That’s because the church isn’t a text

St Irenaeus advanced a line of argument that would become standard among traditional Christianity:  because the Bible is so complex and deep, it can’t rightly be interpreted by any one man’s reading.  Similarly, it would not do for any community to simply read the “Bible” and that reading be authoritative (for the Gnostics would be vindicated).  No, the only reading is the apostolic reading within the one Church (which has apostolic and episcopal parameters; this is simply a summary of early Church teaching and what they said is not up for debate).

An interlocutor could object, “Suppose you are correct in saying we are misreading the Bible because the Bible is full of ambiguities, how then are you not misreading what the Church is saying on these matters?  If we are guilty of epistemic relativism in Bible reading, how are you not also guilty of epistemic relativism in ecclesial readings?.”

This bothered me for the longest time.  While it is true that most people don’t misunderstand what the Church teaches on x, y, and z (and the misunderstandings and disagreements are nowhere near as radical as the evangelical readings on the Bible), the truth of the matter is the Church is not a text.  The Church is not words.   The Church did not initially operate by “The Bible alone” (since for most early Christians in the first few centuries there was no recognizable “Bible”).   The Church was the body of Christ.  It is flesh and blood, wine and bread.  It is people.   We are not dealing with the laws of literary hermeneutics, in which the evangelical is forever forced to operate, never rising above).

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5 comments on “That’s because the church isn’t a text

  1. Vincent says:

    Sola Scriptura presupposes that the only way man can encounter God or understand His will is through “reason.”

    In no other place in history but the post-Renaissance era would a doctrine like “Sola Scriptura” be taken seriously, where being skeptical of mysticism was starting to be fashionable.

  2. Eric Hyde says:

    I like what one of our local Greek Orthodox priests said at a recent Bible study:

    “The bishops from our Church decided which books and letters, out of the hundreds in circulation at the time, would be New Testament canon. So, why do those who embrace Sola Scriptura accept the 27 books of the New Testament? Because the Orthodox Church told them to.” (paraphrased)

    I’m always curious to hear from Sola Scriptura believers whether or not the doctine is internally consistent; does Scripture teach Sola Scriptura? Of course the answer is “no.” But ironically it does teach acceptance of the Apostolic Tradition.

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    I wonder who told the Orthodox church which books to pick?

  4. tesla1389 says:

    The Holy Spirit via the visible, institutional church. Then again, the idea of a “canon” didn’t have the same magical appeal to the early Christians as it must for today’s protestants. Most of the early fathers were ambivalent about a set canon since they already had the fullness of the faith (Jude 3; St Paul’s words about “tradition”).

    In other words, Orthodoxy can function without a canon because St Jude said they alraedy had the apostolic deposit before the canon was even finished.

    And the books of the canon of the Fathers were different from those Bibles sold in Evangelical bookstores.

    The Evangelical scholar Lee Macdonald has some phenomenal books on this issue.

  5. John says:

    I’ve heard it said that if the Bible up and disappeared so would Evangelical Protestantism. Orthodoxy would still possess the fullness of the faith (and has done so in isolated pockets where Orthodox Christians have been deprived of the Scriptures because of persecution) and the Church would be able to essentially reproduce the Scriptures, even if not word for word, because the Scriptures are reflected in Her Life in Christ through the Holy Spirit, in the Liturgy, Hymnography, hagiography, iconography, etc.

    John

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