The Strangeness of Scripture (I)

Based on a presentation at the St James' Institute Seminar at St Paul's College, Sydney, July 4th 2009

In 1663 Puritan minister John Eliot published the first Bible in what was to become the United States of America, and indeed in the western hemisphere.

It was not a local printing of a King James or Geneva Bible. Eliot had a great heart for mission to the native Massachuset people, and after years of toil had the entire scriptures of the Old and New Testaments translated into their Algonquian language.

However the Massachuset had no written language before this point. To be rendered in their own language, the Bible had to be put into a system of signs more culturally alien to the indigenous people than was spoken English itself. The results were mixed.

A claim that by 1674 30% of the Massachuset to whom Eliot courageously ministered, in ways beyond this publication project, were literate in their own language, can be taken as cause for both joy and pain. The same ambiguity can be seen in a hand-written marginal observation by one original owner of an Algonquian Bible: “I am forever a pitiful person in the world. I am not able clearly to read this, this book”.

Eliot also corresponded with the great Puritan divine Richard Baxter, a great advocate of the clarity of scripture, and obtained permission to translate his Call to the Unconverted into Algonquian. This tract, a call to literacy as well as to faith, was not a success among the Massachuset. While in English its subsequent popularity in America for many years among what David Paul Nord calls the “optimistic, self-reliant, evangelical strain of the Anglo-American Puritan tradition” was remarkable, it was no call that these “pitiful” were able to hear.

This historical example serves as a reminder of just how dependent the clarity of scripture is on culture and other elements of context.

Most Christians in most times have not been literate or sufficiently economically powerful to have regular access to books. The fact that this has changed in the developed world is cause for celebration, but perhaps not unqualified joy. Access to Bibles and to literacy has arguably been an obstacle as well as a path to salvation, at least where it was assumed by those proclaiming the Word that literacy was a necessity, and that a Church whose encounter with Scripture was a ministry of the Word heard more than read, was inconceivable or unacceptable.

It is not in the end plausible or proper to claim that the normal or necessary form of the Church and its common life can only or even normally be determined by the immediate accessibility of scripture to the individual as a book, rather than through the faithful witness of the community to its members, above all in the liturgy.

Irenaeus, second-century Bishop of Lyons, says for instance that
many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God... Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed…. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears… (Adv. Haer. 3.4.1-2)
He could of course have been speaking of the Massachuset - would that he had been.

To claim otherwise, and presume that literacy and, consequently a personal reading of the Bible characterises how we do theology, disenfranchises most of the Church triumphant - presumably to their bemusement. Whether it also disenfranchised the Massachuset people of New England is not for us to judge.

However we can suggest that in contemporary debates, glib references to the 'clear' teaching of scripture which are predicated on mass literacy and private study as normative are dubious.

See further Lori Anne Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 107-111, and David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of the Mass Media in America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).


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