“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?