It is becoming clear that Protestantism is an historical phase which is coming to an end. What I mean by this is not a matter of ecclesiology but of culture, of relationships to texts and the written word, which was dominant in North-Western Europe for around five hundred years from the invention of the printing press to the invention of the cathode ray tube. Take, for example, the impact of ‘FrankenBibles‘ which is the term given to a translation of Scripture that is at least partly generated by a computer. With the development of sufficiently capable translation technology it is now possible to generate our own translations of particular texts, including Bibles as a whole. This development is likely to have huge effects upon the way that students in general, and Christians in particular, relate to their Holy Scriptures. Put simply, the resources that are now available on-line to any interested Bible student hugely outweigh the resources available to almost any student in the past, including many of the greatest theologians in history, the Luthers and Calvins and Aquinases. In just the same way that the translations of the Bible into local languages enabled more people to assess whether the local religious authorities were accurately teaching from Scripture, now the impact of technology means that anyone with an interest can very swiftly gain access to any and all translations and arguments about any particular verse from Scripture.
Given the way in which Protestant culture has geared itself around the importance of particular printed texts, most typically the King James version of the Bible, I do not think that it is possible to underestimate the cultural disruption that such a development will have. Rather than authority being placed in a particular text as such, authority will become placed in other bodies, whether a network of trusted friends, a pastor, a particular denomination and so on. In many ways this is part and parcel of the wider ‘post-modern’ shift in society, which has broken apart every text. I don’t believe that a Christian living in the contemporary world can ever have the same attitude to Scripture – indeed, to any text – as would have felt so natural as to be unobservable in the Modern era. Does this mean that Christianity has come to the end of its natural life? I don’t believe so.
Let me share a story from a graphic novel – that’s a ‘comic’ to most of us, but a comic that can bear an immense weight of literary analysis. The story is about a character known as the Sandman, and what happens to his ruby. The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, is one of the Endless – seven ‘beings’ or ‘anthropomorphic representations’ of aspects of creation. The story sequence begins with Dream being mistakenly captured by an Aleister Crowley type character, and the initial seven issues of the comic describe the immediate consequences of the capture – Dream’s escape and pursuit of the valuable objects taken from him – his helm, his ruby, and his pouch of sand. The ruby eventually ends up in the hands of a madman named Doctor Destiny, who uses it to perform diabolical acts, and then to fight Dream himself. Dr Destiny drains Dream of all his power, and then destroys the Ruby, thinking that in doing so he will destroy Dream. In fact the reverse happens – all of Dream’s power and identity that had been vested in the Ruby is returned to him, and he is ‘recalled to himself’, thence easily able to overcome Dr Destiny, and return him to Arkham Asylum.
What struck me on originally reading this story is that it is a parable for the church and the Bible. The Church is formed by the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost; the community gathers for prayer and fellowship, the apostle’s teaching and the breaking of bread; it grows and strengthens around the world. Eventually it creates an object, a tool, which allows it to pursue its ministry – what we call the New Testament. That New Testament is then taken away from the living church community (which is the only place wherein it is able to be used properly) and diabolical consequences result. In particular, the Bible is taken into the academic community, and is used to make dark materials which are destructive of the church. The academic community has now, in effect, destroyed the Bible that it originally took from the church.
Yet it seems that what is now opening up is a possibility of the church being able to return to its divine origins, to allow the Bible to be what it always was – the principal tool of the church, not something of divine origin in and of itself – the Bible can return to what it is, and the church can return to what it was always intended to be: the Body of Christ in the world, a group of people trying to work out and accomplish all that Christ might accomplish, yes ‘and even greater things than these’.
Until Jesus returns and establishes his Kingdom, the final resting place for the interpretation of Scripture is, for me, the consensus fidelium – the considered and settled opinion of the faithful – and that settled opinion can itself develop over time, and change. It is expressed, most of all, through worship – lex orandi, lex credendi – this is why it must be rooted within the communion, when we sing our love songs to Jesus and renew our marriage vows. It is when we break the bread and renew the new covenant that we are authentically the church, that we are authentically the Body, and that we can authentically listen to His voice. It is when we are enabled to truly hear the word that we are enabled to interpret the word; and then to speak that word within the world. Scripture belongs to the church – it was formed by the church for the church, and it is for the church to interpret it, for good or ill.