Schleiermacher on the authority of the Bible – 2

The New Testament writings, Schleiermacher says, are the first in the ongoing series of presentations of the Christian faith, but they are also normative for all succeeding presentations. He writes, “all that has approved itself in the way of oral presentation of Christian piety in later ages of the Church has kept within the lines of these original forms, or is attached to them as an explanatory accompaniment” (§129.1). But, he asks, if redemption is being “ever more completely realized in time,” then how can these first writings retain their normative status? Might they not be replaced by newer, fuller insights? This is true in a limited sense: when we compare the apostolic age as a whole with later ages. For during the apostolic age there was a variety of Christian writings that possessed uneven quality in terms of how clearly they expressed the essence of Christian piety. However, those testimonies that “stood near[est] to Christ”–for instance, narratives of his words and deeds–exerted a “purifying” influence on the church, allowing it gradually to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus the writings existing at the time were later divided into the apocryphal and canonical. So, in that sense, later ages may have an advantage over the apostolic.

The influence of apocryphal elements was bound to diminish, Schleiermacher says, precisely because of the purifying influence of what later came to be recognized as the canonical witness. These writings were the ones that contained memories of those who actually knew Jesus. And those testimonies constitute an irreplaceable source and norm of Christian faith. The Church “could never again reproduce the canonical, for the living intuition of Christ was never again able to ward off all debasing influences in the same direct fashion, but only derivatively through the Scriptures and hence in dependence on them” (§129.2). The New Testament is authoritative because it contains memories of the historical Jesus and the testimonies of those who first came to have faith in him. So, later ages may have the advantage over the apostolic in having been purged of certain competing influences; but they can never side-step the authority of the canonical scriptures.

He goes on to say that not every part of the New Testament enjoys this authority–only what pertains to the central message and not “side-thoughts.” Nor is all later Christian thought to be confined to simply repeating what’s in the New Testament. “For since the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, no age can be without its own originality in Christian thinking” (§129.2). Yet all Christian thought has to be tested for its harmony with the canonical writings, and no later writing can provide the same kind of yardstick.

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