“Be ye hearers of the Word, and not doers only.”
by The Rev'd Canon Dane E. Boston
At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland carried out a unique task. After the Queen took the solemn oath of her office and before the sacred rites of anointing and crowning began within the celebration of the Communion Service, the senior cleric of the Scottish Church presented the Queen with a copy of the Holy Bible. As he did, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to her these words: “Our gracious Queen, to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule of the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.” The Moderator himself then added, “Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.”
What an astonishing assertion! Amidst all the trappings of grandeur and pomp that Westminster Abbey can afford—surrounded by crowns, gowns, scepters and vessels of incalculable worth—a book was pronounced “the most valuable thing that this world affords.” There is something fitting in the fact that the presentation enacting those words was carried out by a Presbyterian minister in his plain black gown, standing as he did among the lord bishops and deans of the Church of England all swaddled in their rich copes. There is a hint of Scotch defiance in it all: kingly power and earthly wealth may overawe and impress, but “the lively oracles of God” are to be found in a humble book.
That declaration of the Bible’s supreme value was made at the summit of earthly grandeur (if no longer—in a democratic, post-colonial age—worldly power). But the truth of it is proved in circumstances far removed in setting and dignity. The truth of it is seen in the devotion of Chinese Christians in the underground church, who risk life and limb to produce hand-written copies of the Bible for their countrymen. The truth of it is seen in the unending efforts of those who seek to translate the Scriptures into the most remote and obscure languages on earth, driven by the desire and conviction that every person should have the chance to read “the lively oracles of God” in the tongue of his or her birth.
And the true value of the Bible can be seen even in the privileged churches of North America. The transformation that can take place when a congregation of cradle Episcopalians opens and begins to read “the most valuable thing that this world affords” is extraordinary. New efforts for church growth and congregational development in mainline churches highlight Scripture reading and study as among the most valuable outreach—and in-reach—tools available to us. Deep-set and long-held fears of fundamentalism and literalism are, in many places, melting away in the light of a growing awareness that the only way to combat bad Bible reading is to promote and sustain good Bible reading. Lives are changed as folks who formerly knew the Scriptures only through Sunday worship begin daily to dig deeper into “wisdom…the royal Law…[and] the lively Oracles of God.”
But there’s a problem. Whether we know it or not (and most of us do not), we Episcopalians are actually devoted disciples of the Epistle of St James: we want to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. As Bible studies proliferate and individual Christians begin to explore the amazing library of the Scriptures, the inevitable questions of “practical application” begin to grow. Time and again, folks who have dipped only the tip of their toe into the deep pool of the Bible immediately begin to task, “Well, how do we do this? What does this look like in the real world? How do I apply this to my life?”
Those are not bad questions. Indeed, those are natural and necessary questions whenever we grapple with Scripture’s awesome scope and overwhelming declaration of the power and purposes of God. The Bible demands a response. It impels us to action.
But the problem is that those practical questions, when posed in the merest infancy of a person’s Bible reading life, rest on a faulty foundation. For so many of us, action is our natural state. We are bodies in motion. We want to be doing something. And we define ourselves and determine our worth on the basis of what we do. As I pointed out last year at Men on Fire—a monthly gathering for Biblical preaching and fellowship here at Christ Church Greenwich—the perennial cocktail party question “So what do you do?” says an awful lot about the way we regard one another and ourselves. Activity—work—doing: these things give us the measure of a man or a woman. And the way others respond to our description of what we do gives us a clue as to how we should evaluate ourselves.
So for people like that—for people like us—opening the Bible can cause enormous anxiety. Just re-read the Sermon on the Mount, or Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. For people who measure their worth by their doing, how can we read words such as those and not immediately see how far below them we fall each and every day? Scripture—especially a first encounter with Scripture—convicts us. Matthew 5-7 makes me squirm. I Corinthians 13 shows up the selfishness and inadequacy of most of what I call “love.” And my standard response to that feeling is to try to find a way out of it as fast as possible.
That dynamic is, I believe, the driving force behind the desire to turn immediately from “hearing the word” to “doing the word.” The early inclination to find a way to apply the words of Scripture to my life is a bit like the immediate recoil of a child who has touched a hot stove. Seared by hearing or reading the sacred words, we seek a soothing balm through our doing. And so “applying the text” actually becomes a way of silencing the text. If I can do something, I can quiet my feelings of conviction and inadequacy. If I can do something, then the Bible can be made to fit within the ordinary, expected patterns of my existence. If I can just do something, I’ll be able to check “Bible reading” off my list, and go on in confidence and comfort to my next “to do.”
But the Bible’s worth can never be reduced to the action it inspires. “The most valuable thing this world affords,” is not chiefly valuable because it somehow baptizes our ordinary patterns of working and doing—our practices of measuring ourselves and others according to all our ceaseless striving. The “lively oracles of God” are not primarily concerned with creating a class of do-gooders busily building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bible is not an instruction manual wherein we can read step-by-step the proper processes for becoming good, decent, upstanding people. The true reason for reading the Bible has nothing to do with us at all.
Rather, we read the Bible because through it God reveals himself. The Holy Bible is an announcement. It is God’s self-disclosure. The Scriptures are an unveiling of the power and purposes of the Almighty. That is what makes the Bible “the most valuable thing this world affords”: it points to and speaks to and makes manifest things beyond the scope and imagining of this world. That is what makes the Scriptures “the lively oracles of God”: not because they represent God’s anthropocentric (us-centered) pleading to an unheeding humanity, but because they shine forth with the brilliance of God’s theocentric (God-centered) announcement to an unworthy world. The true value of the Bible is not in the words printed on its pages but in the Word Incarnate printed in the shining letters of Scripture’s great story.
All of which is why I believe that, in our time and place, the great Jacobean injunction (James 1:22) must be reversed: we must become “hearers of the word, and not doers only.” What we—both as individuals, and as the Church gathered—desperately need is not a superficial, appropriating glance at the surface of Scripture’s deep waters. What we need is not to look for the reflection of our own expectations and patterns shimmering on the surface of the Bible’s waves, struggling and striving to build our world and our lives on that ever-changing interpretive image.
What we need instead is to dive in—to plunge ourselves into the reality of the Bible’s announcement. We need to learn to hold the essential, inevitable questions of “application” at bay and to surrender ourselves instead to the great tide of Scripture’s story. We need to learn to live in the world of the Bible—not the historical world in which it was written, of course, but the new Creation announced and enacted in its every word.
For it is only when we inhabit that story—only when we swim in Scripture’s strange and wonderful depths—only when we truly become “hearers of the word”–that we will find grace to “do” in a way that lasts and gives life, revealing the Word Incarnate—Jesus our Lord—in our every word and deed.
So be ye hearers of the Word, and not doers only.