Monday, October 31, 2011

"Reformation Day: Why We Don't Owe the Bible to the Church"

         Because "Bible" equals "whatever book or books God inspired," and not "whatever book or books one church or another church recognizes as Scripture," no church is above the Bible.  Nor is the Bible dependent upon the church, any church, for its existence.  No church produced the Bible or brought the Bible to us.  What makes the Bible the Word of God (and therefore authoritative) is divine inspiration, not ecclesiastical recognition.
The various books of the Bible are divinely inspired and authoritative even if no church ever recognized that fact -- or even if all churches recognized that fact.  Ecclesiastical recognition is not what makes the Bible the Bible. The Bible is what it is because God inspired it, not because we did or did not recognize His work.  In other words, if any books are inspired, they are inspired not because a church affirms it but because they come from the Holy Spirit Himself.  If they come from the Holy Spirit, they are inspired, authoritative, and canonical.  Their authenticity and authority come from the Holy Spirit, not from a church.  We do not owe divinely inspired books to a church, but to God. 
         To put a point on it, some of the books recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) as canonical are not inspired and are therefore not properly part of the Bible, and here I refer specifically to the Apocrypha.  That is, when it comes to recognizing the proper canon, not only is the RCC not necessary, but the RCC got it wrong.  Neither the books of the Old nor of the New Testament depend for their existence, for their inspiration, or therefore for their canonicity and authority, upon the RCC.
         To be specific, the Old Testament canon does not depend for its existence or its authority upon the RCC.  Jesus Himself, and ancient Jews all the way back to well before the time of David, had a recognizable and authoritative Hebrew canon.  For example, David loved to meditate on God's word and law so intensely that he wrote a long and impressive song of praise in honor of the practice in Psalm 119.  In that psalm, David clearly has in mind an inspired and authoritative Hebrew canon, which he called the word of God and the law of God.  He wrote his psalm many centuries before there ever was a Roman Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) church in existence to claim credit for it.  Judging from the content of David's psalm, he obviously expected his readers to understand what he meant by his many references to God's word and to God's law, and he expected them to agree with him about it.
         Even though the Hebrew canon was still in a state of partial flux in his day, Jesus, in particular, and the ancient Jews, in general, recognized a pre-existing canon, a canon that antedates the RCC by many centuries.  That is, Jesus of Nazareth was born into a religion that already had a Bible when He arrived.  He Himself recognized and accepted that Hebrew Bible.  He lived according to it; He preached from it; He faced down Satan by it; and He refuted his Jewish opponents with it.  He also uttered statements that delineate which books He considered canonical (and therefore also those that He did not).  Indeed, even Satan seems to have recognized that pre-existing canon because he quotes from it as well.
         If we consider Jesus a reliable teacher of doctrine -- and I do -- then we ought to accept as ours the Hebrew canon He accepted.  In Matthew 23: 35, for example, Jesus refers to the persecution of holy persons, beginning with Abel (Gen 4:8) and ending with Zacharias (2 Chron. 24: 20 ff.).  His recounting follows the ordering and historical limits of the Hebrew canon, which did not include the Apocrypha.  In Luke 24: 44, He re-states his view of the canon, and to the same effect.  In that passage, He again delineates what He considers Scripture:  the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (namely, the books of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the wisdom literature).  By so speaking, Jesus employed a common three-fold delineation of Scripture, one that did not include the Apocryphal books within its three over-arching categories.
         Perhaps Jesus and the Jews of his day were wrong about the canon, but I will not argue against Him or them.  If they were right, then I do not see how it follows that we need the RCC in order to have a recognizable and authoritative Hebrew canon.  Jesus and the Jews had one without it, and therefore so do we.  Apparently we do not need the RCC, or any church, to have or to recognize a divinely inspired Hebrew text.  We need a historically active and text-inspiring God, one whose actions and intentions are recognized and authenticated for us by Christ.
         The Hebrew Bible antedates the church.  The earliest generation of Christians had a Bible.  It was the Bible Jesus Himself had.
         The Hebrew Bible did not come to the world via the RCC or the EOC.  It came to the world via the inspiration and guidance of God.  Therefore, our task is to identify, always in light of Christ, which books bear the marks of inspiration and which do not.  Whether we do a good job of it or a bad one, the books God inspired are the Bible, the authoritative Word of God.  We ought not try to determine which books do or do not bear the marks of inspiration simply by taking recourse to this or that church's conclusions on the matter unless we have something like a message from God that told us we ought to do so.  That message would have to come from God Himself, it seems to me, and not from the church in question.  If it came from the church in question, then the church in question would have to verify its authority by asserting its authority, which is both circular and unconvincing.  I, for one, will not suspect, much less accuse, God of that kind of circular reasoning or irrational pedagogy.  We cannot know if God has designated any church to establish the canon unless we have a way of establishing His authoritative pronouncement on the point without begging the question by appealing to that church's self-promoting assertions or to its version of the canon, and thereby assuming its authority -- which is the very thing we were trying to ascertain in the first place.
         By arguing in this way, I am not making an argument from my own alleged authority -- I claim none -- but an argument from history.  Historically, the ancient Jews already had an inspired canon, one that was in place for many centuries before the RCC, the EOC, or any other allegedly canon-making Christian church, existed.  We have abundant historical documentation by which to determine what books were and were not normally considered Scripture by Jewish believers of Jesus' day and before, in general, and by Jesus Himself, in particular, which militates strongly against the Apocrypha, and therefore against the RCC and its alleged canon-making authority.  When Jesus explicitly identifies which books do or do not belong to the canon, He carefully excludes some that Rome leaves in.  Between those two options, I go with Christ.
Every believer makes his or her own choice regarding the Bible, whether they elect to go along with the canon of the RCC or not.  If they consent to let the RCC choose for them, it still is they who make the fundamental choice.  They consent, or not, to the canon recognized by that church. They subject the church's canon making results to their own scrutiny.  Choosing to go along with the church on the issue of canon is, obviously, a choice, as is choosing to reject it.  We all must choose; we all must consent to the RCC's canon or not.  Catholics do; Protestants do not.  Either way, we all choose for ourselves.  When Catholics choose a church, they choose a canon.  For Catholics to criticize Protestants for choosing a canon without any ecclesiastical authority for doing so is self-refuting because that is precisely how they choose the church that chose their canon.  The various churches stand before them for approval or rejection, and then they themselves make the choice of which one, if any, to follow.  When they do, they make a canon choice as well.  We all must choose one canon or another.  We all must recognize our own canon, even if we accept a canon accepted first by someone else.  We all are canon recognizers, even if we do it thoughtlessly, as so many do.  Because we must do it, we ought do it well, which means following the lead of Christ.
         Here is the fundamental principle:  Proper canon recognition is Christo-centric, not ecclesio-centric -- Christ centered, not church centered.  We want the Old Testament Christ accepted, and (because He Himself did not directly write a book), we want the books that come from those whom He taught or from their extended circle.  We do not need a church to figure out which books that might be.  Indeed, we might entertain legitimate doubt about some of the books so recognized by one church or another church, like Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, James, or Revelation -- generally the same books some of the ancients held in question for so long, a group of books some of them called the antilougomena, or the "spoken against" texts.  We might also consider including one or two books, perhaps the letter of Clement to the church in Corinth, primarily because he seems to have been a companion of Paul (Phil. 4: 3) and because to some (me included) he seems to be the author of Hebrews, a book that was eventually accepted.  Some portions of the early church accepted and read Clement's letter to Corinth as Scripture.  Others did not.  I would not.  But whichever choices we make regarding inclusion and exclusion, or whichever choices we permit others to make for us, the proper measure of canonicity is not a church, but Christ, and through Him the apostles and their extended circle.  If we must choose -- and we must -- we do best to center our choices as closely around Him as we can, which is not the same as centering our choices around the RCC and the allegedly Biblical basis it claims for itself.  Canon recognition (not canon making, which God Himself performed) is a task best pursued by accepting the Old Testament that it seems Christ accepted, and the New Testament that came from those whom He taught and from the extended apostolic circle.
         In other words, what brought about the Old Testament also brought about the New, namely the work of the Holy Spirit, which we recognize best by deferring to Jesus.
         In short, the church is neither logically nor chronologically prior to the Bible. 

An Aside:  Thumpers
         Bible thumpers are often roundly criticized by Catholics, and sometimes justly so, though not always.  The Bible-thumpers' well-intentioned but under-informed quotation of Bible verses sometimes does not accomplish what they hope and think it does.  Quoting the Bible verbatim is not the same as properly understanding it or as forming a telling theological argument.  Verbatim quotation is not the same as either correct exegesis or true theology.
         But thumping a creed or a catechism is not any better.  Being a creed or catechism thumper simply makes you a fundamentalist of a different sort.  If proof-texting from an inspired and infallible Bible is not a convincing tactic, then proof-texting from creeds and catechisms is no better.  Just as those who quote from the Bible sometimes misunderstand the Bible and disagree among themselves as to what the Bible means, so those who quote from creeds and catechisms sometimes misunderstand the creeds and catechism, and they disagree among themselves as to what those creeds and catechisms mean and how they properly apply to the situation at hand -- a confusion and chaos I have heard frequently with my own ears and seen frequently with my own eyes.  Of course, the presence of such disagreements does not prove that the texts in question (whether Bible, creed, or catechism) are false, or that they have no relevant or discernible meaning, or that they cannot be trusted.  But it does show that merely quoting a text often gets us precisely nowhere.  Verbatim quotation is almost never enough.  Taken together, careful exegesis, sound synthesis, and prudent application, is the only place to begin; not superficial recitation, whether of Scripture or of creeds and catechisms.
         Of course, Catholics thump their Bibles too, and I contend that their understanding of many of the Biblical texts they thump is unsound. 


Steve Schaper said...

We Lutherans believe that God the Holy Spirit joins Himself to the word read or preached, so that it does not return void, as Isaiah wrote down. So merely reading the Scripture is not pointless.

You have a good summary that could be honed and adorned with citations.

Brian Genda said...

This is a good refutation of the Catholics claims, and a good argument for why I should accept the OT as the canon. I don't think, however, this article really gave me much of a reason for why I should accept the entire New Testament as canon in the same way.

You argue that we can accept the Old Testament as Canon because Jesus did, but how does this apply to the NT? Some specific passages claim to be messages from God, but they don't claim the status of canon, and we don't have the words of Jesus on them. If you think a book or passage makes sense or is historical, you have good reason to agree with it, but if that is the case, you're basis for believing it is that you agree with it, not that there is any canonical authority behind it.

I see good reason for accepting New Testament books as valuable historical records of the teachings of the early church, which, being closest to the time of Christ, will be the closest to the teachings of Christ himself. I do not, however, see how it then follows that the NT is canon in the same way that the OT is (at the very least everything after the gospels).

I feel like I am left with two options: either verify by my own reasoning the validity of each NT book and passages on it's own, in which case there would be no reason to appeal to them as scripture, OR appeal to them as scripture because they originated with the early church, in which case, you are appealing to Ecclesiastical authority, even if it's not RCC, since we do not have Jesus' opinion on the books that came after him. If then you trust a certain church or council's canon because it seems consistent with the teachings of Christ, it only follows then that it is true because it is consistent with his teachings (and there are a lot of things written or spoken a moment ago which do so also) not that it is scripture. If the definition of canon is the OT and anything else that agrees with Christ, who says the Bible ever stopped being written?

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Brian, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Because this a Christo-centric rather than ecclesio-centric issue, we want to get as close to the mind of Christ as possible. When He expresses Himself clearly on a point, the task is easier. When He has not, we must go the next closest resource, which is His apostles and their circle, and not something this or that church might have said centuries later. If you can think of a way to get closer to the mind of Christ on this issue than his apostles, then I am eager to hear your alternate suggestion.

Best to you, Brian.

Brian Genda said...

Thank you for the response Dr. Bauman. For the record, I agree with your overall point, and that our next best resource is the apostles. I do believe that the New Testament generally divinely inspired, but am trying to sort out what that means. I'm refreshed that you acknowledge ambiguity in this regard, as opposed to the fundamentalists I'm used to dealing with.

I also want to say I really appreciate your blog because you address the intellectual elements of Christianity, but always bring it back to relationships and the person of Jesus, rather than the usual dissection of verses. Most Christians I know tend to emphasize one or the other; they acknowledge the other in THEORY, but in practice their focus is either on "relationship" without foundation, or intellect and apologetics without any tangible relational foundation (or purpose for that matter, as far as I'm concerned).

J-bred said...

"Proper canon recognition is Christo-centric, not ecclesio-centric -- Christ centered, not church centered. We want the Old Testament Christ accepted"

Based on your proposal the OT cannon could not have been verified until the Christ came roughly 2000 years ago and affirmed what books should be part of the cannon.

Can I propose that you have to add more than Christ into your equation for getting a cannon. And that more is prophets of the OT as well the Apostles, which is obvious, because Jesus established them as Apostles or messengers of his message therefore we should accept what they say. As for prophets they were self-authenticating just like Jesus therefore we should accept their message. They spoke and taught as if they were one with authority just like Jesus did.

In Short: the prophets of the OT were self-authenticating, just like Christ therefore we should accept their teaching and the Apostles were affirmed by the one that was self authenticated(Jesus) therefore we should accept their teaching.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
(Matthew 7:28-29 ESV)

built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
(Ephesians 2:20 ESV)

J-bred said...

So the question comes down to do you see men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses's message as self-authenticating, or do you need to invoke Christ to verify their validity. I propose the idea that they were self-authenticating.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

I didn't say the OT could not be verified, but that I verify it in this way.

If you can think of a different way to verify it, I'm open to hear the case. But (1) There are no apostles except for Christ calling them and teaching them. Your method here, like mine, is still to resort to Christ, only you are doing it indirectly through them rather than directly to Him. (2) You can't appeal to the prophets except that you already have an OT canon that contains their works.

J-bred said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

I mean to say that the ancient Jews already had a canon place when Jesus arrived. By His teachings and His usage, He authenticated it. For us Christians, that is definitive.

Best to you, as always.

J-bred said...

Based on your claim no Jew living more than time in the past than the time that has elapsed since Christ affirmed the OT cannon could claim any of the OT books as being divinely inspired.

Since 2000 years ago Christ verified the proper OT cannon, no cannon could have been verified before 2000 years ago is implications I see in your arguments. I could be mistaken.

J-bred said...

Sorry I deleted my last post. I thought I could have written it better therefore my last post should be before your (Dr. Baumann's) last post.

It seems that we may be in agreement, but just word phrasing may be in the way.

I tend to use the word "affirmed" in that he affirmed the right cannon, but the OT writers' ministry like Isaiah's or Jeremiah's were self-authenticating.

J-bred said...

Because if Christ "authenticated" the right cannon then no Jew could have had assurance that they were reading the word of God more than 2000 years ago.

J-bred said...

"There are no apostles except for Christ calling them and teaching them. Your method here, like mine, is still to resort to Christ, only you are doing it indirectly through them rather than directly to Him"

I agree.

"You can't appeal to the prophets except that you already have an OT canon that contains their works."

But you can say the exact same think about Christ. We can't appeal to him in the 21st century except through the historical documents like the 4 gospels.

2000 years ago you say Christ walk around and do/say amazing things and you said "God almighty, it is the one!" Today we don't have that luxury, so based on reading historical documents about Jesus you say "God almighty, it is the one!"

So because we live in this era I see accepting history as replaces seeing him in person.