THE PLAIN TRUTH OF SCRIPTURE

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:

Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them,

that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,

which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ:

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.  AMEN.

 

            “’ALL holy Scriptures?’  Can we really learn something from ALL Holy Scriptures?  And if so, what is it and how is it we can learn?”  This is how I began my sermon on Sunday, November 16th.  (You can find my sermons on the All Saints’ website at www.allsaintsmd.org).  In that sermon I quoted from a sermon preached by a university chaplain.  Her sermon is worth reading in its entirety:

 

How Anglicans ‘Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest’

 

A sermon given at The Episcopal Church at Princeton University, Princeton University Chapel, November 13, 2005

 

The Rev. Joan E. Fleming, Associate Chaplain

 

As we come down the home stretch of the Church’s year, with only one more Sunday to go before we hit Advent I and the beginning of a new lectionary cycle, the Collect of the day focuses our attention on the grounding of our faith in the Bible. It is about our biblical foundation from the perspective of the Anglican tradition that I want to speak today.  Here is the Collect again:

 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

This Collect was composed for the very first Book of Common Prayer, the 1549 book, introduced by the boy king Edward VI who, having had a very Protestant upbringing, wanted the book to reflect his own reforming zeal. The watchword of the reformers was Sola Scriptura [“Only Scripture”], a reaction against the tightly authoritarian control the medieval Catholic Church had exercised in all matters pertaining to salvation, especially in controlling not only access to the Bible but also interpretation of the Bible.

 

Access

 

It may be virtually impossible for us to imagine a time when the Bible was literally off limits to the faithful, but consider this. William Tyndale had been hunted down and killed quite brutally by members of King Henry VIII’s spy network a mere thirteen years before the 1549 Prayer Book rolled off the presses. His crime: translating the Scriptures into the English language at a time when the king still refused to permit any other version than the Latin [or Vulgate] Bible to be used in worship. It turns out that this seemingly gentle-spoken Collect of ours has a political edge to it.

 

Its insistence that “all holy Scriptures” were “written for our learning” [edification] is undoubtedly a barb directed at the medieval Church’s rigid selectiveness in the choice of Bible texts actually read in worship, and it also celebrates the new availability of the whole Bible. Indeed by now [Alas, poor Tyndale, born a decade too early], every parish church in England had a “chained” Bible–in English–on open display. Moreover, this prayer makes the astonishing assumption that by reading and reflecting on the Scriptures, ordinary Christians can deepen their own understanding and grow in faith.

           

Read between the lines of this Collect and you see that the Reformation,” Chaplain Fleming suggests, “was in fact a revolution.  In a few short decades the medieval Church’s monopoly on the means of salvation had been shattered…The Protestant reformers (insisted) that individual Christians could be trusted to handle the Word of God independently; to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures for themselves.

 

Interpretation

 

Today, the Bible is a global best-seller. It is available in thousands of languages and in hotel bedrooms from Bangkok to Brazil. By 1996, the Scriptures had been translated into 2,167 different languages, and scholars are adding about 30 more languages every year. The Bible is hot, hot, hot–and the fastest growing churches throughout the world are those which claim the validity of a literal reading of Scripture. From this perspective, the meaning of the Bible is sufficiently plain and self-evident not to need “interpretation.”

 

It may come as a surprise that such a view is actually of rather recent origin. For at least the first 1500 years of the Church’s history, the Bible was uniformly regarded as having multiple meanings, the surface or “plain” meaning being generally regarded as the one of least ultimate significance. Metaphor, allegory, typology, poetry and symbolism were all assumed to be at work within and behind the text, connecting one text to another in a cunning web of mutual reference; and the reader must, like a squirrel in search of the nourishing kernel in a nut, crack open and dig beneath the surface to come at the treasure contained within. Literalists are a minority in the Episcopal Church today, but their perspective is certainly present, and quite possibly growing within Anglicanism, if we take into account the current high conversion rate, for example, in parts of Africa where a literalist/fundamentalist view of Scripture is strongly entrenched and Anglican bishops typically confirm hundreds of candidates at a time.

 

At their ordination all Episcopal clergy affirm that “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God.” It is important to recognize that there is more than one way to understand that affirmation.

 

There is a splendid exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just now, of medieval art from Prague. One of the most arresting pictures is of a positively bug-eyed St. Luke, his pen poised to take down dictation from the small ox (his iconographic symbol) who is whispering in his ear. The Evangelist is straining to hear the words literally being dropped into his ear, intent on not missing a single astonishing syllable. The painting, a huge canvas, is a charming and graphic depiction of the theory of direct inspiration of Scripture.

 

In just what sense is the Bible “Word of God” for us? Anglicans believe that the Spirit of God did indeed inspire the authors of Scripture, but that the words of Scripture themselves are human words that bear the imprint of their human origin in particular circumstances and moments in human history. We believe therefore that it is appropriate to apply to them all the tools now available to scholars to help discern the context in place and time, and the human dynamics –the power plays, persecutions, family feuds, or realpolitik–which formed their original backdrop and could not fail to influence their authors.

 

The words of the Bible are anchored in human history and mediate actual events, but they are words which both reveal–and conceal–events, and the human motives that prompted, and lie behind, them. It should come as no surprise that they invite us into speculation, probing research, conversation, and debate. Jesus himself, after all, rarely seems to have given a “straight answer” to any question, often responding to one question with another, always challenging and inviting people to think more deeply, to “put out into deep waters.” Today’s parable is a case in point: like so many of Jesus’ stories, it seems designed to raise questions as much as to answer them, and to puzzle as much as enlighten, through a process that Paul Ricoeur once described as “reorientation by disorientation.”

 

Authority

 

Let us return for a moment to the Puritan reformers’ watchword, Sola Scriptura, and the question of authority. For Anglicans, Scripture never stands alone. We are always mindful that the Bible is the Church’s book and that the Christian community itself brought it into being. The Hebrew Scriptures, in which Jesus and his disciples, all of them Jews, had been steeped from earliest youth, were the only sacred Scriptures they knew. The stories and memories of Jesus that the first Christians told among themselves and handed on to the next generation formed the matrix out of which the gospels and other New Testament materials developed, but always in dialogue with their own existing sacred texts.

 

We simply cannot regard any of the written records in our Scriptures as “eye-witness” accounts or verbatim reports. While the Bible is indeed foundational for us, thoughtful reasoning forces us to recognize that oral tradition and Christian worship preceded the Christian Scriptures. Classic Anglicanism, indeed, has always looked to both tradition and human reason as well as to the Bible, as our source of authority.

 

Let me conclude with two quotations.

 

The celebrated 19th-century preacher, Phillips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts and author of O Little Town of Bethlehem, once wisely observed: “The Bible is like a telescope. If a man looks through his telescope then he sees worlds beyond; but if he looks at his telescope, then he does not see anything but that. The Bible is a thing to be looked through, to see that which is beyond, but most people only look at it; and so they see only the dead letter.”

 

And from A. E. Harvey: “The Bible is inspired by the same God who accepted the constraints of the Incarnation.” In Jesus we see what the life of God is like constrained in the vesture of humanity, in all its material contingency, in all its vulnerability.

 

Anglicans, I would suggest, are profoundly sacramental – in our worship, in our theology and, in the final analysis, in our perspective on the Bible. And within this perspective, the spiritual truth within the material words of Scripture is the Word Incarnate, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is that Word that we seek, and that Word that we encounter, most especially when we are gathered in community as Jesus’ friends and followers–as we are even now–and together listen for the reconciling, saving Word in the good news of the Gospel proclaimed in our midst, to be broken open and shared among us in community, in sacrament, and in service to the world.

 

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One thought on “THE PLAIN TRUTH OF SCRIPTURE

  1. Tom,
    Thanks for the blog. I enjoy reading bible commentaries and find Marcus Borg a good author for writings which take a ‘historical-metaphorical’, the non-literal, perspective of the Bible. In 2001, he published ‘Reading the Bible Again for the First Time’ using this approach. A professor at VTS I know uses the phrase ‘the Word of God in the words of men’.

    Keep up the good work!
    Peace, John

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