When Scripture Becomes Scripture

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The writings of the Bible exist as historical artifacts and may therefore be read as historical artifacts. For this purpose, we seek to understand them within their historical context. We need to know all sorts of things: we need to know who wrote them and why; we need to know their intended audience; we need to know their literary genre; we need to know about the society in which the author and original audience lived; we need to know the cultural and literary conventions of the time; we need to know the worldview the text inhabited, 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 historical 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, Zarley and his fellow 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“). We do not find reflection upon the three hypostases, one ousia of the Holy Trinity, nor do we find a declaration that Jesus Christ is homoousios with the Father. When apostolic Christians thought of “God,” they thought of the God who made covenant with Israel, the God who delivered his Torah to Moses, the God of the prophets, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6). Their monotheism is clear, which of course is why they never explicitly identified Jesus as the one God—that would only have confused the respective identities of the Father and the Son. We do find strong evidence for belief in the divinity, perhaps even of the full and equal divinity, of Jesus—the Apostle Thomas’s exclamation “My Lord and my God!” immediately comes to mind (John 20:28), as does the ascription of the divine Name to Jesus in Philippians 2—but the evidence is by no means probative. If it were, the Arian crisis would not have occurred. Trinitarians have never had a problem speaking of God the Father as the one God. Every Sunday they confess: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty” (also see John Behr, “The Trinity: Scripture and the Greek Fathers“).

But the Church has never read its Scriptures only as historical artifacts. She reads the Scriptures precisely as Scripture within the eucharistic community of faith. When a gospel or epistle was incorporated into the canonical anthology, it ceased to be a work of purely historical interest to be read like any other work of ancient literature, according to normal hermeneutical rules. Inclusion into the canon of Scripture effected a change of interpretive context, with new interpretive rules. Richard Swinburne explains:

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.” (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.

(7 November 2013)

(Go to “Exegesis and Authorial Meaning”)

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5 Responses to When Scripture Becomes Scripture

  1. shoreless says:

    “(5) it can only be properly interpreted within the eucharistic faith and praxis of the Church.”

    Fr John Romanides’ book Patristic Theology says that scripture is a recording of someone reaching theosis and it takes theosis to properly understand it. That was a real mind blower.

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  2. Mark says:

    Fr Aidan,

    Have you read Wolterstorff’s “Divine Discourse”? It sort of continues where Swinburne’s “Revelation” left off. Interesting that you like Swinburne so much on scripture but not at all when it comes to the doctrine of God.

    On a differwnt note, reading Louth’s continental “Discerning the Mystery” and Swinburne’s analytic “Revelation” are a perfect example of how 2 theologians coming from two very different places come to the same conclusions. Thanks for this post.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thanks, Mark, for your comment. To your question: I have not read Wolsterstorff’s book, though I remember years ago wanting to read it and no doubt would have, if my interests had not shifted 10+ years ago.

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