Everyone can’t be right. Why “the Bible alone” didn’t settle disputes in the early church.

Source: “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Source: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Snark MeterrealMID.003

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 2)

Several weeks ago I posted on the unintentional consequences of the doctrine of “the Bible alone. In that article I asserted that, while “sola scriptura” was taught by the early Reformers, it was an over-reaction against medieval Catholicism and does not give a complete picture of the Reformers views. The Reformers did make strong statements against the medieval over-reach by Rome, but if you read more than topical quotes excised from context, the Reformers actually had a very high view of the necessity of the Church as the Body of Christ on earth, and in authority in the Church. They were students of the early Fathers and went to great pains to demonstrate that their views were the views of the Church Fathers.

I press forward today from that previous critique, one that modern evangelicals and Great Tradition Christians generally agree on, that Western culture is abandoning the church even as the church engages in a wholesale embrace of the culture. Popular/contemporary evangelicals and Great Tradition Christians generally stand shoulder to shoulder in our critique of the “fruit” of contemporary evangelicalism – both agreeing that when people do what they want to do, and the church then panders to those individualistic and idolatrous tendencies, that it does fill buildings, but it fills them with empty people…producing mealy, tasteless spiritual fruit in the lives of Christians. If faith were an apple, it would be a Red Delicious, which although it may be red, thanks to hybridization, is generally far from “delicious.”[1]

From there, however, our paths diverge as Christians of the Great Tradition see the problem as going much deeper than the fruit – It is a problem of the root. And the root is the issue of authority in the church. Evangelicals have made the Bible the sole authority. When we do that what we mean is that our own interpretation is our authority. In other words, we end up making ourselves our authority, becoming, de facto, our own “gods.”

The Reformers never intended this. Their actual view of “sola scriptura” was more nuanced and robust. Remember there were 5 solas. 5 “alones” is not really so “alone,” is it? Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer all believed in “Conciliar authority” – the decisions of the world’s bishops gathered in council. Conciliar authority did not rest in any single bishop, it was only present when the bishops were gathered together in council – a “worldwide” or “ecumenical” gathering. This, rather than a specific method of interpretation, was the safeguard against heresy.

The early church’s solution to disputes was grounded in the scriptures, not settled by them.

As surprising as it is to many today, the early church’s solution to disputes was grounded in the scriptures, but not settled by them. It was not individuals using the correct system of historical/grammatical interpretive principles, because the belief of the early church was not “sola scriptura” but rather more like, “prima scriptura” – the scriptures first. That is why church fathers like Ignatius of Antioch writing a mere 20 or so years after the close of the New Testament canon could write, “See that you all follow the Bishop, as Christ does the Father, and the elders as you would the apostles…Let no one do anything connected with the Church without the Bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the leadership of the Bishop, or one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the Bishop appears, there let the multitude of the people be; just as where Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic (universal) church” (Letter to the Smyrneans, 8. CE 111).

So what about the Bible?

Whenever an appeal to bishops is made, evangelicals immediately begin to squirm. Part of this is an accommodation to American individualism in evangelicalism and an obliviousness to our own sin nature’s desire for an absence of authority over us. Part of it though is a rightful question as to the role of the scriptures and abuse by clergy. Objections are usually raised before a case has been made…

“Are you saying that the Bible is in error?” No.

“Are you saying that the Bible is not the Word of God?” Again, no.

I am saying that “The Bible” as a book did not exist in the early church. The “scriptures” (sacred writings) of the Old Testament existed in scrolls where they were stored in boxes in synagogues. These are what Jesus read from when he was handed the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4:17. The scriptures of the New Testament existed within 15-55 years of Jesus’ resurrection, but they had not yet been assembled in book form, called a codex (except for perhaps Mark, which is thought to be the first usage of this Roman accounting tool as an aid to evangelism). The assembling of the entire scriptures into codex form was first done, as far as we can tell, by Constantine when he ordered 50 copies of the Scriptures for the new churches popping up in his new capital, Constantinople in 331CE. The Greek texts (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) that our modern New Testaments are translated from are possibly from among those 50 Bibles. So, while the idea of God having revealed himself through inspiring authors to write God’s word was present, we have no evidence of either an exact list of those writings, nor copies of them in one binding prior to the mid-fourth century.

The Problem isn’t the Bible. It is interpreting it.

More important than the Bible not being dropped out of heaven in a soft leather binder, though, is the manner in which the early church solved the arguments that arose over the interpretation of those scriptures. Surely that (snark meter on full-high) never happens today!

The scriptures were indeed the rule of faith and conduct. However, interpreting those scriptures written not by Jesus, but by others to point to Jesus is remarkably complicated. Frustratingly, not a single one of the 27 books of the New Testament, written by the church and canonized by the church, was written by our Lord himself. It would have been a most convenient thing indeed if the Holy Spirit were to have given the church the two books necessary for true “clarity” of belief: “Jesus, Book One: Everything you should believe about me.” And “Jesus, Book Two: Everything you should do because of Book One.” Not having these, the early church debated the meaning of the scriptures. Decisions of belief needed to be decided upon and agreed to universally. Otherwise Christians would be staring at an infinite number of Joseph Smith-like “new revelations.” Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that precisely what we have today?

And, if interpreting by set principles actually solved theological problems, why do we have 40,000 denominations and counting?

Next Up: The secret of how early Christians settled disputes.

[1] I mean no pejorative in the description “contemporary/popular evangelical.” I am an evangelical in the sense that I have a high view of scripture, the work of Christ in salvation, and of the need for a personal faith. I use this in a descriptive sense of the contemporary evangelical big-box church and the current megachurch methodology of extreme simplicity that leaves people with very little else but Paul’s interpretation of Jesus.

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3 thoughts on “Everyone can’t be right. Why “the Bible alone” didn’t settle disputes in the early church.

  1. Great post, really looking forward to the next one. It seems to me the Church as a whole is in need of clear teaching on how to find agreement on the Scriptures and discern between essential doctrines and secondary matters.

      • Ha! it’s definitely a topic I’m interested in! I wrote a bit on it (http://nathanrhale.com/why-anglican/). Honestly I still struggle to accurately discern adiaphora from dogma, because I think that truly important ethical/moral issues can be adiaphora in the sense that they are not communion-breaking issues, even though my conscience might be bound in a certain direction. I’m not just talking about particular customs or modes of clerical dress, but issues like artificial birth control, the ordination of women, mode of baptism, and so on.

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