Recently I began a new job. As part of my indoctrination, I was given a set of documents that were supposed to teach me how to do my job, but they were totally unhelpful. My predecessor had written them at a high level; they were simply a reminder for someone who already had done the job before. Part of my assigned duties are now to develop actual step-by-step instructions for each of these processes so we can hand the processes off to our vendors. In one case I expanded a 3-page memory tickler into a 15-page set of instructions that covers nearly everything. And I’m not finished yet.
While I was working, I suddenly drew an analogy between what I was doing and the Scriptures. You see, the Scriptures are not what we often think they are. They are not an instruction manual for the Christian life. They contain no manual for church order or discipline. They describe no order of service. And they mostly hint around at doctrines which are central to the Christian faith.
Paul’s letters are, for the most part, corrective in nature. Apart from Romans and Hebrews (whose Pauline authorship is still a matter of debate), there are no theological treatises in any of Paul’s writings. Instead, he writes to churches in trouble, or churches with questions, and reminds them of what he taught them when he was with them. He guides them, he chastises them, he exhorts them, but in general he is being very coy, only hinting at in writing what he expounded to them orally.
The Old Testament is much the same way. Try as you will, you cannot reconstruct the temple liturgy from the Old Testament record. We can determine the basic shape of the liturgy, and we know its purpose, but the only record of any words spoken by the priest is the Aaronic benediction he gave at the end of the liturgy. There would have been an assortment of prayers said before and after each action of the liturgy (such as the ritual washing of the hands, or the burning of the incense before the altar, or the placing of the sacrificial lamb upon the altar), but the Scriptures don’t record them. Scripture records there were choirs and songs in the time of David and Solomon, but the Scriptures don’t tell us how they were integrated into the liturgy. Which songs were sung where, and for what purpose? What do the musical notations in the Book of Psalms mean? Why is it divided into five sections, and is there a liturgical significance to that division?
There are huge areas of knowledge essential for the Church that not available in the Bible. If you restrict yourself to the Biblical record, you are trying to figure out how do Church, and how to be a Christian, without a proper instruction manual. Instead, you are like a diviner of tea-leaves, or an astrologer looking for clues in the stars.
Let me give you some easy examples of this. First, Church governance: Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Congregational? These are the three basic forms people get from the Biblical record. Each of them is scripturally valid, but they can’t all three be correct. God is not the author of confusion, and does not allow Himself to be worshiped any way we like. (Nadab and Abihu come to mind.) Second, Church Worship: Liturgical or not? A case can be made from the scripture for any number of different types of church services. Protestants have a bewildering array of “worship styles”, which can be confusing even to Protestants. I once attended a church where the pastor intentionally rearranged the service each week to avoid any semblance of liturgy. I was young, and it was kind of exciting, but it was also confusing, putting the focus on the act of worship rather than the one being worshipped.
There are important doctrinal issues in the Bible that are not adequately and systematically explained. Take baptism, for example. Is baptism a sacrament, as the Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and some Protestants maintain, or is it merely an ordinance – a symbolic gesture, if you will? The answer is not clear in the Bible, because the subject is not treated systematically. Next, what is the proper form of baptism? We do not have a single example of a baptismal ceremony in the bible; the closest we have is Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, but the story does not describe the baptism itself. Was the baptism administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion? If immersion, was it a single immersion, or a three-fold immersion? What were the word’s used when administering baptism? Moreover, we don’t know who was eligible for baptism. Was it believer’s baptism, as most Protestant’s claim, or could babies be baptized? There are biblical arguments that can be marshalled in support of each position, but the Bible is not particularly helpful in resolving the question.
Protestant theologians have turned biblical interpretation into a fine art, with a seemingly elegant set of rules that can be applied to a particular passage or series of passages to determine their meaning. But no matter how helpful each rule might be, as a system it is no more valid than astrology. Both have their own set of pseudo-scientific rules, yet each practitioner applies the rules differently, and comes up with entirely different answers.
The Bible is not what you think it is. It is not an instruction manual, it contains no systematic theology, and it does not constitute even a prologue to systematic theology. Therefore, if you approach Scripture alone, you are bringing your own baggage with you and interpreting Scripture through your own brokenness and sinfulness. You are viewing Scripture through a glass, darkly. You need something else — a guide, if you will. You need Holy Tradition.