Thursday, August 10, 2006

Adultery, Canonicity, and Inspiration

Jimmy Akin has an interesting discussion of the Pericope Adulterae – the story of the woman taken in adultery from St. John’s gospel.  Most modern scholarship (and quite likely most first and early second century scholarship if we could ask them) considers this passage to be a later addition to John.  In some manuscripts, it appears in different places, and it even appears in one old manuscript of Luke.  

Jimmy A.’s response to a reader question had to do with the canonicity of the passage for Catholics – namely, that it is.  What I find interesting is the implication the passage has for the relation between Scripture and the Church.  I frequently hear some on the conservative (for lack of a better word) side of biblical arguments refer to the inspiration of scripture as applying to the original manuscripts as written – the autographs.  On the liberal side, I have heard people who wear their collars backwards actually stand in front of God and everybody and say, “The Church wrote the bible and the Church can change it if it wants to.”  In other words, inspiration is whatever the clergy gets together and decides it is at any particular moment in time.

The reality seems to be a bit more subtle.  If inspiration is truly a property of the autograph alone, then the story where Jesus says "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her," can be safely tossed from the Bible.  Virtually everyone agrees that John didn’t put it there, so out it ought to go.  I know I am oversimplifying the “conservative” position for the sake of blog brevity, but I believe the logic holds.  Canonicity should reflect inspiration, and inspiration applies only to the original text.  Ergo, if it’s not in the original text, begone!

Anybody who reads this blog knows I’m not going to turn around and defend the liberal side.  The obvious consequence of “The Church wrote the bible and the Church can change it if it wants to,” is that the clergy can have a block party, get drunk, and insert into the words of Christ “Verily I say unto you, adultery, schmadultery.  Girls just wanna have fun,” and we would have to accept that as the working of the Holy Spirit.  The guy I heard claim the authority to change scripture was Episcopalian.  Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion of the Episcopal Church states that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”  If I get to rewrite the scripture, I therefore have the authority to redefine that which is necessary for salvation.  Seems a wee bit presumptuous to me.  Oversimplified, but again – I believe the logic holds.

In reality, the approach taken by the Church through history has been the best one.  Inspiration is indeed determined by the Church through the action of the Holy Spirit, but once determined it becomes part of the deposit of faith and can’t be changed willy nilly by human agency.  The pericope stays part of the inspired canon because the Church acting in council – under the protection and guidance of the Spirit – included it in the generally accepted version of the Gospel of John.  It doesn’t really matter if it was added later or was written down by someone else; it has been recognized as authentic.

Since any orthodox perspective of God does not see Him as capable of self-contradiction, the passage is there forever.  We can’t add to the inspired text because it has already been defined for us.  Neither can we subtract from it.  We can better refine the definition of the Canon – that is what Catholics will claim was done by the Council of Trent in establishing the deuterocanonical books as scripture.  Theoretically, I suppose we could add more books to the canon  – after all, the Orthodox and the Ethiopians consider more texts canonical than does the Western Church.  I don’t see any reason why a future Ecumenical Council couldn’t add them as well, but I will defer that question to more informed heads than mine.  What we can’t do, IMHO, is go around changing what we already have, because it has been defined by the Spirit through the Church once for all.

Inspiration isn’t a property of the text, and it’s not a property of the Church.  It’s the property of the Spirit Himself, who acts through the Church and doesn’t go around changing His mind.