Scripture as tradition

The sixth of the 39 articles is on scripture, but before dealing with it, it is worth noting this sixth place. We come to the discussion of scripture only after articles expressing a Trinitarian Christian faith. Whatever the role scripture has to play in generating, reforming, and nurturing faith, it is written, recognized, selected and read by those who already share a fellowship of faith in Christ.

This reflects the norm for reading: if we are reading these books as scripture, it is because we already share something of the faith of the church that so recognizes them. It is one reason why “the Bible says …” (whatever its value in intra-church conversation and interpretation) is a fairly pointless argument in apologetic and evangelism. It is typically only when someone has begun to associate with the community which reads these books, or begun to discover the one whom they are about (which things normally occur in some contiguity with one another) that the books begin to be seen as more than a human library.

It also presupposes that the church’s historic reading of those books is a proper one, and a guide to how they should be read. When and where new readings of scripture are deployed to criticize the received readings rather than expound, elucidate and apply them, as they have been, and no doubt always will be, that enterprise should not be taken up carelessly or arrogantly, but with due attentiveness and humility to the tradition.

It is perhaps with that in mind that the Reformers felt the need to draw on an earlier traditional voice like Jerome’s in looking, as article six does, at a revised canon.

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for salvation
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.
       (A listing of the Hebrew / Protestant OT canon follows)
And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:
  (A listing of the deutero-canonical books follows)All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.

The novelty of the Reformation rejection of several books of the then accepted Bible should not be underestimated (and Luther wanted to go further and exclude some New Testament books as well), but the status of the Apocrypha / Deutero-Canon is something I shall come to in a subsequent post.

For now, I want to stress the continuity of the order of the books. The Reformers may have disputed or rejected books they (in some cases mistakenly) believed were not written in Hebrew, or were not used by Judaism (despite the anti-Semitism they largely inherited, and in the case of Luther’s Law / Gospel dichotomy, intensified). However, they kept the order in which these books appeared in the Greek and Latin Bible, rather than the order of the Hebrew Bible. Whereas the latter concludes with the miscellaneous section known as the writings, the former concludes with the prophetic books (as Christians understood prophecy). This order provided a strong canonical link to the gospels, which narrate the story of Jesus as the one who fulfils those prophecies.

There is certainly novelty in the Reformers’ approach to Scripture, and a strong statement of its role as normative for the rule of faith (“whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be. believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”). However, the elements of continuity in the received order of the Old Testament books as Christ-centred and Christ-directed, and the placing of this article as following on from articulating the basic rule of faith, are not to be ignored. Scripture is located in the community of the Church, and its reading as a Christian practice. It does not stand outside the believing community as a prior foundation for faith.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

The Bible says …

I have always thought that “the Bible says” is a deeply problematic thing to say. If there was just one phrase I would like to ban from the pulpit, I think it would be a serious contender.

The problem, to my mind, is it erases the interpreter from the picture, yet everyone who says ‘the Bible says” actually means, “I say, the Bible says.”. There may be more or less sophisticated, elaborate, studious acts of interpretation that lie behind that “Bible says”. The affirmation made may have widespread agreement, or very limited agreement.

But it is still an interpretation, and to hide the interpreter’s responsibility for what they say, for the claim they make by that “the Bible says” is a moral abdication. We are responsible for our interpretations of scripture, whether we use them to feed the poor, justify genocide, liberate slaves or subject wives to domestic violence. Arguably all those actions could be prefaced by a “The Bible says …” introduction to applying a verse to make a case.

That’s why I’d like people to stop saying it. It’s a way of refusing to take responsibility for our positions, while rhetorically cloaking them in a “beyond argument” garment.

The Bible’s contrasting contexts of power

Let’s start his new site with a generalisation, in full knowledge that it’s always dangerous to generalise. That goes double for generalising differences between the Old and New Testaments. But, admitting that I paint with a broad brush, I think there is one that largely holds up.

With that caution, I note that the Hebrew Scriptures are the largely the creation of those in proximity to power. Scribes belonged at courts and temples. The concern they had with law was concern with the running of a country (whether idealistic vision or practical legislation for theocracy). It needed, on the whole, the wealth of kings and large temple complexes in the ancient world, to sustain an industry of producing texts. It is unsurprising therefore that the histories they wrote were the histories of kings.

Prophets seem to have been on hand as advisors to kings, even if their advice was sometimes unwelcome, most of them seem to come and go with full access to some kind of court or entourage. As for the production of poetry and wisdom literature; well, who but the wealthy or well-kept had the time to devote to scribal and literary study?

By contrast, when we move into the New Testament, we move largely away from elite groups. Jesus seems to have crossed most of the social boundaries of his day, but if we can make any deductions at all about a village carpenter whose innermost group were fisherman, we might place him and his core movement as artisan class. Most of those we meet in the urban centres where Paul conducted his mission can probably be placed somewhere between those struggling to survive even at subsistence level and a petite bourgeoisie.

In short, in the Old Testament we meet those who have the power to change their society, and in the New Testament those who have to live in their society with no real expectation of making any kind of difference. Those who suggest a version of religion that is disengaged from the structures of power and politics have forgotten the overt politics of the first, and misunderstood the restraint of the second.