The Orthodox Corruption of Christianity:
How Modern Christianity Is A Substitute For Christ's Way
“It is wiser to find out than it is to suppose”—Samuel Clemens
“Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true”—Sir Francis Bacon
People do not like to question authority, out of fear of the consequences, out of reverence for authority, or simply out of the habit of subscribing to an authoritative position. This is especially so in the area of religion. Tradition and religious upbringing have long-lasting effects on people. To question the “faith of your fathers” is considered by some as a sign of weakness, a lack of faith, and the consequences are dire, even the threat of eternal hell fire. Anything having to do with “God” is automatically accepted without any scrutiny or afterthought. After all, who is going to question God? Fortunately, today it is not customary to send those who question religious tradition to the scaffold or to the stake. Nevertheless, the mere acceptance of church teaching or the notion of the impossibility of being able to “figure it all out” keeps many from venturing too far beyond the doors of their home church. For many, there is comfort and stability in the regularity of going to church every Sunday, and it is this security that keeps them coming back for more: church “works” and it is all that we can do when it comes to God.
Some Christians, however, begin to wonder and question whether their church is the true and right path. Why is this so? They observe that there exist different denominations that preach and practice a variety of truths, and this has some thoughtful Christians “on the fence.” They do not necessarily reject Christianity but rather feel that something simply is not quite right; they come to feel uneasy just sitting in church, listening and accepting without really thinking. Does Father John really know what he is talking about? Well, he’s suppose to or else he wouldn’t have been called to the priesthood by God, right? Is Brother Charles correct? Well, sure, he’s gotta Ph.D. from the seminary. What exactly does Bishop Smith mean by that statement? Well, I don’t know, but it must be true because he certainly seems to think that it is. Christianity then becomes a spoon-fed diet where discernment on the part of the congregation is non-existent.
Why is the acceptance of Jesus the only way into heaven? Is the consequence of not attending church eternal hell fire? Can one be drawn to God without the church? So what if “the Bible says so”? And if so, then which Bible? Why do only “saved” Christians go to heaven? These questions are not above and beyond a sincere and thinking Christian. An inquisitive Catholic might question the doctrine of the resurrection of the body at the end of time if the dearly departed are already said to be “with Jesus in heaven” while their body lay in the casket. A thoughtful Baptist may wonder about the fate of all those who have not had an opportunity to hear about Jesus and “be saved” in order to go to heaven. A pondering Pentecostal might muse on the “end times” judgment of all people if people are already going to heaven or to hell in the present, hence already judged.
The diversity among Christians, exhibited in the many different denominational and non-denominational varieties, is not always their strength, as “diversity” is sometimes thought to indicate. The earliest Christians were constantly compelled to be of “one mind” and “one body” with no schisms or different opinions among them. Since that time up to the present day there have emerged over 100 versions of Christianity practiced in the world today with over 500 English versions of the Bible, no two versions being exactly alike. What has happened since the “oneness” of the earliest Christians and Why? What made Christians “one”?
A Christian should, indeed, ponder and take time to reflect on his or her Christian faith and the Christian faiths of others. This reflection will require the Christian to move his or her mind in ways that an inquisitive investigator might do: Let us go back to the beginning of Christianity and see what it was like at that time, and then, from there, move forward through time up to modern Christianity, observing, as we do, the councils, debates, edicts, Bibles, and personalities that shaped modern Christianity. One must be careful and steady in thinking, tempered with patience and objectivity. After a good, thorough examination of historical matters, the thinking Christian will necessarily ask: “Before the great councils of Christendom and before there were centers of ecclesiastical authority that spoke on behalf of the widely scattered churches throughout the Roman Empire, before there was a such thing as ‘the Bible’, how was one to determine which teachings were true and which teachings were false?” The notion of false prophets and false doctrines is found as early as the first generation of Christians who were warned about such matters. So it necessarily suggests that there was a possibility for error to creep into and taint the original teaching of Jesus and how his followers understood it (or not).
The Obstacle of Ancient Books
One of the easiest ways for a teaching to become corrupt is to reduce that teaching to written matter. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah complains of this very thing in his tirade against a certain guild of scribes in Jeremiah 8:8. This may be why such teachers as Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus Christ neither transcribed any of their teachings nor had them transcribed by a secretary. Nevertheless, the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and beyond was accomplished partly due to the written word, particularly the use of the codex over that of the scroll (from caudex, “wood”; the earliest Christian codices consisted of two wooden panels, bound together with leather strips along the spine, between which were papyrus or parchment texts in Greek). The codex made it easy to collect a variety of different texts into one book. Some scholars believe that the codex was partly responsible for the emergence of a canon of scriptural texts among Christians that would help facilitate the perception of the Bible, Old and New Testament, as one single book.
The thinking Christian will be led to questions pertaining to the origins of the Bibles, the veracity of modern Christian doctrine, and to questions pertaining to the experiences of divine-human communication described in those Bibles. If the Bible is the Word of God, and there are multiple, different Bibles, how can they all be the Word of God? Why can’t we simply consult God directly as the Bibles encourage us? Does God need a book to communicate His will to mankind? If so, what would such a book look like, the King James Version of 1611 or the Revised Standard Version of 1952? Does God reveal Himself through the Bible or does the Bible record the ways in which God revealed Himself to mankind?
The first thing that a seeking Christian will find about his or her Bible is that the original language was not English despite what someone has once said, “If English is good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for me.” The Christian Bible is actually a combination of texts written over a long period of time in different cultures such as Phoenician, Babylonian, Persian, Palestinian, and Greco-Roman, and in different genres such as historical narrative (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles), poetry (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Prophets), cosmological narrative (Genesis 1-5), and narratives dealing with the politics, policies, and the movers and shakers of the greater ancient near east during the period 2000 B.C.—500 B.C. But that only covers what Christians call “the Old Testament.” Jews call it “the Bible.” For Christians, the Bible is not complete without what is known as “the New Testament” that chronicles the early childhood, however sketchy at best, and the three year ministry of what a band of Jews believed was the heralded messiah of the Old Testament, Jesus Christ. His Jewish name was probably Yeshua bar Yosef, which is Aramaic for “Joshua son of Josef.” The name “Jesus” is simply the Greco-form of Aramaic Yeshua (or Hebrew Yehoshua, which means “Yahweh delivers” or “rescues.” Thus, Christ’s Aramaic name reflects his earthly mission as a “deliverer” or “rescuer” on behalf of Yahweh, that is, God). The term “Christ” is simply the transliteration of Greek christos which is a translation of the Hebrew word meshiach, which means “anointed.” Christos has a pre-Christian usage in the Old Testament in reference to the anointing of ancient Israelite kings and even to the King of Persia, King Cyrus, in Isaiah 45:1.
The original languages of the Christian Bible are three: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The bulk of the Old Testament is in the Hebrew language, which was not called “Hebrew” until during the mid-second century B.C.; before that what we call classical Hebrew would have been a dialect of Phoenician-Punic. The Aramaic portions are found in a few verses in Genesis, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all of Daniel chapter 2. This Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by the commission of King Ptolemy for Jews of the Diaspora who had lost a knowledge of Hebrew. This was the first translation of the Hebrew scriptures that allegedly occurred by the hands of seventy Jewish scribes, hence this translation is known to us as the Septuagint, Latin for “of the seventy” or the LXX. The Septuagint was “the Bible” for the earliest Christians who would have been Jews. Jesus’ original language was most likely Aramaic, but he must have had a knowledge of Hebrew (a reading knowledge, at least) at an early age as recorded in the gospels, and maybe even a knowledge of Latin, for there is no mention of a translator during his conversation with Pilate (that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one present). If the first written records of the sayings of Jesus were in Aramaic (or possibly Hebrew), which some early Christian writings do claim, then none of these writings have surfaced yet. All we have is the Greek version, the earliest version of the New Testament which was subsequently translated from Greek into Latin, Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), Ethiopic, Arabic, and other languages. If one has a knowledge of Greek and reads the gospels in Greek, he or she will see that this Greek is very strange: it is a Greek dressed in Semitic (Aramaic-Hebrew) syntax and phraseology.
Already, a barrier exists for most English-speaking Christians and their reading of the Bible: English does not usually convey adequately enough the nuance and meaning of the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. This is true for a translation of ANY text, ancient or modern, as anyone trained in more than one language will attest. With the Bible, however, not only is there a language barrier, but there is also a time barrier of events recorded over two thousand years ago in a land and a climate very strange to us moderns today, some of which offend our ethical and modern sensibilities. Even more significant, the English language did not even exist during the biblical era. Because of this, the only things in the Old and New Testaments that make immediate sense to most Christians today have to do with the rules of good conduct and ethical language that we find not only in the Bible but also in Aristotle, Buddha, and Krishna. Therefore, the Bible has no unique claim to the Golden Rule and the like.
Traditionally, Christians have understood the phrase “the Word of God” to refer to a written word, the Bible. Sunday-morning television frequently broadcasts preachers and ministers of various denominational and non-denominational churches who, during their sermons, hold an open or closed Bible in their hand, lifting it above their heads in the air (sometimes shaking it in the air for emphasis) and proclaiming, “This is the word of God.” The Bible is authoritative because it is the word of God. The exact nature of this authority is debated: is the Bible the word of God because it is inspired, inerrant, all true and absolute, or what?
The defense of the Bible as authoritative begins primarily with Scripture itself that claims the right to be understood as coming directly from God: “All Scripture inspired of God” (2 Tim 3:16). I have intentionally left out the verb “is” because it does not appear in the Greek text here. Thus, this verse can be translated in two different ways: “All Scripture is inspired of God” or “All Scripture inspired of God is.” The latter is ambiguous because it does not specify which Scripture. The former conceivably includes both canonical and non-canonical Scripture, for during the first few centuries of the Christian era, church fathers proclaimed many texts as “Scripture” that are not found in our Bible today. Furthermore, 2 Tim 3:16 is not the only text from the ancient world that makes the claim for inspiration. The Greek authors Homer and Hesiod were both thought to have been inspired at times when they composed a text. Greek poets were inspired by the Muses. Roman authors writing in Latin sometimes claimed inspiration. The first-century Jew Philo of Alexandria claimed that he was inspired by “the spirit of God” while writing. So, transcriptional inspiration is not unique to 2 Tim 3:16.
The canonical shape of the Bible presents us with yet another problem. The canon as we know it today was not formalized until the fourth century. But during the 1500s, the Council of Trent decided on including a “second canon” of texts known as the deutero-canonicals (deutero is “two” in Greek). Not all Christians, however, agreed on these additions which included the following books: Wisdom, Sirach, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, and Ecclesiastes. And so it is to this day. Were these books inspired, too?
Another problem with the inspiration of the Bible is found in the uncertainty of one of its original authors, Paul. If the Bible is inspired in the way that many Christians believe that it is, then we have a peculiar situation in 1 Cor 7:40 where Paul says, “and I think I have the Spirit of God.” Here we have an inspired text (inspired because it is in the Bible) whose author is uncertain as to whether he is, in fact, inspired. The Greek verb translated as “I think” expresses that which “seems to be” with a degree of uncertainty: “I seem to have the Spirit of God.”
Throughout history texts that were considered “holy” were favored or set apart from others. This is so for Hindu texts, e.g., the Vedas, Buddhist texts, e.g., Vinaya Pali texts, Sufi texts, Confucian texts, as well as Jewish and Christian texts. The holy texts for Jesus and his Apostles (and Paul for that matter) would have been the Hebrew Scriptures, that which modern-day Christians know to be as the Old Testament. But that first-century authority was not based on any kind of “scripture principle”, i.e., the Bible is the Word of God, which was a much later development that occurred during the period of the Protestant Reformation. During this period the notion of sola scriptura, “scripture alone,” came to the fore in the light of a challenged Papal office: no man has any authority over others, including the Pope; only God and His Word have any authority.
The first-century authority of the Scriptures was quite different from sola scriptura of the Reformation. The sola scriptura of the Reformation has given modern Christians the notion that the authority of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, is of primary significance, for it is God’s written Word. The first-century authority of the Bible as the written Word of God, however, was of secondary significance among Jewish converts to Christ. The primary authority stemmed from the early Christian belief that Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection were the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures: hence, Christ was primary, not any scripture. The first Christians, who were Jews, were not so much interested in matters of the law as in the words of their Savior. Christ had become the “new” law who obviated the “old” Law of Moses, the written law. But we don’t get this from Jesus himself (see Matthew 5:17—20), instead we get this from Paul (see Galatians 2:16; 3:19—22). Is this apparent contradiction between Jesus and Paul another problem worth investigating by the seeking Christian?
Anything recorded about Jesus or experiences that certain people had with the risen Christ, example Paul, was of greater interest to converts, Jewish or Greek, than were the old Hebrew Scriptures. For this reason (among others) many of the earliest Christian assemblies might have had a scroll or codex of one of the gospels, or one of Paul’s letters, or an epistle of Peter or John, or even a Christian writing not found in our present-day New Testament (see New Testament Apocrypha). Most likely, non-Jewish converts, i.e., gentiles, would not have owned any writing of the Hebrew scriptures. Paul, nevertheless, quotes copiously from the Hebrew Scriptures (their Greek version), good Jew that he claimed to be, but always with a purpose in pointing to Christ or some other similar context. These quotations, however, are used as Paul’s interpretations of them in the light of his experience and knowledge of Christ and the destiny of Israel. Most Jews of his day would not have done such a thing, for many of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah were not clearly and unambiguously fulfilled in the life of Jesus.
The phrase “the word of God” does appear in the New Testament as an epithet for the Hebrew Scriptures, scriptures that do not necessarily look like our Old Testament in every detail. For instance, in John 10:35 there is an implicit identity between the phrase “the word of God” and the term “scripture.” The phrase “the word of God” occurs forty-two times in the New Testament and refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, “the good news of the kingdom of God” as preached by Jesus, inspired speech, God’s act of creation, prophetic words, words communicated by an angel on behalf of God, and the name of Christ.
The New Testament phrase “word of God” has as its antecedent the Hebrew phrases “the word of the Lord” and “the word of God” that occur 394 times in the Old Testament while the plural form “words of the Lord” is used around forty times. In each case, the “word of God/the Lord” in the Old Testament refers to a divine communication in the form of commandments, prophecy, words of admonishment, help, guidance, and promises, whether transcribed or not. The Old Testament phrase comes from an even earlier era in Mesopotamian history. In cuneiform texts, a god’s or goddess’s communication was sometimes introduced as “the word of x” whenever “x” was a divine name. The Word of God was “living” only insofar as that word was communicated directly from God in real time. Recording the word of God or of a god reduced that communication to a form that was always second or third hand and potentially corruptible. Would not an objective conclusion assert that an Akkadian cuneiform text that records the words of Ishtar is just as “inspired” as a Phoenician-Punic (Hebrew) text that records the words of Yahweh? Yet which text is authoritative? That can be answered only by the followers of Ishtar and the followers of Yahweh.
The canonization of certain Christian literature during the fourth century made it ideal for Christians to get their spiritual nourishment from a book, a collection of documents penned by the apostles themselves (so it was thought) or by companions of them. Ever since the idea of a book (the codex) was introduced as the main medium to dispense instruction to the Christian masses, Christians have been held by the mercy of the written word, not only by its own problems as written and copied matter whereby scribal errors are commonplace, some intentional, others not, but also by the varying interpretations of the written word. What we potentially have then in such a case is an inaccurate interpretation of a miscopied text.
In short, “Written matter is the sport of fate” in more ways than one. The “corruption of Scripture” then refers to the copying and duplication of New Testament Greek texts by hand that, invariably, introduced mistakes in copying and in some cases created different texts that are not found in earlier manuscripts. Even if in the remarkable scenario we had access to the original texts of the New Testament, we would still require someone to tell us the correct meaning of what the original text says. Who might that someone be? The original authors are long gone, and, for that matter, would even they be of much help in giving us the true meaning of what they wrote, e.g. did John understand all of the imagery and symbols he recorded in Revelation, did the earliest Christians always understand the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:16), and was Paul himself always confident about what he wrote (1 Cor 7:40)?
It is difficult for devout Christians to be told of the fact that their Bible and the way that they have come to understand the meaning of its contents is not as straightforward as they might think. Any scholarly discussion of the “corruption” of Scripture is simply a recognition of the fact by scholars that there exist multiple versions of the same biblical Greek or Hebrew text from which are made translations (that are also interpretations) that are different from one another. It is no longer a question of “the Bible” but rather of “which Bible” and, more technically, “which text”?
The Christian Bible provides Christians with clear boundaries for authoritative Scripture. Christians do not hear sermons on the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Paul or 1 Clement or 3 Corinthians even though these were, at one time, circulated and read among Christians of the past. For modern Christians, however, they are not canonical or “normative” texts; they do not appear in our Bible because of what is believed to be their improper, false, or inadequate representations. Of course, the decision as to what is orthodox Scripture has a long, unstable history.
Scripture now nor has ever been without its vicissitudes. Any lay Christian can purchase an English Parallel Bible with up to eight versions, four versions on either facing pages, to compare and see for themselves the variety of translations for a given passage. Sure enough, “All scripture is inspired of God” says one author (2 Tim 3:16), but another author has noted that the law of the Lord “has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes” (Jer 8:8). The “corruption of Scripture” is merely the corruption of texts. The reverberations of these corruptions, however, occur at a deep level; a level that is beyond the gaze of most devout Christians.
Nowadays, modern Christians hear the gospel read and explained to them from an English translation of a Greek text (usually the King James Version) by a human preacher who has been trained in a Seminary for that task. English versions are themselves interpretations of a Greek text; interpretations that do not always reflect adequately the Greek text, and interpretations that sometimes do not agree among different versions on some very pivotal doctrinal issues. Hence, “the” Bible is merely an illusion, for there are many Bibles and no two are exactly alike. A glance at any parallel English Bible that presents multiple columns of the same book, chapter, and verses will reveal discrepancies that cannot be maintained by a serious Christian.
During the Reformation Era, the Christian Scriptures achieved a status that would catapult them to the level of God’s very words; what the Bible says, God says. And so the legacy of “the” Bible as the Word of God continues with us to this day. The principle of sola scriptura was left in the wake of the Reformation in reaction to allegiance to the Papal office of Rome; no priest, no Pope, no human has any authority, only Scripture. What quickly evolved thereafter was the notion of the authority of Scripture as a book of God’s Word. The Bible, specifically the New Testament, is now considered by the lot of Christians to be the inerrant, reliable, inspired, and unchanging words of God. Proof-texts are often used to support the authority of Scripture, e.g. 2 Tim 3:16, “all Scripture is inspired of God,” and Jesus’ quoting Scripture during his temptation by Satan in the desert. But the practice of proof-texting is very flimsy at best. It is the simplistic practice of believing that a theological debate can be settled by quoting a few passages from the Bible. Theological positions and church beliefs are often argued or “proven” simply by pointing to a particular passage that “proves” the belief. Allow “x” to be a particular belief: “I believe that ‘x’ is true. See? It says so right here in the Bible.” Not so easy.
Christians of past generations have never had access to consistent Scriptural texts. Although a good portion of the New Testament as it was canonized in the fourth century has maintained its general look as we know it today, some key texts have popped in and out over the centuries. For instance, English-speaking Christians of the sixteenth century read “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (King James, 1 John 5:7). This is a clear Trinitarian proof text that, however, does not appear in any modern English version for the simple fact that it never appears in any extant Greek text (with the exception of one made to order by Erasmus at the behest of certain bishops). So, for a time 1 John 5:7 was inerrant, reliable, inspired, and unchanging Word of God. Or was it? In a similar vein, Jeremiah complains of the vicissitudes of Torah texts produced by scribes of his day, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the law (Torah) of the Lord’? Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes” (Jer 8:8). The author/s of Jeremiah preserved for us an insight into the potential scribal corruptions that did, in fact, occur. All of the ancient literature that has been transmitted to us moderns has suffered the same fate at the hands of scribes, good intentioned though they may have been, and the Word of God was no different for it, too, was not spared such corruption.
As for 2 Tim 3:16, often touted as the pivotal proof-text for the inspiration of Scripture, we may consider the remarks Jonathan Sheehan, a professor of History at the University of Michigan, who writes concerning the ascendency of the authority of the Bible during the Reformation Era:
At the precise moment that the Bible shouldered such enormous responsibilities, its authority began to quiver under the load. Even in St. Paul, sixteenth-century readers might have sensed the strains. “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching,” Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy. But did he? For many readers of the new vernacular and scholarly Bibles that populated the period, he did not. Rather he said something somewhat different: “All scripture inspired by God is profitable for teaching.” Indeed, this second reading would have been the more familiar, since it was taken from the Latin tradition and put into many of Europe’s sixteenth-century vernacular Bibles. In Elias Hutter’s 1599 Nuremberg polyglot Bible, the Italian, French, and Greek versions embraced the first version, while Spanish, German, and Latin repeated the latter. William Tyndale’s 1524 English translation of the New Testament followed the Latin version, but the Geneva and later the King James Bibles followed the Greek. The difference was minor—the presence or absence of the Greek word kaiv (“and”)—but the passage meant something quite different in Erasmus’s 1516 Greek New Testament than it did in Luther’s 1522 German one. What was, in the Greek Bible, a comfortingly secure blanket proclamation of biblical inspiration was, in German, a distinctly less reassuring profession that only some Scriptures were in fact given by God’s hand (The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005] 1-2).
Here we have an instance whereby knowledge of the original language can give us two equally possible, yet profoundly different, interpretations. The reason for this is that the Greek text of 2 Tim 3:16 lacks the verb “to be” (e[stin) and states literally, “all scripture inspired by God” as mentioned above already. In English, “is” can occur in one of two places: “all scripture is inspired by God” or “all scripture inspired by God is.” The differences in meaning are as Sheehan describes them above.
So how reliable are our Bibles? Some contain whole books not found in others, e.g. the Catholic deuterocanonicals, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and an appendix to Daniel, Bel and the Dragon, are not authoritative for Protestants. Multiple New Testament verses in English versions are punctuated differently, thereby giving different meanings to the same text, even though there was no punctuation in Greek. As an example, Rom 9:5 in the New International Version reads “from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen,” while the New American Bible version reads “from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” In one Christ is God; in the other God and Christ are distinct, they are not identical. Which is inspired? Which is reliable? Which is inerrant? Which is unchanging? The answer to these questions depends not on Scripture per se, but rather on the theological position of the person reading it. If one was not aware of these different readings of Rom 9:5, then it would not matter. The fact is that the Greek text, once translated into English, can be punctuated either way here in Rom 9:5, thereby giving two different readings (yet grammatically legitimate readings) of the same text. Here again, even knowledge of the original language does not solve the problem for us, and this is true for many problems of this nature in our English versions.
Christians simply read the Bible in the way that they have been raised to read it, if they read it at all. They are not raised to read it critically (that is, thinking about what they read, asking questions, researching beyond the Bible about its contents and history, both the history that it records and its transmission history as a collection of texts) but rather devotionally. After all, it is God’s Book and any time spent reading such a book is “devoted” to God. This attitude creates a multi-layered problem unknown to readers of the Bible. The difference between what a text says and what a text means is hardly ever questioned. For example, Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches” but what does that mean? And Jesus says, “This is my body,” but what does that mean? Did Jesus even say “my body” if there is no word for “body” in Aramaic? (which there isn’t).
Which Bible version that one reads makes a big difference. The theological lens through which one reads the Bible makes another big difference, and there are many of these lenses. For example a reading of the breaking of bread at the Lord’s Supper in the gospels might be read by a Catholic as transubstantiation, by a Lutheran as consubstantiation, and by a Protestant as symbolism. The “born again” passage in John 3:3 is pivotal for entrance and acceptance by some churches (e.g., Baptists) while other denominations pay little to no attention to this passage for this purpose (e.g., Catholics).
The Obstacle of Not Knowing History
The thinking Christian will also be led to questions pertaining to theological developments that occurred down through the centuries in the Christian synods and councils. He or she will see how these developments departed in the most variegated ways from the earliest Christian communities however “inspired” or “revealed” these later developments were thought to be.
A principle of history that goes undetected by Christians (and many readers of “holy” books) is the difference between what a text meant to the original authors and readers and what a text means to modern-day readers. This is also important for the translator of a biblical text: to whom is a translator responsible, the twentieth-century reader or the first-century author? The challenge is to recover, if possible, what the text meant and then question if that meaning is relevant for us today. Would it even be necessary for us to know what the text meant to the author and its first readers? Or are we simply to assume that what it means for us, it must have meant for them? Yet, if we can get multiple meanings from the same text, then which one, if any, would the author agree with?
In the churches of today, many Christians hear the New Testament read in English and explained in English. English Bibles give Christians the impression that the New Testament is a product, in some ways, of English-speaking, twentieth-century American culture. You can purchase a Bible at a Wal-Mart like you can a harlequin novel. You can carry a copy of the New Testament in English in your pocket like you can a wallet or a pack of cigarettes. The Bible in English then becomes a trademark of what the Bible really is and should be. A good example of this trademark feature belongs to those who subscribe to the King James Version of 1611 as the only true Bible worth consulting. But this tends to overshadow and obscure the New Testament’s historical origins as disparate Greek, Aramaic (and maybe Hebrew) texts scattered across the ancient Mediterranean basin. Christians must be aware that the New Testament from which they hear sermons every Sunday morning in church is actually a collection of texts whose original compositions date back nearly two thousand years in ancient Palestine and in languages totally different from English and much older. The history of their transmission and eventual collection and canonization as “the New Testament” bristles with debate, opinion, and hearsay. If Christians know that their holy book can be traced back to communities that existed nearly two thousand years ago, then shouldn’t Christians want to know more about the progenitors of their book?
Most Christians are unaware of the history of the interpretations given to biblical texts by generations of church fathers and theologians subsequent to the first generation Christians, e.g. Tertullian, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Many Christians are also unaware that modern-day Church doctrine and dogma are based on interpretations of Scripture by church fathers of the past, who, nevertheless, lived centuries after the Apostles and first generation of Christians. The Fathers of the church hold venerable, eminent positions in church history. Their readings and interpretation of Scripture are sometimes the very root of modern-day Christian understanding of Scripture.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity, the dogma of the Deity of the Holy Spirit, and the dogma of Jesus as “true God and true man” were issues that didn’t clearly emerge until the third and forth centuries in the writings of the church fathers. These interpretations are read back into the Bible by Christians today who have little to no knowledge of where these interpretations actually came from. In light of this lack of knowledge, the impression is made that these interpretations come directly from the original authors themselves, e.g. Paul and Matthew. For instance, whenever we see “the Holy Spirit” in the New Testament we automatically think third Person of the Trinity, or God the Holy Spirit. But that interpretation for “the holy spirit” did not clearly materialize until the fourth century. So, when Paul or Matthew penned the phrase “the holy spirit” did they have in mind the third Person of the Trinity as did Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century Cappadocian father?
The significance and impact of the Fathers of the Church is long-lasting. Some fourth-century church fathers such as Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus are even described as being “inspired” in their writings on doctrinal issues or claim that their readings of Scripture are actually “revelations” from God. And this gives their interpretations theological legitimacy and authority. One of these “revelations” was thought to be the doctrine of the Deity of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the Triune nature of the Godhead, doctrines that have been adopted and accepted by Christians with equal authority as the Bible itself. Christians read key phrases and verses through the gaze of later interpretations of church fathers. A marvelous thing then occurs: Christians have unwittingly accepted the interpretations of fourth-century fathers as “Scripture.” Thus, modern-day Christians place great authority on the church fathers’ readings of Scripture without further thought as to the intent of the original authors themselves. Since most devout Christians lack a knowledge of church history and theological developments, they read these developments as if they originated with Paul himself, and yet, they didn’t. In spite of this bit of historical truth, Christians today commonly hear sermons on “the Holy Spirit Himself” as a divine Person in the writings of Paul. Christians are duped by history by not knowing the difference between what a text meant (in the first century) and what a text means (for us today which goes back to the fourth century).
Many Christians assume that their understanding of the meaning of certain verses in the Bible today is the same understanding held by the original authors. Christians unconsciously make a connection between what they think a verse means and what the verse actually meant. To modern readers of the Bible there is a symbiotic relationship between their understanding of what they read (or the way a preacher teaches it to them in church) and what the Bible really must mean. But this straight-way relationship was never experienced among the earliest Christians who were painfully cognizant of the mystery of a text’s actual meaning and the possibility of interpreting the meaning of a text incorrectly: “In them (Paul’s letters) are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort” (2 Peter 3:16).
How are interpretations of biblical texts gauged for their correctness? Is it possible for well-intentioned persons to push for the authoritative status of their otherwise incorrect interpretations of Scripture (unbeknownst to them)? Modern Christians, including the clergies of all denominations, do not gauge their doctrines, but simply accept them on the basis of church tradition, that which has been handed down to them by the fathers of the church. The authority of tradition outweighs any need to question the doctrines of the church.
But the searching Christian will find that, oftentimes, edicts of the church were actually decisions made by the victorious side during theological disputes of the third and fourth centuries. Feuds did break out among church fathers in the past over different interpretations of Scripture and different theological positions about the nature and status of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Councils were convened in order to settle these disputes. Constantine is credited with ordering the first “world-wide” (ecumenical) council in 325 that met in Nicaea for such an occasion (with 20 more such councils to come, the most recent of which was Vatican 2 that met from 1962-1965 in Rome). Many of the feuds that erupted at these councils were documented, and any inquisitive person may wish to explore them at will. Over time, interpretations and theological positions created a theological landscape within which to understand the New Testament that has endured ever since, for the past 1700 years.
The purpose of this introduction is meant to get the reader in a certain frame of mind so that the he or she can begin to take seriously Christ’s command, “Seek and ye shall find; knock and the door shall be opened.” The Christian church is a very good starting point as is the Bible, but there is much that many churches are simply not prepared to handle. Therefore, one must gaze beyond the sanctuary of his or her home church so that Christ’s command might be fulfilled to the greatest extent in the life of a seeking Christian.