“Scripture alone” – but Scripture is never alone

Michael Spencer recently hosted an open thread on his blog on the question of How Much Can The Bible Do “Alone?”, that is, without someone there to teach or explain it.

Jaroslav Pelikan (see previous posts 1 | 2) comments on this issue as follows:

Occasionally, certain devout believers have even pushed this power of the written Word of God and inspired Scripture to the point of attributing their conversion directly to it.

The classic example of this is St Augustine, who describes how he was finally converted when he opened the Bible and happened to read: “Let us behave with decency as befits the day: no drunken orgies, no debauchery or vice, no quarrels or jealousies!”. Pelikan also points to the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Gideons in distributing Bibles, at least partly for the purpose of bringing people to faith through reading the printed Word.

However, as Pelikan continues:

…if we probe the historical evidence, we will often find a human voice hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the written or printed page.

Hence Augustine was prompted to pick up the Scriptures by hearing a child’s voice calling out, “Pick it up and read it!”, and:

…the Bibles and tracts of the Bible societies were often distributed by the hand of a living and speaking human being, not just by mail or in a tract rack.

And as Pelikan points out:

No book of the Tanakh [i.e. the Old Testament] or the New Testament is addressed explicitly to unbelievers, though they are certainly present prominently in both.


…for every paragraph in a letter or every chapter in a spiritual autobiography detailing someone’s conversion through reading the Book, there are hundreds in which it is the voice of a parent, friend or stranger – perhaps sometimes even a teacher or preacher – that was the force which did the challenging and summoning and inviting.

The message that voice conveyed was, with or without quotation marks, the message of the Book, or at any rate it almost always claimed to be just that. And the bearer of the message had usually read the Book or had even memorised large portions of it. But the agency issuing the invitation and distributing the Book was not a library or a classroom but a community of faith and of worship.

So the words of St Paul continue to hold true as the general rule: “faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17).

It often strikes me that most accounts of conversions through the written Word alone, as with most accounts of conversions by “direct” means supposedly without the Word’s involvement (e.g. accounts of visions), come down to how the people frame and interpret and describe their own experiences. Those who experience conversions of this nature will almost always have had some prior contact with the proclaimed Word and the community of faith, even if the individual’s account of their conversion focuses on those aspects that took place apart from that Word and community.

That’s not at all to dismiss people’s experiences; just to say that people may have “had the experience but missed [or mistaken] the meaning”.

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10 Responses to “Scripture alone” – but Scripture is never alone

  1. Ben says:

    Amen, and that underlines that Christ came to resurrect a Body, not establish a school. The Church is and grows organically. Behind St Augustine and before the child’s voice was the living witness of his mother St Monica. Even in Paul’s case we can be certain that the road to Damascus wasn’t first time he had heard the Lord’s voice: Paul heard him with each cry of a dying Christian whom he had put to death.

  2. Rick says:

    Good discussion. Pelikan’s points seem better as counterpoints than as the full teaching on a subject. But he is not countering a straw man.

    Regarding Augustine’s conversion, I have to wonder whether even those who expected the Word to act alone would think that that passage alone could cause a conversion. Perhaps it could provide a tipping point. But the passage itself is a moral imperative rather than a description of what Jesus has done. If there is Gospel in the passage, it is that it is now day. But even that is a bit vague as to reference.

    I’ll give Augustine the benefit of the doubt here and assume he was better at identifying when things happened for him than I would be. But as fluent as Augustine is at describing his inner life, there are clearly some parts of this that have been left undescribed. Which is part of Pelikan’s and your point, too. Conversion narratives, for whatever reason, often leave a lot out.

    Your conclusion is good, too. Don’t question people’s experiential accounts too much. But don’t go changing your doctrine to fit them, either. Often if you knew more, both would harmonize quite well.

  3. Josh S says:

    Pelikan is wrong about one thing–most of the Prophets are addressed strictly to unbelievers in the surrounding pagan nations, or calling the pagan Hebrews back to the covenant.

  4. iMonk says:

    I think it is a misunderstanding- with all respect to a man whose shoes I’m not worthy to untie- to say that little is “explicitly addressed” to unbelievers. The idea that an intentional address- “O Theolphilus”- draws a limitation to Theophilus only is dangerous. Followed to the logical core, the Luke/Acts material would only be “Biblically, inerrantly” addressed to one man.

    The Gospel of John is clearly written to Christians and Jews and Greeks, and to believers and non-believers in all those communities. Canonical use is not determined strictly by the original addressees.

  5. Rick says:

    I agree that there is some problem in allowing address to be taken too narrowly. Nor do I think that Pelikan is forbidding unbelievers to read, say, the epistles. But he may have a point that their use would be different had they started, “To the unbelievers of the world” rather than as they did. I think it is a challenge to figure out just how well we match up with any given address. We should be receiving his advice differently when we match Corinth than when we don’t.

    I also wonder about the idea of following something like this to its logical core. Could that not be turned around? So if all the Bible is written to everybody with no distinction, what are we to do with “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” or “Slay every man his brother”?

    I think the middle positions are better. Middle positions that will disappear if we push everything to it’s logical conclusion. I believe that Scripture is intended for our instruction, and is beneficial to our use, but not always in the same way it was offered to its first audience.

    I would have more confidence in the ability of the Gospel of John to convert an unbeliever by the mere reading, though. This has been known to happen often. And the verse, “These things have been written that you may believe…” seems to suggest a broader goal even for its first readers. Luke’s address to Theophilus is also apologetic, in a way that makes an unbeliever an appropriate reader. Here, I think the specific address is actually helpful when you want to argue for offering it for the sake of persuading an outsider of the truth of the Gospel.

  6. John H says:

    I agree that much of the Bible – not least John’s Gospel, which played a large part in bringing me back to faith – can function as a highly effective means of addressing the Word to unbelievers.

    However, the easy availability of printed Bibles colours our perspective on this. We read those words in John, and transfer that experience across to people in very different circumstances. It may well be that reading John’s Gospel would have converted people in the early centuries, but only a small minority of non-believers (e.g. highly-educated pagans such as Augustine) would have had any possibility of reading any of the Scriptures.

    For most people, their encounter would be by the spoken Word, by individual Christians and/or within the community of faith. Most of Paul’s epistles, for example, were intended to be read aloud to the congregation, rather than being read by individuals.

    So that’s the distinction I’d want to draw: between how the Bible can (and does) function – and let’s rejoice that the printed Word has provided so many further opportunities for people to encounter the gospel – and the rather narrower circumstances in which it was originally written and intended to be read. However, let’s not forget those original circumstances either, or else we risk distorting what we read.

    (See also Peter Jensen’s very helpful comments on this, which I blogged way back in 2004.)

  7. steve martin says:

    I think when we are able to rightly understand the “Word” to be Christ Himself, expressed in Bible, in preaching, in baptism and holy communion, we can more easily appreciate that Christ acts upon the hearts of whom He will, when He will, how He wills.

    Can someone who has never heard anything about Jesus before, pick up a bible in a hotel room and come to faith…certainly.
    And someone who has been in church all his life and had the gospel preached to him for 70 years and never really ‘heard the message’ and then comes to faith on his deathbed…or not.

    And every scenario in between.

    Hearing seems to be the most desireable way for the gospel to take hold of someone, but God is not hindered by that if He’s after someone.

  8. Andrew says:

    You might want to check out some of my current posts. It’s funny how I thought it important to think and write about the very same thing as you are–sola scriptura vs. solo scriptura.

  9. Josh S says:

    Printing or no printing, God sent Jonah to Nineveh. Amos was told by God to “Proclaim to the fortresses of Ashdod and to the fortresses of Egypt.” Obadiah is spoken to Edom, not Israel or Judah.

    As I said, the assertion that none of the Bible is explicitly directed toward unbelievers is simply not true, as in there are numerous explicit counterexamples in Scripture, especially the Old Testament. You don’t even have to go for hand-wavey arguments about John. You simply have to draw out the many examples of God giving prophets words to speak to pagan nations.

    Why are you ignoring this?

  10. John H says:

    Josh: to be precise, Pelikan’s statement was that no book in the Bible was explicitly addressed to non-believers. The point being that you can’t simply tell someone to turn to page 729 or whatever to read a book that’s addressed to them as a non-Christian reader.

    And also to be precise, what we have in the books of the prophets are records of verbal proclamations, not writings that are themselves addressed to non-believers. It’s not that the Book of Amos was on sale in Egyptian bookshops or being distributed as a tract in Ashdod. Ditto Jonah, which is very clearly addressing itself as a book to circumstances and attitudes among the people of Israel.

    (Indeed, I wonder how many of the prophecies concerning pagan nations were actually proclaimed to those nations, and how much it is something of a literary device, framing a message to Israel in terms of a message concerning one of the surrounding nations. Certainly that is the case in the opening chapters of Amos, and – on the basis of a quick glance through to remind myself of what it says – that is my reading of Obadiah too, in particular looking at vv.17ff.)

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