Christians and the Bible – Part 3

by Dr Matthew Del Nevo
19th February 2016

I was at a church event recently and a young man from the far north of Sweden and his girlfriend sat next to me and we began to chat about church. Speaking about Pentecostal services he said that the main thing is not so much the music and liveliness of the whole service, but that it is based on the Bible.

They were Lutherans and the idea of Luther was sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Printing had just been invented, so Scripture alone suddenly meant something new: not a word read in church to those gathered to hear it, but a book they could purchase and read by themselves at home and make of it what they will.

The idea of “based on the Bible” is itself non-Biblical – although no doubt Scriptures can be dragged in to legitimate it, like anything. “Bible-based” is not a natural fact that pertains to a book of which one happens to hold a copy; it is an interpretation of the status of that object (before we even open it), and as such, we might find it is simplistic or naïve. Being simplistic or naïve is usually unintentional and unconscious, rather than deliberate. But sometimes it can be a dogmatic attitude.

Scripture gives the measure

Sola Scriptura was a critical move, typical of German thought, which originated critical thinking, and I would say it originated with Luther (and only much later with Kant the famed founder of Kritik).  By Scripture you (critically) measure tradition. That is what sola Scriptura means.  And measure is the meaning of canon, which is what Scripture is in the Christian sense.

The Bible in Christianity is not like the Koran is for Muslims. The Koran for Muslims is the literal word of God.  Muslims, take the Bible to have been written by God (or the Angel Gabriel) through Mohammad (who was illiterate) as through a medium. When Christians think of the Bible as if it had been written through rather than by the various authors, then this is not biblical, but Biblicism.  Biblicism is an ideology, and ideology is not biblical, but idolatrous.  Christian Biblicism partakes of the Ishmaelite heresy, as St. John Damascus called Islam in his contemporary and critical treatment of it in the section Concerning Heresy of his great work on the Orthodox Faith (early 8th cent.),  for Biblicism takes an idolatrous stance toward the book or its content.[1] Today we call this Islamic attitude to the Bible when held by Christians, Christian fundamentalism.

Using Scripture as a measure enabled Luther to question Catholic medievalism and to question the Gregorian reforms. With hindsight we can see Luther was a child of those reforms and took them on to the next stage, demanding accountability and responsibility from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which he found sinfully complacent and power-mongering on his visit to Rome. The persecution of Luther by the Pope, who seconded secular powers to his cause to do away with Luther, had the effect of forcing Luther’s hand and exacerbated reform even further. The result of which, amongst other things, was doing away with the medieval priest/layman caste distinction altogether. This was a democratization and in line with the burgeoning new mercantile world.

But Scripture as a canon (measure) and Scripture as a basis is a shift that Luther never countenanced.

What does Scripture as a basis even mean? It means that what we read in a book has dominion.  So does that mean the Spirit conforms to the Book?  Can the Spirit conform to a Bible? Doesn’t the Book say the Spirit goes where it will? In the Pentecostal and charismatic movement the Bible is an inspiration, not a basis.  We are not grounded in words on a page.  We are injected with life by words on a page – so that we read in the Spirit and the words speak to us in the Spirit, through Christ.

The prepositions are key here. There is a dynamic.  The word comes from the Father if we are struck by it (revelation) or to the Father if we are directed by it.  But this revelation or this orientation does not happen per se, it only happens in the Spirit.  The traditional doctrine of the Trinity (that God is One and God is Three; God is neither One nor Three) precisely captures this experience that I am describing – the dynamic given by the propositions or “relations”: to the Father or from the Father (our end and our beginning), with or through the Son (our mediator), in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not conform to words in a book, but the words in the book live in the dynamic of the Trinity that we too are caught up in, in our life in Christ, and his Church.

The idea of the Bible being a “basis” (foundation) for belief, or for faith, or for Christian religion, is a modern idea. It is an idea that belongs to a mechanistic age, to the age of Newtonian physics, to Capitalism, an age of production (e.g. of books), and more broadly, to the Age of Reason, of which the Eighteenth Century was the high point. From a “basis” one makes certain mechanistic “applications.” Thus there is a causal relation, as in a mechanism between one thing and another.

For example, I read such-and-such proposition in the Bible and apply it in such-and-such a way. Perhaps people say, for example, Scripture “works”. What they mean is that Scripture contains lever like principles with law-like results.  Or the preaching leads people to believe that blessing or a grace-filled life automatically follow on from daily Bible reading and “the Christian life”.  But there is nothing automatic (like a car) about spirit or the spiritual or, in fact, “the promises of God.”  I know people, and have done it myself, who read the Bible for the Promises of God, as if these are pre-fabricated and go for any and every person in whatever circumstance. They “hold” because they are the promises of God.  But our notion of “promise” is actually more like “programmed” and we read the Bible to identify not the promises of God in a natural sense of promise, which is always linked with trust and hope and dependent upon them, but to itemise for ourselves, quite ruthlessly, the “pre-programming” of God, in this verse and that, and therefore we have a fixed sense of what we might expect, far removed from the truth of any sense of promise – and we imagine such expectations constitute faith.  The fact is that any promise is vulnerable by definition.  But who reads the Bible for the promises of God in order to discover God’s vulnerabilities?

Hand in hand with the reification[2] of the Bible goes the fallacy that what is read is self-evident.  It is possible for the Bible to be called a “basis” because the assumption is that the content is self-evident; this fallacy pertains even more strongly to the current daft notion that the Bible is a “manual for life” as if we are like cars or computers (alas that some people may be).  Note the mechanistic connection: cars and computers are machines and your machine always comes with a manual. So if I am a machine, I need a manual.

This is precisely from the fallacy from which the Bible needs to save us! This is precisely why we need the Bible, to help us to get a revelation that this is an idolatrous self-image.  But because I’m not a machine, the Revelation is not self-evident (in fact otherwise it wouldn’t be called a revelation). True, over time some parts of revelation may over time become generally accepted and seem “natural” – for example the values of a civic society, or education, or hospitals for the sick or care for the widow and orphan.  But if the Bible does not state the self-evident then we are reliant on interpretation.

Scripture should not be where we discover and endorse our assumptions, but where we encounter the measure of them.

The mechanistic mentality and its presuppositions

There is a problem with the rational, mechanical belief-system believed to be ratified by the Bible itself. The problem is not just the locked circularity of book and belief ostensibly mirroring each other: the fact of this ostensible mirroring then called “the truth”. This problematic notion of biblical truth.  The problem is the unconscious. Any contemporary person knows that we are very largely unconscious creatures.  Our consciousness is merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of our being lies submerged, forgotten, out of mind.

The Age of Reason, of mechanism, succeeded the Mediaeval age. The Enlightenment succeeded the Age of Reason, with an emphasis on consciousness of various kinds: self-consciousness, class consciousness, planetary consciousness.  Religious exclusivism, nationalism and egoism were the shadow sides of the age.  Then Freud discovered the unconscious.  He spoke of our drives and their fates; the way we disguise reality from ourselves without knowing it; the way desire undermines reason, the way ideology is a mass neurosis. Then, as if to prove his point, the World War broke over Europe and ended the longest empire in history, the Austro-Hungarian Empire that dated back to the Holy Roman Empire and to the first millennium – Christendom.

There are endless explanations for August 1914 and for Hitler and for the Holocaust, but no good reasons for them. And this was the culture, if any, based on the Bible. That is, as the Bible is the foundational book of Western culture, it is often said.

When we say our beliefs are based on the Bible, we inwardly attune to an age gone by, perhaps as a defence against the havoc of our own age, our “postmodernism” or “secularism” or “relativism”, the usual culprits. Attunement to another age incapacitates us from attending to our own age. Catholic intellectuals are often attuned to a Mediaeval mindset. Evangelicals are often attuned to the Age of Reason. In either case to an age gone by.  They take “truth” in terms of these ages. This is not just a defensive posture, but a somewhat paranoid one.

The biblical itself is an adjective that should attend upon our perspective or view.

When we say our beliefs are based on the Bible we forget what is encompassing us. For example, in our world today consciousness is governed everywhere in public quarters by the currently hegemonic ideology of economics, masked with science for added credence. The money neurosis, based on egoism and self-interest. Even those who claim to be Bible based in their perception and understanding are also (ironically?) based in this context, even if they do not admit to it. Often they are simply unaware. Consumerism is (or has become) “natural”.

In real time, all perception is partial. All language is symbolic.

The idea that the Bible is a “basis” denies this consciousness. This is the crux.

The role of interpretation

The question therefore is really one of interpretation. Not “what does the Bible say?” but “what do we take it to be saying?” and “what does that mean?”  I have already said, in contemporary Christian churches (and sometimes in the old denominations) interpretation is governed by the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky said, as a signature of the consensus patrum : “Christ unifies, the Spirit diversifies.” So interpretation in the Spirit is diverse and keyed to circumstances, to the preacher and the audience, to the personal and actual.

By the same token, the Bible as a canon (measure) interprets the diversity of the Holy Spirit (in case it gets too diverse and tips into heresy! Such for instance as happened to Marcion who wanted to read the New Testament texts without the Jewish Bible).  This is the way “Christ unifies.”  It is a communio. So there is room for difference, but there are limits to difference that put you out of court, as it were, if pushed too far.   The word in the Bible transmits the Holy Spirit in the sense that the word lives in a textus, a weave and the Holy Spirit is caught in the weave. So interpretation that extracts what it deems to be propositions about God and salvation from the Bible and wants to apply them mechanistically in a deductive fashion kills God (Nietzsche) and intellectualises redemption by that tactic, because the life, the spontaneity, the creativity (in God’s image) is lost.  To pull a thread from the weave is to say nothing really intelligent, and weakens the fabric of that from which it has been pulled.

Good interpretation gives a sense of the “weave”, which in plain English could be the meaning in narrative terms, even if it is ethics. The human condition is always situated within historic context. Always we are creatures of our times and “God’s purposes” is a phrase which precisely captures the historical presupposition and the linearity of time.  Always reality is a cross: from the inside to the outside, from the past to the future. So the Kingdom of God which Jesus ushered in continues to work out from within us, in a way from “back then” till “kingdom come.”

The truth is in the weave. The Bible is a revelation of this fact, unknown to any other culture except the Jewish.  History is on the way somewhere. Christianity was called the Way before it was called Christian and Jesus called himself the Way according to John.  Interpretations weave us into God’s story, or aim to.

Therefore the Bible is not the basis, because it is based on life: on the life God is trying to give us; a hard task, indeed, for His word falls time and again on hard hearts encrusted with beliefs and too little love and on deaf ears that hear what they want to hear..

But in contemporary Christianity, interpretation aims to make the unconscious conscious. It starts with the stories that dominate our times and lets the Bible speak into them and deconstruct them. This is not Bible as basis, but as a hammer to smash idols. Once these idols were stone, wood and metal, but in our time, the idols are intellectual, even, quite possibly, theological.

Our faith is not Bible-based, it is Christ based, I might have said to that young couple from Sweden. We love the Bible because it is all about Jesus. I hope they could sense this from our service.

[1] St John of Damascus. Writings, edited by Frederic H. Chase. The Fathers of the Church. Volume 37 (Washington DC: Catholic University of America), 1958, ch. 101.

[2] To reify means to objectify, to speak or write of concepts is if they were concrete realities. German philosophy frequently uses abstract nouns like history or science or technology or time as if they “do” something, whereas it is people who do things. In the usage here it refers to those who would treat the Bible as if it stands like an object outside nature and history.  There is a link in that sense between reification, which is the essence of ideology (Adorno) and the worship of idols. Idols today are in people’s minds.