Why it can’t end with the Bible, even though it begins there…


In my wishful summary of the Wesleyan Church, one of the characteristics I mentioned was "catholic in spirit, but all discussions begin with the Bible." The inference was that while they begin with the Bible, they can't end with the Bible.

At first hearing, this statement sounds wrong, even heretical. But it is not a matter of should, it's a matter of "can only be this way."

The only way that a discussion could end with the Bible was if we were only talking of one statement in the Bible. For example, Leviticus 19;19 says not to wear cloth of mixed thread. It is conceivable that you might begin and end the discussion of cloth-wearing right there.

But when we are talking about the Bible as a whole--and that's the way people refer to the Bible in these contexts, "What does the Bible say...?"--it is impossible for the discussion to end with a single verse unless that single verse is the only statement on that topic. In this case, I think Leviticus 19:19 may very well be the only verse on wearing mixed threads. Yet do we really think God forbids us from wearing polyester? There must be something beyond Leviticus.

In the end, there are two reasons why reading the Bible in context demands that discussions do not end with the Bible:

1. Because the task of fitting together teaching in the Bible is something we do from the outside looking in. The Bible itself does not tell us how to fit James and Romans together. We must therefore settle the question of justification by faith or works beyond the pages of the Bible as we look on both of these books.

2. Because the task of relating what God said to various ancient contexts to what God would say to our context is something we do from the outside looking in. The Bible itself does not tell us what a "holy kiss" might look like in our world or for that matter whether "living good lives among the pagans" today would involve wives calling their husbands masters (1 Pet. 3).

Of course most Christians mistake the joining together and time bridging activities they do--sometimes as individual thinkers, sometimes as a part of a particular Christian tradition--for the Bible itself. They dub something the "biblical view" when it is in fact a product of their own paradigms. In either case, whether a person is conscious of it or not, the discussion rarely if ever really ends with the Bible.

But all discussions should begin with the Bible, for it is a sacrament of revelation and the "deposit" of the foundation of the apostles and prophets. It gets the greatest weight in the great discussion, even if the final touches were and are being put on in the church of the ages. We are simply suggesting something akin to what has been called Wesley's quadrilateral, which takes tradition, experience, and reason into the equation.

This is a call for greater maturity for modern evangelicalism. Rightly recognizing developments in the medieval Roman Catholic Church that had little to do with the foundations, the reformers rightly championed a movement "back to scripture." But in the end, the idea of sola scriptura ultimately threatens orthodoxy by denying authentic developments in the church of the ages. It is a recipe for cults and 10,000's of Protestant denominations as each group sews Scripture together and proclaims their own Frankenstein the meaning of the text alone.

I cannot predict what will happen to evangelicalism in the future--religious belief is persistent and generally ignores truth when it is paradigmatically inconvenient. On the other hand, I see strong signs that many evangelical thinkers are becoming more honest in their exegesis. And as they are, they recognize that we will need a bit of the church beyond the Bible to remain orthodox. This is the "catholic in spirit, while all discussions begin with the Bible" that I mentioned in that previous post.

At least that's the way I see it...