I have a strong background in theology and if I was the boastful type I might say that I could do it in my sleep. Well in the case of this article I did do it in my sleep. On 28th August 2012, I woke up after a restful sleep that involved very active thought. Not the normal scattered thoughts of the dream world, but the thinking through an argument against those who want to be doctrinaire about an appeal to the Bible. I reckon that this was my way of my brain saying, “You keep thinking along these lines without writing it down, stop procrastinating, and publish something so that I do not have to have these thoughts scurrying around inside me.” This article is based on what I could remember of the thinking dream when I woke up.
The dream began with reflecting on how conservative Christians might challenge viewpoints that they do not agree with. I suspect that this might have been influenced by my viewing the previous evening, when I had begun watching the Horizon programme “How Big is the Universe” half way through, and then watched “James May’s Things You Need to Know About Evolution.” In dreamland, I thought that counter-arguments from conservative Protestants would resort to an appeal to the divine authority of the Bible. This then led to the rest of the dream being about me constructing an argument against being able to appeal to the Bible to settle a debate with those who do not hold to the same viewpoint on the Biblical authority. The arguments became circular, in the sense that the same ones kept circulating around in my head, after all it was a long dream, but as you will see not a long argument.
The principal point was that any appeal to the authority of the Bible must be able to establish why the Bible should be given such authority in Protestant thought. The Bible is not something that has been written down by one person who is taking down a memo from God. It is a collection of texts that were deemed to be important enough to be used to establish the basis of the Christian faith and eventually formulated into what would become the New Testament. It is difficult to argue that someone must obey the Bible as if it were the very words of God, when it was in fact human decision-making that judged what was included in the New Testament and what was not. Those who made those decisions invented a strict rule that the texts had to be written by an apostle or by someone recording the thoughts of an apostle. Having invented a strict rule, they then bent the facts to fit the texts that they wanted to keep. The Book of Revelation (also known as The Apocalypse) was finally included as the final text of the New Testament by arguing that the John who wrote it was the apostle John, which the text does not claim. The Gospel of Mark was accepted because of an early tradition that it was the work of John Mark, who was writing down the thoughts of Peter the Apostle.
Moving away from the actual dream, I could have continued the John Mark theme by pointing out that John Mark is recorded in the New Testament as a companion of the apostles Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25) and that after Paul falls out with John Mark, he becomes the companion of Barnabas alone (Acts 15:37-41). Although the New Testament’s twenty-seven texts includes sixteen either attributed to Paul or his supposed secretary, Luke, the Letter of Barnabas did not make it despite meeting the strict rule of those finalising the canon, as Barnabas is called an apostle in Acts 14:13-14. It is highly likely that the apostle Barnabas did not write the Letter of Barnabas, but it is more likely than Paul writing the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, although Pauline authorship is the reason that Hebrews became part of the New Testament. Indeed, most of the texts in the New Testament are anonymous, including all four gospels, Acts, and all three Letters of John. Acts also creates an interesting problem for the strict rule about apostolic authorship. It is attributed to Luke, the companion of Paul, who is mentioned at Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14, and 2 Timothy 4:11. Acts (and the Third Gospel) appear in the New Testament courtesy of the link between Luke and Paul, but that means that one of the Gospels is connected to an apostle who was not following Jesus during his time in Galilee and Jerusalem, and who shows little interest in Jesus’ life in his letters. If a gospel can be included because of a claimed link to an apostle uninterested in the details of Jesus’ life, then why not other texts that have no link to an apostle?
To return to the key principle of the dream, why should conservative Protestants be allowed to influence debates about legislation for all of society, such as same sex marriage, on the basis of claiming divine authority for a library of texts collected together by those whose other decisions are not deemed divinely authoritative by such Bible-only Protestants.