The Canon, the Reformation, Rationalism, and Breasts

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

As part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, we’re working our way through a stack of fantastic books about how to read the Bible. We’ve already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Right now we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar. And next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns, and Old Testament scholar. 

Today I want to discuss Chapter 5 of Scripture and the Authority of God. Entitled “The First Sixteen Centuries,” this chapter provides a brief but informative overview of 1600 years of church history and scriptural interpretation, specifically as it relates to questions of biblical authority. (See why I had to add "breasts" to the title?) This is meant to set the stage for Chapter 6, which discusses the Enlightenment and the profound effect it has had on modern-day assumptions (and debates) regarding the Bible and biblical interpretation. We’ll talk about that next week. 

The Canon: “Narrative Framework”  

Wright begins with a painfully short analysis of the early church and the assembling of the canon, noting that the emergence of Gnosticism and other heresies led to an emphasis among early Christians on the historical nature of the church as rooted in the Jewish story, stressing “the continuity from Jesus’ day to their own, and indeed on the continuity of the people of Abraham, transformed through Jesus the Messiah but still obedient to the same world-transforming call.” The New Testament books were highly regarded by the early Christians because they helped validate their faith in the Old Testament and make sense of it in light of Christ. 

These were the conversations surrounding the emergence of the canon, says Wright, a process that has been subjected to scrutiny by both Catholic traditionalists, “asserting the supremacy of the church over the Bible,” and by postmodern skeptics, “asserting that the canon itself, and hence the books included in it, were all part of a power play for control within the church.”

But according to Wright, such proposals represent a “serious de-Judaizing of the Christian tradition.” 

“The canonization of scripture,” he writes, “both Jewish and Christian, was no doubt complicated by all kinds of less-than-perfect human motivations, as indeed in the writing of scripture in the first place. But canonization was never simply a matter of a choice of particular books on a ‘who’s in, who’s out’ basis. It was a matter of setting out the larger story, the narrative framework, which makes sense of and brings order to God’s world and God’s people.”

 Allegorical Interpretation: Breasts = Books? 

Over the next several centuries, with what Wright considers the gradual loss of the “Israel-dimension” in the church’s understanding of itself and its scriptures, “the notion of scriptural authority became detached from its narrative context, and thereby isolated from both the fit and the goal of the Kingdom,” according to Wright.  

At this time, the Bible began to be flattened out into a rule-book or devotional series. Much of scripture was interpreted allegorically, to the extent that theologians came up with some  “fantastic and highly speculative theories.”

(I got a little taste of these “fantastic and highly speculative theories” when I was doing research on historical interpretations of Song of Songs for my upcoming book on biblical womanhood. According to Origen, for example, the two breasts that the poem’s suitor is so eager to grasp represent the Old Testament and the New Testament. The lips the suitor longs to kiss represent the Eucharist, noted another medieval scholar. The luxurious bed on which the lovers lie represents the convents of the Church, said St. Bernard. Sure. And Hooters represents the American affinity for owl culture. ) 

Four Senses: Medieval Times

According to Wright, following this imaginatively allegorical period, came the medieval emphasis on the “four senses” in which theologians distinguished four different senses of scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral. 

The Reformation: Sola Scriptura 

The Reformers famously emphasized “sola scriptura,” a rallying cry that Wright says is often misunderstood. 

“Their insistence that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation,” he writes, “was part of their protest against the Roman insistence on belief in dogmas like transubstantiation [and the perpetual virginity of Mary] as necessary articles of faith. It was never a way of saying that one had to believe every single thing in the scriptures in order to be saved. Rather, it provided, on the one hand, a statute of limitations: nothing beyond scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved. On the other hand, it gave a basic signpost on the way: the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation, and those entrusted with the teaching office in the church have no right to  use that office to teach anything else.”  

The Reformers emphasized the “literal” sense of scripture over the others (though, somewhat confusingly, this does not mean they interpreted all biblical stories hyper-literally—Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are a good example—but rather that they emphasized the literal sense as the sense that the first writers intended). Wright notes that “we need to note carefully that to invoke ‘the literal meaning of scripture,’ hoping thereby to settle a point by echoing the phraseology of the Reformers, could be valid only if we meant, not ‘literal’ as opposed to metaphorical, but ‘literal’ (which might include metaphorical if that, arguable, was the original sense) as opposed to the three other medieval senses...”

Wright criticizes Reformers for failing to stress “the great narrative of God, Israel, Jesus, and the world, coming forward into our own day and looking ahead to the eventual renewal of all things” so that their readings of the gospels “show little awareness of them as anything other than repositories of dominical teaching, concluding with the saving events of Good Friday and Easter but without integrating those events into the Kingdom-proclamation that preceded them.” 

He concludes with an important point:  “...the Reformers’ insistence on the authority of scripture made several important points, but left many other matters open for further discussion. Of one thing we may be absolutely sure. If the Reformers could return and address us today, they would not say, ‘We got it all right; you must follow our exegesis and theology and implement it precisely as it stands.’ What they would say is, ‘ You must follow our method: read and study scripture for all it’s worth and let it do its work in the world, in and through you and your churches.’ They would not be surprised if, as a result, we came up at some points with different, or differently nuanced, theological and practical proposals. They would encourage us to go where scripture led, using all the tools available to us, and being prepared to challenge all human traditions, including the ‘Reformation’ traditions themselves, insofar as scripture itself encouraged us to do so.” 

In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church came up with a formulation in which Scripture and tradition are received as of equal authority. The Second Vatican Council, 400 years later, stated that scripture and tradition “flow from the same divine wellspring, merge into a unity and move toward the same goal.” 

Rationalism:  Puritan Roots? 

According to Wright, the Puritan emphasis on the right of individual interpretation of scripture ironically paved the way for eighteenth century rationalism.

He notes that Richard Hooker pushed back on the Puritan movement and its claim that since scripture alone is authoritative, only those customs and ceremonies should be admitted into the life of the church (and state, I would add) which were explicitly authorized by scripture itself. Hooker, Wright says, “saw this as an impossibly simplistic agenda,” and emphasized instead the organic nature of the church and a more holistic understanding of the interplay between reason, tradition, and scripture. 

“Hooker’s insistence on ‘reason’ was therefore not at all a way of undervaluing scripture,” says Wright, “but rather of ensuring that the community which based itself on scripture could have an appropriate healthy life and growth, not blundering forward as it were in the dark, but moving ahead by the light of reason, itself informed by scripture and in harmony with the natural law which stemmed from the creator God in the first place.”

But as time went on, Wright says, “reason” became known as an entirely separate source of information, “which could be played off against scripture and/or tradition.” 

Which brings us to the Enlightenment, and the subject of next week’s discussion. 

One thing I appreciated about this brief overview was Wright’s reminder that the Reformers didn’t settle Christianity or biblical interpretation once and for all. This seems to be something of an assumption within certain corners of evangelicalism, and one that needs challenging, I think. (For example, given Wright’s understanding of what the Reformers meant by “literal,” I wonder if they wouldn’t be open to scholarship that interprets Genesis 1 as an ancient Near Eastern temple text—see John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One— rather than a scientific explanation for origins.) I think Protestants can be guilty of glorifying the Reformers to the point of idolization, thereby losing their original spirit and intent.

Wright’s brief overview of Christian history as it relates to scripture is a good reminder that the story of the Church is always unfolding, always evolving, always adjusting to (and contributing to) culture. 

What do you think of Wright’s summary? What questions does it raise in your mind—about scripture, about the Church, about your own understanding of the Bible and its history?

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