From Brother Ivo:
All Christians respect and venerate the Bible. A library rather than a book, it contains history, law, poetry, journalistic reportage, philosophy, commentary, exhortation, autobiography, song, and even (whisper it quietly) a hint of eroticism.
If you want to know who was Jesus of Nazareth in history and beyond, this must be your starting point, and that will be the case whether you describe yourself as a Christian of the Liberal, Catholic, Charismatic, Evangelical or Orthodox slant.
When a child is baptised in an Anglican Church, he/she is often given a Children's Bible with the words: 'Receive this book; it is the Good News of God's love. Take it as your guide.'
So far, so good.
Things start to go a bit awry however once questions begin. Which Bible might we be talking about? That of the Protestant Reformation - the Bible of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin? Maybe you choose the Bible of Catholic Europe and beyond (including the Apocrypha)? Perhaps you prefer the Greek Orthodox version, or even the rather more extensive ones of the earliest Coptic or Ethiopian Churches.
There was even a scriptural tradition in India dating back to the times when St Thomas introduced Christianity to the area around Madras/Chennai, but sadly those scriptures were destroyed when those of the Western Church made contact in the colonial era and suppressed a long-standing Apostolic tradition. It would be fascinating if some of those early scriptures were to be unearthed today. If we did find them, however, where would we put them?
Each Bible has variants and its champions can explain and justify the editorial decisions that have been made. The Vulgate version, which is the basis of most Western understandings, dates from the 5th-century work of St Jerome.
Some could point to books like the letters of Clement and Ignatius which are venerated but narrowly missed the cut, and then there are the Gnostic Gospels, some of which plainly share common material with orthodox texts but draw unorthodox theological conclusions.
This is before we get into controversy over translations versus original languages.
None of this, however, seems to trouble a certain section of the worldwide Church that likes to define itself and set itself against others with the self-description of 'Bible-Believing'.
For those unfamiliar with 'Bible-Believing' churches, Brother Ivo offers you an extract from one randomly-selected church which explains its view professionally, with clarity, honesty and appropriate biblical references.
'Bible Believing' is now no longer to be regarded as part of a universal understanding of all followers of 'The Way'. Instead, it has become a shorthand term, a freemasonery coded message, by which adherents of a certain kind of Christianity (more specifically a method of biblical reading and interpretation) identify themselves and set a challenge to others. Who dares not to be 'Bible believing': that challenge swiftly and easily morphs into 'How can my approach be challenged?'At one level it can be conceded that in itself, it is academically perfectly respectable to seek to denote those of similar mind. Many here will have some knowledge of The Tractarians, The Oxford Movement or the Evangelical Revival, each of which contributed to the life of the Church in general and Anglicanism in particular. Such self confidence has its problems, however, and some will consider that the implied promotion of factionalism is precisely what Paul was warning about in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:10).
Plainly, even Christ's followers inhabit a fallen world to which they contribute in full measure, and those who stand in contra-distinction to the 'Bible-Believing' folk are often no less unhelpful and divisive.
Brother Ivo is no different from anyone else. He thinks he is a 'normal', 'mainstream' Christian, though doubtless those about to disabuse him are even now forming an orderly queue to post comments. For Brother Ivo reminds himself that the Bible is but one part of that edifice which is Christian belief. It is an important part, some may say the keystone, yet undoubtedly only a part. It was Paul who stressed the interconnected nature of the head, hand and organs of the body and our Bible is surely but one of many other necessary aspects which make up the faith.
There are the promptings of Holy Spirit who we are told is always with us. There are Church traditions which are often derided but are hallowed by the lengthy acceptance of faithful believers in exactly the same way that certain books made it into the final compendium of whatever Bible choice you happen to accept. Some call on the interpretation of the Gift of Tongues.
Neither should one ignore the value and significance of a Christian life: there is wisdom in the saying 'Christianity is caught not taught'. Caught, perhaps, from a loving family member, teacher or acquaintance when Bible study of itself did not quite ignite the faith. Then there are the promptings which the heart receives in prayer.
Those of the 'Bible-believing' persuasion perhaps fail to note that when Jesus sent out the first 70 to spread the Word, they went with so very little. They had nothing analogous to a Bible, just their faith and perhaps some recollection of a few parables and teachings.
For the first six centuries of the expansion of the Faith, there was no Bible that we would recognise - and why would there be? The Early Christians expected the Parousia - the Second Coming of Christ - as a matter of imminence. What need of record-keeping or private study?
For most of human history, most Christians have not been literate. Today in many countries worldwide there is not a 'full Bible' that we would recognise. Only maybe 600 of the 6000 extant languages have the 'full set', and many are getting by with perhaps one gospel and a handful of other books from the New or Old Testament. This is all before we grapple with the question of disability and those whose incapacity will always set them apart from those whose modus operandi is to season their religious discourse with terse, unexplained 'chapter-and-verse' references (which are themselves the 12th-century additions of Simon Langton in the case of the New Testament, and 16th-century additions to the Old Testament by Robert Estienne).
Many Christians learned their theology from pictorial presentations in their churches on the walls and stained-glass windows, and these principally depicted stories, not rules; parables rather than closely-argued systematic theology.
Those who struggled to master God's thinking by the close reasoning of biblical texts have not left us the happiest memories of their efforts. Even a cursory familiarity with Early Church history teaches that people reading the same texts have always managed to sow theological mayhem and discord. If you doubt this, try googling any of the Early Church councils from Constantinople, Ephesus, Nicea and Chalcedon. You may also explore the 'Bible-believing' conclusions of the Arians, Docetists, Monophysites, or Modalists. These were not insignificant theological minorities but serious rivals to what we now call '"Orthodoxy', and each did, in their own way, draw their conclusions from their reading of the same texts.
We can go a stage further: the historic Creeds of the Church owe their very existence to the fact that 'Bible'believing' factions derived contrary conclusion from the same biblical texts.
As we routinely intone the Nicene Creed at communion, few appreciate that this is essentially a bulwark against heresy. Try reading each sentence in the voice of Ian Paisley, thumping the table at the key words like 'crucified', 'dead' and 'buried', and you will catch a sense that there were alternative theological positions available and being disputed by 'Bible-Believing' Christians at each and every section of that and every creed we know.
If 'Bible-Believing' were an inoculation against false doctrine, there would be no creeds!
So, if Brother Ivo cavils at being associated with 'Bible-Believing', based upon its history of conflict and known frequency of error, to what does he cling in dark times of dispute?
The answer lies in the nature, person and love of Christ, which shines in the darkness as a beacon of hope. Jesus' own teaching style was rabbinic. He told stories, pointed the way and set an example. He never weighed his followers down with complexity, and he simplified what is required of us in terms that even a child could understand. The whole picture can be expressed by relatively little, and that is offered in a human life accessible to everyone. All that is needed is available through a living example of humility and love.
So what might this 'Christianity-for-the-rest-of-us' call itself? If we are not to limit ourselves to being only 'Bible believing', to what should we aspire?
Brother Ivo has a suggestion: 'Gospel Gracious'.
(Posted by Brother Ivo)