Previously, I sought to define the three streams by their characteristics in an attempt to clarify each one beyond the general stereotypes of their names (evangelical, charismatic, and catholic). Now I want to approach them from a different angle and examine how each of them approaches the Scriptures they all hold in common.
The Evangelical Stream
With “biblical inerrancy” and the prime authority of scripture as foundational to the evangelical stream, we find their approach to the Bible to be somewhat akin to how lawyers approach their nation’s constitution: it’s the book that defines everything that can be said and done. In the evangelical stream, the Bible is the sole primary source for the faith, and is thus held as the #1 teaching tool. A key passage along these lines is II Timothy 3:14-17.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Central in this scripture-as-teaching approach is the discernment of the Gospel – the overarching message of the entire book. One of the most popular verses as a result of this focus is John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Beyond just the content of the message is the question of delivering it. This emphasis of the evangelical stream is aptly summarized in another well-known passage generally referred to as The Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20.
Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The Charismatic Stream
The charismatic stream, with its emphasis on the present reality of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, presents a tendency to look at the Bible in an exemplaristicm fashion. Rather than looking at the Bible as teaching as such, it’s more of a recorded example of how the Church could (and did) work back in the beginning. The Old Testament, similarly, shows how God dealt with his people in previous covenant(s). In this light, it is hardly surprising that the charismatic stream is often considered as synonymous with the Pentecostal movement, because they both look to the birth of the Church in Acts 2 as a description of how the Church ought to be.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
This exemplaristic approach to reading the Bible also brings out important truths when it comes to understanding the role of the individual within the Church. For example, while there is a great deal of attention given to how leaders in the Church ought to behave, there are also many passages that address everybody. The charismatic stream in particular, then, brings to life passages like in Romans 12.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
A logical consequence of this emphasis, then, is a radical sense of equality among Christians, which is also affirmed in verses like Galatians 3:28.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The Catholic Stream
The catholic stream presents yet a third subtle twist to how the Bible is read. The emphasis upon a continuous tradition in the Church puts the Bible into a context where it is the sourcebook for many other theological, devotional, and otherwise spiritual writings. Although it is the source, the primary, the sole completely authoritative document, it’s set into a living stream of Christian thought and practice which provides an “authoritative” interpretation of the Bible. This approach to Scripture may best be understood by taking seriously the possibility that the Apostles didn’t write down everything they could possibly have written, but also passed on secondary teachings and practices orally, as suggested by II Thessalonians 2:28.
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
One of the primary ways that this continuous tradition is understood to be preserved is through a continuous stream of apostolic authority. In contrast to the charismatic stream, which looks at the Bible as more of an example of what the Church should look like, the catholic stream looks at the Bible as the beginning of what the Church looked like, with the understanding that it would continue to grow through the ages. This perspective is also in accordance with scripture, as described by the Apostles’ words and actions at the end of Acts 1.
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry… For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’ and ‘Let another take his office.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
Additionally, it is important to clarify that in the catholic stream, the Bible is fully integrated into the tradition of the Church; there is no dichotomy of “scripture vs. tradition” for them. As a result, the catholic stream can affirm that one of the most central traditions in all Christianity is the celebration of the Eucharist, even though it’s clearly set forth in Scripture. For when Paul writes of it in I Corinthians 11, he’s already referring to it as a tradition, or something that’s “delivered” or “passed on.”
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said…
At the end of the week, I’ll write more on what this one river should look like, but just to wrap up this discussion about approaching scriptures, it seems necessary to give a cursory look at reconciling these three approaches to the Bible, as all three streams provide insights that cannot be neglected.
The Bible could be said to be the evangelical stream’s ‘specialty.’ It is of vital importance to the Church that the Bible be upheld as the primary source of all teaching on the faith. And when push comes to shove, the charismatics and catholics agree, but they provide extremely valuable additions to the basic “authoritative word of God” doctrine of the evangelicals.
The charismatic stream provides a perspective of “living reality” that evangelicalism might be prone to lose on its own. If the Bible is primary a source for teaching, it could easily be reduced to a textbook, and that is not what it was written to be! The charismatic stream rightly points out that the Bible speaks of realities that can and should be lived out in every generation including our own, and that it speaks into our time and lives afresh through the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit.
The catholic stream, on the other hand, provides a helpful (and often necessary) perspective on the invigorated reading of the charismatic stream. As the catholic stream is most rooted in living history, it is able to preserve how the Spirit has moved through the past to get us to the present, and therefore enable us to live in accordance with the previous generations of Christians. Also, when the evangelical teaching approach threatens to yield partisan readings of Scripture, the catholic stream helps provide boundaries for when biblical interpretation gets out of hand.
Tomorrow, I’ll explore how these three streams interact with one another beyond just their approaches to biblical interpretation.