Friends, what a long, strange trip it has been.
Over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr. Kimel has been reblogging a shortened series of articles on the relationship between the Scriptures as we have them and the Church. The full series starts with a fascinating and too-close-to-home salvo entitled "Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity". In it, he responds to a few evangelical thinkers, pastors, and scholars who are traveling the road away from any semblance of historical orthodoxy to a form of 'biblical' unitarianism. Readers of this blog and close friends will see some remarkable similarities to my story, especially as it was expressed in my "Postmodern Protestant Dilemma" phase. Reading the sources Fr. Kimel has been critiquing, along with the comments on the various postings, has been a trip down (a very painful) memory lane. I've, in a certain narrative form, detailed most of the important things from that time before. I still struggle, from time to time, with holdovers from that formative decade. The strange thing to me, as I reflect on it further, is how those theological struggles effectively deconstructed my inherited Western (that is, Catholic-Protestant) understanding of God and built in its place an Eastern (that is, Orthodox) understanding via almost all the heresies of the ancient Church (as if they've ever really gone away). To me, the grace of God is evident in hindsight; I wouldn't have known it at the time, though.
To continue the strangeness, Fr. Kimel's posts have been tackling the same questions I asked (and experienced as spiritual pain), in almost the same order. One of the main ones, which I'd like to focus on here, is: is it possible to read a set of texts outside of their intended context and get their meaning? In other words, can the Scriptures be divorced from the historical ecclesial setting they were written in and for, and still lead us to Trinitarian dogma? It is a fascinating question; one that gets to the roots of lingering problems for Protestants and biblical interpretation.
One of the corollaries of sola Scriptura, as it is commonly practiced today, is that the Scriptures are a self-contained, self-interpreting set of documents. Since they are the "only infallible rule for faith and life," they must contain completely clear and authoritative teaching on all that is necessary for faith and life. (I know that this was not the original intent of the Reformation doctrine: I'm looking at my own experience with it and what I see in contemporary Protestantism.) The Church can err; their interpretation of the documents can be taken as wisdom, but not ultimately authoritative, which includes confessional standards to which individual denominations and individual believers profess some sort of allegiance. I've discussed this problem before. Without a binding, authoritative (and implicitly infallible) interpretation from an ecclesial community, it falls to the individual believer to ascertain dogma for themselves. This is key, as it opens up the problem of relativism: is there a dogma in these texts? If so, how can we sufficiently prove it for the salvation of all humans? In other words, once we determine the dogma behind the Scriptures, we must become apostles of it. One can look at the work of Frank Viola in Reimagining Church for just such a stance. One may also look at the work of Douglas Wilson and the CREC, or Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network, or...etc. But, and this is a rather sticky wicket here, if the individual is the arbiter of the text's meaning, how can it be objectively judged as the authoritative and binding (that is, true or infallible) interpretation of the text?
Short answer: it can't.
At this point, even if one were to adhere to some theory of "mere Christianity" (a common core of beliefs that are non-negotiable, whether C.S. Lewis-style or "The Fundamentals"-style), there is no medium to assure and discern either accuracy of interpretation or authoritative status. One individual's reading is just as likely to be Spirit-inspired as another (especially given the demotion the Spirit often "enjoys" in evangelical circles from reality/hypostasis to emotion). In the end, there is nothing that can be done about this, which calls for a radically different sort of ecclesiology, very akin to what we see in evangelicalism as it exists today.
However, the Scriptures never assert a doctrine of self-containment or self-interpretation. In fact, "the Scriptures" itself doesn't exist in the Scriptures as understood in the modern world: what we call "the Bible" or "the Scriptures" are an abstraction. The implicit understanding is that this collection of books is (a) self-authenticating, (b) complete by its own authority and testimony, and (c) self-contextualizing. In other words, the Scriptures stand alone interpretively, without historical development or communal use. This isn't to say that a community (or set of communities) hasn't utilized the books for its "faith and life," but that the community is always under judgment for error of misappropriation (semper reformanda secundum verbum dei).
Looking at the genesis of the texts (and here I'll concentrate on the New Testament), though, we see that this was not the intention of the authors. Here's my claim: the authors of the New Testament never intended their epistles or books to have meaning outside their use in the ecclesial community started by Jesus Christ through His apostles and their legitimate successors. In other words, there is no meaning to the, say, book of Romans outside of its context in the Church. Certainly, the words and sentences can be read and understood by those trained to read texts; but all that such a reading will generate are interesting tidbits that lack any binding authority for "faith and life." Such a reading misses, for example, the link between St Paul's language of "faith" and the ecclesial sacrament of baptism. The letter itself was never intended to be excised from this context, even though it was originally addressed to a certain (set of?) congregation in a historically delimited time and place. Wherever the local Church is, there is the Catholic Church, we might say. If we desire, then, to find the "original" meaning of a biblical text, it must be read within the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church. To do otherwise is to produce, necessarily, eisegesis.
Another example might be the Gospels themselves: there are lots of scholarly theories about what they mean, which of the Lord Christ's sayings are "authentic," and what communities they were written for. However, there is no evidence that the books ever circulated independently in disconnected communities (this isn't to say that they definitely never did, as one cannot prove an argument from silence): rather, the first mentions of them as authoritative texts come from, say, St Irenaeus who always speaks of them as a diverse unity. What point, then, is there to trying to find their individual genesis? Whether or not they ever circulated independently, they were not intended to stay that way (and very quickly left such a situation). Any attempt to "get behind" the texts to figure out the "Johannine community" (for example) is an eisegetical red herring.
What, then, does the ecclesial context look like? Here we encounter a question that I've only recently thought to ask: what did the Apostles hand on to the communities they established and nurtured? I think I had always assumed that they gave them a verbal form of the Scriptures, maybe a copy of the Old Testament (and some not-yet-canonized New Testament works), and left it at that. However, this assumption is riddled with problems: did they expect those who just came out of paganism, full of idolatry and immorality, to puzzle together what worship was and what it was for? (I think, although I cannot prove this, that here is the origin of the various theories that put early Christian "innovations" such as invocation of the saints and iconography in the hands of the 'unwashed masses' who foisted them upon powerless and unsuspecting bishops. These same pusillanimous bishops, of course, are they ones who used their power welded to Constantinian statecraft to force Trinitarian tritheism on the aforementioned pure unitarian 'unwashed masses.') It seems clear, not only from the New Testament (particularly the necessarily laconic Pastoral Epistles) but also early Church history, that the Apostles were very thorough in passing on liturgies, ascetic practices, institutional forms, and dogmatic assumptions necessary for rightly reading and applying the inspired texts of Holy Writ. In other words, "Holy Tradition" is just as old -- and necessary -- as the documents of the Church. Tertullian and St Irenaeus, for example, received the (amazingly consistent, even with their variations) regula fidei from those who went before them as the necessary and unquestionable assumptions that guided biblical interpretation. Those regula were, by all accounts, Trinitarian in form, even if not as fleshed out as they would need to become by the Arian, Eunomian, Pneumatomachian, Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelite, Monoenergite, and other controversies that threatened to misinterpret and therefore damage the Apostolic Deposit.
What about the irregularities we see in these early centuries, though? The whole of the Church Catholic did not, for example, use the so-called St John Chrysostom liturgy. This is to be expected. It only becomes a problem if we take the ecclesial context out of its own context: the action and work of the Holy Spirit within the community. Could the liturgy develop in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, yet still proclaim the same Faith? Yes, as long as the same Spirit guided the developments. Any theory that posits some some of "fall" of the Church needs to commit a terrible heresy: the Holy Spirit abandoned, wholesale, the Church sometime after the death of the Apostles. In my own personal journey, this was the question that started to break up my own arrogance at interpreting the Scriptures outside the Pneumatic and ecclesial contexts in which their home is: if the Spirit had so abandoned the communities, why was my interpretation privileged? Could the Spirit have just as easily (if not more easily, given my historical and cultural distant from the original Apostolate) have abandoned me? Was it Descartes' proposed demon whispering my interpretive work in my ears?
This isn't to say, in the aftermath and my salvation via St Irenaeus and St Antony of Egypt, that things have gotten particularly easier. The questions of where (that is, in what community) the Spirit resides, which form of the text is authoritative, and so on continue to dog me. But the air has been sufficiently cleared from trying to read the Scriptures as a stand-alone document. Conceived as such, they are a wax-nose: the Trinity won't be found in them because, and this is vital, the Trinity is the assumption needed to make sense of the texts. Salvation is, in the end, sharing the Life of God (called "the Kingdom" and "eternal life"), so it only stands to reason that participating in that Life is necessary for the right use and understanding of the texts gifted to us by that very same God: Father, Son, and Spirit.