Is the Church over the Bible or is the Bible over the Church?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

October 6, 2014

It is well known that misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding the origins of the NT (and OT) canon abound on the internet. Da Vinci Code style claims are in plenteous supply–ranging from the claim that the Council of Nicea established the NT canon to the claim that apocryphal gospels were as popular (if not more so) than the canonical gospels.

Of course, if one were to respond to each and every erroneous claim on the internet there would be time for little else. But every now and then, an article combines so many misconceptions about the canon is a single place, that a response is warranted. This is the case with the recent article, “There is No ‘Bible’ in the Bible,” by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

Freeman, part of the Orthodox Church in America, has made what is essentially a Roman Catholic argument for the canon (but missing some key portions, as we shall see).  His basic claim is that the Bible–as something that is an authority over the church–is a modern, post-Reformation invention.  In reality, he claims, the church is the highest authority and the Bible is merely one of many tools used by the church.

Perhaps the best way to respond to Freeman’s article is just to quote it line by line (in italics below), offering a response to each statement as we go. For space reasons, we will not be able to cover every one of his claims, but we will cover the major ones.

1. The word “Bible” simply means “book.” Thus, it is a name that means “the Book.” It is a particularly late notion if for no other reason than that books are a rather late invention.

Freeman makes the claim here that the “Bible” must be late, because books are a late invention. This is stunning to say the least given that Israel had been using books as Scripture for more than a thousand years before Christ was even born.  Moreover, early Christianity was a very “bookish” culture right from the start, with a keen interest in reading, producing, and copying books.  For more on this point see my article here. Thus, books were not at all a foreign idea to the early Christian faith.

2. There are examples of bound folios of the New Testament dating to around the 4th century, but they may very well have been some of the earliest examples of such productions.

By the term “bound folios” I assume Freeman is referring to early Christian codices that contained multiple books in the same volume. If so, then the “earliest examples” do not derive from the fourth century, but much earlier.  At the end of the second century/early third century we have all four gospels in a single volume (P4-64-67, P45), and most, if not all, of Paul’s epistles in a single volume (P46). These codices demonstrate a book consciousness very early in the life of the church.

But, perhaps Freeman mentions the fourth century because he is referring to codices that contain all 27 NT books. He is correct that the fourth century is the first instance of all 27 books bound together (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus; see photo above) But, one does not need all 27 books in a single volume in order to establish that the early church had a canon of Scripture. Books don’t need to be physically bound together in order to viewed as part of a scriptural collection.  Indeed, this was precisely the case with the OT books. Individual OT books were often kept in separate rolls, even though they were clearly viewed as part of a larger biblical corpus.

3. The “Bible,” a single book with the whole of the Scriptures included, is indeed modern. It is a by-product of the printing press, fostered by the doctrines of Protestantism.

The discussion above has already refuted the notion that a complete NT canon does not come around until the printing press.  In addition, Freeman does not mention the fact that we can determine the extent of the church’s canon in other ways besides the physical book. Early Christians drew up lists of their books from quite an early time. For instance, Origen lists all 27 books in a single list in the third century (see article here). Would Freeman suggest that Origen’s NT canon is simply the “by-product of the printing press fostered by the doctrines of Protestantism”?

4. There was no authoritative notion of a canon of the Old Testament. There were the Books of Moses and the Prophets (cf. Luke 24:27) and there were other writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, etc.). But writers of the New Testament seem to have had no clear guide for what is authoritative and what is not. The book of Jude makes use of the Assumption of Moses as well as the Book of Enoch, without so much as a blush. There are other examples of so-called “non-canonical” works in the New Testament.

This statement may be one of the most misleading in Freeman’s entire article.  To suggest that first century Jews had no idea of what books are Scripture is patently false.  For one, the frequent debates between Jesus and the Jewish leaders over various OT texts becomes unintelligible on Freeman’s view. How could they disagree over the meaning of Scripture, if they had no idea of what books were Scripture?  Moreover, Jesus regularly holds his audience accountable for the teachings of the Scriptures–how could he do this if there was no understanding what was in the Scriptures?  Even more than this, when Jesus and the Jewish leaders debate over the meaning of a scriptural text, it is always of a text from books in our current Old Testament (and not from books like 1 Maccabees or Tobit).

Jesus and the Jewish leaders debated many, many things. But one thing they never debated was which books were Scripture.  This is certainly unexpected if the canon was as unclear as Freeman maintains.

Freeman’s observation that Jude refers to the Assumption of Moses and the Book of Enoch is also not as a decisive as he makes it seem.  He leaves out a critical fact, namely that Jude never refers to these books as Scripture.  Indeed, nowhere in the entire NT is a book referred to as Scripture that is not in our current Old Testaments. That fact needs to be given its due weight. Using a book, and using a book as Scripture are not the same thing. So, Freeman’s reference to examples of other “non-canonical” works mentioned in the NT is irrelevant.

For a lengthier account of the development of the OT canon, see the standard volume by Roger Beckwith.

5. The Scriptures as a place for creating and proving formal doctrine is something of a fiction. 2Timothy 3:16-17 is the primary verse trotted out in defense of Scriptural authority:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2Ti 3:16-17 NKJ)

But this is a very troublesome and questionable translation. In Protestant usage, the key phrase is “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” But, in fact, the phrase “given by inspiration of God” is a single word (θεόπνευστος), just as accurately translated, “all Scripture that is inspired of God,” thus being a limiting phrase and not one that serves as an authoritative licensing of something later described as “the Bible.”

Freeman’s analysis of 2 Tim 3:16 is confusing to say the least.  He rightly acknowledges the single Greek word (θεόπνευστος), but fails to address its implications.  The term literally means “breathed out by God” or “God-breathed.”  It is a way of saying that Scripture is the very breath of God himself.  This suggests the absolute highest authority for Scripture, the authority of the divine voice.  How can he conclude, therefore, that the Scripture lacks “authoritative licensing”?

In addition, it is actually Freeman who mistranslates this verse.  Notice that he adds a relative pronoun to the construction: “all Scripture that is inspired of God.” He uses this to limit the extent of inspiration (implying that some Scripture may not be inspired).  However, that relative pronoun is not in the text.  And virtually all major English translations acknowledge this fact, using the verb “is” instead: “All Scripture is inspired by God.”   Thus, it is clear that inspiration is not limited after all.

6.  What we actually have in 2 Timothy is a very homely, parenetic expression in which the author suggests that reading the Scriptures is a good thing. It is not, despite its use as such, a foundational proclamation of the Bible as sole authority. For it is the Church that is described as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15). . . The only “thing” approaching a “Bible” in the sense that has commonly been used in modern parlance, is the Church.

Here is where we come to the real issue with Freeman.  One might wonder:  Why is Freeman so intent on lowering the authority of Scripture?  Every argument in his article, whether historical or theological, has one simple end in mind, namely to convince the reader that the Bible is a problematic construction with less authority than people think. So, why would Freeman, an Orthodox priest, do this?

The answer is simple. He wants to lower the authority of the Bible so that he can replace it with the authority of the church.  He wants to convince Christians the Bible has problems, so that they will rely on the church instead.

But is the church a better option?  If the Bible is problematic, then is the church problem-free?  Freeman has jumped out of the biblical frying pan and into the ecclesiastical fire.  Unless he wants to advocate for an inspired/infallible church as Roman Catholics do (something he is unprepared to do, I assume, since he is Orthodox), then he is asking Christians to trust a very fallible authority.  He is asking Christians to put their trust in men, rather than in the word of God.

Yes, the church is the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim 3:15), and has real authority.  Freeman caricatures the protestant position by describing it as a belief in the Bible as the sole authority.  But that is not (nor ever has been) the protestant position.  Since the time of the Reformation, protestants have argued simply that the Bible is the highest authority (not the sole authority).  And the church is one of the other authorities that we should follow. But that is not a declaration that the church is an authority over the Bible.  On the contrary, the proper posture of God’s people (the church) is always one of submission to God’s word.  There is no higher authority than God himself.

In the end, Freeman has lifted up the authority of the church at the expense of the authority of the Scriptures. And there is a sad irony in this. For one, such a position is vulnerable to the very critique that Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8).  Second, in order for Freeman to make his case, he is forced to make arguments against the authority of the Bible that are not all that different from the kind of arguments made by liberal critical scholars such as Bart Ehrman.  Even though Freeman reaches very different conclusions than Ehrman, their methodology is the same:  downgrade the authority of the Bible and replace it with something else.  Ehrman has replaced it with agnosticism.  Freeman has replaced it with the church.  But, both have replaced it.


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