Saturday, February 12, 2011
I recently finished re-reading Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired. Although I had read it ten years ago, I wanted to read it again in this 400th anniversay of the King James Version. Bobrick does an outstanding job of weaving together philological, theological, ecclesiastical, and political threads in the story of the translation of the Bible into English. I remember well getting a black leather KJV for Christmas in high school. For much of our time off from school, I read it, devouring its words and message. I love the Bible, for it holds a special place among Christians as telling the true story of God and His people. Yet the doctrine of sola scriptura is so stunningly fallacious, albeit so passionately claimed and defended by so many, that I could not help seeing the disasters it brings in Bobrick's story.
For example, he writes of George Abbot, an archbishop of Canterbury, who "once told King James that 'Scripture doth directly or by consequence contain in it sufficient matter to decide all controversies." Says Bobrick, "The king found that absurd, but for Puritans it was axiomatic...." (p. 280, all references to the 2001 hardback edition) In this matter I would side with the king over the Puritans for the very fact that in the years following the publication of the King James Version, "the Bible was used 'to justify both resistance to and defense of the king, democracy, communism, regicide, the rule of the saints, the overthrow of international Catholicism, even free love. It called into question all established institutions and practices. The ideas which divided the two parties in the impending civil war...were all found in the Bible.' And it was by recourse or reference to the Bible that all these matters were thrashed out." (p. 281, citing Christopher Hill)
Clearly no text can support not only such varied, but such contradictory positions, and yet we cannot suppose that our brethren of four centuries past were idiots. What accounts for this? As Bobrick notes, "'Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,' read Romans 13:1. 'The powers that be are ordained by God.' Among royalists, that was the most cherished of the New Testament texts.... The Geneva Bible adopted a different view. The statement in Acts 5:29, 'We ought rather to obey God than men," was said to mean 'We ought to obey God and no man, but so far as obeying him we may obey God.' And Calvin boldly interpreted the story of Daniel and the lion's den to mean that 'Earthly princes deprive themselves of all when they rise up against God, yea, they are unworthy to be counted amongst the company of men. We ought rather to spit in their faces than to obey them.'" (pp. 281-282)
The answer is right there. Interpretation is everything. Even today people study the Bible on their own, make of it what they will, and thereby conclude that Jesus wants them to be happy even it means getting a divorce or marrying a homosexual partner. Others read the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 about binding and loosing and conclude that this means an individual person may bind demons with uttered prayers, or that He is talking about the authority of the Church to establish doctrine.
Some of our English friends of four centuries ago saw through this and "counseled against blindly following that elusive 'inner light.' 'Let a man but persuade himself...that the Spirit dwells personally in him, and speaks upon all occasions to him; how easily and readily may he plead that the Spirit tells him he may kill his enemy, plunder his neighbor, cast off all obedience to his governors...." (p. 287) From the insane bomber who claims God told him to assassinate someone to the wild-eyed charismatic who always has a word from the Lord to share with someone, this tendency toward personal interpretation of Scripture has not waned.
Yet Bobrick observes the hypocrisy and the illogic in all this. "Pride goeth before a fall: in a sense Protestants had become more Catholic than they knew. For they had exchanged one authority for another: 'in the place of the medieval Church,' as one scholar put it, they had Scripture; in the place of an infallible institution, an infallible text; in the place of Tradition, a printed book. 'The Puritan iconoclast had himself become a bibliolater,' who supposed himself subscribed to a 'self-interpreting' text. But the Bible was not doctrine; it was a narrative; and though portions of it contained laws and strictures, it could, it seems, be all things to all men." (p. 288)
Nothing can exist without a framework for interpreting it, and if we are to believe that the Bible contains the words of God spoken through men, in other words, the truth, then there must be an authoritative framework for interpretation. Says Bobrick, "As long as Scripture could mean as many different things to as many people as read it, the deeply thought-through conclusions of the Church down through the ages were allowed no more stature than the cloudy revelations of individual minds. And insofar as those revelations prompted actions, chaos might result. No democracy, in fact, could fail to destroy itself without some restraint imposed upon liberty.... There had to be a frame. The great unwritten Constitution of England, and the arguably greater written Constitution of the United States, with its Bill of Rights, took the theological place in Civil Society of the Received Wisdom laid down by Church councils and preserved in Creeds." (p. 296)
Indeed we see this today. The teaching of the Church is repudiated for the individual interpretation of anyone who wants to do the interpreting, and this has spread in the social realm to the undermining of the U.S. Constitution, whereby it is seen as a living document that can be altered by succeeding generations rather than a framework and a restraint upon liberty to keep the republic from destroying itself.
I love the Bible, and when I read it, I sense God speaking to me. Yet if I go so far as to set myself up as the sole interpreter, qualifying words like "truth" and even "God" with the possessive "my," not only do I set myself adrift upon a sea of confusion, but I continue to erode even the foundations of the secular society around me.