So now we don't believe in the Bible! Whatever will they think of next?

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'", Alice objected.
'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 otherwise'.

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 authority); and
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 Resurrection.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 the Lord:

"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" (M 21:25).

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 propositions.

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 Our Lord.

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 jumble.

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 hermeneutics
at St Andew's Theological College in Sydney during Second Semester of 2002.

from The Greek Australian VEMA, December 2002

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