When Scripture Becomes Scripture

The writings of the Bible exist as historical artifacts and may therefore be read as historical artifacts. To properly interpret a text we must seek to understand it within its historical context. We need to know all sorts of things: we need to know who wrote it and why; we need to know its intended audience; we need to know the literary genre to which it belongs; we need to know about the society in which the author and audience lived; we need to know the cultural and literary conventions of the time; we need to know the worldview the text inhabits, etc. Contrary to those who think that the “plain meaning” of Scripture is easy to determine, it is no easy thing at all. Witness the vast scholarship that has been devoted to the Bible over the past two hundred years.

In his article “Can Genuine Christians Be Trinitarian or Non-Trinitarian?” Kermit Zarley writes: “The Bible does not teach that Jesus is God or that God is three persons; rather, it declares only the Father is God.” If the New Testament texts are read exclusively through the lens of historical-critical scholarship, then perhaps Zarley and his fellow evangelical unitarians may be able to make a plausible case. I concede that the Nicene doctrine of the Holy Trinity cannot be explicitly found in the New Testament (but see David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma“). One finds no theological reflection upon the three hypostases, one ousia of the Holy Trinity. One finds no declaration that Jesus Christ is homoousios with the Father. When the New Testament writers think of “God,” they think of the God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ. Their monotheism is clear, which of course is why they never explicitly identify Jesus as God—that would only have confused the respective identities of the Father and the Son. I believe one does find strong evidences for belief in the divinity of Jesus in apostolic Christianity—the Apostle Thomas’s exclamation “My Lord and my God!” immediately comes to mind (Jn 20:28)—but the evidence is by no means probative. If it were, the Arian crisis would never have occurred. We may also note that trinitarians have no problem speaking of God the Father as the one God (see John Behr, “The Trinity: Scripture and the Greek Fathers,” and my three-part article on the monarchy of the Father).

But the Church has never read its Scriptures only as historical artifacts. It reads the Scriptures precisely as Scripture. When a particular writing is incorporated into the canonical anthology, it ceases to be, for Christians, a work of purely historical interest that is to be read like any other work of ancient literature, according to normal hermeneutical rules. Inclusion into the canon of Scripture effects a change of interpretive context:

What the Church proclaimed as Holy Scripture were not individual books, let alone the units out of which they were made, but the whole collection. Putting the books together into a whole Bible involved giving them a change of context and, in consequence, by processes similar to those involved in the formation of an individual book, a change of meaning.

The process produced a change of literary context: what were before books on their own became parts of a big book. And it also produced a change of social and cultural context, but just what the change was depends on who we suppose to be the author of the whole Bible and who was its intended audience. For, as we have seen, it is the social context and the cultural predispositions of the author and his audience which dictate how the book is to be interpreted. The Church put the Bible together, but it did so by selecting books deriving from prophets or apostles in which were recorded what in its view was God’s revelation through them to man. God, in the Church’s view, was the ultimate author of the Bible—working, no doubt, through human writers with their own idiosyncracies of style, but all the same inspiring the individual books. What the Church proclaimed with respect to the Bible was not just “here is a book which we have found and recognized as true,” but “here is a book which we have found and recognized as inspired by God and so as true.” (Richard Swinburne, Revelation, pp. 174-175)

Acknowledging a specific writing as belonging to the Christian Bible means at least the following: (1) its ultimate author is God; (2) its ultimate audience is the Church of all times and places; (3) its ultimate theme is God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ; (4) it can only be properly interpreted in relationship to the other books of the Bible; and (5) it can only be properly interpreted within the eucharistic faith and praxis of the Church.

(Go to “What Does Scripture Mean?”)

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2 Responses to When Scripture Becomes Scripture

  1. Jason says:

    Coincidentally, after reading your November 6 column I read 1 John. I can’t help but think that nearly all of 1 John disproves any arguments for non-trinitarianism, especially verses such as 1 John 5:7, 1 John 4:2, and 1 John 4:14, 15. There are many others, along with references to “unction” (many in 1 John 2) which is the Holy Spirit. I would expect non-trinitarians to have arguments for why these verses do not necessarily defeat them, but I would say that at that point they are reading into scripture. It just seems like an extremely difficult position to defend, and I’m not sure why anyone would want to.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree with you, Jason. The trinitarian grammar of the New Testament is so obvious to me that I find the unitarian reading of it utterly bewildering. I suspect that someone like Dale Tuggy would say the trinitarian language of the NT can be adequately explained by a subordinationist model of God, analogous to what we find in some of the ante-Nicene Fathers. The unitarian evangelicals assert that Nicene orthodoxy represents a fundamental break with the apostolic tradition.

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