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The Right Church
Live Like the First Christians
By Charles E. Gutenson
Book Excerpt from Chapter One:
Reading Scripture with the Early Church
In many Protestant traditions, after the Scriptures have been read for the worship service, it is not unusual to hear the words, "The Word of God for the people of God." Often one hears the response, "Thanks be to God!" In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, one can expect to hear words such as, "Wisdom, let us attend," prior to or following the reading of the Bible. In some churches, when the particular reading is from the Gospels, the congregation is asked to stand. In yet others, an open Bible is carried aloft as part of the procession that opens worship while the congregation stands. In still others, the reader, the congregation, or both give some physical sign of respect at the conclusion of the Scriptural reading. All of these actions, whether words recited or physical enactment, are signs we use to demonstrate our respect for the most holy of Christian texts—the Bible. While the precise way in which we show our respect and the exact nature of the language we use to state our commitment varies, the Christian Scriptures universally occupy a unique and special place across the various sub-traditions of the Christian faith.
Christians have tried in various ways to capture the uniqueness of the Scriptures in doctrinal statements. For example, terms such as "inerrant" or "infallible" have been used to emphasize the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. In some cases, these terms have been applied broadly to anything that might be addressed, whether directly or tangentially related to the life of faith. Others have been more carefully nuanced, applying the terms only to matters specifically related to human salvation and restoration of right relationship to God. Still others within the broader Christian tradition have found that these particular terms have become too charged and have opted instead for things like "authoritative." Others have tried to focus on the Scriptures' role in defining what constitutes the faithful life by saying things like, "The Scriptures are normative for all things related to Christian conversion and discipleship." While allowing different strands of the faith to express their allegiance to the Scriptures in the way they feel best, the common point is the same. However we end up saying it, the Christian Bible holds a unique place for us as followers of Jesus. Throughout the centuries, when it comes to discerning what God would have God's people do, there is nothing to which appeal has been more often made than to the collection of writings Christians call the Scriptures.
The Beginnings of Scripture
Unfortunately, most of us are only familiar with the ways in which the Scriptures have been conceptualized over the last hundred or so years. Early church writings have much to enrich our grasp of them, or perhaps better, to enrich their grasp on us. For example, unless one has taken the time to study the first centuries of church history, one is unlikely to know how the collection of writings we call the Christian Bible even came into existence. Sometimes, we seem almost to operate on the myth that they dropped from heaven with God's name on a signature line. Of course, it was not so. Hans van Campenhausen, in what is still considered by many to be the most significant book on the subject, TheFormationoftheChristianBible, notes that it was 200 AD or later before the books of either the Old Testament or the New Testament were reasonably settled, though the final determination came even later.
In fact, it is impossible to separate the Scriptures from the early church's work, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by which they came to be. I recall a student once asking me to work with him on an independent study. His stated goal was to "get behind the early church fathers, so one could hear the words of scripture alone." My response was that I could not see how we could do that. How do you get behind the work of the early church when it was the early church itself that identified what constituted the Christian Scriptures? Further, it would see quite strange to affirm that God had guided the early church to correctly identify the books (which we affirm when we speak of the Bible as God's word), but not to affirm that God equally guided their judgments about what the Bible meant. To recognize all this should in no way undermine our confidence in the Scriptures, but it should elevate our appreciation for the early church and God's work in guiding it. Were the Scriptures inspired by God? Absolutely, they were inspired to be authoritative regarding the life of faith. Perhaps, though, we would do well to imitate the early church, which affirmed the unique place of the Scriptures as God's inspired revelation without feeling it necessary to say definitively how they were inspired. We have been left free to form our own views of the mechanics.