Verbal Inerrancy, Literalism, and the Re-opening of the Canon

The Bible is always right.


In modern statements of faith, the connection between inspiration and inerrancy is made plain, such that Christians believe the concept of inerrancy is necessary to properly define inspiration. But that is incorrect. In fact, the idea that the scriptures are trustworthy and infallible is an ancient Christian teaching, whereas the idea that the Scriptures are inerrant is a modern conceit.

First, it depends what exactly is inerrant: the Sacred Scriptures that make us wise unto salvation (the forma), or the text—the peculiar combination of marks on a page (the materia), which change from language to language, and from translation to translation. These textual differences can be significant. A particular word may have a subtle range of meanings in Hebrew, but when that word is translated into Greek, the translator picks one word to represent the primary meaning. Thus the act of translation is an act of textual interpretation.

Second, if one postulates the verbal (and plenary) inerrancy of the autographs (being the original peculiar combination of marks on a page), this postulate then drives the task of textual criticism. No longer do textual critics seek determine the authoritative text (a theological enterprise), but instead seek the recovery of the original text (a critical enterprise), which they deem authoritative by virtue of its being original.[1] The search for the original text is itself an act of textual interpretation. Although textual criticism proceeds on the basis of rules, and gives the appearance of being scientific, the rules are in fact arbitrary, based on assumptions made before one approaches the text. For example, if you favor the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, your rules will give primacy to that text and other texts will be of secondary importance.[2]

Verbal inerrancy in the autographs necessitates the understanding that only the original author was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that subsequent corrections, additions, and deletions by later copyists and/or churchmen are corruptions.[3] The clear implication is that the word of a particular man (the author) was inspired; indeed, that the author was himself inspired. When Peter writes of the “holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2Pe 1:21), the assumption is this applies to the particular man or prophet who initially produced the writing, as opposed to the later copyists and churchmen who modified the text in one way or another. This means that passages deemed by both conservative and liberal scholars to have not been part of the original text are suspect, even though the extant texts are part of the canon of Sacred Scripture. The natural result is the re-opening of the canon of scripture and the excision of suspect texts from Sacred Scripture. The obsession with verbal inerrancy logically leads to the error of Marcion.

There is another way of thinking about all this. What if we ignore the minor errors of scripture? As a practical matter, we do that already. Do we really care that 1 Kings 4:26 says that Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses, whereas 2 Chron 9:25 says Solomon had four thousand? No, of course not. We recognize that a copyist made an error and move on. It is not germane to the subject at hand, and represents no threat to the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture. The only way this becomes a problem is if we begin to incorporate modern understandings of inspiration into our thinking, which requires a series of rationales and tendentious arguments for each and every difficult passage in the Bible.

A literalistic understanding of Sacred Scripture can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, the United Methodist Minister Richard Hagenston writes of the direct contradiction contained in the final verses of Psalm 51. In his analysis of this passage, verses 16-17 indicates that God does not want sacrifice, while verses 18-19 says that God is pleased with sacrifices. So which is it?[4]

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. (Ps 51:16-19)

You, dear reader, may find it interesting to compare different approaches to this passage. Richard Hagenston’s approach is to take the text at face value. The text means exactly what it says, and has no deeper meaning. The literal interpretation is the only interpretation, you might say. And having said that, we are left with a rather glaring contradiction.

Most other Bible scholars would look at this passage in its context of the Psalm as a whole. Since the overall theme is of repentance, verses 16-17 would indicate that God prefers repentance to sacrifice; verses 18–19 says that God is pleased with sacrifices when they are offered with a repentant heart. But note that this interpretation goes beyond the literal meaning of the text, and depends upon the idea that the text contains deeper meanings than the mere literal reading can reveal.

To a strict literalist, the passage in Psalm 51 represents a contradiction, which is clearly an error. The accumulated weight of these errors (and others, of different types) drives some, like the scholar Bart Ehrman, to a loss of faith in God. For others, like Richard Hagenston, these errors drive them to a loss of faith in the Bible, and a questioning of doctrinal orthodoxy. All because we conflate inspiration and innerancy. God help us.




Hagenston, R. (2014, September 29). 8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible. Retrieved October 4, 2014, from



[1] The search for the original text ignores the fact that the bible has a history, and that the collection of texts into the canon existing today was curated by the Church. The search for the original text must yield to the search for the authoritative text.  In turn, this means that we can only understand the bible within the community that curated it, within the “matrix that includes the thoughts and writings of the early church: its bishops, priests, poets, monks, theologians, and artists.” (Miller 2012)

[2] Favoring the Masoretic text may seem reasonable, as (apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls) it is the most ancient extant Hebrew text. There is a marked preference for translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew text, a preference that goes back to the Renaissance Humanists who argued for a return to the sources. The rallying cry of this movement was the Latin phrase “ad fontes“, meaning “to the sources.” The reformers, being products of their time, thought that using Hebrew sources rather than the Greek translation was right and proper.

[3] Interesting examples include the following: 1) The epilogue of John 21 may have been added later. The original Gospel appears to end at Jn 20:31. 2) The pericope on the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53 – 8:11) is not in the oldest and best-attested manuscripts. 3) The oldest manuscripts for the Gospel of Mark do not include Mk 16:9-20; instead, it ends rather abruptly with the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene. This all results in the following question: if the Sacred Scriptures were inerrant in the original manuscripts, and these texts were not part of the original text, are they then Scripture? Do we excise them from our bibles? And if so, how is this different from what the heretic Marcion tried to do?

[4] (Hagenston 2014)

Canonicity and the Self-Authenticating Scriptures

Antique Homemade Carpenter's Level

Antique Homemade Carpenter’s Level

Protestants are told the scriptures are self-authenticating; because the scriptures are God’s word, they have the power to convince us of their truth. This idea is promoted as a means of determining whether a particular book is canonical or not. However plausible this may sound, this is not a useful principle for determining canonicity. The self-authenticating principle can draw one astray into all manner of enthusiasms, allowing an individual or group to determine their own canon of scripture. This was the error of Marcion, who is the first one to devise a Christian canon that “self-authenticated” his preexisting heresies.

The problem is in the nature of canonicity, which is the principle (or principles) by which the scope of the canon is determined. Regarding this process, Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

On what basis were certain books accepted and others rejected? What criteria were used? Did the authority of the book precede its canonization or was it recognized as authoritative because of its history or a particular quality that ultimately rendered it officially canonical? Which qualities were most important? Apostolicity? Prophecy? Spirituality? Perceived inspiration of the writer? Inspired reaction in the reader? Dogmatic importance? Orthodoxy of doctrine? Use by the community of faith? Didactic usefulness? Resonance with Christian experience?[1]

Scholars debate two different approaches: what John C. Peckham defines as the Community-Canon approach and the Intrinsic-Canon approach. Peckham describes the Community-Canon as “a collection of books deemed authoritative by a given community”, and the Intrinsic-Canon as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.”[2] On the one hand, a text is authoritative because the community declared it to be so; on the other hand, a text is authoritative apart from the community’s declaration of the text to be scripture.

The Community-Canon Approach

The Community-Canon approach is based on the community’s declaration of certain books to be Scripture. This presupposes the existence of said books, and their recognition by and use within the community. The pure Community-Canon approach implies that the books are not Scripture until the community declares them to be so, but this is something of a straw man. There is no evidence for such an idea among the various Christian communities and their individual canons of Scripture. The early church was more concerned to declare particular books outside the canon than to positively decide upon the limits of the canon. But, when pressed by outside forces, or out of necessity, the community of faith found itself in the position of creating an authoritative collection of inspired writings.

Objections to the pure Community-Canon approach include the hostile reaction of the community of faith to the prophets, and the failure the community to immediately declare a text to be scripture. For example, Jeremiah’s writings were not immediately recognized as scripture. John C. Peckham writes:

The biblical concept of a true prophet refers to one divinely authorized to speak for God (Jer 15:19; Acts 3:18, 21). There is then, by definition, a divinely appointed authority belonging to true prophets that is thereby inconsistent with the epistemological[3] primacy of the community.[4]

In layman’s terms, the prophet’s being authorized to speak for God exists independently, apart from any criteria the community might use to determine the prophetic authority of the prophetic writing. The prophetic authority is, therefore, intrinsic to the text, and exists apart from the texts witness to and existence within the community.

Peckham then raises another interesting question: “What Constitutes a Legitimate and/or Adequate Community?” There were various canons circulating in the early church; seemingly each Bishop had his own opinion. And there were different communities of faith which considered themselves Christian, and considered themselves to have the authority to determine canonical issues. Among these was the early heretic Marcion, whose canon did not include the Old Testament, and included only portions of the New Testament. The Gnostics also had their own canonical texts that were rejected by the orthodox Christian community. Peckham writes:

Perhaps one might posit that a later community, whether a community of a particular time and place or the collective early Christian community over a period of time, is authoritative to determine canonicity. Yet the same problems apply to later communities. On what grounds should one accept that a later community is more legitimate and/or adequate to determine canonicity? As was the case for the earliest Christian community, the “community” is not monolithic decades or even centuries later. There are now and have been in ages past numerous communities that differ regarding the scope of sacred writings as canon. Examples include the times of the early church (the so-called canon of Marcion and Irenaeus’ view of the scriptures vs. his Gnostic opponents), over one thousand years later (the canon posited by the Council of Trent vs. the Thirty-Nine Articles), and more recent times (the Gospel revisions of the Jesus seminar). Hence, asserting that a later community might be authoritative to determine the canon likewise raises the question, “which community?”[5]

John C. Peckham fails to mention that this argument also applies to the Reformation. The idea that the Reformers could determine for themselves the canon of Scripture raises the question of their authority to do so. Did the Holy Spirit reveal Himself to the Reformers in a way that He had not revealed Himself to the previous 1,500 years of the body of Christ? By what authority were the Reformers able to make that decision on behalf of themselves and their followers, over and against the authority of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the historical Church? What were the criteria the Reformers used to determine which books were truly Scripture — which books were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? It is interesting that Peckham mentions the Jesus Seminar, but fails to recognize that the Reformers functioned in exactly the same way when they devised their truncated canon.

Objections to the Community-Canon Approach

We must deal with the objections to the Community-Canon approach, so clearly defined by John C. Peckham. First, how do we account for the fact that the larger community of faith does not immediately attest to the inspiration of a particular book? Did not the Holy Spirit inspire the author to write it? And was it therefore not Scripture before the community declared it to be so? The solution to this dilemma is that communities are not time bound, but change and grow. The Holy Spirit is not subject to time; witness of the Holy Spirit comes as a still, small voice, working within the heart of the community, just as He worked within the heart of the prophet. Just as dripping water will eventually wear a hole through a rock, so the voice of the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures, leading the community of faith to recognition of same.

The question of which community has the authority to decide is a more difficult one.[6] Just what is the proper basis upon which the community determines the canon? This is an important question, and was answered in different ways by different communities in the early church. Some churches used books that were later dropped from the canon by the larger community. Other books that were later included in the canon which were rejected at some point by large parts of the Christian world. Different bishops produced different canonical lists, lists which in some cases were changed by later bishops using different criteria. So what were these criterion used?

The primary basis was apostolicity. This did not mean that every New Testament book was written by an apostle, but that every book was consistent with the witness of the apostles. While this is a highly subjective assessment today, it was considerably more objective in the primitive church, which contained people who had been taught by the apostles themselves. As the earliest canonical testimonies contained the core of the New Testament as we know it today, we can safely say these books were confirmed by those who actually were taught by the apostles.

Part of apostolicity has to do with orthodoxy, with the regula fidei — the rule (or deposit) of faith. When the apostle Paul reminded the Thesselonians of all that he had taught them concerning the Gospel, he used the term “traditions”, which is a way of referring to the apostolic deposit, the rule of faith.

But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.(2 Th 2:13-15)

Paul uses a similar line of thought when he addresses the Corinthians, telling them he is sending Timothy to remind them of “his ways” which he teaches everywhere, and to every church. In this extended passage he tells them not to follow the teachings of men, but to follow the rule of faith which is held in common among the churches — which we call orthodox doctrine.

I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. (1 Cor 4:16-17)

Another part of apostolicity is antiquity. Indeed, one of Tertullian’s arguments against the truncated canon of Marcion is that it doesn’t pass the test of antiquity. Tertullian argues the unedited version of Luke had been accepted from the time it was written, while Marcion’s edited version was unknown to the Church. In his writing, he connects apostolicity and antiquity.

That Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people, and to none whatever is it known without being at the same time condemned. It too, of course, has its churches, but specially its own—as late as they are spurious; and should you want to know their original, you will more easily discover apostasy in it than apostolicity, with Marcion forsooth as their founder, or some one of Marcion’s swarm. Even wasps make combs; so also these Marcionites make churches.  The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul.[7]

Another important criterion was authorship. Was the author of a particular book known and accepted as an authority? The book of Hebrews was troubling, because the book does not state who wrote it, and the book’s authorship has been lost. Some, such as Eusebius, attribute the book of Hebrews to the apostle Paul. Yet the Pauline authorship is doubtful, and the Western Church did not include the book in its list of approved texts on the basis of its disputed authorship. Yet eventually, Hebrews was accepted as Sacred Scripture. The important thing to note is that authorship is a criterion while the status of a book is in doubt. Once the general consensus of the Church declares this or that book to be Scripture, the issue of authorship is no longer relevant.

Today there are any number of disputes as to the authorship of various books of the Old and New Testament. Many scholars believe that II Peter was not written by Peter, but instead by Peter’s disciples after his death. Some scholars believe the John who wrote Revelation is not the same as the John who wrote the Gospel of John. The authorship (in the modern sense) of the five books of Moses is in dispute. All this is troubling to the Protestant mind, and some have even lost their faith over issues such as these. Yet these issues are unimportant to the Orthodox, and indeed to other Christians. For them the Church has spoken, and the issue is settled. The books of Hebrews, II Peter, Revelation, and the Pentateuch are Scripture, no matter who the author is.

It should be obvious that one of the criterion used was that a book was consistent and free of contradiction. Of course the writing had to be internally consistent, but more important was that it did not contradict other writings considered to be either scripture or authoritative. Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew, argues that scripture does not contradict itself.

If a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext [for saying] that it is contrary [to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself.[8]

Another important canonical criterion is that the writings were read in church. For a writing to be read in church, it needed to be authoritative. For example, Paul’s letters were written to be read aloud in church. They were then copied and passed on to other churches, who found them to be valuable and worthy of being read in church. The use of our New Testament books became part of regular church usage, a process Eusebius describes as their being “recognized” and “encovenanted”. Steve Rudd writes:

The regular use of writings in the ancient churches was also an important factor in their selection for the New Testament canon. This is what Eusebius had in mind when he mentioned that certain writings were “recognized” (homolegoumena) among the churches and became “encovenanted” (endiathekoi = “testamented” or “canonical”).[9]

One criterion that applied to the book of Jude was that a writing should not quote from books that were not part of the canon. Since Jude quotes the Book of Enoch, which was not part of the Septuagint, some argued that the book of Jude should not be approved for reading in church. Eventually this argument was deemed unpersuasive, and Jude became part of the New Testament canon.

These different criterions were not applied as part of some algorithmic process. There are books that meet these criterions, yet did not make it into the canon. The Didache was written prior to 70 A.D. and the destruction of the temple. Some wanted to attach it to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, where it seems a natural fit. As it describes the regular functioning of the church, its use was normative in the early church. It certainly does not contradict any other scripture text. And yet it did not make it into the canon. Some books like Clement 1, the epistles of Ignatius, and the Shepherd of Hermas were fully orthodox in doctrine, and were often read in church. And yet, eventually, they were left out of the canon.

The process of canonical formation is not a smooth, logical process. The rules were applied loosely, and sometimes were bent or ignored. The only rules that were applied across the board were that a writing had to be consistent with other scripture, and that it be fully orthodox in doctrine. The rest of the rules were applied in a seemingly haphazard fashion, a process that suggests a supra-rational approach, following the leading of the Holy Spirit working within the community of faith.

Epistemology and the Community-Canon Approach

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Community-Canon approach is that it uses an epistemological criterion (one determined by propositional knowledge) to determine the suitability of a book for inclusion into the canon. If the Biblical canon is a list of authoritative and inspired books compiled by the Christian community, then only the Christian community can recognize and define that list. If, however, canonicity is an epistemic criterion, then individuals and groups can each use different criterion and reason their way towards producing different lists. William Abraham describes the key difference between these two views.

The older way was prepared to leave scripture as both a gift of the Holy Spirit and as subject to the ongoing activity of the Spirit without worrying overmuch about epistemology. In my terms, the older way was content to leave scripture as a means of grace. The new fashion was to give primacy to ideas of revelation and inspiration as applying in some unique fashion to the Bible, and to limit scripture to the Bible. However, it is only someone already smitten by epistemology, and more precisely by the kind of epistemology furnished by Aquinas, who can accept the shift identified here so gladly and readily.[10]

For us to understand this argument, we must discuss the development of an epistemological role in theology — the foundation, source, and validity of revelatory truth. Richard Foley comments: “For the medievals, religious authority and tradition were seen as repositories of wisdom”. According to Foley, it was the enlightenment views of men like Descartes and Locke who “regarded tradition and authority as potential sources of error and took reason to be the corrective”.[11] But interestingly, this view did not originate with Locke and Descartes, but has its roots in the writings of Aquinas. William Abraham develops this thesis following this quote from the French theologian Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, who claims Thomas Aquinas inherited the following crucial assumptions from the Middle Ages:

First, the attributing of all true (and holy determinations of the life of the Church, to a [revelation, inspiration, suggestion], of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the practice of including the Fathers, the conciliar canons and even the pontifical decrees and (more rarely) the more outstanding treatises of the theologians, in the Scriptura Sacra [sacred Scripture], or again, without distinguishing, in the divina pagina [interpretation of scripture].[12] This is a practice of long standing; there seems no doubt but that it arises from the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ][13], which …had passed into canonical collections, and into those chapters which dealt with sources and rules.[14]

For William Abraham, and likely with Protestants in general, the implications are quite startling.

‘Scripture’ was not originally confined to the Bible; it had a much wider frame of reference. …What we see emerging in what follows is a quite different range of sense and reference. Over time, Scripture was cut back to apply materially to the Bible; and its primary function lay in that of operating as an authority.[15]

According to William Abraham, Thomas Aquinas developed that “special kind of rigour in theology”, and was therefore the first to distinguish the authority of the Bible from that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.[16] Thus, it was Aquinas that laid the foundations for the Reformation’s outright rejection of the Bible as interpreted by the Father’s and the Councils, and in favor of the Bible as interpreted by Reason and Conscience.

The Intrinsic-Canon Approach

As we have spoken unfavorably of the Community-Canon approach, and particularly with its reliance upon human reason and epistemological criteria, we bring ourselves to the Intrinsic Canon approach.

John C. Peckam’s arguments against the Community-Approach apply to the Intrinsic-Canon approach as well. As previously mentioned, Peckham defines the Intrinsic-Canon approach as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” There is something important missing here: is a book inspired apart from its being part of a collection of authoritative books? And how can there be a collection of such books apart from the community who collected them?

Peckham’s own explanation of the Intrinsic-Canon approach argues for the community’s recognition of certain texts as authoritative. Why? Because an inspired scripture is of no use to anyone if it is not recognized as such. The Holy Spirit bears witness to the inspiration of the writing, and this witness takes place within and to the community of believers — the Church.

If we deal with the two views atomistically, they seem like alternate and opposing approaches. However, we have already noted that the Intrinsic-Canon approach does not preclude the community’s involvement in recognizing that a particular book is authoritative and inspired. Therefore, in practical terms, the two approaches are much the same, and attempts to separate them are short-sighted at best.

As you will remember, John C. Peckham wrote of the prophet as being one “divinely authorized to speak for God.” Thus we must conceive of the Holy Spirit primarily working with individuals, and of inspiring them to write Sacred Scripture. Just as the Holy Spirit works with individuals apart from the community, so then the text produced is inspired apart from its being part of “a collection of authoritative books.”

This raises some important questions. Can we conceive of a single book being inspired, apart from its inclusion in a collection of inspired books? More importantly, is a book inspired apart from its witness to and within a community? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit in all this?

Objections to the Intrinsic-Canon Approach

The idea of an Intrinsic-Canon, of the inspiration of the text apart from the community’s recognition of said inspiration, is a problem historically. A prophet would speak, and then he, his amanuensis, or his followers would write down what he had to say. For the text’s continued existence, it had to be copied by hand, which was an expensive and laborious process. Thus we cannot conceive of a text’s existence apart from its usefulness to and recognition by the community.[17]

The case of Jeremiah is important in this regard. The original text of Jeremiah was destroyed by Jehoakim, king of Judah, and Jeremiah had to dictate another scroll to his scribe, Baruch. (Jeremiah 36) So the question becomes which text was inspired: the first scroll, or the second? Actually, both of them were inspired, but only one is canonical. How can this be? Because the Scripture is a witness to the revelation, not the revelation itself. Therefore, a pure Intrisic-Canon approach will not do, as it does not account for the problem of Jeremiah.

The Verbal Icon and the Witness of the Holy Spirit

Karl Barth, the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, seems to argue against the Community-Canon approach when he states: “the Bible is the witness of divine revelation.” Barth thus draws a distinction between the revelation of God and the Bible as the witness to that revelation. Barth goes on to state: “there is a Word of God for the Church: in that it receives in the Bible the witness of divine revelation.”[18] Thus the Bible is the Word of God for the Church precisely because of its witness to divine revelation. Regarding this proposition, Barth writes:

A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses. This corresponds with the facts upon which the truth of the whole proposition is based. In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God. Therefore when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself a revelation, but only — and this is the limitation — the witness to it.[19]

Barth is careful to say that the Bible mediates the original revelation; that it is the means by which the revelation comes to us, the means by which the revelation accommodates itself to us, and the means by which the revelation of God becomes “an actual presence and event.”[20] In other words, the revelation of God is primary; the text of the Bible is absolutely dependent upon the initial revelation, and is a faithful witness to that revelation, but must be distinguished from it.

Here would be a good place to develop the idea of the “Verbal Icon”. The icon is an image of a thing, and not the thing itself. Thus the icon resembles and is symbolic of the object to which it refers. The icon therefore interprets and illumines reality.[21] When God says “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26), the Hebrew word used is צלם (tselem, pronounced tseh’- lem). The Greek translation of that term is εικων (eikon,pronounced  i-kone’), which is the source for our English word icon. Thus an icon is not, as is often thought, merely a visual symbolic representation: humans are the created icon of God; paintings may be the icon of Jesus, of saints, and of angels; and the Bible may be a “verbal icon” of God.[22]

This is important because the Scriptures are written in human language. Words are not the thing itself, but are symbols of that thing. The word “running” represents the act of running; the word “love” represents an abstract concept; the word “God” represents many things, not of which capture the essence of divinity. It is because of the consideration and condescension of God that we have this verbal icon at all. As St. John Chrystom says in his Homily 17 on Genesis:

Let us follow the direction of Sacred Scripture in the interpretation it gives of itself, provided we don’t get completely absorbed in the concreteness of the words, but realize that our limitations are the reason for the concreteness of the language. Human senses, you see, would never be able to grasp what is said if they had not the benefit of such great considerateness.

Robert C. Hill, the translator of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis 1-17, writes of “the delicate balance or the two correlatives: in Chrysostom’s “theology of the Word — divine transcendence and considerateness for human limitations.” It is as though the text of Sacred Scripture represents both the immanence and transcendence of God. It is as if, to use an idea from C.S. Lewis, the inside is larger than the outside.[23] St. John of Damascus writes of the “womb in which the Uncontained dwelt.”[24] Germanos of Constantinople describes the infant Jesus, as being “wider than the heavens.”[25] Our Lord Jesus Christ was both locally present according to his humanity, and everywhere present and filling all things according to his divinity. We should therefore not be astonished at the idea that the God who is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same, nevertheless shows consideration of human weakness by allowing His divinity to be circumscribed in human language. The bible is the verbal icon of God Himself.

If we accept the idea that the initial revelation of God is separate and distinct from the capture of that witness in the pages of Sacred Scripture, then we have a problem, for the Bible is witness to that revelation, and therefore not that revelation itself. Thus the Intrinsic-Canon approach to canonicity will not work. But the Community-Canon approach will not work either, for the revelation of God predates the community’s recognition of its witness in the text.

The resolution to this problem is quite simple, and remarkably profound. The previous approaches to canonicity ignore the work of the Holy Spirit. If we accept the Holy Spirit’s role as working with “holy men of God” (2 Pet 1:21) as opposed to the community as a whole, then it is possible for an inspired text to exist apart from its recognition as Scripture by the community. We know that it took time after a book was written and in use by the community before the community began to refer to it as Scripture. In nearly every case (with the possible exception of 1 Tim 5:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16), what the New Testament authors speak of as Scripture is the Old Testament, even while using the books that would become the New Testament in their services. And, as we have mentioned previously, Paul referred to his own writings as “traditions” and “epistles” (meaning letters), rather than as Scripture (2 Th 2:15).[26]

However, the thesis that the Holy Spirit’s ministry is primarily to the individual is a problem. The very concept of the individual is a recent western phenomenon. The ancients considered themselves to be persons, but persons who were part of a larger whole. Their identity as persons, their self-worth and reason for living, was tied to the community they were part of. Thus the prophet was moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt 1:21) to be a witness to the community and, eventually, his witness was accepted as such by that same community, as influenced by that same Holy Spirit. The Protestant conception of the Holy Spirit’s working primarily through individuals was unknown to the biblical authors, for whom inspiration developed within a community, and functioned as a witness to that community. Thus the inspiration of Sacred Scripture was for the community the witness of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the community, through the inspired text, of the original revelation of God. Thus the Holy Spirit doesn’t work at one level, through the person, but within and through the community as well.

If we accept the idea that the Holy Spirit works within the community, and in a special way to persons as a witness to that community, then it is possible a text could be inspired apart from the community’s initial recognition of such. However, the Holy Spirit works within the community towards its recognition of the Scriptures. And although we are limited by time, the Holy Spirit is not. From God’s perspective, it is unlikely there is any difference between the scripture’s recording of revelation, and the community’s recognition of that record as inspired.[27]


Abraham, William J. Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ambrose. “Letter XLII.” In The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop Of Milan, by Ambrose, translated by H. Walford, 282-287. London, Oxford, & Cambridge: James Parker And Co., And Rivingtons, 1881.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God. New York: T&T Clark, 2004.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. “Introduction to the Bible – Lesson 2: Inspiration and inerrancy.” Search the Scriptures. Ancient Faith Ministries, Jun 14, 2008.

Contantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

Cunningham, Mary B., trans. Wider Than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God. Kindle Edition. Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.

Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler. Systematic Theology: Tasks and Methods. Vol. 1, in Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin, 1-88. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991.

Foley, Richard. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Kruger, Michael J. “The Gospel Coalition.” Apocrypha and Canon in Early Christianity. March 13, 2013. (accessed July 13, 2014).

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Last Battle. New York: Collier Books, 1970.

McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Rudd, Steve. Criteria used by apostolic fathers to determine canon. n.d. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Schaff, Philip. ANF01 The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

Schaff, Philip, and Allan Menzies. ANF03 Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Vol. 3. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2006.

Wimsatt, William Kurtz, and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Kindle Edition. The University Press of Kentucky, 1953.



[1] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 31)

[2] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011)

[3] Epistomology is a philosophical concept having to do with the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge.

[4] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011, 209)

[5] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011)

[6] There are a variety of ways to approach the issue. For myself, the question was answered when I became convinced through the pages of Scripture, the witness of the church fathers, and the evidence of Church history that the fullness of the Church was to be found only in Eastern Orthodoxy. However, my situation is odd, in that I began life as a Fundamentalist, coexisted uneasily with the Evangelicals for a time before I became Lutheran, and finally ended up as Eastern Orthodox. You could think of me as open-minded, or as unstable as water. Frankly, the question is between you and the Holy Spirit. Once you prayerfully examine the evidence, it may well be that the Holy Spirit wants you to stay where you are, using the canon approved by your community.

[7] (Schaff and Menzies, ANF03 2006, 581-582)

[8] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 370)

[9] (Rudd n.d.)

[10] (Abraham 1998, x-xi)

[11] (Foley 2001, 13)

[12] Divina pagina refers to the interpretation of Scripture, (McGinn 1998, 127) and is one of the three early medieval terms used for theology, the other two being sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura (Fiorenza 1991)

[13] Tradition attributes the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ] to Pope Gelasius I, who was Pope from 492-496. The second part of the Decretum Gelasianum is a list of canonical scriptures. The list includes the Old Testament Scriptures which the Protestants consider to be Apocryphal, and the entire New Testament with the exception of 2 Corinthians. The third part discusses the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The fourth part makes the ecumenical councils authoritative and receives the works of a number of the church fathers. Finally, the fifth part contains a list of books compiled or recognized by heretics and schismatics, works which are not received by the church. It is possible that the list of Apocryphal books represents a tradition that can be traced back to Pope Gelasius, but was not actually written by him.

[14] (Abraham 1998, ix)

[15] (Abraham 1998, ix)

[16] (Abraham 1998, x)

[17] The idea that the preservation of a text is related to the community’s acceptance of the text leads to the idea that the number of preserved or extant manuscripts reflects the importance of that manuscript to the community. Michael J. Kruger, author of The Question of Canon, describes this as “Extant Manuscript” evidence, which concept us used to demonstrate the canonicity of the New Testament books over against the New Testament apocryphal writings — in particular, the gnostic texts recently discovered in the Nag Hammadi library. (Kruger 2013)

[18] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 462)

[19] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 463)

[20] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 463)

[21] (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1953, Kindle Locations 35-38)

[22] (Constantinou, Introduction to the Bible Lesson 2 2008)

[23] (Lewis 1970, 180)

[24] (Cunningham 2011, Kindle Location 1458)

[25] (Cunningham 2011, Kindle Location 3328)

[26] The recognition that Paul did not refer to his own writings as Scripture is significant, because Paul was something of a braggart. I understand that Paul was forced to defend his apostleship, as he was not one of the original twelve. Still, we know more about Paul’s torments from his own mouth, rather than from the mouths of others.

[27] Although God created time and is aware of its limitations upon us, God is apart from time, seeing the particular moment and the sweep of history all at once.

The Bible is not an Instruction Manual

Instruction Manual

Instruction Manual

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.

The People of the Word

People of the Book

People of the Book

The Koran defines Muslims, along with Jews, Sabians,[1] and Christians, as “people of the book.” This makes sense in a Islamic context, because the Koran is the Word of God made text. Moreover, by the time the Koran was spoken (and later written down), both Jews and Christians had a defined canon considered to be inspired, and a process to preserve the inspired text relatively uncorrupted from additions and errors.

Most modern Christians would agree with the Islamic assessment of themselves as being people of the book. After all, they have the bible, which they refer to as Sacred Scripture and as the Word of God. And yet it is unlikely that the ancient Jews, or the earliest Christians, would have defined themselves as people of the book, for they had no such book.

Judaism was in flux during the time of Christ, with multiple canons and textual traditions; the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was not formalized until the 3rd century, and the differing textual traditions were not merged into a single text until the 9th century Masoretic text. Meanwhile primitive Christianity used the Septuagint text as Sacred Scripture, but the various New Testament writings only gradually became thought of as scripture, and the current canon of the New Testament was not formalized until the 9th century.

In the ancient world, the oral word was primary; the written word was of little importance, useful only to a very small class of people in government, religion, or business. John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy write:

After the discovery of writing, whether for the Egyptians or Sumerians, the Greeks or Romans, it was often only the priestly or commercial elites that acquired enough literacy to carry out their duties (or they purchased slaves who had been trained to read and write on behalf of their masters). Beyond that, the wealthy may have been educated enough to be literate. For the general populace literacy was rare, for it was almost never a necessity. (Walton and Sandy 2013, 90)

This seems odd to us, being raised in a literate culture, one in which someone who is illiterate is seen as uneducated, backwards, and unintelligent. And yet, even in our literate age, people learn to speak before they learn to write; and the mass media of television and radio are oral means of communication. Speaking and hearing are fundamental; reading and writing come later. Walton and Sandy write:

Fundamentally, speaking is primary; writing is derivative. So it is in the Bible: nothing in the biblical creation accounts suggests that God wrote or created writing. Speaking was the focus; writing would come later. So it is for children: learning to speak is essential and comes first; learning to write is helpful and comes second. So it has been in history: a society that does not speak to one another has never existed ; a society that does not write to one another has always existed. (Walton and Sandy 2013, 89-90)

This may be hard for us to grasp, but the bible was primarily oral before it became the written text we know today. In the synagogues, the reader would translate the written text on the fly into the vernacular tongue. In the early churches, Christians would gather together to hear the Gospels and the epistles read to them.  Even today, we gather together to hear the scriptures read to us, after which we hear a sermon or a homily, usually interpreting the text we just heard. The distinction between an oral culture and a textual culture revolves around the question of authority. Walton and Sandy write: “For oral communication, authority focuses on the persons who transmit the tradition. In written communication, authority shifts to the words on the page.” (Walton and Sandy 2013, 89)

The Holy Prophet Jeremiah

The Holy Prophet Jeremiah

In an oral culture, the speaker is the one who transmits the tradition. In other words, it is the speaker who determines what is said, and how it is understood. In a textual culture, the hearer is responsible for determining what the author meant, irrespective of the tradition. And thus it is that modern Protestantism, which developed side by side with the Gutenberg press, is compelled to disregard the oral tradition in favor of its own interpretation. And having disregarded the apostolic tradition (2Th 3:6), it is no wonder that each reader, having determined a new meaning in the text, is compelled to create a new denomination, leading directly to the confusion of denominations.

If, as the scriptures state, “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Co 14:33), is it possible that we are approaching Sacred Scripture incorrectly? That the God who spake the worlds into existence, who commanded the prophets to speak the words of God unto the people, and who gave prophets, evangelists, and teachers unto the church, expects the oral transmission of tradition — including Sacred Scripture?


Walton, John H, and D. Brent Sandy. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.


[1] The Sabians seems to refer to a variety of monotheistic faiths that are neither Jewish nor Christian, although they appear to have more in common with Christianity than with Islam.

Creation and Evolution

"Then a Miracle Occurs": cartoon by Sydney Harris

Then a Miracle Occurs –
cartoon by Sydney Harris

Growing up as a Creationist

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, bible-believing household. And so, like many other conservative Christians, I grew up believing in creation as a scientifically valid explanation of existence. To be specific, I believed in young-earth creationism. This literalistic interpretation of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis was profoundly important to my Christian faith and to my view of the world. Although the title of Intelligent Design did not become part of the evangelical zeitgeist until a lawyer by the name of Phillip Johnson published a book called Darwin on Trial, the underpinnings for this concept were part of the fundamentalist world view. Johnson’s book, plus biologist Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, laid the intellectual foundation for Intelligent Design, which has become so well-entrenched in the Protestant community that it is even taught in some seminaries.[1]

The belief in young-earth creationism is the idea that the book of Genesis is meant to be taken literally — that God created the heavens and the earth in a literal seven days of twenty-four hours duration. When combined with the genealogies found in the book of Genesis, the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) determined that the heavens and the earth were created in 4004 BC. This interpretation of Genesis was widespread, and was incorporated into the 1701 printing of the King James Bible. Since the King James Version is accorded such profound respect, the incorporation of Archbishop Ussher’s conjecture became dogma.

When confronted by the higher critics and liberal theologians, an American businessman by the name of Lyman Stewart (along with his brother Milton), anonymously funded the creation of The Fundamentals, a series of 90 essays in defense of conservative Protestantism. The essays were not confined to any specific denomination, but represented a broad defense of the faith against the perceived (and sometimes real) onslaughts of the modern era.  Some of these essays explicitly attacked the scientific theory of evolution, which had the effect of codifying hostility to evolution as an article of faith.[2]

There are problems with the concept of young-earth creationism, problems that are apparent to any scientifically literate person. Yet there were always glib and somewhat satisfying answers to these questions. Like the apparent age of the universe, for example, which was explained away as God creating a fully functioning universe; so when he created the stars in the heavens, he created them with light that could be perceived by us. Thus the knowledge that the stars are billions of light-years away can be explained as a benevolent God creating a universe that was fully operational, which therefore appeared to be older than it actually is.[3]

I gradually became aware that a literalistic interpretation of Genesis was not the only way to interpret the text, and that in some ways it did violence to the author’s intent. Given that the grammatical-historical method of exegesis is widespread among conservative Protestants, the idea that the author may have written Genesis for a different purpose than we were using if for was troubling. Still, I could find no way to reconcile science and faith, especially when the most vocal proponents of science were actively hostile to religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

The Problem of Biofilm

The problem came to a head when I was reading about biofilms. In science class I remember looking into a drop of pond water and viewing a host of free-swimming microorganisms. Many of us are familiar with the ovoid shape of the paramecium, and the amorphous blob that is the amoeba. But what I failed to realize is that most microorganisms don’t exist in a free-floating (planktonic) state, but in groups called biofilms. A biofilm forms when organisms attach to a solid surface, and build a matrix that binds them together, and to the solid surface. Organisms in a biofilm thrive through cooperation, not competition.

Picture of biofilm


The plaque that forms on our teeth overnight? Biofilm. The slick, slimy surface of rocks in a stream? Biofilm. One of the more interesting things about biofilm is that it is generally not comprised of one type of microorganism, but “in nature biofilms almost always consist of rich mixtures of many species of bacteria, as well as fungi, algae, yeasts, protozoa, other microorganisms, debris and corrosion products”, all joined by a matrix of extracellular polymeric substance (EPS). (Montana State University n.d.)  When a free-floating microorganism becomes part of a biofilm, its phenotype changes — meaning it can change its shape and function through alterations in the expression of its genetic material.[4] (Montana State University n.d.) Through a communication mechanism known as quorum sensing, the bacterium understands that it is part of a biofilm, and begins to actively participate in colony behavior, rather than individual behavior. (Proal 2008)

Diagram of Biofilm Quorum Sensing

Biofilm Quorum Sensing

It is not always the case that biofilm is formed by a mixture of microorganisms. Cholera, for example, forms a biofilm in the intestines, which is spread when parts of the colony are dispersed  and are expelled from the intestines, allowing cholera to spread to another host. Peptic ulcers are caused by biofilms of Heliobacter pylori. The pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa forms biofilms in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. These and other biofilms are extremely durable and resistant to antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents. (Mah and O’Toole 2001)

Various Modes of Biofilm Movement

Various Modes of Biofilm Movement

As a colony, biofilm can behave as a single organism.  The biofilm can move, can grow, and can reproduce. (Montana State University n.d.) It contains channels that allow nutrients to circulate. (Proal 2008) Being part of a biofilm is beneficial to a microorganism because the biofilm protects its members from environmental hazards. It is considerably more difficult to kill a microorganism existing in a biofilm than one in a planktonic (free-floating) state, which is why we have to brush our teeth to mechanically break up the biofilm rather than just use mouthwash.

Faith and Science

From my exploration of biofilms I saw an existing pathway whereby a microorganism could become part of a multi-cellular colony — a colony that, in many ways, behaved like a multi-cellular organism. From there the development of a multi-cellular organism suddenly seemed reasonable. And so I began to reexamine many of the pat answers I had been given for young-earth creation, and discovered most of them were nonsense.

  • The argument from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is faulty, because the Earth is not a closed system.
  • The supposed scientific evidences for a young earth (like pleochroic halos), are arguments made by non-specialists, which have been debunked by specialists.
  • The supposed inaccuracies of the various dating methods are accounted for in the methodologies themselves.
  • The argument that radioactive isotopes may have decayed at different rates in the past is theological nonsense. It postulates a trickster God who has more in common with the gods of pagan mythologies than the God of the Bible.

And so on, and so forth. Many of these pat answers had been debunked for decades, yet continue to be proclaimed from pulpits and written up in books for the gullible masses — among whom I number myself. All this would have posed a challenge to my faith, had I not become aware that my literalistic interpretation of Genesis may not have been the author’s intent. Genesis is God’s opening salvo in the war against the pagan gods. You worship the god of rain? Our God created the rain. You worship the god of fertility? Our God created mankind, male and female, and told them to go forth and multiply. Viewed in this light, the creation accounts speak to the relationship God has with His creation, and specifically with humanity.

The creation accounts in Genesis are theological accounts, not scientific descriptions. How do we know that? From the incorporation of ancient cosmologies. God did not see fit to incorporate the details of modern cosmology into the Genesis accounts. Thus in Genesis 1:7, we have an account of waters in the sky, a concept in total accord with ancient cosmology, but without foundation in modern science. Professor John H. Walton (Wheaton College), in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, describes the attempt to make the ancient cosmology fit modern science as “concordism”. Dr. Hugh Ross, or the organization “Reasons to Believe”, defines Concordism as “the belief that the book of nature and the book of Scripture significantly overlap and can be constructively integrated.” (Ross 2012) The problem with concordism is that any description of ancient cosmology is explained away.[5] The “four corners of the earth”, the “pillars of the earth”, the ancient notion of the “firmament” as a solid dome — all are conveniently dismissed  as figures of speech.

This last, the idea of the firmament as a solid dome, is extremely important to our understanding of the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). The ancients not only believed the firmament was a solid dome, but that it could be pierced by a tower, giving them answers as to the composition of the heavens. (3 Baruch 3:1-8) If the firmament in Genesis 1:7 is a figure of speech, how then to explain the Tower of Babel, which was based upon the same ancient cosmology?

The Relationship Between God and His Creation

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In these opening words of the bible, the challenge is made to paganism and all forms of false religion. The truth claims of the Old Testament cannot be ignored. They must be dealt with. Syncretism will not work, because the Bible claims to be the ultimate truth. The cosmos serves as a revelation of God, as an expression of His nature.

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen 1:26-27). The Bible not only claims to ultimate truths about reality, but about human beings in particular. In the creation accounts, human beings are part of the created order, and yet God pays particular attention to human beings.  Therefore human beings are part of God’s general revelation of Himself, yet also are special in that humans alone were created in God’s image and likeness.  Numerous books have been written regarding what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, and this is not the place to go into that. It is enough to note that the first few verses of the bible provide a theological understanding of the nature of the world, of human beings, and God’s relationship with His created order.

Dualilsm - The Modern Worldview

Dualilsm – The Modern Worldview

When thinking about the natural world, and God’s relationship with it, we often use the terms natural and supernatural. Thus, we have the natural order, the world of matter and energy, and the supernatural world, the world of the non-corporeal beings and of God. This is a dualistic system, in which the material and spiritual are differentiated, and differ in value. But this is not the scriptural view. The scriptures speak of the created order  —  of the heavens, the earth, and the angelic powers — and of the uncreated God. The created order contains both the material and the spiritual, while God reigns over all — “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same.” (St John Chrysostom 2011)

It will not do to speak of God as supernatural, as though God exists apart from His creation, only now and then reaching in and altering the natural laws to perform miracles. That is not what the Bible teaches. From the very moment of creation, God was intimately involved with the created order. From the very start, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Bible tells us that God is actively involved in “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). Therefore it is wrong to speak of the natural and supernatural realms. Theologically, speaking in this way places God and the angels as part of the same order, making it difficult to separate the creator God from his non-corporeal creations. If God and the acts of God are all part of the same supernatural order, then in what way can we separate God from His creation? In what way are we speaking of a personal God, rather than an impersonal force, an organizing principle of sorts. No, speaking of God and His almighty acts as supernatural acts diminishes God, and brings Him down to our level.

And so we come to the various means of discussing the relationship between the scientific description of evolution, and the theological description of creation. There are those who seek to meld the two by proposing God as the answer for the unanswered questions of science. This “God of the Gaps” concept doesn’t work, because as science progresses, the gaps become ever more narrow, squeezing God out of the picture. This is the problem with Intelligent Design, because it is simply a variant of the God of the Gaps idea, postulating God as the answer to the question of irreducible complexity. But science is increasingly finding answers to the problems posed by Intelligent Design, once again squeezing God out of the picture.[6]

For many evangelical Christians who are also scientists, the concept of Theistic Evolution is a satisfying one. The idea is that God created the universe and everything in it, using the process of evolution. When coupled with the theological concept of God’s foreknowledge, it seems possible that God created a process that would ultimately result in human beings. The problem with Theistic Evolution, in its most common formulations, is that it is based upon the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. As Francis S. Collins describes it, Theistic Evolution postulates God as the special cause of the existence of the Moral Law and the universal search for God that exists within humanity. But this is imposing a theological and supernatural explanation for the uniqueness of humanity, rather than a scientific one. Therefore, the concept of theistic evolution will not do.

Personally, I am comfortable with understanding that God created the heavens and the earth, and created humanity in the image the likeness of God. I am also comfortable with the scientific explanations for the origins of the material world, of life, and of human beings. I see no conflict between the two, but I also see no need to create some sort of grand unified theory. Science answers the questions that theology does not, and theology answers the questions that science does not. Each can inform the other, but attempting a formal unification stifles the human element in both.

For some,It is comforting to think of science and theology as operating in two different domains, but the scriptures tell us otherwise. God is everywhere, and in everything, and upholds all things by the word of his power. Placing God into His own domain apart from science is nothing more than placing God in a box, tying that box with a pretty bow, and placing God on the shelf where we can admire Him from a distance.

This reminds me of Forest Gump’s speech at Jenny’s grave. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” To me, the answer to Forest Gump’s question about destiny and the modern question regarding creation and evolution are similar. Maybe both are happening at the same time. It’s kind of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: when we look only at the creation ex nihilo, we miss the science; and when we look only at the science, we miss God.


Applegate, Aaron. “Feral hogs are running wild in Back Bay refuge.” January 20, 2014. (accessed March 15, 2014).

Collins, Francis S. The Language of God. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Harmon, Katherine. “When Grasshoppers Go Biblical: Serotonin Causes Locusts to Swarm.” Scientific American. January 30, 2009. (accessed March 15, 2014).

Mah, Thien-Fah C., and George A. O’Toole. “Mechanisms of biofilm resistance to antibicrobial agents.” TRENDS in Microbiology 9, no. 1 (2001): 34-39.

Matin, A. C. “Biofilm Studies.” Matin Lab Home Page. n.d. (accessed March 15, 2014).

Montana State University. “Center for Biofilm Engineering.” What are biofilms? n.d. (accessed March 15, 2014).

—. “What are key characteristics of biofilms?” Center for Biofilm Engineering. n.d. (accessed March 15, 2014).

Proal, Amy. “Understanding Biofilms.” Bacteriality. May 26, 2008. (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ross, Hugh. “Defending Concordism.” Reasons to Believe. July 16, 2012. (accessed March 15, 2014).

St John Chrysostom. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.

Wikipedia. Biofilm. February 26, 2014. (accessed March 15, 2014).






[1] I remember seminarians at Concordia Theological Seminary telling stories of Lutheran professor and theologian Kurt Marquart (of blessed memory) and his engrossing lectures on the subject.

[2] Three titles specifically addressing the Theory of Evolution are as follows: The Passing of Evolution – George Frederick Wright; Evolutionism in the Pulpit – Anonymous; and Decadence of Darwinism – Henry H. Beach. There are other essays which discuss evolution in a range of contexts, which are basically hostile. One that is not is Science and the Faith by James Orr, who argues for science and faith as operating in different domains.

[3] The concept of apparent age is not a scientific concept, because 1) it doesn’t really explain anything, and 2) no testable hypothesis can be derived from it. Instead, it is a theological concept used to resolve otherwise insurmountable difficulties. In this, it has much in common with the deus ex machine of literature, where a seemingly insurmountable difficulty is resolved by some unexpected intervention — like the appearance of the adults at the end of William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies.

[4] Many organisms have one genotype which can be expressed as different phenotypes, depending on conditions. For example, certain grasshopper species change their phenotype due to overcrowding, becoming locusts. Locusts look and behave differently than grasshoppers, yet are the same species. In fact, an individual grasshopper can become a locust within 2-3 hours, while the transition back to grasshopper takes several days. (Harmon 2009) Domestic swine, when released into the wild, undergo transformation into a wild hog. The phenotype for the domestic pig and the wild hog are both contained within the genotype of the swine, but the expression of the genotype changes as environmental conditions change. (Applegate 2014)

[5] Another major problem with concordism is that it uses evidence from science to explain away science. It uses the discipline of science to prove the Bible, when the scientific consensus is always subject to change as new evidence presents itself. Thus Newtonian physics gave way to quantum mechanics, and so on. Proving the Bible through science is the equivalent of building your house on shifting sand. Eventually the rains come, and then your faith is shaken.

[6] Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and also an evangelical Christian, describes how the standard arguments for Intelligent Design —  the blood-clotting cascade, the eye, and the bacterial flagellum — all are being answered by science, which dismantles the scientific pretentions of Intelligent Design. From a scientific perspective, Intelligent Design is not scientific because it is not forward looking: it fails to predict other findings and suggest other avenues of scientific exploration. (Collins 2006, 186-193)


Is the Bible the Word of God? (Updated)

The Gospel of John

The Word of God, or the Revelation of the Word of God?

Protestants and others sometimes refer to the bible as the “Word of God.” As a boy, I became used to using that term to refer to the text of the Sacred Scriptures. But the Holy Bible I take from my shelf, hold in my hands, and read — in what sense is the book itself the Word of God?

Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro says that for Islam, the Quran is the Word of God made text. The Quran, the Word made text of Islam, existed from eternity with God, but is separate from God. For Christians, by way of contrast, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Our Bible says the Word made flesh was from eternity with God, and was God. Within the triune Godhead are three persons in eternal and interpersonal communion — which communion the Word made flesh (the incarnate Son of God) shares with us. (Byantoro 2008) As evidence of the Christian view, John’s gospel is quite clear: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:1, 14).

The Old Testament has a strange relationship with the concept of the Word. In many cases the Word is most readily understood as a reference to the Mosaic law, the law of the Deuteronomic Covenant — being the covenant made with the Hebrew nation before they entered the land of promise. But as we know, for Christians the Old Testament is always interpreted in light of the Christ event, as Christ Himself taught Cleopas and the unnamed disciple[i] on the Emmaus Road:

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27). (d’Hyères 2006)

One of the best ways of understanding the use of the term “Word” in the Old Testament is to examine Ps 119, the psalm whose purpose is to (according to Matthew Henry) “magnify the Divine law, and make it honourable.” Of the ten ways of speaking about the “Divine revelation”, Henry notes that “Word” represents “the declaration of His mind.” (Henry 2014) John Calvin notes the connection between Ps 119’s use of the term “Word”, and the New Testament’s use of the term “Logos” when he writes: “The term here rendered word means the Λόγος, or Word of God, in its most divine sense; the announcement of God’s revealed will; his command; his oracle; at times, the special communication to the prophets.” Interestingly, Calvin says the ten terms for the divine revelation used in Ps 119 are basically synonymous; thus, whenever we read the terms law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, saying, and way, we can think of them as the Word, the Logos of God. This makes the meaning of “Word” quite important. (Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms – Volume Fourth n.d.)

Matthew Henry and John Calvin seem to view the Word in the Old Testament as different than the Word as expressed in John’s Gospel — as part of the Old Covenant rather than the new. And yet Jesus made it clear that we are to view the Old Testament in its Christological context. I contend this is the easiest and most logical way to view Ps 119, as a reference to Christ as the Logos, the divine self-revelation of God and the express image of the Father (Heb 1:3).

I remember one verse from this Psalm being drummed into us children, and which we were told was a reference to the Bible, the Word of God. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps 119:11). This was used as a means to motivate us towards memorizing Scripture, which is certainly commendable. However, this verse discloses something else — that the Word of God was to be hidden in our heart, our spiritual consciousness, and not our intellect. We may consider this verse through its New Testament counterpart: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Mat 12:35). So what is this “good treasure of the heart?” Interestingly, the commentaries of John Calvin skip over this verse, for reasons that are unclear. (Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2 1999) However, the commentary by Blessed Theophylact makes no mention of the “good treasure of the heart” being the text of the Sacred Scriptures. Instead, as Blessed Theophylact notes in his comments on the parable of the hidden treasure (Mat 13:44), the treasure is “the preaching and knowledge of Christ.” (Blessed Theolphylact 1992)

There are examples in Ps 119 where the Word quickens or strengthens, where it is a source of mercy, of kindness, or of comfort — all of which is more suggestive of God Himself, rather than a text. But the most telling when the psalmist says the Word is eternal. “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps119:89). If the Word described here is a text, then we have arrived at a very Islamic interpretation of the Word made text, rather than the Word made flesh.

There are some places in the New Testament where it could be interpreted that the phrase “Word of God” refers to the inspired text. However, it is clear from the context, and from the other places where the phrase is used, that “Word of God” includes the content contained within the text, but is not the text itself.

This can be illustrated most clearly in the book of Hebrews. We read in chapter 11, the so-called “roll call of faith”: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” [emphasis added] (Heb 11:3). The Word of God in this passage is clearly a reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for as the apostle John wrote: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh 1:3).

Given that Hebrews uses the phrase “Word of God” to refer to the Christ, the Son of God, what do we make of the following passage, also from Hebrews, one which is often interpreted as referring to the Bible?

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do [emphasis added] (Heb 4:12-13).

If you stop with verse 12, then considering the “Word of God” to be scripture is reasonable. Once you move on to verse 13, which continues the thought, it is clear the author is not talking about a book, but a person — indeed, the person before whom all creatures are made manifest, and before whom all things are naked and open. The author goes on to say this person is He “with whom we have to do.” Thus, this entire passage is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit. This revelation is made through the pages of Sacred Scripture, yet it is clear that it is the person of Jesus Christ who is the “Word of God”, not the actual peculiar combination of marks on paper — both in the Old and New Testaments.


Blessed Theolphylact. The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew. Translated by Christopher Stade. House Springs: Chrysostom Press, 1992.

Byantoro, Daniel. “Christ the Word Become Flesh.” Christ the Eternal Kalimat. Ancient Faith Radio, August 30, 2008.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2. Translated by William Pringle. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999.

—. Commentary on the Book of Psalms – Volume Fourth. Translated by James Anderson. Vol. 4. 5 vols. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

d’Hyères, Sylvie Chabert. “WHO WAS CLEOPHAS’ COMPANION?” Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis: The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. January 2006. (accessed January 22, 2014).

Henry, Matthew. “Psalm 119 – Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Bible Commentary.” Christ Notes: Bible Search & Bible Commentary. 2014. (accessed January 22, 2014).

[i] Tradition holds that this unnamed disciple was none other than Luke himself. Perhaps the best evidence of this, apart from the tradition, is that Luke is a careful historian, yet names only Cleopas as one of the two disciples. This could be considered a historian’s way of writing himself out of the story.

On the Impossibility of an Inerrant Extant Text

Chart of Biblical Manuscripts

Manuscript Chart

Our existing (extant) biblical texts have quite a number of problems. Today, a literary work can be produced and reproduced almost without error, which fact colors our understanding of the ancient world. Part of our problem is that books as we know them today did not exist. Instead, of a book, think of a scroll — a single, long piece of paper rolled around a central spindle. Not only was the paper expensive, but the reproduction of the book was a long, laborious process. Moreover, in the scribal culture that existed prior to the Hellenistic era, literary texts as we know them today did not exist. But let us focus on the production of scrolls in the Hellenistic era, primarily using the arguments of Bart Ehrman, the popular author and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.

[Books] could not be produced en mass (no printing presses). And since they had to be copied by hand, one at a time, slowly and painstakingly, most books were not mass produced. Those few that were produced in multiple copies were not all alike, for the scribes who copied texts inevitably made alterations in those texts—changing the words they copied either by accident (via a slip of the pen or other carelessness) or by design (when the scribe intentionally altered the words he copied). Anyone reading a book in antiquity could never be completely sure that he or she was reading what the author had written. The words could have been altered. In fact, they probably had been, if only just a little. (Ehrman 2005, 46)

The production of books in the ancient world was much different. Today, I write and edit a book on a computer. The book then goes through an editorial process, whereby a third party goes over the book to find flaws in its content and presentation. Eventually the book is typeset, printed, and the galley’s edited by the author to ensure the book is what the author intended. Finally the book is mass-produced and made available for sale. Authorship in the ancient world was much different.

In the ancient world, since books were not mass produced and there were no publishing companies or bookstores, things were different. Usually an author would write a book, and possibly have a group of friends read it or listen to it being read aloud. This would provide a chance for editing some of the book’s contents. Then when the author was finished with the book, he or she would have copies made for a few friends and acquaintances. This, then, was the act of publication, when the book was no longer solely in the author’s control but in the hands of others. If these others wanted extra copies …they would have to arrange to have copies made, say, by a local scribe who made copies for a living, or by a literate slave who copied texts as part of his household duties. (Ehrman 2005, 46)

In the ancient world, once a book was published, it was outside the author’s control. Anything could happen to the text, and often did.

[C]opies produced this way could end up being quite different from the originals. Testimony comes to us from ancient writers themselves. …In a famous essay on the problem of anger, the Roman philosopher Seneca points out that there is a difference between anger directed as what has caused us harm and anger at what can to nothing to hurt us. To illustrate the latter category he mentions “certain inanimate things, such as the manuscript which we often hurl from us because it is written in too small a script or tear up because it is full of mistakes.” …A humorous example comes to us from the epigrams of the witty Roman poet Martial, who, in one poem, lets his reader know

“If any poems in those sheets, reader, seem to you either too obscure or not quite good Latin, not mine is the mistake: the copyist spoiled them in his haste to complete for you his tale of verses. But if you think that not he, but I am at fault, then I will believe that you have no intelligence. “Yet, see, those are bad.” As if I denied what is plain! They are bad, but you don’t make better.”  (Ehrman 2005, 46-47)

As Bart Ehrman writes: “Copying texts allowed for the possibilities of manual error; and the problem was widely recognized throughout antiquity. (Ehrman 2005, 47) Thus, prior to the development of the professional copyists used by the Masoretes, the reproduction of the biblical texts was fraught with problems, leading to different families of texts containing different errors. Thus, the modern argument that inerrancy applies only to the autographs, to the original texts created by the original author. To this argument, we will let the following statement of Dr. Marvin R. Vincent serve as a the final word on this subject.

Nothing can be more puerile or more desperate than the effort to vindicate the divine inspiration of Scripture by the assertion of the verbal inerrancy of the autographs, and to erect that assertion into a test of orthodoxy. For:

1. There is no possible means of verifying the assertion, since the autographs have utterly disappeared.

2. It assumes a mechanical dictation of the ipsissima verba [the very words] to the writers, which is contradicted by the whole character and structure of the Bible.

3. It is of no practical value, since it furnishes no means of deciding between various readings or discrepant statements.

4. It is founded upon a pure assumption as to the character of inspiration – namely, that inspiration involves verbal inerrancy, which is the very thing to be proved, and which could only be proved only by producing inerrant autographs. [In other words, the definition is a tautology.]

5. If a written, inspired revelation is necessary for mankind, and if such a revelation, in order to be inspired, must be verbally inerrant, the necessity has not been met. There is no verbally inerrant, and therefore no inspired, revelation in writing. The autographs have vanished, and no divine guidance or interposition has prevented mistakes in transcription or in printing. The text of Scripture, in the best form in which critical scholarship can exhibit it, presents numerous errors and discrepancies. (Vincent 1899, 3)


Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Vincent, Marvin R. A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Edited by Shailer Matthews. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1899.



Is the Bible the Word of God?

The Gospel of John

The Word of God?

Why is our Bible sometimes referred to as the “Word of God?” As a Protestant, I became used to using that term to refer to the text of the Sacred Scriptures. But the Bible I take from my shelf, hold in my hands, and read — in what sense is the text itself the Word of God?

Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro says that for Islam, the Quran is the Word of God as a book, while for Christians, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. The Word made text of Islam existed from eternity with God, but is separate from God. By contrast, Christianity says the Word made flesh was from eternity with God, and was God. Within the Godhead are three persons in eternal and interpersonal communion, which communion the Word made flesh shares with us. (Byantoro 2008, (podcast)) As evidence of the Christian view, John’s gospel is quite clear: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:1, 14).

While there are some places in the New Testament where it could be interpreted that the phrase “Word of God” refers to the inspired text, it is clear from the context, and from the other places where the phrase is used, that “Word of God” includes the content contained within the text, but not the text itself.

This can be illustrated most clearly in the book of Hebrews. We read in chapter 11, the “roll call of faith”: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb 11:3). It is clear that in this passage, Word of God is a reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for as the apostle John wrote: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh 1:3).

Given that Hebrews uses the phrase “Word of God” to refer to the Christ, the Son of God, what do we make of the following passage, also from Hebrews, one which is often interpreted as referring to the Bible:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.  Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12-13).

If you stop with verse 12, then considering the “Word of God”  to be scripture is reasonable. Once you move on to verse 13, which continues the thought, it is clear the author is not talking about a book, but a person, before whom all creatures are made manifest, and before whom all things are naked and open. Indeed, the author goes on to say this person is he “with whom we have to do.” Thus, this passage is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit. This revelation could be through the pages of Sacred Scripture, yet it is clear that it is the person of Jesus Christ who is the “Word of God”, not the actual peculiar combination of marks on paper.


Byantoro, Daniel. “Christ the Word Become Flesh.” Christ the Eternal Kalimat. Ancient Faith Radio, August 30, 2008.



John Calvin, the Church, and the Canon

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin, in his argument against the role of the Church in the canonical process, does discuss the role of the Holy Spirit. However, he seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit works in the individual, but not in and through the Church.

A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed—viz. that Scripture is of importance only in so far as conceded to it by the suffrage of the Church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked, who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God; who guarantee that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times; who persuade us that this book is to be received with reverence, and that one expunged from the list, did not the Church regulate all these things with certainty? On the determination of the Church, therefore, it is said, depend both the reverence which is due to Scripture, and the books which are to be admitted into the canon. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 74-75)

Calvin then argues that since the apostles and prophets existed prior to the Church, that the inspiration of the Scriptures is intrinsic apart from the Church.

These ravings are admirably refuted by a single expression of an apostle. Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” (Eph. 2:20). If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist. Nor is there any room for the cavil, that though the Church derives her first beginning from thence, it still remains doubtful what writings are to be attributed to the apostles and prophets, until her Judgment is interposed. For if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed. Nothings therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 75)

John Calvin is correct that the inspiration of the Scriptures precedes its recognition by the Church. But if the Church’s determination of the canon is invalid, what does John Calvin offer in its place? Why, the Holy Spirit who enlightens the individual believer’s heart.

Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own Judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human Judgment, feel perfectly assured—as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it—that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God. We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our Judgment, but we subject our intellect and Judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.

Such, then, is a conviction which asks not for reasons; such, a knowledge which accords with the highest reason, namely knowledge in which the mind rests more firmly and securely than in any reasons; such in fine, the conviction which revelation from heaven alone can produce. I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of the reality. I do not dwell on this subject at present, because we will return to it again: only let us now understand that the only true faith is that which the Spirit of God seals on our hearts. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 78-79)

It is curious that John Calvin reason’s his way to a dismissal of human reason, but instead posits some ephemeral, mystical revelation of inspiration to the individual believer. Of course, John Calvin then modifies this by reference to the “children of the renovated Church” made up of the “elect only”, who “shall be taught of the Lord” (Isaiah 54:13). So Calvin’s argument isn’t so much against the Church bearing witness to the canon of Scripture, but to the Roman Catholic Church bearing said witness.

In essence, John Calvin’s predisposition against the Roman Catholic Church colors his view of canonicity. We can break down his argument like this: 1) The Holy Spirit works within His true church. 2) The Roman Catholics do not constitute a true Church. 3) Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not work within the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin makes another argument: 1) The Holy Spirit works upon the hearts of the elect. 2) The Roman Catholic Church contains none of the elect. 3) Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not work within the Roman Catholic Church. And finally, with regard to the canon of Scripture: 1) The Holy Spirit works to reveal the canon of Scripture to His Church. 2) The Roman Catholic Church is not a true Church. 3) Therefore, the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture was not revealed by the Holy Spirit.[1]


Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.




[1] I may not have constructed these syllogisms correctly, but you get the point.

Facts vs. Faith, and Faith’s Seeming Fragility

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It)The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong by Thom Stark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Faith can be a fragile thing. It is possible to lose your faith when confronted by facts that don’t fit into your mental model. With that in mind, I cannot recommend this book to my Protestant friends, particularly those who are inextricably wedded to a literalistic interpretation of the bible. This book has the potential to change your perception of scripture and, with nothing to replace it, destroy your faith.

The Bible is not what we are so often told it is, particularly when we claim to be biblical literalists and interpret the text solely according to the historical-grammatical method. The fact is that no one is a biblical literalist, as the author aptly demonstrates. What are we to make of the evidence that our scriptures contain multiple points of view about who God is? About the existence of other gods? And even (God forbid) child sacrifice? The fact that we explain these away instead of taking them at face value is evidence that we are spiritualizing the scriptures, reading into them our point(s) of view.

If we come face to face with the obvious differences of opinion within scripture regarding fundamental things, what are we to do? For many, having no explanation and unable to integrate what they know into their religious perspective, they lose their faith. I don’t think that is what the author is trying to do, yet the author exposing these issues without providing a completely satisfactory solution.

Most of what Thom Stark describes is known to the Christian world — just not the Protestant world, and in particular the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. For most of the world’s Christians, the Bible is Sacred Scripture because the Church says it is. The Bible was written within the Church, declared to be scripture by that same Church, and interpreted within and by that Church on the basis of a living Holy Tradition (also known as the general consensus of the Church Fathers).

When Peter wrote that Paul’s letters were scripture, which ones? Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians; we have only the second and the fourth. Again, in Ephesians 4:15,16 Paul tells the Ephesians to read in church the epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans. The missing Pauline epistles were determined by the Church not to be scripture, while others became part of the New Testament.

Thom Stark contrasts the literalist, historical-grammical hermeneutic with three other hermeneutical methods of dealing with problem texts, each of which come up wanting. These are the allegorical, the canonical, and the subversive readings.

Stark recognizes that those employing the allegorical method recognize the problematic nature of some texts (particularly the genocidal narratives of the conquest of Canaan), yet argues that when this reading becomes the traditional meaning, it prevents people from confronting the problem texts directly, and dooms us to repeat the conquest narratives (as in the Crusades, the Colonial era, and Manifest Destiny) instead of learning their lessons.

The Canonical Method recognizes that the scripture was created within, by, and for the community of faith. Stark argues that the determination of what is and is not scripture was not created by the faith community, but by the elites within that community. The argument seems to be that because the process was not democratic, it may be that the elites chose those scriptures most amenable to their point of view and the maintenance of their status. This is a highly problematic argument, as it reads the modern western culture back into the situation as it existed in the past. Moreover, it ignores the fact that in the early church, bishops were sought out for persecution; some early records show that the term of a bishop was typically in the low single digits, and bishops often died as martyrs. To be elevated to the position of bishop was, in many cases, a death sentence. And finally, the idea that the Holy Spirit moved within the community of faith apart from the bishop was foreign to the early church.

The Subversive Method points out that in many cases a meaning can be given to a text that subverts its obvious meaning. In some cases this is justified; the Revelation of St. John is full of coded language suggesting the end and judgement of the Roman Empire. Even Jesus’ call to ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” has a subversive message—since everything ultimately belongs to God, nothing rightfully belongs to Caesar. But it is possible to subvert the subversive message to justify confiscatory taxation, as took place in the Byzantine Empire, and under the Medieval popes. It is also possible to use scripture to justify racism, slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of women.

Stark offers an alternative approach: viewing certain texts as condemned texts. Their status as scripture would be precisely because of what they reveal about us, and about what they fail to say about God. Under this reading, the text is valuable as an example of what not to do and how not to think. For example, few Fundamentalists think the fatalistic message of Ecclesiastes is an example for us to follow, but rather an example of just where an idolatrous and hedonistic life ends up. So too we don’t accept Satan as a role model to follow, even though his seven-fold “I will” is recorded in the book of Isaiah.

What Stark fails to recognize is the vibrancy of Holy Tradition as a guide for the interpretation of the text. The fathers recognized the problematic nature of some of scripture; not only that, but they wrote about it, and we use their writings today to help us deal with the same problems. We don’t hide these texts away, we don’t pretend they don’t exist, and we don’t explain them away. Just as the church has determined the canon of Sacred Scripture, so too the church has passed on the methodology of dealing with problem texts. This methodology is different on a case by case basis. In fact, there are competing hermeneutics within Holy Tradition, just as there are competing views about God within Sacred Scripture. None of this is either a revelation or a problem for the Orthodox. All the hermeneutics described by Stark are present to some degree or another, in some place or another, within Holy Tradition.

I finish this review as I began. If you are a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant, avoid reading this book, as you lack the cognitive framework for dealing with the information.

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