At the root of the doctrinal divisions that dog Christianity there lies one fundamental division that causes all the rest. The late Pope John Paul II put his finger on it when he complained about the neglect of the "canonical reading" of the Sacred Scriptures. What did he mean by that?
When the term "canon" is used regarding the Scriptures, it usually refers to the question as to what books belong (or donít belong) in the Bible. For example, the various Gnostic writings we hear so much about today were books that were rejected by the early Church as doctrinally misleading or unsound ĺ thus "uncanonical". But this is not primarily what the Pope was referring to. Rather he was speaking about how the Bible is to be interpreted or understood. Thus "canonical" in this sense means more or less "traditional", this in contrast to what is often called the "critical" understanding resulting from modern biblical scholarship. It is here, and not over whether certain books should be considered "apochrypha" or not that the real division lies. It is what splits fundamentalist Protestants from "main line" Protestants and conservative Catholics from "liberal" ones.
This division that probably exists to some extent within the Orthodox community as well, though perhaps is a much more muted form, the reason being that the cause of this division lies in the rise of the "historical consciousness" that was the product of the Renaissance in western Europe and the so-called scientific "enlightenment" that followed, movements that scarcely affected eastern Europe and the Middle East. It was this consciousness that made the Protestant Reformation intellectually attractive, with its call to return to "Scripture alone" (versus "tradition") as the sole authority for belief. But it was also the cause of the rival sectarianism that follows when people no longer had a tradition to guide how the Bible should be interpreted.
But, there is a deeper problem still, one that the Reformers largely overlooked. It is the existence of different layers or stages of tradition make up the texts of the Scriptures themselvesĺ for example, the general recognition among scholars today that the Gospels contain three such layers or stages; at their base the memory of the words and deeds of Jesus, then the proclamation of the meaning for us of his life, death, and resurrection, and finally the particular cultural and theological slant employed by each of the evangelists to convey his message (the reason there are four gospels and not just one). The discernment and sorting out of these layers is a tricky business, and one which has immense implications for our understanding of Christianity. [ For example, was Jesus a charismatic but martyred prophet of a soon-to-happen "end time" (the picture we are most apt to draw from the synoptic gospels, especially that of Mark) or was he instead the eternal "Word" of God "made flesh" conscious at all times of his divine identity (the impression given by the style of his speaking as attributed to him by John)?]
Faced with such a challenge there is basically only one or the other of two roads to take. Either one can believe that the Holy Spirit has all along been guiding Christianity in a way that should leave us content or undisturbed in our traditional beliefs, no matter how much they may seem to be shrouded in "mystery" or even contradictory they may seem at times. This is the way of "canonical" reading or interpretation and belief. This is also the way of "orthodoxy" and traditional Catholic belief.
Or else one may believe that the Holy Spirit may be challenging Christians to use the gift of critical biblical scholarship as the primary tool of discovery as to who Jesus really was and to try to understand what he means for us today. This was the route attempted by the original Reformers, but abandoned by their followers when their tools proved inadequate to the task at hand.
Today, it seems, thanks to over a century of intense effort, I believe that what the Reformers aspired to do has become increasingly possible. We only need the confidence that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage to persevere in the task.
R W Kropf 4/5/05 Division.doc 05-04-05.html