I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about the inerrancy of scripture. Mostly because as I’ve been searching my own faith and finding a lot of peace in the Orthodox Christian way, many questions on authority have arisen from people I know, worried that I’ll become an apostate. People ask me if I no longer consider the Bible a spiritual authority or if I consider the Orthodox Church as being my authority now. My answer is that I’m not abandoning the Bible but things are still a lot different now.
Awhile ago, I fell into disbelief. I was evaluating a lot of the beliefs I had grown up with and I found some to be insufficient when compared to the entire foundation I had at the time. My foundation was built on seeing the Bible as the sole revelation and authority of God’s truth on earth. (I still believe the Bible is authoritative, inspired by God and a bedrock for our beliefs – it just doesn’t stand alone, just to be clear.) I also believed that part of the Holy Spirit’s job was to speak directly to me when I found the Bible difficult to understand, thus guiding me out of error. The problem with parts of this foundation is that it is not historically true and it’s not even in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret the Bible for ourselves, but it does say that the Holy Spirit guided the apostles and prophets to teach it (Eph. 3:5). Today there are thousands of denominations and at least a dozen or more of the core ones differ on vital scriptural interpretations. So the question becomes, how do we divide truth from error in interpreting the scripture? And how do we know that we aren’t following another person’s opinion subconsciously? I believe that we all follow a certain tradition and it’s really a matter of discerning which tradition is actually the correct one for interpretation.
If we look into history, during some key times where false teachings started to become popular, what made them become popular was through the use of scripture. For example, Arius (a priest in 4th century Alexandria) didn’t just pull out his heresy that Jesus was a created being from thin air. He read the scriptures and decided he discovered something in them after centuries of Christians believing that Jesus was God. His view became popular through using scriptures and song. Common folk could almost recite his view better than the true, Christian view. The council of Nicea was called and Arius’ view was found to be a heresy by the consensus of the bishops. To this day, the Nicene creed defends the Trinity because of it’s contention by the Arians.
So, the question is then how do we discern truth from falsehood in the Biblical interpretation? I believe that we do that by learning from the right people who were ordained by God to teach it from the beginning and from their predecessors. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit just as we are even though they were fallible men. I’m referring to the 12 apostles and to the men they taught to be bishops and leaders in the church. People like Irenaeus, Ignatius, Clement and Polycarp and their predecessors. When Christ says “the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth”, we can say He already was doing that through his disciples. When we read 2 Timothy 3:16, I am just as convinced that scripture is God-breathed, but I also see it within the context of Paul’s second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-17) when he says:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Timothy learned about the scriptures. Most likely the Old Testament scriptures, as the New Testament didn’t exist at the time. But he didn’t just read them and automatically know everything about Jesus. He had to be taught. We know Timothy’s family was instrumental in bringing him up in the faith. The Holy Spirit didn’t just download to His brain instant knowledge.
You may then ask “Why do you think fallible men will have any better insight than if you just read it yourself?” Good question. We are all fallible, but there’s a difference between one individual following his own interpretation based on his own thoughts and feelings dictated by an invisible spiritual force (which is what often leads people into devising their own interpretation, by the way) completely separate from accepting the consensus of wise men chosen by God to deliver the correct interpretation to people. Christ established His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18) What is a church but not a group of people? The Church is composed of people, so I don’t just trust a person, but I trust the Church, which is also the Body of Christ, the living God.
I now read the Bible as God’s divine revelation to mankind and to me, because it is the revelation of Jesus Christ to all of us. I humbly submit my reading of the texts to the Church which brought forth those texts. I also understand that there may be things that look like they’re not in the Bible but are mere inventions of the Church. However, I’ve found that not to be true for a majority of practices when I read the early Church writers. If you think about it, the New Testament itself is an invention of the Church because there’s no indication in the Gospels that Jesus commanded all He said to be written down.
I don’t just listen to what one man says and believe that’s what I should believe, rather I go back to the beginning as much as possible and ask the Spirit for guidance. I look at the Church Fathers (founders of the church) and explore their ways of reading the text. Many were in agreement, especially in matters of practicing the faith. I think it’s dangerous just to rely on one source for interpreting scripture. I would rather follow St. Vincent of Lerin’s (5th century) advice:
Moreover, in the Catholic [universal] Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.
There’s also Jude 1:3:
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
and 2 Thess. 2:15:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
So, I now see more cohesiveness to the Biblical text (even the hard parts) which I didn’t see before. And although I’ve been prooftexting the heck out of my articles, I’d encourage you to read all of the scriptures I quoted in their respective contexts, not just as standalone verses. Read them while also looking at what early Christians had to say. As I’ve done that, I’ve seen a clearer line to ancient Christian interpretations of the text and I’ve seen in an even greater sense how it all applies to my own life.
You might say, “But Zach! You just said there are hundreds of denominations with different interpretations. How can you know which ones are right?!” That, will be covered in another blog post where I hope to flesh out what makes an interpretation worth possibly adopting or not. Stay tuned.