The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the biblical text itself. Character and wise exegesis were intimately related. In Athanasius’ words, “…the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures [demands] a good life and a pure soul…. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life…” (On the Incarnation [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982],
Then, for those interested in how this looks like in the Roman Catholic setting, see the catechism. There are three senses:
(1) The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.
(2) The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.
(3) The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Accordingly, the Church Fathers often distinguished between several different senses of Scripture. A good example is the way some of them read the Exodus tradition. In this account of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt they found at least four different levels of meaning: 1) the “literal/historical,” which speaks of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land; 2) the “allegorical” or “typological,” which sees Old Testament images (e.g., Moses and Joshua, the manna and rock in the wilderness) as figures or “types” that are fulfilled in Christ and the Church’s sacraments; 3) the “tropological” or moral, which sees in Israel’s journey an image of the soul’s conversion from sin and death to grace and “newness of life” (Romans 6:4); and 4) the “anagogical” or mystical sense, which speaks of the believer’s journey toward eternal glory (“anagogical” means “leading upward”).
Protestants, like they have with other things, have seriously damaged the way Christians read Scripture.
Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is a vast improvement over reading it as if you are lord and master of what it says and whether or not that book belongs in there. Indeed, to suggest that because we no longer know how to read Scripture with the senses and thus some parts can be dismissed is not to elevate ourselves, but to show how far we have fallen.
Positive statements about the usefulness of the Scriptures in instructing mankind for salvation affirm more about the Bible than a negative statement that it is without error. The Bible is not the ultimate end. Instead, it is a witness to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist pointed toward Christ, the Bible is a witness pointing toward God. A witness is not identical with that to which it attests. The Bible stands under the authority of God. By calling the Bible a witness, the emphasis is placed on God as the end, with the Bible as the means to that end. The Bible is revelatory as it points toward the will and nature of God. God is infallible and the word of God that we learn from the Bible will thus be infallible, but the two should not be confused. The Bible is our final court of appeal in this world, since it is the written document which records God’s historical revelation of his will to man, especially in Jesus Christ, but the Bible’s authority derives from God. In this context the truth claims of the Bible should be examined and accepted.
Yesterday, a question was posed in one of the UMC FB forums about inerrancy. Granted, this question was posed by a rather young, confused non-Methodist, but it sparked conversation. One of the people in the conversation brought up Bishop Willimon to his defense. Willimon is not an inerrantist.
As John Wesley began his search for a relationship with God, he began in Scripture. He said that he studied the Bible because it was “the one, the only standard of truth and the only model of pure religion” [Works, Jackson, 2:367). Toward the end of his life he could continue to claim, “My ground is the Bible. … I follow it in all things great and small” (ibid., 3:251), In speaking of a fourfold test for belief, it is clear that Wesley set Scripture above tradition, reason, and experience in terms of ultimate authority. (The quadrilateral is not equilateral.) United Methodists can therefore be said to have a “high” view of scripture. However, we cannot be accused of bibliolatry, inerrancy, literalism, or fundamentalism. Wesley could boast that he was “a man of one book.” However, he did not mean this in a naive, uninformed way. He also meant that he not only believed but attempted to live by this one book.
The quad tries to maintain this view, although many have made all of the sides equal while misunderstanding such things as “experience.” In my view, Scripture is the authority of the Church (much like the Constitution is for the United States), but Tradition, Reason and Experience are there to help us read and apply Scripture (much like case law — although Tradition produced Scripture (and legal issues produced the Constitution).
Even if the Pentateuch is not from Moses, and many Psalms attributed to David are not from David, and the second part of Isaiah is from another author than the first part, this does not detract from the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture. The inspiration is certain, but the authenticity is an open question. As a divine book the Bible is above all criticism, but as a human book it may, like all literature, be examined by historical-critical methods and standards.
I’ve seen this discussion taking place in the blogosphere (and wider social media venue) so I’ve had some time to think about it.
What would happen if the canon wasn’t closed?
That is usually the question. Some would add MLK’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail while others may wish to add something closer to the Apostles, such as GThomas or 1st Clement.
For me, I’m not sure our canon is closed, only our understanding of what the canon is. If the canon is limited to a set of books within what we call “the bible” then it is closed because of the theological necessity at one point or the other to ensure our Church is founded only upon the words of the Apostles (or, you know, their pseudonymous followers — I’m looking you, “Timothy”)
In my opinion, the “canon” includes Scripture, the Creeds, and the writings of the Church that do not contradict the previous two.1 This means even the writings of various Christians such as John Wesley. So, my canon is not necessary closed as it is open to progressive revelation based on two firm foundations.
This isn’t exactly the UCC version of “God is still speaking…” but something along the lines of John 16.13 where we are still being guided from something, along a path, to some place.
What are your thoughts?
Btw, if I were to issue a New New Testament, I would include Thomas, Barnabas, 1st and 2nd Clement, Ignatius’s letters (short form), and Diognetus. I would also include the creed from the Council of Sardica and tell the East to bite me.
“contradict” is understood as a highly nuanced term. ↩