The Epistles as Scripture

I have heard that our Muslim friends are not impressed by our New Testament.  That is, as far as Scripture goes, they think it is pretty thin stuff.  That is because for them Scripture represents the very voice of God and comes to mankind as God’s direct message.  By the term “Scripture” they understand God speaking to us in the first person.  The Ten Commandments would look like Scripture to them, since in that case God thundered from Mount Sinai and gave His people those directives with His own mouth.  Most of the utterances of the prophets would have a scriptural feel to Muslims, in cases where the prophet begins by saying, “Thus saith the Lord,” and then goes on to quote God more or less verbatim.  Scripture in Islamic thought is a simple matter of recording what God said, rather like a secretary taking dictation.  That is why when they come to the New Testament they feel, I am told, a certain disappointment.  They look at the Christian Scripture to find the thunderous voice of divinity and what do they find?  Mostly letters, written by Paul.  Not the voice of God, but the voices of Paul and Peter and James and Jude.  That, and stories about Jesus—not just what Jesus said, but also stories about what He did.  And a series of stories about the adventures and acts of the apostles.  All in all, not much thunder, and very little “Thus saith the Lord” or divine dictation.  And to make matters worse, the letters are not even written as general and timeless treatises.  They don’t begin, “Paul the apostle to Christians everywhere and forever.”  They begin, “Paul the apostle to the saints and faithful brethren at Colossae.”  For our Muslim friends examining the epistles feels less like reading divine Scripture and more like reading someone else’s mail—which of course it is.

So what does it mean that the Church has identified these letters as true and divine Scripture, which come to us with all the authority of the Ten Commandments and the words of the prophets and anything else in the Old Testament?  For the Church has declared that these letters and the Gospels written after them indeed possess divine authority and may be fitly bound with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures between the covers of a single Bible.  In a word, it means that our salvation in Christ is a corporate reality as well as a personal one, and that salvation consists of living as a part of God’s Church, in community with others.

God could have arranged it otherwise, of course.  He could have decided to thunder at us for all time so that Scripture was defined in the way that Islam defines it, as the ipsissima verba of God, His direct dictation.  Such one-to-one communication would be appropriate if salvation were simply a matter of me and God, involving no one else—no mediators, no conduits of divine grace and power, nothing between me and the Most High.  That of course is religion as Islam understands it, so it makes sense that its understanding of Scripture fits in with this.  But the Christian Faith is different from this.  Christianity not only posits a mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5), but also the existence of many and varied conduits of the grace and power that comes from Christ—namely, the sacraments of His Church.  You can become a Muslim all by yourself by confessing the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, but you cannot become a Christian all by yourself.  For that you need baptism and for baptism you need the Church.  The sacraments are not self-administered; no one baptizes himself.  One is baptized by someone else.  No one takes the Eucharist at home, helping himself to bread and wine.  One gathers together with other Christians and receives it from the hand of another.  Both becoming a Christian and living the Christian life afterward require meeting together as part of a community.  Salvation consists of being fitted like a single stone into a large building (1 Peter 2:5), and like a member arranged as part of a complex body.  We are not saved as isolated individuals, but as members of that body, as parts of a large family.  To find ourselves isolated from that body is not good.  Its official name is “excommunication,” and it is something to be avoided.

The epistles witness to this corporate reality, and give examples of how Christian life is lived out in this body.  We do not need a divine rule book outlining what to do in every conceivable situation.  For that day to day direction we have the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The epistles give us something more valuable than a book of instructions.  They give us models, glimpses of life, slices of apostolic reality to taste and feed upon.  If we didn’t have the Holy Spirit, no doubt a comprehensive rule book thundering away would be helpful.  But since we do have the Holy Spirit, the epistles fit our need precisely.  All the more reason to read them attentively and prayerfully at home, and open our hearts to them when they are next chanted in church.