There is little doubt that the Bible has historically been of great significance in the development of theology. Its significance is reflected in the Church’s dogmatic statements, in its liturgy and hymns, even in the arrangement of its calendar broadly around the narrative of the New Testament.
There are, however, some basic dogmatic questions which need to be asked around the place of scripture within theology. As an initial presupposition I take it that theology is a church activity. It is the vocalising by the community of faith, empowered by the Spirit, of the self-disclosure of God as it is borne witness to in Scripture. This basic presupposition, however, opens numerous problems. This essay shall focus on two broad problems: What is the nature of the authority of the Bible in and over the Church and how should the Bible be used in theology?
Prior to answering these questions however, it is necessary to address some preliminary issues of defining certain terms used in connection with the Bible. First, when we speak of the Bible, we are referring to that collection of documents which the church believes to have been inspired and sanctified or set apart by God to be the mediator of divine revelation to humanity.
Revelation is a term which is variously understood as referring to concepts of truth about God apprehensible through observing nature (Ps. 19.1), to a strict correlation of revelation with the words written in scripture. Revelation, however, is not limited to propositional truth about God which can be autonomously apprehended either through an observation of nature or through studying a static text. Revelation is, rightly speaking, the manifestation of God by God to human beings. In Barth’s famous definition of the divine revelatory act, ‘God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself.’ (Barth, K., CD, I.1, 296) In this vein, Webster provides us with an excellent working definition of revelation:
‘Revelation is the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which humankind comes to know, love and fear him above all things.’ (Webster, J., Holy Scripture, a Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge: CUP, (2003) 13)
Revelation is, therefore, effectual. God, in his self-disclosure, or in his Word accomplishes his will (Isa. 55.1) of bringing his human creatures into communion with himself. Revelation is God’s active and redemptive self-unveiling, effectively removing human ignorance of the divine. In this regard, the climax of the divine self-unveiling is located in Jesus Christ, in whom ‘… all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…’, and principally in his sacrificial death through which ‘… God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…’ (Col. 1.20). In Gunton’s words, ‘[T]o that extent the doctrine of revelation should be understood as a function of the doctrine of salvation.’ (Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, (1995) 111)
Revelation is thus the event itself rather than a record. However, that event is historically and culturally dislocated from us, or rather we from it. It involved people who lived many years ago in a culture very different to our own. How then does such a significant event as the divine redemptive self-unveiling become significant for us? We must in this connection consider the means by which this revelatory event is mediated. This happens, in the first instance, in Scripture. Scripture has been ‘sanctified’, or set apart by God for a purpose in the economy of redemption. As Webster States,
‘Sanctification is the act of God the Holy Spirit in hallowing creaturely processes, employing them in the service of the taking form of revelation within the history of creation.’ (Webster, J., (2003), 17, 18)
Scripture is a human book, being formed of creaturely elements (words) and by a creaturely process (being written by human beings). It is, however, by a special operation of the Spirit, sanctified for the purpose of baring witness to the revelatory event. It is only in this context that we can speak of the inspiration of Scripture. As a doctrine, inspiration is controversial. Few dispute the Bible’s status as inspired, even fewer agree however, on what precisely is meant by ‘inspiration’. Webster helpfully states that,
‘Where sanctification indicates the dogmatic ontology of the text as the servant of the divine self-communicative presence, inspiration indicates the specific work of the Spirit of Christ with respect to the text.’ (Webster, J., (2003), 31)
The precise nature of this, and misunderstandings over the nature and significance of inspiration will be examined at greater length later. For the time being, however, suffice to say that both sanctification and inspiration should be seen as subordinate to, and derivative from the divine self-disclosure in revelation.
Having outlined an understanding of Scripture in relation to the divine self disclosure, we move on to discuss the historic place of the Bible within theology.
Holy Scripture, from the time of the primitive church has played the formative role in the theological task. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–367) at the close of the first book of De Trinitate, records a prayer which is indicative of the attitude of the early Church to the Bible as the source of the Church’s theological proclamation,
‘O Almighty God the Father, I am fully conscious that I owe this to you as the special duty of my life, that all my words and thoughts should speak of you… Because of the laziness and dullness of our nature, we are, as it were, in a trance, and in regard to the understanding of your attributes we are restricted within the confines of our ignorance by the weakness of our intellect. Zeal for your doctrine leads us to grasp the knowledge of divine things and the obedience of faith carries us beyond the natural power of comprehension. We hope, therefore, that you will set in motion the beginning of our timid venture and will encourage it by a steady progress and will summon us to share the prophetic Spirit in order that we may understand their words in no other sense than that in which they spoke them, and that we may explain the proper meaning of the words in accordance with the realities they signify.’ (Hilary of Poitiers, De Trin. I.xxxvii, xxxviii, emphasis added)
St Hilary understood the task of theology to be focused on the prophetic word. Acknowledging the weakness of the human intellect, he emphasised the necessity of the work of the same Spirit involved in the production of Scripture to illuminate its true meaning and to guide him in the vocalisation of its theology. Doctrine, therefore, for Hilary rested on the intersection between the Scripture as the witness to the divine nature and the Spirit as the enlightener of his mind and clarifier of his speech. Scripture contains a system of propositional truth that is apprehensible.
Within the early church, however, the ways in which Scripture could be understood ‘in no other sense than that in which [the prophets] spoke [it]’, were various. An early distinction arose between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of biblical interpretation. The Alexandrina school, associated with the Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 BCE to 45 CE) emphasised an approach to interpreting Scripture that allowed for both literal and allegorical meanings in the text. Theologians such as Clemet, and Origen adopted this method of reading Scripture where a text can mean two things, one at the literal level and another at the allegorical. Conversely, the Antiochene school, associated with theologians such as John Chrysostom and Diodore of Tarsus, emphasised an historical reading of the text, focusing on its meaning for those to whom it was addressed. Biblical interpretation for a great deal of the subsequent history of the Church ultimately resulted from the tension between these two systems.
By the middle ages, a more nuanced system developed, which came to be known as the Quadriga. As the title suggests, the Quadriga consisted of four senses:
a) Literal – the historical meaning of the text
b) Allegorical – the doctrinal meaning derived from the text
c) Tropological – the moral, or ethical meaning derived from the text
d) Anagogical – the meaning of the text pertaining to the eschatological hope of
Thus, a text with a literal meaning relating to the Jewish temple cult could have an allegorical meaning pointing towards the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a tropological meaning pointing towards the necessity for purity, and an anagogical meaning, pointing towards God’s heavenly dwelling place.
With the notable exception of Martin Luther who continued and even developed the use of the Quadriga, the reformation saw an ‘increasing resistance to indiscriminate allegorising and an insistence on the primacy of a specifiable literal intertextual sense.’ (Lindbeck, G. A., The Nature of Doctrine, London: SPCK (1984), 118) This shift in focus is clearly seen in the work of Erasmus with his emphasis on disclosing the deeper meaning of the text of scripture. (McGrath, A. E., Christian Theology, an Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell (2001),174) The common denominator in the approach to the Bible of the early, medieval and reformation churches therefore, is the firm belief that the Bible contains propositional truth which is, by whatever means, apprehensible and vocalise-able. The task of theology is, returning to Hilary, to ‘explain the proper meaning of the words in accordance with the realities they signify.’
The renaissance having given way to the enlightenment and romantic movements and their respective emphases on empiricism and experience, the use of the Bible shifted even further away from the medieval Quadriga in the direction of schema that, generally speaking, discounted supernaturalism and stressed the subjective nature of theology. The Bible vas variously viewed as a sourcebook of universal truths contained within a fictitious supernatural framework (Reimarus), the account of Christian origins (Baur), as the description of one aspect of a larger phenomenon, human religiosity or as a record of human spiritual experience. In the light of these influences, Scripture played a progressively smaller role in the task of theology as the formative framework in which a worldview was developed, and was made the object of study as a phenomena to be examined by the autonomous critic. (Feri, H., Ecclipse of Biblical Narrative, Yale University Press (1974), 39ff)
The tension that exists between these two modes of understanding the nature of the Bible’s role in theology is vividly articulated by Lindbeck,
‘…what propositionalists with their stress on unchanging truth and falsity regard as faithful, applicable and intelligible is likely to be dismissed as dead orthodoxy by liberal experiential-expressivists. Conversely, the liberal claim that change and pluralism in religious expression are necessary for intelligibility, applicability and faithfulness is attacked by the propositionally orthodox as an irrationally relativistic and practically self-defeating betrayal of the faith.’ (Lindbeck, G., (1984), 113)
From this dialectic, Lindbeck proposes a helpful synthesis of intertextuality. Both the pre-liberal propositionalist and the liberal experientialist, according to Lindbeck, suffer from the same problem, that of extratextuality. To be extratextual involves locating meaning outside of the text or semiotic system, whether it be, in the case of the pre-liberal, in a propositional system derived from the text, or in the case of the liberal, in a subjective experience of which theology vocalisation is the expression. For theology to be intertextual, the meaning of the text must come from the narrative and linguistic world in which the text is located. Lindbeck illustrates this principle by drawing attention to winks and signs of the cross. Both can only be meaningfully interpreted by their location within a narrative. (Lindbeck, G., (1984), 114) To approach the biblical text therefore in an intertextual manner can helpfully enable one to arrive at a normative pattern of life and belief for the community without abstracting the content of the system. As meaning is sought within the narrative of Scripture, scripture is ‘able to absorb the universe.’ (Lindbeck, G., (1984), 117) Thus, the story of the community becomes shaped by the story of God’s dealings with humanity in scripture. Lindbeck states that this intertextaul approach to theology,
‘… does not suggest, as is often said in our day, that believers find their story in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their story. The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representation of suffering, nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol of hope in the future; rather, suffering should be cruciform, and hopes for the future messianic.’ (Lindbeck, G., (1984), 118)
This intertextual and narratival use of the Bible in theology is of immense importance as we move to our next question. We have seen that within the pre and post liberal mindsets, scripture has a place of authority within the believing community. What, however, constitutes that authority?
First, it is possible to understand the Bible’s authority as being a function of the Church’s approbation of it. It is clear that the Bible is a ‘church book’, and that the canon was finally fixed by the Church. Does Church authority, therefore supersede scripture, or at least exist alongside scripture in a relationship of ‘mutually contitutive reciprocity’? (Webster, J., (2003), 52) At the heart of the question is the nature of the churches action in identification of the canon. Calvin, who in his discussion of scripture attempts to steer a course between the view that the church authorises Scripture and the possibility of further ‘ecstatic’ revelation supplementing Scripture, makes a key point to the subsequent discussion within protestant dogmatics. Describing the location of Scripture’s authority in the consent of the Church as ‘a most pernicious error’ (Calvin, Inst. I.vii.1), goes on to demonstrate that the Church, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (which he understands as the Scriptural witness), far from conferring authority by the act of canonisation, gains its authority from the Bible. Thus,
‘… if the Christian Church was from the beginning founded upon the writings of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles, wherever this doctrine is found, the acceptance of it – without which the church itself would never have existed – must certainly have preceded the Church.’ (Calvin, Inst. I.vii.2)
Calvin goes on in I.vii.4 to outline that Scripture can only be accepted as authoritative by the operation of the Holy Spirit ‘… into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.’ Scripture for Calvin needed no authentication outside of itself except the operation of the Spirit. He saw the role of the church as essentially receptive rather than approbative. (Webster, J., (2003), 62-63) Similarly, in the twentieth-century, Karl Barth made the same observation, that, far from any individual or institution sitting in judgement over Scripture, Scripture itself sits in judgement over the Church. Thus, theology, as a Church task, ‘must agree to let [Scripture]… look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks… the question to be unceasingly posed for the community and for all its members is whether the community is a true witness.’ (Barth, K., Evangelical Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1963), 32, 40) Neither for Barth, nor for Calvin, was the role of the Church in theology to be abrogated, but it is to be understood as necessarily subordinate to the place of Scripture. The Church is in that sense ecclesia catholica semper reformanda.
Another possibility, most notably connected with ‘fundamentalism’ and perhaps its most notable scholar, Benjamin Warfield, locates the authority of Scripture in the mode of its reception. That is, in the act of inspiration. Inspiration in this sense can be described in terms of divine dictation. Warfield however gave a more nuanced description in Gods’s providential choice of certain people, who underwent certain experiences and were so guided and carried along by the Spirit, that what they wrote can be regarded, not only as the mediating witness to and servant of the divine self-disclosure, but as the divine self disclosure itself. Scripture in this schema is the word of God, and as such is usually described as infallible, although how this is worked out seems to vary from one group to another. Nevertheless, despite Warfield’s attempts to safeguard the humanity of Scripture, any system which locates its authority in the act of inspiration in such a way that Scripture itself is the word of God, ultimately falls into some kind of biblical docetism, where the text only appears to be human, but is really wholly divine.
Finally, and despite their similarities to and his drawing from Calvin, Karl Barth articulated a way of understanding the authority of the Bible in a way which meshes well with the narrative understanding of Scripture which we have found to be a fruitful method for addressing the text. Barth, along with Calvin, sees Scripture as consitutive of the Church. There is however, a significant difference between the two models. Whereas Calvin identified Scripture as the principium cognescendi externum, that is, that source outside of ourselves by which God addresses us (thus locating the revelatory act in Scripture itself, paving the way for the likes of Warfield), Barth sees revelation as something essentially dynamic. It is, as we stated earlier God’s redemptive self-manifestation, God’s revealing himself, by himself. Revelation is therefore associated with God’s acts in history, revelation is an event, not a text. The Scriptures bear first hand witness to those events of God’s self-disclosure, and principally to the zenith of that self-disclosure in the person of Jesus Christ. It is because of their relation to those events that Scripture is authoritative. Their authority is, in reality, the authority of God, because it is to his self-unveiling that they attest.
This understanding of the authority of Scripture, as inseparable from the narrative in which we find God relating to humanity meshes excellently with Lindbeck’s intertextual schema for using the Bible in theology. It is as we submit our story, the story of the Church and the story of the world to the constitutive narrative of God’s redemptive self-manifestation born witness to in Scripture, and as that message is proclaimed, that the ‘normative explications’ (Lindbeck, G. (1984), 113) of theology become apparent. In so doing, the Bible no longer suffers from the problems of historical and institutional isolation. The narrative becomes alive, and the institution becomes the bearer of that life to the world.