Sunday, July 16, 2006

“Is the Bible Enough?”


Sermon for the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul at the Chapel of St Paul’s College, University of Sydney, June 29th 2006.

Ss Peter and Paul, apostles and martyrs, are odd companions, crowded into a single commemoration today despite the fact that they seem to have disagreed often and deeply; what brings them together in the memory of the Church is the tradition that both were martyred under the Emperor Nero in the 60s of the first century, not any indication that they reached a particular level of consensus.

Those who have been following recent events in the Anglican Communion will note that, if Peter and Paul had been Anglicans today they would have been facing claims of irrevocable splits, and would have been mooted as having to accept status as “apostles in association” rather than as full constituents of new international apostolic bodies! So of course the fact that the Church managed to keep them on the same day, and on the same page or pages of scripture, gives the lie to claims that doctrinal differences constitute some kind of split.

Amid those current Anglican dramas, the Archbishop of Sydney yesterday stated that “this whole controversy is, at a fundamental level, about the authority of the Bible, and the way in which we learn and follow God’s will in fellowship with each other”. He may be right about both these things, but not I suspect for the right reasons. In any case, these questions of the authority of the Bible and the character of our fellowship are certainly worth asking.

Before we had the Bible we had scriptures - “Bible” itself means “books”, not “a book”. And before they could be cheaply printed in a single volume and generally read, at least by educated westerners, the writings contained in the Bible were an eclectic collection of inspired writings which, however authoritative, belonged to a specific community, defined not by literacy but by faith and practice.

The Bible, as we have come to call it, is a modern invention, a compressed and homogenized version of that diverse ancient library. The idea of the Bible as a single entity is far more dependent on the technology of the printing press and the mass literacy of the industrialized world which between them have created the notion of a single book, than upon the actual content of these diverse experiences and thoughts of first century apostolic heroes that are reflected in its pages.

This modern Bible is of course a remarkable gift, in its capacity to be read and used by so many. At key points in history, especially the Reformations of the 16th century and the rise of critical scholarship in the 20th, the Bible has emerged as a renewed source of challenge and hope to us who are its custodians, as the Word it contains speaks loudly and clearly, challenging the complacency of religious institutions and the cynicism of individuals.

But there are times when the cost of that compression and homogenization implied by the form of a single book, with the resultant emphasis on words and texts and ideas, must give pause for thought. Printing and literacy might well be celebrated, whether the Bible is their object or not – but they are not determining factors for the meaning or interpretation of scripture. It is contrary to the heart of Christian identity to claim as some Christians and even remarkably some Anglicans now do on the basis of this unbiblical (!) notion of “Bible”, not only that scripture has priority in matters of doctrine, but even that it can provide a complete blueprint for the whole of Christian life, even when read outside the historic life of the Church.

At such points that Bible seems to have become as rigid and as dated as its worst interpreters. Perhaps the crisis of the Bible today is most powerfully reflected in the matter of the da Vinci Code. While the success of this mediocre piece of pulp fiction certainly gives pause for thought in itself, it is to me more worrisome to consider the way certain parts of the Church have reacted against it. The appearance of this other book, with its own claims to presenting “facts”, has been seized upon as creating a contest of book against book, and thus reducing God’s kingdom to being a better or truer version of pulp fiction than Dan Brown’s. This is somewhat like claiming the Bible has a higher moral sense than “Big Brother”.

We often find this problematic approach to scripture couched in terms of statements what “the Bible says”, objectifying this rich and complex library, or by calling content of the Bible “God’s word”. To call scripture “God’s word” is, I think, a good and certainly a very traditional thing, so long as we understand that God’s Word is more than scripture. The Word of God is not a book but the whole of God’s activity in the world; John’s Gospel calls Jesus himself God’s eternal Word, and according to the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” It is common, however, to hear the identification made quite differently, implying an exclusive and fixed identity of written text and divine Word. To do this, rather than to seek the Word in the text and beyond, steps far beyond anything recognizable as historic Christianity.

Read this way, objectified, “it” condones slavery, if certain passages are read in certain ways; “it” condemns homosexuality, if certain passages are read in certain ways. In fact there is no “it” – there are “they”, the authors whose experience of God we must grapple with to hear what we still affirm as God’s Word, even in the midst of claims, understandings and events which are now to be viewed critically. Our attitude to these texts was never meant always to be one of immediate submission – sometimes they must be struggled with, at other times joined with in dialogue, at other times contemplated with awe. So, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for instance, the lived experience of the Church meant that the Bible was read by William Wilberforce and others in such a way that the central Gospel message of freedom and love and fullness of life that comes with Jesus Christ shone forth. In doing thus they contributed to the abolition of slavery, and rid pro-slavery passages of their power. So too now, the lived experience of the Church must enable us to deal with misogynist and homophobic tendencies that would use the Bible as a tool of oppression, and we must thus oppose the exclusion and marginalization of women, and of gay and lesbian people.

-oOo-

Concern about fundamentalism is hardly new, but it has usually been couched in terms of how we read the text, whether we interpret the Bible in literal or more subtle terms. I want to suggest something here about the conditions necessary to reading the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments adequately, which is not quite a matter of interpretive subtlety or competition between literal and other readings. I want us to ask whether the Bible is by itself enough to define and constitute Christian faith and life, whether we read it in a sophisticated or other way.

Peter and Paul may assist us to reflect on this. Between them, Peter and Paul account for over half the New Testament, either as subjects of narratives or as authors, real or supposed, of the documents themselves. Yet their earliest admirers did not have the advantage of knowing them through the New Testament, because there was of course no such thing as a New Testament in earliest Christianity. Stories of Peter and Letters of Paul came to be revered, not because the content of the texts conformed to some external standard of doctrine, but because of the reputations of the heroic authors. Had content been the sole criterion for ascribing inspiration, Paul’s letters in particular might not have made it. They were worrisome for many – the author of the Second Letter of Peter, probably not Peter himself, damns them with faint praise, saying of the other apostle’s writings that “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”.

This is one of the earliest indications we have – from within the emerging pieces of what was to become New Testament itself – that even when it did come to exist, a Bible would not itself be enough to guarantee its own adequate understanding, let alone enough to determine the whole of Christian practice. And as 2 Peter reflects, it was already becoming clear that texts were malleable things, capable of serving different interests, and yielding different meanings. No early Christian author, however much they regarded new apostolic writings as inspired and authoritative, dreamt that this emerging group of texts concerning God’s new covenant or New Testament described or provided everything essential to their own reading of them, let alone everything essential to the being of the community that preceded them, and had gathered them.

So even before the canon of scripture was defined, even in the second century, Christian thinkers from across the Mediterranean world, Irenaeus in Gaul, Clement in Egypt, Tertullian in Carthage, followed on the concerns of the author of 2 Peter and addressed the tendency to imagine that inspired scripture made its own authority. Scripture was not enough; it had to be read in the context of the one and only historic community, amidst whose faith and practice it was formed.

This principle for interpreting the Bible in the Church, developed by these so-called Church Fathers even before the scriptural canon itself was fully-formed, was known as the “rule of faith” or “rule of truth”. The Rule amounts to a set of theological affirmations, ethical precepts and liturgical practices which, while in harmony with these writings were not entirely dependent on them, and in fact were often older. The Church which had the right to read and use scripture was the Church that bore witness to the triune God, that baptized in that name, that centred its life on the Eucharistic meal celebrated in Jesus’ memory and in which they experienced his real presence, that served the poor, the widow and the orphan. It had done these things before there were proof texts to support them. A purported Church that wrapped itself in the Bible but ignored these things which emerged alongside it and guided its compilation would for these have been no Church at all. These Church Fathers, as they have come to be known, were clear that one need not even debate scripture with those who did not accept the “rule of faith”, a set of practices as well as of beliefs, as the condition for picking up and reading scripture. The message is clear; without the Church, the historic and spirit-filled community within which it was formed, the authority of scripture is lost.

Of course a Bible without a Church is nevertheless attractive; like the religionless Jesus who is the other great myth of fundamentalist Christianity, the Bible can be idealized in as many different ways as there are readers. It is far easier to deal with books than with real people. And given that the Bible contains a complexity and diversity far greater than any professional student of literature or history could ever really master, it is quite possible to get lost in it; then, in the midst, to find it in what one wants and to ignore the difficult and inconvenient.

The crisis of interpretation today seems to me less one of sophistication or subtlety than of context and community. Fundamentalism is entirely capable of enormous sophistication, and co-option of such elements of the most rigorous studies as suit it. The problem is the premise, namely that the authority of the Bible is always presented as entirely independent of the historically-formed community which gave it being, to which it belongs and which belongs to it. This can also be true almost as much of the more liberal and critical scholarship to which the likes of me mostly subscribe, when we imagine similarly that the Bible should be read only in terms that lie within the text, but not in terms of the community which gathered up these fragments of apostolic witness and saw fit to preserve them for its own use.

What then of biblical authority and the nature of our fellowship? While some are quite happy to declare the Anglican Communion split over biblical authority, the reality is that real biblical authority is compromised by attempts to define the Anglican Communion or the Church generally as a community of the like-minded. The unity that Christians and Anglicans in particular seek is not to be found in doctrinal conformity. Peter and Paul did not embody it, the Bible does not contain it. What they did embody, what the Bible does contain, is a unity in diversity that is infinitely more powerful than mere agreement. Across these two martyrs’ lives, and within this strange and powerful spirit-filled book’s pages, are irresolvable differences, humanly speaking, just as there are across our broken and divided world; but the mystery of unity given by the grace of God is not the same as conformity or homogeneity. The unity we seek is reflected in the common witness, even to death, of two men who disagreed, but who both witnessed to Jesus Christ, and in the life of a communion of Churches that disagrees. Such unity as we celebrate for Peter and Paul comes from the cross of Jesus Christ, to which scripture attests and by which scripture must be judged. The Word of God is there – and hope for the world.

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