Religion & Liberty Online

What Does the Bible Really Teach?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Catholics and Protestants have long been at odds over how to interpret Scripture. What role do tradition, the Church Fathers, and ecumenical creeds play? Or is the Bible alone sufficient for coming to “the knowledge of the truth”? The editor of First Things has a few suggestions.

Read More…

Protestants classically believe in sola scriptura, but they also know that some Protestants have conjured exotic beliefs based on appeals to the Bible alone. At a Baptist church where I was once a leader, the pastor and I were working to explain why a person who denied the Trinity could not be a member. The person in question insisted that the Trinity was not a biblical doctrine but an invention of church authorities in the fourth century. We could defend the Trinity scripturally, of course. But we also knew that our assurance about trinitarian doctrine drew on faithful Christians’ engagement with Scripture in the patristic era. Our church’s belief in the Trinity did not spring from a solitary, commonsense reading of the Bible alone.

This local church dilemma, for me, encapsulates the problem that R.R. Reno’s The End of Interpretation: Reclaiming the Priority of Ecclesial Exegesis seeks to explain. Reno argues that Scripture and doctrine should complement one another for faithful Christians and never be set in opposition. Reno taught theology at Creighton University before becoming editor of First Things. He knows that the concept of doctrine complementing Scripture interpretation contradicts basic assumptions within the academic field of biblical studies. Scholars in biblical studies conventionally assume that church doctrine obscures the original meaning of Scripture. The real Bible, according to progressive biblical scholars, lies buried under the “rubbish of centuries.” Allegedly objective professors, the thinking goes, should set aside what the church has taught to discern that original meaning. If rejecting tradition undermines “orthodox” belief, so be it.

Liberal biblical scholars often style themselves as “objective” interpreters of Scripture, despite what postmodernism has shown us about the subjectivity of academic knowledge. Unencumbered by tradition, they insist they are excavating Scripture’s true meaning, in all its unfamiliarity and weirdness. But as Reno suggests, biblical scholars are just as subjective as traditionalists, if not more so. They often substitute avant-garde academic discourse for historic Christian orthodoxy. Such scholars “discover” that the Bible variously supports queer, feminist, intersectional, Marxist, or other “woke” ideologies of the moment.

I come to Reno’s discussion of theological Bible interpretation as a Christian academic, but still as a scholarly outsider. I am more of a historian of Anglo-American biblical interpretations than a theologian or biblical studies expert per se. But as an active Baptist layperson and seminary professor, I am acutely aware of how “ecclesial exegesis” (a phrase from Reno’s subtitle) plays out in individual Protestant congregations. Indeed, one wishes that Reno would give more attention to how doctrine and Scripture should inform teaching in individual churches, not just in the Church at large or among Christian scholars. The local church or parish is, after all, where everyday Christians will garner much of their understanding (or misunderstanding) of doctrine and Scripture.

But Reno understandably takes a more scholarly approach, as he has long been on the frontline of academic debates over Scripture and theology. In particular, Reno served for more than a decade as the editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series, which sought to model the kind of rooted exegesis Reno prefers. The “basic premise” of that series, Reno explains, is that the “Nicene tradition plays an indispensable role in good biblical interpretation.” “Nicene” connotes the church’s historic beliefs about Jesus’ divine nature and the equality of the three persons of the Trinity.

The Nicene tradition, in Reno’s model, informs Bible interpretation by providing an operative assumption for scriptural exegesis. This assumption is that church doctrine and good Bible interpretation will typically be in accord. Thus, when faced with the absence of a detailed doctrinal explanation of the Trinity in Scripture, we should not imagine either that the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is inscrutable or that it is subject to our personal interpretive whims. Instead, we should study what mainstream church authorities have historically believed about the Trinity, and especially attend to orthodox, creedal consensus about the doctrine over the centuries. Unless Scripture gives us a compelling reason to do otherwise, we should assume that historic doctrine and Scripture are “on the same page.”

Dilemmas and unanswered questions abound in Reno’s approach, however. Part of the reason for the ambiguity is that Reno seeks a model that traditional Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians can affirm. (Reno is an adult convert to Catholicism.) He consistently emphasizes the flexibility of his system, which he explains is not a “method” of interpretation. It is, instead, the conviction of a Bible reader that he or she should “trust in the scriptural genesis and biblical genius of the church’s tradition.”

This all proceeds in good First Things fashion. In 1994, before Reno’s tenure there, First Things produced the traditionalist ecumenical document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The magazine has long served as a hub for discussion among religious traditionalists of many stripes. But Catholics and evangelicals also have deep, perhaps insurmountable differences regarding the relative weight of church tradition and the Bible. Some doctrines that Catholics see as part of the “Nicene tradition” seem biblically aberrant to Protestants. Catholics likewise reject certain Protestant doctrines because they do not accord with Catholic teaching. Traditional Protestants and progressive biblical scholars ironically share similar doubts about the value of church tradition, and both focus heavily on the text of Scripture, even though their views of the divine inspiration of Scripture differ completely.

Reno acknowledges the tensions between Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture and doctrine. He insightfully raises questions such as, What should Christians do about “church teachings that are not found in the Bible”? Conservative Protestants will have a ready answer: if a teaching is not found in the Bible, then dispense with it. But it’s not always that easy, as seen with trinitarian doctrine. Or consider the immorality of abortion, a moral stance held widely among traditional Protestants and officially taught by the Catholic Church. Yet while the sinfulness of abortion is easily inferred from Scripture (especially if one equates it with murder), the act of intentionally terminating an unborn child’s life is not specifically addressed in the Bible.

Far more problematic for Protestant-Catholic unity are other doctrines “not found in the Bible” that Catholics affirm and Protestants don’t. Again, traditional Protestants often adhere to tenets that faithful Christians have reasonably inferredfrom the Bible, ones that were crystallized in the church’s early centuries through prayerful interpretation of the text. Protestants will not, however, promote doctrines that appear to have little to no basis in Scripture, especially when the precept is a relative latecomer in church history. This problem emerges clearly, as Reno notes, with regard to Catholic teachings about the Virgin Mary.

This is not the place to review the longer history of Marian doctrine. The example of the bodily assumption of Mary can suffice. In Reno’s framework, a faithful Catholic should assume that Scripture accords with this doctrine since the bodily assumption is official church teaching. From a Protestant perspective, however, there is no evidence in canonical Scripture for the idea that Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven when her life ended. Indeed, there is little evidence for Christian adherence to this belief before its appearance in apocryphal sources in roughly the fifth century A.D. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church did not officially articulate the bodily assumption until 1950.

Reno knows all this, of course. But he seems more optimistic than I am that Catholics and Protestants can use his framework of theological interpretation in basically similar ways. Catholics will always struggle with the question of what to do when non-Scriptural doctrines become official church teachings. Protestants will always struggle with uncertainty about what the “Nicene tradition” entails, since Scripture itself must remain the supreme authority for all belief and practice. Even the recitation of the Nicene Creed (which we do regularly at my current church) will seem a little curious to many Protestants. As foundational as that creed is, it is not the Bible. It doesn’t carry the same weight.

Despite these unresolved tensions, I applaud Reno’s effort. We live in a time when Western elites are increasingly contemptuous of Christian convictions. Some Catholics and self-described evangelicals treat orthodox precepts like a buffet line: you pick what you like and leave behind what you don’t. Christians who believe in historic orthodoxy desperately need clarity about how to interpret Scripture in line with the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Reno is a most articulate leader in that effort.

Thomas Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of several books including Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh.