The End is the Beginning is the End[1]

I have always regarded the Bible as of supreme importance in formulating theology. But I don’t think until recently I really understood what it is. Having thought it through, I want to affirm some elements but qualify them. Let’s start with some standard evangelical affirmations that I have always believed to be true and still regard as axiomatic for good Christian teaching:

  • The Bible is Scripture, that is to say it is ‘God-breathed’.[2] It is, therefore, true in what it teaches and fundamentally coherent.
  • It is also a book written in different genres, at different times, by different people, and for different purposes.

These two observations pull in different directions. In their introduction to how to read and study Scripture, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart put it this way:

Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the “tension” that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.[3]

Resolving the tension requires the reader first to ‘try to understand what was said to [the original readers] back then and there (exegesis).’ Then we must ‘learn to hear that same Word in the here and now (hermeneutics).[4] This is a basic guide to reading and applying any text whether a contract or a gospel. Fee and Stuart are basically right; you can’t understand a text without considering its context including its genre and the meaning of any terms. Its only when you’ve done that work that you can get to understanding what its significance is and then applying it in your own context. This is what I would describe as a Protestant evangelical posture towards Scripture.

This is the approach I was taught at Spurgeon’s. It fits in with my experience of good Protestant interpretation and theology. Over the journey I described in my previous posts, however, I came to question whether it was sufficient.

What follows is not a rigorous academic treatment of the subject – we can turn to that later – but a description of why I began to be unsatisfied.

As I was reading and thinking it seemed obvious (and I think uncontroversial) to observe that there was a church without any New Testament writings at all for several years. The books of the New Testament were not all completed until the late first century and were authoritatively compiled sometime after that (the precise periods don’t matter for the moment).

During that time there was oral teaching from the Apostles. According to Acts 2:42, the earliest Christians ‘devoted themselves to the apostles ‘ teaching.’[5] It was that teaching, delivered regularly and absorbed by the new converts, which formed the backdrop of the newly emerging church. Later, the apostles responded to specific issues in the church with written instruction. Thus Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:15:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

Pausing here, we should note that none of this undermines the authority of Scripture. Nor does it suggest that there was anything taught that contradicted Scripture – Paul fairly obviously does not regard his oral and written teaching as inherently contradictory.[6] Nevertheless, once one accepts (as Paul argues) that New Testament Scripture is part of an authoritative body of Apostolic teaching, and not the whole of that body, it becomes important to ask what was taught by the apostles which was not in their letters? For Paul and his churches the difference between the two is not one of authority but circumstance.

Moreover, since the New Testament writings are occasional examples of written instruction designed to fit into an ongoing relationship between teachers and their followers the response of the churches to that teaching (whether orally or in writing) is likely provide a very good guide to its original meaning. Suppose that I send you a message to ‘meet in the usual place at 7’. The message itself is unclear both as to the place we are to meet (where is the usual place?) and the time (am or pm?). However, if we both turn up at my local pub at 7pm then that’s pretty good evidence of what was meant as to both the time we were to meet and the place.

We then face a difficulty. How can we know what the Apostles’ oral teaching was or what the churches did in response to their writing? We have the writings of the earliest Christians, the people we call the Church Fathers. When we read the writings of the earliest Christians we are seeing a window into the teaching and lives of the Apostles and their writings as they were received by those to whom they were given. These writings would not of themselves be authoritative but are (i) good evidence of the whole of Apostolic teaching, not merely its written components and (ii) how that teaching was understood and applied in the life of the church. This is what Thomas Oden is referring to when he says that ‘Tradition at bottom is the history of exegesis.’[7]

Those writings would not be authoritative in the way that Scripture is since:

  1. the Apostles were uniquely instructed, authorised and empowered by Christ (that is their words are God-breathed, their followers are not);
  2. as everyone who has played Chinese whispers knows, all human interpreters are fallible and subject to correction, particularly the further they are from the source; and
  3. while oral tradition in ancient cultures would be far more reliable than in our time, it is still not as reliable as written.

Nevertheless it should take an awful lot to persuade us that the earliest Christians understood less about their context, teachers, churches and the written instruction they received, than we do at a distance of 2,000 years.

All of this seems outlandish to a protestant brought up in a world of disparate theological views and interpretations of Scripture. The idea that Christ first founded one church with one body of teaching (albeit expressed in different ways by different teachers) seems so far removed from the reality of the contemporary world that it is scarcely worth crediting. As I read into Eastern Orthodoxy, however, I was presented with the claim that for the majority of the church’s history that is precisely what the true position was. Doctrine developed through exegesis and application. Yet it developed within, corrected by, and answerable to the understanding handed down in the church since the first century.

Such claims were worth serious investigation since if my understanding of Christian faith, and my exegesis of Christian Scripture, differed dramatically from that held by the Apostles and their successors for a millennia it was me who needed to change. I realised I have absolutely no interest in practising a new type of Christianity – I want to walk the old, old paths of Peter and Paul, John Chrysostom and Augustine, Photius and John of Damascus. I want to be Christian in the sense that has been understood throughout the ages.

Having begun think these things through, I came to realise that Scripture and theology are not the property not of any individual or congregation but of the church, constituted over time and space, and that it could not be interpreted outside of the church. To go forwards, I would first have to go back. Or in the words of the Smashing Pumpkins, The End, is the Beginning, is the End.

[1] Billy Corgan, © 1997 Warner Bros.

[2] 1 Tim. 3:16-17.

[3] How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan) (e-Pub edition, 2009), Loc. 337.

[4] Fee, loc.383.

[5] Acts 2:42.

[6] Cp 2 Pet. 3:16.

[7] Oden, Thomas C., Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), p.12.