Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Bible and the Church

Easter 5b • SJF • Tobias S Haller BSG

Philip said to the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He said to him, “How can I, unless someone guides me.”
It is no secret that there has been some significant tension in the Anglican Communion over the last several years. One of the sources of tension has revolved around the place of the Holy Scriptures in the life of the church. In the late 90s, the Bishop of New York appointed me to serve on a committee charged with drafting a statement concerning the Anglican view of the Scripture. Now, it might be surprising to some to hear that there is such a thing as an Anglican view. But one of the characteristics that distinguish each of the various traditions in Christendom lies in how each of these differing members of the one Body of Christ understand and regard the Scripture.

So today I want to take advantage of the reading from Acts as a springboard to talk about a very important and central belief in the Christian faith as Anglicans have received and understand it: the role and place of the Bible.

Just about every Christian church holds the Bible in a special place in its life and worship. Perhaps it comes as a surprise to you to hear that not all churches treat the Bible in the same way. But the way Anglicans regard the Bible is not the same as the Roman Catholics or the Baptists or the Methodists, or the Eastern Orthodox, to say nothing of those who wander further afield and produce their own Scriptures — such as the Mormons. They have added an entire additional volume of Scripture to the Holy Bible, which they call Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

But even among the other traditions I mentioned, there is not complete agreement even on what makes up the Bible. The Roman Catholic Old Testament has books that Protestants do not accept as Scripture, in spite of the fact that the early church accepted them as such. These are books from the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures used in the days of Jesus and Paul, including some books not originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic — books of the wisdom and prophetic tradition, along with the history of the Jewish people in the days of the Maccabees: the time when Greek culture, language and governance dominated the Mediterranean world. Protestants generally rejected these Greek additions, and instead accepted only the older Hebrew and Aramaic material for their version of the Old Testament — again, in spite of the fact that Saint Paul and the early church make reference to these Greek scriptures in their teaching.

Anglicans — with our usual desire to find a compromise and cover all the bases — accept these books that the Protestants reject, but put them in a separate category: suitable for instruction but not for doctrine — a neat solution similar to having ones cake and eating it too!

So one of the things where Anglicans differ with many of the other Christian traditions lies in the books of which we consider the Bible to consist. But before I go into any more of the differences, let me mention the things we have in common with most of Christendom when it comes to the Holy Scripture.

First of all, we hold the Bible to be a unique record of God’s saving work from creation through redemption. We hold it to contain revelations of God that we could not find by any other means. That is, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that murder or theft is wrong, even though the Bible will tell you that — for this is part of universal human knowledge and isn’t peculiar to Jews and Christians. But nature or reason alone cannot tell you that God created the world, or that Jesus Christ redeemed it. These sublime truths are available to us only because God has told us this through trustworthy witnesses — the prophets whom God inspired, and the apostles who witnessed and testified to the work of God in Christ — and we accept their testimony.

Second, in common with almost all Christians we make use of the Scripture in our worship, public and private. We not only read Scripture as part of our liturgy — the Daily Offices and the Holy Eucharist — but we encourage people to read and study the Bible on their own.

So much for what we have in common. But we quickly come to differences between the churches once we move beyond these basics. The first is the one I alluded to earlier, the very contents of what you will find between the leather covers of a Bible varies from one tradition to another.

That is important when it comes to some matters — most of them hot button issues at the time of the Protestant Reformation when the Protestant Bible was pared down to eliminate parts of it that the Roman Catholics were using to support their view over some of the bones of contention, such as prayers for the dead and the invocation of saints. (It’s strange, but so often the do-and-die issues of earlier ages come to seem of so little importance in following years. I wonder if we’ll ever learn?)

However, the most important difference between us Anglicans and those of the other Christian traditions lies in how we understand the Bible. At the Reformation, when the Church of England took the form in which we know it today, battles were raging not just about which books were Scripture and which were not, but about how the Scripture — whatever it consisted of — was to be understood.

There were three basic traditions in play at the time: the Roman, the Reformed, and the Anabaptist. The relics of these traditions remain in how the present day Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Baptists regard the Scripture.

The Roman view elevated Tradition to an equal level with Scripture, and placed full authority for biblical interpretation in the hands of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. This allowed the Roman Church to teach doctrines that were not mentioned in the Scripture, or which couldn’t be proved by it — such as that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, or that she was bodily assumed into heaven at her death — and to enforce acceptance of these dogmas.

The Reformers took a similarly restrictive view when it came to biblical interpretation: it was to be in the hands of the church leadership. But while they rejected the Roman tendency to require things beyond theScripture,they went further in the other direction: so that if something wasn’t in Scripture you not only couldn’t require it, but you couldn’t do it. So they objected to things such as the use of a wedding ring in marriage — no wedding rings in the Bible! — vestments for clergy, the baptism of infants, or the distinction between the offices of presbyter and bishop — which they understood as two different words for the same office.

The Anabaptists, on the third hand, were the liberal freethinkers of their day: for them the understanding of the Scripture was up to the individual, whom God would inspire with a true understanding, and without benefit of clergy to guide or instruct. This led to a multiplication of many smaller and smaller sects as private interpretation splintered the various groups as they followed different teachers. Later, in this country, a number of theories of biblical inerrancy or biblical literalism developed out of this school of thought.

So, Anglicans found themselves poised in the middle of this triangle of extreme views. In particular, we found a middle point between the Roman tendency to require belief in things you couldn’t find in Scripture, and the Puritan tendency to forbid anything that couldn’t be proved by Scripture.

We came up with the wonderful word sufficient: the belief that God has a purpose for Scripture — and that purpose is salvation. That is what Scripture is for: to lead us into God’s way, God’s truth, and ultimately, God’s life. The most important teachings in Scripture aren’t the things that you could find out by common sense, and without the church’s help, such as that theft and murder are wrong. The truly important supernatural teaching of Scripture is that God created us, and in Christ has redeemed us, and that we are capable of becoming children of God through the grace of God.

So the Anglicans denied the church power to require anything to be believed as essential to salvation if it could not be proved from the Scripture. And at the same time held that the church did have the authority to allow things about which Scripture was silent, as long as they worked for the good of the church and the people — so we could keep our wedding rings, vestments, infant baptism and bishops!

But what about that Anabaptist view — that sense that every Christian had the right to be his own Pope and decide what Scripture meant for him or herself? Well, this is where the Ethiopian eunuch comes in. What did he say to Philip? “How am I to understand unless someone guides me?” Guidance is crucial — guidance on the Way to the Truth and the Life; guidance which all we pilgrims need: but guidance, not coercion.

So we Anglicans ask a similar question, and what’s more important, have an answer, in our Catechism. Page 853 of the Book of Common Prayer lists this question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?” and answers, “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.” And as the Catechism goes on to explain, the Church referred to here is not just the bishops, not just the clergy, but the whole community of the faithful. So while we Anglicans encourage folks to read the Bible on their own, we neither leave them on their own, nor place a commanding prelate or a forbidding puritan a at their shoulders. Rather, we encourage the dialogue and discussion among all of the faithful — clergy and laity alike — that leads to better understanding of those portions of the Scripture we may find it hard to understand — our about which we might disagree.

Ultimately, as Philip showed the Ethiopian, the heart of the Scripture lies in how it points to Christ. He is the living Word of God to whom the written Word of God — the Scripture — leads us in the Way into the Truth, and the Scripture is useful to us only to the extent that it performs that task, a task for which we are assured it is, as the Anglican tradition puts it, sufficient. For its ultimate purpose is to bring us to the new Life of faith — as it did the Ethiopian, who, when once on his Way the Truth was opened to him by the Spirit’s guidance and Philip’s teaching, immediately asked to be baptized into the new Life, to become himself the newest member of Christ’s body, the church.

Most of the tension in the present life of the Anglican Communion would vanish in a flash as sudden as Philip’s disappearance if we would simply take Jesus the Word of God at his word! The Scripture is not hard to understand in this respect, though we find it hard to put it into practice. He has told us mortals what is asked of us — it is amply stated in John’s teaching to us today in both epistle and gospel: the commandment of God is to believe in Christ and to love one another. Got that?

When Jesus summarized the law in his commandment to love God and neighbor, when he taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would be done by, he meant what he said, and he gave us both a task and a promise. Those in Christ who love their sisters and brothers in this way — doing for them as they would be done by — have observed God’s commandment. All the rest is commentary.

My sisters and brothers, as I prepare for the General Convention this summer, where I will serve as a deputy from this diocese, along with three other priests, four lay persons, and the three bishops who serve New York, this is what I will keep in mind and heart. The Scripture is sufficient to salvation, for it has told me the truth that is so simple a little child can sing it: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This simple truth is my armor against doubt, against judgment, against those who seek division and domination, against bigotry and ignorance, against pride and power, against all who would diminish human dignity or deny human worth.

So, as Christ taught us in his Word, “Let us love one another, not in word or speech but in truth,” neither condemned by our hearts nor dismayed by those who would demean us or deny us. God is love, beloved sisters and brothers, and we follow his commandments when we love him and each other.Against this the Scripture records neither law nor prophet, but rather the voice of the Lord himself to affirm us in our faith in the power of the Spirit, now and to the end of the ages.+


Doug Worgul said...

Thank you, Fr. Haller. At once informative and inspiring.

Thomas B. Woodward said...

Tobias, I am reading this while listening to your composition -- each is more gorgeous than the other!

Both are filled with grace and generosity.
Tom Woodward