By Bryan Owen
One of the things that struck me when I first started worshiping in the Episcopal Church was the prominent place of Scripture in the liturgy. In addition to three Scripture readings (plus a psalm) in a typical Sunday service, I noticed that virtually every page of the Book of Common Prayer quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to specific passages of Holy Scripture. And so, every time we gather for worship using the prayer book, we not only hear Scripture read and proclaimed. We pray Scripture.
This high regard for Holy Scripture has been there from the beginning of the Anglican tradition. Starting in the 16th century, Anglicanism has affirmed that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, and that anything not read in Scripture or proven by Scripture, cannot be required as an article of faith or held as a belief necessary to salvation (Article VI). Anglicanism also upholds the Bible as “the rule and ultimate standard of faith” (Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral).
We hear this high regard for Scripture in a collect written by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. It was included in the first prayer book of 1549, and in the 1979 prayer book we hear it on the Sunday before the last Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28), which is what brought it to my mind recently.
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, 184)
In compressed form, this collect tells us important things about an Anglican understanding of Holy Scripture. In particular, it helps us address two questions: “Who wrote the Bible?” and “What is the purpose of the Bible?”
First, who wrote the Bible?
This collect says that God “hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written.” It does not say that God wrote the Scriptures. God did not write the Bible. Human beings did. However, God “caused” human beings to write the Bible. “Caused,” not in the sense that God appointed every word which was then written down verbatim by a human being. But “caused” in the sense that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible’s human authors to faithfully record God’s self-revelation to the people of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ.
Here’s how Bishop Frank E. Wilson puts it:
When we say that the Bible is an inspired book, we do not mean to suggest that it is the result of divine dictation… We mean that the men who did the writing were actively seeking God’s will, inscribing accounts of God’s dealing with human life, and that the spiritual reliability of these accounts was tested over long periods of time by the people for whom they were written.
In that testing over the centuries, Timothy Kalistos Ware explains, the Bible has proven itself to be the reliable outcome of “the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will.”
The Bible is both divine and human. It is divinely inspired but humanly written. And it is a faithful record of God’s self-disclosure to humanity.
So, what’s the point of God’s self-disclosure through Holy Scripture? Why did God cause the Bible to be written?
That’s an important question. For if we don’t know the purpose of the Bible — if we don’t know what it was made to do — we won’t know how to rightly use it.
We rightly use the Bible when we do so in accordance with the purpose for which God caused it to be written. And according to Thomas Cranmer’s collect, God caused the writing of Scripture for two primary reasons: “For our learning” and so that “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life… given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
By “learning,” Cranmer is not talking about using the Bible like you would use a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an internet search engine, or an instruction manual. We don’t read the Bible just to get information. We read it for moral and spiritual formation. The “learning” Cranmer refers to here has to do with encountering the living God in the pages of the Bible and entering more deeply into a relationship with God, a relationship that changes us.
Scripture is holy because in our engagement with the Word of God recorded in the Bible, we are shaped more and more into the image and likeness of the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. And Scripture is also holy because it contains all things necessary to salvation. It points to Jesus: the one whose crucifixion and resurrection reveals God’s judgment of sin, God’s love and grace, and God’s decisive act to save us.
The Bible is a divinely inspired but humanly written set of texts that faithfully records God’s self-revelation. It takes a lifetime of hearing, reading, and study in the context of worship and in the company of other faithful Christians to begin sounding the depths of this revelation. As one Christian writer has said, “Scripture… [is like] a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed. On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books. But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom.”
By disclosing to us a God we can never fully comprehend, we discover that Holy Scripture’s meaning cannot be exhausted. But Scripture’s purpose is as simple, and as profound, as enabling us to know and to trust that God loves us and saves us through Jesus Christ our Lord. And that is more than sufficient.