The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (part 3)

This is the fourth installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. Recently we have been looking historically at the early church’s practices concerning Scripture. The early church, before the completion and collection of the New Testament, esteemed the Scriptures from its Jewish roots, using the Greek translation of the Old Testament we call the Septuagint. At the same time, words of Jesus were accorded special, Scriptural-like authority before our Gospels were written. The writings of the apostles were also esteemed and began to be treated as Scripture. Beginning in its early centuries, serious Christian writers were both using Scriptural citations in their polemic and apologetic writings to define and bolster their positions. Great scholars like Origen began to do systematic exposition of Bible books, using predefined methodology to interpret the meaning of Scripture for their readers.

Skip to the sixteenth century. The church is in the final stages of emerging from the “dark ages,” a development influenced by many things. Not the least of these factors is the invention and continuing perfection of the printing press. In the 1450s, the first major publishing project began using movable type. The publisher, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, chose his first book carefully and his choice is instructive. He printed the Bible in a grand fashion, impressively large and luxuriously bound. What is important for our study is that he chose the Bible as his first project and that the version he used was the Latin Vulgate text, which included the books of the apocrypha.

The cost of Gutenberg’s Bibles and the limited production meant they found homes in large churches and libraries, not in homes (for the most part). Even with papal approval, the Latin text made it inaccessible to all but the learned. Yet the printing technological revolution had begun, and there was money to be made in producing smaller and less expensive books. This spurred something of a revival of biblical scholarship, partly because printers needed reliable texts to publish that would be accepted by the church and the public.

At the same time, the authority of the church in Rome was being questioned on many fronts. This can be attributed to factors such as rising nationalism, abuse or neglect of spiritual authority, crusade fatigue, rediscovery of classical pagan philosophers by the humanists, and the extravagance of building projects in Rome and elsewhere despite grinding poverty in much of Europe. This set the stage for a German-speaking Augustinian monk, Martin Luther.

It is not overstatement to say that Martin Luther changed the entire trajectory of biblical scholarship, and that his influence continues until today. Luther did this in two primary ways. First, he began to study the texts of Bible books in something like an objective, modern way. He wanted to know what the author said and meant when the author originally wrote. Luther did not feel bound by traditional interpretations that were sometimes intended to benefit the church establishment.

Second, Luther believed that Scripture needed to be widely available to all Christians. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the church was his German translation, later called the Luther Bible. For the first time in 1,500 years, Christians might be able to own a copy of the Bible in their home and read it in their language. In both of these things, we like to think that Luther shifted the locus of authority from the Roman Catholic church and its magisterium to Scriptures, but that is not really what happened. As we shall see, the Scripture is now seen with a new level of authority, but the shift was from the authorized church interpreters to individual Christians as interpreters. If a semi-learned layman could read Scriptures for himself, then he could interpret it for himself, too.

This is the beginning of the evangelical tradition of today: Scriptures widely available in common translations and at low cost for a literate church membership. In America, one of the motivations for public schools was to produce a literate people who were able to read the Bible for themselves. Protestants have little patience for official, church-decreed interpretations of Scripture. We can read it for ourselves!

Next: Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 2)

This is the third installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. The last blog indicated that “Scripture” for the early church was what we would call the “Old Testament” today. The functional Scripture of the church was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (LXX). This indicates a couple of things. First, that the idea of “Scripture,” the written word, as having unique authority was retained by the church from its synagogue origins. Second, the idea that we must study the Old Testament in the original language (Hebrew/Aramaic) has little historical basis in the earliest church. Third, that our mania to have absolute exactitude concerning every word of Scripture and its original meaning also has little basis in the earliest church.

How did we get where we are today, where there is a sincere desire to recognize authority in the Bible while tolerating a low level of biblical literacy in our churches?

This blog can only use a big brush and very broad strokes in this, but let me point out a couple of developments. First, the words of Jesus were accorded special respect and authority in the early church, even before the Gospels were written. For example, in Acts 20:35, Luke portrays Paul as ending his discourse to the Ephesian elders this way:

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

This little saying, attributed to Jesus himself, is not recorded in the Gospels. It is significant that Luke himself did not include it in his first volume, what we call the Gospel of Luke, for he often foreshadows material in Acts with material in Luke. If Luke is writing in the late A.D. 70s, he pens this forty years after Jesus said it, but he gives us no context for Jesus making this assertion. He is also writing twenty years after the event in which he portrays Paul as quoting it, and here the context is important. Paul is speaking with apostolic authority to a group of church leaders and ends his discourse with this verse. Quoting Jesus finalizes his argument and both compliments and surpasses his own authority.

We also see this in some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings. One example is Clement of Rome, probably writing in the AD 90s. Possibly the co-worker of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3, Clement writes to the church in Corinth in a letter we call 1 Clement, a book saturated with scriptural quotations and allusions. Decrying divisions in the Corinthian church, Clement makes this statement:

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. (1 Clement 46, Ante-Nicene Fathers translation).

This seems to be a quotation of Matthew 18:6 (perhaps Mark 9:42), but not with the precision we would demand today. What it shows us is that this early church leader (Clement) and his fellow Christians saw authority in the words of Jesus, and that Clement used a written source (Matthew or Mark) for these words.

Second, in the centuries following Clement, other church leaders and scholars used both the Old Testament and the writings that became the New Testament with authority. Sometimes the New Testament authors were quoted to bolster a command or teaching. Others did lengthy, systematic expositions of certain books. For example, Origen (flourishing c. A.D. 200-250) wrote lengthy expositions on books of the Bible from the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Genesis, Lamentations, John, Romans). His exegetical method may seem inadequate today (referred to as “allegorical” or “spiritual” interpretation), but the fact that the greatest scholar of the church’s first two centuries would expend so much effort on biblical studies is significant. Origen’s efforts also included his famous Hexapla, a six-columned work showing the Hebrew text, a Hebrew transliteration in Greek, the Septuagint text, and three other Greek translation of the Old Testament. Now lost to us, the Hexapla’s purpose seems to have been to establish the best possible Greek text of the Old Testament for use in scholarship and in the church. This, again, is an attestation to the high esteem in which Scripture was held in the early church and the seriousness of the scholarship devoted to it. It is also a move to raise the stakes for the exact words of Scripture, to have a trusted text that is the basis for interpretation.

Next: Biblical Authority in the Reformation

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 1)

Evangelicals today face a great paradox within their churches. On the one hand, Evangelicals take a strong position on the importance of the Bible. On the other hand, members of our churches have inaccurate and meager biblical knowledge, and no general penchant for gaining more and better information. Furthermore, preaching and teaching in the church today seems ineffective and lacking in biblical truth. We have a general church membership with a low level of biblical literacy, and church leaders who barely rise above it.

How did we get here? I know there are many exceptions to the generalizations above, but I doubt that anyone would assume today that if a person identified herself as a “Christian,” we could be confident that this person had a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible.

I remember an epiphany I had years ago when my daughter was old enough in school to begin having notes sent home in her backpack by her teacher. I was often appalled by these notes, which had spelling and grammar errors. These were my daughter’s teachers! English teachers! My epiphany was in realizing these teachers did not know English well, and this was because they had not been taught well. The result was a generation of students with inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of English, and then those students became teachers. This is somewhat parallel to the situation in Evangelical churches. The inadequately educated students are now the teachers.

How, though, did we ever get to a place of expecting our church preachers and leaders to have a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible? Or better, why should we expect this? Should we still expect this? More basically, why does the Bible have a privileged position of authority in the Evangelical church? Allow me to offer a couple of observations.

First, the idea of “Scripture” or “Sacred Writings” was inherited by the church from its Jewish founders. At the time of Jesus, the ancient writings of the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Former and Latter) were recognized as having authority that could command respect and obedience. One could win an argument or demand behavior if one could cite a verse of recognized Scripture. This trumped all opinions. To be sure, the Jewish community of the first century did not simply view their Scriptures as proof-texts to be used in argumentation. They also saw them as telling their story as a nation and giving them an identity as the people of God.

So, like the synagogue, the early church had Scriptures, roughly identified with what we call the “Old Testament” in the Evangelical church. The early church’s Scripture did not include the “New Testament,” because its books were still being written, collected, and recognized. When Paul writes in 2 Timothy that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …,” he is not talking about the New Testament, but about the Old Testament. Application of this verse to Christian writings is retroactive, perhaps anachronistic, maybe even circular argumentation.

One significant difference is that the early church’s “Old Testament” was the Greek translation we call the Septuagint (LXX). The idea of learning the Hebrew language to exegete the Hebrew text of Genesis would never have occurred to the Greek-speaking Gentile leaders of Paul’s churches. The authority of the text, as they understood it, was perfectly intact when using a translation such as the LXX. It would be hard to imagine a first century preacher telling his congregation that he had insights into Scripture they could not fathom based on his study of a Hebrew text. Such a claim would be little more than Gnosticism, touting a secret knowledge to gain authority and power. All this is to say that when we understand that the Scriptures of the early church were a Greek translation, our desire to have absolute exactitude concerning every word and its original meaning may be overly zealous today.

The earliest, documented use of Scripture by the Christian community comes in the writings of the New Testament itself. In the next installment of this series, we will attempt to understand not only how the New Testament writers use Scripture (the Old Testament), but how they understand its authority and how this established the tradition of biblical authority in the church that continues to this day.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Future Church, Future Bible

Upheaval. Chaos. Questioning. Fear of Future. Disregard for Tradition. Distrust of Experts. Dismissal of Science. Alternative Facts and Truths.

A negative appraisal of the current situation in American politics and social life sees elements of all of these descriptors in play today. It is easy, however, to see these things confined to cable TV news, internet news sites, and Washington, D.C. We believe our lives are insulated from such turmoil, at least for the most part. Questioning? Haven’t we always done this? Don’t we have a right to question authority? Fear of Future? Who wouldn’t be afraid after living through 9/11 and the Great Recession? Disregard for Tradition? Isn’t it about time we jettisoned some of the archaic traditions that hold us back? Should we let our past control our future? Distrust of Experts? Can’t I look up anything on the internet and find a source I like? Aren’t we all experts these days? Dismissal of Science? Scientists don’t agree on anything, do they? And aren’t the answers of science always changing? Didn’t they tell us at one time that menthol cigarettes could heal our lungs? Alternative facts and Truths. Isn’t there a lot of fake news out there? Haven’t the major news agencies we trusted in the past shown themselves to be purveyors of an agenda I don’t like? Isn’t Walter Cronkite dead?

Where does this fearful and questioning environment come into the church? We are long past the days when we could believe the church was a “Fortress of Solitude” untouched by raging conflicts in the cultural and social world. Whether we admit it or not, our religious identity is at the core of this situation. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “Religion is the essence of culture and culture is the dress of religion.” What are the religious elements behind our cultural upheavals?

In a series of blogs over the next few weeks, I would like to explore a specific aspect of this, the religious identity of the church as expressed in current culture. What lies behind the cultural expressions our society experiences in the church today? More specifically, I want to look at the role of the Bible in the church’s religious identity. Then I want to play the role of a futurist and project a little. What will be the relationship between the Bible and the future church?

My father was a medical doctor (M.D.) and had been drilled about a couple of things in medical school that were essential to his profession. One was that he always was to sign his name with “M.D.” at the end. So he wasn’t “Charles E. Krause.” He was “Charles E. Krause, M.D.” His degree conferred upon him a unique status that he should take pride in and publish whenever he could. A second thing he was taught was that other medical people who claim to be “doctors” but were not “M.D.” were suspect, probably quacks. In my family, visiting a chiropractor would be grounds for disinheritance. These and other things were drawn from the culture of medical schools when my father was being educated, an effort to define an elite identity for medical school graduates at the top of the medical world’s influence hierarchy. This culture (from the 1950s) would be aghast at the idea that medical information could be accessed from the internet, that a person with a medical degree from a place like Pakistan could be a real doctor, and that (of all things) a person could receive a flu shot in a Target pharmacy given by a pharmacist (as I did last week). In the end, this wasn’t so much about competency and certainly not about consumer value. It was about “protecting the shield,” insuring that medical doctors were highly competent and appropriately respected.

I’m afraid my field of expertise, biblical studies, has some of these same tendencies. We distrust and dismiss opinions on the Bible coming from anyone who does not have at least a master’s degree from a reputable school. We cringe at the misinformation about the Bible and its interpretation that can be found on the internet. We are aghast at preaching that largely ignores the Bible, and misinterprets it when it is used. We, too, have been “protecting the shield” of our guild, PhDs who know the original biblical languages and talk to each other in terms no average church person could understand or appreciate. When we look into the future of the church’s relationship to the Bible, are we part of it? Are we part of a new synthesis or a lingering part of an old problem?

Here are the topics I want to look at in the next few weeks:

  1. How did the Bible come to have a place of authority in the church and what is the nature of that authority?
  2. How did the assumption of this authoritative role for the Bible form part of the essence of the Evangelical church, and how was this essence dressed in popular cultural expressions of evangelicalism?
  3. What is the “realpolitick” role of the Bible and biblical experts (like me) in the evangelical church today?
  4. What is the likely future role of the Bible and its experts in the future church.

I hope you are along for the ride!

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

“Everything Happens for a Reason” Redux

My pastor today deliberately called out some “bad theology” that cripples us and causes misunderstandings of the Christian life. I appreciate it.

If we are not discerning, one person’s bad theology is another person’s favorite doctrine. I try to use biblical concepts to form my theological concepts. I am not infallible. I make mistakes and learn more as I go. I hope my theology is progressing toward purer truth all the time.

A persistent saying in Christian circles is “Everything happens for a reason.” This has the ring of faith and of yielding to the mysterious will of God. But I think it is bad theology in the way most people view it.

I have heard this from people who have experienced great tragedy, or by those who are trying to console victims of life’s horrors. The unstated logic of the statement goes something like this:

  1. God is in control of all things, therefore of everything that happens.
  2. God has a plan for all things and this plan is continually unfolding according to his will.
  3. Therefore, when bad things happen, God is the ultimate cause.
  4. When we suffer tragedy, saying “Everything happens for a reason” is a polite way to blame God.
  5. Our hope is that God’s reasons will favor us in the future.

I just don’t think it works this way or that the Bible teaches this. I will admit there are places where the Bible authors seem to attribute life’s good things and life’s terrible things to God. Perhaps most famous are the words of Job:

 Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)

Not all tragedies have a simple, easily explained cause. But many do. Many are the result of sinful behavior, especially injustice at the hands of greedy and unprincipled individuals. Sin causes pain for us and for others. Yet the Bible does not teach us to passively accept injustice. We are to fight it, to champion justice.

In the end, God’s control of his creation is not in question. He can bring good from catastrophe. But this does not mean he brings catastrophe to cause good. So let’s replace “Everything happens for a reason” with “God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Can You Do Me a Favor? (Palm Sunday, 6th Sunday in Lent)

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

Can you do a favor for me?” What is your response to such a request? It varies, doesn’t it? If it is my wife, my answer is, “Of course, what do you need?” If it is a co-worker, my response is more likely to be, “What do you need?” before I say, “Of course.”

In today’s text, Jesus gives the second answer. James and John, the beloved brothers, were among his closest disciples. John even refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in his version of the Gospel. But something in this situation causes Jesus to pause before agreeing. He does not trust their judgment to make a reasonable request. Jesus does not expect the request to be along the lines of, “Would you heal our sick mother?” or “Would you teach us more about prayer?”

Jesus’ caution is justified, because their request is audacious and disappointing. James and John seem to sense that something big is going to happen. Maybe their miracle-working teacher will throw down with the Romans and become King of Jerusalem. If so, they want to be first in line for the best jobs in the new Jesus Administration.

All is not lost, however, for while Jesus refuses the request, he uses it as a teaching point. This appears to be partly a strategy to protect the brothers from their indignant fellow-disciples (who are maybe wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that first!”).

Jesus’ lesson is about leadership, and this is the primary text for the popular agenda today of being a servant-leader. We should admit that “servant-leader” is every bit the oxymoron today as it was in Jesus’ day. Leaders don’t look for people to serve, they want followers. Before we discard the idea of a servant-leader, two things should be noticed:

  1. For Jesus, being the Servant of All did not compel him to grant the brothers’ request. Being a servant of others does not mean you attend to their every whim. It means you care about others.
  2. For Jesus, his own role as Servant of All was tied to his willingness to die on the cross as a “ransom” for human sins. Being a servant of others means you care about others more than yourself. Way more.

As we come to the end of our Lenten season, may we examine our attitude to others. Do we truly care about them? Do we care about them more than we care about ourselves? Way more?

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The opinions of this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.

Predicting Death (5th Sunday in Lent)

Let us continue on our Journey to Jerusalem with Jesus.

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:32-34)

When will I die? As I get older, this question takes on more urgency.

A few years ago, we visited the cemetery in my hometown where my parents are buried. It was a beautiful, late summer day, but a somber moment. I’m not sure what we expected to find, but what was there surprised me. This was a newer part of the cemetery and I wandered a bit, seeing who else was there. What surprised me was to find a couple dozen other gravestones telling me that people I had known in high school were also there with my mom and dad. When we are young, we think we will live forever. As we get older, not so much.

But I am about twice the age that Jesus was in this week’s text. He not only knew that he would die, but he had a good idea of when, where, and how. He knew this was his last trip to Jerusalem, a predestined journey that held the fate of humanity in its outcome. He was going to Jerusalem to die, a sacrificial death to take away the sins of those who believe in him.

I was recently interviewed for a story in the Omaha newspaper about the traditions of Easter. Many are a mix of pagan and Christian ideas: bunnies, hot-crossed buns, palm branches, lilies, eggs; the list is long. But it struck me that most of them have to do with the idea of resurrection or renewal. To be sure, the death of Jesus means little without his resurrection, but what does resurrection mean without Jesus’ death? Catholics have long been criticized for the omnipresent crucifix, accused of leaving Jesus on the cross. Protestants present a clean cross, no longer occupied by our crucified Lord, for he is risen, we say. Orthodox folks often have a depiction of the Risen Christ as the central feature of their worship area.

But let’s think a little more this week about the death of Jesus. He knew that death awaited him in Jerusalem, but his face was “set like flint” to go to the holy city. He knew that his death would be painful, shameful, and terrifying, yet he went.

When will I die? When God calls me home. My death is likely to have significance for a small number. Jesus’ death changed everything for billions. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift to us, his Son willing to die for our sins.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The opinions in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.