By Robert MacSwain

Having read both Bishop Daniel Martins’s “Top Ten Rules for Reading the Bible” here on Covenant and Bishop Jake Owensby’s “Eight Things to Know About the Bible” at Pelican Anglican, I thought it would be a helpful contribution to the current conversation on both of these blogs to direct readers to the “Ten Themes” and “Seven Principles” of Anglican biblical interpretation that were identified by the Anglican Communion’s “Bible in the Life of the Church” project and published in the report Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery (2012).

Unlike the two lists offered by Bishops Martins and Owensby, these points are made in the report without further discussion, but it is both interesting and encouraging to see how much overlap there is between all three of these sources. As indicated below, the “themes” were compiled as a list of descriptive observations — what the members of the steering comittee thought was the case in regard to characteristically Anglican biblical interpretation — whereas the principles were offered somewhat more normatively as proposals for best practice.

So, to complement the lists offered by Bishop Martins and Bishop Owensby, here are the Ten Themes and Seven Principles of Anglican biblical interpretation offered by Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery.


Ten Themes (descriptive observations)

  1. Anglicans accord Scripture a central place in the life of the Church.
  2. Anglicans value biblical scholarship while acknowledging that Scripture must also be read within the context of the Church’s practice in order for us to hear its fullest meaning.
  3. Anglicans experience the Word of the living God through the words of Scripture as we participate in liturgy and worship.
  4. Anglicans recognise that the application of Scripture to complex issues requires serious study and prayer.
  5. Anglicans recognise that there is a healthy and necessary diversity of views on the interpretation of Scripture but that such diversity exists within limits.
  6. Anglicans recognise that both the original contexts in which biblical texts were written and the contemporary cultural contexts in which they are heard are important to the way we read Scripture.
  7. Anglicans recognise that Scripture “reads” us as we read the Bible.
  8. Anglicans recognise that we hold a great deal in common on these issues with our ecumenical partners.
  9. Anglicans recognise that the dynamic interplay between Scripture, reason and tradition constitutes a classic Anglican way of viewing and approaching Scripture.
  10. Anglicans recognise that every generation has to approach anew the task of engaging with and interpreting Scripture.

Principles (normative proposals)

  1. Christ is the living Word of God.
  2. The Old Testament is the foundation of Christian Scripture.
  3. The Bible is to be taken as a whole and has within it great depths of spiritual meaning.
  4. There are many different literary genres in the Bible, which are to be distinguished carefully and consistently.
  5. An accurate reading of the Bible is informed, not threatened, by sound historical and scientific understanding: the God who inspires Scripture as a true witness is the same God who created the world.
  6. The Bible must be seen in the contexts of the world in which it was written and also brought into conversation or confrontation with our worlds in order to discern God’s will for us today.
  7. We listen to the Scriptures with open hearts and attentive minds accepting their authority for our lives and expecting that we will be transformed and renewed by the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.

Cited from Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery: Report of the Anglican Communion “Bible in the Life of the Church” Project (2012), 41-42.  See also Clare Amos (ed.), The Bible in the Life of the Church (2013).

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is Associate Professor of Theology at University of the South, and a Steering Committee Member and Coordinator of the North American Regional Group of the “Bible in the Life of the Church” Project. 

The featured image is “Latin Bible” (2015) by Robert Cheaib. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

9 Responses

  1. Charlie Clauss

    The trick it seems, is keeping these themes and principles as servants, and not masters. They must be servants of the basic asymmetry between us and Scripture: Scripture is not the ultimate authority over us – God is – but God has placed Scripture over us (in a way I don’t want to nail down). We must be careful not to try and slip out from under its “subsidiary” authority.

  2. Zachary Guiliano


    Are you (like me) somewhat uncertain about the use of normative principle 1, “Christ is the living Word of God?

    It’s true, of course, but I know I wonder if it’s necessarily all that useful when talking about normative principles for biblical interpretation, unless we somehow expect Christ as the living Word to contract the (dead?) word of Scripture. But perhaps someone else might have a better idea.

    After all Scripture is itself alive: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

    I’m not convinced that passage, after all, is a reference to the second person of the Trinity! But perhaps this is just how Scripture “‘reads’ us.”

  3. Robert MacSwain

    Zack, thanks for that comment / question. I think the point of the first principle is to avoid confusing the primary referent of the “Word of God” (Christ, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity) with any other referents, such as Scripture (in whatever sense we mean when we describe it as the Word of God). I was thus intrigued by your citation of Hebrews 4:12. Aside from familiar association in some Christian circles, is there anything in the context of that passage which even suggests that the author actually has Scripture in mind, as opposed to the voice of God? Consider especially the following verses as well: “Indeed, 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 before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account [Gk: “logos”]. Since, then, we have a great high priest…” I summit that a more natural reading of Heb. 4:12 is that it does indeed refer to Christ, or at least to God’s speech-acts, and not to the text of Scripture as such (although it may of course also include it). Finally, although I do think we can talk in some sense about Scripture “reading” us as we read it, I’m also here reminded of my friend Margaret Adam’s comment that she worries whenever we seek to ascribe agency to texts. As Gerard Loughlin says, strictly speaking, texts don’t mean anything; people mean things.

  4. Zachary Guiliano

    Thanks, RM.

    Yes, I understand that basic point, but I actually think it’s of unclear help in providing a set of normative principles for interpretation, other than suggesting that Christ as the Word of God is a norm (or external authority). Is it thereby suggesting that the Gospel accounts are the interpretive matrix for the rest of Scripture? I’m amenable to that. Is it suggesting that the spirit of Christ might lead us to new meanings? I’m amenable to that, within certain frameworks. But I worry that, for most, citing Christ as the Word is simply a way to wiggle out from under the authority of Scripture, as Charlie may have suggested. Of course, he is *the* Word of God, but how that impacts our interpretation of Scripture is complex and therefore not easily included in a simple list.

    My statement that Scripture is “alive” was not meant to be literal itself, so much as playful! Though it would take a little time for me to then explain what I mean when I say that Scripture is indeed alive.

    But I don’t know that it’s a more natural reading to apply Heb. 4:12 to Jesus Christ. First of all, it would seem to introduce a Logos Christology into the chapter (and section? and book?) that is not otherwise present — not that I’m entirely against such a move (cf. the tradition), but I’d be cautious here.

    Second, I’m pretty sure the word in this statement refers back to the author’s quotations of what God has said to those who were not benefited by the word that had been preached. We might want to describe that as God’s speech-acts (and, again, I wouldn’t be against doing so in a broader way), but the direct reference is an established word of written Scripture (i.e. Ps 95).

    • Robert MacSwain

      Zack, thanks for the further clarifications / questions. I think you are absolutely right that the first principle (“Christ is the living Word of God”) functions less as a normative hermeneutical guide for specific texts and more of a foundational theological claim that guides our initial approach to Scripture as such. I don’t think it is intended to set up a tension or potential conflict between Christ and Scripture so much as to remind us that describing Scripture as “the Word of God,” while perfectly legitimate and of course deeply embedded in the Anglican tradition (cf. ordination vows, etc.), must still be understood as complex shorthand for a series of essential but qualified claims. Christ is the Word of God *simplicter*, Scripture is the Word of God [insert series of essential but qualified claims here].

      I also appreciate your pushing back on Hebrews 4:12. My point was less to argue for an explicit Logos reference as to argue against the common but anachronistic use of this verse as a proof-text to describe the current canon of Christian Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. So yes, I’m very happy to see the verse as describing God’s “living and active” word mediated through written Scripture such as Psalm 95, but I’d still want to emphasize that it refers primarily to such specific words and only by tentative and contentious extrapolation to the entire canon of Christian Scripture as eventually determined centuries later.

  5. Brian Alberti

    I opine in all charity and brotherly love that “Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery: Report of the Anglican Communion ‘Bible in the Life of the Church’, appears at first glance to recommend a way of reading scripture that is rather Heideggerian. I am particularly fond of theme #9 to the extent that it recognizes the interplay between scripture, tradition, and reason as a classical Anglican way of viewing and approaching scripture. But what in actuality does it mean? Whose rationality are we to embrace? Are we to embrace the rationality of the early church fathers? Should we recall the rationality of the Reformers? Or are we to embrace the rationality of late modern western culture? If the answer is the the third option then I would say that Heidegger is a trustworthy guide, but not exactly a model representative of Christian tradition. I believe that if we want to read scripture as the living word of God then we need to recover a classical account of the doctrine of God. That account recalls both the imminent and the economic reality of God in such a way that God’s transcendence is not dissolved for the sake of God’s economy. (Christ’s incarnation, pentecost, etc.) Finding “meaning” for our lives is good and well; but, scripture is about something greater than this.

    • Robert MacSwain

      Brian, you should audit the seminar Ben King and I are teaching this semester, “The Anglican Tradition of Reason: Butler, Newman, and Farrer”!

      • Zachary Guiliano

        Sounds wonderful from here! Say hello to Ben.

  6. Charlie Clauss

    I have no disagreements with any of the comments, but…

    I did have in mind this:

    “The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

    ― Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

    Certainly Kierkegaard is tongue in cheek here. And I uphold the value of Biblical scholarship. But we are constantly looking for ways to get “off the hook.” That the learned use their learning to remain the master is not surprising, but those of other persuasions should not think they are any less prone to find ways to be the captain of the ship.


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