Why you need the church to read your Bible

Why you need the church to read your Bible December 4, 2013

It’s easy to bash the church, and there are many that do. Of course most bashers are blithely unaware of the countless things they owe their battered victim, everything from doctrinal formulations they mistakenly assume are plainly explained in the Bible to holidays. What makes December 25 so special, anyway? You’ll need to consult the church on that.

'Shady Characters' by Keith Houston
‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

I grew up around Christians who thought that all they needed for their spiritual life was a Bible. Not all of them, of course. But there were those who would be nothing shy of offended if you suggested they owed the church anything or needed it in any fundamental way. The old one-book-on-a-desert-island question was more than a game with them. It was their basic approach to theology — an individual and his or her Bible is all that’s necessary.

But to say that the Bible is the only necessary source for your spirituality or theological pursuits assumes you can actually read it. And it turns out you have the church to thank for that.

Keith Houston teases the story a bit in his book Shady Characters, an amusing and interesting history of punctuation. It may not be the single best book for your desert island stint, but it’s fun stuff for language geeks like me. Addressing our topic here, Houston says, “The emergence of Christianity . . . would change the face of written language on a grand scale. . . .” How exactly?

Whereas paganism relied on oral tradition and its practices varied according to local custom, Christianity emphasized conformity and universal, written scriptures. If Judaism had been the prototypical religion of the Book, cleaving to the written Word of God, Christians embodied this ideal with unprecedented vigor, driving the evolution of punctuation as they built and consolidated a concrete, written dogma. After all, the Word of God had to be transmitted with as little ambiguity as possible. . . . As the new, wordy religion swept through Europe, it drove the development of much of what we take for granted in modern-day writing.

Monks, for instance, invented the paragraph. Archbishop Isidore of Seville gave us the period (or at least the modern use of it), ditto things like colons and question marks. What about spaces between words? You can thank British and Irish clergy for that one. Ever get annoyed by people who WRITE IN ALL UPPERCASE LETTERS? Thank Charlemagne and Alcuin of York, a monk, for a lowercase alphabet. In other words, all the things that make text readable and understandable.

Irenaeus, living before the benefit of these developments, offers an example of why they are so important. The gnostics misread Paul in part, he said, because they didn’t understand the apostle’s phraseology or include the necessary pauses where appropriate — problems greatly mitigated by commas (Against Heresies 3.7).

Of course once in use commas and other grammatical tools had to be applied correctly. Who’s to say where a line should break into a phrase, sentence, or paragraph? Church tradition dictated that as well. While chiding the gnostics, Irenaeus said they failed to listen to the proper reading in church — that is when a deacon or priest would read a passage from the lectionary, providing the correct sense of the passage by adding pauses in the right places. Those more or less standard readings eventually were cemented into place as punctuation became widely employed.

So the next time you think you can have a go at the faith without the great mass of believers who came before, imagine sitting on your desert island, sifting through line after line of that beloved Bible without paragraphs, periods, question marks, and all the rest — or even knowing the right place to put them all even if you had them.

You’d be better off with G. K. Chesterton’s suggestion of one book to have if stranded on a desert island: Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.

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  • Good post, Joel

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, man.

  • Fun Post. I love the church, but I never thought about it’s importance in this area. Good stuff!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Many thanks.

  • I trust one can bestow the same forebearance to the faith of the scholars who provided us Arabic numerals, the zero, and al-gebra.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Naturally, though we must also agree that none of those systems have much bearing upon the understanding of Holy Scripture (the point of the essay), and that “faith” should there be plural, as Muslim Arabs utilized the help of Persians and Syrians (some of whom were Christians) and worked over material and ideas from earlier Indians and Greeks.

  • By your logic, Jesus was way out of line lambasting the scribes (as in Matthew 23).

    Is it not possible to be properly grateful for what calls for gratitude while still standing up for righteousness when spiritual leaders get things wrong?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Jesus is never way out of line, we’ll both agree. But, as we’ll also agree, Jesus was lambasting the scribes for their false traditions. There is such a thing as true tradition, good tradition, holy tradition as well.

      Jesus goes after the Pharisees for the first kind in Mark 7.5-13. Meanwhile, Paul gives us an example of the latter in 1 Corinthians 11.2 and 2 Thessalonians 2.15 (among other places). The principal word used, tradition (paradosis) is the same whether positive or negative.

      Paradosis just means what’s handed over. The question is what is handed over. Is it a novelty or does it accord with what Christ taught and the apostles handed down? Beyond that, does the tradition help or hinder the apostolic message?

      Clearly the work of the men mentioned above helped the apostolic message. You would have a hard time understanding the text they bequeathed without their work.

      • I agree with all that you say here about paradosis.

        Back to your original post, would you consider “Why you need the Pharisees to read your Scriptures” to be a valid paraphrase of, or at least a thought consistent with, Matthew 23:3? If so, I think I could be comfortable with your original point.

        (I initially commented because I was concerned that your original point diverted devotion from Christ to the organized church in the way that the scribes and Pharisees diverted devotion from God to their cause.)

        • Joel J. Miller

          I would not consider that a valid paraphrase. I’m not equating the church fathers with the pharisees.

          Nor am I transferring devotion from Christ to them. I am pointing out one more reason why they deserve our respect and even deference.

          And to be clear, they wouldn’t want devotion due Christ. They were just as devoted to Jesus as you or I.

          • It was not your deference or respect for believers through the ages that concerned me; it was that you seemed be saying the devotion to the institutional church was necessary for proper reading and understanding of the Bible.

            • Joel J. Miller

              What is the institutional church?

              • The organized church – that is, churches that have human heads (i.e. Jesus being head in name only).

                • Joel J. Miller

                  I’m not interested in a church where Jesus is the head in name only. But I fear you are assuming that “institutional” and “no Jesus” are synonymous. I see no reason for that. The church is a community of believers that has an institutional aspect — it has since the start. Here’s something from the archives on that point.

                  • I read the archived post to which you linked. It’s not believers suing for this divorce; it’s Jesus. See Jer 3:8. You think God was willing to divorce an apostate Israel but not an apostate church?

                    The New Testament pulsates with expectation of the coming of the kingdom of God, and that expectation reaches fever pitch by 1 John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Do you really think that kingdom did not come? And do you really think that kingdom is not greater than the ever-dividing kingdom we call organized Christianity?

                    • Joel J. Miller

                      The kingdom came, and it’s still here, and God will not divorce his church.

                      The kingdom is greater than Christianity. It is not greater than the church; they are the same.

                    • “God will not divorce his church.’


                      When the kingdom came, He took His bride to Himself. However, the visible church, headed by men, He has long ago divorced.

                    • Joel J. Miller

                      What’s your evidence for that claim?

                    • You have already agreed that the kingdom came when Jesus and the apostles said it would. If it came, then that’s when the wheat was separated from the tares, the sheep were separated from the goats, and the wise virgins went out to meet the bridegroom.

                      “The Lord knows those who are His.” You said that the kingdom of God is the church. That’s true if you’re talking about the invisible church. The visible church, however, is a severed body – to say the least – with its popes, bishops, pastors, and its thousands upon thousands of denominations.

                    • Joel J. Miller

                      Those are all pictures of the kingdom, yes. But the creed says that he is coming again–meaning those things have not yet happened.

                      Where do you get the terms visible and invisible church? Are they in the scripture?

                    • I used the terms visible and invisible church because I thought you’d be familiar with them and that therefore they’d help you understand what I was saying. They are not scriptural terms and I’m happy to drop them since it seems they didn’t help after all.

                      Yes, the creed says He’s coming again. This sets up a dliemma: we can either believe the apostles or the creed. (I probably don’t have to remind you that the creed is not Scripture, but what the apostles wrote is.)

                    • Joel J. Miller

                      I am familiar with the terms. I just don’t find them useful.

                      So you don’t subscribe to the creed? I’m referring to the Nicean, but the Apostles serves as well.

                      I don’t think you have a dilemma. The creed helps us understand the apostles. That’s why it’s sometimes called the canon of faith. It’s an example of good, holy, helpful tradition, guiding our interpretation in this case.

                      What guides your interpretation?

                    • I agree that the creeds are able to help us understand the apostles. However, Scripture is “Thus saith the Lord” while creeds are “Thus saith the church.” Where there is a discrepancy between the two, therefore, we must be guided by Scripture.

  • Brian

    One of the cardinal doctrines of the Reformation was the perspicuity of the Scriptures. The word means clearly expressed and clearly understood. Lest we fall back into the dark ages again in which the priest alone had the keys to understanding the Scripture because he was of the church’s hierarchy, let us remember the source from which we who are Protestants come! We believe the Church/church has in history frequently, for the sake of sinful men’s power, rent the Scriptures and misrepresented the same. Why now this sudden yen for an infallible church when we have an infallible Word and an infallible God who speaks his truth clearly, in the words of Martin Luther, to the most humble ploughboy? While the Church/church can be helpful in correcting, rebuking, teaching and guiding, we dare not forget that the Word of God’s truth does not depend upon the Church/church. Rather the Church/church is built upon the Word of God and its truth endures forever!

    • Joel J. Miller

      I appreciate your perspective, but with all do respect cannot accept it.

      First, it the scriptures were as clear as you suggest there would not be tens of thousands of Protestant denominations with competing interpretations of it — let alone millions of people walking along with mutually contradictory personal interpretations, though the Bible itself says private interpretation is wrong.

      Second, your reference to the “dark ages” is both unhelpful and wrong. Irenaeus, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Ephraim the Syrian, Augustine, Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene — they all demonstrate that the Bible was known and understood before Martin Luther.

      Third, as the article suggests, this is not an abstract look at ecclesiology or the place of scripture and tradition. It’s a practical reality that you couldn’t even read the scripture without the help of those believers from the “dark ages.”

      • Brian

        First, the existence of multiple protestant denominations can be explained often by the failure to take the Scriptures at face value and rather come from the sinfulness of men.

        Second, the dark ages is not the period you are referring to. The dark ages historically follow the Roman period and do not include the men you listed as they were primarily in the Roman period.

        Third, perspicuity means that God by his Holy Spirit enlightens the seeker after God who reads the Word of God so that without any outside help, that person can understand, apply and respond to the message of the Word of God. No priest or intermediary is necessary beyond the Holy Spirit who reveals all truth to those whom God is speaking through his Word about Christ, sin and righteousness.

        The position you suggest is not historic Protestant theology but seems much more in line with historic Roman Catholic theology.

        • Joel J. Miller

          You are correct. It is not historic Protestant theology.

          What time span do you have in mind when you speak of the Roman period?

          • Brian

            Sorry took so long to get back to you. When I speak of the Roman period in history, generally it runs to about AD 500 or so. Even though Rome was sacked earlier than that, the papacy emerged to keep Rome as an important player in history. The dark ages begin about 600 to 700 with the destruction of a cohesive understanding of the empire with the various declines that took place in trade, transportation and governance in the west. Now in the east, with Byzantium still in control, a different kind of development occurred. Since you are Eastern Orthodox in persuasion, that form of Roman civilization never really experienced a dark age as the western part of the empire did. In one sense, Rome lasted as long as Constantinople held out against its political enemies. In the west, clearly in many ways, superstition rather than a fixed standard of truth as we have in the Bible, ruled the Church as the cult of the papacy/priesthood and a magical Eucharist won over the Biblical concepts of the priesthood of believers, a simple communion and the perspicuity and authority of the Scriptures. It was a bad time for the Gospel and the Church.

  • Fallulah

    Of course Christians need the church in order to read the bible! The church cherry picks the good parts and white washes over the horrible immoral parts of the bible, or explains them away with “proper” interpretations. hahaha Most Christians haven’t even read the bible, they just take what is spoon fed from the pulpit…studies show Atheists know more about the bible than Christians. That is because we took the time to really study what is told to us, and we READ all the horrible, immorality in the bible and it didn’t jive with a “loving” god. If Christians wish to stay comfortable in their pet beliefs, they had better either not read the bible…or read it with an apologist nearby to make them feel better about the bad stuff.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I find it interesting that you say certain things in the scripture are immoral. Where does morality come from?

      • Fallulah

        Well that’s a highly involved answer. It comes from millions of years of evolution allowing us to survive in our environments. It comes from centuries of wars and bloodshed and experimentation to discover what works and what doesn’t. It is developed by philosophers and great thinkers who analyse it. It did not come from a book.

    • Julie Coleman

      Yes, there is immorality in the Bible. But it is meant to be read as narrative, not prescriptive. The rampant immorality comes from the sinful state of man, which is necessary to understand and acknowledge before one can ever realize a need for a Savior. Biblical protagonists were never perfect. If they were, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die in our place.

      • Fallulah

        Have you read your bible? Firstly, there are many passages which quote God or “The Lord” himself proclaiming immoral laws. Such an example is when God rewarded Lot for giving up his virgin daughters to be raped by the townspeople instead of the angel sent down.

        example:Deuteronomy 22:20-1If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.

        Plus you are missing the entire point of the immoral god. What god would create the world, and two humans…who have NO concept of Good or Evil or consequences…and then tell them not to eat from a tree he places right in front of them and then PUNISHES them when they eat it on the advice of a serpent. Poor Adam and Eve don’t know any better! They don’t have knowledge of good and evil!

        That’s like putting a newborn baby in a crib with a gun and saying, “don’t touch it” and when the baby shoots its leg off, going “bad baby” and punishing it for eternity.

        It’s immoral.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Great Post Joel. Most people commenting below seem to miss your point completely. This is not about sola scriptura, it is about legibility. They have clearly never seen how ancient Greek was written. All capital letters with no spaces between words or paragraphs. The church, in its efforts to make the bible understandable to the laymen added all the features you mention without which all the perspicuity in the world is going to help today’s reader. Imagine if Romans were one continous sentence without punctuation? Only the best scholars could even read it, let alone understand it.