Lee, from Two-Edged Sword, posts a critique of my understanding of liturgy and the ontology of Scripture, as articulated in the following posts — ‘How Gutenberg Took the Bible From Us’ and ‘James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection’. Lee also refers to my ‘Eating and Drinking in John 6’ post and the following discussion as a good example of differences that arise from my approach to Scripture.
His post is representative of a few of the negative responses that I have had to my thoughts on the character of Scripture. I am not sure how exactly to go about responding to such a post as there are a number of serious misunderstandings of my position within it.
For the record, I firmly believe that every Christian who can read should have at least one Bible in their home, preferrably a number of different versions, ideally a number of texts in the original languages. I would also encourage Christians to spend time reading biblical commentaries and to learn how to use Bible helps. I am convinced that reading the Bible at least once daily is good practice for the Christian and that lack of interest in reading the Bible for oneself is more often than not a sign of weak spiritual health.
None of this contradicts my fundamental point, which was that the primary form of the Scriptures is not what we call ‘the Bible’. The chief way in which the people of God are to encounter the Scriptures is in their performance within the context of the Church and its liturgy. It is undoubtedly a privilege to be able to read the text of our Bibles, but we must not presume that God gave the Church the Scriptures as ‘the Bible’. The Scriptures that God gave His people were not principally designed to be read privately as a book. Private Bible reading is a valid engagement with Scripture, but it should never be the form of engagement with Scripture that takes priority in our lives. Engagement with Scripture in the context of the Church’s life, liturgy and lectionary must always come first.
The Scriptures are addressed to the people of God. Whilst the Scriptures address each of us personally, they do not address us as detached individuals, abstracted from the body of which we are members. The Scriptures were certainly given in written form, but they were not given in the form of the modern Bible. They were not bound together in one volume, nor were they given for private ownership. The Scriptures were not even given so that everyone could read them. The chief way that the people of God are called to engage with the Scriptures is by hearing the Scriptures read aloud and expounded, rather than by reading it for themselves. There is a difference. Reading for ourselves is good, but the emphasis must remain on the hearing of the Word, something that occurs in the context of the assembly of the Church.
Furthermore, we must recognize that there are many parts of the Scriptures that were given principally as what I have in the past referred to as ‘stage directions’. The book of Leviticus, for example, is mostly concerned with stage directions. Whilst the book was to be read aloud and studied, it was more like a recipe book than a story. The meaning of Leviticus is not first and foremost to be found in the study of the text itself, but in the extra-textual rituals that it establishes.
I have used this fact to argue that relatively minor portions of Scripture, which may seem relatively insignificant to us, given the fact that so little words are devoted to them, may actually be far more significant than many lengthy passages. There are those who argue that our emphasis upon particular truths should correspond with the amount of attention that they are given within the Bible, ‘attention’ here referring to the number of words expended on the subject in the biblical text. I have come to regard such a position as deeply flawed.
A good example of the differences created by different ways of approaching the Scriptures can be seen in attitudes to the Eucharist, for example. If we engage with the Scriptures chiefly in the form of biblical text to be studied and read we will recognize that very few verses are devoted to the subject of the Eucharist. We might draw from this that the Eucharist is a relatively secondary truth of the Christian faith and that the great focus upon the subject is an unwelcome byproduct of certain false turns in the Church’s history. On the other hand, if we engage with the Scriptures primarily as a text to be embodied in the life, liturgy and lectionary of the Church, the Eucharist will be seen to be far more important.
The Eucharist is given to the Church to be done, rather than chiefly to be meditated on. It is a simple rite and few words are needed to institute its proper practice. However, given that the Eucharist is to form a regular and central role in the Church’s liturgy it has a greater significance for our Christian faith than truths to which dozens of chapters of Scripture are devoted. We interpret the Scriptures through the lenses given to us by the Eucharist. We see allusions to the Eucharist throughout the Scriptures. In so doing we are not exalting the Eucharist above its proper station, but are engaging with the Scriptures as more than mere text.
To what shall I compare the Scriptures? It is like some texts that a great king wrote and entrusted to his servants, in preparation for a great feast. Amongst the texts there were the scores for the musicians at the feast, the recipes for the cooks, the instructions for those preparing and decorating the banqueting hall and table, the poems to be read by the poets, the tales to be told by the storytellers, the speeches to be given by the speechmakers, and the invitations to be sent to the guests.
Once we have appreciated the complex and multifaceted character of the Scriptures we will read them quite differently. Neglected books like Leviticus will receive far more attention. The sacrificial rituals and annual feasts of Leviticus would have profoundly shaped the way that Israelites would have read the whole of the Scriptures. It would also have powerfully moulded the authors of Scripture and we should read their writings recognizing the degree to which the practices of Leviticus formed the fabric of their lives. The same can be said of those who do not read the NT as belonging to the context of the celebration of the Eucharist.
Lee argues that I am setting the stage for sacerdotalism, that I am teaching that there is no way to encounter Christ apart from the priest. In response to this claim I want to make clear that when I talk about engaging with the Scriptures primarily in the form of their performance within the Church and its liturgy I do not refer to the ‘Church’ as a mere institutional hierarchy, but as a community with a shared life and practice. There is no ordinary way to encounter Christ apart from His Church. It is through the operations of the body that the Head makes Himself known. However, the body is not just composed of members of a clerical hierarchy.
Outside of the context of the Church the Scriptures are not ordinarily a means of grace. Those who interpret the Scriptures apart from the Church often end up falling into gross error. Countless cults started life with people seeking to understand the Scriptures apart from the Church. We are only equipped to understand the Scriptures as we life within the context of the Church. To the Christian who faithfully participates in the life of the Church (which is nothing other than the life of the Holy Spirit) the Scriptures are a means of blessing. They read their Bibles as members of the Church, not as people abstracted from the Church.
As regards the Church’s ‘dispensing’ of salvation, the Church does nothing of the kind. The Church does not ‘dispense’ salvation; it is rather the form that God’s salvation takes. Tim Gallant puts this far better than I could:
And that is why it is the wrong question to ask whether “the Church saves.” That’s kind of like asking whether having lots of money brings wealth. No, the Church does not save. Jesus saves. And His salvation comes in the shape of the Church. Being the dwelling-place of God – that is salvation. Being built together as a community of love – that is salvation. Being a member of the Body of Christ – that is salvation.
The Church does not save. The Church is salvation, because the Church is God’s goal in Jesus Christ.
Lee goes on to argue that I am undermining Sola Scriptura. I strongly dispute this claim. My problem is not with the Scripture. Far from it! My concern is for the Scriptures to play a far fuller role in the Church’s life than they do in much contemporary evangelicalism. My problem is with the way in which the Scriptures have been reduced from what they once were into the privately-owned, mass-produced Bible of the modern Church. The simplistic opposition that Lee posits between Scripture and liturgy is a good example of this.
I do have a few objections to Alastair’s view. The first is Acts 17:10-13. The Bereans appear to do just the opposite of what Alastair advocates. They go to the service, listen attentively and then read the service through the light of the Scripture, not the Scripture through the light of the liturgy/service. And the Spirit calls them ‘more noble’ for doing so. II Timothy 2:15 seems to counter his understanding as well. ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ This sound much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.
Both of these points miss the point. I really don’t see why I should have a problem with either of these passages. Some brief remarks on the Bereans might help here. Paul calls forth the OT as witness to the truth of his gospel (cf. Acts 17:2-3). The Bereans are fair and carefully examine this witness, unlike those from Thessalonica, who presumably just dismissed the testimony that Paul brought forward. All the evidence points towards this examination of the Scriptures taking a very different shape from what most ‘Bereans’ do today. The examination was a public examination of the OT Scriptures in the context of the synagogue, not a private reading of the Bible outside of the context of the people of God. Those who were leading the examination of the OT Scriptures were most likely synagogue leaders (although there were likely a number of others present). This was not a private Bible study. Most people who use this passage to justify their practice today misuse it.
The Berean’s study of the Scripture took place in the broader context of the liturgy and the sacrifices and worship practices of Israel. These were lenses that they would bring to their reading of the text. Whether these discussions took place within the immediate context of the synagogue’s liturgy is besides the point. Lee seems to read the passage to suggest that Paul was leading a synagogue service and that the Bereans then went to examine the liturgy of the service from the Scriptures. There is nothing wrong with examining liturgy from the Scriptures — the text illuminates the liturgy and the liturgy illuminates the text — but it strikes me as a strange reading of the passage in question. There is no reason to believe that Paul was presenting the Bereans with some new liturgy. He brought a new teaching, which the Bereans fairly and publicly cross-examined.
What about II Timothy 2:15? Once again I don’t see what the issue is here. Paul is teaching that a minister of the gospel should be concerned to gain all the skills necessary for him to perform his task of ensuring that the Church acts according to the authority of God, exercised in the Scriptures, effectively. It is important to recognize that Timothy is not primarily being addressed as a private person here. Rather he is being addressed as one who must lead a church in its engagement with the Scriptures. He is the one who has the greatest responsbility in this area. He must guide the flock as a faithful shepherd. He must ensure that quarrels about words do not take over (v.14) and that the dangerous teachings of men like Hymenaeus and Philetus do not spread (vv.16-17).
Lee claims that ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ sounds ‘much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.’ Once again, let me clear up misunderstanding. There is no problem with grammatical historical exegesis and other similar approaches to Scripture in principle. I am convinced that they have an important role to play and that pastors in particular should be skilled in such areas. However, my point is that grammatical historical exegesis is not the primary way in which we are to engage with the Scripture. Grammatical historical exegesis is a gift that serves far greater forms of engagement with the Scripture that occur within the life of the Church. I have no problem with grammatical historical exegesis; my problem is with merely grammatical historical exegesis — exegetical approaches that bypass typological, liturgical and creative forms of Scripture reading.
What about ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’? Is this really a reference to grammatical parsing? I think that N.T. Wright’s reading in his For Everyone commentary is an example of a more likely reading (and one that he is certainly not alone in arguing for), although I believe that he is stretching it if he believes that Paul had the illustration that he uses in mind:
In particular, he wants preachers and teachers to ‘carve out a straight path for the word of truth’. Some translations say things like ‘rightly dividing the word’, and it’s possible Paul means something like that (in other words, ‘being able to show how the sentences work, what each part means, and how they all relate to each other’). But it’s more likely that the picture he has in mind is of a pioneer hacking out a path through the jungle so that people can walk safely through. Part of the job of the teacher is to do what Paul himself is doing in this passage: to see where there are brambles, creepers and dead trees blocking the path where the word should be following to people’s hearts and minds, and to shift them out of the way.
Lee’s next point, that the Scriptures were originally written down and were only incorporated into liturgies later, is still besides the point. It could be pointed out that most of the stories narrated in the NT Scriptures (on which Lee seems to be focusing his point) would probably already have been shared within churches before the gospel accounts were written. The story of Christ already affected the life and liturgy of the Church before the inspired gospel accounts were written. The gospel accounts incorporate elements that had already been incorporated in the life and liturgy of the Church and most likely drew upon the existing liturgy of the Church as a source to some degree (e.g. the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer). The NT texts would also be read out of the context provided by the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist and practice of Christian Baptism.
I do not believe that we need to argue that the NT documents were written as liturgical documents. The fact is that, if they are Scripture, they are liturgical documents. The text is not an entity that has an autonomous existence. For Scripture to be Scripture is for it to have a particular relationship to the Church as an interpretative community, to be part of the Church’s liturgy, life and lectionary.
Lee goes on to write: ‘Let us not forget that we see the Bible existing as we have it now quite early on. Athanasius in the 4th century gives a list of the books that stand in our bible, meaning that churches and people were collecting the inspired books into one canon by that time.’ Once again, he seems to be seriously missing my point. Gathering a list of scriptures that belong to the Church’s canon is very different to having what we call a ‘Bible’ (Lee seems to have missed much of the point of my Gutenberg post).
Lee seems to have a very limited understanding of what I mean by ‘liturgy’. By ‘liturgy’ I refer to the form of public worship. This ‘form’ need not be written down, nor need it be fixed. ‘Liturgy’ includes such things as the readings in worship, the Church calendar, the prayers and the celebration of the sacraments. I am arguing that the liturgy, defined in such a manner, and contextualized by the broader life and fellowship of the Church, is the primary context in which the Scriptures were given to be encountered.
In the course of making some of his final criticisms, Lee makes this point:
The idea that the Lord’s Supper was anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation was rejected by the church at least through 9th century. Yet, it changed and the bread became the body and John 6 was used a proof text. Christians before the 10th century would have understood John 6 in a completely different way than those after.
There are a number of places in the Church Fathers where John 6 is read as a reference to the Eucharist. Furthermore, the idea that they didn’t see the Eucharist as ‘anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation’ is simply without foundation. I would love to see Lee try to prove this case. It seems to me that his confusion may arise from the fact that the Church Fathers did not oppose symbol to reality as moderns do.