Lines on the Page: Why a Christian Reading of the Bible Depends on the Creeds

It’s hard to sort out the good from the bad in Protestant circles. For instance, I can’t count the times I’ve read something like what I just read the other day when researching a local church’s “What We Believe” page (speaking of which: when did we all just agree that this was a necessary thing on a church website?): it said, “The Bible is the ultimate source of doctrine.” I imagine many Protestants kind of assume this statement. The Bible is the foundation for everything.

But here’s the thing: it’s actually not.

In his stellar book Seized by Truth, Joel B. Green says:

I will allow only a word or two of reminder to suffice. For most of the church’s history, doctrine has served in a sense as the lines of the page on which to write the interpretation of Scripture. These “lines,” to change the image, have provided the basic architecture for comprehending the biblical witness, the “economy” that any faithful interpretation of Scripture must bring to expression.

Doctrine is like lines on a page, he says. Maybe I’m pushing the metaphor too far, but I think a few key implications emerge. Lines on a page do not dictate what is written, but guide where to write. That is, they are freeing just as much as they are constricting. As it turns out, defining and ordering our beliefs might be a better, more liberating alternative to anarchy.

The lines are not established by what is written between them. Instead, they are taken as the starting point. In practice, this is very much how Christian interpretation of the Bible has worked in practice, even by Protestants who think they start with the Bible to determine doctrine.

The Trinity is a perfect example. The Trinity, in terms of the fully worked-out doctrine of orthodox Christianity, is not “in” the Bible. But readers of Scripture don’t need it to be. It’s the starting point, not the end goal, of Christian Interpretation of Scripture.

This does not mean that Christians cannot or should not reflect carefully and critically on its doctrine. Rather, it just means that the process of interpretation is not primarily about proving or establishing doctrine. We read Scripture to encounter God, to be shaped by God, to come to know God intimately.

Conversely, “just reading the Bible” will not lead to a fully and truly Christian reading. A Christian reading of Scripture depends on the readers taking as their starting point the collective wisdom of the church regarding who God is.

So a Christian reading of the Bible depends on the creeds. It’s a shame that so many Protestants don’t even know them.