The Bible and the Church
by C.G. Pallas
“But there are also many other. .things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written,
I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
(St. John 21:25)
There are today some 250 denominations claiming to be Christian and appealing to the Holy Bible as the sole source of their respective creeds. Almost invariably, they assert that the Scriptures contain the whole of God’s revelation to man and that all that is essential to man’s salvation is to be found in them alone. The Holy Spirit, they say, guides every sincere reader of the Scriptures to a proper understanding of them; there is no need to appeal for guidance and interpretation to any other source, such as the tradition of the Church.
What is the Orthodox reaction to this? For an answer, we must ask ourselves some basic questions: “What are the Scriptures?”, “How did the early Christians regard them?”, ‘What does the Bible say about itself?”.
All Christians accept the Bible as the inspired word of God. But many fail to go beyond such acceptance to the realization that the Bible as we know it today is the product of the Church, responding to certain conditions and situations in the early Christian era from its deep consciousness of the truth of Christ.
The various books which make up the New Testament are what might be called “occasional” writings. They were written for particular moments and purposes and usually addressed to particular persons and groups. For example, St. Matthew wrote a brief account of the Gospel he preached for the especial benefit of the Aramaic speaking Jews. St. Paul’s epistles were occasioned by special problems he had to settle or abuses he had to rectify. There was no intention or concerted effort on the part of the scriptural writers to compose a book called the “New Testament.” They wrote to clarify, to settle disputes, to correct wrongs, and to remind their fellow Christians of the legacy left to them by Christ.
For many years a number of writings circulated freely among the churches. In addition to what we now accept as the canon of Scripture, or those books composing the inspired word of God, there were some fifty “gospels,” twenty-two sets of “acts” and numerous epistles and books of revelations. For a time, some of these writings were read in churches together with the epistles of St. Paul. From all the writings in circulation, it was the Church which ultimately passed judgment on what was authentic and inspired and what was not. The collection of these inspired writings came to be known as the New Testament and, together with the Old Testament of the Jews, formed the written revelation of God to His creation. The latter set of writings was the fulfillment of the earlier: where in the Old Testament the prophecies pointed to the Messiah, in the New Christ Himself appeared as the culmination of God’s revelation.
But the question remains: How could the Church discern what was true Scripture from what was not? The answer is to be found in the fact that the Bible was not the starting-point of the Christian faith, but a resumé of it: not the whole revelation, but a part: not the foundation of the Church, but its product. The Church preceded the Bible; indeed, we would be at a loss to explain the existence of Christians in the early years after Our Lord’s ministry and resurrection if, as many modern Christians insist, the Scriptures are the essential groundwork of the faith! As Fr. Alexander Turner puts it, the “Christian church had been a going concern in full operation, with its established procedures, organization and sacraments” for two decades before the first of the New Testament writings, St. Paul’s epistles, were composed.
If the Church moved to place its seal of approval on what is now our Bible it was not because it was presumptuous, but because it was witnessing to Our Lord’s promise that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all truth. And because of this guidance, the Church alone can claim with certainty to understand the Scriptures. Only the Church can proclaim in its fullness the “faith once and for all delivered unto the saints” (St. Jude 3).
It is difficult to believe that God would not provide for the immediate composition and widespread distribution of the New Testament if it were intended as the necessary source of man’s salvation. But the facts are that not only were the first Christians without the written Gospel, but until the invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century — some fourteen hundred years after the death of Christ — the Scriptures were available only to the very wealthy. Expressed in modern currency, the cost of a single Bible, before the days of printing, is estimated to have been well over a thousand dollars. How can we explain the millions of Christians who lived and died, then, before the completion of the New Testament? They, certainly, were not “Bible Christians.” And yet thousands upon thousands gave their lives in martyrdom in witness to a Christ Who was as real to them as He is to us today — even more real than to us — and to Whom their devotion is unequaled in the annals of history.
These Christians learned about Christ from the teachings of the Church, from the rich and living tradition the Church embodied in itself from one generation to the next, until the present, pure and intact under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, the books of the New Testament were accepted warmly by Christians as they came to be written and circulated among the churches, and no other Church accords more honor and veneration to these writings than the Orthodox. But they saw in them not a new religion, nor a new Christ, but a reflection of the religion they had long since been practicing and a Christ they had long since known and loved.
It was by preaching and not by the written word that nations were eventually converted to Christ. St. John Chrysostom wrote that “Christ left no written instructions to His Apostles; but, instead of books, He promised them the Holy Spirit Who would inspire them with what they should say.” The Apostles and their successors gave Christianity to the world, not by passing out free Bibles, but by preaching with the authority given them by Christ: “Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.
The Scriptures themselves exhort Christians to hold fast to the faith delivered by word as well as by letter. When St. Paul was instructing the Thessalonians, he directed them to . . . “hold the teachings that you have learned, whether by word or by letter of ours” (II Thess. 2:15). No distinction was made between the oral and scriptural tradition, no scale of values set up whereby scripture was placed above the spoken word. St. Paul sought to impart to the Christians of his time the full revelation of God — both written and unwritten — anything else would have been contrary to the spirit of the Bible itself. For the fullness of revelation lies in the Church, which is Christ’s Body, and is not discovered by private interpretation or a solely scriptural faith. St. Peter wrote, “This, then, you must understand first of all, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. For not by will of man was prophecy brought at any time: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:20-21).
Cardinal Newman, while still an Anglican, discerned the distortions and dangers emanating from a faith founded on private interpretation of the Bible and not on the living Christian tradition; and, though his perspective is a Roman Catholic one (he later converted to Catholicism), there is nothing in what he says with which an Orthodox cannot wholeheartedly concur:
We say that the Apostles considered episcopacy an indifferent matter, though Ignatius says it is essential. We say that the table is not an altar, though Ignatius says it is. We say there is no priest’s office under the Gospel, though Clement affirms it. We say that Baptism is not an enlightening, though Justin takes it for granted. We say that heresy is scarcely a misfortune, though Ignatius accounts it a deadly sin; and all this, because it is our right, and our duty, to interpret Scripture in our own way. We uphold the pure unmutilated Scripture; the Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants; the Bible and our sense of the Bible. We claim a sort of parliamentary privilege to interpret laws in our own way, and not to suffer an appeal to any court beyond ourselves.
We know, and we view it with consternation, that all antiquity runs counter to our interpretation; and therefore, alas, the Church was corrupt from very early times indeed. But mind, we hold all this in a truly Catholic spirit, not in bigotry. We allow in others the right to private judgment, and confess that we, as others, are fallible men. We confess facts are against us; we do but claim the liberty of theorizing in spite of them. Far be it from us to say that we are certainly right; we only say that the whole early Church was certainly wrong. We do not impose our belief on anyone; we only say that those who take the contrary side are Papists, firebrands, persecutors, madmen, zealots, bigots . . . ”
The problem boils down to this: Who is in a better position to know, the early Christians, those who tasted martyrdom for the love of Christ, those who knew the Apostles and those whom they had ordained or Christians who centuries later decided to wipe away fifteen hundred years of tradition and dismiss them as spurious and a betrayal of the ancient Christian faith?
To separate the Bible from the Church is to rip it out of context and to open the door to an onslaught of confusion and untruth. When one chooses to accept Christ, he must accept the full implications of His teachings, the entirety of the Christian faith. We cannot have the Bible and dismiss the Church, just as we cannot have the Church and dismiss the Bible. Together, they form one unending tradition rooted in Christ.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America