What the Documents Say
by S. M. Hutchens
For many years I ignored as a commonplace what I now find as the most striking observation in The Screwtape Letters. In the twenty-third, Lewis has Screwtape, making a note on tactics, say in regard to liberal theology's perennial search for the "historical Jesus," "The documents say what they say and cannot be added to." When I was younger, I didn't find this diabolical concession very interesting because I thought I was involved in a battle for the Bible where everything was really up for grabs—that, to reverse Harry Emerson Fosdick—the liberals might win, and that losing apologetic ground in theological and biblical studies would in some way put the Church in jeopardy.
I now see things a bit differently, and not only because I came to the conviction that the Bible battlers, who rejected Tradition as a source of authority, in the end had to resort to the flawed logic of autographal inerrancy to maintain their argument. If they had stuck to "the Bible says it" in the face of liberal attack, they might have done better—but they wouldn't because that is "fundamentalism." It is not that we are to supinely ignore the defense of Christian teaching, for this is a part of our whole duty, but that at the end of that day of teaching and defense, the documents say what they say. Questions about the extent of the canon, its inerrancy, or the precise nature or locus of interpretational authority cannot obscure this extraordinarily hard fact.
This is not because of a quality of the documents themselves, but because they hold at their center the gospel of Jesus Christ, a simple narrative that all things in the Bible flow to and from with a logic controlled by the Story itself. It is the story the Church tells, rejecting what is contrary to it. The boundaries of the canon are difficult to see just because of that—because the small, central story, like a babe in a manger, covers and explains all of history leading to and coming from it, approaching from a past that is dim to us, and receding against the future's horizon, so that when we refer to the "documents," we are really referring to the story itself in all its power, scope, and integrity, and not simply the writings in which they are transmitted. These, however, partake, by act of God, in the story as befits their symbolic character, as the bread and wine partake in the body and blood of the Lord, as the furnishings of the Temple are part of the House of God, holy to the Lord.
The importance of the perennial character of the documents has forced itself upon me particularly in light of our struggles with the two great attacks on Christ and his Church during my adult life, egalitarianism and homosexuality, asserting themselves as Christian. It is this observation on the "documents" by which both movements are themselves most bedeviled. Neither can escape the plain condemnation of Scripture, nor can they create for themselves with any reasonable credibility acceptance in the Tradition of which the Scriptures bear witness. Their bizarre attempts to establish themselves within the narrative as "Christian" are so outlandish, so twisted, so full of self-serving speculation and historical and exegetical mendacity, patently obvious to even the simplest, that only the most blatant effrontery exercised on the weak or prodigal by misrepresentation of what the documents say, and will continue to say, can produce the mirages "biblical egalitarianism" and "gay Christianity" require for existence.
The attempts to get the documents to say what they do not has been very great among them, for any victories they think they achieve in these matters—whether by altering the grammar of the Bible, strange dealings with history, obfuscating plain teachings, adding books to the Scriptures that were rejected during the early years of the Church, giving heretical sects a voice denied them for cause by each succeeding generation of Christians, or alteration of the pastorate or liturgy or hymnody to reflect a symbolic system at odds with church teaching—do not work because alteration of the documents is alteration of the documents. The religious academy devours its own children: this generation's groundbreaking discoveries are neatly dismantled by the next, and the documents that hover over them all continue to say what they say. •
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“What the Documents Say” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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