August 17, 2007

Why Believe the Bible?
Part 4: The Church's Witness to the Scriptures

Here it is, finally! Almost exactly 13 months after the last post, I am finally continuing my series. For those of you who have forgotten (probably most of you), in May of 2006 I outlined a proposed series providing an argument for belief in the Bible. I'm going to give a fairly detailed recap here because it has been so long since my last post. In Part 1: Plan of Attack I outlined the argument I intended to give. The basic claim of the argument is that historical investigation renders the idea that the canon of Scripture as we have it is divinely inspired a live option, and personal experience in the life of an individual can provide the kind of confirmation that will lead one to reasonably believe in inspiration. I have added to the plan of attack two proposed appendices: the first will deal with the question of what to believe about the Bible, and the second will deal with which Bible to believe in (i.e. with determining the canon). Because they will be dealt with later, I will skirt these issues as much as possible in the current post, though they will have to be addressed in some degree.

In Part 2: The Life and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth we assumed that a super-human conscious entity had created the world and wanted to live in community with other minds (we didn't assume the Christian God as such, but decided to call him God for convenience). We argued that, if such a being exists, he may well be trying to get our attention, and may perhaps choose to use human language to speak to us. Such a revelation would be validated by a 'signature,' which would be something easy for God but difficult or impossible to counterfeit. We argued that the historical evidence points to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as such an event, and therefore concluded that his life and teachings constituted such a revelation. (The whole argument, but this part especially, is indebted to Richard Swinburne and his book Revelation.)

In Part 3: Jesus' Witness to the Hebrew Bible we argued that certain New Testament texts (especially the synoptic gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians) could, without assuming inerrancy or inspiration, be treated as reliable historical sources about the life and teachings of Jesus and that these sources tell us that Jesus regarded the Hebrew Bible as a divine revelation to mankind. As a result, the Hebrew Bible is included by reference in God's revelation to mankind in the life and teachings of Jesus.

This post will assume all these things. If you find any of these claims questionable (and I hope some people who find these claims questionable are reading!) you are encouraged to go back and read the previous post and comment on it. For now, however, we've got the Hebrew Bible, and we've got the life and teachings of Jesus as far as we can determine them from the historical sources as a revelation of God (now that we've got the Hebrew Bible he can, without qualification, be called God) to mankind. The next step is the witness of the Church. What do I mean by this?

Our sources (which, recall, are primarily the synoptic gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians) are indisputably clear about one thing: Jesus had twelve particularly close followers, and he ultimately named these men as his "apostles." The Greek word apostolos means "emissary" or "ambassador." Now these guys were sent out, it is pretty clear, to continue Jesus' work of proclaiming the good news and so forth after he left. Furthermore, it is also pretty clear that they were to get others to join them in this task, and this was to continue until Jesus returned (for all of this, see Matthew 28:18-20; it's also stated in many other places). This group or organization or whatever it might be, is called the Church, and Jesus himself - whose teachings are the revelation of God to mankind - taught that this group was the divinely authorized and enabled proclaimer of God's revelation to mankind in himself. It is by the witness of the Church that we know a great many things about God, including the canon of Scripture and its status as divine revelation.

My fellow Protestants are getting nervous at this point, but never fear! My Protestant credentials are, on this issue, impeccable: the Westminster Confession is on my side. The beginng of 1.5 reads, "We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture." Some will be quick to point to 1.4 which says, "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God." This, however, is a different issue. This says (and, incidentally, Catholic and Orthodox believers generally agree) that the testimony of the Church does not efficaciously make Scripture Scripture. Rather, as 1.5 says, the testimony of the Church "moves" and "induces" us to believe that Scripture is Scripture (but it would be the Word of God whether we were moved to believe that it was or not). I hope to discuss some other parts of WCF chapter 1 in part 5 and appendix B.

Now, we don't yet know much about this Church, but we know that its first members were Jesus' twelve apostles, and we know that it was out telling the world about God's revelation as soon as Jesus ascended, and it's still at it today, and will be until Jesus returns. I recently listed four aspects of ecclesiology (theory of the Church): somatic, apostolic, evangelistic, and eucharistic. Jeremy pointed out a fourth aspect that I can't believe I initially missed: ecclesiastic ecclesiology! That is, the Church is also the assembly of the called, and, as such, one can say that it is most fully the Church when it is assembled.

Be that as it may, all of these accounts are developed with a lot of assumptions already on the table, and at this point in our argument we don't have many assumptions available to us (comparatively speaking). We do, however, know that the Church proclaims the revelation, and the book of Acts tells us a lot about what the Church was like. One passage stands out to me:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had need. And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (2:42-47)

At this point, I think, we diverge into two directions. I plan to track down both of them. These are diachronic and synchronic inquiries into the question of what the Church has proclaimed about the Scripture. The diachronic ("through time") approach begins with the apostles and works forward through those who were recognized as members of the Church by the apostles, and those they recognized as members, and so forth and tries to figure out what the Church has proclaimed in this way. The synchronic ("with [a certain] time") approach looks around at all the groups today claiming to be the Church and evaluates their claims. The diachronic approach will be taken first, and then the synchronic (the synchronic approach is much simpler, and that section will be correspondingly much briefer). I will discuss the limitations of each approach and the reasons why I don't think that either provides us with an obvious and straightforward answer about where the Church is today, but it will be argued that we can nevertheless get a long way by means of these two approaches, since all credible candidates agree on certain points.

Limitations of Diachronic Inquiry

Suppose we begin our inquiry with the apostles themselves, then look to people like Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius whom the apostles recognized as members of the same Church as themselves, and then look to the next generation, and the next, and the next, until the present day. In other words, suppose we assume (1) that being recognized as a member of the Church by a known member of the Church is a sufficient condition for Church membership, and (2) that the "is a member of the same church as" relation is transitive. This could, but need not, take the form of the doctrine of apostolic succession as understood by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, in which we work with the process of ordination of bishops. If we could do this, then we would know where the Church was today and we could just go ask about the Scripture (of course, there are some ways the Church could conceivably be such that even once we identified it, it wouldn't be that easy to find out what it's official proclamations were - for instance, what if the Anglican Communion came out on top? or, what would be even more confusing, what if it was the American Baptist Church? - but leave that aside for now). This, however, will not work.

The first problem is that, in general, organizational membership is (1) vague and (2) not transitive. Consider Thomas Jefferson and Hillary Clinton. Are they members of the same political party? Personally, I think not. But Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party is unproblematically historically continuous with the modern Democratic Party. Furthermore, no point of discontinuity can be identified at which the Democratic-Republican Party ceased and was replaced by the Democratic Party. Surely the name change is irrelevant here. But Thomas Jefferson and Hillary Clinton are nevertheless not members of the same political party. Why? Because something more than historical continuity is required for the persistence of political parties through time. This requirement includes at least some kind of continuity of platform. There comes a point when the platform is so different that, totally regardless of history, it just can't be the same party, and this is the case with the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson as opposed to the Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton. Vagueness enters, because there is no point, no single person or event, that can be singled out as the point where it was no longer the party of Thomas Jefferson. Non-transitivity enters here too: for any person in the Demcratic Party, we can, in principle, come up with a chain of recognition as members of the same party leading back to Thomas Jefferson.

As a political party can't survive a complete change of platform, so the Church could not survive a complete change of mission. Furthermore, a less than complete change could cast doubt on the persistence of the Church, and any change in doctrine will necessarily be a change in mission, since the Church's mission is the preaching of that doctrine. There are other essential characteristics that the Church, or a political party, would not persist through a change in, but these are certainly among the essential characteristics.

Now, suppose a group of people in the Democratic Party today discovered (to their shock!) that the principles of the Democratic Party were not the principles of its founder (or, rather, the founder of its predecessor, the Democratic-Republican Party), and decided to break away into another group, the Jeffersonian Democrats, which would embrace his principles. (I use this example because I have heard friends of mine suggest this very thing - though I suppose they probably weren't shocked by their discovery.) They claim to be the real modern Democratic-Republican Party since, on the one hand, they have historical continuity (through the Democratic Party), and, on the other hand, they have continuity of platform with Thomas Jefferson. However, the Democratic Party leadership doesn't recognize them and this leadership has been passed on through generations according to by-laws. The by-laws weren't around in the time of Jefferson, but they were around in times when he would certainly have recognized the party as still his own, and since they were instituted they were changed only according to their own rules. These grant the leaders legitimacy, but if a party can't survive through too great a change in platform, and the leaders preside over a party whose change in platform was too great, then they don't preside over the party of Thomas Jefferson. Of course, the Jeffersonian Democrats also have a problem, that their historical continuity goes through a party that is not identical with the original, but at least they are an eligible candidate, since they have the original platform (or, at least, continuity with it).

Now, there was one group of Christians, the Reformers, who believed they were in the position of the modern Jeffersonian Democrats in our example. My point is not that they were right (though I think they were, more or less), but that the underlying ideas about the persistence of organizations through time are credible, so that this possibility must be examined. That is, the very nature of the Church, as far as we know it at this point in our argument, is not such as to render their claim absurd.

Furthermore, the history of the Church is much more complicated than the history of the Democratic Party (of course, there is a lot I don't know about the history of the Democratic Party, so perhaps it is more complicated than I think it is). We have a lot of splintering all over the place starting pretty early, and all sorts of rival groups claiming to be the Church. Furthermore, the identity of the Church is complicated by another factor: its spiritual nature. We have all kinds of strange statements in the New Testament like "you yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5). The deeply spiritual nature of the Church might be thought to cast doubt on the degree to which its continuity is of the same sort as the continuity of a purely human organization. After all, if the Church is a spiritual entity, mightn't it spring up on earth just wherever it pleases? Mightn't it just suddenly spring up at Azusa Street in 1906 or in Toronto in 1994? Well, I suppose so. That is, if the Church is supposed to be simply that group of people that Jesus has commissioned to continue his mission of announcing the divine revelation (which is all we've argued it is so far), then we can't really prove that it needs historical continuity and doesn't just spontaneously spring up wherever Jesus happens to commission people to preach the revelation. So, if we are to remain suitably general and not beg the question, we are going to have to, in looking for the modern Church, focus on the essential characteristics of the Church rather than on history. (This is not intended to assume that just any group that has these characteristics - or, in particular, the one characteristic already mentioned: announcing the revelation - is the Church, but only that, for all we know at this point in our argument, any of those groups might be.) Nevertheless, we can learn from the diachronic approach. The argument I've given only shows that the further away from the apostles we get, the more uncertain things become. We can, however, safely consider the first few generations of the Church and ask what it proclaimed.

Application of the Diachronic Approach

To begin with, we can say that, like Jesus, the first few generations of the Church regarded the Hebrew Bible as the inspired Word of God. Furthermore, they don't seem to take the traditional Jewish view which I worried in part 3 that Jesus may have taken. We can see this in Acts 4:24-25, where Peter and John are recorded introducing a quotation with the phrase, "Master, You are the One who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. You said..." The quotation which follows is from Psalm 2, part of the Ketuvim.

The most important person the original apostles recognize as a member of the Church is Paul (Galatians 2:9). Mark (Acts 12), Luke (Colossians 4:14), and James the brother of Jesus (Acts 12:17, 15:13-21; James the apostle, the brother of John had already died, in 12:2) are also recognized. This will get us most of the New Testament as the most important writings of the early Church. In terms of authorship by either an apostle or one of these people recognized by the apostles, and historical evidence of this authorship, we've now got all four gospels, Acts, the ten Pauline epistles (excluding the pastorals), James, 1 Peter, and 1 John. That's 18 out of 27 in the canon agreed upon by the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches. We are missing due to disputed authorship 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation and due to authorship by someone not well attested as a Church member we are missing Jude.

Note something very important here: we have not established that the Church proclaims these books as inspired accounts of the revelation. Rather, we have established that these books are all written by people who were very clearly members of the Church. Now, the next thing we should say is that it is obvious that these books were treated as authoritative from a very early date. We can pretty safely say that these essentially undisputed books constitute at least the Church's proclamation of the revelation. That's enough to say that if any of these books says something about the revelation of God to mankind in Christ, the fact that it's written there is good reason to believe it, and this might reasonably be called "believing in the Bible." But it isn't enough to say that the books are inspired and absolutely inerrant.

So, what do these books say that is relevant to our question? Well, we don't have 2 Timothy 3:16 yet, because 2 Timothy's authorship is disputed (I know all my fellow believers were just dying to use that one - sorry!), nor do we have 2 Peter 1:20-21, which is also of disputed authorship. There is also 1 Timothy 5:18, where Paul says "the Scripture says," and then quotes Luke 10:7, and 2 Peter 3:15-16, where Peter speaks of Paul's letters and "the other Scriptures." However, if these weren't written by Paul and Peter - and we haven't established that they are - then they don't do us any good, so we're going to have to move on to the next generation. (Of course, if your historical investigations led you to believe that 1 Timothy and 2 Peter were genuine - as many scholars do, in fact, think - then you would already be most of the way to the end of the argument.)

Moving on to the second century already complicates things because by that time we already have the fairly well-attested view that the Septuagint (which includes the Deuterocanon) is the Old Testament, as opposed to the Hebrew Bible. We even have some people, including Justin Martyr, claiming that the Hebrew text has been corrupted and the Septuagint is the only reliable version. However, I will, as I said, be skirting this issue as much as possible for the present.

Writing in the mid-second century, Justin Martyr gives us a window into an early Christian worship service, which is quite relevant to the place of the New Testament:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (First Apology chapter 67)

Justin has previously (in chapter 66) identified "the memoirs of the apostles" as the gospels, so we can see that the gospels were apparently treated as liturgically on par with the prophets of the Old Testament (see F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture pp. 126-127).

By the end of the second century, we have a number of writers (e.g., Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of John) who are not far removed from the apostles who use the New Testament in their theological writings in much the same way they use the Old Testament, and treat them as absolutely authoritative in all theological disputes (see Bruce, The Canon, chapts. 13 and 14). What is relevant here is that by the second century the Church, in proclaiming the revelation, relied on the Bible - both the Old and New Testaments - as its principle source; it proclaims authoritatively, citing the Scripture as its authoritative source.

The Synchronic Approach

The synchronic approach, as has been said, involves examining the claims of various present-day groups claiming the be the Church. It is limited primarily in that there are so many claimants we cannot possibly examine them all. However, we have a bit of luck here: there is substantial agreement among nearly all of them, especially if we ignore for now, as we have resolved to do, disputes among the claimants about certain specific books, and only examine the broad general claim. (There are still disputed books, besides just the duetero-canon - the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for instance, has a number of additional books; it is also worth considering how one should think about the Book of Mormon in this sort of discussion, seeing as the LDS church is also a claimant here.) All of the major Christian groups agree that Scripture is inspired, and that it includes both the Old and New Testaments. This means that, regardless of precisely what the Church is and how it is manifested in history just at present, we can know that it has indeed proclaimed that the Scriptures are inspired by God, and that we should believe what they say.

I want to note, in closing, the relationship I think this has to how actual converts to Christianity have come to believe in the Bible. I am of the opinion that many of the problems in philosophy (consider, for instance, the refutation of solipsism) are problems of attempting to formalize rational inferences which we draw on an almost instinctive level (solipsism strikes me as a case where our inference is almost indisputably rational, and yet philosophy has had enormous difficulty trying to formalize the inference to prove that it's rational). This, I think, is the case here. Most people who believe in the Bible have, I think, come to believe in it in much the same way: someone told them that they ought to believe in the Bible, for some reason they took that claim seriously and, upon looking closely at it for themselves, some sort of experience they had in connection with the Bible led them to accept the claim originally presented to them regarding its inspiration. Parts two through four have been an attempt to make more explicit some of the lines of reasoning that might lead someone to take a claim like that seriously. I don't think that most people have done these sorts of historical explorations. Rather, I think they have probably simply been told about the Bible by people who have some kind of credibility in spiritual matters due to intelligence, or insight, or, more likely, the kinds of lives they lead. (This, of course, applies to taking Christianity seriously in general, and not just the claim of the inspiration of Scripture.) I hold that this line of reasoning is rational, but I'm skeptical about it getting you much farther than taking the claim seriously. Actually believing it will likely require some personal experience, and that will be the subject of part 5, which I hope to write less than 13 months from now!

Posted by Kenny at August 17, 2007 10:01 PM
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Why Believe the Bible?Part 1: Plan of Attack
Excerpt: There has been a lot floating around about the doctrine of inerrancy recently. I posted on this subject not long ago, responding to a post at World of Sven and a lengthy series at Chrisendom. Since then, there has been a second World of Sven post, and ...
Tracked: September 21, 2007 7:06 PM

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