So now we don't believe in
the Bible! Whatever will they think of
by Dr Guy Freeland*
Some observant Sydney-side readers might have noted a
report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 October by the
paper's Religious Affairs Writer, Kelly Burke, headed "Bible
believers 'schism' threat to Anglicans". The article told
how the new Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen,
was intending to get the endorsement of the 46th Synod of
the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney to launch a 'Bible
believing' denomination, with the aim of 'converting' 10% of
Sydney's population within 10 years.
Note carefully that the Archbishop isn't planning to
'convert' 10% of Sydney's population to Anglicanism, but to
a new 'denomination' of 'Bible believers'.
Very odd; I have never met a Christian who didn't believe
in the Bible. Ah, but what does Dr Jensen mean by 'Bible
believing'? There is the rub. 'Bible believing' means, the
article reports the Archbishop as saying, 'Bible based'.
Again, I have never met a Christian who didn't claim that
their faith was 'Bible based'. However, Dr Jensen's
definition of 'Bible believing' doesn't stop there.
According to the Herald, the Archbishop added, 'By Bible
believing I mean the Bible taking precedence over church
tradition, human reason and Christian experience'.
Now, that is what philosophers call a 'stipulative
definition'. Cut all the cackle and confusion, state what
you take the meaning of a word or expression to be, and then
we can all know exactly what you are trying to say. There is
a lot to be said for it and when teaching philosophy I used
to sing the praises of stipulative definition loud and long.
Although of great assistance to clear thinking, speaking and
writing, stipulative definition can be abused. Take Lewis
Carroll's Humpty Dumpty (you know, the 'bloke' in the
nursery rhyme who sat on a wall and had a great fall) in
Through the Looking Glass:
"There's glory for you!'
'I don't know what you mean by 'glory'", Alice said. Humpty
Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
'Of course you don't till I tell you. I meant 'there's a
nice knock down argument for you!'"
'But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock down argument'",
'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a
scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean
neither more nor less'.
This is where the misuse of stipulative definition comes
in. Take a common word or expression, define it in an
outlandish fashion, and thereby deprive any one that uses
the expression in its customary sense, who might wish to
take issue with you, of the use of it! Surely, the customary
meaning of 'Bible-believing' is something like 'believing
the Bible to be the Word of God'. But to believe the Bible
as the authentic Word of God isn't enough for Dr Jensen, the
only true Bible believers are those who regard the Bible as
the sole source of the faith. The Bible takes precedence
over everything else. If that is what Archbishop Jensen,
Humpty Dumpty like, chooses to mean by 'Bible believing'
that is what he chooses to mean. But it is singularly
unhelpful, as Stephen James, an Anglican layperson quoted by
the Herald, observed:
- 'Of course all Christian churches believe in the
Bible. It's totally offensive and outrageous to imply
Mr James further observed, in the words of the Herald
correspondent, that 'Bible believing', in the Archbishop's
stipulative sense, leaves 'out in the cold':
- middle and high church Anglicans;
- all Catholics (given their obedience to papal
- pretty much most of the Uniting Church, Presbyterian,
Baptist and Lutheran denominations.
Of course, to whatever extent it really does leave out in
the cold mainstream Protestant denominations, it certainly
leaves out all Orthodox; despite the fact that, as usual, we
don't rate a mention. Clearly, the implication is that
Orthodox - who many are prone to dismiss contemptuously as
'ethnic' Christians - are ripe for 'conversion' to true
'Bible believing' Christianity.
Orthodox Christians should have little difficulty in
recognising that the Church's teaching is seriously at
variance (as is that of the Roman Catholic Church and
mainstream Anglicanism) with the position adopted by
Archbishop Jensen. However, what exactly is the Orthodox
position, and what, from an Orthodox perspective, is wrong
with Dr Jensen's position?
What, I take it, Dr Jensen is defending is the doctrine
of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), which was advanced by
the sixteenth century Protestant reformers. The reformers
rejected the authority of tradition and asserted that the
Bible is the only acceptable source of doctrine and moral
teaching. For defenders of sola Scriptura (and many
Protestants have distanced themselves from the strict,
uncompromising Reformation stance) the Church is founded on
the Bible and on the Bible alone.
Sola Scriptura, at least in its rigorous form, is, I
believe, simply impossible. Consider the question, 'Which
came first, the Bible or the Church?' There can only be one
answer, the Church. The Church was founded by Christ and
received the Holy Spirit for its mission to the world in
accordance with the Lord's commandment to, 'Go therefore and
make disciples of all nations, baptising them m the name of
the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (Mt
28:19) at the feast of Pentecost, 50 days after the
The Bible didn't descend from the heavens on a wire one
morning, like a pagan god in a Greek drama. It has a history
and its numerous books have to be placed into their proper
contexts. In fact at the start of the Apostolic mission not
a single book of the New Testament existed. True, from the
beginning the Church regarded the Jewish Scriptures as the
inspired word of God, but no common agreement had been
reached as to exactly which of these books the Church should
accept as authoritative for Christians.
In the early Church many texts gospels, acts, sayings of
Jesus, letters, apocalypses were written from the mid first
century on and circulated widely amongst the various
Christian communities. Certain of these texts came, in the
course of time, to be recognised as suitable for public
reading in the Church's liturgy, others as unsuitable.
It is in this way, through the unfolding tradition of
Christian worship, and that means spiritual experience that
what is called the canon of Scripture, the Old and New
Testaments as we know them, came into existence. The sole
authority for what is and what is not included in our Bible
is Church tradition. In addition, it is not just that
tradition cannot be separated from Scripture, Scripture
actually inheres in tradition.
Essentially two criteria were applied by the Church in
determining the canon of the New Testament:
- a work for inclusion had to be of Apostolic
provenance. That is, it had to be written by an
eyewitness of those things that the Lord did and said, or
at the least by a person who had received directly an
eyewitness's account. Furthermore, it had to be free from
contamination by Gnostic or other such sources.
- the breath of the Holy Spirit had to speak through
the text. Unlike most excluded works, which are mere
lifeless historical oddities, the Word of God speaks
directly through the books of the New Testament to the
faithful in every age.
The New Testament tells us much of the Lord's life and
work, but, as St John the Theologian asserts at the close of
his Gospel, it does not begin to exhaust the tradition of
- "There are many other things which Jesus did; were
every one of them to be written, 1 suppose that the world
itself could not contain the books that would be written"
Consequently, in addition to the New Testament the Church
accepts as authoritative those things that the Lord did and
taught which are not recorded m the New Testament, but were
handed over orally by the Apostles to their disciples, and
on through the ages to us. These are the so called
'traditions of the Apostles'.
It is from the experienced life in Christ, within the
Scripture imbued worship of the Church gathered around its
Bishop, that the formulation of the summary of the doctrine
of the Church known as the Rule of Faith (eventually
encapsulated in the Creed by the first two ecumenical
councils) developed lex orandi est lex credendi (the rule of
prayer is the rule of belief). For Orthodox, the Creed is a
hymn of praise, doxology, rather than a set of
Every aspect of the faith the Scriptures, the oral
tradition of the Apostles, the liturgy, the dogmatic
decisions of the ecumenical councils, the consensus of the
Fathers, the episcopacy and Church order, the sacred icons
inherent in and constitute tradition, which is nothing more
nor less than the movement of the Holy Spirit within the
Church, ever making present the Word and saving mysteries of
Scripture is not above or outside tradition, but it does
interpenetrate every facet of tradition, much as linear
perspective interpenetrates the entirety a Renaissance
painting. For example, not only is the Bible read and
expounded in the services of the Orthodox Church, but it has
been calculated that the basic text of the Divine Liturgy
alone contains 212 quotations from the Bible. Take Scripture
out of tradition, then tradition becomes an incomprehensible
If the Bible moulds every facet of tradition, Scripture
cannot meaningfully subsist outside of tradition. Ripped out
from tradition, Scripture is simply historically interesting
literature. However, the Bible is not just literature; it is
a collection of sacred text that is saturated with latent
spiritual energy that bursts into incandescent flame when it
is proclaimed with power in the midst of the worshipping
Apostolic Church. Only then is it fully manifested as the
living Word of God. This is not to say that it ceases to be
the Word of God when we read the Bible privately, provided
that we read it in a spiritual manner and within the context
of the Church, of tradition.
The Bible is the property of the Church, and that
includes the Old Testament considered as Christian
Scripture. Of course, we recognise Jewish 'Native Title' to
the Old Testament, but the Church claims a co existing
'Pastoral Title'. From the perspective of the Church, the
Bible is a whole and the Old Testament is to be read,
through the lens of the New Testament as both being about
Christ and by Christ, the eternal Logos.
Archbishop Jensen is no fundamentalist who believes that
the meaning of Scripture is exhausted by its plain
grammatical sense (a position which is totally unacceptable
to Orthodoxy). However, the protestant doctrine of sola
Scriptura that he espouses, which eliminates any external
guidance and control of Scriptural interpretation by the
Church, is left dangerously vulnerable to literalism.
From the early Fathers onwards, orthodox interpreters
have insisted that Scripture must be interpreted in the
light of Church tradition as a whole, and in particular
accordance with the Rule of Faith.
* Dr Guy Freeland
has been assisting in the teaching of Biblical
at St Andew's Theological College in Sydney during Second
Semester of 2002.
from The Greek Australian VEMA,