In the 1979 Prayer Book the following wonderful prayer floats around in the last few Sundays before Advent instead of finding the home it deserves:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 236)
The Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard’s university chaplain, likes to tease his Episcopalian friends by saying that the Episcopal Church should really be called the Bible church because of the amount of scripture that is read in most Episcopal churches on Sunday: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a portion of one of the Gospels. And yet you rarely hear a sermon about the Bible.
What do Episcopalians believe about the Bible? Every Episcopal priest is required at his or her ordination to sign a statement affirming that the Bible is the word of God. But that simply begs the question, What do we mean by the word of God?
We are fairly clear about what do NOT believe about the Bible. We are not fundamentalists and do not believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. But I believe that we need to move from a negative position to a positive one.
Most Episcopalians either tacitly or quite openly believe that there are portions of the Bible that are certainly not the word of God, and the lectionary aids and abets us in this by omitting many of the Bible’s “hard sayings” from our cycle of eucharistic propers. For example, the eucharistic lectionary omits chs 13-18 of the Book of Revelation. The problem with this is that by omitting sections of the Bible progressives are ceding interpretation of these passages to conservatives. Like explorers we need to stake our claim to what Karl Barth called “the strange new world of the Bible.”
Has the Bible been used as a stick to beat up women, African Americans, and gays and lesbians? Of course it has. Does this mean that something is wrong with the Bible? Not at all. Any good gift can be abused. Food, drink, and sexuality are all God’s good gifts and all of them can be and often are abused. The way to deal with bad interpretations of difficult texts is not to pretend that they aren’t in the Bible but to do a better job of interpreting them.
Here are some things that I believe we mean when we say that the Bible is the word of God:
First, the Bible tells God’s story. No where else can we read the story of how God created the world, called Israel to be God’s covenant people, and sent prophets to proclaim the divine word of justice and grace. Only the Bible tells us the story of how God came among us as one of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible contains the unique record of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. And only the Bible contains Paul’s witness to the Spirit’s work in spreading the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the “ends of the earth.” This is not to say that other faiths do not have great treasures in their holy books. Far from it. There is much wisdom in the Qu’ran, the Upanishads, and the Buddhist sutras. But the Bible’s story is unique. And when we are baptized the Bible’s story becomes our story. When we are baptized we become one of the Hebrew slaves whom God brought safely across the Red Sea. When we are baptized we are (quite literally) buried and raised again with Christ. And we learn this story no where else but in the Bible.
Second, to read the Bible is to invoke the very power of God’s to change the world, for the Bible is arguably the most subversive book in human history. There’s a reason that slaveowners didn’t want captive Africans to learn to read and the Soviets did their best to keep Bibles out of the Soviet Union. From beginning to end the Bible promises that God will overthrow the powerful and will exalt the humble. The Bible not only comforts the oppressed; it might also inspire them to rise up.
Third, we learn God’s own language when we read the Bible faithfully. Muslims insist that the Qu’ran can only properly be read in Arabic. Christians do not say that the Bible can only properly be read in its original Hebrew and Greek, but we do believe that the Bible has a unique grammar. To know God aright, we must learn the Bible’s grammar. The grammar of the Bible is not a matter of proper nouns and irregular verbs. When we learn the Bible’s grammar then we become fluent in turning the other cheek, returning good for evil, taking up our cross, standing on the side of the poor and persecuted, and so on.
In the Gospel reading appointed for Proper 28, Year C, Jesus promises his disciples that when they are “brought before kings and governors” he will give them the words they need to speak. (Luke 21.12-13). He’s already given us most of the words we need to speak. They are between the covers of the book we call the Holy Bible.
BTW, check out former Sen. Gary Hart’s terrific article about faith and politics in the Nov. 8, New York Times.