One Book or Many?


Dan Martins, now a priest in the Diocese of Northern Indiana, writes that he’s spent years trying to find the fundamental issue that’s been underlying the conflict in the Anglican Communion.

As a physicist, who’s advisor in Grad School often said “Physics is easy, once you ask the right question”, my metaphorical ears immediately perked up when I read what Dan wrote.

In a longish post he finally asks whether or not the deciding issue is that of a hermeneutical approach to the Bible. In essence Dan is asking, do we hold that the Bible is a coherent whole, or do we hold that it is a collection of many books that all point to valid experiences of the Divine?

Dan writes:

“I must confess that, having been initially formed as a ‘fundagelical–if not all the way on the one book end of the spectrum, at least in that general neighborhood–in my riper years, by way of either reaction or compensation, I do tend to say ‘as St Paul writes to the Romans’ rather than ‘as the Bible says in the Book of Romans.’ My preaching has been enlivened by a disciplined resistance to the temptation to harmonize the gospels, but rather to let the idiosyncratic voice of each of the Evangelists speak for itself. I am not scandalized by the insights of biblical criticism. The notion that not every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels necessarily passed his lips does not shake my faith.

But I never fail to be struck afresh on a regular basis by how the Bible–yes, the Bible–is bound by a golden thread, a coherent meta-narrative, that bespeaks a single energizing Spirit, a unified Voice. The ‘authentic’ words of Jesus in the gospels are not more authoritative than those ‘composed’ by the Evangelist. Colossians is no less authoritative because it may be pseudonymous while Galatians must be taken more seriously because it is indisputably Pauline. Still less are the epistles less binding on my conscience than are the gospels. It is the whole Bible that stands in judgment over the Church’s teaching and practice.

So, what I’m wondering is this: Can the way one speaks of Scripture serve as a consistent predictor of how one will come down on other issues, including the issue du jour? When we hear exclusively many books language, are we probably talking to a ‘progressive’? And when hear predominantly one book language, are we most likely in the presence of a ‘reasserter’?”

Read the rest here.

It’s an interesting question. At one level, modernity with its emphasis on linear narrative and logical consistency has raised the question for us in the first place. There are numerous places in Holy Scripture where contradictions are to be found. (The order of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis for instance.) One can either explain them away through some rather extraordinary suspensions of disbelief, or we can simply say that these represent independent traditions that have been woven together over time.

I guess I believe the latter rather than the former – mostly because I tend to trust Occam’s razor.

But I’m not sure Dan’s question gives us the sword that allows us to cut this particular Gordian knot. I suspect that he himself raises a third hermeneutic in his article, and its the one that describes where I find myself (which is not surprisingly I suppose, somewhere in the middle.) I see the canonical books of scripture not a coherent whole, but as parts of a meta-narrative the chronicle the unfolding revelation of God to humankind throughout our history. Slowly, with fits and starts we learn that the Lord wants us to be reconciled to one another and to him. But we have ascertained this idea as if we see it darkly and through a clouded glass. It’s only when we step back and read the canon in light of the continuing tradition and by means of our human reason and experience, that we can comprehend the meta-narrative.

A view which, nearly as I can tell, is somewhere between the two poles that Dan describes in his article.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I’m with you. More or less, anyway. To ne, the Bible is merely the chalice that holds the wine – and being a really old chalice, it’s got some bad dents and dings….

  2. Sue says

    But didnt modernity inherent its linear narrative time line from Christianity with its emphasis on the “historical” Jesus and the idea that the Christian God is the God of (a very linear) history?
    The idea of a linear history, either beginning at the “big-bang”, or at the beginning of “creation”, is very much a idea created by the mind-set trapped in linear modernity.
    And didnt Protestant Christianity, which makes much of linear history, arise at the same time, and simultaneously with the ideology of scientism. Modernity being the culture created in the image of scientism.
    And dont they essentially subscribe to the same dismally mortalistic presumptions about what we are as human beings.
    And perhaps many literalist “end-time” Christians are very much trapped within a linear narrative.
    Hence God created the “objective” world on Tuesday afternoon a few thousand years ago, Jesus came at a very concrete time (2008 years ago) into the same “objective” world, and the “end-time” (and the second-coming) is going to occur in the same “objective” world tomorrow afternoon, according to the same linear time-sacle.

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