In the section of The Book of Common Prayer called “An Outline of the Faith
commonly called the Catechism,” the Bible or the Holy Scriptures are addressed briefly thus:
- Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
- We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
- How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?
- We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
In these two sentences, there is great subtlety and the provision of great freedom. First, the writings (note the plural) which constitute the Bible are recognized as being the work of human authors. We know that Moses lived centuries before David, the author of at least some of the Psalms. Isaiah lived under different conditions in a still later time, and his writings reflect then-current conditions and threats. Different times and different writers, yet they affirmed—and the Church has also echoed this affirmation—that they spoke with the inspiration of God’s spirit and in God’s Name. That was their source of authority, which has been honored throughout the centuries by the faithful.
More than half a millennium later, Paul composed letters to the churches he had helped establish, both encouraging them to stand firm in their faith and warning to avoid errors of teaching and practice. Paul wrote in response to problems of his time and place, but with an eye to edifying his readers (for he knew that his letters would be circulated widely) to accept what had always been taught as the truth about the Good News (or gospel) of the crucified and risen Christ. He wrote in Greek to assemblies who had read their torah and prophets and other writings such as the Psalms in Greek translation, which sometimes introduced different meanings and nuances into what the original authors had produced. It is not until a generation or so later that the four Gospels were composed to recount the life, death, and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But as John says near the end of his gospel,
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not
written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have
life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
In other words, he admits that he has selectively presented his material from his sources with the purpose of making converts or strengthening the faith of those who are already Christians.
The Catechism’s second point cited above allows for a variety of ways for us to read, understand, interpret, and meditate upon the Scriptures. Both what we call Old and New Testaments are the work of the company and communities faith which produced them and reverenced them because they record and reflect the revelation of God. We believe that the Spirit was active in their creation—call it inspiration if you will—and that the people of God, both in biblical and post-biblical times were guided by that same Spirit to choose which writings were authentic representations of that revelation. In the end, we understand that the Bible is the work of that community (for us, the Church), even as its use continues to provide the means for that body to experience and worship the Lord.
Interpretation of Scripture, then, is the ongoing work of the Church. We are people of a different time, with a different culture and different modes of understanding than the sacred authors who first composed these writings. We read them in translation from the ancient languages—indeed, even when we can agree upon the Greek rendering of one of the recorded sayings of Jesus, we know that he originally uttered his teaching in the dialect of Aramaic he shared with his Galilean disciples! Any serious attempt to understand Scripture therefore needs attention to the text and its underlying language, as well as the historical and cultural differences between its composition and our own situation.
Finally, our denomination encourages us to study the Scriptures as the Word of God for us by opening ourselves to the life of the Spirit itself, both as resident in the Body of Christ (the local congregation and the Church across time and space) and as the Spirit lives within us to challenge us to respond. For the Scriptures sometimes offer hope and consolation, but even more often challenge us to break out of the bonds of our personal, limited perspective into the larger, divine vision which frees us to the experience of God. Whether prophetic calls of Amos or parables of Jesus, the Word of God always humbles our ego and invites us to learn to walk with our God.
All this is to offer a call to join with others in our Lenten study of the means to approach the Bible. I don’t call it a “Bible study,” because I believe our first task is to relearn how to read and engage the Scriptures before we tackle particular books or themes. If you are interested, please attend our meetings on consecutive Thursday nights during Lent at 7:00 PM at Christ the King, Taylor. Our first meeting is March 2nd. I will prepare handouts for anyone attending, but I would encourage you to read Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. It is available on Kindle, or you can purchase online elsewhere. I can also arrange a group purchase if I know you need a copy.
Feel free to contact me billhale00(at)gmail.com.