Reading Scripture as non-Scripture


“By what right do you claim the Bible just for your church and exclude mine?” No one has yet posed this question in response to “Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity“; but it’s the question I would ask if I were a unitarian.

Let me come clean right from the start. I believe that the Holy Orthodox Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. I do not assert this in a polemical way and have no intention in engaging in the “my church is the true church” debates that internet apologists love. In my experience the ecclesiological claim is a dangerous claim, both spiritually and theologically. It too quickly falls prey to ideology: “I belong to the true Church, so I’m saved; you don’t, so you’re not.” If the Orthodox claim is true, then the Scriptures are ultimately given to her, and she is their steward and authoritative interpreter. But my argument does not depend on you, the reader, accepting this conviction. My argument merely asserts that an indivisible relationship exists between the sacred writings and the historic community that incorporated them into its life as Holy Scripture, however that community is identified.

The canonization of specific writings as Scripture is an ecclesial act. The early Christians, of course, inherited the Bible of Judaism and then proceeded to add the writings we now call “New Testament.” This canonical process of discernment and judgment lasted centuries. There is no need to rehearse the history of the canonical process, which is beyond my competence in any case. The crucial point is clear: the acknowledgement of a given text as the written Word of God, and therefore as worthy of being read and preached in the eucharistic assembly, is an authoritative act of the community of believers.

But once a gospel or epistle has been acknowledged by the Church as Scripture, how does one interpret it? And here is the problem for the evangelical unitarians—and perhaps for all evangelicals and most Protestants.

The Bible is composed of individual units—units of poetry, narratives, parables, prophesies, letters, sayings, and so forth. Each unit can be examined independently of the rest of the Bible, precisely as historical artifact, as scholars attempt to understand it within its original cultural and societal context. This is the playfield of the members of the Society of Biblical Literature and their historical-critical methodologies. For purposes of simplicity, I’ll call this level of interpretation the historical meaning: what did the unit originally mean? Of interest here is the fact that one does not need to be a Christian believer in order to determine the historical meaning of individual units of the Bible. This is a game that anyone can play.

The game becomes more complicated as units are brought together into a larger unit, say when the various stories and traditions of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and its wanderings in the wilderness are brought together into one book, Exodus. When this happens a change in literary context occurs. Each individual unit must now also be interpreted in light of its relationship with the other units of the book. Change in literary context necessarily entails a change in meaning. Consider the challenge of interpreting Gen 1 in relationship to Gen 2. And the same thing happens when different books are incorporated into a collection of books. Exodus must now be read in relationship to Deuteronomy, the gospel of Mark in relationship to the gospel of John, Romans in relationship to James, etc. As Richard Swinburne explains:

The insertion into a larger whole gives the sentences of the unit a different literary context, a different social context (the author is now the author of the larger whole, and the work is addressed to a different audience), and a different cultural context (the culture is now that of the new author and his audience). … Changing the context of units and sewing them together into a literary work has different effects in different places. One interesting example concerns the psalms. Many of them originally had a social context (in the rituals of the first Temple) which was lost when they came to form a collection of hymns for private or synagogic use. The compiler of the Book of Psalms must have supposed many of the psalms to have meanings (e.g., as expressions of personal devotion) other than their original meaning. (Revelation, pp. 168-169)

This topic is all very complex and difficult. Thousands of articles and books have been published on biblical criticism over the past two centuries. I’m sure that biblical scholars and historians will want to correct in various ways what I have written above. But the philosophical point, I think, is true and important: changes in literary context entail changes in meaning.

What happens when a given book is acknowledged as Holy Scripture?

(Go to “When Scripture Becomes Scripture”)

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5 Responses to Reading Scripture as non-Scripture

  1. Nicole says:

    I like most things about the Orthodox church, from what I’ve read. My boyfriend is Catholic and determined to be Catholic. I’d like to just experience going to an Orthodox church to see what it’s like. What you call unitarianism reminds me of the way this “unity” church I went to looks at the bible. I think it is similar. They don’t believe in the concept of the trinity, yet somehow believe Jesus is God. I don’t quite get it.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t get it either, Nicole. I really have no interest in a non-Trinitarian God. If someone could persuade me that God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I would probably just become an agnostic/atheist.


      • Why would you not be more inspired and fulfilled with hope when you see that it was really a man of flesh and blood, who was tempted (God can not be tempted) and really died (God can not die)? Those who believe in Only One God, like He is presented in the Old Testament and honoured by the many prophets, a.o. Jesus, can find clarity in the Holy Scriptures and see the outcome in this world of that Word of God, which always has come true and shall become fulfilled at the end of times. As such non-trinitarian Christians their believe in the Saviour Christ Jesus has more value than those who make him also their god.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “Why would you not be more inspired and fulfilled with hope when you see that it was really a man of flesh and blood, who was tempted (God can not be tempted) and really died (God can not die)?”

        Actually, the catholic faith, as dogmatically defined by the ecumenical councils of Chalcedon and II Constantinople, precisely teaches that Jesus was a human of flesh and blood who was tempted and really did die. If he were not, there would be no gospel. And here is the mystery: it is God (the Son) who is tempted and it is God (the Son) who dies. In the words of St Gregory the Theologian: “We need an incarnate God, a God put to death, so that we might live, and we were put to death with him” (Or. 45.28). The Romans crucified thousands of people in the first century, but only one of them was the Creator of the universe.

        You suggest that the unitarian vision is more inspiring and filled with hope than the trinitarian vision. I’ve thought about how best to respond to this suggestion. Though I’d be happy to try to argue this, I think the best thing I can do is to simply point you to Pascha. Visit an Eastern Orthodox paschal liturgy, which begins on late Saturday night and continues into Sunday morning. Then compare it to whatever paschal liturgies that are celebrated at your local unitarian church. The difference between the Trinitarian faith and the unitarian faith can only be experienced.


  2. PJ says:


    You seem to have missed the glorious enigma of the Christian gospel, which is the mystery of the incarnate God: true God, true man, Son of God and son of Mary.


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