Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch23:1:Early Christians and on-going revelation

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Early Christians and on-going revelation

Early Christians and on-going revelation

The early Christians did not regard the canon of the scripture as closed. In a recent and important study, Van Unnik has shown that for the earliest Christians, the apostolic office, the gift of revelation, and the bringing forth of scripture were always regarded as going hand in hand; and, with von Harnack, he points out that at least as late as A.D. 200 it was held to be perfectly legitimate "for someone to add something to the word of the Gospel."3 The Bible itself leaves the door wide open for future revelation in many places, but even if it did not, men fool themselves when they think for a moment that they can read the scripture without ever adding something to the text, or omitting something from it. For in the wise words of St. Hilary, Scripturae enim non in legendo sunt, sed in intelligendo: "Scripture consists not in what one reads, but in what one understands."4 We have just seen that the Apostles themselves "knew not the scripture"—though no doubt they had often read it—until the Lord opened it to them. To read is by very definition to unriddle, to expound to oneself, to interpret. In the reading of the scripture we must always have an interpreter, but who qualifies for the task of interpreting God's word to men? Irenaeus insisted that no special interpreter was needed, the book being self-explanatory so that "the whole of the scripture . . . can be understood clearly and without ambiguity equally and by all."5 But then he accuses vast numbers of Christians of reading it all wrong, "becoming bad interpreters of the good and correct word."6 What is one to do when, in the words of a later church father, "there are as many interpretations of the scriptures as there are readers"? In that case, Irenaeus recommends appealing to the opinions of the oldest churches, those who had traditions actually going back to the Apostles. But when these churches disagree among themselves, what then? Then says Irenaeus, we must examine the order of tradition committed to the churches.7 All the while, you will note, Irenaeus is looking for an interpreter for the scriptures, which he began by saying needed no interpreter! If the Bible contained its own interpretation, the best and wisest of its readers would surely agree on its teachings, yet those who study it hardest disagree most widely about it. Tertullian pointed out that discussions based on scriptures are a waste of time since the most hopelessly mistaken person can in all good faith prove his case from the scriptures "by divers expositions and commentaries," easily corrupting the sense without having to corrupt the letter of the text, and picking and rejecting whatever suits his purpose. If we say that the heretics are playing fast and loose with the Bible, Tertullian reminds us, we must remember that they in all seriousness believe that we are corrupting the scripture by false exposition while they preserve the pure truth of it. For that reason, according to Tertullian, it is practically impossible to win an argument by appeal to the scripture alone, and even when we do win, the whole issue remains uncertain.8[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 23, references silently removed—consult original for citations.