As a Jewish convert to Christ via evangelical Protestantism, I naturally wanted to know God better through the reading of the Scriptures. In fact, it had been through reading the Gospels in the “forbidden book” called the New Testament, at age sixteen, that I had come to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our promised Messiah. In my early years as a Christian, much of my religious education came from private Bible reading. By the time I entered college, I had a pocket-sized version of the whole Bible that was my constant companion. I would commit favorite passages from the Scriptures to memory, and often quote them to myself in times of temptation-or to others as I sought to convince them of Christ. The Bible became for me-as it is to this day-the most important book in print. I can say from my heart with Saint Paul the Apostle, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
That’s the good news!
The bad news is that often I would decide for myself what the Scriptures meant. For example, I became so enthusiastic about knowing Jesus as my close and personal friend that I thought my own awareness of Him was all I needed. So I would mark verses about Jesus with my yellow highlighter, but pass over passages concerning God the Father, or the Church, or baptism. I saw the Bible as a heavenly instruction manual. I didn’t think I needed the Church, except as a good place to make friends or to leans more about the Bible so I could be a better do-it-yourself Christian. I came to think that I could build my life, and the Church, by the Book. I mean, I took sola scriptura (“only the Bible”) seriously! Salvation history was clear to me: God sent His Son, together they sent the Holy Spirit, then came the New Testament to explain salvation, and finally the Church developed.
Close, maybe, but not close enough.
Let me hasten to say that the Bible is all God intends it to be. No problem with the Bible. The problem lay in the way I individualized it, subjecting it to my own personal interpretations-some not so bad, others not so good.
A STRUGGLE FOR UNDERSTANDING
It was not long after my conversion to Christianity that I found myself getting swept up in the tide of religious sectarianism, in which Christians would part ways over one issue after another. It seemed, for instance, that there were as many opinions on the Second Coming as there were people in the discussion. So we’d all appeal to the Scriptures. “I believe in the Bible. If it’s not in the Bible I don’t believe it,” became my war cry. What I did not realize was that everyone else was saying the same thing! It was not the Bible, but each one’s private interpretation of it, that became our ultimate authority. In an age which highly exalts independence of thought and self-reliance, I was becoming my own pope! The guidelines I used in interpreting Scripture seemed simple enough: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense. I believed that those who were truly faithful and honest in following this principle would achieve Christian unity.
To my surprise, this “common sense” approach led not to increased Christian clarity and unity, but rather to a spiritual free-for-all! Those who most strongly adhered to believing “only the Bible” tended to become the, most factious, divisive, and combative of Christians-perhaps unintentionally. In fact, it seemed to me that the more one held to the Bible as the only source of spiritual authority, the more factious and sectarian one became. We would even argue heatedly over verses on love! Within my circle of Bible-believing friends, I witnessed a mini-explosion of sects and schismatic movements, each claiming to be “true to the Bible” and each in bitter conflict with the others. Serious conflict arose over every issue imaginable: charismatic gifts, interpretation of prophecy, the proper way to worship, communion, Church government, discipleship, discipline in the Church, morality, accountability, evangelism, social action, the relationship of faith and works, the role of women, and ecumenism.
The list is endless. In fact any issue at all could-and often did-cause Christians to part ways. The fruit of this sectarian spirit has been the creation of literally thousands of independent churches and denominations. As I myself became increasingly sectarian, my radicalism intensified, and I came to believe that all churches were unbiblical: to become a member of any church was to compromise the Faith. For me, “church” meant “the Bible, God, and me.” This hostility towards the churches fit in well with my Jewish background. I naturally distrusted all churches because I felt they had betrayed the teachings of Christ by having participated in or passively ignored the persecution of the Jews throughout history. But the more sectarian I became-to the point of being obnoxious and antisocial-the more I began to realize that something was seriously wrong with my approach to Christianity. My spiritual life wasn’t working. Clearly, my privately held beliefs in the Bible and what it taught were leading me away from love and community with my fellow Christians, and therefore away from Christ.
As Saint John the Evangelist wrote, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). This division and hostility were not what had drawn me to Christ. And I knew the answer was not to deny the Faith or reject the Scriptures. Something had to change. Maybe it was me. I turned to a study of the history of the Church and the New Testament, hoping to shed some light on what my attitude toward the Church and the Bible should be. The results were not at all what I expected.
THE BIBLE OF THE APOSTLES
My initial attitude was that whatever was good enough for the Apostles would be good enough for me. This is where I got my first surprise. As I mentioned previously, I knew that the Apostle Paul regarded Scripture as being inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). But I had always assumed that the “Scripture” spoken of in this passage was the whole Bible-both the Old and New Testaments. In reality, there was no “New Testament” when this statement was made. Even the Old Testament was still in the process of formulation, for the Jews did not decide upon a definitive list or canon of Old Testament books until after the rise of Christianity. As I studied further, I discovered that the early Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. This translation, which was begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century B.C., contained an expanded canon which included a number of the so-called “deuterocanonical” (or “apocryphal”) books.
Although there was some initial debate over these books, they were eventually received by Christians into the Old Testament canon. In reaction to the rise of Christianity, the Jews narrowed their canons and eventually excluded the deuterocanonical books-although they still regarded them as sacred. The modern Jewish canon was not rigidly fixed until the third century A.D. Interestingly, it is this later version of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, rather than the canon of early Christianity, that is followed by most modern Protestants today. When the Apostles lived and wrote, there was no New Testament and no finalized Old Testament. The concept of “Scripture” was much less well-defined than I had envisioned.
[To Be Continued)