My Church History Perspective 3 – So what’s up with all the fighting over a book?

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I must confess that I’ve had a hard time determining which thread of my interactions with the Church and its history to tackle first. However, given the sort of Christianity within which I found myself, the first thread of strangeness I encountered had to do with the Bible, so I suppose it makes the most sense to start there. It has always been an area of strangeness for me, and it still holds surprises for me.

I landed in a part of the Christian spectrum that speaks often about the “inerrancy” or “infallibility” of the Holy Scriptures. Now, I’ll be honest and confess that even after fifteen years, I’m unsure exactly what people mean when they use those terms. Further, it strikes me that different groups and even different individuals often mean different things by those words. Sometimes the differences are minor, but other times they seem quite large to me.

I’ve never been able to grasp how the concept of “infallibility” can even apply to a text. Structures and powers can fail you. People can fail you. Faith and spirituality and religion can fail you. You can even fail yourself. But a text is just a text. It remains what it is. I suppose it’s true to say that it won’t “fail” or cease to be what it is. But I’ve never seen any great merit or virtue in that attribute. It is, after all, true of all texts.

In the same way, I’ve never grasped the point of trying to use the category of “error” with a spiritual writing of any sort. Error is the sort of category that best fits the sensible realm within which the scientific method operates. It’s the realm in which you can devise empirical (or as close to empirical as we can ever get) tests to show that an idea either corresponds to the nature of the physical realm or it does not. But I don’t see any way to apply that category to any spiritual writing. After all, they all purport to describe those aspects of reality that transcend the sensible and material portion we can directly test. So I have always tended to assume that any spiritual writing, allowing for the differences introduced by changing cultures and the supreme difficulty of translation, accurately portrays the perspective of reality as it intended to portray it and is thus “without error.

Yes, I would say that’s true of Christian scripture. But I would also say that is true about the Qur’an. I would say it’s true of the many different sutras within Buddhism. I would say it’s true of the Vedas. The question does not ever seem to me to be whether or not any of these texts contain “errors.” The question is which of the many very different perspectives accurately describes the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being? And that question far transcends the category of error.

Some would say these are really an expression of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura. I suppose in some sense they are a natural extension of that idea within the context of growing individualism that marked much of the modern history of Western Europe and the United States. It is not, however, what the Reformers themselves meant by the term. I actually had relatively little difficulty discerning and understanding what they meant. They were basically using the phrase or idea as a way to assert their own right to interpret Scripture over and against the interpretation of the Roman Catholic magisterium of their day. It’s obvious from their subsequent actions as they joined with the political powers of their respective states that they never intended that anyone and everyone was free to interpret Scripture as they saw fit. No, variant interpretations were as brutally repressed and opposed within the Reformation as within the Catholic states. The fury of war that swept Europe as a result left a solution born more of fatigue than any resolution of the question. It was decided that the people of any given state would be a part of the particular sect that held sway in that state and on that basis the constant wars would cease. And many of the states further resolved the problems with their internal religious dissidents by shipping them off to the “New World.” It’s little wonder we’re such a divisive and fractious lot here in the United States when it comes to faith.

No text, of course, has any “objective” meaning apart from interpretation. And the more that interpretation is divorced from the culture and language within which a text was written, the more subjective any independent or individual interpretation of the text will be. That is, for example, why the Qur’an cannot be translated. It is only the Qur’an in its original language. Any translation is instead a commentary on the Qur’an.

But Christianity has never been a religion based on a sacred text. We are not “People of the Book.” No, we claim to be the people of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Living Lord. We are the people, the ecclesia, the Church of those who are in living communion with him and with each other. We are the ones who know, acknowledge and proclaim him Lord. This is why Christians from the earliest days of our faith have held that the truth about Jesus could be proclaimed in any and every language and remain Truth. This is a part of the message of Pentecost. Christian texts could therefore be translated into other languages and still, within the context of the interpretation and proclamation of the Church, remain Holy Scripture. The translation was seen to be as holy as the original, not merely a commentary on the original sacred text.

Now that is not to say that the Holy Scriptures are somehow unimportant. No, they are vitally important and are easily the greatest part of our Christian tradition. But they are only useful to the extent that they are read in light of Christ. They have no independent or separate usefulness or validity. They have no life of their own and they can give no life. Our life is hid with Christ in God as the Holy Scriptures themselves attest.

The Holy Scriptures are not somehow magically self-interpreting in a way that no other text can be. They were produced within the context of the tradition of the Church. They were canonized within that same tradition. And they have no valid interpretation apart from the history of the interpretation of the Church. Since Christianity is firmly centered around the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical reality, indeed the very center of all historical time, and the community he formed, our Holy Scriptures have no independent or separate meaning or holiness.

Indeed, history works against such views of the Christian Scriptures. All of Christianity eventually settled on one canon for the New Testament and all traditions continue to use that canon. However, the Church selected those texts rather than others because they felt they were directly connected to an apostolic author and because these were the texts that were “read in Church” widely, and not in a specific geographic area alone. However, the various traditions today do not use the same Old Testament canon. And the Old Testament canon used by Protestants has the least historical credibility.

The Reformers selected the Jewish Masoretic canon for their Old Testament. However, the process that eventually produced that canon within rabbinical Judaism did not even begin until the latter part of the second century. When you see Justin Martyr, for example, accusing the Jews of altering the text of prophecies to reduce their connection to and fulfillment in Jesus, he is talking about those who were beginning the work that produced the Masoretic canon. Now, I have no idea how much merit those accusations had, but it does illustrate part of the problem with the Reformers’ decision.

What text did the early Church use? What text did the Gospels, Paul, and the other NT authors call “the scriptures”? Easy. The same text that was read in most of the first century synagogues, and virtually every synagogue outside the environs of Jerusalem in Judea — the Greek Septuagint. (Oddly, although the Reformers adopted the Masoretic text for their Old Testament canon, they used the Septuagint titles for those books.) That’s especially true once the Church began including gentiles. The only text the gentile converts could have read or heard and understood was the Septuagint. From what I can tell, the Reformers in part wanted to choose a different canon because they did not like what some of those books said. And, in part, it was simply a mistake. They correctly chose to look back to the Greek New Testament text to correct some errors in late medieval interpretations of the Latin Vulgate. They seem to have thought the Hebrew Masoretic text was the “original” of the Latin Vulgate Old Testament. It mostly wasn’t.

In the light of that history, the modern ideas about Scripture make even less sense. The Old Testament canon Protestants are using is not the same canon the Gospel authors, Paul, and others were calling “the Scriptures” when the texts of the New Testament canon were written. It’s not hugely different, of course, but there are still some significant differences.

In Christianity, unlike some religions, the text is a product of the faith. The faith is not a product of the text. The faith is a product of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I think some Christians today have that backwards.


One Comment on “My Church History Perspective 3 – So what’s up with all the fighting over a book?”

  1. 1 Scott Morizot said at 11:35 am on December 13th, 2009:

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