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.

Advertisements

Epic Fail: TEC/SC Issues Boil Over

Prelude: I am in grief. The conflict between the Diocese of South Carolina and the national Episcopal church leadership has been brewing for years. The boil-over is like a bad divorce between two people who, in your mind, should have been able to work things out. You love them both and, even though you saw it coming, you keep wondering, “How did it come to this?”  I wrote this post on Wednesday evening. I have sat on it for three days hoping that my grief would subside. It has not.

“I ask…on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” –John 17:20-21, NRSV

 Epic Fail. It’s a junior high expression overused to meaninglessness: Dropping a pass. Spilling coffee on your laptop. Tripping in public. Yesterday an actual Epic Fail occurred. The Episcopal Church brought abandonment charges against a bishop actively trying to meet to work out differences. It was my worst day in five years as an Episcopalian.

This is where decades of disagreement over biblical interpretation and human sexuality have left us. If you are not a Christian you are probably wondering why we can’t just treat each other like Christians. If you are a Christian, and especially an Episcopalian OF ANY STRIPE, you will almost surely take issue with what I am about to write.

I write, however, as one who loves his church. Five years ago I walked away from reductionistic evangelicalism to embrace the wisdom of the ancient church, the beauty of liturgy, the soul enrichment of spiritual practice and social engagement as a force for good in the world. As someone who always rejected the small box of fundamentalism, I was enthusiastic to join a church that promised to be a big tent welcoming all to the table. You see, unlike other Christians, Episcopalians were never really a confessional church with long detailed doctrinal statements. We are a CHURCH UNITED BY OUR WILLINGNESS TO PRAY WITH THOSE WE DON’T AGREE WITH, and in what we do believe, we keep it simple – We are a creedal church (the brief Nicene Creed-a large tent with lots of room for disagreement). That room was necessary in England where one church contained Catholics, Protestants and the publicly religious.

If you are not an Episcopalian you probably have no grid in your experience for what a church united around the willingness to pray together might look like. My first Sunday in an Episcopal Church I sat with a friend who worked for our bishop.  He answered for me all the usual questions about the Catholic practice and Protestant theology that characterize us. Then I asked about the political stances of the church. The friend explained that with Episcopalians agreement was not expected. Diversity of opinion was considered a strength, a charism. On one end of the spectrum we had diocese’ that pushed the envelope to bless same-sex couples and, on the other, diocese’ that did not ordain women. As someone with every inclination toward including others, reconciling those in conflict, and whose life’s ministry has been to work across boundaries in ecumenical evangelism, to say I was intrigued by this commitment to comprehensiveness was an understatement.

The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.

I have followed things in South Carolina closely, both because of my own wiring toward reconciliation and because I have CLOSE friends on both sides of this issue. I know both sides of this debate well. Both sides have operated in ways that made perfect sense to them in their context and BOTH appear duplicitous and mean spirited to the other. The series of reactions and re-reactions has resulted in broken fellowship.

I realize that there are deep wounds on both sides. I know both sides chronology of what the other side did. I also know that the other side loves God and honestly thinks they are acting in good faith. But do you catch the language? Referring to our sisters and brothers in Christ as sides is tragic. Tragic also is that, in the end, we were the ones who said, “There is a stage leaving town at sundown. Be under it.”

I fear that the “oneness” for which Jesus prayed is going to become defined for us, as in other denominations, as agreement – or at least as the willingness to give the appearance of walking in lockstep with whoever holds the keys of power. That might be the most tragic result of all.

For those not following this situation, here is what appears to have happened in the simplest terms: The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office. Did South Carolina really want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. Did the national church want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. I do not presume to read minds or motives…of either side. I merely grieve.

South Carolina is unlike the rest of the Episcopal church in many ways. But we have a long history of making room for people who push the bounds of our theology, politics and canon law. We had room for Bishop Pike who literally begged our bishops to inhibit him. We had room for Bishop Spong and his version of the old SNL Fluckers skit, “Here’s a new theology I just made up!” Now, sadly, we do not have room for a bishop and the lion’s share of his diocese, that hold a traditional view of marriage. The truth is that we have changed. We moved their cheese.[1] Why can we not give them room to differentiate themselves?

Last night I was in a car with someone who is a key player in our institution. She is a great person who loves God and the church. I cannot describe the sinking feeling in my heart when she said, “We will be a leaner-meaner church now. One that can stop pretending and be who we are.” Well, we will be leaner- by 30,000 Episcopalians. And we will certainly be meaner as we will no longer be held in tension by opposing voices. Is it really a good thing to silence dissent? Will we be able to “be who we are?” I fear that unless who we are is redefined as “a narrow group of Progressive Puritans” then the answer is no. We have been a comprehensive church – A table with room for all. Will that still be who we are? Or is that day passing?

The saddest part of the whole thing for me is the response on the web-organs of our church. Where is the grief in these posts?

The tone on the South Carolina sites is instructive. Their tone is grief. It is not the tone of someone who took their toys and went home.

I do not judge the motives of those on either side. Although this is a very public dispute, there is surely much information that I am not privy to. It is being said that this is what South Carolina angled for all along. I can say that, if this was a conspiracy, it was the greatest conspiracy since the resurrection. I would have to believe that multiple South Carolina diocesan employees including their bishop…in public and private conversations , within and without the walls of their diocesan offices, face-to-face, over phone and text, over years, faked frustration and fear. I think there is a better explanation: We missed it. Us. Them. All of us. We missed one another. They wanted to be different to be sure, but the South Carolina Episcopalians I know wanted to be Episcopalians.

And worst of all, in the eyes of the unchurched, we have all failed in both unity and love.

The irony of all of this is that the Episcopal Church has and is becoming much more theologically orthodox over the five years I have been here. It is more progressive politically to be sure, but it is noticeably more orthodox every year. If we could only have waited another five years both sides would surely end up closer together.

But we didn’t. None of us. And that is the shame.

We could have done better. All of us. We could have assumed the best of one another. We could have refused to respond out of fear. We could have made the other make the first move…and the second…and the third. I understand why everyone made every move they made. All around people did their best. Yet today we have an…

Epic Fail.


[1]Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Spencer Johnson, 1998.