Project Canterbury

A Bishop Among His Flock

By the Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop of Bethlehem, U.S.A.

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1914.

Chapter VIII. The Relation of the Bible to the Church

BY common consent the Bible is the authoritative record of Christianity. The sixth Article of our Church declares that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation; so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

We often speak of the Bible as the Book of peace and good-will among men. As a matter of fact, it has in these latter days become a Book of war and controversy and division. We behold at the present time the Christian world cut up into a large number of Churches, all appealing for disciples, and each one claiming to be founded on the Bible. These Churches in many instances differ from one another in things most fundamental. They disagree as to what is necessary to believe, not only as to Church government and order, but, what is sadder still, as to the essential verities of the faith itself. They hold diametrically opposite views as to the nature and person of Christ, as to the significance of Holy Baptism, the Holy Communion, the personality and work of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the conditions of membership in the Church.

Nothing can be more evident than that they are not all in harmony with the spirit and purpose of God's revelation. It is also clearly manifest that these Churches number among their several constituencies many thousands of earnest and sincere, conscientious, intelligent, and Godly people. The most significant and saddest feature of the situation is that every sect in the Christian world quotes the Bible as the source and justification of its existence. Men equally learned, equally sincere, equally Godly, deduce the most opposite conclusion from the very same words. Two great men whose names are familiar to us all honestly and earnestly sought to know what the Bible taught about predestination and free will. They were George Whitfield and John Wesley. On their knees they asked for divine guidance as to this question, which was vexing their souls. They supplicated the Holy Spirit to give them light on a matter at that time regarded as so important. They both rose from their knees more convinced than ever that each one was right in his preconceived opinion. Whitfield, the predestinarian, was sure his brother, Wesley, the staunch Arminian, was entirely wrong. From the same book and the same words proceed all this confusion of tongues which has changed our Zion into a perfect babel of discord. From the same holy revelation proceed party wrangling, sectarian strife, and bitterness, with all the sad weakness and disintegration which cause the enemy to blaspheme and so greatly mar and hamper the onward progress of God's blessed work in the world.

There never was a time when an interpreter of the Book itself was more needed as in the days of the Ethiopian Eunuch. "How readest thou?" is a question second only in importance, if indeed it is second, to what is written. Upon "how" we read the same book and the same words will very largely depend the value of what we read.

Can any one, we ask, seriously believe that the present state of Christendom, as we now behold it, is according to the divine will and purpose? Can any one claim that what we see before our very eyes is in harmony with that great high-priestly appeal of the Master who prayed that His Disciples might be one in order that the world might believe that God had sent Him?

It is natural for us to inquire whether there is any sane, reasonable Scriptural theory whereby a means of escape from the present unhappy confusion can be secured. Is the "Bible, and the Bible alone" theory the one only hope of relief? Was the Bible ever intended to be alone our guide through the ages? Was it ever designed that it should be studied and read alone, and quite apart from the divine society, or mystical body--the Church--which gave us the Bible? For the due consideration of this question let us now ask, What is the true relation of the Bible to the Church?

We answer that the Church is the divine witness and keeper and interpreter of the Word of God. Most people think of the Church as founded on the Bible. As a matter of historical fact, the Church which our Lord established was here long before the Bible. First the Church came, and then the Bible. First the divine society, then an account of its progress and work. First the witness, then the writing. First the messenger, then the message. First the agent, then the agencies and helpers. We cannot too clearly understand that this is the divine order as history records it. The Church was actively at work for more than twenty years before one line of the New Testament was written. The earliest books of the New Testament, the first and second Epistles to the Thessalonians, were not written until a score of years after the Day of Pentecost, which was the birthday of the Christian Church. As to the four Gospels, the earliest was not committed to writing before the year of our Lord 65. Before the New Testament was finished the Church had been at work for fifty years, and had gathered thousands of souls, a great flock of baptized and confirmed communicants, into its bosom. More than three hundred years had passed before the Church decided out of many writings and copies and manuscripts, all claiming to be inspired, what books should make up the New Testament. What is the Bible? The New Testament contains the writings of holy men testifying to certain facts about the life and teaching of the Master. The New Testament gives in part a history of what Christ said and did, and it imparts religious teaching and exhortation, based on His life and work. The Bible is a book written in the Church, and for the Church, and by the Church, and to the Church. So the Church came first, and then the New Testament, written for and to its own members. The Bible was never intended to stand solitary and alone and apart from the Church which wrote it. It is the word of God, the account of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is the product of the Church. The Church, through the operation of the Holy Ghost, created it. As the Church wrote the Bible and gave us the Bible, so the Church is the natural and logical interpreter of the meaning of the Bible. To say this is not to disparage the Holy Scriptures by exalting the Church. They belong together. They are one great revelation. They constitute the double witness and complete deposit from God. To go to the Church for the meaning of the Bible is to put both Church and Holy Scripture in their true historical place and perspective. We do not disparage a publication because we exalt the society which issues the publication.

Rather we honor the one by exalting the other. Thus, when we say that the Creed interprets the Bible, we do not disparage the Bible because we exalt the Creed, any more than we disparage the Church when we say that the Bible proves the Creed. Take the Virgin Birth as a single illustration. Are we to believe that our blessed Lord was born of the Virgin Mary? Church and Bible give the same reply. The Church taught it before the Bible recorded it. The Bible recorded it because the Church taught it. For us Churchmen the matter is authoritatively settled once for all by the Apostles' Creed, as proved by the New Testament.

The sad delusion and historical error of supposing that the Church is built on the Scriptures is the root and cause of all the divisions and sects that have sprung up and wrecked the faith of multitudes and divided the Christian world into many discordant factions. All the recent denominations, the oldest of which is not more than three hundred and fifty years old, have been founded on the modern notion that any one can set up a Church based on some text or some view of the Bible. We Churchmen rejoice that our Church, the Church of the Apostles, the Church of history, does not rest upon the Bible, but that the Bible rests upon the Church. The Church is a divine institution, born on the Day of Pentecost, long before a line of the New Testament was written. The New Testament is the work of the Apostolic Church. The Church is the depository of the faith once for all delivered to the Saints, and enshrined in the word of God. The Bible proves the doctrines of the Church and bears witness to the practice of the Church. The Church teaches nothing as necessary to salvation which cannot be proved by the clear testimony of Holy Scripture. Therefore the Church is the custodian and interpreter of the word of God, as it alone, guided by the Holy Spirit, has given us that word, and passed upon the genuineness and authenticity of every book of the Bible.

In the movement now happily going on in behalf of Christian unity we may be sure that our Church's appeal to the practice of the primitive Church, as it has come down the ages, with the Bible bearing witness to the truth of its teaching, will of necessity be the guiding principle of the great reconciliation for which so many of Christ's disciples, in all the churches, are so earnestly praying.

Not the Bible apart from the Church--the one body to which we are indebted for that priceless record--but the Bible and the Church, is destined to be the rallying cry of the future. As inevitably all men must go to the Church to determine what is the Bible and whence it came, so too, sooner or later, led by the spirit of God, men will seek in the authentic records of the primitive Church the true answer to the many questions now dividing the Christian world.

To accept the Church's guidance and authority and verdict in recognizing the contents and the essential character of the Canon of Holy Scripture, and then to refuse it any voice whatever in its interpretation, will at last be seen to be both illogical and impossible.

Be assured that there can be no antithesis between the judgments of the Church in those ages, when it was still unimpaired by division, and an honest and fearless criticism of the sacred text. They hang together. The function of the Church is not to add new doctrines to the Apostolic deposit, but to show what the Apostolic deposit in the New Testament really does contain.

The Christian revelation was, in fact, committed not only to the pages of the Sacred Book, but to the guardianship of the sacred society; and the second factor can just as little be dispensed with as the first. If the Church may not contradict or exceed the teaching of the Book, the true authority and import of the Book cannot be long upheld, as we now begin to realize, apart from that illuminated consciousness of the Church which originally bequeathed it to us and certified it as being the word of God.

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