Sunday, March 05, 2006

Reading the Bible III: Understanding Authority

1 Lent
8 Hilary
In discerning the canon of Scripture, the church was also discerning and defining her own identity. Henceforth Scripture was to function as a mirror in which the church could continually rediscover her identity and assess, century after century, the way in which she constantly responds to the Gospel and equips herself to be an apt vehicle of its transmission. This confers on the canonical writings a salvific and theological value completely different from that attaching to other ancient texts. The latter may throw much light on the origins of the faith. But they can never substitute for the authority of the writings held to be canonical and thus fundamental for the understanding of the Christian faith.

- The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994.
I appreciate this because it reflects a solid understanding of the Church as being shaped by the apostolic witness for a particular purpose - to embody in itself the message of the Gospel, and to thereby transmit it.

One must remember that the Christian Canon of Scripture is the product of the Work of God in the life of the Church. The Bible is God's tool to continually shape our lives as the Body of Christ. It is not his only tool, but one that he is always using.


Anonymous said...

"One must remember that the Christian Canon of Scripture is the product of the Work of God in the life of the Church."

I love this idea! It isn't sola scriptura (thank god), and it also isn't a statement that the scripture are simply a cultural product of a new religious movement two thousand years ago. I like it's middle ground.


the jesse said...

Yeah I admit I'm a little bothered by people talking as if God only speaks through Scripture, as if the whole thing were a private letter from God to me (not you, don't tell me what you think about my private letter.) =) Good post.

Charles said...

Good post, Kyle. How does this relate, from your perspective, on private interpretation of the Scriptures and the teaching authority of the Church? For example, with regards to Holy Baptism (meaning, method, age of recipient, etc.)?

Kyle said...

Yeah, Mike, who knew the Roman Church would teach us a little moderation?

Your point is well made, Jesse. WE read Scripture, and it's part of what God's doing in us.

Charles, I wonder if I could get away with describing tradition as the long, broad history of the Church's Bible reading? My anabaptist inclinations want to say that we must have a conversation with all kinds of people, living and dead, and that the local community in a listening posture must do what seems faithful to itself, with some accountability to other churches. That's the practical line I follow in this crazy post-modern, post-protestant, post-christendom world, for better or worse.

The idealist in me wants to say that you have ecumenical councils to rule on as few necessary things as it can get away with, and leave the rest for people to sort out. As in, the things that don't endanger souls.

Kind of like Roman Catholicism without the hyperactive micromanaging, or Anglicanism, with some actual convictions.

Why Anglicanism? You look at the ancient catholic faith, and have a conversation with everybody, and when it comes right down to it, be a baptist that happens to have a bishop. :0)

Anonymous said...


I like what you say here.

One thing...

What are we to make of the 'blurred' edges of the canon?

i.e. there are different books which different traditions include in 'the canon', the absence or presence of which affect the 'mirror' in which the church looks to identify herself (even if only slightly)

The books of the canon (however it is defined!) are still 'ancient texts' and I wonder if there is a risk that we read these texts differently to those and whether it gets us in a whole heap of trouble as we try to figure out what we should 'look' like?


Kyle said...

Richard, I'm not sure I follow you very well. Are you referring to things that are canonical in some Christian traditions and not others (like perhaps the Deuterocanonical books of the OT, or 1 Enoch from the Ethiopian Church), or the generally appreciated (!) writings contemporary with the NT, such as the "Apostolic Fathers": Hermas, the Didache, the Epistles of Ignatius, et al.?

If that's what you're asking about, I think I might say that those other writings are valuable and good for study, because they present attempts by the first generations to develop faithfully the apostolic witness that is authoritatively attested to in the books what would become "canonical." In terms of the Deuterocanonicals, I'd say look at it like other sacred historys: if God works redemptively in history, there is something there to observe.

I don't know if I've answered the right question, you've very welcome to come back at me on it.

Anonymous said...


Sorry for being vague - but I was just starting to construct my thinking when I posted and so it probably came out a bit 'embryonic'!

My intention was to contra the quote re: the 'canon' being 'different' from other ancient texts.

The fact that there are some deutero-canonical books which one group accept but which another reject suggests that trying to define the canon too tightly (and then giving it some 'mystical ability') may be barking up the wrong tree.

I guess its the historical-critic in me but I would like to see all the texts set out (including the Gnostic ones) and a constructive cycle of hermeneutical dialogue occur between them. We can then start to see the 'shape' that the New Creation project may be taking - starting with Jewish expectations, moving through to the Jesus-event and propelling us into the early church under the guidance of the Spirit.

Within this 'conversation' it will be come clear to us which 'ideas' are at odds with the shape of the whole project (perhaps the 'Gnostic texts', perhaps even some aspects of the 'canon'????!) and which ideas give wings and flight to the Grand purpose of God in Creation.

I completely agree that the community gave expression and shape to the 'canon' and that this 'yard stick' - in turn - can give new expression and shape back to the community. But I would like to think that this feedback occurs within the proper context of historical/cultural understanding (as per all ancient texts) and doesn't acquire a subtle 'category' of its own, which removes it from historical criticism and enquiry.

There - I think that explains it better!


Kyle said...

Okay, I think I see what you're getting at. As you might be able to tell, I'm not sure exactly what "mystical" quality (if any) to give the canonical texts. What I certainly wouldn't argue (and I don't think this document does, either) is that canonical texts should be removed from the "hotseat" of historical criticism. I really think that stuff can be good for us. Not everyone has done it faithfully and for the Church, but others have.

I think it's also worth asking again questions that the first Christians asked and learning from them how and why they got the answers they did; often implicit in that is the idea that they surely got it wrong. Lots of people think that before they even come to read them and follow their train of thought.

Hmm, so I think I agree with you - not really sure what I'm saying at this point. :0)

Anonymous said...

Completely agree re: the abuses of historical (i.e. proper literary) criticism. I guess that's why there is all the more need to correct 'abuse' with 'proper use' (and not 'disuse') - as one of my proverbs goes....!

I'm thinking that even the 'non-canonical' books have the 'power' to transform and shape our understanding of God's Re-creation 'project' - however the early church realised that some books were more faithful to that project per se than others and so concentrated study and transmission in that area (perhaps this is the historical dimension behind behind 'canon'? i.e. in a culture where the copying of texts was time consumming and expensive, one couldn't preserve 'everything' that had been written, and so the church concentrated all its efforts on preserving certain texts.

I guess I would want my daughter to grow up learning to read the 'canonical' texts as well as the 'non-canonical' texts and learning to think creatively for herself how these interplay. Where this doesn't occur in the church I think the 'canon' takes on a mysterious quality which causes people to stop thinking about them as historical texts and to start projecting all sorts of expectations onto them (such as inerrancy etc...).