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.