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But none of us circling the exhibit came to see photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls, let alone digitally enhanced versions--even though the photographs and the digital versions are a more faithful rendition of what the Scrolls actually say! No, instead, we've come mostly to squint at mostly dark and illegible pieces of parchment.

Scholars wax eloquent about what these documents tell us about first century Jewish religious life, that they are crucial for understanding early Christian history, that they shed light on the New Testament, that they confirm the faithful reproduction of Scripture through the ages, and so on and so forth. All well and good, but that is not was draws us to the museum.

We're not particularly interested in reading them, for very long anyway—and again, we don't need to go to the museum to do that. Yes, we'll spend a few seconds reading a scroll portion, at least the English translation, but we'll spend many minutes just staring at the scroll fragment, as if it were an object of veneration.

Even we Protestants do that. We say we are people of the word, but sometimes we act like people of the parchment. Even if we're not believers in inerrancy, we're fascinated with originals, or with copies that are closer than ever to the originals.

But why do we care about getting back to the originals? Why do we think the originals are more pristine, more truthful, more authentic?

Instinctual Primivitists

We don't think that about all originals.

For example, the first version of any written work is what we call a "first draft." Nobody thinks a first draft is a mature piece of work. Nor the second draft. And so on. These days, it's hard to tell which draft is which, given the ease of self-editing. But it is fair to say that most written works don't see the light of day until ten or twenty significant revisions have taken place. And then, depending on the nature of the book, it might be revised for second, third, and forth editions. Nobody except historians cares much about the original edition of Calvin's Institutes, a thin little book compared to the later editions. What we study to discern Calvin's mature thought is the final edition.

Why do we Protestants instinctively believe that the best, truest, most mature versions of Scripture are the earliest? Why do we assume that God only inspired those? Perhaps he inspired copyists as well, all down through the centuries. Perhaps the "errors" some of them introduced were really God's editing of previous copyists mistakes. Maybe the latest manuscripts are actually the most divinely inspired.

There are many reasons, of course, for our stubborn fascination with originals, especially when it comes to Scripture. But one is less a reason than an assumption, a basic hermeneutic by which we operate. Protestants are fundamentally primitivists—meaning we give great authority to the "primitive," that is, to things that are "the first or earliest of the kind or in existence." The Reformation is a primivitist movement, an attempt to correct what we considered to be later additions and corruptions of the faith. Catholics instinctively thought of these "additions" as divinely guided developments of doctrine (though that idea wasn't framed formally until the 19th century with John Henry Newman). But Protestants argued that authority rested not in later tradition but in the Bible as it came to us through the original prophets and original apostles. This instinct for the primitive is part of our DNA, so much so that most don't even think about it.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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