Article Review: Senses of Scripture in the Second Century

Summary of Article

In his paper, Bingham argues against the traditional understanding of the development of the New Testament scriptural canon.1 Specifically, he argues against the view that certain books (such as The Shepherd of Hermas) were considered by Christians to be inspired and authoritative early in the history of the faith, only to lose this standing (to be “decanonized”) later on. Bingham’s method involves a close examination of the way in which St Irenaeus refers to different scriptural texts (both those which were later received as canonical and those which were not) in his writings.2

Bingham discovers a pattern in Irenaeus in which the saint tends to identify his scriptural quotations as being either prophet, apostle, lord, or a more generic scripture.3 He argues that while a quotation identified under the name of prophet, apostle or lord always refers to a text Irenaeus considered to be canonical, a quotation identified as scripture (γραφη) sometimes refers to texts which Irenaeus considered to be inspired and authoritative and other times does not.4 Bingham then constructs elaborate and detailed arguments in an attempt to demonstrate that despite the fact St Irenaeus appears to quote extracanonical texts as if they are equal in authority to canonical ones, he actually more or less accepted exactly the same New Testament canon that Christians accept today.5

Academic Comment

Bingham correctly identifies that there are different sub categories of “scripture”, but his mistake is to assume that these different sub-categories can ultimately be sorted into the two broad categories of “canonical” and “non-canonical”. It seems far more reasonable to assume that for Irenaeus (and other church fathers of the time), all the scriptures that they quote were considered by them to be authoritative and canonical. This can be easily and simply demonstrated by the mere fact that Iranaeus deploys these quotes to illustrate and prove the points that he is trying to make. What would be the point of quoting from a text which is non-authoritative in order to prove an argument? Clearly either Irenaeus or his audience (most likely both) considered all of the texts that he was quoting to hold authority, otherwise he would not have bothered to reference them at all.

Bingham’s argument suffers from an ideological (specifically an Evangelical Protestant) commitment to the idea that there has always been one single canon of authoritative and inspired scriptures, even if the church did not fully recognise it until later on in history. He attempts to read this presupposition back into history and is forced to employ labyrinth and convoluted arguments in an attempt to shoehorn Irenaeus to fit this narrative.

Bingham attempts to argue that the texts later received by the church as canonical are the exact same texts that Irenaeus received as canonical in his day; he attempts to argue that the texts later rejected by the church were likewise never considered to have canonical authority by Irenaeus. His argument is unconvincing because it is overly complex. But even assuming that he were correct, a big problem with his argument is that it is constructed entirely on the basis of a single church father. Bingham tries to draw sweeping conclusions about the doctrine and beliefs of the early church purely based on his analysis of Irenaeus.

This is problematic because Christianity has never been one uniform faith. From the beginning up to the present day, there are many and various scriptural canons in use throughout the Christian world. There has never at any point in history been one single scriptural canon which all Christians everywhere agree on. Furthermore, certain quarters of Christianity have more rigidly defined their canons than others. Catholicism dogmatically defined its scriptural canon at the council of Trent, whereas Irenaeus in his day was merely working with the scriptures that he had received. This being the case, it seems far more simple and reasonable to assume that Irenaeus understood all of the scriptures he was quoting to be inspired and authoritative at minimum, while the question of whether or not he understood them to be “canonical” is something of an anachronism as the idea of “canonicity” had not really been fleshed out in his day.

Counter Thesis

Bingham’s argument depends heavily on the definition and bounds of the word “γραφη”. To get a better understanding of the scope this word as it was used during apostolic and new testament times, it’s helpful to analyse the New Testament itself.

In discussions of inspiration, authority and scriptural canonicity, Protestants and Catholics alike often refer to 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

σὺ δὲ μένε ἐν οἷς ἔμαθες καὶ ἐπιστώθης, εἰδὼς παρὰ τίνων ἔμαθες, καὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ βρέφους ἱερὰ γράμματα οἶδας, τὰ δυνάμενά σε σοφίσαι εἰς σωτηρίαν διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ· πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.6

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.7

When asked to prove that the bible is inspired, the average Evangelical will flip to this passage and quote it as a proof text while saying something along the lines of “See? ‘All scripture is God-breathed’; The bible claims itself to be inspired”.8 This argument is problematic on so many levels. Firstly, it is blatantly circular reasoning.9 Secondly, strictly speaking, this passage does not say “the 66 books of the protestant canon are inspired”, neither does it say “the old testament is inspired” (as many will try to argue when the previous objections are pointed out to them). Literally, it says all scripture is inspired.

Now, the common move at this point is to argue about the definition and bounds of the word “scripture” (γραφη). Apologists and theologians will attempt via various interesting means to argue that “scripture” is a word which here refers to their canon of inspired texts, and not to some other competing scriptural canon. This may be a valid eisegesis, but it is worlds away from being a valid exegesis.

Let us attempt a brief exegesis to try and extract the true limits and bounds of the word γραφη as used in this passage (and by extension also gain some insight into how St Irenaeus understands the word). Three important premises must be established:

  1. According to tradition, the author of the letter was Saint Paul10

  2. In verse 15, Paul describes Timothy as being acquainted with “sacred writings” “from childhood”

  3. Timothy was a gentile, not a Jew.

It follows from these observations that when Paul refers to the “holy scriptures” (γραφη) which Timothy grew up with, he is not referring to the bible, or even to the old testament. As a gentile, Timothy would have grown up immersed in pagan culture and literature. It is therefore far more probably that the scriptures which Timothy was exposed to growing up included things such as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, perhaps even Ovid’s metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aenid. While it is certainly possible to make an argument that Timothy grew up reading the Torah, it is implausible, and the more plausible proposition is that the writings Timothy grew up reading were pagan in origin.

This theory becomes even more compelling when St Paul is accepted as the author of the letter. In the book of Acts, when Paul travels to Athens and preaches to the Greeks, he quotes the Greek poets and philosophers while making his arguments, and he pointedly does not quote the Jewish scriptures.11 If anything, this shows that Paul acknowledges some degree of authority and usefulness in the pagan Greek sources which he employs to bolster his arguments and preaching.

Paul clarifies his evangelistic approach in the letter of 1 Corinthians:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.12

This indicates that when preaching, Paul would adopt the dogmatic framework and canonical scriptures of whichever people he was preaching to. When he was preaching the Gospel to Jews, he would quote the Torah, Psalms and Prophets. When he was preaching to pagans, he would utilise the scriptural and traditional authorities which those pagans respected.

Presumably if Paul was around and evangelising today in a cosmopolitan city like Sydney, he would quote the Qu’ran and Hadith to any Muslims he encountered; he would reference the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata to any Hindus he came across; he would cite the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants while preaching to Mormon Christians; and he would make reference to the Catechism and the many Papal encyclicals when disputing with Catholics.

In light of Paul’s own description of his evangelistic method, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 makes much more sense. When Paul says “all scripture” is inspired, he literally means all scripture. He’s not trying to make some statement about the inspiration of a limited canon of scriptural books as received by Jews, Catholics or Protestants today; he is instead affirming the value and usefulness of all scripture. To spell it out bluntly, when Paul says all scripture, he is thinking not only of the Old Testament, but also of all of the pagan literature which Timothy was exposed to growing up, as well as the sacred texts of every culture, tradition and religion throughout the entire world. Not only the Bible, but also the Bhagavad Gita, the Qu’ran and the Dao De Jing are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” and such texts “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.“

Thus, Paul is not here making an apologetic argument for the inspiration of the Protestant or Catholic biblical canon, but he is instead affirming the supreme and abiding value of all scripture in the fullest and most inclusive sense.

Conclusion

Given that the word “scripture” (γραφη) as employed by St Paul was so wide as to include the cultural texts (both sacred and mundane) of every culture the entire world over, this should help us understand how St Irenaeus approached the issues of scripture, canon and authority. St Irenaeus evidently respected and employed a wide variety of scriptural texts to make his theological points. There is no reason to assume that he understood the texts he was quoting to be anything other than inspired and authoritative. Binghams’ argument is driven by modern evangelical ideological commitments which he then reads back into the historical record. The result is an extremely convoluted and involved argument which is hard to follow. A simpler solution is just to assume that when Paul says “all scripture” he literally means all scripture. And so when St Irenaeus refers to “scripture” (γραφη) he is most likely using the word in a similarly loose and inclusive way.

Bibliography

Catholic Answers. “According to Scripture. Why the ‘Bible Alone’ is an unworkable rule of faith.” Accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/according-to-scripture

Compelling Truth. “Is the Bible really the Word of God? Accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.compellingtruth.org/Bible-Word-of-God.html.

D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Senses of Scripture in the Second Century: Irenaeus, Scripture, and Noncanonical Christian Texts,” The Journal of Religion Vol. 97 (2017): 26-55

Genesis Park. “Evidence that the Bible is God’s Word.” Accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/essays/gods-word/

Got Questions. “Is the Bible truly God’s Word?”, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-God-Word.html.

1D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Senses of Scripture in the Second Century: Irenaeus, Scripture, and Noncanonical Christian Texts,” The Journal of Religion Vol. 97 (2017): 26.

2Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 27

3Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 31

4Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 32

5Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 33-52

61 Tim 3:14-17 (SBLGNT)

71 Tim 3:14-17 (RSVCE, mildly edited)

8Three examples of this phenomenon were discovered within 60 seconds of a google search with the terms “prove that the bible is gods word”: “Is the Bible truly God’s Word?”, Got Questions, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-God-Word.html. “Is the Bible really the Word of God?, Compelling Truth, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.compellingtruth.org/Bible-Word-of-God.html. “Evidence that the Bible is God’s Word”, Genesis Park, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/essays/gods-word/

9“According to Scripture. Why the ‘Bible Alone’ is an unworkable rule of faith”, Catholic Answers, accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/according-to-scripture

10Critical scholarship sometimes disputes Pauline authorship, but there is no academic consensus that the traditional attribution of 2 Timothy to Paul is spurious.

11Cf Acts 17:16-34

121 Cor 9:19-23 (RSVCE)

 

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