Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
November 2nd, 2015 by Joel Watts

Canon Shots: is the bible a product of the Church? (Orthodoxy)

Last week, I posted one of my usual means of beginning a conversation.

It does have a ring of truth to it, however. I do feel Luther exceeded his authority, and the rest of the Protestants merely followed, buoyed by selective use of (Western) Church History. We can really dig into this, if you want, but for now, I want to briefly focus on the Orthodox view of Scripture and how I find some compatibility with it.

There are two statements from Fr. Demetrios Serfes I want to highlight:

Strictly Speaking, there never was a “Bible” in the Orthodox Church. At least not as we commonly think of the Bible as a single volume book we can hold in our hand. Since the beginning of the Church, from the start of our liturgical tradition, there has never been a single book in an Orthodox church we could point to as “the Bible”.

And

The Church is NOT Based on the Bible. Rather, the Bible is a product of the Church. For the first few centuries of the Christian era, no one could have put his hands on a single volume called “The Bible.” In fact, there was no one put his hands on a single volume called “The Bible.” In fact, there was no agreement regarding which “books” of Scripture were to be considered accurate and correct, or canonical.

Orthodox Church in America

Orthodox Church in America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This last statement seems to be in agreement with the Orthodox Church in America,

The Old Testament books to which you refer—know in the Orthodox Church as the “longer canon” rather than the “Apocrypha,” as they are known among the Protestants—are accepted by Orthodox Christianity as canonical scripture. These particular books are found only in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew texts of the rabbis.

But the first statement… that’s the fun one, ain’t it?

It is repudiated by many Protestants, especially the Reformed. Hodge writes,

This proposition is designed to deny the Romish heresy that the inspired Church is the ultimate source of all divine knowledge, and that the written Scripture and ecclesiastical tradition alike depend upon the authoritative seal of the Church for their credibility. They thus make the Scriptures a product of the Spirit through the Church, while in fact the Church is a product of the Spirit through the instrumentality of the word. (Commentary on the Confession of Faith)

I think this is really one of the major dividing lines between the oldest communions of the Christian faith and Protestantism. Basically… which came first, the Church or “the bible?”

Granted, #notallprotestants have felt this way.

I]t is part of our assurance of faith that Holy Scripture, taken as a whole has been appointed to be the rule for the Christian church. The birth of the Christian church is to be understood accordingly. To the extent that it accepts the whole Bible and considers the Bible as the purpose of its existence, the church is God’s work through His Spirit. (BH 34)

And

“For Hofmann theology is scientific knowledge of the church in its historical development, in which the church takes concrete forms in different modes: in the rebirth of the individual, in the history of its mediation of salvation, and in the documents of its independent historical origin. One can say that theology in this sense is nothing other than ecclesiology. The church is defined in principle as the continuation of the incarnation of Christ in the medium of history” (Sturm, “Die integrierende Funktion der Ekklesiologie,” 310).

I have to answer with the Orthodox (and many Catholics) who affirm that the Church came first. Ironically, we read this in Acts 2, wherein before anything was written down, we have the Church created and those being saved added to it. We do know the movement of Jesus existed before the first writings. We do know that there was a structure in place before the first canonical lists were starting to be passed around. These structures preserved literary orthodoxy.

So, what do you think? Without the grand conspiracy talk, what do you think of the statement offered by Serfes? Is Scripture a product of the Church? Or, is there such a thing as “a New Testament Church?”

For me, I tend to favor the views of the oldest Communions. The Church (Tradition?) is first. Scripture is a product of the Church, not produced by in the manufacturing sense, but collected, collated, and preserved by — thus interpreted by — the Church. To have St Paul write to the “church at” would mean the Church pre-existed Scripture.

But, this doesn’t mean Scripture is to be manipulated by the Church and so on.

Anyway, this is a fishing expedition. What do you think?

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

3 Responses to “Canon Shots: is the bible a product of the Church? (Orthodoxy)”
  1. Joel, here’s my take (simplified): the early Church used the LXX, and began collecting specifically Christian writings as early as the second century. The Rule of Faith preceded the NT canon by quite a bit, but not the LXX. The Church over time did identify certain Christian works as useful for teaching the faith of the Church, and these works in turn shaped the Church’s emerging theological identity. So the relationship between the Church and the NT canon was dialectical. As for the OT canon, it was Jerome who first marked off the “apocryphal” works as occupying a separate category from the works that were part of the Hebrew Bible. He noted this distinction in prefaces, which were later omitted by copyists. Luther, then, was hearkening back to Jerome’s practice.

  2. All I know, is that scripture has to be taken with a grain of salt, or it loses it’s saltiness.
    Old texts? How about using really old texts…
    Num 5:29 This is the law of jealousy…
    Or,
    Lev 14: And the priest shall take of the blood of the trespass-offering, and the priest shall put it upon the tip of the right ear…
    If I was an alien from another planet, I would say “who wrote this stuff, anyway?”
    What matters is the church, not the texts. The texts require some heavy duty filtering to eliminate stupid stuff (excuse my French…). But let’s be realistic. Historic value, yes. Practical information, only with filtering. Scientific fact, not a chance.

  3. David is correct. It remains only to say that Protestant Christians have never fallen into line behind one vision of scriptural authority. In many ways, the most appealing one is this: (a) in preaching, the apostolic rule of faith guides the interpretation of scripture; (b) in doctrine, the scriptural teaching of the undivided church is sufficient; (c) in evaluation, novelties proposed after the first millennium must be proven to be sound from the scriptures. As Ben Witherington has shown, this last test has seldom been passed.

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