Most of us have multiple Bibles positioned strategically (or not) throughout our homes. When we need a new one, we drive down the street to Mardel or click “Buy Now” on Amazon. Or, if you’re fancy, you might shell out the cash for a Schuyler on evangelicalBible.com. We make the purchase, and a copy of God’s Word becomes our possession.
This is one of the privileges of living on the other side of the 15th century, when the printing press was invented; and on this side of the Industrial Revolution, when mass production of just about any product became normal. Christians living before Gutenberg weren’t so fortunate. For them, just about everything they knew about the Bible came through someone they trusted, a priest or bishop, or perhaps an educated seminary professor. The communal aspect of reading and following God’s Word was integral to their identity as Christians. They could not know the Word apart from their relationship with other people.
This is not the case for us. We can pick up one of our many copies of God’s Word and read it by ourselves anytime we’d like. We can listen to the Bible while driving to work. And we can scroll through the Bible on our iPhones. While all of this convenience comes with numerous advantages we rightly relish, there is a drawback. This drawback can be overcome, even while maintaining the unique privileges we have in this age. But if it is to be overcome, we need to be aware of it.
The Bible Is Given by God to the Church
First, I want you to try and put yourself in the shoes of a pre-modern Christian.
You live from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. You are devoutly committed to your local church. And you commune with the saints regularly. You do not own a single Bible. The available codices are reserved for monks and missionaries, but not a commoner such as yourself. Everything you know about the Bible has been read to you by someone else. And you’ve been able to memorize a great deal. The words that you do know from Scripture are more precious to you than gold and rarer to you than jewels. You credit the possession of such treasure to the community you gather with week in and week out. Your church explains your survival. As a result, you see your church as a real lifeline. It’s vital. The only Bible you’ve ever seen is at your church. The pastor reads from it every Lord’s Day, and it was produced over the course of a year by a band of monks in a scriptorium a week’s ride from where you live.
It’s the church’s Bible.
On the Lord’s Day, when you attend church, that same Bible is visible at the front of the sanctuary. It never leaves the building. It is the people’s Bible. It might even be said that no one in your village would even know a single verse from Scripture if it weren’t for that one hand-copied Bible at your church. It is read in community, formative of the community, and understood by the community.
Okay, we can stop imagining. By now, I’m sure you get the picture.
It would be very difficult to individualize God’s Word in a society like the one described above. For the pre-modern saint, God’s Word was “our Bible,” not “my Bible.” Not only is this the case historically, but it’s also the case biblically. All of the epistles in the New Testament, even those originally addressed to individuals, e.g. Titus, Timothy, and Philemon (cf. Phil. 2), were intended for the church. The church is tasked with stewarding the Word of God and administering the Word of God through preaching and teaching. On several occasions, apostles Paul and John address “the church” in their epistles.
In 1 Corinthians 1:2, we read, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours…” This epistle is given to the church of Corinth, narrowly. But it is given to the whole church more broadly. In 2 Corinthians 1:1 we see similar language, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in Achaia…” In 1 Thessalonians 1:1, we read again, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” And once more in 2 Thessalonians 1:1, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”
The apostle John, in 2 John 9, writes, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.” In 2 John 1, John addresses “the elect lady and her children,” which is likely a metonymy for the church.
The Bible is given to the church. While this was more culturally obvious before the printing press and the mass production of Bibles, it is a conviction we can and should retrieve even while enjoying our technological advantages. Just because we have “our” Bibles (a blessing to be sure), doesn’t mean we should think of the Bible as belonging preeminently to “me.” It is God’s revelation given to “us,” God’s people, God’s church.
Communal Language in Scripture & Early Creeds
The Lord’s Prayer situates the subject within a communal context. In other words, the person who prays prays with his fellow saints. Look at the first line: “Our Father in heaven…” It begins with the first person, plural, personal pronoun, “Our…” Our Lord assumed His church would pray prayers like this one together. Similarly, the Scriptures themselves were to be read to churches. In 1 Thessalonians 5:27, Paul writes, “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren.”
The Nicene Creed follows this communal aspect of the Holy Scripture. It begins as such…
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
The Athanasian Creed begins in a similar fashion…
That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
The Chalcedonian Definition likewise includes corporate language. It begins as such, “Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all unite in teaching that we should confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Both Scripture and the ancient church following the 1st generation of Christians emphasized the communal structure of the Christian faith. The faith, along with the Scriptures from which it derives, belongs to the church and not to any individual or rogue Bible-interpreter.
Scriptural Abuses and Interpretational Accountability
I do not have the right to do whatever I want with the Bible.
One of the major issues with the Romish papacy is that it individualizes God’s Word at the highest political level. The pope, along with the college of bishops, have supreme authority to interpret the Bible. Historical interpretation aside, the small, elite class at the top gets to set the interpretive standard. Unfortunately, in our day, the “prerogative” of the pope has been assumed by pastors and lay people alike. “Me and my Bible” has become the arbiter of biblical meaning for many. Which is to say, it is now in vogue for many to think of themselves as self-made popes!
Though I may have the civil right to do anything I want with the leather and paper that make up my copy of the Bible, the substance of God’s Word is curated and interpreted by a Spirit-filled community, not by any single individual or elite class at the top. And while we must all come to our own conclusions as to what we believe the Bible means, this should not be done apart from the fellowship we have with other Christians, both dead and living. If the Holy Spirit works in me and you, He has worked in other Christians as well.
Since Scripture was and is given to the church and not to any one person, Christians must labor to understand and interpret Scripture within the context of that churchly community — a community of Spirit-enlivened saints.
Once we understand this, we are dutifully bound to humbly submit ourselves to the accountability provided by the “chorus of saints.” (Prov. 11:14; Rom. 12:16) Furthermore, once we grasp the Bible as the church’s book, we are liberated from the modernist burden of feeling as though we need to chart our own orthodoxy or re-invent the theological wheel. God’s people have been plundering the Scriptures for 2,000 years, and we are privileged to ride their coattails. This doesn’t imply a blind reception of any and every theological opinion. But it does mean that the theology and practice of the many, as represented in documents such as creeds and confessions, should hold more sway in our hearts and minds than any novel opinion offered within the last couple centuries.
Is it your Bible? Or is it our Bible?
While in a sense it is your Bible (you own a copy, and all the promises therein apply to you through Jesus Christ), it nevertheless belongs to the one body of Jesus Christ. This realization does two basic things. First, it keeps us accountable to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit works in others beside ourselves. Second, it frees us from the burden of thinking of ourselves as “developers” of new, shiny theological constructs. When accountability is shrugged off for the “new,” and when theological innovation becomes the norm souls are hurt and Scripture is abused.
Scripture is “our” Bible. The saints are united in the interpretational task, and Christ is glorified where His saints dwell with one mind concerning the meaning of the text.