The Prophets and the Scripture
A fundamental teaching common to all Christian churches is that there is on earth no other source of revelation from God to man than what is contained in scripture and tradition. Such an arrangement leaves no room, of course, for present-day revelation direct from heaven, and bars the activity of living prophets whose presence, as we have seen, has always scandalized conventional students of scripture and tradition.
In proclaiming the restored gospel, the Latter-day Saints do not minimize the importance of the Bible. We say the scripture and revelation are both necessary; they are not mutually exclusive as some would have us think; they are complementary—they not only can co-exist, but they must. Strange as it may seem, the idea that one might profit from both scripture and revelation at the same time has been in the past a formidable stumbling block to scholars. Not long ago a great controversy raged among the learned over whether any man could possibly possess the gifts of the Spirit and at the same time do anything as worldly as hold an office in the church or concern himself with written records. Nearly all the scholars supported Sohm's thesis that spirit and order were absolute opposites, hopelessly irreconcilable. Law and authority were for Sohm the complete antithesis of the Spirit; the two could not exist together. "Jesus of Nazareth is altogether unliterary," wrote Deissmann in a typical declaration, since "the new thing for which he looked came not in book, formulae, and subtle doctrine, but in spirit and in fire." 1 Apparently, one cannot have a religion of spirit and fire and still read the scriptures. And yet nothing is more evident from the example of Jesus himself than that the possession of scripture does not preclude revelation and the gifts of the Spirit on the one hand, nor, on the other, does the possession of those spiritual gifts in any way jeopardize the authority of the scriptures. For maintaining this rather obvious point the Latter-day Saints have been attacked from all sides.
The Lord said, "Search the scriptures; for . . . they are they which testify of me"; and when in reply to that the people said in effect, "We have the scripture, so we don't need you at all," he answered, "If you believed the scriptures, you would believe me."2 Here we have the two witnesses, the scripture and the Lord in person, side by side, testifying of each other. The fact that the Jews had the holy writings did not, as they supposed, make the presence of a living prophet among them superfluous; and the presence of a prophet did not, as the scholars supposed, make the written word superfluous. As a remarkable illustration of this, what did Christ do when he first appeared to the assembled Apostles as the resurrected Lord? There he was, the Son of God in his own person, a glorified and resurrected being who could have told them all things by his own authority; but instead of that, we are told, "beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Is it surprising, then, that when the Lord and other glorious beings appeared to men in these latter days they again cited the ancient prophets at length? One could not ask for a more powerful recommendation for the sacredness of the holy writings than the Lord's use of them after his resurrection; nor on the other hand, could one have a more convincing demonstration that the scriptures cannot stand alone, for it was only after Christ had expounded their meaning to them in person that the disciples' "eyes were opened, and they knew him. . . . And they said . . . Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:31—32.) Even to the Apostles the scriptures did not convey their full message until they were "opened" to them by their heavenly teacher.
The early Christians did not regard the canon of the scripture as closed. In a recent and important study, Van Unnik has shown that for the earliest Christians, the apostolic office, the gift of revelation, and the bringing forth of scripture were always regarded as going hand in hand; and, with von Harnack, he points out that at least as late as A.D. 200 it was held to be perfectly legitimate "for someone to add something to the word of the Gospel."3 The Bible itself leaves the door wide open for future revelation in many places, but even if it did not, men fool themselves when they think for a moment that they can read the scripture without ever adding something to the text, or omitting something from it. For in the wise words of St. Hilary, Scripturae enim non in legendo sunt, sed in intelligendo: "Scripture consists not in what one reads, but in what one understands."4 We have just seen that the Apostles themselves "knew not the scripture"—though no doubt they had often read it—until the Lord opened it to them. To read is by very definition to unriddle, to expound to oneself, to interpret. In the reading of the scripture we must always have an interpreter, but who qualifies for the task of interpreting God's word to men? Irenaeus insisted that no special interpreter was needed, the book being self-explanatory so that "the whole of the scripture . . . can be understood clearly and without ambiguity equally and by all."5 But then he accuses vast numbers of Christians of reading it all wrong, "becoming bad interpreters of the good and correct word."6 What is one to do when, in the words of a later church father, "there are as many interpretations of the scriptures as there are readers"? In that case, Irenaeus recommends appealing to the opinions of the oldest churches, those who had traditions actually going back to the Apostles. But when these churches disagree among themselves, what then? Then says Irenaeus, we must examine the order of tradition committed to the churches.7 All the while, you will note, Irenaeus is looking for an interpreter for the scriptures, which he began by saying needed no interpreter! If the Bible contained its own interpretation, the best and wisest of its readers would surely agree on its teachings, yet those who study it hardest disagree most widely about it. Tertullian pointed out that discussions based on scriptures are a waste of time since the most hopelessly mistaken person can in all good faith prove his case from the scriptures "by divers expositions and commentaries," easily corrupting the sense without having to corrupt the letter of the text, and picking and rejecting whatever suits his purpose. If we say that the heretics are playing fast and loose with the Bible, Tertullian reminds us, we must remember that they in all seriousness believe that we are corrupting the scripture by false exposition while they preserve the pure truth of it. For that reason, according to Tertullian, it is practically impossible to win an argument by appeal to the scripture alone, and even when we do win, the whole issue remains uncertain.8
Can one interpret the scripture without actually adding something that was not there before? If the Bible is all-sufficient, why the huge flow of books and periodicals that obligingly offer to tell us what the Bible is trying to say? Can't the Bible speak for itself? The council of Seleucia in 359 solemnly declared that the prophets and gospels are perfect and complete, the absolute guide to the church in all things, no others being necessary. This point being settled, the meeting was promptly thrown into an uproar, for the homoousian party was quick to point out that the keyword of the opponents' doctrine, the homoiousia, was not to be found in the Bible, while the homoiousian faction returned the charge against them. Each side protested that it was merely interpreting the Bible, while the opposition was adding to it.9 It was the suspicion that the Council of Nicaea in interpreting the scriptures had been guilty of adding to them that drove the clergy and general public alike into agonies of doubt and indecision that were never allayed. Even the first and greatest of ecumenical synods was not able to interpret the Bible without adding to it.
Who has a right to interpret the scriptures? Clement of Alexandria asks that question. He says that there are things in his own writings which in the future will be interpreted in all sorts of different ways as men "seek to reveal hidden meanings in them to demonstrate the presence of things unsaid." But who has the right to take such liberties? Only the author himself, says Clement, or a direct and trusted disciple. On one thing he insists—the interpretation must come from outside; it cannot be conjured out of the writing itself which is being interpreted. To interpret the Bible by one's own reading of the Bible is to lift oneself by one's own boot-straps.10 Men have recognized this fact and sought earnestly to establish or discover some authorized individual or board or some infallible rules and principles by which the interpretation of the Bible could be made a sure and certain thing, and they have failed. The synods of pious and learned men assembled to give definite interpretations have been scenes of raging controversy through the centuries, each great council sowing the seeds of misunderstanding that lead to the next. The great Tertullian declared with fire and indignation that the authority of the church in such matters does not reside in a number of bishops no matter how great, but only in a man who can speak by the spirit of God.11
One of the normal offices of episcopal councils has been to correct the errors and indiscretions of certain individual bishops, those of the great leading communities of Christendom—Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, etc.—who have declared that in their peculiar office as bishops resides the ultimate authority to interpret the scriptures. The holders of that high interpretive office have been convicted of heresy from time to time,12 and an examination of the Patrologia, the writings of the fathers, will show that it has never been the custom of Christians to consult any one particular individual when in doubt on matter of doctrine and authority, no matter what his office. Instead, the Christian church has been guided through the centuries in its reading of the scriptures by doctors of the church whose supreme qualification was their own native wit, regardless of the office they held. These clever men have made repeated attempts to lay down sure and reliable rules by which anyone properly trained could arrive at the true meaning of the scriptures. Of course, we cannot discuss these here, but taking only the greatest of the fathers as an example, we cite Marrou's recent work on St. Augustine's methods of interpreting the scripture wherein he points out what has long been known to scholars: that the rules which Augustine calls "nothing less than the keys to the holy writ" are simply the familiar technique which had been employed for centuries in the pagan schools in the interpretation of Homer and Virgil.13 When this system found itself—as it did not rarely—in indissoluble opposition to the plain meaning of the scripture, "It was," wrote Turmel, "the interpretation of the text [the Bible] that was sacrificed." 14 "Let us remember," says Gilson, "that a doctor of the Church is not infallible."15 How then can the ultimate appeal be to such? Time and again we meet with such phrases as "since the authority of the scripture does not specifically declare such and such to be so, it is doubtful whether we should presume to express an opinion on it." No one seems eager or even willing to assume the awful responsibility.
There are churches today which declare for the absolute sufficiency of the Bible as perfect, complete, and infallible. Yet it is precisely the ministers of these churches who concern themselves most diligently with the study of Greek. Why? Because they recognize that our translated versions are not the original, but are imperfect, tainted by the interpretations of men. So our sectarian friends choose a Greek grammar as the faithful guide to lead them on paths that do not stray. Alas! a more hesitant and speculating guide could not be imagined, and when we get the so-called original texts of the Bible before us with their stately apparatus of possible corrections, emendations, suggestions, recommendations, and whatnot, we first come to realize that the holy text is a maze of a thousand passages.16
In the end, authority cannot reside in man, but, as Tertullian insists, only in a man who speaks by the Spirit of God. Without a living prophet, the scripture is indeed what the medieval church called it: a mystery. The question is not whether or not one shall add to the word of the scripture—thousands of volumes of learned commentary have already done that—but whether such addition shall come by the wisdom of men or the revelation of God. Until recent years, the Latter-day Saints have stood alone in maintaining the latter alternative and in upholding the integrity of both the spoken and the written word of God.
1. G. Deissman, Light from the Ancient East, 2nd ed. (New York: Doran, 1927), 245—46.
2. See, e.g., John 5:39, Matthew 22:29ff, Acts 18:28.
3. Willem Cornelis van Unnik, "De la Regle mete prostheinai mete aphelein dans l'histoire du canon," Vigiliae Christianae 3 (1949): 32ff.
4. Hilary, Ad Constantium Augustum II, 9, in PL 10:570.
5. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses II, 27, in PG 7:803.
6. Ibid., I, 1, in PG 7:437.
7. Ibid., III, 1—3, in PG 7:844—48.
8. Tertullian, De Praescriptionibus 14—19, in PL 2:31—36.
9. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History II, 39—40, in PG 67:336—37.
10. Clement of Alexandria, Stromatum I, in PG 8:704—5.
11. Tertullian, De Pudicitia 21, in PL 2:1080.
12. Frederick Powicke, "The Christian Life," in The Legacy of the Middle Ages, Charles Crump ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951), 43, speaking specifically of Rome.
13. Henri Marrou, Saint Augustine et la fin de la culture antique (Paris: Boccard, 1958), 494—98.
14. J. Turmel, "Histoire de l'interpretation de I Tim. II, 4," Revue de l'histoire et de litterature religieuses 5 (1900): 392—93.
15. Etienne Gilson, La philosophie au moyen âge (Paris, 1944), 14.
16. There are more than 8,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, no two of which read exactly alike!