The Connection of Scripture and Doctrine in Early Christian Exegesis

Jackson Lashier

The confusion among Christians regarding core doctrines of the faith, recently highlighted in a survey published in Christianity Today, is not simply the result of a lack of teaching. The problem, rather, is that most Christians do not understand the organic connection between these doctrines and the Scriptures from which they are drawn. Thus, even when taught, doctrine can often seem to be a superfluous appendage to the essence of Christianity as revealed in Scripture. The answer to the doctrinal confusion and indifference that plagues our churches, then, is a recovery of this connection. And the best way to do that is to be formed by the exegetical methods that produced these doctrines in the first place.

Consider, as an example, the doctrine of the Trinity. Many Christians assume it is a product of the fourth century, and thus a human-made, philosophical construct with little import for today’s church. In reality, the Trinity has its roots in early readings of Scripture motivated by a practical question: How do we understand the relationship between Jesus, whom we worship, and the one God of the Scriptures? The exegetical methods employed to answer this question are quite varied, but they are connected by the theological assumption that the Scriptures form one coherent narrative with God as its primary author. Read as such, this narrative, in turn, reveals two primary truths about God, namely, that God is one and that God’s work is always carried out by three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit.

A few examples of these methods must suffice. First, early Christians see these truths in a large number of individual verses scattered throughout Scripture (e.g., Ps 33:6; John 1:1-2; Col 1:16), and these verses are often brought together in long lists. After all, when the context of these passages is the entire narrative, reading Gen 1:26 in the context of the Gospel of John is as legitimate as reading it in the context of Gen 1-11. Second, these truths are clear in the early Christian interpretations of larger narratives. In the work of redemption, for example, the Father sends the Son in the flesh who lives, dies, and rises in the power of the Holy Spirit – three persons, one work. Third, early Christians engage the Scriptures creatively to the same ends even where these truths are not clearly stated. For example, Genesis reveals that God creates the heavens and the earth by speaking, which early Christians connect to the “Word” of John 1, in the company of the hovering Spirit (Gen 1:2). Likewise, the “us” of Gen 1:26 reveals the Father to be speaking to the Son and Spirit (who, in some readings, become the two hands with which God forms humanity in Gen 2:7).

The reasonable implication from these readings is that Father, Son, and Spirit are all God for they do the works that only God can do. Nevertheless, because Scripture is clear that God is one, then the three must be one God. This implication leads to more sophisticated arguments in the fourth century where the cooperative work of Father, Son, and Spirit reveals a singular activity, which in turn denotes a singular power held in common by a shared essence of divine persons. Even in the more sophisticated arguments, however, the source of these conclusions is not philosophy or rhetoric, but the Scriptures read in light of the assumption mentioned above.

In the hands of early Christian interpreters, then, the Trinity bursts from the pages of Scripture and uniquely reconciles the core scriptural truths that God is one and that Jesus is worthy of worship. Moreover, this unity of God as Father, Son, and Spirit shows the inherent connection of Old and New Testaments and reveals today’s church as a continuation of that redemptive story by the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, the methods of higher criticism, in which every pastor for the last few generations has been trained, reject the early Christians’ primary assumption about Scripture. We have, we think, come to know better. We know that scripture is made up of various works written by humans from different places and cultures; thus, the attempt to reconcile these disparate works does damage to each human composition. We know, too, that we should not pile up verses from different parts of Scripture and so remove them from their original historical and literary contexts. More specifically, we know that the ruach of Gen 1:2 is better translated as “wind,” the “us” of Gen 1:26 is simply a “plural of majesty” common to Hebrew grammar, and the writer of John, whoever he was, was ignorant of anything approaching homoousios.

This “superior” knowledge, however, is what ultimately severs the connection between Scripture and doctrine and makes the Trinity seem disposable to both laity and clergy alike. This is not to deny some important gains of higher criticism, and it would be impossible and undesirable to return to a precritical age. But by themselves, the methods of higher criticism reduce the Bible to little more than a history book and consign doctrine to the ghettos of what was once believed. If we truly desire more doctrinally formed churches, then we must accept not only the theological conclusions of the early church, but also the exegetical methods that produced them.

Posted Nov 12, 2018

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