Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Weight of the Bible and Its Historical Context

Lately I've been reading the writings of a man who has taken up some of the arguments of David Bercot to advocate a larger role for the ante-Nicene church fathers in interpreting scripture. I've also, recently and over the years, been seeing similar arguments coming from Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and other groups that are critical of mainstream Evangelicalism. Since many Evangelicals do have too little an appreciation of the historical context of scripture (patristic context and other contexts), the criticism has some general merit to it, but it's also sometimes taken too far. And some of the people issuing the criticism ought to take their own medicine.

Christianity is a historical religion. Sources outside of the Bible have relevance in defining the terminology of scripture, informing us of the societal context in which the books were written, etc. Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, or anybody else who believes that public revelation ceased with the death of the apostles has to appeal to ancient history in order to make an objective case for their belief system. If an Eastern Orthodox, Reformed Catholic, or Roman Catholic, for example, wants to appeal to the church to interpret scripture for him in some sense, he still has to argue for concepts such as the historicity of Jesus, His Messiahship, and the identity of the church before he can appeal to that church to assist him in understanding scripture. And when these people make a historical case for their system of authority, that case is often far more questionable than the Evangelical doctrines that they dismiss as allegedly so unclear in scripture. Nobody who has difficulty seeing justification through faith alone in Acts 15:7-11 or Galatians 3:2-9 should expect people to let his church interpret those passages for us on the basis of Matthew 16:18-19 or Luke 10:16. The alleged Biblical evidence for the Roman Catholic system of authority, for example, is far weaker than the Biblical evidence for Evangelical doctrines that Catholics often dismiss as unclear.

Catholics have often argued that doctrines such as the papacy and the Immaculate Conception can be derived from the Bible and other ancient documents in the same manner in which we would derive any other concept from any other historical document. However, it's become increasingly popular for Catholic apologists to argue that such doctrines can't be derived from these ancient documents using a grammatical-historical approach, but rather are derived from the church's authority in interpreting those documents. It's similar to Evangelicals' accepting Matthew's interpretation of Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:15), even though we couldn't justify that interpretation of Hosea 11 from the text and immediate context of Hosea itself. The question is whether Catholics have reasons for viewing their denomination's authority in a way similar to how Evangelicals view the authority of Matthew. And they don't. Often, the same Catholic who appeals to a speculative interpretation of scripture to support private confession to a priest or the Immaculate Conception, for example, will appeal to a comparably speculative interpretation of Matthew 16, Matthew 28, Luke 10, or some other passage in order to argue for the alleged authority of their denomination. All that they're doing is arguing for one speculative doctrine on the basis of another.

When somebody criticizes Evangelicalism with an appeal to some entity outside of scripture to give us an interpretation of the Bible different from what Evangelicals are arguing for, we should ask some questions. For example:

- Is the Biblical doctrine under discussion as unclear in the Bible as the person is alleging? For example, if there are hundreds of Biblical passages addressing a subject like the deity of Christ, prayer, or justification from a wide variety of angles, just how much lack of clarity actually exists? Could it be that the person claiming a lack of clarity just doesn't like what the Bible does say?

- Does the extra-Biblical source have the degree of relevance being suggested? I can understand appealing to Josephus to help us define first century Israel. I can't understand appealing to the Second Council of Nicaea to interpret the ante-Nicene fathers' view of the veneration of images for us. Similarly, Justin Martyr lived close to the time of the apostle John, but he didn't live close to the time of Moses or David. Justin might be using apostolic interpretations of Moses or David, but his closeness to the apostles can't be assumed to include closeness to all Biblical documents. The last book of the Bible was written in the first century, but some of the books were written far earlier.

- Is this person defining his terms the same way these extra-Biblical sources did? When we look at how people like Papias and Hippolytus defined "tradition", what logical connection does it have with the groups that so often cite such men to support their concept of tradition?

- Is the person appealing to extra-Biblical sources consistent? Does the same person who thinks that the writings of the apostle John are so unclear and need to be interpreted for us by later sources then go on to cite the writings of men like Clement of Rome and Ignatius as if they're far more clear and in far less need of interpretive sources, even though men like Clement and Ignatius wrote close to the time when John wrote? Does the same person who cites Papias' reliance on oral tradition to argue against sola scriptura then proceed to reject Papias' oral tradition when he's told about its content, such as its premillennialism? Does the same person who wants men like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus to tell us how we should view the relation between justification and baptism also want those same men to tell us how to view eschatology, the existence of Purgatory, and other concepts? Does somebody who cites church fathers to argue for a presence of Christ in the eucharist have as much interest in the fathers when they write treatises on the subject of prayer and say nothing of praying to the dead or angels, sometimes even condemning the practice?

- Are all of the relevant sources being taken into account? Advocates of the perpetual virginity of Mary will often appeal to the popularity of the doctrine among the later church fathers, but the earliest patristic evidence is against the doctrine, and the church fathers aren't the only extra-Biblical sources to be taken into consideration. We often see Jerome cited for his comments condemning anybody who would deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. But Basil of Caesarea commented that the view that Mary had other children after Jesus "was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy" (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 495). We don't have to possess the writings of these people Basil was referring to in order to know that they existed.

- Is this person consistent with his own system? For example, does somebody who argues that a doctrine must be true because it was popular among professing Christians in the past apply that same reasoning to the modern popularity of doctrines? Would this person be willing to change his views to align with what a majority of professing Christians in the world today believe about an issue? Or when a Roman Catholic argues that a Catholic doctrine can be absent or widely contradicted among the church fathers for hundreds of years, yet still be an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, is he being consistent with what his denomination has taught in the past?

- Are the priorities of this person reasonable? For example, does he tell you that whether Christ is physically present in the eucharist is a highly important issue, whereas he dismisses as far less significant issues that logically seem to be more important? If a church father makes one brief comment on Christ's presence in the eucharist, whereas he comments at much more length about eschatology and its implications for how we interpret scripture, how we live the Christian life, etc., is it reasonable for somebody to act as if those comments on the eucharist are of high importance while giving little or no attention to that same father's comments on other subjects?

No reasonable person ought to deny that extra-Biblical sources carry some weight in how we interpret scripture. But while Evangelicals sometimes don't give extra-Biblical sources the weight they deserve, I think many of the people who make that point aren't as interested in correcting that Evangelical error as they are in furthering their own errors. Giving the Bible too little weight and giving your preferred extra-Biblical sources too much weight are problematic as well.