I’ve been thinking for some time about the authority of the Bible, which was assumed in my previous post about Mennonite theological trumps. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the Roman Catholic critique of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, on the grounds that the Christian scriptures are a product of the church. The church was responsible for producing the constituent documents of the New Testament, and was also responsible for determining the canon. Moreover, the canon was formed hundreds of years after the church’s beginnings, which demonstrates that the church is not dependent on the canon for its existence. How, then, can scripture be held up as the church’s single most authoritative teaching when it was not available for the earliest formative years of the church’s existence?
Protestants use the Bible, along with creeds and confessions, to determine who and what is inside or outside Christian orthodoxy. In the early church, this function was played to a significant degree by the phenomenon of apostolic succession. For instance, the First Epistle of Clement, from the late first or early second century, charged that the removal of church elders in Corinth who had committed no moral crime was improper, because those elders had been appointed by apostles. The understanding was that the true Christian faith was received. Therefore, if you can trace the passage of your received faith back to Jesus’ original apostles, you were assured that you had received the true faith. If you could not trace your faith to Jesus, it was clearly received from elsewhere, and was therefore not authentically Christian. The Catholic and Orthodox churches still hold to this sort of doctrine.
This essentially made orthodox Christianity dependent on an oral tradition, rather than a written one. Sure, there were Christian texts circulating, but they did not define the Christian community in the way that, say, the Qu’ran defined Islam in the years immediately following the death of Mohammed. The problem with being dependent on an oral tradition is that these traditions do not remain reliable over time. For example, even by the second century, Christian leaders firmly situated within the apostolic tradition were making errors regarding the life of Jesus. For instance, Irenaeus believed Jesus lived to be around 50 years old. He may well have been sincere, but he was also mistaken. This particular error does not imperil the core message of the Christian Gospel. But it does demonstrate that factual error had crept into the apostolic tradition by roughly the halfway point between the foundation of the church and the establishment of the canon at Nicaea.
The brilliance of the canon, then, is to establish an acceptable record of the earliest form of the apostolic tradition. Rather than leaving the church reliant on the traditions of a clergy growing ever more chronologically distant from the roots of the faith, the canon offers a view of early Christian tradition against which later traditions can be brought to measure. Even if the canon is not an exhastive record of the original Christian tradition, it arguably contains the most essential elements. More usefully, it became possible to use the canon to discern whether a particular tradition was in keeping with the earliest tradition, or whether it was an accretion. If it turned out to be an accretion, it could then be thrown out.
As a doctrine of Scripture, I prefer this view to one that gives the Bible authority because it is “God-breathed” or contains “the very words of God” or other such things. Such a view turns the Bible into a talisman, a holy object descended from heaven, perfectly and fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. (Incidentally, such a view strongly resembles the Islamic understanding of the inspiration of the Qu’ran.) Rather, for the New Testament at least, its authority is derived from its historicity. If Jesus is really the Son of God who came to live, die, and be resurrected among us, thereby saving us from sin and death, then any record we have of him is vitally important and authoritative. And since we have none of his own writings, it is imperative that we take seriously the records of those who knew him, followed him, and learned from him.
And so, along with the Roman Catholics, I accept that the New Testament is a deeply human document, one that postdates the church and is not constitutive of it. However, because I accept its substantial veracity, I hold along with the Protestants that it stands above the church as a fixed guide and authority and prophetic witness. It is a standard against which we do well to judge ourselves against, and one to which we should not append even questionably contrary traditions lightly.