Do I really believe in the Bible?
Bible Sunday, 26th October 2003
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; John 5:36b - 47
One headline in this week's Church Times reads 'Do we really believe in the Bible?' You will not find it difficult to work out to what subject the article below it refers. The actual words of the central question in the article - and it is important to be fair to the author, because it is the editorial team not he who chooses the headline - are: 'Is what the Bible says the controlling authority for our faith and conduct - or just a collection of disputed texts from which we can select what we currently like and discard the rest?'
I realise of course that to begin to address these issues and questions at a time like this is bound to be controversial, and it is almost inevitable that, because so many people, with so many views have been involved with the arguments and have been thinking and praying through the questions, the capacity to upset, even anger people is pretty great. But it is Bible Sunday, and we are on the point of seeing our Anglican Communion disintegrate, and not to reflect on the theme of scripture and our use of it today would be dishonest. However, I hope to do that in the main by offering to you a number of thoughts that come not primarily from my head - I am, after all, no more than another seeker after truth - but rather through the words and thoughts of others to whom we might give rather more authority; and not least through the words of scripture itself.
A personal response
But first, let me deal with that Church Times article and its questions in a personal way. Well, to answer the headline first (because that, I guess, might be the primary challenge that some might want to put to me and so that you may be under no illusion) - No, I do not believe in the Bible. I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary and who lived, died and rose again for our salvation. I believe in the Holy Spirit, who will lead us into all truth. I believe in the Trinity, a doctrine that was formulated in the early Church from reflection on Scripture, and implied in parts of the New Testament, but nowhere defined until much later. And so on. But I do not believe in the Bible; and there it seems, I am in good company - the company indeed of the author of St John's Gospel who records the words of Jesus thus (and we have just heard this read):
"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
Eternal life, salvation comes through belief in Jesus, the person, the Word of God made flesh, the living God, and, as the Letter to the Hebrews so powerfully bears witness in chapters 3 and 4, in its extended meditation on whether we may 'enter God's rest' at all since God completed his work and entered his rest at the foundation of the world,
"The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
And the writer quotes from Psalm 95:
"Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."
So it seems the real question is not 'Do you believe in the Bible?' That is a dangerous, almost idolatrous concept. That suggests to me that the Word made flesh has been turned back into words again, to quote a famous theologian. The real question is 'Are we listening for, looking for the Word of God?' If we are doing that faithfully, then we shall indeed be taking scripture very seriously indeed for it bears authentic witness to the Word of God made flesh, and it records the encounter between that Word and the community of God's people both directly in the stories of Jesus and also in the birth of the Church, that struggles to form itself into a model of that divine and living community of God, the Holy Trinity. And struggle, as I have said before, with our own faith, with our life as a Christian community, locally and as the Body of Christ in the world is simply part of the nature of a living community. It keeps us looking forward, it keeps us praying for guidance and inspiration, it keeps us longing and hoping. We cannot and we should not excise struggle from our life, because the alternatives seem, to me at least, to be oppression and complacency. And there is an awful lot of that around at the moment.
In 1976 the Church of England Doctrine Commission produced a report called Christian Believing. That Commission had among its members such substantial names as Jim Packer, from a strong evangelical tradition, John MacQuarrie, from a conservative Anglo-Catholic tradition, a number of well-known biblical scholars such as Dennis Nineham, Christopher Evans and Geoffrey Lampe. Let me quote for you two passages from that report. First, its opening lines:
"Christian life is an adventure, a voyage of discovery, a journey, sustained by faith and hope, towards a final and complete communion with the Love at the heart of all things."
What a beautiful, challenging and exciting vision that is, and one that I hope and pray every single person here is immersed in. What a prospect - a community together engaged in a lifelong search for the love that is at the heart of all things. And that opening passage goes on to acknowledge that at some points our confidence in God and his love will carry us through all tests, but also that sometimes that vision will be absent, and 'life may seem futile, cruel and overwhelming'. But, the report says:
"to be a Christian means that whatever one's state, the journey goes on. It is staking everything on the belief that this way of using our one and only life will in the end be validated not only as the best for our human condition, but as most truly in accord with ultimate reality."
And then, the report contains a chapter that is entitled 'The Christian and the Bible' Here is its conclusion (and I am sorry about the masculine language used):
"To speak of the Bible as 'the Word of God', or the 'Word of God in the words of men', is just as much a judgement of faith as to speak of some historical event as 'an act of God'. It is not a proposition that can be proved. There are many Christians who wish to keep this language when talking of the Bible; there are others to whom it does not come easily. But no-one who intends to be a Christian can avoid wrestling with the Bible as part of the given tradition with which, if he would follow Jesus at all, he must come to terms. And when he does so, then whatever his presuppositions, he finds there 'words of eternal life'."
"...just a collection of disputed texts?"
And so that leads on to the second question posed in the Church Times article, which incidentally is written by a leading conservative evangelical and member of General Synod, who has been prominent in all the current debates, 'Is what the Bible says the controlling authority for our faith and conduct - or just a collection of disputed texts from which we can select what we currently like and discard the rest?'
That is an extraordinarily polemical and dismissive question, that seems to pay little respect either to the integrity of scripture or to those - of whom there is no small number - who seek to approach and meditate upon and honour the Bible in a different way. I know of no one who wishes to 'select what we currently like and discard the rest'. Indeed if I were being equally polemical, which of course I am not, I would say that that is exactly what the so-called 'conservative' protagonists are doing. Let me give you an example. Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 contain the two verses that are constantly quoted in the current debate about 'a man who lies with another man as with a woman'. Now, strange as it may seem, I do not feel able to quote the material that surrounds those verses, because they deal in some detail with issues of sexual relationships and practises that are not appropriate to read out in church today. Why? Because the way that we approach these issues has completely changed; we simply do not deal with these matters in this way. And if you like to go home and in the privacy of your own sitting rooms settle down for the afternoon and read all or part of that book, you will, I am quite sure, very quickly come to the conclusion that, whilst much of its reflection on God's commandments still, rightly, inspire our legal and social structures today, yet the whole social context into which this book of religious regulations was directed is entirely different and virtually unrecognisable. So what appears to be a clear and incontrovertible statement is very much less so when put back into its context. It cannot be ignored, because it is a clear statement, but surely it is not the grounds (along with four other verses in the Bible as a whole), on which to bring down the whole structure of Anglicanism.
Let me offer one other example upon which we might reflect. Some have said - and I believe with much more substance for argument - that this debate is about faithfulness in relationships. That is indeed what Jesus is about in much of what he teaches - faithfulness in every relationship; faithfulness to those we love, faithfulness to those we don't love; faithfulness to the poor and the exploited; faithfulness to God and his living word. Now, I don't think that anyone would dispute that in understanding Jesus' teaching the Sermon on the Mount is a key passage, at least in the two Gospels that contain it. And in the Sermon on the Mount he addresses issues of faithfulness in relationships head on.
"I have come not to abolish but to fulfil... whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven... You have heard it said... 'you shall not murder'. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgement... and if you say 'You fool' you will be liable to the hell of fire... so leave your gift and go, first be reconciled with your brother or sister... You have heard it said 'You shall not commit adultery' but I say to you that everyone who looks at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart. If your right eye causes you to sin tear it out."
And so it goes on. And if we are going to examine others and judge others and exclude those whose lifestyle does not happen to fit our own, and do so on the basis of our bible-based faith, then let us be at least consistent. Let us turn to the words of Jesus. Examine ourselves. Turn out those of us who fall short. And then those who are left, well they will have the freedom to order the church as they wish. Ah, but... they will say... the sermon on the mount is not about the real world, it is the vision of the world as God meant it to be. But nowhere in the Bible does it say that. That is pure undiluted interpretation - what we are all doing all the time.
What price inspiration?
To end, let me just take up the challenge that I foresee may be made at the end of this service - that I have not paid attention to the passage from the 2nd Letter to Timothy that was our first reading and seems to be pretty decisive on the authority of scripture. Indeed it is. Timothy is reminded by Paul of the faith of his mother and his grandmother, who were the prime teachers in his life, and at the beginning of the letter, Paul invites Timothy to 'share in his suffering for the Gospel'; and in order to teach what this might mean, Paul says that all scripture is inspired by God.
William Temple, that twentieth century giant of Anglicanism, wrote in his introduction to the magnificent 1938 Report of the Doctrine Commission,
"Everyone knows that it is possible to quote texts which, torn from their context, may be presented as supporting entirely un-Christian opinions... Our attention must be fastened upon the trend of scripture as a whole and upon its climax in the record of the Word made flesh, by the light of which all the rest is to be interpreted"
and the report itself goes on to say:
"The tradition of the inerrancy of the Bible commonly held in the Church until the beginning of the nineteenth century cannot be maintained in the light of the knowledge now at our disposal... But... it remains true that the religious and moral teaching of the Gospel conveys faithfully the impress made upon the Apostolic Church by the mind and personality of Jesus and thus possesses supreme authority. Accordingly, the body of teaching in question provides a standard by which to judge the claim of subsequent developments to be true to the authentic spirit of the Christian Gospel".
No-one would wish to deny that. No-one would wish to see the Bible as 'just a collection of disputed texts from which we can select what we currently like and discard the rest.' What we are about is seeking, in all humility, sustained by faith and hope to continue our journey through this complex, challenging and painful world, on our common adventure towards a final and complete communion with the Love which is at the heart of all things, and we carry with us, for our continued sustenance, the record of that love and the record of our deeds; and we kneel before God in penitence knowing that God and God alone can bring us to that Communion.