Recently I was a guest presenter at a conference of clergy in another diocese. My topic was revelation and authority, and one of the points I endeavored to make was that what we know about God and our place in the world is precisely what God wants us to know, what God has revealed, and that this revelation is located in the apostolic tradition, which is enshrined in Holy Scripture. In the ensuing discussion, one of the participants averred that, yes, the apostolic tradition is important, but “Jesus trumps any of the apostles.”

Jesus trumps. This is an assertion that is at least awkward, if not downright difficult, to argue against. If Jesus is indeed Lord of all — a central tenet of the very apostolic tradition I was purveying — then Jesus trumps … everything. Of course.

Still, I was uneasy about the statement, and pondered it for about the next hour as the discussion moved in a variety of directions. It reminded me of the ubiquitous — and vacuous — social media meme: “Jesus never said anything about … [fill in the blank with pet issue].” A statement can be true, but still be deficient, because it is not true enough.

My first academic (as opposed to catechetical or devotional) experience of studying the Bible took place while I was an undergraduate at an evangelical Christian liberal arts college. Even in that, by any measure, “conservative” environment, I was introduced to the notion that “red letter” (words of Jesus) passages in my New Testament may not be verbatim quotes from the historical Jesus, but likely represent layers of tradition and the theological and literary agendas of authors and editors. Of course, generations of “mainline” seminary faculty have discerned a vocation to undermine the “naive” faith that students arrive with, and reconstruct something with more intellectual rigor. This invariably includes a hermeneutic of suspicion that the biblical record includes very little of anything that denotes what anyone, and especially Jesus, actually did or said, in an objective sense. Of course, this is nothing new. The “quest for historical Jesus” and the Jesus-of-history/Christ- of-faith dichotomy was up and running before the turn of the twentieth century. More recently, the Jesus Seminar has opined repeatedly on this or that word or deed of Jesus being historical or a later fabrication.

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So, in college (early ’70s), I was taught about biblical criticism, but it was not advocated, which was fine by me. In seminary (mid-’80s), it was presented matter-of-factly (and at a generally “conservative” seminary, no less) as academic consensus, and I was much more open to it. With the help of the likes of Reginald Fuller, who clearly had a lively and orthodox faith, but could still explicate the three stages of the gospel tradition, I began to appreciate how the insights of biblical criticism could inform and enrich my preaching. I no longer blanch when somebody suggests that a saying attributed to Jesus may not be authentic, and may indeed have been made from scratch by an author or editor to serve a particular end.

Yet, I am, by any measure, a quite traditional Anglican Christian believer. I say all the clauses of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without even the thought of crossing my fingers, or qualifying the language in any way. And here’s precisely why I’m made uneasy by statements that “Jesus trumps any of the apostles” (usually, most notably, St. Paul)  … and, by implication, that Jesus trumps anything in the Church’s tradition, and it’s precisely because I’ve made peace (indeed, made friends) with biblical criticism. It’s been 50 years since I’ve owned a red-letter edition of the New Testament. I’m quite comfortable with the notion that we simply do not have clear and unimpeded access to the “historical Jesus.” I have no yearning, no burning curiosity, to peel back the accreted layers of tradition and discover the “pure” words of Jesus.

Among those who do hold such an aspiration, there is an unspoken assumption that we could thereby have a “canon within the canon.” If the words of Jesus conflict with something Paul says, Jesus holds the trump card. If something Jesus says — or, as the case may be, doesn’t say — conflicts with ecclesiastical tradition or discipline, Jesus wins. In a strange and ironic way, old-fashioned red-letter-Bible fundamentalists share an essential hermeneutic with those who would be styled “progressive” on any number of controverted issues. Both groups have been known to deploy the “Jesus said” (or “Jesus never said”) trump card in a disturbingly facile manner, as if we somehow have access to what Jesus actually ever said.

I don’t think we have such access. I don’t think we will ever find the historical Jesus. So, what are we left with? We are left with the old, familiar apostolic tradition of teaching and practice, refined and handed along to us through two millennia of Christian experience. We have no access to Jesus except through this apostolic tradition. Yes, Jesus is Lord, and reigns over all, including saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs. But our only access to that Lord Jesus is precisely through those very saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs. The tradition of the Church (which, for present purposes, would include the documents of the canonical Scriptures) is the only context, the only environment, in which we can see and know Jesus. It is futile to speculate about what Jesus would think of the developed theology of the Apostle Paul, or the articles of the Nicene Creed, or the Trinitarian parsings of Quincunque Vult, because those are themselves the only channels by which we get to Jesus. The Jesus who is King of kings and Lord of lords, the Jesus who holds the ultimate trump card, is none other than the Jesus of the New Testament and the apostolic tradition, and not some hypothetical Jesus for whom we would need to set all that aside if we could only gain access to him.

I eventually got back around to my interlocutor’s point in that clergy conference discussion. Jesus trumps, to be sure. But the methodologies of biblical criticism have spoiled me for thinking that the Jesus who holds the trump card is anyone other than the Jesus of the whole New Testament and the apostolic tradition, and not some hypothetically actual Jesus.

Bishop Daniel Martins’s other posts may be found here. The featured image of Christ teaching in the temple is a painting in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence, OP, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Bishop Daniel Martins is retired Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in the Episcopal Church, which encompasses central and southern Illinois. He is also secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors. Among the members of the House of Bishops, he hangs out with the group known as the Communion Partners. He has previously served parishes in the dioceses of Louisiana, Northern Indiana, and San Joaquin.

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6 years ago

Bp Dan, I enjoyed this rather much and am in substantial concurrence, if nothing else admiring the rhetorical end run! Two thoughts occur to me: (1) It seems to me that “making friends with biblical criticism” means that one has a rather diverse set of “friends” rather than that one has accepted a certain set of conclusions. “Assured results of biblical criticism” are not what they used to be. More particularly, the confidence in the creativity of tradents and evangelists with respect to the dominical tradition has been somewhat in retreat, while more anthropologically disciplined accounts of “traditioning,” especially oral… Read more »

6 years ago

It is interesting to note that both (some) conservatives and many progressives will bring in the Holy Spirit as a kind of “King of trump” (where Jesus was the ace of trump). It becomes important to figure out what the Holy Spirit does with reference to that same Apostolic Tradition.

The Holy Spirit, being a prime mover in bringing us the Tradition in the first place, seems unlikely to overrule it (certainly will overrule our misguided use of the Tradition, but that is a story for a different day).

6 years ago

Like my colleagues above, I think this article is hitting on a real problem and I am generally sympathetic to the point that Bishop Martins is trying to make. I also agree with the critiques of my colleagues, especially the point Dr. Anderson makes about the fragility of some things that used to be ironclad assumptions of the historical critical method. If I can offer one further idea which may be helpful, I think what we need to recover is a hermeneutic that understands all the words of Scripture to be the words of Jesus. It seems to me that… Read more »

Dale Coleman
6 years ago

The use of the Holy Spirit has always been a kind of fudge factor for anyone wishing to smuggle in their agendas. The “quality control” of the Church East and West was proclaimed in the Niceno-Constantipolitan Creed. Three more Ecumenical Councils sorted out other paramount doctrinal matters. Careful continual study of the Bible and scholarship, and finding those scholars who are attentive to the truth of our Lord and savior, is I believe the most pressing need for clergy and the Church. For myself, I find at present N. T. Wright and his most recent massive Paul studies, and his… Read more »