It is often said that Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam, though these are not dealt with here) is a “religion of the book,” and this is usually taken in a very weak sense, that somehow, somewhere, for whatever reason, Christianity involves a book. But what is established as normative Christianity in the second century takes this in a much stronger sense: If God acts through His Word, then that Word needs to be heard, to be read, to be understood – the relationship with God is, in a broad sense, literary. As such, it requires the full engagement of all the intellective faculties to understand and accomplish, or incarnate, God’s Word. It was no accident, as Frances Young observes, that what came to be orthodox or normative Christianity was “committed to a text-based version of revealed truth.” This Christianity, one might say, is an interpretive text-based religion. She further points out, concerning the question of historicity touched on earlier, that it would be anachronistic to suppose that in antiquity God’s revelation was located in historical events behind the text, events to which, it is claimed, we can have access by reconstructing them from the text, treating the texts as mere historical documents which provide raw historical data, subject to our own analysis, rather than in the interpreted events as presented in Scripture, where the interpretation is already given through the medium of Scripture. What is recognized, by the end of the second century, as normative Christianity is committed to understanding Christ by engaging with Scripture on the basis of the canon of truth in the context of tradition (παράδοσις).
But if this is the basis for what is established as normative Christianity by the end of the second century, it is no less the very dynamic of the Gospel itself. One of the earliest formulae for proclaiming the Gospel is that Christ was crucified and raised “according to the Scriptures”:
I delivered (παρέδωκα) to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4)
The Gospel which Paul delivered (“traditioned”) is from the first “according to the Scriptures.” Clearly the Scriptures to which Paul is referring here are not the four Gospels, but the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. The importance of this written reference, repeated twice, is such that the phrase is preserved in later Creeds; Christians who use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed still confess that Christ died and rose according to the (same) Scriptures. The point of concern in this basic Christian confession is not the historicity of the events behind their reports, but that the reports are continuous with, in accordance with, Scripture; it is a textual, or more accurately an “intertextual” or interpretive confession. And this scriptural texture of the Gospel is, as we will see, the basis of both canon and tradition as articulated by what emerges as normative Christianity. If “orthodoxy” is indeed later than “heresy,” as Bauer claimed and as is commonly assumed, it is nevertheless based on nothing other than Gospel as it was delivered at the beginning.
John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 15-16.
I had just started reading Father John Behr when my life (and access to books) became rather disrupted a couple of years ago, but I have been intending to get back to him and have recently started reading The Way to Nicaea. I regret that I’m not really in a position to blog intensely on this book as it is both pretty dense and very insightful. However, I hope to post a few things if I am able to sufficiently get my head around the issues that he raises in the opening chapters.
For now I must note, rather to my embarrassment, that until reading this book, I have never really stopped to think much about the theological depth that we confess with the words “according to the Scriptures” when reciting the creed. If anything, I’ve probably pretty much thought of them as referring to the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection in much the same way that one might refer to sources to back up accounts of a particular event. But what Father Behr is arguing here, is that this is a confession of what the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets were all about. It structures our reading of them while they give depth to the confession of the Resurrection. A link is established, a narrowing down of the interpretive options available.