Why “sound Bible teaching” is slippery, starting with Grosseteste

I have just been enjoying some truly great times with friends in London, including a day trip to Canterbury. In the middle of this holiday, I took a jaunt to Oxford to give a paper about canon law in the era of Robert Grosseteste’s early career, in 1190s England. In explaining to my friends why Grosseteste is an interesting and even important figure, I am quick, quick, quick to point out that he is not a proto-reformer, or even a precursor to Wycliffe, although he levels some very serious words and criticisms at the papal court of Innocent IV (pope, 1243-1254).

The main reason is that, as Southern points out in his biography, Robert Grosseteste, Grosseteste is a thirtheenth-century man. He cannot imagine a church without a pope. As far as he is concerned, if the pope or curia is Antichrist, then the end of the world is nigh. Moreover, Grosseteste was the sort of mind that sought a unifying principle for each field of study. For church order, that principle is the pope.

This is the sort of idea I live with all the time, so it doesn’t sound strange to me anymore.

Now, saying this to Protestant friends who are fans of ‘sound’ Bible teaching (as they call it) and expository preaching and biblical principles, I suddenly realised that this sounds bizarre to this modern context. Indeed, the idea of the pope and papacy is considered by most Protestants as ‘unbiblical’.

But is it?

Specifically, is it ‘unbiblical’ to thirteenth-century man?

It is not as though the rationale behind the plenitude of power and authority resident in the Bishop of Rome has no biblical foundation. (Blasphemy! cry the Reformed.)

We need, when considering people like Grosseteste and Francis and Bernard and Anselm and Aquinas, to keep in mind their understanding of Matthew 16:18, part of an exegetical tradition of the exposition of Sacred Scripture that was 900 years old by Grosseteste’s day, a tradition that saw Christ entrusting the keys to St Peter and making St Peter the foundation of the church. Couple that with a tradition that was 1100 or 1200 years old that traced the authority of Rome’s bishop through a succession of bishops beginning with St Peter, it only makes sense that someone like Grosseteste would consider the Bishop of Rome the visible, ruling head of the church.

Also, don’t forget that the New Testament episcopipresbyteri, and diaconi are uncontroversially still bishops, priests, and deacons.

So, when we think about the medieval reader, it seems pretty straightforward to their perspective that the office of pope is perfectly biblical. And if you read St Bernard’s De Consideratione from 1153, it seems pretty straightforward that the Bishop of Rome has a range of important pastoral duties, drawn from Scripture. De Consideratione is soaked in Bible teaching.

So what on earth, then, is ‘sound Bible teaching’? Can we be sure that we have it and they don’t?

I wonder.

5 thoughts on “Why “sound Bible teaching” is slippery, starting with Grosseteste

  1. An interesting post. You are right that “sound Biblical teaching” is slippery. I speak as someone who has been a Christian for 40 of my 68 years, who has mixed with a very wide range of Christian groupings, mostly evangelical, and who has long been uncomfortable with some of the assumptions that seem inherent in traditional evangelicalism and pentecostalism.

    Your point arose recently, when I used the phrase “sound doctrine” in a mixed gathering of Anglicans — high-church, low-church and everything in between. Amongst other things, we were discussing the boundaries between distinctively Christian doctrine and syncreticism. (The specific case under discussion involved the tendency to mix the inoffensive aspects of the Gospel with aspects of contemporary liberalism — often without realising that’s what we are doing.)

    One of the more high-ranking clergy asked me what I meant by “sound doctrine”. So I replied that the term arises only in the pastoral epistles, and that in several translations it is aptly put as “healthy doctrine”. From this I conclude firstly and crucially that sound (or healthy) doctrine is vital for the life of the church; and secondly I conclude that many evangelical brethren use the term in a way very different from that intended by the Apostles. In particular, evangelical tradition has a tendency to over-emphasise the centrality of the Reformation, and to regard the “sound Biblical doctrine” mentioned in the pastoral epistles as being of a far more narrow, categorising kind than what the Bible itself suggests.

    Your point about the interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is well taken by this catholic-inclined evangelical. (Those terms are not necessarily contradictory.) But in the light of my points above about sound doctrine, I find that the edifice built upon that understanding of just one verse has become more weighty than the scriptural foundation can bear.

    Blessings! Thanks for all the prayerful thoughts in your blog.

    • Thanks for the elucidation of ‘sound doctrine’; it makes sense to me, and it also highlights a way to see how, perhaps, the standard medieval interpretation of Mt 16:18 is ‘unsound’ (as in, unhealthy) in a way that is not simply a matter of pure exegesis in a vacuum but a question of the health and vitality of the church.

      I’ll have to think through this interpretation of ‘sound doctrine’ some more, because I like it, so I need to make sure it’s not just confirmation bias…

  2. Thank you very much for your recent posts, which are indeed most interesting and provoking.

    I was wondering what was Grosseteste’s view on the Orthodox Church? Did he leave us any clues?

    • Hi Martin! You are welcome. I’ve been thinking through a lot of things lately, and the fruit is appearing here.

      Grosseteste and the Greek Church is a good question. Most of his active career was during the time of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, so he would have considered the Latin Patriarch there to be the legitimate bishop of CP (I suspect). This meant, however, that he lived at a time when not simply Aristotle but Greek patristic theology was making its way West. Robert Grosseteste is one of the most extensive western medieval theologians to use John of Damascus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Basil of Caesarea, commissioning translations of the full corpus of the first two with commentary and working extensively on Basil’s Hexaemeron. As a result, he is a big theologian of Creation and the Incarnation, themes that are more emphasised in East than West.

      What he thought about the actual existing Greek Christians who rejected the Bishop of Rome’s claims to supremacy, I do not know. My colleagues are working on new editions and translations of many of his works, so maybe we’ll learn soon?

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