Turl Street Arts Festival Sermon

By Revd. Canon Prof. Martyn Percy

Teabing smiled.  ‘Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great Canon Dr. Martyn Percy.’  Teabing cleared his throat and declared, ‘the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven…the Bible is a product of man, my dear.  Not of God.  The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds.  Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations and revisions.  History has never had a definitive version of the book…More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only [four] were chosen for inclusion…The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great…’. [Chap. 55, The Da Vinci Code]

Speaking as the person quoted above, I guess I ought to try and clarify my views a little.  It is true that ‘the Bible is not a fax from heaven’ is a quote correctly attributed to me, although to the best of my knowledge, I have only ever said this in lectures, radio, TV and newspaper interviews – all in connection with understanding fundamentalism.  But behind the slick sound-bite, there is in fact a fairly sophisticated theological point.  Let me explain.

Views about the authority and status of scripture cannot be directly resourced from the Bible itself.  The Bible has no self-conscious identity.  As a collation of books and writings, it did indeed come together over a long period of time.  Indeed, the word ‘Bible’ comes from the Greek biblos, imply meaning ‘books’.  Equally, the word ‘canon’ (here used in relation to scripture, not as an ecclesiastical title) simply means rule.  So the Bible is, literally, ‘authorised books’.  But as I say, the authorisation of the compilation took place after the books were written.  It should be clear that Paul, when he wrote ‘all scripture is inspired by God’ (2. Tim 3.16) in a letter to his friend, Timothy, could hardly have had his own letter in mind at the time.  The conferral of canonical status on his letter came later – some would say much later.

My point is simple.  Views about the authority and status of the Bible cannot be solely resourced from the Bible.  The Bible needs to be held and understood in a particular way, independent of its content, in order to have any authority.  Furthermore, behind such a view, is some kind of nascent notion of how the power of God works in the world.  For some (perhaps especially fundamentalists), the power of God must be mediated through clear, pure and easily identifiable channels or agents.  This guarantees the quality of that power: it is unquestionable and unambiguous.

But for others – usually of a more mainstream or perhaps liberal persuasion – God acts and speaks through channels and agents that are fully themselves.  So God works through culture, peoples and history, not over and against them.  Correspondingly, the power of God is only ever known provisionally (not absolutely); it can only be encountered ‘through a glass darkly’, and not ‘face to face’.  Thus, although the power of God may be pure and absolute at source, God always chooses to mediate that power through less than perfect agents (such as language, people, times and places).  And this is because God’s primary interest is in disclosing [his] love in order to draw us into relationships, and not in unequivocal demonstrations of power, which would leave no room for a genuinely free response, but merely obedience in the face of oppression.  So we have the burning bush for Moses – but he covers his face.  And although Jesus is the light of the world, ‘the darkness comprehend-eth it not’, according to John.  What is revealed is still ‘hidden’ to those who are blind.

But how does the ‘fax’ quote relate to the Bible?  Simple.  Some Christians believe that scripture has come from heaven to earth, in an unimpaired, totally unambiguous form.  Such views are fundamentalistic: the Bible is the pure word of God – every letter and syllable is ‘God breathed’.  So there is no room for questions; knowledge replaces faith.  It is utterly authoritative: to question the Bible is tantamount to questioning God.

But to those who believe that scripture is a more complex nexus of writings, the authority of scripture lies in the totality of its inspiration.  Thus, the Bible does indeed contain many things that God may want to say to humanity (and they are to be heeded and followed).  But it also contains opinions about God (even one or two moans and complaints – see the Psalms); it contains allegory, parables, humour, histories and debates.  The nature of the Bible invites us to contemplate the many ways in which God speaks.  The Bible is not one message spoken by one voice.  It is symphonic in character – a restless and inspiring chorus of testaments, whose authority rests upon its very plurality.

So, when Paul tells us in 2 Tim.3:16 that ‘…all scripture is inspired by God…’, he is not talking about himself.  For the early Christians, the ‘scripture’ Paul refers to may have meant the Old Testament, and perhaps what they knew of the Gospels.  But it didn’t mean the New Testament, because as a settled volume or concept, it did not exist until the 4th Century, the same time Creeds crystallised.  So is the New Testament ‘the work of man’?  In one sense, yes: people had to write the texts – they were not faxed!  But on the other hand, there is a case for arguing that the church only chose authentic and faithful records that testified to Jesus accurately, and history bears this out.  As Michael Ramsay remarked, ‘the Bible is a consequence of Christianity, not its cause’.

But what does any of this have to do with an Arts Festival?  The answer lies in what we make of this curious word we use about quite a lot of things – a kind of fluid currency, if you will.  The word is, of course, ‘inspiration’, which in its original Greek usage literally meant ‘god-breathed’ –theopneutos.  There are many kinds of inspiration, naturally; but the question arises, what kinds of inspiration does God use?  A burning bush may seem ‘obvious’ to you: but to others?  Remember Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

In my choice of pictures to meditate upon this evening, I happen to have chosen two particular and personal favourites: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Census in Bethlehem, painted around 1580, and Rembrandt’s The Entombment, painted in about 1630.  In a moment I’ll explain why these paintings might be linked by ideas that are located in our readings, but first, let us look at Bruegel’s work.


According to Luke’s gospel, Christ is born in Bethlehem because of the census that the Emperor Augustus set in motion throughout the Roman-controlled world.  But Bruegel’s Census is a contemporary ‘take’ on the story: he sets the events leading up the birth of Jesus in a busy Flemish village.  His picture is filled with men, women, children and animals, going about the common business of living. There must be more than two hundred figures in this village scene, going about their daily chores: no-one sees anything unusual.

Bruegel’s art unifies this random bustle. But how?  No obvious focal points direct us as we look at the painting.  Bruegel wants us to enter into the village and orient ourselves as visitors would have done.  When we get our bearings we notice that a crowd of people is collecting in front of the building in the foreground left.  Just inside some men sit at a table examining documents and making notes in a ledger. The villagers crowd around waiting to be examined.

Reading from left to right we can’t help noticing two large wooden O’s made by the wheels of some hay wagons.  Here, the circle has been universally accepted as the symbol of eternity and everlasting existence.  As the monogram for God it stands for both the perfection and the eternity of God.  Then we notice a young woman on a horse led by a man on foot (see above left). The woman is almost hidden by her heavy winter clothing. But we realize this is Mary.  So here is Jesus – only hidden from our sight.

Rembrandt’s picture – by no means one of his best – also has a strange quality to it.  This is the entombment of Christ: he is being laid in the burial chamber by his friends and mother.  But look at what Rembrandt has done to the story.  The light seems to flow out of Christ’s body – almost as though, in death, he still glows.  The light has no external source in the picture – it comes out from Jesus’ body, and almost at us.  It has more than a passing resonance with the countless nativity scenes painted by many of the great masters – where the light of the world, newly born in the stable and lying in the crib – is the central and brightest image in the painting.  Here, Rembrandt has taken that nativity idea and put it into the entombment.  As the infant Jesus shone in the cradle of life, so here, the adult Jesus, is allowed to shine in the cradle of death.

So what links these pictures?  Well, they are, in their own way, inspired.  They play with light and dark, with what is hidden and revealed.  Like a good inspired text, they don’t tell us what is happening, but rather draw us in together, asking: ‘what do you see?’ or ‘what might this mean?’.  They help to make, in other words, a community of interpretation and appreciation, gathered around signs, symbols and words – or, in this case, art.  The pictures are also linked more subtly.  In both paintings, the Jesus we know is either not yet born or only just dead.  We have moved from womb to tomb in one easy leap.  Moreover, the eerie light used by Rembrandt is a deliberate harking back to the nativity.  Could he be saying that, just as Christ came from the womb, so in this tomb, somehow, there is a new nativity at work – a second birth?  That even in the burial of Christ, there is already a hint of resurrection?  It is as though, even here, Rembrandt has found a way, at the point of the death of Jesus, to link that tragic event to the opening of John’s gospel: ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.  And then we turn to Bruegel, who ‘loses’ Mary and Joseph in the crowd, and conceals Mary’s pregnancy under a heavy winter coat.  He is saying we must look for Jesus; a kind of sixteenth century Where’s Wally?  But if we look with care, we will find the light of the world.  In the meantime, we we must sit and wait in anticipation for his birth.

Inspiration, then, is not about re-stating the obvious.  It is about receiving the breath of God; discerning how his presence ripples to us through signs, symbols and stories.  Scripture – like art, music poetry, symbols and signs – invites us to stay awhile and contemplate.  The burning bush has more than one meaning.  It is an invitation to pause and look; and then step through the gates of mystery that God provides.  It is in contemplation that we find wisdom.  God did not send us a fax, but rather his son, born of a woman.  The light shines and the fire burns; and some people are struck by the beams of radiance, and perceive.  But the rest, as Browning says, carry on picking blackberries.

The Revd. Canon Prof. Martyn Percy is Principal, Ripon College Cuddesdon