Sunday, November 18, 2007

Holy Scripture

The Collect appointed for Proper 28 has always been one of my favorites:

"Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our savior Jesus Christ."

I think that this prayer beautifully summarizes an Anglican approach to the purpose and authority of Holy Scripture. Below is a sermon I preached a few years back on this Collect.

Sermon for Proper 28

Once, an elderly woman who was a cradle Episcopalian joined an ecumenical Bible study. After attending for a few weeks, she was so blown away by the experience that she made a special point to tell her parish priest about it. “Fr. John,” she said, “I just can’t believe what I’ve discovered. I never knew how much the Bible quotes the Prayer Book!”

Many Episcopalians are just not familiar or comfortable with the Bible. And let’s face it: when it comes to chapter and verse, our Baptist friends run circles around us. But here’s the point we need to hear: just because we Episcopalians don’t memorize Bible chapter and verse, it does not follow that scripture is unimportant in our tradition. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Virtually every page of The Book of Common Prayer quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to specific passages of Holy Scripture. Our liturgies are scripture saturated through and through. And so every time we gather for worship, we not only hear scripture read and proclaimed; we pray scripture.

This high regard for Holy Scripture has been there since the beginning of the Anglican tradition. Starting in the 16th Century, Anglicanism has affirmed that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, and that anything not read in scripture or proven by scripture, cannot be required as an article of faith or held as a belief necessary to salvation [cf. Article VI of the “Articles of Religion,” BCP, p. 868; and “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” BCP, p. 877]. Anglicanism is a tradition which upholds the Bible as “the rule and ultimate standard of faith” [“The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” BCP, p. 877].

We hear that high regard for scripture in the collect appointed for today. Written by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and included in the first Prayer Book of 1549, it’s worth praying again and paying attention to the words:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In compressed form, this Collect tells us a lot about the Anglican approach to the holy Scriptures. In particular, it helps us address two questions: “Who wrote the Bible?” and, “What is the purpose of the Bible?” Let’s briefly look at how this short prayer helps us answer these questions.

First, who wrote the Bible? This Collect says that God “hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written.” Notice that it does not say that God wrote the Scriptures. God did not write the Bible. Human beings did. However, God “caused” human beings to write the Bible. “Caused,” not in the sense that God appointed every word which was then written down verbatim by a human being. But, rather, “caused” in the sense that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible’s human authors to faithfully record God’s self-revelation to the people of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ.

To say that every word of the Bible is a word dictated by God is a view of biblical inspiration more at home in Islam than in historic Christianity. In the orthodox Islamic view of the Koran, for example, God commanded the Prophet Muhammed to “Recite!,” and Muhammed obediently wrote down everything God said to him in Arabic. This means that when Muslims recite the Koran in Arabic, they believe they are reciting the very words of God Himself. This is not a traditional Christian, much less Anglican, understanding of divine inspiration.

On this point, one of our bishops gets it right: “When we say that the Bible is an inspired book, we do not mean to suggest that it is the result of divine dictation … We mean that the men who did the writing were actively seeking God’s will, inscribing accounts of God’s dealing with human life, and that the spiritual reliability of these accounts was tested over long periods of time by the people for whom they were written” [Frank E. Wilson, Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1967), p. 45)]. In that testing over the centuries, the Bible has proven itself to be the reliable outcome of “the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will” [Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church New Edition (Penguin Books, 1993), p. 222].

The Bible is both divine and human. It is divinely inspired but humanly written. And it is a faithful record of God’s self-disclosure to humanity.

So, what’s the point of God’s self-disclosure through Holy Scripture? Why did God cause the Bible to be written?

This is an important question, for if we don’t know the purpose of the Bible – if we don’t know what it was made to do – we won’t know how to rightly use it. We rightly use the Bible when we do so in accordance with the purpose for which God caused it to be written. And according to Thomas Cranmer’s collect God caused the writing of scripture for two primary reasons: “for our learning” and so that “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life … given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”

By “learning,” Cranmer is not talking about using the Bible like you would use a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an internet search engine, or an instruction manual. We don’t read the Bible just to get information. We read it for moral and spiritual formation. The “learning” Cranmer refers to here has to do with encountering the living God in the pages of the Bible and entering more deeply into a relationship with God, a relationship that changes us.

Scripture is holy because in our engagement with the Word of God recorded in the Bible, we are shaped more and more into the image and likeness of the Word of God: Jesus Christ. And scripture is also holy because it contains all things necessary to salvation. It points to Jesus, the one whose crucifixion and resurrection reveals God’s judgment of sin, God’s love and grace, and God’s decisive act to save us.

The Bible is a divinely inspired but humanly written set of texts that faithfully records God’s self-revelation. It takes a lifetime of hearing, reading, and study in the context of worship and in the company of other faithful Christians to begin sounding the depths of this revelation. As one Christian writer has said, “Scripture … [is like] a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed. On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books. But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom” [Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 19].

By disclosing to us a God we can never fully understand, we find that Holy Scripture’s meaning cannot be fully exhausted. But scripture’s purpose is as simple, and as profound, as enabling us to know and to trust that God loves us and saves us through Jesus Christ our Lord. And that is more than sufficient.

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