolic message before me, I must first determine for myself what it means, and then I must decide whether to believe or not to believe.

This is the intrinsic weakness of the Protestant experiment. The Reformation only works if one grants to the original reformers a status equivalent to that of the Apostles. But once they die and we are left only with their writings, then we find ourselves confronting all over again the problem of interpretation.

What the Bible says, God says. But how do we determine what the Bible says? At this point in my faith, I am no longer content to simply say “This is what the Bible says according to Luther or Pusey or the Pontificator.” Has Christ provided his Church a way by which we can be confident that what we say the Bible says God says?

29 April 2004


Last week I received a very thoughtful email from one of our readers. He entitled it “A Protestant’s Questions” and he posed the following to me:

I think that the principle of “sola sriptura” should be assessed as a mere corollary of “solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide”. That is, it should be assessed, not as a formal principle, a part of the prolegomena to theology, but as a matter of theology proper, and indeed of Christology and soteriology, not of hermeneutics. You said in one recent posting that protestants don’t understand the veneration of BMV because they view it within their own theological framework, in which it doesn’t make sense: I would like to suggest that, similarly, you see “sola scriptura” within a catholic theological framework, in which it doesn’t, and can’t, make sense. What the 39 articles of your church say – that scripture contains everything necessary for salvation – is, I think, the decisive argument for protestants: Scripture (and scripture only!) gives clear witness to salvation through Christ alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. If that witness of scripture is true, if it is to be trusted, than nothing that goes beyond God’s grace through faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, then nothing that goes beyond what scripture teaches is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, then nothing that goes beyond what scripture teaches necessarily forms a part of the proclamation of the church. And if that is so, then nothing beyond scripture could be binding for the doctrine of the church. And, contrariwise, if anything that is not contained in scripture is deemed binding for the teaching of the church, how can anyone avoid the conclusion that that something is also necessary for the proclamation of the church and, hence, necessary for salvation; and if that were so, how could anyone avoid the conclusion (since, going beyond the witness of scripture, that “something” must be something other than grace through faith in Christ), how could anyone avoid the conclusion that salvation is not by grace through faith in Christ, but by something else (or by grace through faith in Christ plus something else, which is much the same as salvation by something else)? And if so, how could the church avoid abandoning the teaching of the apostles?

I suggest that this is the reasoning, or the theo-logic, behind “sola scriptura”, and I confess that, personally, I still find it compelling. I further suggest that this theological understanding is the only possible defense of sola scriptura. All those formal questions concerning the history of the canon and the decisions of councils and the authority of the church etc. simply miss the point. You asked readers to identify points of interest for your future writing: This is the one point that I think every critique of “sola scriptura” must address, and as far as I see you haven’t done so yet. Hence my obstinate refusal to be convinced.

I know that fifteen years ago, when I was deeply immersed in Lutheran theology, I would have had a better grasp on the above than I do now. When the four solas have captured one’s heart, it all hangs together and makes compelling sense. But the questions arise when one starts to analyze matters more closely. Let us begin, therefore, with the gospel. We have heard the gospel, we have been baptized into the gospel, we speak the gospel, we eat the gospel. Because we know the gospel we know that we are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone. Solus Christus! Sola Gratia! This is the gospel declared to us by the Apostles and traditioned in the Church for the past two thousand years. This is the gospel upon which magisterial Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy agree.

But then we come to the sola fide, and the spirits divide. Are we saved by faith alone? It all depends on how one defines one’s terms. “Faith alone” means one thing in the monergistic framework of Luther and Calvin; it means something very different in the synergistic framework of the Greek and Latin Fathers (or John Wesley). For the purpose of this article, it is unnecessary to discuss the sola fide in depth (see my articles on Justification). All that is necessary is to point out that the Reformation construal of justification by faith alone was a dramatic innovation in the history of theology. Or in Alistair McGrath’s oft-quoted phrase, it was a “genuine theological novum.” This fact alone should lead Protestants to question what they have been taught by their evangelical pastors and to question continued separation from the Church of Rome.

So immediately we are confronted with the question of authority: Who is rightly interpreting the Scriptures? Luther was convinced that he had discovered the true meaning of St Paul’s Epistles, and no Father of the Church could dissuade him, not even the Doctor of Grace: ‘Augustine has sometimes erred and is not to be trusted. Although good and holy, he was yet lacking in the true faith, as well as other fathers … But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was all over with Augustine’ (LW 54, 49). Elsewhere Luther writes: ‘It was Augustine’s view that the law … if the Holy Spirit assists, the works of the law do justify … I reply by saying “No”‘ (LW 54, 10). Most of the other Fathers fare even worse: ‘I know no doctor whom I hate so much, although I once loved him ardently and read him voraciously. Surely there’s more learning in Aesop than in all of Jerome’ (LW 54, 72). Of some other early Fathers of the Church, he writes: ‘I have no use for Chrysostom either, for he is only a gossip. Basil doesn’t amount to anything; he was a monk, after all, and I wouldn’t give a penny for him. Philip’s (Melanchthon’s) Apology is superior to all the doctors of the church, even to Augustine himself. Hilary and Theophylact are good, and so is Ambrose’ (LW 54, 33). (Biretta tip to Bill Tighe for these citations.) Thus Martin Luther pitted himself against the Holy Tradition of the Church and set himself up as a prophet of the Almighty. Luther’s consciousness of his special authority became even more pronounced in his conflicts with his fellow Protestants (see Mark U. Edwards Jr, Luther and the False Brethren [1975]).

One can well understand why traditional Catholic churchmen of the 16th century heard the teachings of Luther with as much horror as many traditional Episcopalians of the 21st century hear the teachings of Frank Griswold. Just as Luther believed that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit in his reading of Scripture, so Frank Griswold believes; just as Luther was unwilling to submit his personal theology to the judgment of the Church, so Frank Griswold refuses. Martin Luther was a theological revolutionary; so is Frank Griswold.

Now it just so happens that I am far more sympathetic to the views of Luther than I am to those of Bishop Griswold. Luther’s positive themes are deeply rooted in the catholic faith (see Why Only Catholicism Can Make Protestantism Work). And at least Luther acknowledges an authority external to himself, namely, Holy Scripture, even if he asserts himself as its privileged interpreter. But though Griswold speaks Christianese, he speaks it with a neo-gnostic lisp. His is a theology of the inner experience of the divine, and how does one argue against someone’s inner experience? Give me Luther as a theological opponent any day! But ultimately my preference of Luther over Griswold is simply an expression of my private judgment. And that is the problem. In the absence of magisterial authority, all we are left with is private judgment and our conflicting interpretations of the Bible. Who interprets Scripture to the Church? Who is divinely authorized to defend the true meaning of Scripture from the enemies of the gospel?

Which brings us back to the Reformation declaration of sola Scriptura. Because Scripture clearly witnesses to Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, my correspondent writes, then “nothing that goes beyond God’s grace through faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, then nothing that goes beyond what scripture teaches necessarily forms a part of the proclamation of the church. And if that is so, then nothing beyond scripture could be binding for the doctrine of the church.”

There is one sense, I think, in which a catholic Christian might properly affirm sola Scriptura—as instruction to the Church to speak Scripture and to preach on the basis of Scripture. Here we distinguish between Scripture as living Word in the Church and Scripture as norm for theology. It is the first use, I suggest, to which the sola Scriptura slogan properly applies: Speak Scripture! Use Scripture! Exposit and apply Scripture! The Bible is given by God to nourish, vivify, and sanctify his Church in the truth and life of the gospel. Because Holy Scripture is the faithful record of God’s history with his people, culminating in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ and the Pentecostal creation of the Church, the Scripture is the foundational text for the Church’s ministry of preaching. The gospel is a story, and the Bible is the primary and normative written expression of this story. Preachers preach from the Bible. Robert W. Jenson writes:

The first and foremost doctrine de scriptura is therefore not a proposition about Scripture at all. It is rather the liturgical and devotional instruction: Let the Scripture be read, at every opportunity and with care for its actual address to hearers, even if these are only the reader. The churches most faithful to Scripture are not those that legislate the most honorific propositions about Scripture but those that most often and thoughtfully read and hear it…. Scripture’s fundamental authority is simply the fact that its viva vox is present in the church, and so present as to shape her life. Insofar as theology is called to measure the church’s faithfulness in this matter also, the decisive questions are therefore questions about elementary churchly practice. What stories, lines of argument, and turns of phrase actually come to furnish the minds of those supposedly instructed in the faith? When prayers and hymns are chosen or written, what vocabulary and what narratives of invocation and blessing come first to hand? Do we witness the preacher struggle to be faithful to the readings, whether successfully or not?

The primary doctrine of Scripture may be stated: privilege this book within the church’s living discourse. And that of course does pose a theoretical question: Why should Scripture be thus privileged? The answer is almost tautologous. The gospel is a narrative, and this book is that telling of the narrative from which all others draw, quite apart from any need for their correction by it. Systematic Theology [1999], II:273-274)

But the sola Scriptura does not stand on its own; it is appended to the sola’s that precede it. The Bible is preached properly only when it is a preaching of Christ Jesus who saves us by grace and mercy. The Bible is preached properly only when it is a preaching of the good news of the crucified and risen Lord. Sola Scriptura, therefore, exhorts us to proclaim the Scripture as gospel, as the Word of salvation given to us in and by Christ Jesus through the Spirit, a Word spoken to us to be taken into our hearts and believed and trusted.

But how do we negotiate conflicting interpretations of the gospel?

17 April 2005


My sola scriptura correspondent continues:

You said several times (as did so many others) that scripture is not clear, that authority is necessary in order to determine the meaning of scripture (or so I think I understand from several of your postings). You even seem to suggest (and I seem to remember that you do actually say so somewhere) that scripture, in and of itself, doesn’t have any meaning at all, that meaning must be given to it in interpretation. Now, quite frankly, that seems to me an extremely dangerous argument for any christian theologian to use, whether catholic or protestant. Is it really wise to use deconstructivist hermeneutics in order to get rid of the authority of scripture? Catholics and postmodernists make strange bedfellows indeed, or so it would appear to this protestant.

But here, again, my main point is a theological one. If it were true that meaning is only given to scripture in interpretation, then I fail to see how it could be claimed in any meaningful sense that any one interpretation of scripture is true. If meaning is given to scripture in interpretation, because it hasn’t got any meaning in and of itself, then the corollary of that is that each and every interpretation of scripture is arbitrary. In other words, the interpretation of scripture would be, not a matter of truth, but one of power: a strangely nietzschean notion, to my mind. A church that wishes to determine the “true” meaning of scripture by its own authority, in so doing necessarily destroys the very concept of a true interpretation, even where its own interpretation happens to be in agreement with scripture (“if they can give scripture any meaning they like, why can’t we?” – there’s revisionism for you!).

Contrariwise, if the teaching of the church does not give meaning to scripture, but safeguards the meaning that scripture has in and of itself, then the corollary of that is that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to distinguish between the teaching of scripture and its interpretation by the church, and that scripture must be the criterion by which the teaching of the church has to be measured.

Let me first correct one point: I have never stated—at least I hope I have never stated—that Scripture does not have any meaning except that which is given to it by the reader. Stanley Hauerwas, whom I have cited a couple of times on this matter, does seem to come close to saying this; but I’m not sure if he really does.

What I have argued, following Orthodox philosopher, Richard Swinburne, is that the historical-grammatical meaning of the biblical text, i.e., that which the original author actually intended to say is not necessarily identical to the canonical or divine meaning of the text.

Swinburne’s argument is simple—context is everything. If we wish to determine the meaning of a text, we need to know all sorts of things. We need to know who wrote it and why. We need to know its intended audience. We need to know the literary genre to which it belongs. We need to know its social context, etc. Now let’s consider what happens if a piece of writing is incorporated into larger context. An obvious example is when an author publishes a collection of previously published essays, but with a prefrace stipulating how particular arguments are to be understood or perhaps even stating his disagreement with his previously published arguments. Newman did this when, as a Catholic, he republished his Anglican sermons and writings. “In such a context,” Swinburne explains, “the author is not stating the views contained in the papers but rather quoting them; and the meaning of the whole is what the author says it is in the preface, with the qualifications which he makes there—even if that was not the meaning of the papers as originally published” (Revelation [1992], p. 63).

Now consider the vast array of writings that are contained in Holy Scripture. We all know, for example, that the Book of Genesis has been pulled together from various sources—the infamous JEDP sources. In the first two chapters we find two different accounts of God’s creation of the world. Presumably each one originally stood alone; the meaning of each was contained within itself, as it were. But now they stand together within the book of Genesis and mutually interpret each other within the context of the book as a whole. Similarly, Genesis itself belongs to Torah, which belongs to the wider collection of writings that we Christians call the Old Testament, which is coordinated with the New Testament within the one book of Holy Scripture, whose author, the Church confesses, is God Almighty.

So when we ask, “What does this text mean?”, we have to clarify the literary context. If we are asking for the historical-grammatical meaning, then this is presumably the meaning intended by the original author. This is no doubt an important meaning to ascertain, if possible. It would be nice to know, for example, what St. Paul really meant when he talked about justification in his Letter to the Romans. But the Church cannot stay at this historical-grammatical level. The fact is, the Letter to the Romans now exists—and was intended by God to exist—within a wider collection of writings. It must be interpreted, not only in coordination with Galatians and Ephesians, but also with James and Hebrews and Matthew and Deuteronomy. Hence Hauerwas’s provocative statement:

Once Paul’s letters become so constructed canonically, Paul becomes one interpreter among others of his letters. If Paul could appear among us today to tell us what he “really meant” when he wrote, for example 1 Corinthians 13, his view would not necessarily count more than Gregory’s or Luther’s account of Corinthians. There simply is no “real meaning” of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians once we understand that they are no longer Paul’s letters but rather the Church’s Scripture.

Now I do not know if Hauerwas would agree that this means that Scripture only has the meaning that we bring to it; Swinburne would not agree:

What the Church proclaimed as Holy Scripture were not individual books, let alone the units out of which they were made, but the whole collection. Putting the books together into a whole Bible involved giving them a change of context and, in consequence, by processes similar to those involved in the formation of an individual book, a change of meaning.

The process produced a change of literary context: what were before books on their own became parts of a big book. And it also produced a change of social and cultural context, but just what the change was depends on who we suppose to be the author of the whole Bible and who was its intended audience. For, we we have seen, it is the social context and the cultural predispositions of the author and his audience which dictate how the book is to be interpreted. The Church put the Bible together, but it did so by selecting books deriving from prophets or apostles in which were recorded what in its view was God’s revelation through them to man. God, in the Church’s view, was the ultimate author of the Bible—working, no doubt, through human writers with their own idiosyncracies of style, but all the same inspiring the individual books. What the Church proclaimed with respect to the Bible was not just “here is a book which we have found and recognized as true,” but “here is a book which we have found and recognized as inspired by God and so as true.” (pp. 174-175)

Hence to restrict ourselves to historical-grammatical exegesis is to fail to recognize the change of literary context, and thus change of meaning, that has been effected by the ecclesial act of including a specific writing within the canon. It is to fail to read the Bible as Scripture. Commenting on the Apostle Paul’s exclusion of women from the ministry of teaching, Swinburne suggests that the passages be read historically, i.e., as local instruction not necessarily universally applicable. He then states:

And I re-emphasize that reading the passages in such a way is not saying that that is what St Paul meant by what he wrote. People sometimes write what they do not mean; what they mean is determined by the context, and if the context is the whole Bible as a Christian document inspired by God, the meaning of these passages may be quite other than St Paul meant them to have. (p. 200)

This then raises an important question: What is the literal meaning of a scriptural text? Is it the historical-grammatical meaning or is it the canonical meaning? However we define literal in this situation, Swinburne is convinced that the inspired meaning of the text cannot be identified willy nilly with its “original meaning.” Speaking of the rise of the historical-critical method, he writes:

But in the nineteenth century the Bible came to be interpreted by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in perhaps the most literal and insensitive way in which it has ever been interpreted in Christian history. This literalism was encouraged by the basic philosophical mistake of equating the “original meaning” of the text, gradually being probed by historical enquiry, with the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document. We may hanker after the “original meaning” in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meaning…. The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history.

Of course, if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the “original meaning” of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted. This evident fact led many liberal-minded theologians of the twentieth century to cease to talk of the Bible being “true,” but to speak rather of it being “useful” or “insightful” if read in accord with some rule or other of interpretation; and there have evolved as many ways of interpreting as there have been theologians doing the interpreting. And saying this sort of thing about the Bible hardly gives it a special status—the same could be said of any great work of literature. A general fog settled over “hermeneutics.” And yet the rules are there, sanctified by centures of use by those who claimed in accord with Christian tradition that the Bible was “true.” (pp. 207-208)

The Song of Songs is Swinburne’s favorite example. It was originally composed as an erotic poem of young love; but it was received into the canon as a poem about the love between God and Israel. What is its literal meaning? Perhaps the answer depends on whether we are looking from the perspective of the original poet or the divine and ultimate poet.

Swinburne can go so far as to say that the Bible must be read just like “any other book“; but of course there is no other book that has God as its author, which is what makes the interpretation of Scripture so very interesting.

19 April 2005


If God is the ultimate author of Holy Scripture and if the canonical meaning of a text is not necessarily identical to its original meaning, then how is the meaning of the Bible to be divined? It’s not simply a matter of doing extensive historical-grammatical research. A Christian reading of the Bible requires us to interpret the text within the context of the canon as a whole, in light of God’s self-revelation in the incarnate Word.

Classical Protestantism proposes a hermeneutical principle that at first appears to solve our problem: Scripture interprets Scripture. The Articles of Religion puts the matter thusly: “Yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (XX). But as Richard Swinburne points out, this rule cannot work, in and by itself, given the very nature of Scripture:

The slogan of Protestant confessions, “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself,” is quote hopeless. The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books. We must have a preface. And if not a preface in the same volume, a short guide by the same author issued in the same way as the Bible, providing disambiguation and publicly seen by the intended audience to do so. Such a guide would be an extension of the original work. And that said, there is of course such a guide. It is the Church’s creeds and other tradition of public teaching of items treated as central to the Gospel message. While the Church did not use the phrase of God that he was the “author” of creeds it certainly taught that God through Christ was the author of the tradition of teaching in the Church deriving from Christ by which Scripture was to be interpreted, and that much of that was encapsulated in short and rigorous form in the creeds and other Church documents. Allegance to creeds was regarded as far more important at a far earlier stage of the Church’s history than acknowledgement of the authority of Scripture. The Bible as promulgated by the Church must therefore be interpreted in the light of the Church’s central teaching as a Christian document…. The idea that the Bible could be interpreted naked, without a tradition of interpretation which clarified its meaning, is not intrinsically plausible and would not have appealed to many before the fifteenth century. Theology from without always dictated which sentences of the Bible were benchmarks by which other sentences were interpreted. (Revelation [1992], p. 177-178)

If Swinburne is correct, then the catholic Christian must reject the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura—at least he must reject it if the principle is interpreted, not as I suggested earlier, as instruction to proclaim the story of Scripture, but as the assertion of Scripture as the supreme and exclusive norm of theology. The apostolic and catholic faith, in all of its richness, complexity, and mystery, simply cannot be read off the text of the Bible. If an alien were to land on earth, buy a copy of the Holy Bible from Barnes & Noble, and then return to his home in a galaxy far, far away, he would not be able to then sit down and deduce from its pages the religion that is catholic Christianity. He would not know that every page, every verse of the Old Testament actually witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth. He would not reason out that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, possessing both a divine and human nature. He would not infer that the Church is institutionally structured around a three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, which gathers weekly with the laity to offer the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood. And he certainly would never guess that life-long celibacy is considered a high and holy calling. And if we think the Book of Revelation is difficult to decipher, just think how impossible it will be for our alien! Sola scriptura sounds great as a slogan, until we sit down and really think out the consequences.

Scripture can only be rightly interpreted through the unified hermeneutical lens of liturgy, creed, churchly and ascetical praxis, and the witness of the saints, doctors, and martyrs—which is simply to say that Scripture must be read in and with the Church. Only the Church can read Scripture rightly, because the Church is the mystical body of the risen Christ and indwelt by his Spirit. 19th century theologian Johann Adam Möhler writes:

How is the Divine Word to be secured against the erroneous conceptions that have arisen? The general sense decides against particular opinion—the judgment of the Church against that of the individual: the Church interprets the Sacred Scriptures. The Church is the body of the Lord: it is, in its universality, his visible form—his permanent, ever-renovated humanity—his eternal revelation. He dwells in the community; all his promises, all his gifts are bequeathed to the community—but to no individual, as such, since the time of the apostles. This general sense, this ecclesiastical consciousness is tradition in the subjective sense of the word. What then is tradition? The peculiar Christian sense existing in the Church, and transmitted by ecclesiastical education; yet this sense is not to be conceived as detached from its subject-matter—nay, it is formed in, and by this matter, so it may be called a full sense. Tradition is the living word, perpetuated in the hearts of believers. To this sense, as the general sense, the interpretation of Holy Writ is entrusted. The declaration which it pronounces on any controverted subject, is the judgment of the Church; and, therefore, the Church is judge in matters of faith (judex controversiarum). Tradition, in the objective sense, is the general faith of the Church through all ages, manifested by outward historical testimonies; in this sense, tradition is usually termed the norma—the standard of Scriptural interpretation—the rule of faith. (Symbolism [1997], pp. 278-279)

The Church rightly interprets Scripture because the Church knows the gospel, because the Church has internalized the gospel, because the Church is the gospel. She received this faith directly from the risen Christ and this faith is sealed in the depths of her being by the Holy Spirit. The apostolic and catholic faith has existed within the Church from the very beginning, and it is by this faith that she infallibly determines the sense of Holy Scripture. Again Möhler:

Thou wilt obtain the knowledge full and entire of the Christian religion only in connection with its essential form, which is the Church. Look at the Scripture in an ecclesiastical spirit, and it will present thee an image perfectly resembling the Church. Contemplate Christ in, and with his creation—the Church—the only adequate authority—the only authority representing him, and thou wilt then stamp his image on thy soul. (p. 288)

The relationship between Church, Scripture, and Tradition is construed in various ways by Catholic and Orthodox theologians, yet all have in common the assertion of the ontological priority of the Church. “The Church, as the Body of Christ,” Georges Florovsky states, “stands mystically first and is fuller than Scripture.” The Church is not just the gathering of sinful believers; she is intimately united to her risen Lord by his Spirit as one spiritual organism. Her head is Christ Jesus; her soul is the Holy Spirit. The Church shares in a common faith and a common catholic consciousness (Michael Pomazansky). “Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church” (Vladimir Lossky). “The Church herself does not err, for she is the truth” (Alexei Khomiakov). “Scripture … does not itself suffice to yield its true meaning; it must be read within the Church, within Tradition. Scripture itself is sovereign and is not subject to any rule which could judge it. But it does not itself fulfil all the functions that are necessary for fixing the faith of Christians” (Yves Congar).

Or as the Apostle Paul declared, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).

The Church, therefore, does not come to Holy Scripture as a stranger. Through the Spirit the incarnate Word dwells within her bosom. She recognizes the sacred writings to which she has given birth and comprehends their divine unity and salvific meaning. She honors Holy Writ and submits herself to its inerrant witness, direction, and illumination.

24 April 2005


David Bennett has just come out of the hermeneutical closet: “I am an unrepentant eisegete!” Oh my. This is quite the Lenten confession. And this guy was trained in theological studies at Emory, too. But before condemning him to the stake, let’s first listen to his reasons.

Eisegesis, David tells us, “is reading your personal interpretations into the Biblical text.” According to all scholars trained in the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Scripture, eisegesis is the gravest of sins. We are called instead to practice exegesis. Exegesis seeks to discern the meaning intended by the original author(s). Such discernment requires the exegete to assume a stance of neutrality and to carefully attend to any tendencies on his part to read into the text his own beliefs and opinions. David is unsure if anyone can be truly objective when reading Scripture, but that is not his real point. He believes that Christians have always been eisegetes. Why? Because from the beginning of their movement, Christians have read Jesus into the Old Testament.

I hate to break it to everybody, but Jesus isn’t in the Old Testament if you strictly exegete the text, otherwise every Jew would have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, because his name and location would have been clearly spelled out. You have to read Jesus into Old Testament. The Church has consistently read Jesus (and Mary and all sorts of New Testament concepts) into the text where Jewish exegetes did not find him. My response to all of this: good! We Christians believe that Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we are to read Scripture. So yes, we are interpreting Scripture though a very biased lens, but if it is the right lens, then we are safe. We are truly eisegetes, but what is wrong with that? If Jesus himself truly is the Word (logos), then it makes perfect sense that the Old Testament be read typologically to find Jesus there.

But if the Church authorizes Christians to read Jesus into the Old Testament—or perhaps more accurately, to find Jesus in the Old Testament—is he not also licensing wild speculation and fantasy? If typology is possible, then what about … [drum beats] … allegory? We need not worry, says David: “There are limits to eisegesis, and the community that produced the texts, the Church, sets various limits on how its own documents may be read. So while we are obvious eisegetes, we are not permitted to ‘read into’ Scripture anything that contradicts Apostolic Truth.”

I can hear the objections of the Reformers. “To allegorize is to juggle the Scripture,” cried Luther. “Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.” Similarly, Calvin accused allegorists of “torturing scripture, in every possible sense, from the true sense.” Yet both Luther and Calvin engaged in the christological interpretation of the Old Testament, so perhaps they would not be unsympathetic to David’s proposal.

But not so the grammatical-historical critics of the past hundred and fifty years. It is an axiom within the academy that faith has no place in the interpretation of Scripture. In a recent article published on the Society of Biblical Literature website, Michael V. Fox argues that “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer.” He acknowledges that faith-interpretation of the Bible has a place in “synagogues, churches, and religious schools,” but it is not scholarship. I agree with him. There is such a thing as the grammatical-historical exegesis of the writings contained in the Bible. This form of critical reading treats these writings as man-made documents that can be objectively interpreted by any individual trained in the use of approved scholarly apparatus. The historical exegete does not read the Bible as Scripture. He reads the Bible, or more accurately, the individual texts contained within it, as historical artifacts.

The question then becomes, Of what interest to the Church is the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible? I remember attending a lecture given by Stanley Hauerwas on how to read the Bible. In the audience were a number of esteemed scholars, including Jack Dean Kingsbury. Hauerwas was asked what he would do to reform theological education. “Fire the Bible scholars!” he declared. In his book Unleashing the Scripture, Hauerwas states that he no longer trusts “the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.” He acknowledges that the historical-critical method may provide readings of Scripture that are helpful to the proclamation of the gospel, but he rejects the privileging of such readings.

Hauerwas maintains that historical criticism and fundamentalism are flip-sides of the same sola scriptura coin. Both believe that the original and true meaning of Scripture can be discerned apart from the Church; both believe that the original and true meaning of Scripture can be discerned apart from moral and spiritual transformation. Scripture, says Hauerwas, can only properly be read by the Church: for God has given the Scripture to the Church to be read in the Church for the good of the Church. The provocative theologian concludes: “When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church.”

Hauerwas’s argument raises the question: What is the literal meaning of Scripture? Catholic exegetes typically assume that the literal meaning of the text is that meaning intended by the sacred writers:

The literal sense of Scripture is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context. The principal task of exegesis is to carry out this analysis, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view to defining the literal sense of the biblical texts with the greatest possible accuracy To this end, the study of ancient literary genres is particularly necessary…. [O]ne must reject as unauthentic every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text. To admit the possibility of such alien meanings would be equivalent to cutting off the biblical message from its root, which is the word of God in its historical communication; it would also mean opening the door to interpretations of a wildly subjective nature. (Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” [1993])

Yet the Pontifical Commission also cautiously acknowledges that “even when a human utterance appears to have only one meaning, divine inspiration can guide the expression in such way as to create more than one meaning.” How else, I would ask, can we understand the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the canon? Moreover, if with Dei Verbum we insist that the proper interpretation of Scripture requires that serious attention “be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture and that “the living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith,” then we will be a bit more critical of the critical method than the authors of the Pontifical Biblical Commission document. Clearly they had not yet read Hauerwas.

Perhaps we should distinguish between the historical and canonical meanings of the text: they will often coincide but not always.

Underlying Hauerwas’s approach to Scripture is the catholic conviction that the living reality of the Church is prior to the written word. “You do not have or need ‘a meaning’ of the text,” states Hauerwas, “when you understand that Church is more determinative than text.” I am reminded of a letter of Newman’s:

Of course a Catholic holds the inspiration of Scriptures—but the Church has defined very little upon the subject—much more freedom of opinion is allowed than with you—and we should have a sufficient ground of faith and teacher of doctrine, though by some dispensation of God, the whole Bible were miraculously to vanish out of the world. I know that it would be the withdrawal of an immense privilege, but the Catholic believes in the word of God thro’ His Church; et ‘verbum tuum permanet in aeternum’, tho’ Scripture were not.

Before the Bible, there is the Word of God dwelling in the heart of the Church. It is this faith in Holy Tradition that enables the Christian to find Christ in every sentence of Holy Scripture—holy eisegesis indeed.

20 March 2006


Christian blogdom is astir with the news that Dr Francis Beckwith, Associate Professor of Church-State Studies at Baylor University and, until a couple of days ago, President of the Evangelical Theological Society, has returned to full communion with the Catholic Church. One of the interesting questions being discussed is whether the doctrinal basis of the ETS can be read as permitting the membership of Catholics. The statement reads as follows:

The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

Dr Beckwith states that he intends to continue as a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, as he still affirms its doctrinal basis. But evangelical polemicist James White vigorously disagrees. White recalls the 1998 national meeting of the ETS in which a woman asked a panel of the society’s founding members the following question, “Why did you write ‘the Bible alone’ in the statement of faith?” Roger Nicole, well known defender of biblical inerrancy, rose, slowly walked to the podium, looked at the lady and said, “Because we didn’t want any Roman Catholics in the group.”

While acknowledging that the interpretation of the doctrinal basis ultimately rests with the Evangelical Theological Society itself, Jimmie Akin notes that Nicole is but one of the founding members of the society and if the society had truly wanted to exclude Catholics, they should have formulated the doctrinal basis more pointedly. After all, the Catholic Church confesses that Holy Scripture is inspired by God and that it alone is the inerrant written Word of God. The Second Vatican Council was unequivocal:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

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. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text). (Dei verbum §11)

According to the Catholic Church, no other written text, including conciliar decrees, can claim to be inspired and inerrant in the same way as Holy Scripture. Scripture and Scripture alone is God’s Word written. Hence if the ETS founders believed that the mere assertion of biblical inerrancy was sufficient to exclude the subscription of Roman Catholics, they were terribly mistaken. The real differences, of course, are to be located in hermeneutics and the relationship between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. The ETS doctrinal basis is silent on these matters.

But what interests me in all of this is the problem of negotiating conflicting interpretations of the doctrinal basis. I am sure that for the original authors of the statement, as well as for the overwhelming majority of ETS members, its plain meaning was and is clear. Whatever else it means, surely it means “Catholics keep out!” But now we have one member of the society asserting that the statement does not in fact exclude Catholic membership, because Catholics too confess the inerrancy of the Bible. The plain meaning of the doctrinal basis, in other words, really is not so plain. So how do we determine its intended meaning? The answer is obvious. We ask the individuals who wrote it, assuming that any are still alive. And back in 1998 founding members of the society were still alive and at least one confirmed that the statement excludes Catholics. The remembered testimony of Roger Nicole now functions as a magisterial interpretation of the ETS doctrinal basis. Catholics are to be excluded from the Evangelical Theological Society by interpreting its confession of biblical inerrancy in light of authoritative tradition. We might call this “doctrinal basis plus.”

The situation is akin to the first century as the Church struggled to understand and appropriate the revelation of Christ bequeathed to the Apostles. No doubt there were many within the apostolic Church who remembered the words and teachings of Jesus, but the Apostles were the foundational repositories of these teachings, as well as their authoritative interpreters. If one had a question about the revelation of Christ, one went to an Apostle and asked him directly. “What did Jesus say?” “What did Jesus mean when he said this?” “What is the proper way for us to obey the teachings of Jesus?” “What is the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection?” Because the Apostles, with the exception of Paul, had known Jesus intimately and had been been taught directly by him, both before and after his resurrection, and because they had been commissioned by the risen Christ to teach in his name in the power of the Spirit, their word and judgment enjoyed a definitive and final authority. This definitive and final authority continues to the present. What the Apostles say, Christ says. We have no access to the revelation of Christ apart from the mediation of the Apostles.

But what happens when the Apostles die? Their testimony has been partially preserved for us in written documents, but the Apostles are no longer available to us to answer our questions. Their writings are now vulnerable to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Their texts stand apparently defenseless. As Luther often remarked, “Scripture has a wax nose.” How can the Bible function as authoritative guide for the Church when the Church is able to manipulate her interpretations of Bible at will? The scholars and critics are of only relative usefulness to us. They cannot agree among themselves on what words Jesus actually spoke or even what Paul meant by justification by faith. Robert W. Jenson has well summarized the problem and identified the solution:

There is a decisive difference between agreeing or disagreeing with someone who speaks and agreeing or disagreeing with a text someone has written. If you assert something, and I say, “I disagree with your assertion that …,” you may respond, “But that is not what I assert.” Then I can listen further, get a clearer understanding of your intention, and try again to agree or disagree. I am to agree or disagree with the person. But if I am reading a text, I have to agree or disagree with it and not with the writer. Over against a text, the question cannot be, What do you want to say? It can only be, What did someone in fact say, even if unintentionally?

In one way, a reader is therefore more free—it may seem indeed, omnipotent—over against a text than is a listener over against a speaker. A speaker is there to defend his or her intention against my interpretation. Once discourse has become text, it lacks this defense. A text is a bundle of signs left behind by their user, and merely as such cannot defend itself against readers; if the text itself is in any degree to adjudicate between proposed interpretations, some living, personal reality must maintain the text’s independence. Nor can the interpreters individually or in association make this defense, since they are themselves the problem.

If now we ask who is to defend a biblical text against its churchly interpreters—perhaps by pointing out facts about it—the final answer is that the Spirit must do so. But at the lower level … the needed insight is that there is no one to defend the text against the association of its interpreters except the community of those same interpreters, that is, the church as church over against the church as a certain number of conjoined persons. All texts finally need an interpreter that is no particular interpreter or even all partricular interpreters added or averaged together, that is to say, all texts need a true community as interpreter; in the church, Scripture has just such a defender.

But if the church as community is to defend the text against the interpreting of the church’s associated members, the church must have a voice with which to speak for herself to her own members. Biblical authority—and mutatis mutandis ritual and dogmatic authority—are therefore not possible apart from a voice for the church as community speak to the church as association, that is, in the church’s own language, apart from a teaching office, a magisterium.

The single entity of the church-community, to which appeal is here made, is both synchronic and diachronic in its unicity, but it is the latter that is now our concern. Through the teaching office, the church speaks as one diachronically communal reality and is guarded in this unity precisely by so speaking; therefore the teaching office must itself be essentially characterized by diachronic unity. In the church’s teaching language, this is called “succession”: those are to teach who make one community with former teachers.

There is an obvious problem here. It is the teaching office that speaks dogma, that speaks theologically for the church to its own members. Every proposal of dogma, like every proposal of theology generally, must be tested against Scripture and existing dogma. But we now see that it is, again, the teaching office by which Scripture and dogmatic texts can assert themselves. Here is a circle that obviously could set the teaching office adrift to define the gospel as whatever pleases its momentary holders. Sensitivity to this threat has notoriously made Protestantism uneasy with the posit of an authoritative magisterium. Yet now we see that a teaching office is necessary if Scripture or dogma are themselves to exercise authority.

The magisterium can be the necessary enunciator of the gospel’s diachronic identity rather than a threat to it, can be the defense of Scripture and existing dogma rather than a danger to them, only if the circularity of the magisterium’s role marks the freedom of a charism, if the teaching office is an instrument of God the Spirit.

At bottom, the chief thing to be done about the integrity of the church across time is to pray that God will indeed use the church’s structures of historical continuity to establish and preserve it, and to believe that he answers this prayer. Much futile polemical theology will be spared on all sides when this is recognized without qualification. (Systematic Theology, I:39-40)

6 May 2007

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