By Bishop Frank T Griswold
Central to the life of all Christian churches, is the Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments with the addition, in some traditions, of the Apocraphal/Deuterocanonical Books. In both liturgical and non-liturgical traditions portions of the Bible are selected for use in the course of public worship. As a result, the vast expanse of scripture is reduced to a series of selected texts. The Bible Challenge is an invitation to journey with fellow believers from across the world and across the Anglican Communion through the entire length and breadth of the Bible, and to experience the full sweep of the biblical record. But, in order to undertake such a journey, it may be helpful to reflect upon how we, as faithful readers of God’s word, might orient our hearts and minds as we approach the text before us. To that end, the following comments are offered.
“Indeed, the word of God is alive 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.” (Hebrews 4:12) These words from the Letter to the Hebrews, which antedate the establishment of what we know as the New Testament, apply to the various ways in which the early Christian community experienced the word of God in its various forms beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures and extending to the preaching and teaching of the Apostles and their followers. The word of God took the form not only of speech, it also “happened.” It took the form of events and encounters, visions and words heard with the ear of the heart. All this was enabled by the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth” who, Jesus said, would “take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:15) In the Acts of the Apostles, which is the account of “the Spirit of Jesus,” the Spirit of the risen and ascended Christ, inhabiting the hearts and minds of the disciples and the infant church, we read of the ceaseless activity and urgency of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit “falls upon…fills…sends…speaks…snatches up…forbids…” All the while, empowered by the Spirit, the word of God “continued to spread…to grow mightily…to prevail.”
The vitality of scripture and its capacity to impart life flows from Jesus’ resurrection. In the 24th Chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, we are told that when the risen Lord encountered two grieving disciples on the way to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later on, looking back on the encounter, the disciples exclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on he road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:13ff). It is the continuing ministry of the risen Christ, through the agency of the Spirit, to open the scriptures to us in order that our hearts might burn within us with the living truth of his presence. Christ is the “Word of God” (Revelation 19:13) whom we encounter at the heart of the scriptural word.
This notion of living encounter mediated by the words of scripture is wonderfully captured in a hymn written in the 4th century by the deacon, Ephraim of Edessa: “I read the opening verses of the book, and was filled with joy, for its verses and lines spread out their arms to welcome me. The first rushed out and kissed me and led me on to the next.”
To approach scripture in such a spirit of expectation opens us to the possibility of our being surprised and accosted by the Spirit who draws continually from “the boundless riches of Christ,” (Ephesians 3:8) and makes them present to us through the words of scripture.
The fathomless depths of scripture are suggested by well known 12th Century commentator and preacher, Bernard of Clairvaux, who describes Holy Scripture as “a vast sea in which a lamb can paddle, and an elephant can swim.”
These words from the past provide a helpful way of approaching scripture that counterbalances the critique offered by R. M. Benson, the Founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, reacting to what he considered to be an overdependence upon biblical criticism. He wrote, “I think the joy of Holy Scripture is very much hidden by the joylessness of commentators who write about it with no sense of supernatural delight.
There are, of course, different ways in which to approach scripture. The early commentators, made a distinction between a literal and a spiritual reading of the text. According to Origen, a biblical commentator of the 3rd Century, not everything in scripture is true in a historical sense, but nonetheless all scripture conveys truth in a spiritual sense. It is, therefore, not a question of either/or – either something is true in an empirical sense, or it is not true at all – but of both/and: that is an ability to approach a passage on a literal and a spiritual level at the same time, and in the process honor both dimensions.
An example might, at this point, be helpful. Let us, therefore, take the Song of Mary recorded in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-53). Who but Mary’s kinswoman, Elizabeth, was present to hear it, let along record it? Further, in examining the text, it appears that it bears a strong relationship, if not dependency upon the Song of Hannah recorded in the First Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). At the same time, the song can be allowed to address us on its own terms, and Mary’s cry of humility and thanksgiving for the “great things [the Mighty One] has done for me,” can become our own cry in the face of God’s remembered mercies in our own lives.
Bishop Charles Gore, who unsettled late Victorian England by suggesting that the account of creation in the Book of Genesis was not literally true, went on to observe that myth and poetry in the pages of the Bible can as easily convey truth as those portions of scripture that can be regarded as historical. This then brings us back to Origen and the need to approach scriptural texts on both a literal and a spiritual level.
In addition, we must let scripture accost us on its own terms. And, to that end, we must give room to the risen Christ, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, to address us through the words of the text before us as Word at the heart of the word freely wills. The following prayer may help us in preparing for that encounter:
Take away, O Lord, the veil of my heart while I read the scriptures. Blessed are you, O Lord: teach me your statutes: give me a word, O Word of the Father: enlighten the understanding of my heart: open my lips and fill them with your praise. Let me show forth your truth in my life by the life-giving power of your Holy Spirit.
– After Lancelot Andrewes