That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: The Bible

Our Daily Bread

“Furthermore, by this order the curates shall need none other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible…”

From the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549)

It was my privilege and delight last fall to teach an adult Sunday School class called “The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.” The syllabus for the course was nothing more than the Table of Contents found in the BCP, and the stated goal was to explore the ways in which the Prayer Book puts the words of Scripture on our lips, plants the teachings of Scripture deep in our hearts, and conforms the rhythms of our lives to Scripture’s great story.

In sixteen weeks of forty-five minute sessions, we covered a rough history of both the Bible and the Prayer Book, traced the arc of the Calendar of the Church Year, reflected on the roots and resources of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, processed through the Great Litany, and prayerfully analyzed some of the Collects. We walked with Christ in Holy Week through the Proper Liturgies for Special Days, and we considered the two dominical sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. We confessed with the penitent, prayed with the sick, rejoiced in marriage, and mourned at burials. We even took time to look at the ordination rites and pondered the promises made by bishops, priests, and deacons.

All of these treasures, from the rare and wondrous to the regular and rote, at our fingertips! And all of them, from the simplest said Morning Prayer to the grandest celebration of the Easter Vigil, positively overflowing with Scripture. As my Baptist father always notices whenever he attends an Episcopalian liturgy, the Prayer Book is suffused with Biblical language and ideas.

Looking over the daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms and considering the ways our services include and quote the Bible reminded me again and again of the original intentions of Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformers in developing the BCP in the first place. As the Preface to the first Prayer Book (quoted above, and found on page 866 of the 1979 American BCP) lays it out, the animating principles behind our Anglican liturgical tradition are a wonderful mixture of hopeful idealism and clear-eyed practicality, all focused on regular engagement with Scripture.

Cranmer envisioned a whole nation sanctified by daily encounter with God’s Word. He found inspiration in the traditions of the ancient fathers, who sought that “the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”

But Cranmer pursued this high-minded goal with a by means of a rigorous example of early modern reason and organization: “And for a readiness in this matter, here is drawn out a Kalendar for that purpose, which is plain and easy to be understood, wherein (so much as may be) the reading of holy Scripture is so set forth, that all things shall be done in order, without breaking one piece thereof from another.”

Intimacy with God’s written Word achieved through a sensible, achievable, liturgical pattern that is consistent with the most ancient traditions of the Church—what a marvelous expression of the reformed catholic ideal!

Subsequent editions of the BCP have modified and edited Cranmer’s original lectionary, of course. Many would argue (some quite convincingly) that those edits have not all been for the better. But the fact is that Anglican worship remains a dialogue between two books: the Bible which speaks in and through the services, and the Book of Common Prayer which organizes the reading of Scripture, quotes Scripture back to itself, and submerges worshipers in Scripture’s depths.

Reflecting on this great gift and heritage, I keep returning to a metaphor I used in the very first session of the Prayer Book class last fall: The Bible is a grocery bag, and the Book of Common Prayer is a cookbook.

The Bible is a big bag full of groceries. It has everything we need to be nourished spiritually. It includes lots of things that can be taken out and eaten raw–things that can feed us with little or no preparation. (In the first session of our class, I noted that the Psalms are like carrots. They’re essential as an ingredient chopped up and worked into recipes, but they’re also a great snack on their own.)

But the Bible also includes things that need some careful preparation before they’ll feed us. Some of the passages are like raw chicken: potentially the center of a delicious, healthful meal, but actually quite dangerous if not handled properly. At the end of the liturgical year and into the season of Advent, the Daily Office Lectionary took us through some of the great passages of Revelation. Much of that powerful book might fall into the raw chicken category. Certainly some of the Old Testament legal and prophetic texts fall into that category. There’s nourishment to be had in all of those things. But there’s also a great risk of spiritual sickness and profoundly unpleasant flavors if they’re not carefully prepared.

And that’s where the Book of Common Prayer comes in. The Prayer Book is our cookbook, taking from Scripture’s grocery bag both the good, simple things we always need (the Psalter, our salad course), and helping us to cook up healthy meals out of ingredients that would be dangerous out of the context of a well-made dish (i.e. the boneless, skinless chicken breast of Revelation, or the pork chop of Leviticus…ok, the metaphor may be breaking down here).

In the daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly selection and combination of passages, the Prayer Book nourishes us out of Scripture’s abundance. By balancing the steady diet of daily reading with a seasonal return to the “big stories,” the Prayer Book shapes and forms our hearts and imaginations around Scripture’s rich feast. By seasoning even the most challenging passages with the sanctifying salt of the Psalms and the great Canticles, the Prayer Book protects us from interpreting any part of Scripture in a way contrary to God’s purpose and plan.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray each time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Thank God for Scripture’s bounty, a feast that leads us to hunger for and be filled with Jesus, the Bread of Life.

They say “you are what you eat”. So take out your Prayer Book, open your Bible, and get cooking!

Who is God?

Who is God? The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth tackles that question near the end of his famous address/essay “The Strange New World within the Bible.” The whole piece is a classic, and well worth reading; I wish I could find a complete electronic copy to link to, but I haven’t yet.

Barth begins his talk by addressing two common ways of approaching the Bible: as history, and as a moral text. Both approaches he shows to be inadequate. The Bible does not work either as mere history or mere morality because it is not primarily concerned with the actions, motivations, and movement of people long ago (history), or with the practical considerations of people living today (morality).

What the Bible reveals, instead, is “the strange new world of God.” God and his actions—his in-breaking into this world—are the subject of its history. God and his righteousness—his sovereign capacity to make holy—are the focus of its morality. The new world of God is the Bible’s purview. Showing forth that strange world is its purpose.

And so, with these important points established, in the third and final portion of “The Strange New World within the Bible” Barth addresses the use of the Bible as a religious text. The transcription that follows comes from that final portion of his talk. I have included a fair bit of the material preceding the “Who is God?” paragraphs, in order that they may be understood in their fullness. Except for the break after the first paragraph, emphases and ellipses are in the original, as printed in the 1957 edition of The Word of God and the Word of Man, translated by Douglas Horton and published by Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York. 

It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible. The word of God is within the Bible.

But we are not yet quite at an end. We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God!

Now, however, might not a last series of questions arise: Who then is God? What is his will? What are his thoughts? What is the mysterious “other,” new, greater world which emerges in the Bible beyond all the ways of men, summoning us to a decision to believe or not to believe? In whom did Abraham believe? For whom did the heroes fight and conquer? Whom did the prophets prophesy? In whose power did Christ die and rise again? Whose name did the Apostles proclaim? The contents of the Bible are “God.” But what is the content of the contents? Something “new” breaks forth! But what is the new?

To these questions there is a series of ready answers, serious and well-founded answers taken from the Bible itself, answers to which we must listen: God is the Lord and Redeemer, the Saviour and Comforter of all the souls that turn to him; and the new world is the kingdom of blessedness which is prepared for the little flock who escape destruction. Is not this in the Bible? . . . Again: God is the fountain of life which begins its quiet murmuring when once we turn away from the externalities of the world and bow before him in silence; and the new world is the incomparable peace of such a life hid with Christ in God. Is not this also in the Bible? . . . Again: God is the Lord of the heaven which awaits us, and in which, when our journey through the sorrows and imperfections of this life is done, we are to possess and enjoy our citizenship; and the new world is just this blessed other life, the “still eternity” into which the faithful shall one day enter. This answer also comes directly from the Bible.

These are true enough answers. But are they truth? Are they the whole truth? Can one read or hear read even as much as two chapters from the Bible and still with good conscience say, God’s word went forth to humanity, his mandate guided history from Abraham to Christ, the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of fire upon the apostles at Pentecost, a Saul became a Paul and traveled over land and sea—all in order that here and there specimens of men like you and me might be “converted,” find inner “peace,” and by a redeeming death go some day to “heaven.” Is that all? Is that all of God and his new wold, of the meaning of the Bible, of the content of the contents? The powerful forces which come to expression in the Bible, the movements of peoples, the battles, and the convulsions which take place before us there, the miracles and the revelations which constantly occur there, the immeasurable promises for the future which are unceasingly repeated to us there—do not all these things stand in a rather strange relation to so small a result—if that is really the only result they have? Is not God—greater than that? Even in these answers, earnest and pious as they may be, have we not measured God with our own measure, conceived God with our own conceptions, wished ourselves a God according to our own wishes? When we begin to read the Bible carefully, must we not grow beyond these answers, too?

Must we not also grow beyond the strange question, Who is God? As if we could dream of asking such a question, having willingly and sincerely allowed ourselves to be led to the gates of the new world, to the threshold of the kingdom of God! There one asks no longer. There one sees. There one hears. There one has. There one knows. There one no longer gives his petty, narrow little answers. The question, Who is God? and our inadequate answers to it come only from our having halted somewhere on the way to the open gates of the new world; from our having refused somewhere to let the Bible speak to us candidly; from our having failed somewhere truly to desire to—believe. At the point of halt the truth again becomes unclear, confused, problematical—narrow, stupid, high-church, non-conformist, monotonous, or meaningless. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” That is it: when we allow ourselves to press on to the highest answer, when we find God in the Bible, when we dare with Paul not to be disobedient to the heavenly vision, then God stands before us as he really is. “Believing, ye shall receive!” God is God.

But who may say, I believe?—“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” It is because of our unbelief that we are so perplexed by the question, Who is God?—that we feel so small and ashamed before the fullness of the Godhead which the men and women of the Bible saw and proclaimed. It is because of our unbelief that even now I can only stammer, hint at, and make promises about that which would be opened to us if the Bible could speak to us unhindered, in the full fluency of its revelations.

Who is God? The heavenly Father! But the heavenly Father even upon earth, and upon earth really the heavenly Father. He will not allow life to be split into a “here” and “beyond.” He will not leave to death the task of freeing us from sin and sorrow. He will bless us, not with the power of the church but with the power of life and resurrection. In Christ he caused his word to be made flesh. He has caused eternity to dawn in place of time, or rather upon time—for what sort of eternity were it which should begin “afterwards”! He purposes naught but the establishment of a new world.

Who is God? The Son who has become “the mediator for my soul.” But more than that: He has become the mediator for the whole world, the redeeming Word, who was in the beginning of all things and is earnestly expected by all things. He is the redeemer of my brothers and sisters. He is the redeemer of a humanity gone astray and ruled by evil spirits and powers. He is the redeemer of the groaning creation about us. The whole Bible authoritatively announces that God must be all in all; and the events of the Bible are the beginning, the glorious beginning of a new world.

Who is God? The Spirit in his believers, the spirit “…by which we own / The Son who lived and died and rose; / Which crystal clear from God’s pure throne / Through quiet hearts forever flows.” But God is also that spirit (that is to say, that love and good will) which will and must break forth from quiet hearts into the world outside, that it may be manifest, visible, comprehensible: behold the tabernacle of God is with men! The Holy Spirit makes a new heaven and a new earth and, therefore, new men, new families, new relationships, new politics. It has no respect for old traditions simply because they are traditions, for old solemnities simply because they are solemn, for old powers simply because they are powerful. The Holy Spirit has respect only for the truth, for itself. The Holy Spirit establishes the righteousness of heaven in the midst of the unrighteousness of earth and will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being.

This is within the Bible. It is within the Bible for us. For it we were baptized. Oh, that we dared in faith to take what grace can offer us!

I need not suggest that we all have need of this. We live in a sick old world which cries from its soul, out of deepest need: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed! In all men, whoever and wherever and whatever and however they may be, there is a longing for exactly this which is here within the Bible. We all know that.

And now hear: “A certain man made a great supper, and bade many; and sent his servant at suppertime to say them that were bidden, Come, for all things are now ready! . . .”

“Be ye hearers of the Word, and not doers only.”

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.