Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Thanks to you who have had the perseverance to follow this long blog string on “Future Church, Future Bible.” Let me briefly recapitulate the previous posts.

The church from its earliest days had a tradition of Scripture, written words of recognized authorities. The church inherited this tradition from its Jewish forebears, and the early Scriptures of the church were the same as the synagogue. This, for the most part, was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible books we call the Septuagint. In its first century of existence, the church began to recognize writings from its own people (like Paul) as having authority and began to collect these books into its own Scripture (the New Testament). The eventual result was the “Bible,” a collection of individual books in two parts, the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.”

After a time, the authority of Scripture was muted or inaccessible to most people in the church, especially in Western Europe (the primary source of American Evangelicalism). Martin Luther changed this by beginning to study Scripture in the original languages in a somewhat historical and critical way. Luther often took into account the context and intent of the original authors. He also translated Scripture into the language of his people, the German-text “Luther Bible.” Many scholars believe that Luther transferred the authority within the church from the Roman Catholic curia of his day to the Bible, but what he really accomplished was moving the authority for interpretation from the trained and authorized (and sometimes ruthlessly corrupt) teachers of the Roman church to the individual believer. Lutherism, when understood this way, was less a move away from a corrupt church to establish a biblical church as it was a move away from a unified church to a church reduced to the individual.

This was the key to the rise of Protestantism in Europe. It eventually unleashed generations of learned people who studied the Bible using the best scholarly techniques and resources available to them in their day. In the 500 years since Luther, several things have happened.

One was the move away from a single church with its highly organized government (hierarchy) and political power (“Christendom”). This had unintended consequences. The Bible had become a tool of authority for the individual believer. New churches were organized around dynamic leaders and these churches adopted their leaders’ interpretations of key Bible texts. No mechanism existed to prevent further divisions within the church. The result was a multitude of distinct churches, most of which recognized the Bible as authoritative, but with different results based on culture and interpretations of this book. Practical unity in the church was confined to the congregational level, and even there, restless or dissatisfied members could hop from church to church until they found a congregation they personally judged to be adequate. This is still the case in the evangelical church today.

Also, two great trends within the tradition that became Evangelicalism were nurtured and grew. The first of these trends was the desire to systematize the teachings of the Bible into a coherent grid. This was not new, but was undertaken with greater emphasis and exclusivity where the Bible was concerned. The great systematic theologians worked to define the major themes of the Christian faith (Theology, Christology, Soteriology, etc.) and mine the Bible to find the gems of texts that spoke on each topic. The systematician then synthesized these texts into unified statements of doctrine.

The second trend that eventually ran afoul of this systematics work was the progressive development of biblical interpretation itself. A tradition of scholarship arose that began to take the Bible seriously as a collection of documents written within identifiable historical and cultural contexts. Left behind were naïve understandings that treated the narratives of the Bible as stories about semi-fictional or mythological characters unlike the modern readers. Also left behind were the allegorical readings of many texts, the move that made the Bible ahistorical and washed away difficult things by seeing them as symbolic. The interpretation of the Bible became a rigorous discipline, some would say a science, that had clear rules based on the analysis of ancient literature in general.

In the mid-twentieth century, these two trends were primed for a collision. Whether entirely aware of it or not, evangelical scholars had always been influenced by their systematic presuppositions when interpreting the Bible. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the principle of the evangelical “analogy of faith,” the idea that all readings of Scripture must fit into the larger grid of what the church has taught historically. This amounted to the triumph of systematicians over biblical interpreters and is still the case within evangelical scholars today (as witnessed by many of the papers read at the Evangelical Theological Society).

We should not be surprised by this. Luther shifted authority from the hierarchical teachers of the church to the individual, thereby resulting in semi-biblical conclusions driven by theological and doctrinal presuppositions. This was somewhat inevitable, I think.

What has called this into question is the rise of literary criticism in a larger sense in the mid-twentieth century. There were many parts to this: the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” “literary deconstruction,” “reader-based interpretation,” and others. But one positive result was to expose the fallacy of reading and interpreting any text without presuppositions. There was no tabla rasa, no blank slate for any human interpreter. We all come to the text with preunderstandings. For evangelicals, this includes the systematic truths drilled into them as doctrines. But does the Bible determine our doctrines, or do the doctrines control our reading?

Next: How the Train Wreck of Systematics vs. Bible Interpreters Influences the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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

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