Does Scripture need the Church?

I’ve recently had two very interesting discussions on the question of whether we can interpret Scripture faithfully and look to Scripture itself to guide us, or whether we need some sort of control on interpretation by the institution of the Church. What was particularly interesting was the fact that these two conversations happened on two forms of social media (Twitter and Facebook) which are usually held responsible for various evils, including the dumbing down of speech and thought.

The Twitter discussion was with Andrew Davison, the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He says he is new to Twitter, so he probably doesn’t realise that it is a medium primarily designed to lampoon your enemies, make ad hominem attacks, and indulge in both confirmation bias and attitude polarisation. The discussion sprang from Andrew tweeting a link to my annual post on Jesus not being born in a stable.

AD: Bracing seasonal exegesis from Psephizo, although the “powerful… hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture” (which is “easy to underestimate”) can also be a good & providential thing: without it we might be Arians, docetists, gnostics, Sabelians…

IP: No: we were saved from these by the apostolic paradosis, not invented traditions like the ones in many carols. It is more of the apostolic paradosis I’dd like to see in carols, not less.

(explanatory note: I had at first thought he was commented on my post about Christmas carols, before realising this wasn’t the subject of his comment.)

AD: If the Biblical narrative is going to expand to produce a whole culture, it will blossom a thousand-fold, with names for the Magi, holly and ivy, Wenceslas, transposition to our winter snow… Although strictly secondary, that is also the glory of a living Christian culture.

IP: Yes, I’d agree with your inspiring metaphor. What I am asking for is that this blossoming growth is trained along the trellis of the apostolic paradosis, and neither grows away from it like an unpruned rambler nor obscures it with a thicket of suckers.

IP: In 1 Cor 15 Paul is clear that he passes on what he has had passed on to him, from apostolic eye-witnesses. That is the measure for him of what needs training and what needs pruning out, so I think it should be for us too.

AD: I think we’re approaching the same happy mean. You are rightly stressing the proper rootstock. I concur. I am stressing the need for a gardener to know where to apply the secateurs, and to decide authoritatively what is a rose and what is a weed in the first place (= the canon).

IP: But the authority of the actions of pruning and weeding do not derive from the gardeners themselves, but from their recognition of whether the plant was rooted in the apostolic witness to what God had done in Christ.

AD: In responding to this, I stress first of all, in concert with you no doubt, that – whether it is planting or watering (or pruning) – all agency and wisdom is from God, “who gives the growth”.

AD: Still, the Biblical texts did not choose themselves for the canon. God is to be discerned and honoured in that later work of the Early Church, and not only in the earlier work of the writing of the documents in the first place.

AD: And, history shows, having the apostolic witness before you – a gift which cannot sufficiently be honoured – is not a sufficient cause of good doctrine. I think of the collapse of swathes of English Christianity into Deism and Unitarianism, or of ‘oneness Pentecostalism’ today.

IP: But did any of these arise because of too much attention to Scripture? Surely all arose because of *insufficient* attention to Scripture, notwithstanding any other lack…

AD: Woe betide that I should be thought to downplay attention to the Scriptures. The theological writers and thinkers I admire most were, every one of them, students and masters of the sacred page, as the foundation for everything else they did.

AD: I suppose it would be fair to say that those problems did sometimes arise because of too dogged attention to one passage at the expense of the wider synthetic vision.

IP: And I am not sure that I can think of an issue which has been resolved by ‘the authority of the Church’ which could not equally well have been resolved by a better reading of (the whole) text. Can you…?

AD: I’d say each turn of doctrinal history is such a thing. Comparison between a reading by the Church vs an equally good reading anyone might have had isn’t the point. The 1st safeguards the 2nd: I know not to read the Bible in an Arian way because of the authority of the Church.

AD: No Arian ever said, ‘I know mine is a poor interpretation of the Bible, but hey.’ Yes, in one sense, all that’s needed is a better reading of the Bible, but without the tradition, we just have a couple of billion people all sure that they are doing a great job.

AD: That said, we will agree that the goal for the Church is for each Christian and community to understand why we believe X and not Y, and not just to say ‘Believe X!’ The Church must always show and convince that she believes X because it is true; it is not true because she says so

IP: I know not to read the Bible in an Arian way because the text itself resists such a reading. If the text does not, the Church cannot prohibit it; if the text does, then the Church’s authority is derivative.

AD: Everything is derivative – derived, given, had-from-God – the text, its truth, and its interpretation – and everything about the writers, readers, culture, and book. ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (All being well, I’ll have a book out on that theme in about a year.)

IP: Indeed. But that does not mean that all interpretations, or all methods of interpretations are ‘from God’. If so, then such methods and readings could not contradict one another. Properly, God is ‘the source of all *good* desires, all *right* judgments, and all *just* works.

AD: Absolutely. Evil and falsehood are privations: a failure to receive from God and to imitate, and therefore an occlusion of being, act and truth on the creatively level too.

As is often the case with Twitter, the actual thread was more complicated, because of side branches introduced by other people commenting. One interesting stub was added by someone who tweets as Lazarus Redivivus (LR) with an additional comment by Ben Trovato (BT), both of whom appear to be Roman Catholic:

LR: Isn’t part of what is needed here is an acknowledgement that Scripture is in many places an ‘open’ text the possibilities of which need to be imaginatively explored? (Catholic interpretation can be imaginative because it is fenced by the Magisterium.)

IP: Yes—but it is both open (not least because of its sparcity) yet bounded by the semantic content, context and reference of the words. So a bounded open space—neither unbounded (against ‘liberals’) nor unspacious (against ‘literalists’).

LR: Indeed. But within that space a hermeneutic that is not restricted by sola scriptura is more willing to explore possibilities that play with the text’s possibilities. (Hence the Apocrypha, mystery plays etc of Catholic tradition.)

IP: For me, ‘sola scriptura’ is precisely what defines the boundaries. Remember that ‘sola scriptura’ is not the same as ‘nuda scriptura’; it does not eliminate the need for reason or awareness of tradition, but will not be displaced by them.

LR: Clearly far too much to be said here! But put simply I think we should expect differences between Catholic & Protestant use of Scripture with Catholicism more open to ludic exploration within the bounds of Church authority.

IP: Yes, and Protestant reading looks to Scripture itself to set the bounds of scripture’s interpretation. This is only problematic if the hermeneutical circle is vicious rather than virtuous—but believing it is virtuous flows from believing God speaks.

BT: We Catholics, of course, would argue (inter alia) that Scripture teaches that it is Church that is the pillar and foundation of truth, and also that we are to hold fast to the tradition we have been given; thus teaching that both magisterium and sacred tradition have a role here.

IP: I’m sure you would. Ironically, that is a misreading of 1 Tim 3.15; the only themelios is Jesus (1 Cor 3.11; not used in 1 Tim). The ekklesia = the whole people of God must support the truth by conforming to the apostolic teaching that Paul passes on in his writing.

Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

The second conversation was with Michael Lakey on Facebook. Michael teaches New Testament at Ripon College, Cuddesdon; he was previously a research assistant for Tom Wright, but has moved from his evangelical roots to take a more Catholic approach to the interpretation of Scripture and the formation of theology. Our discussion in this case was sparked by my comment on an article he had posted about the possible parallels between the development of the Star Wars franchise and the development of Christian theology.

IP: Sorry to point out the bleedin’ obvious: but Christian faith has a historical foundation in the canon of scripture and/or (if you’re a Catholic) the patristic tradition. Star Wars is a story. So there isn’t really a comparison.

ML: In terms of the development of doctrine, there may yet be an analogy (and being an analogy, it is not comprehensive or exact). The catholic doctrine of sensus fidelium depends upon I) the faithful being adequately catechised in terms of concepts and the narrative that holds them together (for the purpose of this idea, inadequately catechised persons have no standing to contribute); II) it also requires that doctrinal developments are understood as organic developments from earlier expressions that are congruent with their inner logic; III) finally, there is the role of the embodied interpreter as performative expert (this is alluded to, in a different context, at the end of Athanasius De Incarnation).

By my reckoning, all three of these ideas are claimed by the author vis-a-vis this film. He claims that the fans have internalised the concepts and narratives of the film better than some of the directors; he claims that some of the character development is incongruent; and he claims that the actor, as performative expert, has a decisive role in explicating this.

Whether his verdict on the film is justified, I honestly don’t know, but it seems to me that the analogy holds regardless. And I’d probably go further than this and reverse the direction of the analogy to observe how incongruent, novel, and without historical standing is some of the theological dreck that passes for populist doctrinal progressivism on both sides of the Tiber.

IP: Yes, but as you point out, the sensus fidelium still relies on have an authoritative originating text, and the text is authoritative because it is believed to be a reliable testimony to things that happened. The original Star Wars script has no such status, so the analogy collapses like a line of dominoes. Any of it only makes sense if there is a reason why one fictional narrative (the original story) should for some reason have precedence over subsequent equally fictional narratives.

ML: You are, of course, free to take the view that it is a poor analogy. But questions of whether a development in a narrative tradition are congruent with existing material are widespread and, though the idea of sensus fidelium is a special case framed by very specific doctrinal and historical circumstances, it is related to these questions. In a real way, questions of whether a development in a narrative are congruent with what has gone before are germane to all narrative traditions –including the historical religions.

Whilst a plot may twist and turn, flash back and forth, and introduce an ever greater penumbra of characters and plotlines around an initial story, it may not tinker with premises of the story (like the rules of the fictional world, and the governing dynamics of main characters) without doing violence to that which makes the story the story. These form part of what Eco described as the ‘inferential frames’ that enable readers to know how to dispose themselves towards a story and its characters–continuity being part of what makes a reality (fictional or otherwise) a reality.

Clearly, a difference between a historical religion and a fictional universe is, as you state, the former depends upon purported events in the real world, whereas the latter depends upon the cogency of its imaginative construction. BUT, as we both know, historical religions do make claims regarding doctrinal and praxic development that rely on the argument that such and such a development is not only congruent with the prior deposit, but tacit within it (this is what the Catholic Catechism means by a living tradition).

In circumstances such as these it is entirely apt to ask the epistemological question of “how would we know whether this claim is or is not congruent?” I submit that the weighing of this claim by means of the sensus fidelium is not dissimilar in process from artistic judgements made on the basis of the congruence of a narrative development in relation to a fictional world. Theological judgements and artistic judgements are not entirely dissimilar.

IP: ‘But, as we both know, historical religions do make claims regarding doctrinal and praxic development that rely on the argument that such and such a development is not only congruent with the prior deposit, but tacit within it (this is what the Catholic Catechism means by a living tradition). ‘ I guess the difference is that, for me, the need is not to develop doctrine, but reform in order to recapture the implicit doctrine that we have lost from the apostolic era.

Development of *expression* of doctrine relates to a change in the real-world social, historical and cultural context we are in; the reason for re-expressing Christian truth is generated by the opening up of the hermeneutical gap created by the move of the horizon of the interpreter away from the horizon of the originating texts and their authors. I really don’t think I believe in ‘the development of doctrine’…!

If doctrine can ‘develop’, then we cannot really close the canon, and in a sense the Catholic Church does not believe in a closed canon in the way that Protestant churches do. And I also think it undermines the theological status of New Testament eschatology, which (especially in the Book of Revelation) claims to provide the terminus ad quem for all theological thinking.

ML: “I guess the difference is that, for me, the need is not to develop doctrine, but reform in order to recapture the implicit doctrine that we have lost from the apostolic era.” It is difficult to sustain an orthodox doctrine of Scripture without the idea that ecclesial preservation is part of the wider doctrine of revelation (and not just a happy accident). But it is difficult to sustain the idea that ecclesial preservation is part of the wider doctrine of revelation whilst believing that apostolic doctrine has been lost. It is for that reason that I think the argument that apostolic doctrine has been lost isn’t so much an argument for or against a particular theology, but an argument against Christianity per se. At least, that is how I see it.

I suspect that we have reached the point at which the key difference between us is evident. I think we just view the relationship between bible, hermeneutics and doctrine slightly differently and thus are open or closed in different ways to arguments that relate to narrative (and especially theological) innovation. Though, my perception is that we both take a dim view of much theological innovation–though on different grounds.

IP: But the possibility of the losing the apostolic doctrine flows from a biblical doctrine of sin and the fallibility even of the ekklesia of God, which is writ large all over the OT, less alone the institution of the Church (which of course is not identical or coterminous with the ekklesia). We can see this dynamic already in Galatians, let alone in the Pastorals. I don’t think this is an argument against Christianity, but an argument against any form of Christianity which is not in a dynamic, centripetal relationship with the apostolic testimony found in the New Testament. Surely this is what it means for the church to be ‘one, holy, catholic and *apostolic*’. We are to be constantly called back to rediscover (in each generation) our ‘founding charisms’ in the apostolic paradosis.

Apart from the interesting issues raised in these exchanges, I have two main observations. The first is that Andrew and Michael are both fascinating people to engage with, and these exchanges are all the more interesting given that I really only know Michael through online interaction. I am fairly sure that both of them are better read than I am in the areas of patristics, theology and the ecclesial aspects of doctrine and biblical interpretation. My interests have been much more in philosophical hermeneutics—but it seems to me that it is perfectly possible to ask pertinent logical, philosophical and theological questions of the historical relationship between the Bible and church.

Secondly, it is interesting to see a medium (or two social media) which are all too often the cause of confirmation bias, attitude polarisation and the echo chamber phenomenon being used for serious engagement across different views. For this to happen, it demands mutual respect, seriousness of engagement—and time. The Twitter conversation with Andrew took place over a full day, going into the following morning. Time is essential to reflect and understand the other as well as forming one’s own positive response. But when this is done, social media do provide the possibility of a genuine discussion, and the movement backwards and forwards does create a genuine possibility of engagement and mutual learning.

One of the key effects of technology is to remove barriers that inhibit our speech or action, so that what is within us is given more easy expression. ‘It is what comes out of the mouth that makes a person unclean’ (Mark 7.15). If social media has unleashed a monster into our culture, the monster is only what was crouching inside, waiting to be released.

Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

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15 thoughts on “Does Scripture need the Church?”

  1. Very interesting discussion, but as you say also the way in which it was done, with clarity and grace is sadly unusual.

    At the Global Leadership Summit in 17, Bill Hybels highlighted the need to model respect, particularly online:

    1. Differ with others without demonising them.
    2. Conduct spirited discussion without drawing blood.
    Be courteous in words and actions
    Do not stereotype or draw quick conclusions about people
    Apologise immediately when wrong rather than denying or blaming
    Form your opinions carefully and be open to change

    • Ian and Andy,
      Brilliant discussion, thank you. The fact that you did it on Twitter astonishes. I’m American and fed every morning my leaders latest bizarre rants. We need your prayers.

      But, I’m not sure you answered your question, does scripture need the church? In my experience when the community of believers are suppressed, i.e. Without churches and clergy, the scriptures continue to sustain and inspire. I’ve had the good fortune to worship with very poor, very informally churched people (Manipuris, east India), and realized they’re dependence or better, their surrender to deep scripture study builds faith in ways our western churches would love to experience. The church may pass away, but nothing in scripture will, correct? Thanks, John

  2. I found this really heavy going (which I guess was inevitable, given the topic and the level of education/expertise of the participants). I’d like to make one point. I was brought up Roman Catholic, as my mother was Roman Catholic. As a child, I was warned off reading the Bible by my mother teaching me, as she had been taught, that ordinary people should not read the Bible “because they might misinterpret it”. Bible study was for priests only – they would then teach what their flock needed to know. This was pretty much universal teaching in the Catholic church worldwide at that time. It was also, sadly, a pretty common attitude in many Anglican churches. The result is widespread ignorance of the Bible across most of Europe. What would your correspondents suggest should be done about this?

    • It is very true that without background study we will often misinterpret, to a significant degree, any text that is not from our own culture and/or time.

      But it is still much more necessary to read the text itself than to read around it (commentaries etc), since otherwise the commentaries end up acting as a lens or filter or intermediary, which they have no authority to do. They are at one remove, but so is our own reading at one remove, not two.

      Reading of commentaries and background studies is very necessary indeed, but ideally only after a great deal of intelligent reading of the text itself.

      • The parish rector for whom I am so grateful as he prioritised biblical teaching from his pulpit, may have had a bad week of sermon preparation when he started off his sermon with “Some say that reading commentaries helps you to understand the bible. I believe the contrary; that reading the bible helps one to understand the commentaries!”

        Seriously though, as a young sceptical (working scientist who had just struggled to come to faith, this emphasising of the text itself and teaching from the pulpit on how to engage with it as well as technical explanations of the harder (e.g. Trinitarian and Christological) theological strands within it was exactly what I and many others in that growing church needed. I now really understand as well as admire the Catholic use of the word “formation” for this process. It is much more that just “teaching” or as sadly many liberals derisorily put it “bible study(ugh)”. It is, as Ians dialogues clearly show, bounded by biblical authority, with the scope of the study space defined by the “testedness” of the material. This is indeed a policy familiar to working scientists; without direct access to the original research and the records of it’s testing by peers, knowledge would simply become self-referential, direction of new research frivolously chosen and the entire process which should yield both interesting and useful new understanding would be undermined. I never read a paper which knowingly omitted diligent literature research before starting work; no editor would have passed it for publication.

    • There are now lots of Church Bible Study programmes e.g. from Ascension Press, which are massively taking off among the catholics, as are the programmes of Robert Barron. Catholics are becoming much more biblically literate (very necessary, and very welcome) and are loving it. They have some ex-protestants like Scott Hahn, Cavins, Pinto to thank.

  3. Excellent article, I really enjoyed reading this one. The stand out comment for me is from Andrew Davidson.

    “Yes, in one sense, all that’s needed is a better reading of the Bible, but without the tradition, we just have a couple of billion people all sure that they are doing a great job.”

    Amen, though I think this is probably less true at an individual level than it is at a denominational one.

  4. I meant you. He claimed, “If the Biblical narrative is going to expand to produce a whole culture, it will blossom a thousand-fold, with names for the Magi, holly and ivy, Wenceslas, transposition to our winter snow… Although strictly secondary, that is also the glory of a living Christian culture.”

    And, you patiently interacted with him—for what seemed quite an extended time. I have read lots of theological discourse on social media. Would that they were all this irenic. That would enable people to actually hear what the cogent points are instead of feeling embattled.

  5. Yes – an interesting exchange. As I think I have mentioned before, many evangelicals, despite claims to sola scriptura, cling to confessional statements and a reader-response hermeneutic which, in effect, become a tradition which trumps Scripture.

  6. Re the somewhat negative views of Catholics here – my experience is with Anglo-Catholics rather than Roman Catholics, but I have observed that some Anglo-Catholics hear more scripture in worship than those from other traditions, even if they are less inclined to read it privately. I found this interesting – – essentially saying that for some people, Bible input often comes as part of worship rather than sermons/Bible reading.

  7. This was a great post as usual, Ian!

    Michael Lakey’s view on the sensus fidelium reminded me of Tom Wright’s view on Biblical inspiration as expressed here and, more popularly, here. What’s your take on that perspective of Biblical authority?

  8. I wonder whether Ian Paul, Tom Wright and others would agree or disagree with the following assertion:

    ‘God and Christ did say and do, are saying and doing, will say and do all that the Bible declares they said and did, are saying and doing, will say and do’.

    This assertion is only part of the larger question of the authority and truth of the Bible. But I suggest that the truth of this assertion must be an essential part of the right answer to those larger questions, because the claims that God and Christ said and did, are saying and doing, will say and do what the Bible declares, are among the most serious claims that the Bible makes.

    Phil Almond


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