24th October 2010 - "Bible Sunday"
David Munchin - St Mary's
So today is Bible Sunday, and therefore your first real chance to test your new Rector’s orthodoxy – what does he have to say about this much contested collection of books that we know as the Bible. Does he accept the plain and clear meaning of Scripture, or is he one of those modernists, who likes to interpret the Bible according to its and our context, and thereby cut out the bits he doesn’t like. Well you will forgive me if I find neither of those two alternatives terribly appealing. And I am by no means alone. For instance, Jeffrey John, the Dean of our Cathedral, and noted New Testament scholar, expresses much better than I, why he finds those alternatives unconvincing in the opening to his essay ‘Making Sense of Scripture’:
In Living Tradition, DLT, 1992, p44-5
Now as I say, Jeffrey John is a noted new testament scholar who went on to teach and write about the Bible at Oxford University – so the story does not end with the eternal battle of Mr Evans and Miss Tomkins – but he has to wait, until as an undergraduate at Oxford he is reintroduced to the Bible, and learns to read the Bible in an altogether more interesting way.
Now the problem with discussions of Scripture, particularly in the Anglican church, is that more or less everyone agrees that both Mr Evan’s or Miss Tomkin’s approaches cannot be followed through to their logical conclusions. It is very difficult to take every word of the Bible in its literal and plain sense. Sometimes it contradicts itself – several times for instance the New Testament misquotes the Old Testament. There are inconsistencies in different accounts of Israel’s history. And to take a topical example, there are many Christians who think the Bible plainly outlaws homosexuality, but there are very few who think that transgressors for this and many other sins should be stoned to death, as the Bible also requires. But neither can everything be understood only in terms of our own context – otherwise all Christians will end up doing is reflecting the culture they live in, and will never challenge it – Nazi culture thought it was OK to eliminate people who it thought less than human – Jews, gypsies and gays – brave German Christians taking their stand on the words of Scripture – praise be to God – took a terribly costly stance against that. And neither can it all be explained away – because if Jesus miracles were simply a long and slightly bizarre catalogue of psychosomatic episodes – why would that be life changing for us? In what way could that version of Scripture speak to us today?
But whilst most Christians therefore agree that neither of these two approaches work, when it comes to disagreements to be settled, Christians will all too often just simply stand behind one of these two flags: the first says: The Bible says that x or y – and the other flag says: but in today’s world people can’t be expected to believe x and y – and very rarely does the debate get any further than that.
Unless of course you are in exalted theological circles like evening prayer on a Tuesday at Tewin 10 days ago. Sometimes after the readings we have a little discussion, and they’re smart in Tewin, you know. So after a reading from Ezekiel in which it was made clear that children would not be punished for the sins of their parents, we discussed whether that was true – and though we all agreed that children should not be punished for their parents sins, nonetheless it was the case that very often children did suffer as a result of the folly and weaknesses of their parents – and then we remembered other bits of the Bible, not least in the teaching of Jesus, where such issues were addressed, and moreover sometimes the Bible seemed to say that children were or should be punished for their parents sins, and other times it seemed to say that they weren’t or that they shouldn’t be. It wasn’t the matter of the Bible saying one thing or another – but rather there being a discussion within the Bible which our little group could join in.
And of course it is a great mistake to think that Christians have always believed in simply the plain and literal meaning of the Bible, until about 1960 or if you’ve read a bit of Biblical criticism, 1850, when somehow it all meant awry. Origen writing in the early third century thought that if Bible passages were obscure or difficult to swallow, then they must be interpreted as allegories or metaphors. And neither is it the case that those who stuck with the plain meaning of Scripture always won in the end: probably the archetypal heretic in church history – Arius in the fourth century – thought he was defending the plain meaning of the gospels against modernist innovation – but it was his opponents, the writers of the Nicene creed, who carried the day, and accused him in turn of repeating Scripture like a parrot without understanding it. That was the days when people knew how to have real arguments in church.
Now as I say, we can still hear the voices of Mr Evans and Miss Tompkins alive and well in our church today. And the perennial dilemma here is that the attraction of these two characters is also there greatest weakness. Both of these alternatives offer a simple answer. Mr Evans says forget about interpretation, and read the Bible – the answers can be read off the page. Miss Tomkins says don’t worry if you don’t like or understand what the Bible says, we know better now – just ignore anything you don’t like. Both answers are attractive because they are simple, and both answers are in the end unsatisfying and unhelpful because they are too simple. As someone once said, to every difficult and complex question there is a simple and easy answer – the trouble is that that answer is nearly always wrong.
Both alternatives deny the possibility that the Bible will become a living document for us: both of them rob the Bible of its ability to speak to us; both deny the possibility of the Bible being one long discussion of God with his people that we are invited to join in as we read. What Jeffrey John found at Oxford was that reading the Bible was an adventure, and it was hard work. There were less easy answers than he expected. Every time we read the Bible, we need to ask it questions – who wrote this and what is their agenda? what sort of literature is it? who is it being written for? what does it say to our situation? – those are all basic questions that we have to ask the Bible as we read it. And furthermore we need to let it ask questions of us: where can you hear God speaking in this passage? does this passage challenge your assumptions and beliefs? what is this passage asking of you?
Even for many generational Christians the Bible has become a dead book. You learn it in Sunday school, then you come across at one point or another a Mr Evans and Miss Tompkins – and then you seem to get stuck. And preachers daren’t try to bridge the gap and suggest that there is a whole more exciting world in the Bible. Next year, 2011, is a very special anniversary. It is four hundred years since the Authorised Version of the Bible was published in this country. It was an event that revolutionised our religious history and nourished this land for generations. People fought and died so that it might be made available in every parish church in the land. To mark that anniversary let us in 2011 determine that we shall take up that book again, read it, with serious intent, and join in the wonderful discussion that is contained with in it, and resolve to hear God speaking his word to us through it – not by seeking easy answers, but by working a little harder at the text, and thereby listening to what it might be saying to our generation.