Friday, May 25, 2007

The Bible and the Magisterium

The Bible was written by human hands, and its many books were assembled by human hands. What are we to make of the doctrine of Sola Biblia in light of this? Let us consider only the assembly of the Bible.

Nowhere in the books of the Bible do you find any instruction about what books to include in its final canonical form. So, then, when in the 3rd century the Bible took its current form (let us put aside for the moment the dispute between Catholics and Protestants about the inclusion of the Apocrypha), the men responsible for its assembly were not guided by any explicit Biblical instructions.

Nor as a matter of logical necessity could they have been guided by Biblical instruction, whether explicit or implicit. It's quite possible that a book say of itself that it should be included in the Bible. But this alone does not mean that it should be. I could at this very moment produce a document that said of itself that it should be made part of the Bible, but this does not mean that it should be. Books can tell falsehoods. Moreover, when in the process of assembly, the assemblers did not yet know what should be included and what should not. They thus could not point to this or that book and say of it that it was canonical and thus authoratative, and this of course means that they could not rely upon the supposed authority of this or that book in the decision to include the books they did. Their decisions were of necessity not Bible-guided. They were Spirit-guided, I should think.

Now, what must we say today of those men who assembled the Bible? Assume that we wish to place a supreme and unshakable confidence in the Bible (as Biblical inerrantists wish to do). We must place a supreme and unshakable confidence in them and their work, else we would have to admit the possibility that they erred; and if we were to admit that, we could no longer cleave to the Bible as we wish.

My point is this: trust in the Bible requires an extra-Biblical trust in the work of the men who assembled it. We must trust to their authority, and must do so for reasons that cannot be culled from the Bible.

Thus as the Catholic Church teaches, there are two sources of religious authority: the Bible and the Magisterium. Sola Biblia undermines itself. One we think through what must be true if we are to trust the Bible, Sola Biblia becomes (at least) Sola Biblia et Magisterium.


James R Ament said...

"My point is this: trust in the Bible requires an extra-Biblical trust in the work of the men who assembled it. We must trust to their authority, and must do so for reasons that cannot be culled from the Bible."

I trust that these men of discerning minds and good hearts were led by the Spirit and did the best they could in deciding the canon.

Franklin Mason said...

That's a nice statement of my views on the matter. I take it that we're in agreement, then.

James R Ament said...

Franklin, I think we are in agreement; but I'll share an example of where I think many stories of the Bible require considerable thought and are not literal:

I'll summarize the rewritten miracle story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:1-18), with thanks to Liberation theologian Robert McAfee Brown: The Story is from “Unexpected News, Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes,” 1984... King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden image and demanded that everyone bow down to it, which really meant bowing down to him and his rule. Having a strong law and order government, with informers, he found out that not all were giving it proper respect, and was quite furious. So he looked for the “usual suspects,” the Jews, found these three nice Jewish boys, and had them brought to the king’s court. They were told that if they didn’t worship the golden image, they’d be thrown into a fiery furnace and by the way, “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” They replied, with clear condescension: (1) We don’t feel compelled to answer your question. (2) Nevertheless, our God will deliver us from the fiery furnace and out of your hands. (3) “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” There, of course, is the biblical version of a Hollywood ending and, as Brown says, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego get their government security clearance reinstated, their jobs back, and a raise in pay, and Blue Cross…” The Hollywood ending strains credulity; but the whole point of the story, and its true meaning, is with the words, “But if not…” Brown says, “‘But if not…’ is their way of saying, “We don’t know whether we will survive or not. We are not affirming belief in God as a bargaining chip to save us from the fiery furnace. Whether we survive or not is not the issue. The issue is that we remain faithful to God.” Brown then switches from humor and retells the story as though it were occurring in Germany under Hitler’s regime… when there was no Hollywood ending… and although God was there before any of us, we also know that “six million times no one was saved." Then he says this: "It is a cause for wonder and tears and questions and yearnings and angry hope.”

Brown's treatment of this story, which I read years ago, had a huge impact on the way I view the Will of God, and what it means – what it requires of us – to endure and continue in one’s love of God and his creation in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Therein lies an example of the power of what those early Christians wrote and chose to include in the Bible.

Bill Vallicella said...

Good post, Franklin. I agree. Are you fixin' to swim the Tiber?

Franklin Mason said...

I'm in midstream at this very moment, and it seems to me now that there's not doubt that I'll arrive at the other side.