The Bible Says… by Duane W.H. Arnold
As I’ve gone along in my faith, I find that I read the Bible more, but I quote from it less, especially when I’m in a heated discussion with others. Others may find this odd and some may find it shameful.
There is, however, method to my madness. Or, if not a method, there is at least a reason.
My doctoral research involved the great fourth century theologian, Athanasius of Alexandria. He was known in his day, and indeed, in our own, as the defender of Nicene orthodoxy. He was also known as a polemicist, who used his towering intellect and considerable writing skills in opposing the Arians – those who denied the deity of Christ and opposed, in varying degrees, the settlement and creed that was affirmed at Niceae. I was surprised, therefore, that in reading Athanasius’ many works that although he made extensive use of Scripture, he very seldom used individual references out of context as “proof texts” in his argumentation. Moreover, he actually considered the citing of isolated texts and passages to be the ground of argument for his opponents. You see, Athanasius remained committed to a different sort of exegesis that began and ended with the total context of the revelation of Scripture. Writing to a fellow bishop, Serapion, Athanasius complained that the Arians had ignored or missed “the scope of the Divine Scripture”.
Now, when we speak of the “scope” of Scripture, we are not talking about its “general drift”. Instead, we are speaking precisely of the creedal core of the Bible which is condensed in “rules of faith” (such as the creeds) which have been maintained in the Church and transmitted from generation to generation. For Athanasius, the most basic root of Christian spirituality was divine revelation. This divine revelation of creation, fall and redemption, was communicated by the Scripture and was given to all of the faithful, equally and at once. Moreover, that divine revelation communicated in Scripture was mediated and made real in the context of the Church itself, by our confessions of faith, our common prayers, our vigils, our sharing of the Eucharist and by our real and authentic openness to the message of the Gospel.
In other words, the Church was to act as a living interpretation of the divine revelation contained in Scripture. I have found it interesting that although an archbishop, Athanasius never made a special case for an exclusive hierarchical ministry. Instead he saw the Church, the whole Church from the lowest to the highest, as being the instrument for believers to have access to the complete truth of Scripture – and that truth was to be found most completely in the community of faith. It is where, in Word and Sacrament and Community, we live out the experience of our faith and where we actualize the very reality of salvation fulfilled in Christ. This actualization, however, is both a “given” (when we come to faith) and a “process” (as we together grow in faith). It pervades, or should pervade, the entire social and spiritual growth of the Church. It also provides answers, within the scope of that divine revelation and its creedal core, to the questions of individual Christians expressed on the level of their common Christian experience. You see, the basic message is that the Bible makes sense within a context – the context of the Church, a community, an individual Christian life, a rule of faith. Moreover, the truth of Scripture was to be verified in and by the lives of believers as a community.
On the other hand, during the time in which Athanasius lived, his Arian opponents were renowned for pressing the meaning of a text without regard either to its immediate context or the wider frame of reference in the teaching of the Bible as a whole, not to mention a rule of faith or community of believers. (As an old professor of mine once said, “A text without a context is a pretext.”) They were particularly good at piling up a whole collection of unconnected passages around their one central point of argument.
Now, without branding them heretics, I think that this is a problem today for those who have a high view of Scripture, but who also tend to extract individual verses, snatched almost at random, to bolster an argument or to prove a point. This, I may say, is somewhat of a common occurrence among certain evangelicals. (Perhaps the lingering influence of the Scofield Reference and the Thompson Chain Reference bibles are to blame.) It is possible in the heat of a disagreement for such a person to quote a verse, (or a whole series of verses) while remaining blind as to its place in the wider sweep of Biblical theology or even failing to take into sufficient account the immediate context in which their proof-text is set. This, of course, does not even take into account the numerous other variables such as, the original language(s), the textual tradition, the literary genre, its exegetical history, etc.
We are not, however, all exegetical scholars. Not all of us have the opportunity for advanced study. Most of us simply love the Scripture and wish to understand it more deeply and to apply it to our lives more consistently. This is not something new. This has been the common experience of Christians from the first century to the present day. I believe it is why, God in his wisdom, has provided us with some guideposts – rules of faith, a community of faith, and, most importantly, that every individual Christian – including you and me – is a part of the great sweep of salvation history, of creation, fall and redemption.
All this is merely to say that the next time you have a heated discussion about politics, faith, doctrine, etc., and you bring forward your devastating “proof text” to make your point… the proof of the text, is probably not the verse you quote, it’s the life you live.
Duane W.H. Arnold