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The Bible – necessary but not sufficient

Heart in the Bible

Recent discussion on the website Anglican Downunder (here and here) has once again highlighted the inadequacy of the “Bible-alone” approach.

Put to one side that the Bible cannot tell us which documents are in the Bible and which are not (I remind you that Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox have different lists of books that are included in the Bible and books that are excluded).

Even though there may be agreement that the scriptures are inspired, we have the issue at exactly what point does this inspiration occur? [Not mentioning disagreement about what “inspiration” means.]

There is agreement that the documents underwent development, addition, and translation. At which point is the text inspired? The general tendency is to understand the “original text” as inspired.

There are issues with this approach. If the “original manuscripts” of the Hebrew Bible are inspired – what then of the Greek translation used by the earliest Christians? These often differ in sense, and certainly differ in which books are translated (ie. included as being understood as inspired)! Don’t forget the Christian claim that the New Testament, in which these Greek versions are found, is also claimed to be just as “inspired”. The two different versions, hence, of the same text, are both equally “inspired”. And inspired quotes in the New Testament are taken from books that Bible-aloners refuse to allow as being inspired in the First Testament.

There is a problem with the original manuscripts being lost – what sort of a God inspires texts that He cannot prevent from being lost? This leads to another Bible-alone approach. God, in this theory, inspires the translation process from Hebrew through Greek… all the way to the Authorised Bible of King James. The convenience of this approach is that when people want to actually see the Bible that you are claiming is your Bible alone, you can take it down from the shelf rather than merely mumbling that you believe in manuscripts none of which we have any more but which we have pretty good approximations to.

The “King James Bible Only” movement underscores the issue with other Bible-aloners: the latter say they believe in the Bible while at the same time insisting that a complete, inspired and inerrant Bible does not exist now nor ever did exist in any language on this earth!

Very quickly, the inspired scriptures degenerate from being God’s Word to us to being just a source book for doctrine, morals, and disciple. In this approach, the details of manuscript differences cease to matter. All we are interested in is agreement about doctrine, ethics, and practices, and on these, they claim, we have sufficient agreement to move forward.

Most clearly, of course, we do not. The ever-growing number of disagreeing Bible-alone denominations and communities bear vivid testimony that doctrine, ethics, and practices cannot be drawn from the Bible alone. Irenaeus already saw this as a problem in the Second Century (and see here).

Watch Bible-aloners who acknowledge the value of the creeds, just as one example, they soon revert to saying they accept the creeds because these can be drawn from the Bible. Back we are at the Bible being a source of doctrine.

Some will undergo different mental gymnastics, arguing that believing in “the Bible alone” doesn’t mean the Bible alone in the sense expounded above.

Many will read this post as a denigration of the Bible as the Word of God. Nothing is further from the truth. We need a hammer to build a house – a hammer is necessary. Those who would say that we need more than a hammer, that a hammer alone is insufficient to build a house, are thereby not denigrating the place of the hammer in building!

Roman Catholicism is a good example of a denomination that formally rejects the Bible-alone approach. RC clergy are required to prayerfully read a wealth of scriptures daily; RC communities exist whose whole focus is reading and reflecting on the scriptures; at Sunday services Roman Catholics all gather around more of the scriptures than most Bible-aloners would even consider reading together.

Abandoning the unsupportable Bible-alone approach is not an abandonment of valuing the Bible, treasuring it as God’s Word, reading it prayerfully and assiduously alone and together, and seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to us in it and through it. It gives it its appropriate place in Christian life within the tradition of the Church and alongside other ways that God speaks to us through, for example, events, science, reason, other people, and creation.

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2 Responses to The Bible – necessary but not sufficient

  1. I obviously need to learn more about theology because I’m confused. Wasn’t there this thing in the reformation about scripture being necessary and sufficient for salvation, as a reaction against misinterpretation and abuses (eg the sale of indulgences)?
    When there are differences in opinion between Christian groups, I’ve always considered scripture is the one benchmark we can agree on and come back to as we discuss and debate different issues. We may differ on the best way to interpret and apply a passage, but surely we agree that the passage in question is divinely inspired and needs to be considered carefully not discarded as irrelevant because it’s just some peice of old literature.

    • Yes, Claudia, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Anglicans all “agree that the passage in question is divinely inspired and needs to be considered carefully not discarded as irrelevant because it’s just some piece of old literature.” Reactions against selling indulgences are worth revisiting 500 years later if such a reaction is shattering the church into every-increasing, disagreeing divisions. Especially as Roman Catholics would agree that selling indulgences is an abuse. Blessings.

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