By Nathan Wall
Christians use all kinds of words to describe the Bible. Catholics call it Sacred Scripture. Protestants of various stripes call it inerrant, infallible, or inspired. Most western liturgies present it as Verbum Domini, “the Word of the Lord” (thanks be to God), while some newer liturgies offer it more modestly as “ancient wisdom.” Historical critics hedge and call it biblical literature; theologians of the same modern period double down and call it revelation. The list goes on.
Each of those terms not only bundles together certain assumptions about the Bible, but suggests the location, denominational or otherwise, of the speaker.
Every now and again a Christian friend, usually a pastoral or theological type, asks me what I believe about the Bible. Against my own instincts, I usually select one of the terms above. But what I would much rather do is recite a poem — two poems actually.
The more I reflect on George Herbert’s “The H. Scriptures I & II,” the more I come to think that they say most of what I would like to confess about the Bible. Most days, Herbert’s poems simply are my doctrine of Scripture. They should be yours too, as I’ll argue in the three parts of this series.
Oh Book! infinite sweetnesse! let my heart
Suck ev’ry letter, and a hony gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To cleare the breast, to mollifie all pain.
Thou art all health, health thriving till it make
A full eternitie: thou art a masse
Of strange delights, where we may wish & take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glasse,
That mends the lookers eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can indeare
Thy praise too much? thou art heav’ns Lidger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.
Thou art joyes handsell: heav’n lies flat in thee,
Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.
George Herbert didn’t just write two poems about the Bible; he wrote a pair of sonnets addressed to the Bible. The form matters. As a form, the sonnet connotes love. Once the Italian poet Petrarch had popularized the sonnet, it became the go-to poetic form for any suitor in England. The first point to be made about Herbert’s pair of poems is the formal one: What Renaissance poets used for courting inamorata, Herbert repurposed to woo an unconventional Beloved: Scripture itself.
Perhaps that strikes you as odd. Waxing lyrical about the Bible didn’t originate with Herbert’s wit, though. Recall, for example, the way Psalm 19 lists the virtues of the Lord’s law one by one: soul-reviving, light-giving, sweeter than honey. Or remember how the Psalter’s longest composition, Psalm 119, channels its praise for Torah into alphabetized stanzas. What is that except one lover’s “Let me count the ways”? Renaissance fashion added to this biblical precedent a particular poetic form that drove Herbert’s one striking departure from the Psalms: as sonnets, these poems address the Bible as their Beloved in the second person: “Oh Book! Infinite sweetness!”
From the sonnet’s first lines we enter the world of lover’s praise, beginning with the sense of taste: “Let my heart / Suck ev’ry letter, and a hony gain.” Scripture is sheer sensory delight. Biblical precedent stands behind Herbert’s choice here too. Just as Ezekiel eats the scroll of God’s words and finds them sweet (Ezek. 3:1-3), Herbert’s sonnet figures reading Scripture as a kind of tasting. And as the Psalms liken the Torah to honey (Pss. 19:10; 119:103) Herbert pictures the whole Bible as a hive, each book a honeycomb, each letter one wax cell. Every jot and tittle from Genesis to Revelation comes sugared.
This already sensual depiction turns personal when Herbert next figures the book of Scripture as an eclectic banquet, “a masse / of strange delights, where we may wish & take.” The word “masse” here works on two levels, conveying abundance while also suggesting the Eucharist. Yet the image as a whole — a banqueting table of exotic sweets — alludes to the more sensual passages in the Song of Songs (4:11-16). Given the sonnet’s form and the second person address, the poem’s opening request “Let my heart suck” sounds like the appeal of a lover who wishes to be “drunk with love” (Song 4:11; cf. 5:1). Even the sonnet’s closing lines, in which Scripture becomes a star map, carry erotic overtones reminiscent of the Song: “heav’n lies flat in thee, / Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.” Not only does Herbert’s sonnet address the Bible as Beloved, it dares to voice a devotion to Scripture that verges on the erotic.
Approaching the Bible this way — as Beloved — opens the door to delight. At the same time, it closes other doors. Lover’s prejudice has its trade-offs.
Consider for example Benjamin Jowett’s advice to exegetes in the 19th century: “Interpret the Scripture like any other book.” Interpreting the Bible like any other book proves very helpful for some purposes. Historical-critical approaches to the Bible have deepened our appreciation for the sophistication of its literary techniques; it has tuned our ears to the resonance of historical context (when we’re able to reconstruct it); it has sharpened our knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; it has unveiled the artistry of collation, juxtaposition and redaction at work in the process of Scripture’s shaping. Most of all, reading the Bible like any other book has made biblical literature useful for many historical projects.
Keeping the Bible at arm’s length lends itself to just these kinds of knowing. In his book The Practice of Catholic Theology, Paul Griffiths notes:
If I want to paint my beloved’s picture or offer a verbal sketch of her to a third party, I can’t easily do those things while I’m in her arms. I have to distance myself from her, and make of her something she isn’t while I’m kissing her — that is, something I can think about, talk about, write about, with the degree of dispassion needed for those activities.
Distance brings some things into focus. Jowett’s approach to Scripture encourages this kind of “objectivity,” in which a reader stands at enough epistemological and affective remove from the Bible so as to see it clearly as an object of study and to make constructive use of her findings.
The exclamation “Oh Book!” nevertheless sweeps all that aside. Herbert’s sonnet counts the gains of analytical distance as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Scripture like Eve knew Adam. In philosopher Martin Buber’s terms, the sonnet trades an I-It relation to the Bible for an I-Thou relationship. Implicit in Herbert’s praise is a caution against turning Scripture into an instrument for our own projects, be they political, moral, or even theological. Borrowing Augustine’s distinction from On Christian Teaching, we might say Herbert urges us to enjoy the Bible, not use it. This is the flip side of Paul Griffiths’s point above. Just as some things can’t be known up close, other things can’t be known from a safe distance. Herbert suggests we seek first this kind of knowledge — interpersonal, experiential, intoxicated knowledge — of the beloved Book.
This kind of knowledge risks mutuality. Near the beginning of her recent book, Holiness and Desire, scholar-priest Jessica Martin speaks of Scripture and its reader in just these terms:
Trusting Scripture is not wilful blindness but a speaking act of love … Like all relationships it will have appalling, jagged gaps, breakdowns that seem insuperable. I will sometimes argue with it, sometimes be angry, sometimes disagree. … Scripture makes itself vulnerable to my flaws and to my failures of understanding; the trust goes both ways.
Approaching Scripture as Beloved requires such provisional trust; it asks us to expose ourselves to Someone’s otherness; and it invites a gaze patient to the disclosure of alien beauty. In all intimate relationships, Martin reminds us, “trust goes both ways.” Like the God whose Word it is, Scripture hands itself over to us (Matt. 26:45). We can betray the trust of Scripture. We might project ourselves onto Scripture rather than listen; we can neglect it, suspect it, resent it, or cringe self-consciously at its idiosyncrasies when we’re in the company of those we wish to impress. Conversely, we can receive Scripture’s difference, linger over its beauty, draw out its innermost thoughts with our attention. Like the lovers in Song of Songs, Scripture and I may miss each other, like ships in the night (Song 5:2-8). And like the same lovers, Scripture and I may nevertheless find each other again (Song 8:5-7).
Returning to the final lines of Herbert’s sonnet, we meet a pun that points to the mutual yielding of Scripture and reader. “Heav’n lies flat” in Scripture, writes Herbert, “Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.” On the one hand, Scripture risks itself by “subjecting” itself to us; it yields to us as object, completely at the mercy of our subjectivity. At the same time Scripture requires us to bend the knee, yielding ourselves to become its object in turn, so that Scripture also occupies the position of grammatical subject in relation to us. Such give-and-take of demands vulnerability ruled out by more dispassionate forms of knowing. But only give-and-take of this kind can lead us into a lover’s knowledge of the Bible, in which we risk knowing and risk being known.
Approaching the Bible as Beloved opens the door to delight and devotion — a devotion that will surprise with delights we didn’t know we craved, and also demand things of us we could not anticipate ahead of time. That’s just what love does.
One final objection could be raised to what I’ve said above. This may strike you as an odd way to speak about, well, the Bible. Should Scripture be treated as an active, responsive “Beloved”? Surely the Bible is an object: it is literally a book. Won’t we court danger — idolatry — by taking Herbert’s personification too far?
In a word, no.
Many modern theologians have warned Christians, especially evangelicals, about the danger of “bibliolatry,” that is, of book-worship. The Bible should not be conflated with God, or its words with the Word-made-flesh, they say. There is a kind of biblicism that treats the Bible like a divinized tool, which is to say, an idol. Such an approach uses Scripture to serve pet projects, all while trying to render Scripture mute and predictable like an idol (Ps. 115:5).
But this is not worship of a genuine Other. Proper worship of the Bible is like the marriage vow in the old Book of Common Prayer: “With my body I thee worship.” In this sense Jews and Christians can and should worship the Bible as Beloved. Think of the playful bickering of much rabbinic exegesis, so like the old married couple next door; or the slow rumination of lectio divina; or the thrum of a medieval scriptorium; or the lips of Orthodox faithful pressed to the gospel book; or the elevated chant of the lections during an Anglo-Catholic Mass; or the private commerce between a believer and the Bible on her bedside table, the cover of which is worn from years of reading. Just so, Scripture is ours to have and to hold, ours for the cherishing.
After all, Scripture is no dead thing. It comes to us “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), not neatly separable from the Word that came to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:2), and was made flesh of the Virgin Mary (John 1:14).
For, mysteriously, in Scripture we meet Love himself, given to us as Beloved. Whatever else we must say about the Bible — and there are other things we ought to say! — we must call it Beloved. George Herbert’s sonnet invites us not just to talk about the Bible in the third person but to address ourselves to the nearest open copy and say, “Oh Book! Who can indeare Thy praise too much?”
Nathan Wall is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, studying Old Testament and the history of biblical interpretation. He is also Scholar-in-Residence at Church of the Redeemer.