A Lent Talk - Can I believe all I read in the Bible?

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast

the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

The title of this our third Lent Talk is:  Can I believe all I read in the Bible? I’ll say something about the Bible in a moment, but first I’d like us to think a bit about ‘belief’ and what it means to be “a Believer.” We sometimes hear church-goers referred to as Believers suggesting - that there exists somewhere a check-list of things we need to tick off and sign up to in order to be counted a Christian. For instance, I was once asked live on BBC Radio Norfolk whether I believed in Hell and the Devil. Having just delivered my carefully scripted and timed two-minute Thought for Day, I confess, the question caught me off-guard, though it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. The year was 1995 and the House of Bishops had just published a Statement about the Christian Doctrine of Salvation… The Press got hold of it, some journalists read it, or rather didn’t read it, and came to the conclusion that the Bishops of the Church of England no longer believed in the Devil or Hell. Which are things, that in the mind of the press, and I dare say in popular opinion more generally, Christians are supposed to believe in. And so up and down the country Bishops and priests were interviewed, mostly soliciting carefully qualified answers relating to belief in the Devil and hell - which are far from simple questions. Only for the whole thing to blow up in their faces for want of a headline in the tabloids. We witnessed something similar in the recent “sound-bite” driven press coverage of the House of Bishops Statement on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships and its subsequent rejection by the General Synod.

So, Christians, especially Bishops, are supposed to believe in a lot of things- they are supposed to believe in hell, they’re supposed to believe in the devil, in Marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman and they/we are supposed to believe in the Bible too. But this is not actually the language that we Christians use when we come to Church and express our faith and belief.  Indeed, we have clear statements about what we believe, they are called Creeds. And the devil, to take that example, doesn’t actually come into the Creed. And though Hell is mentioned in the Creed it is not spoken of as a place of punishment or fire and brimstone.

None of us stands up in Church on a Sunday and says ‘I believe in Satan’ or ‘I believe in Hell’ and nor do we say: ‘I believe in the Bible’ either. The point that I am making is the Church uses the word ‘believe’ in a very much more careful and restricted way than the rest of the world would have us think. The Church’s Creeds are, in fact, very reticent about what we say we believe. We believe in God the Father. We believe in One Lord Jesus Christ. We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

This is what the Church asks us to profess, to say we believe in, nothing more, nothing less, whatever the press or popular opinion might think. Furthermore, we are not asked to say that we believe in facts or events. What we are asked to say is that we believe in persons: the persons of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and in the community of persons which is the Church. So, we don’t say in the Creed ‘I believe in creation’ but rather ‘I believe in God who is the creator’. And we don’t say, ‘I believe in the resurrection of Jesus’, but rather ‘I believe in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead.’ Our Christian faith is not, first and foremost, a matter of assenting to facts, (though facts come into it). It is first and foremost a matter of putting our faith and trust in God. It’s a matter, not so much of intellectual agreement as personal and practical commitment. That is the force of our Baptismal vows that we renew at Easter –  When we affirm: ‘I believe and trust in Him.’ It is St James in his Epistle who remarks that even the devils believe. They know the facts about God and they tremble, but they cannot say: ‘I believe and trust in Him’ only a true believer can say that.

So, the Creeds ask us to affirm our personal belief and trust in the personal God, the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and in the community of persons which is the Church, rather than in just a list of facts. The Creeds go on to fill in a certain amount of factual content about God the Father, about the Lord Jesus Christ, about the Holy Spirit, and about the Church. But that factual content is always connected to the persons in whom we affirm our faith. The facts, you see, don’t just stand on their own.

So, in the example that I have already given, the Creeds tell us that God the Father is Creator. The Creeds tell us that Jesus Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, died under Pontius Pilate, rose from the Dead, ascended into heaven, is enthroned at the Father’s hand. The Creeds tell us that the Spirit of God gives life and speaks by means of the prophets. The Creeds tells us that the Church is Holy, it is Catholic, and so on. The Creeds go on to point us to the great stages of the Christian pilgrimage within the community of the Church – baptism, forgiveness, resurrection and the life to come.

So, there is a factual content to the Creeds, but, as I say, that factual content is ever separated from the persons in whom we say we believe. And it is here that the Bible begins to fit into the picture. The Bible, as we have seen, is not one more item on a check list of beliefs, and in that sense, we’re not asked to say we believe in the Bible. Yet, the Bible is closely connected with our belief.

So, what is the Bible? The Bible is the written story of God’s people. Most of the Bible is the story of God’s people under what we call the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, the Hebrew Scriptures.

By that we mean the particular relationship that God made with his chosen people from the moment that he called Abraham. The books of the Bible reach back from that moment and tell of God making the world, and they reach forward and they tell of what happened to the People of God from Abraham onwards. They relate the story of Joseph and the sojourn in Egypt… of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt back to the Promised Land… of the giving of God’s Law… of the possession of the land, the rule of the Judges, the rule of the Kings, especially of the great King David. They relate the story of the Exile to foreign lands and the return from exile, the building of the community and of the city of Jerusalem and of the Temple. They tell of the coming of new conquerors… a new time of captivity, and speak of the longing that one day God’s kingdom would eventually be established in the world, and all the world, Gentiles as well as Jews, would be gathered into it.

From these stories that we read in the Old Testament, the history of Israel can be reconstructed and it can be checked against the histories of other peoples and against the findings of the archaeologists and this is fascinating stuff and a very important historical task, but it’s not absolutely central to the Christian faith. Nothing about our Christian faith depends upon whether every historical fact recorded in the Old Testament is correct.

Take, for example, the Book of Daniel. The book of Daniel might be at odds with what we know about Babylonian history; but it tells us what God wants us to know about the importance of faithfulness in a tyrannical and ungodly empire.

Alongside history, much of the early part of the Old Testament is concerned with the Law of Israel. Some of this consists of basic morality: – ‘Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness’ and so on. Moral injunctions which are needed in every society. But there are other laws in those early books of the Old Testament which are regulations for the religious observance of the Jews, the sacrifices, the fasts, the ritual purifications. And there are civil laws for their particular community.

Now it is quite clear from the New Testament that Jesus sets us free from the ceremonial religious laws of the Old Testament and from the particular civil laws of ancient Israel. And this is the teaching of the Church as well. To quote the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion: ‘The law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof out of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.’ However, the Article goes on to say that: ‘No Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called moral.’

So, there’s a distinction between those parts of the Old Testament which are to be acknowledged by Christians and those parts of the Old Testament which are not, and this is an important principal which goes right back through the history of the Church to the teaching of Jesus himself.

Other parts of the Old Testament are neither story nor history, nor law. There is poetry; the love-song, we call the ‘Song of Songs’, and the songs of praise and prayer we call the Psalms. There are the Proverbs and other books of which we call ‘Wisdom’, like the book of Ecclesiastes, or the dramatized religious debate of Job. And a very large part of the Old Testament is composed of the prophetic books, which are prophetic in the modern sense only up to a point. They do look to the future, it is true, and they express the longing of God’s people for the day when God will bring in his kingdom, but they also look to the present and they apply God’s law and God’s word to some very contemporary situations. As is often said, the prophets of the Old Testament not only ‘foretell’, more often they ‘forthtell’; they speak our God’s word for today and not only for tomorrow.

So, the Old Testament is a treasure house – a store of rich things, a repository of wisdom and reflection, and Christians should steep themselves in its pages because as part of God’s new people we inherit the Old Testament. It is part of our inheritance of faith and our story. We should learn to pray the psalms, and we should meditate on the mystery of God through the pages of the Wisdom books, and we should celebrate our God with the great stories of His people. The Old Testament contains a wealth of images with which to stir up our minds, to nourish and to feed our prayer and our worship.

But having said all that, it’s not quite the same to say that we believe all that we read in the Old Testament. For instance, we do not believe in the putting to death of those caught in adultery – nor did Jesus, as we know from the Gospels. I do not believe in the making of the universe in six days, and nor, I think, did the author of Genesis, though he wrote a magnificent hymn of praise to the Creator which shaped his work to the image of the days of the week. Genesis may not tell us how the world began as a modern cosmologist would; but it tells us what God wants us to know, that we are made for his love and freedom alone. And nor, and this is perhaps more important, do we believe in the picture of God that we find in certain parts of the Old Testament where He commands his people to put their enemies, or rather His enemies, to the sword.

The books of the Old Testament are layered, and the picture of God within them becomes more refined as time goes on. As we saw last week, in the story of Job, one picture of God – the God who punishes people with illness and accident – is pitted against another picture of God – who does not behave like that, and who leaves a good deal unexplained about our world – and Job and his discussion partners are left to thrash it out amongst themselves. The upshot of all this is – is that some parts of the Old Testament are more significant, more important, more valuable, more user-friendly than other parts.

In ancient times the Church was selective about which parts of the Old Testament were read aloud in church. By the later part of the Middle Ages, however, things had started to go a bit wrong –the Bible had been split into texts being used to prove points, and there was a loss of the sense in which it had difficult questions to put to the Church. So, one of the things that the Reformation set out to do was to put the Bible at the heart of the Church again, to recover the sense in which it was the foundational document for Christian discipleship.

The Reformers set out to make it accessible –not the preserve of a clerical elite – so that all believers should have access to it, so they could have the common language by which theology was argued and standards of behaviour set. The huge Bibles chained into English churches in the 16th century was a sign of this. It was only with the rapid development of cheap printing that an affordable volume became within everyone’s reach as something to possess or study in private.

The leaders of the Reformation would have been pretty shocked by the idea of everyone coming to their own conclusion about the Bible – for them it was a text to be struggled with in the context of shared study and reflection. Hearing the Bible in church reminds us the Bible is a book to read in company –and that private study flows from that. Even when we read the Bible on our own, we need to remember we do so in the company of readers across the ages, from whom we learn as much as from our contemporaries. Modern Church lectionaries are, in accordance with ancient Church practice, selective in their choice of passages from the Old Testament, with the consequence that there exists no authority, whatever, for certain passages to be read aloud in church.

And for good reason… to return to the recent controversy surrounding Gay Marriage. The Human Rights Campaigner, Peter Tatchell, is on record as saying that the Bible was the ‘Mein Kampf’ of Christians because it orders the death penalty for homosexuals, referring to a passage in Leviticus. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures apply the death penalty for quite a lot of things: including… cursing one’s parents, breaking the Sabbath… contempt of court… blasphemy and pretending to be a virgin.

Another capital offence, mentioned in the same chapter of Leviticus is, of course, adultery. And if you want to know how Jesus handled this question you need only look to the story of the woman taken in adultery, in St John’s Gospel. When he dispersed the crowd by saying: Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. It's not, I think, unreasonable to assume that had the person accused been a homosexual, or a medium, or indeed someone guilty of using the Lord’s name in vain, which was another offence that carries the death penalty in Leviticus – then Jesus’ answer would have been just the same.

So, Jesus doesn’t give much support to Peter Tatchell’s claim that the Bible orders the death penalty for homosexuals. But this does give a great deal of support for the age-old Christian practice in being selective about which parts of the Bible should be read when we meet together for worship. Saying that primarily the scriptures are there to read in company throws a little light on the vexed question of what we mean when we say the Bible is ‘inspired’.  If it is first a foremost a modern book –between covers- a book for individuals to pick up and read in the same way as the latest novel or history book, then it’s possible to become bogged down in questions about how reliable it is – having to prove and defend it in terms of science or history; and if it’s not accurate about every sort of thing it’s whole credibility becomes affected. But, on the other hand, if it’s a collection of texts consistently used by the Holy Spirit to renew and convert the Church, something the Church uses to test its integrity as it meets and thinks together, the issue of whether it’s totally accurate in terms of history or science and so forth become less important.

Furthermore, as Christians, we do not read the Old Testament apart from the New. We read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, because in the New Testament we take a step closer to Jesus Christ who is our Way, our Truth, and our Life. And in that way the whole story of God’s people in the Old Testament becomes a preparation for Jesus, something that points beyond itself to something still to come.  And so, when Jesus comes we can see that He fulfils the Old Testament:

  • He is the true Adam, the perfect human being as God intended all women and men to be.
  • He is the true Moses giving a new law of love to his people.
  • He is the true David, King of God’s Kingdom.
  • He is the Servant of the Lord of whom Isaiah speaks who suffers for the sins of his people.
  • Perhaps we can even say, Jesus is the true Job, the innocent man who takes the worst that the world can throw at Him and yet still refuses to curse God?
  • Certainly, Jesus is the Lover of whom the Song of Solomon sings.

And so, the Old Testament brings us, points us, and leads us to the New Testament. Here we meet the one who fulfils all those dreams and longings of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, in the Gospels, we read of Jesus’s life and his death and resurrection. In the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles: we read of the birth of the new community of his people, the Church. And in the Apocalpse, the Revelation of St John the Divine - we read of the Early Church under persecution, longing for God’s justice and God’s liberation.

The distinction between the Gospels and all the other books of the New Testament is, of course, an obvious and important one to make. For just as we read the Old Testament in the light of the New, so we read the Acts, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse in the light of the Gospels. To illustrate this… think of how we read the Bible at the Eucharist on Sunday, first the Old Testament, then the Epistle, or sometimes the Acts or the Apocalypse, last of all, and never to be omitted, the Gospel. For the Gospel, we stand and we acclaim it with special words of praise and thanksgiving, for here we come closest in human words to Christ our Lord himself.

So, you see, there’s a hierarchy within the Bible, an order of significance. You can’t just play off Leviticus against the rest, because the New Testament takes precedence over the Old. You can’t play off St Paul against the Gospels in the way that some people try to do, for the Gospels take precedence over the Epistles. And this order of significance, takes us right beyond the Bible itself. Because you can’t play off the Bible against Jesus, for Jesus takes precedence over the Bible.

There’s more than a hint of this, in the following words of John’s Gospel; ‘You search the Scriptures’. Jesus says to his antagonists, ‘Because in them you think you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.’ Here, of course, Jesus is referring to the Scriptures of the Old Testament- the New Testament was not yet in existence – but I think the same principle applies. The opponents of Jesus took their stand on the Scriptures and they sort to use the Bible against Him. They read the Scriptures in such a way that they failed to recognise who Jesus was. ‘You search the Scriptures’ says Jesus, ‘and it is they that bear witness to me’ That precisely expresses the relationship between the Bible and Jesus – the Bible points to Jesus. It is to Jesus that we have to come and the Bible shows us the way.

This may help us to understand one way in which the Bible is sometimes described. It is sometimes called the ‘Word of God’ yet, in truth, we hear the Word of God in many other ways too:

  • Sometimes the Word of God is addressed to us in prayer.
  • Sometimes the Word of God strikes us in our inmost heart and conscience.
  • Sometimes another person says something that is God’s word for us.
  • Preaching is also God’s word – (well most of the time, hopefully! )

The danger, I think, is to call the Bible the ‘Word of God’ in an exclusive sense that shuts off all the other ways in which we can hear God speaking to us. And if it makes us think that every part of the Bible is of equal truth and importance as every other part then - there’s a danger in calling the Bible the Word of God, because as we’ve already seen that is not the way the Church receives the Bible.

It is Jesus who is the primary Word of God. For in Him, ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’. And so, to return to the Collect, the Prayer with which I began.

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:

Yes, the Bible is a great gift of God to his people and we can learn from it:

The Collect continues…

Help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them

that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,

Note, that, right in the middle, at the heart of that Collect, there is a careful distinction being drawn between the Holy Spirit on the one hand and the comfort of God’s Holy Word on the other. It is by means of reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scriptures that the Holy Word of God may reach out to us to comfort us with the hope of everlasting life. God’s Word reaches us through the Scriptures, that’s what the Collect is saying – not that the Scriptures simply are God’s Word – because God’s Word is Jesus.

I think there is further parable of this in the Eucharist. After we ‘ve read the Scriptures in the way I was describing a moment ago, after we have searched the Scriptures in the Liturgy of the Word, after we have worked our way from Old Testament to New, and from Epistle to Gospel, then the words about Jesus, even Gospel words about Jesus, give way to something else – they give way to the actions that make Jesus even more particularly and really present in the Eucharist that he has given us.

Without the words of the Bible, without the words of the Gospel, we would not know about the Jesus who we go onto meet in the Sacrament. We can’t by-pass that and just start off with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or confine ourselves to that. We need that whole process of approaching the Eucharist through the Liturgy of the Word. But without the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist we should still be at the stage of searching the Scriptures, rather than at the stage of coming to Him that we may have eternal life.

Now in the Gospels we’re told many things about Jesus and they do include some stories which are hard to harmonize from one Gospel to another. And they include a lot of what we call ‘miracles’, though three of the Evangelists refer to them ‘mighty deeds’ and the fourth calls them ‘signs.’ Now I’ve no doubt at all that the words and the works of Jesus were accompanied by many wonderful events that go well beyond our powers of explanation. Furthermore, I fully believe in Jesus Christ who, as we say in the Creed rose from the dead. And once you’re prepared to say that about him, quite frankly, there doesn’t seem to be too much difficulty in accepting that many other miraculous things took place in his life as well.

But having said that, there are still difficulties in the Gospel story and it is hard to reconcile one Gospel to another in every place. Speaking personally, I’m quite prepared to live with a lot of questions about Jesus, and about the course of his life, to which I don’t know the answer. After all, oddly enough, or perhaps, not oddly at all, this is the Jesus we meet in the Gospels anyway – someone who provokes a lot of questions and doesn’t answer them all. So, I don’t know why, for example, St John gives us the raising of Lazarus as the last and the greatest of the signs of Jesus, the event that finally provoked the authorities and brought Jesus to the Cross, but the other three Evangelists don’t tell us about it at all. And I don’t know why Matthew, Mark and Luke give us the story of the cleansing of the Temple as the decisive moment that sealed the fate of Jesus, when St John puts it right at the outset of his ministry. These are puzzles, and there are several answers possible to them, but none of them is conclusive and I’m content with that. I’m quite content to say ‘I wonder’ after all, what else can you say in the presence of Jesus except: ‘I wonder… I wonder.’

Timothy Radcliffe writes about this sense of being puzzled by the scriptures, and says, that actually it’s no bad thing. Citing an example from the First Book of Kings, he says this:

‘When Elijah goes up Mount Horeb, what he hears is, literally in the Hebrew, ‘a voice of thin silence’. How bizarre! What does that mean? Rather than leaving us to be provoked by the puzzle, most translations smooth it out. The Good News Bible gives us ‘the soft whisper of a voice’. Their translators promised to provide ‘clear, simple and unambiguous translations’. But the beauty of the Bible is that at times it’s not clear and simple and unambiguous. Its words are sometimes puzzling, intriguing and slippery. ‘

So, how are we going to start making sense of difficult passages of Scripture, when the reader in church confidently proclaims: This is the word of the Lord, and you are left thinking to yourself,  I haven’t got a foggy clue what that was all about!’ for example when you are faced with a particularly barbaric bit of the Old Testament, or St Paul at his most complex.

Well, in situations like that first we must pray; asking God to help us understand what he wants us know through a particular passage. Secondly, we need to remember that the primary witness to God in history is Jesus Christ, and that the Bible is the primary witness to him. Finally, a word about the Church. The Church, like the Bible, points us to Jesus. There is a difference here, because in the Creed we do say we believe in the Church. And we don’t, as we have seen, say we believe in the Bible.

But what is the connection between the Bible and the Church? Just as the books which made up the Hebrew Scriptures were designed to be studied and read by the Community of Faith gathered in the synagogue so the books of the New Testament is a collection of books, read by Christians in the context of prayer and worship.The process of what made it into the Bible was quite a long one –by c130 the four gospels and 13 letters of St Paul had been accepted as bearing authoritative witness to Jesus, but it wasn’t until the Council of Rome in 382 that the New Testament was finally settled – as doubts had persisted over Hebrews, Peter, Jude, 2 & 3 John and Revelations. In that sense, it was the Church that made the decision, under God, of what should count as ‘Bible.’ Before that time there had been generations of Christians who were well used to living out their Christian lives and offering worship to God without a definitely fixed form to the New Testament at all.

So, if there is a reporter in the room or if it’s bugged, here comes the line I could be hung out to dry on:

Question: Can I believe all I read in the Bible?         

Answer: No I can’t.            

And this has to be the answer for the following reasons:

The statement ‘I believe in the Bible’ is not to be found in the Creed.

There are parts of the Bible which the Church does not read out at all.

There are other parts which the Church does read, but only in the light of other parts which have greater significance.

And every part of the Bible is a pointer, a signpost, to something greater, to someone greater, who is the One whom we do say we believe in – our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

 


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