In our past segments, we have looked at some of the basic beliefs of Christianity, especially the main ones that developed in the 300’s and 400’s when Christianity became encapsulated inside an institutional organization called “the church.” We saw how these beliefs are interpretations that we may or may not feel obligated to follow today. As go down the path toward a new interpretation of Christianity—toward starting over with Christianity—the best place to start is with the Scriptures. And so now we need to start thinking about the Bible—the Christian scriptures.
What Is the Bible?
First we need to think about what scripture is, in general terms. Scripture is writings that a religion considers sacred or foundational. Many religions have scriptures, not just Christianity.
The Christian scriptures are known, collectively, as the Bible. The word “bible,” in generally usage, means “books,” and so we might expect to find books in the Christian Bible, and that’s what we find. The Bible is a collection of 66 separate books collected together in one book.
If you look at the table of contents of a Bible, you’ll notice it is divided into two parts—the Old Testament and the New Testament. Christians do not agree on the meaning of “old” and “new” in “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” There are different opinions about what “old” and “new” should mean there, but in general we can say that “old” represents that which came before Jesus, while “new” represents that which is connected with and after Jesus. Jesus represents the pivotal point in history as far as Christians are concerned, so history can be divided into before Jesus, or “old,” and after Jesus, or “new.”
The word “testament” generally means something that supports a fact or belief. It’s similar to the word “testify.” When you testify, like when you testify in court, you state what you believe to be true—you state your belief about something—and you state why you believe that. And so the Bible states what Christians believe to be true, and it gives support for those beliefs. It “testifies” to Christian beliefs.
However, if you open a Bible and start reading it, you will notice that it is not a collection of beliefs. The Bible does not state, “We believe this, this, and this.” It’s not a list of beliefs. It is a collection of various kinds of ancient writings. For the most part, Christian beliefs are not stated in the Bible, they are derived from these ancient writings.
“Derived” is the key word. To derive something means to obtain it from something else, so Christian beliefs are derived from the ancient writings that comprise the Bible. The process by which these beliefs are derived is called “interpretation.” Interpretation, when applied to the Bible, means that you try to find meaning in and behind the ancient writings.
In other words, Christian beliefs are not listed in the Bible, they are derived from interpreting the Bible, from finding meaning in these ancient writings. So basically, you take these ancient writings, you decide what they mean, and from that meaning you develop Christian beliefs.
The problem is that interpretation is not an exact science. It’s not an objective process, it’s a subjective process. Because of that, it depends on personal feelings and opinions. Since it depends on personal feelings and opinions, different people, with their different feelings and opinions, will develop different interpretations.
For any one thing you point to in the Bible, there are a number of different possible interpretations—any number of different possible meanings that might be attached to it. Different people interpret the Bible differently.
That is why there is so much disagreement among Christians—different Christians read the same Bible but develop very different beliefs about God.
Why Is the Bible so Important in Christianity?
So if using scripture is such an imprecise thing, why is scripture so important in Christianity? Well, Christianity originated among people who were, at least to some extent, Jews. The religion of Judaism held scripture in very high regard. Jews saw at least some of their scriptures as having been dictated by God Himself. In other words, Jews believed their scriptures originated with God. Because of that, in the eyes of many Jews, their scriptures formed the basis, or ultimate authority, of their religion.
Christianity, from the earliest days, took the same attitude toward scripture. From Judaism, Christianity inherited the belief that God uses scripture to communicate with people. God inspires scripture; that is, God works within people to enable them to produce writings, so that although people wrote them down, they actually originated with God. These writings are then used as the ultimate authority in a religion, since they came from God. Christians developed that attitude toward Scripture.
But of course, Christians soon found themselves in the same position Judaism was in—these writings have to be interpreted, and people came up with all kinds of different interpretations of them. But Christianity, at that time, had an even bigger problem, a problem that, by and large, had already been settled in Judaism—the selection of what is and what is not scripture. In the early days of Christianity, there was no set scripture. Different Christians in different places used many different writings as scripture.
Who Decided What to Put in the Bible?
Back in the 300’s, when Constantine was pressuring the church hierarchy to decide on “correct” Christian beliefs, the church hierarchy realized they needed to produce an official set of Christian scriptures to back up what they determined to be the correct beliefs.
Since Christianity had emerged from within a Jewish setting, and since from earliest times Jesus had been interpreted in light of at least some of the Jewish scriptures, there was general agreement that the Jewish scriptures should form a part of the Christian scriptures, so the first decision was easy. Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures as part of their scriptures. By this time, most Jews were using books as their scriptures, so the Christians adopted these as the “Old Testament.”
But what else should they include? After all, Christianity was not Judaism, so they had to have more than just the Jewish scriptures.
Remember that scripture is writings that people feel are sacred and fundamental to their religion, and there were many writings circulating among different Christian groups that were being used, basically, as scripture. Estimates put the number of these writings at between 150 to 200 separate writings. Different Christian groups used different writings as scripture. So there was a whole pile of writings that were considered as scripture by someone.
As we talked about in another segment, back then Christians had all kinds of different interpretations of Jesus and what He did and what it all meant. There was not just one Christianity; there were many different Christianities. And so all these different writings that were circulating around being used as scripture did not agree—they presented different viewpoints. But the whole purpose of what the church hierarchy was doing was to get rid of the differing viewpoints and have just one, official Christianity. They couldn’t have contradictory scriptures. They had to decide what to put in and what not to put in.
The historical record does not give us a clear idea of the criteria they used to decide nor does it tell us the process by which they decided, but we do know from the historical record it was something they argued about over a long period of time. Finally, they reached a decision.
Remember from an earlier segment, when they first began the process of deciding which of the many different versions of Christianity was the “correct” one, they chose a version associated with the apostle Paul. Paul had written a number of letters during his time as a Christian, and many of them had survived, so they included 13 of those. There were also many writings that purported to relate the events in the life of Jesus. They chose four of those. They are what are called “Gospels.” No one knows why they chose four. Some say it was because of the four directions—north, south, east, and west—but no one knows for sure.
They also eventually chose ten other writings, for a total of 27 books in what would be called the “New Testament.” Out of the 150 to 200 writings they had to choose from, they chose 27.
These scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, now comprised the Christian Bible. From now on, they were the only scriptures authorized to be used. Christians were not permitted to use anything other than these official scriptures. By some accounts, the church leaders actively searched out and destroyed all the copies of other writings they could find, so that many of these writings disappeared forever.
Now the church had an official body of scripture to back up what they said was the “correct” version of Christianity. The situation in Christianity now was that there was an official church, official beliefs, and official scriptures that backed up what the church said. The church was now a complete, total organization with Christianity contained inside it.
Different People Interpret the Bible Differently
But a problem soon appeared. Remember earlier we talked about how the scriptures do not outline beliefs. They are ancient writings that have to be interpreted to get beliefs. It wasn’t long before people took these official scriptures and began interpreting them and getting different beliefs than what the church said was correct. People began coming up with all kinds of interpretations of the official scriptures that were different from the interpretations of the official church. On the basis of scripture, people began challenging the church over what were “correct” beliefs.
This undermined the authority of the church. If they claimed the scriptures as the basis for their authority, as the basis for saying their beliefs were the correct beliefs, but if others could take the same scriptures and come up with different beliefs, how could the church maintain its authority?
The Church as The Representative of God on Earth
They had to come up with something more than just scripture. They came up with the idea that they were the official church not only in the eyes of the Roman government, but also in the eyes of God. They claimed, in essence, that they, and they alone, were the representatives of God on earth. As part of that, they claimed that they were the only ones who were able to interpret scripture correctly. Basically, they said, “Our interpretation comes straight from God, and we are the only ones to whom God gives the correct interpretation, so if you want to know what scripture means, listen to us, and only to us.”
According to this idea, the correct interpretation of scripture was to be found only in the church. If you listened to anyone outside the church, or anyone who disagreed with the church, you were being led astray.
And so they said, basically, “We will tell you what the scriptures mean. In fact, you don’t even need to read them. Just listen to us—we’ll tell you what you need to know.”
The Church Has the Only Correct Interpretation of Scripture
As much as some things in Christianity have changed since then, that has never changed. For the most part, Christianity has maintained that the “correct” interpretation of scripture is to be found only within the church. Of course, “Which church?” is the big question. Is it the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, the church on the west side of town, the church on the east side of town? There are so many churches, and they’re all so different, so which one of these churches is the one to whom God gives the correct interpretation?
Who knows? But the church, in whichever one of the thousands of different forms of it there are, still maintains, basically, that it is only in church that you can get the correct interpretation of the scriptures.
So Why Not Throw Out the Bible?
So the situation in Christianity is that Christians claim to take their beliefs from scripture, but in order to get the beliefs from scripture, you first have to interpret scripture, and of course everyone interprets scripture differently, so you have all kinds of different, contradictory beliefs that people derive from scripture, so given that situation, of what use is scripture?
Well, it’s all we have.
If something was done in Jesus that represents the pivotal, turning point in human history, if this thing that was done in Jesus represents a unique thing that has ramifications for all of humankind, and if God desires for all humankind to be able to be aware of what was done, then it’s only logical that God would, in some way, provide some means for us to be aware of it. It wouldn’t make sense for God to have gone to all the trouble to do what was done in Jesus, only to have it disappear from the pages of history so that no one would ever know about it.
Basically, these scriptures are the only connection we have with what was done in Jesus. They’re the only way we have to know about it. So here’s where you have to take a leap of faith, and there’s no other way to do this other than by faith.
You choose to believe that God was in some way at work in those people who chose the 27 writings that comprise the New Testament so that enough survived for us to know what happened. We don’t have to care what their motives were. God could work through them, but He would also work in spite of them. Maybe they threw out a lot that should have been kept, maybe they narrowed things down too much, maybe they tried to suppress things they didn’t like, who knows? But in the end, you choose to believe that whatever they intended, God was somehow at work to be sure that at least the minimum we needed survived.
And that’s how scripture is Scripture. None of that can be proven. You either decide to believe it, or not. But you cannot have Christianity without the scriptures, because in the final analysis, they are the only way we have to go back to the earliest witness to what happened in Jesus. Without the scriptures, we would have no idea what happened. We would have no standard. Without the scriptures, we would have no way whatsoever to discern and test what anyone says about God.
I realize that this is the first time we’ve talked about taking anything on faith. This is the first thing you have to take on faith in Christianity, and there’s no other way except to just take it on faith. In order to have Christianity at all, you choose to believe that God was somehow at work in the process of choosing the scriptures to ensure that at least the minimum of what we need survived. You don’t have to agree with anything else that was done back then. You don’t have to agree with anything those people believed back then. You don’t have to agree with any of the doctrines they developed. You don’t have to agree with their interpretations of Scripture. But in order to have Christianity, you must choose to believe that God was somehow at work in the process of choosing the scriptures to ensure that at least the minimum of what we need survived—the minimum, that’s all.
From that, it follows that if we’re going to start over with Christianity, the place we need to start is with Scripture. That’s the only place we can start. We can’t start by listening to what someone today thinks. Why would I put what someone says today, 2000 years after Jesus, above what someone said about Jesus within a few years of Him being on earth?
To start over with Christianity, we need to go back as close as we can to the time of Jesus, and the only way we have of doing that is Scripture.
In the next segment, we’ll look at something from Scripture and see if we can find something Christianity discarded a long time ago.