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The Treasures of the Church: Some Thoughts on the Bible Sunday

July 16, 2006

Glynn Cardy

National Bible Sunday     Eph 1:3-14     Mark 6:14-29


One of the treasures of the Christian community is the collection of writings which make up the Bible. The Bible includes all sorts of wonderful stories... experiences, poems, letters, prayers, speeches, legends, and prophesies. The Bible is a literary classic that has the ability to speak to different ages, times and tribes.


However, more importantly, there is also the treasure that can't be contained in any book: the Spirit of God. The Spirit permeates the pages of the Bible, and transcends them. For in the end God is not contained in a book. God is forever reaching out to us in whatever way we can listen to in order to guide us, to encourage us, and to dare us to love other people and our planet.


Anglicanism's unique approach to the Bible has been one that has cherished the broad range of God's revelation in the texts of Scripture, in the tradition of the Church, and in human experience. God can be found anywhere God chooses to reveal God's self.


Over a hundred years ago the then Dean of Chichester1 proclaimed: "Every book of [the Bible], every word of it, every syllable of it, every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High". Although the Dean was a learned man, his view of the authority of the Bible could not be further from the normative Anglican historical position. In our own day, especially with the rise of Christian fundamentalism, many Anglicans feel confused about the role, definition and authority of the Bible.


The New Testament, the Christian Scriptures, developed over a very short period of time probably less than a hundred years. The books of the New Testament reveal the profound faith of their writers. The authors did not seek to write "theology", but to proclaim the excitement of their new faith in Jesus. Nor did they seek to write "history" as we understand it today. Instead they chose to tell their stories. But because such stories are personal they are also subjective and upon close scrutiny are found to contain contradictions.2


Following their personal experience, the earliest followers of Christ turned to their texts, to the books of the Hebrew Bible [in Greek translation3], to find help in that great collection of memories for understanding the powerful revelation which had changed their lives. The Hebrew Bible was searched for meanings, other than the literal meanings, and these alternative meanings were identified and developed. The writers used what we would call allegory or typology4. So for example5 the reference to King David as the son of God was borrowed and applied to Jesus. Likewise with the reference6 to the young woman, or [in the Greek mistranslation] virgin, who would conceive and bear a child during the Syro-Ephraimite War in 734 B.C.E. was borrowed and applied to Mary.


For the Christian writers their experience of God was of primary importance. They wanted to ground this experience in the Hebrew Scriptures and, believing themselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, they engaged in unprecedented applications of those Scriptures to create what we call today the New Testament.


Over the next four hundred years after Jesus' death there was little agreement on what comprised the Bible or what inspiration or authority meant. The New Testament was not definitively agreed upon until the Council of Trent [1545-1563]8, although by the mid-300s the four Gospels and a collection of some supposedly Pauline letters were in circulation. For the first fifteen hundred years of the Church the locus of the authority of Scripture was not in the literal words of collection of books. Rather, the primary locus of authority was in the Tradition of the community alone - which after all had preceded and given rise to the books. It was the Tradition of the community that could teach the correct way to read the text, and biblical literalism was held by many to be a form of idolatry. No reading of scripture was accepted within the community when it violated either human reason or common sense.


Augustine of Hippo [354-430], for example, believed that the inspired Scriptures were true, but insisted that Truth could neither be limited to nor limited by the Bible. He insisted, more strongly than most, on the importance of God's revelation outside of the Christian tradition, an idea with strong precedent in Clement of Alexandria, Origen and St. Basil.9 Like so many of his predecessors, Augustine considered that every passage of scripture could have multiple true meanings.


The test in the early church to determine what was true and false in both Scripture and Tradition involved the triple standard of ecumenicity [what the leadership of the Great Churches believed], antiquity [what was the oldest], and common consent [what the people in the pews thought]. These standards emphasised the role of the believing community. Authority lay outside the scriptural text. Doctrine and biblical understanding were understood as free to evolve in faithful response to unfolding new understandings within the community itself. The Scriptures were certainly not a straightjacket or a book of irrefutable rules or a programme for living. As the Psalmist said the Scriptures were a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. They weren't to lead us, nor do the walking for us, nor the thinking for us.


The Holy Scriptures encourage us to explore. They are not a rule book to restrict our experience but a body of wisdom to use as a guide. If you've ever used a guide book to explore a complex city such as Rome, or Jerusalem, or Istanbul, you will know that the guide book gives great in-depth assistance in some places - but there is nothing like departing from the book to discover that special little place that you stumble into and wonder afterwards why it is not mentioned anywhere. So it is with our exploring in the fascinating city called God. Many paths you won't find mapped.


The Holy Scriptures also, and primarily, encourage us to love generously. Our treasure is not just a book, or a relationship with the God who permeates it, but is in the love that we have received and share with others.


There is a story told of a monk, Simeon, who resolved on a mighty undertaking: the printing of seven thousand copies of the Holy Scriptures in his native tongue, which until then had only been available in Latin.


He travelled the length and breadth of his country to collect funds for this project. Some wealthy people offered him as much as a hundred pieces of gold, but mostly he received small coins from peasants. Simeon expressed gratitude to each donor, regardless of the sum of money given.


After ten long years of travel, he finally collected the funds necessary for the task. Just then the Great River overflowed and thousands were left without food and shelter. Simeon spent all the money he had collected for his cherished project on these poor people.


Then he began the work of raising funds again. Again it was several years before he got the money he needed. Then an epidemic spread over all the country, so Simeon gave away all he had collected to help the suffering.


Once again he set out on his travels and, twenty years later, his dream of having the Scriptures in his own language finally come true.


The printing block that produced this first edition of the Bible is on display at the country's National Museum. Parents tell their children that Simeon got out three editions of the Holy Scriptures in all, and that the first two are invisible and far superior to the third. 10


The Scriptures are reproduced, are lived, and are proclaimed each time we love generously, we love selflessly, and we love in the Spirit of God.




1 John Burgon.


2 The books of the New Testament differ, for example, in their use of the Hebrew Bible and in their record of Jesus' life and ministry. Some writers found the work of Jesus foreshadowed in one part of the Hebrew Bible; others found that work foreshadowed in yet other parts of the Hebrew Bible. Each tells the story of Jesus' life somewhat differently: in Mark the women ran away from the tomb, but in Luke they remained there [Mark 16:8 and Luke 24:51; John places the driving out of the money-changers from the Temple near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, but Matthew places it near the end [Mark 16:8 and Luke 24:5]; the events of Pentecost look very different in John than in Acts [John 20:21 and Acts 2:5ff].


3 Christians should make a careful distinction between the "Old Testament" and "the Hebrew Bible". The order, the message, and even the text of the two are different. When the Old Testament is quoted in the New, it is not the normative Hebrew text which is quoted, but usually a subsequent Greek translation known as the Septuagint.


4 This resulted in conflicting readings of Hebrew Scripture among the Christian community, for example Matthew's and John's presentations of Jesus' disputes with authorities, Orthodox opposition to Gnostic mythic interpretation of Genesis, and the Nicene-Arian disputes over the meaning of Proverbs 8:22.


5 Psalm 2:7


6 Isaiah 7:14


7 This was mainly due to the fact that there was so little agreement on how to read and interpret the various inherited Jewish and Christian texts.


8 It should be noted that the New Testament I am referring to here is that of the Western Church - the New Testament canon of various Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic denominations differs from ours today. For example the Revelation to John and the Epistle to the Hebrews are excluded in some canons


Augustine, Confessions, chapter 12


10 Adapted from De Mello, A., Taking Flight, New York: Doubleday, 1988, p.60

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