|Most people need a "safety net" affirming their
religious faith and practice. The "net" must provide the
believer certainty, to ensure that faith is based on "Absolute
Truth." The stakes are too high to allow for anything less.
Generally, for Protestants, the safety net is the Bible, regarded
(some poetically; others literally) as "the (inerrant) word of
God." For Roman Catholics the "net" is both Bible and
church tradition. In Catholic faith, the church produced the Bible, and
thus is its authorized interpreter. And so it has happened that a
fourth-century collection of ancient Graeco-Roman texts, the New
Testament, continues to define Christian faith and practice.
Faith unexamined, however, is akin to self-delusion. And this
observation, if true, encourages a close look at the ancient collection.
The story "about" the Bible raises significant issues. From
the historical records, the collection does not appear to be a
deliberate product. A plausible case can be made that the church
stumbled into the collection, a process lasting more than 300 years, and
the Christian Bible was perhaps not finalized until the 16th century.
The collection was shaped by competing religious factions, economics,
personal ideologies, politics, the influence of larger churches and
more. Many texts were eventually excluded.
Nevertheless, the fourth-century collection is still religiously
quite diverse with four competing gospels, and Paul's undisputed letters
vying with later texts in matters of faith and practice. Surprisingly,
second-century Christians included texts in the collection based on
their pre-Scripture faith; yet today's Christians judge the validity of
modern religious experience by Scripture and creedal confessions.
Virtually all surviving New Testament manuscripts are from the third
century and later, even though they were composed more than 100 years
earlier. No original manuscripts exist. All we have are copies and no
two are exactly alike. Hence, New Testament texts read in church today
are constructs by modern scholars, who make them by bringing together
parts of later copies.
Reassessing the collection seems justified because from Jesus to the
fourth century there was neither a common "Christian
Scripture" nor megalithic institutions to shape Christian religious
experience. Christian Scripture was not generally available until the
invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Few Christians had
access to Bibles until relatively recently.
Thus the Christian God was not always experienced through text and
creed. Is that still possible — to live a Christian existence apart
from mandates of ancient texts and modern institutions, apart from
Biblical constraints and ecclesiastical creeds? Possibly, but probably
not for people unacquainted with the history of how we got the Bible.
For them, the Bible will always be a holy relic, commanding religious
awe and obedience, but forbidding critique and dialogue. The question
is: Should the history of the Bible influence how we regard and evaluate
Charles W. Hedrick, Springfield, is emeritus professor of
religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University.