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)

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