First Reading | Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7 The Holy Gospel | St Matthew 4. 1-11
Look at our Bible readings today: the story of the fall and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. How do we know about either? There were no observers of either event; can you imagine Adam and Eve telling Cain and Abel the story of their downfall? Or Jesus confiding in the disciples what happened to him out there in the wilderness? So what do we have? A just so story which explains why we live in a less that perfect world, and a story which, while it may very well contain an element of truth presents us with the unedifying spectacle of Jesus and Satan quoting scripture at each other.
Presented with such unpromising material can we do other than question our commitment to scripture?
But as Christians and as Anglicans we are committed to scripture; our foundation documents make that quite clear: the 39 Articles: “ holy scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation… in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ.” Chicago/Lambeth quadrilateral: “the holy Scriptures [set] the rule and ultimate standard of faith”. The Declaration of Assent: states that the Church of England “professes the faith uniquely revealed in the holy Scriptures”. So we are committed to scripture, but what sort of commitment are we talking about?
Perhaps it's easier to begin by looking at the sort of extreme commitment to scripture implied by fundamentalism. The origins of this view of scripture lie in the reformation. Through the invention of printing and translated into modern languages the Bible became widely available, no longer the preserve of the clergy. The scriptures were read by the growing, educated middle class who then began to question the authority of the Church. In time scripture became an alternative source of authority which in some circles came in time to replace the authority of the church altogether.
Later the authority of scripture also began to be questioned by scientific and archaeological discoveries, in reaction to this some people in America in the early years of the last century began to take a stand on the literal truth of scripture. Fundamentalism, a term first used in 1920, has today become a powerful force in world Christianity. It ignores the findings of modern textual criticism as well as archaeological, scientific and historical research. But for all that fundamentalism has millions of adherents throughout the world. It is even held, albeit in a modified form in parts of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England. But if we say we committed to Scripture does mean we are committed to views like that?
No we aren’t. To begin with we need to get things into perspective: the various writings which make up the Bible attained the status of scripture because their distinctive nature was recognised within the Jewish and Christian communities. The were debates within those communities about whether some texts should be included or not, a debate which has never been completely resolved particularly over the Apocrypha, books of a Jewish origin of which there are no Hebrew originals only Greek texts. What this shows is that Scripture is the creation of the Christian community, of the Church. That is reflected in the Creeds which require us to believe in the Church, but not in the Bible.
The classic Anglican position was set out by in the reign of Elizabeth I by Richard Hooker. In seeking defend, and ultimately to define Anglicanism, against the criticism of the Puritans (who wanted to return the church the purity they saw it as enjoying in NT times) and the newly emerged Roman Catholics Hooker posited an Anglican polity based on three strands: scripture, tradition (that is Church practice and teaching) and reason. Unfortunately nowhere in the seven volumes of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity does Hooker give us a snappy quotation that summarises his thinking. In the passage from Book 2 of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I selected for our non-Scriptural reading this morning Hooker wanted to stress that God does not impart knowledge, what he calls wisdom, only through scripture: “whatsoever either men on earth, or angels in heaven do know, it is as a drop of that unemptiable fountain of wisdom; which wisdom hath diversely imparted her treasures unto the world.” Wisdom he says teaches by holy scripture but also by “the glorious works of nature”. Some wisdom “comes from above by spiritual influence” some from “worldly experience and practice”. Hooker’s views have undergirded Anglican practice ever since leading to a form of Christianity conscious that our knowledge of God is inevitably partial and which constantly seeks an ever greater understanding of the mystery of God.
So where does this leave our commitment to scripture? This is not just a theoretical question, but one of fundamental importance particularly in the current debate about sexuality, which has become in effect a battle for the soul of Anglicanism. Positions are polarised between those who wish to take account of both our modern understanding of human sexuality and the whole tenor of scripture, rather than selected texts, and those who taking a basically fundamentalist approach wish to restrict the legitimate expression of sexuality to monogamous heterosexual relationships. As the recent Pilling report concludes, with a nod to Hooker: “the majority of our group is not persuaded either that the meaning and implications of Scripture are so clear and certain or that the Scriptures can be read quite so independently of the Church’s traditions and of human reason. To make one reading of scripture definitive in that way would, in effect, make one wing of the Anglican family the sole arbiter of Anglican ethics and bring and end to the conciliar approach which has for so long characterised Anglicanism.” (Pilling Report para 318)
So what form should our commitment to scripture take? The Declaration of Assent says that the faith s uniquely revealed in Scripture and that is the key; it is to Scripture as the vehicle of revelation to which we must be committed. That commitment can be expressed in a number of ways: first there must be continued critical academic study of the text so that we bring to it all we continue to discover about the ancient world which formed its original context. The scriptures were not written for us and the more we understand about the people for whom they were written and reasons why they were written the better we will able to use them as a guide to the rule and standard of faith. Secondly there is the use of scripture liturgically, especially in the offices of morning and evening prayer. Here the scriptures are read at length and in course. Doing this over the years forms in us what we might call the mind of scripture, a feeling for scripture as a whole and the revelation God to be found there. Thirdly there is use of Scripture in prayer. This typically involves two practices: lectio divina, from the Benedictine tradition and imaginative contemplation from the Ignatian. In both we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and allow her to speak to us through the text.
But used in all these ways the text of Scripture is only the starting point of revelation, so at the end of the day it does not matter if there never was a garden of Eden or Adam and Eve or if the story of our Lord’s temptation was composed, or at any rate reconstructed, within the oral tradition which preceded the Gospels. Stories like this in Scripture are door and windows in the much greater truth which is God. It is still true that, as the 17th century Puritan divine John Robinson said: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word”.
© Michael Skinner, 2014