Saturday, December 06, 2008

the Episcopal Church and Scripture: "Opening the Bible", Ch. 1

Ferlo's initial approach to the Bible in Chapter 1 expresses hesitation; given who we are, "[c]an we still regard the Bible with the reverence and awe with which our ancestors regarded it--as 'the revealed Word of God' and 'the rule and ultimate standard of faith,'....?" (6)

In my opinion, this type of self-questioning should always be before the Church. Can we really be sure we are even capable of standing in a proper relation to Scripture? That at any point when we take it in hand, we are regarding it properly?

After all, "books are far more readily available" than they were in Cranmer's day, say, and "they no longer wield an intrinsic authority" (5); worse: we have lost the habit of attentive reading. Few of us "read anything at all with the diligence and care that a serious book demands"; we just "don't have the time" and, shockingly, "don't have the skill." (6) Ask yourself, dear reader, whether you truly have the skill, the developed set of settled dispositions, necessary to attend to Scripture with the requisite degree of comprehension. Have any of us reached a point where we cannot do better? If so, then how many--and is the number increasing? Indeed, how much rancor in the Church is really due mostly to intellectual vice, a kind of sloth ignorant of itself, hidden in eager assertion?

Episcopalians "recognize no central interpreting authority to decide for them what is true and what is not". This latitude comes with a high "price": we encompass "a wide spectrum of approaches to reading the Bible, and an even wider spectrum of convictions about the nature of the book itself." This can result not merely in disagreement, but more importantly a pressing variety of ignorance: our having "no idea what a responsible method of reading would look like." (7) Truth be told, a number of us became Episcopalians from fleeing fundamentalism or "the revival tent" approach to faith, and the presence of the Bible can make "a surprising number of people uneasy." (1)

With these blocks, and no doubt others, to reading the Bible hampering our efforts, what are we to do? No doubt some critics of the Episcopal Church would join in these worries, adding their own as well. What does Ferlo say?

II. Exposure to the Bible
The capacity to carry out a responsible reading of the Bible need not arise among us ex nihilo, as it were; the soil is already prepared in virtue of the nature of Anglican worship as expressed in the forms of the Prayer Book. In effect, even among the uneasy and the underprepared, worship--weekly or daily--can largely by means of repetition begin to help equip us with the dispositions needed to make a responsible reading. What are we to do then? Judging by Ferlo, committed worship--with the Book of Common Prayer--is a good place to start: weekly if need be, but daily would be better.

Worship with the BCP inevitably--by its very design--exposes the petitioner to large sections of the Bible, and some very important sections rather often, over and over again: the Psalms, the Magnificat, the Song of Simeon--even the Bible almost whole appears in the lectionary, repeated over and over in the reading of worship. This design is an imprint from the Reformation, according to which, Ferlo says, it was "every believer's right to read the Bible freely and openly, translated into a language everyone could understand"; indeed, "in matters of faith ony the Bible mattered," contra the Roman Catholic emphasis on tradition and "papal authority". (2) More specifically, the Thirty-Nine Articles declared the Bible "containeth all things necessary to salvation", such that nothing unprovable from Scripture could be required of the believer. Thus, Cranmer designed the prayer book of the Church of England with an "increased amount" of Scripture to be read aloud in "public worship"--and the worship language of the BCP itself cribs over and over from the Bible. (2)

Mere repeated exposure to large stretches of Scripture in the context of worship, private and public, is not enough, as Cranmer seems to have recognized; such exposure could just as well develop dispositions of inattention or incomprehension--say, just letting the spoken or sung words glide by as if they were mere ornaments, or thoughtlessly reading into the text what it does not say. Ferlo notes "[f]ree access to an English-language Bible"--to which the Church of England was committed after 1558--" provoked storms of controversy in the 1500s and 1600s" (3) Cranmer himself, concerned "that the subversive rabble would start expounding Scripture in alehouses" advised Bible-readers to "consult 'learned men' who were authorized to expound Scripture's meaning." (4-5) That is, from the beginning of Anglicanism proper in the English Reformation, a "bare reading" of the Bible has not been the norm; Ferlo notes that Richard Hooker "insisted that the book must always be read in context--not just in the context of common worship, but also in the context of received tradition" which presumably would contain the "reliable, responsible commentary" that the Bible demands. (5) Knowledge of "the tradition" for Hooker et alia seems to have meant something narrower than what the phrase means in Roman Catholicism: not so much knowledge of "the context of ancient cultures and languages in which the Bible was first written and published," which was taken for granted, but more particularly "the first four centuries of Christian believing." (5-6)

To this, Ferlo adds knowledge of "the context almost two thousand years of intellectual, scientific, religious, and social change." (6) He throws in the kitchen sink, maximizing the context against which the Bible should be read. That is, any piece of information--economic, historical, political, and so on--is potentially relevant to a reading of the Bible. He seems to imply, in other words,

[A] there is no domain of merely secular information irrelevant to reading the Bible.

I happen to agree with [A], inasmuch as I believe there is no merely secular domain, but I wish if Ferlo had meant to hold [A] he would have been more explicit about it. Whereas a Christian in Hooker's day, using Hooker's seemingly more restricted notion of context, might have hoped to master the patristic tradition against which the Bible is to be read, nobody can reasonably hope to master the wide context Ferlo envisions. One result of adopting Ferlo's approach may be that our readings, however informed, are incomplete. More can always be added; meaning overflows the bounds of the propositions used to expound the text.

III. An Approach to the Bible

Where does Ferlo see this going? Are we not at sea if nobody here below can reasonably hope to master the wide context of interpretation that the Bible calls for? And isn't this sort of trouble exactly what the critic would have feared? Ferlo notes Episcopalians "as people of faith share a certain conviction about the Bible: that God the Holy Spirit lives and breathes in these pages, and in those who seek with humility and compassion to understand such challenging, ancient texts." (8) That is to say, though "the Bible has a history that determines how it should be read" it "recounts a history" as well, a history which is ours as people of God, "the history of God's continuing actions among us...."; in the sacrament of Holy Baptism "we claim God's history as our own." (8)

In other words, Ferlo comes back to reading in the context of worship; he writes "[i]n Luke's understanding [Lk. 24:25-32] voice precedes script: Scripture must be told ans heard before it is written and read." (12) The fact that the Bible is read in the context of worship is decisive for its meaning. Reading it in acts of worship, we the baptized should always have background in its history--though we cannot hope to master that history. The point of reading the Bible in worship is not to have attained a comprehension of its historical sense; this is simply not necessary. More important are the facts that the Spirit moves through the Bible, and the Spirit moves through the baptized reader of the Bible.

Ferlo quotes Luke 24:25-32, Jer 15:16, Ez. 3:1-3, and Rev. 10:9-10--places where the Bible seems to portray its own reading. These texts envisage reading as eating; "[t]he prophets ingest God's word just as Adam drank God's breath. By its own account, reading the Bible can transform your life, as food transforms your body." (10) Ferlo recommends techniques of reading which can model eating: "the slowly meditative, 'ruminative' methods (called lectio divina, or sacred reading) that characterized the study of the Bible as an integral part of the monastic discipline." (11)

Coming at the Bible intending to master its literal sense by having mastered its historical context, we risk missing what for Ferlo is the main point of reading the Bible: being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Proper reading, a historically informed reading in the context of worship, is already tacitly pictured as effected in grace, in the presence of the Spirit. That presence, Ferlo acknowledges, may be either sweet and delightful, or bitter an threatening. (10) True, "[c]ommunion with God is made possible by tasting the sacred page" (10) and "[h]earing Scripture prepares the ground for the encounter with the Holy One, but it does not substitute for it" (12), but we are not mere voyeurs reverently peeking through at God-in-history over there; we are meant to be participants. Or: our reading of the Bible is primarily meant to bring God-in-history over here, to us. We may "read the book" variously informed, "but in the end it is God who reads us." (13)

In reading Scripture, we see God, but more than that: we see God seeing us, "leaving us with our hearts burning within us." (13) Communion with God, Ferlo seems to be saying, cannot be indifferent to our identity, to who we are. We come into contact with God through Scripture, and who we are can be transformed. Seeing how God sees you can lead you to keep doing certain things as you have, or it can lead to repent and reform the orientation of your mind and your life, bringing it in line with what God's will intends for you. This communication of new life by means of an encounter with God is, Ferlo seems to say, the main point of reading the Bible.

IV. And its Authority?

Thus, for Ferlo, the authority of the Bible among Episcopalians is rooted both in our commitment to it as the criterion for faith and dogma, a commitment that comes to us especially from the English Reformation, and its central place in our common worship by the prayer book, public and private. These are not equiprimordial foci, though; the Bible cannot simply be read on its own as a source for dogma; it needs a context if its meaning is to be reliably discerned. The most important part of that context is not its history but worship--without the context of worship, the transformative power of the text would be muted if not lost. Thus, on reflection, Ferlo would seem to say the authority of the Bible is rooted in its power to transform our lives according to the loving will of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ideally, the Bible is read as a criterion for dogma in the context of such transformation.

Would this palliate the critics? I think not entirely; what Ferlo has emphasized is a necessary condition: that Scripture be read open to the transforming, convicting power of God. But, I should think, they will want to hear more about the connection between a reading informed by an encounter with God, and the dogmatic content of such readings. More needs to said: what is our way in toward discerning the determinate content of Scripture?

Nevertheless, I should hope what Ferlo has said might help put to rest the more egregiously excessive, hyperbolic, and bitter criticism levelled at the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians have not completely or utterly disregarded the authority of Scripture, particularly if they are open to being transformed by it and hold that God moves through its pages. Would the critics disagree there? If not, then shouldn't we have more common ground in our disputes than in fact we do?


At 11:33 PM, Blogger Perpetua said...

Totally off topic, I just tagged you.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Fr Craig said...

TAS - read this some time ago and wanted to come back to it. I agree wholeheartedly - though it's been some time since I read Ferlo. I'm 57, hadn't picked up a bible to read until I was 37, now ordained Piskie priest. It did change my life - in concert with prayer and meditation. Cradle Episcopalian that I am, I still had no idea how much scripture we are exposed to - perhaps that is, though, why scripture touched me so deeply.

I think the problem most have with scripture is the overweening temptation to choose what they agree with and discount the other. I do it all the time. But preaching every week (and more) has forced me to search for an overall theme, a big picture, which helps me to tie it all together. Mine is 'do not be afraid,' which probably means little without endless discussion, but it is the main thing I take from scripture - humankind's attempt to record God's self revelation. I suspect each person's 'big picture' might vary based on their own psychological history and maturity... anyway, thanks - may I use portions of this in my 'Bible 101' class with attribution?

At 3:22 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Please do--take whatever is useful!


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