The Bible: What Kind of Book?

The Bible: What Kind of Book? October 2, 2013

What we think of Scripture can be mapped on a spectrum from God to human, from a divine product to a human product, from God-inspired truth to human perception of God’s ways in this world. That spectrum, though, gets complicated: Do we read it in conjunction with other elements — tradition, reason, experience — or are we to suspend those three elements to get back to the Text Itself?

John Calvin and John Wesley differed on Scripture, not on its inspiration (a divinely-produced Book) or its authority (it stands over all humans and their endeavors), but on how that Bible is to be read and interpreted. Don Thorsen, in his exceptional book Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice.  And Don raises another issue that complicates our spectrum: What you think about the Bible can be measured by how often you read it. You may say it is inspired, etc, but if you read it once a week you are saying you don’t need it that often. If you need it daily you may be confessing all you need to confess.

So, Calvin on the Bible. It is inspired by the Spirit and its authority is confirmed by the witness of the same Spirit, and here Calvin is pressing his view against the standard Catholic appropriation of traditions. For Calvin Scripture is not confirmed or authorized by the church. The church emerges from Scripture not Scripture from the church. Human reason is sufficient for understanding Scripture. Calvin was proficient as an interpreter. His focus was the natural sense of the text. He opposed fanatical and idiosyncratic interpretations. Scripture is sufficient, and the Spirit does not lead us beyond the Bible.

Calvin was a sola scriptura guy (20-21). He was a pupil of Scripture and wanted theology and truth all to be formed by the Bible. He was not literalistic or wooden; he was “remarkably sophisticated” (21). His approach was, however, not the Bible alone — he was in touch with history and with the great tradition of the church; he didn’t want to create something new but reestablish the old. He oversaw the rise of Reformed Confessions.

Wesley differs a bit, but he affirms with Calvin the inspiration, authority and truthfulness of Scripture. Like Calvin he was a lover of the Bible. He said he was a “Man of one book.” The Spirit was the guide but Scripture the rule. Again, he was not simplistically a man of one book (as many like to claim for themselves, masking laziness and ignorance) but was alert to history and theological discussions. He belonged to the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England.

So here is a difference: the Anglicans dipped far more often than Calvin in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of the church. Scripture was primary but tradition was important. Anglicans discerned truth through the primacy of Scripture along with reason and tradition. So Wesley was in the via media tradition of the Anglicans. For him “sola Scriptura” and church tradition were not at odds. He valued the great tradition but the Reformation over the Catholic tradition, and English Reformation over Continental. And from historic authorities and reason. So we have the classic form of Wesley’s quadrilateral (a term he did not use): Scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

Reason was the art of good sense. His sense of “experience” is the “religion of the heart” or “experimental religion.”  (I do wonder how substantively this differs from Calvin’s testimony of the Spirit.) Regardless, this emphasis on experience marks revivalism today — current evangelicalism — as having a deep root in Wesleyan thinking. This is about experiencing God and salvation in faith and hope, but especially also love. His perception of experimental religion then was broader and more expansive than Calvin’s more confirmation of the truth of Scripture view.

So Thorsen sees a difference in that Calvin’s view is more sola or solitary while for Wesley Scripture is primary. And Calvin’s view of Scripture led to knowing the truth while Wesley’s tended more toward a living faith.

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  • My long and ongoing investigation of the Bible has lead me to the inevitable conclusion that books within the Biblical Canon are not more inspired than books outside it.

    The conservative Protestant belief in Solo Scriptura is also self-contradictory:

    who made the decision to accept books within the Biblical Canon?

    The Biblical Canon itself or the Church?

  • Rick

    “who made the decision to accept books within the Biblical Canon?”

    From an earlier post here at Jesus Creed, reviewing a book on the topic: “God gave us the NT but didn’t drop the books from the sky. They came to the surface in the church over time and with some struggle. The arguments used were things like antiquity, apostolicity, acceptable theological content, and widespread use (catholicity).”
    Scot then went on to say: “These were judgments, used in a variety of ways for different books, but I do think Carter doesn’t value enough the regula fidei to Nicea as a major substance shaper of what was NT and what was not. What was within the canon of faith was put in the canon of Scripture.”

  • Andrew Holt

    I appreciate Wesley’s approach because it seems more contextualized, even holistic. Though I believe that Scripture has the primacy of the 4 elements of the quadrilateral, it doesn’t function independently. Reason, Experience, and Tradition serve like advisors, or helpers, as we interpret Scripture. There is also a powerful role for the Spirit here, both in understanding Scripture and in obeying it.

  • Thanks for the review of this book that helpfully illuminates the differences between Calvin’s and Wesley’s approaches to Scripture. But I think that America is mostly theology-deficient, especially in terms of the atonement. For example, slavery was a theological deficiency, with those in favor of slavery in our country having used specific verses to back them up. Everyone, whether they realize it or not, reads Scripture through their own theological lens. Therefore, in my humble opinion, I think it imperative to open up those lenses and say who God is and who He has created us humans to be (Christlike), theologically. So I don’t really like the quadrilateral’s words. Maybe: Theology (based on a canonical exegesis of Scripture and the creeds), Scripture (then understood with that theological lens), Experience (historical and current sapiential knowledge as a corrective to our theology), and Reason (as the hermeneutics of individual passages for today)?

  • Rick

    It sounds like you are putting Tradition above Scripture. Is that what you are saying?

  • Hi Rick. Not Tradition, but Theology. Tradition, in any case, is too broad a word. I like Tradition for the Creeds, the way the early Church interpreted the Scriptures through a theological lens and the way it applied Scripture to their environments. I don’t like Tradition for the Magisterium but do recognize a need for humility and openness towards the Church of the past, its successes and mistakes.

  • Mark Kennedy

    You had me at:

    “What you think about the Bible can be measured by how often you
    read it. You may say it is inspired, etc, but if you read it once a
    week you are saying you don’t need it that often. If you need it daily
    you may be confessing all you need to confess.”

    All the other issues–systematizing ones thought, ones experience, ones tradition–will be effected by how much we truly read the texts. Yes, there is give and take, but beginning with the text seems paramount to me.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Currently my relationship with the Bible is conflicted. I tried reading through it again but got bogged down in all the disturbing things in the Pentateuch. I find I can’t seem to face Joshua, knowing in advance that a lot of what I read is going to disturb me even worse– so I stopped. I don’t think this means I’ve stopped accepting the Bible as authoritative and inspired; I don’t really know what it means. I am still reading selected texts that I already know I find edifying.

  • AHH

    What we think of Scripture can be mapped on a spectrum from God to
    human, from a divine product to a human product, from God-inspired truth
    to human perception of God’s ways in this world.

    This may be a bit of a tangent, but IMO this way of framing things is problematic. It implies a one-dimensional spectrum where affirming the human aspect diminishes the divine, and vice versa. That definitely does not work in Christology (it is heretical there), and I think we should avoid it for Scripture as well. This sort of zero-sum approach causes much trouble, for example when the fundamentalist-leaning part of Evangelicalism won’t allow that God might have communicated within cultural concepts of the time but instead must have inspired Genesis as a modern science text. I think the church needs to re-frame things in a way so that recognizing the human aspects of Scripture does not mean diminishing our affirmation of divine inspiration (instead causing us to re-think how inspiration works).
    I am of course echoing Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation in this comment.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    If your conclusion was inevitable you didn’t need investigation, maybe just persistence and a bit of presupposition.

    That the books accepted as canon existed alongside a diverse community of believers, a people that organically recognized their relationship with the books they considered divinely inspired scripture, doesn’t inevitably lead to the conclusion that either needs to be put in the role of cart or horse. As Scot noted: “for Calvin Scripture is not confirmed or authorized by the church. The
    church emerges from Scripture not Scripture from the church.”

    The issue is more fully finessed, as I’m sure Calvin did, by saying something to the effect that the church emerges from the living and preached Word first spoken and which then comes to us through the scriptures that bear witness regarding what Jesus and the Apostles and all the prophets of biblical scripture said. Word-Canon first, then the Church. Perhaps not an inevitable conclusion, but a reasonably evidentiary one.

  • “antiquity, apostolic, acceptable theological content, and widespread use (catholicity)”

    Okay, but

    1) why should we not accept the other widely accepted decisions of the Church about infant baptism, the purgatory and veneration of the saints?

    They came about through the same kind of historical process.

    2) why should these criteria mean that a book within the Canon is truer than a book outside it?
    Why should, for instance, the pastoral epistles falsely attributed to Paul be truer than the book of Ireneus or Origen?

  • Rick

    The church thought there was enough there to meet the necessary qualifications, and there is a variety of scholarly opinion regarding authorship

  • Cacafuego

    “Scripture was primary but tradition was important.” I’d say this characterizes most but not all conservative Calvinists today (e.g., Tim Keller, John Frame, etc.).

    That’s not to say that Calvin himself was less open to tradition, and that’s at least understandable in his milieu.

    But I’d say his followers don’t generally follow him so closely today and are not far at all from a “prima scriptura” view.