I have never warmed to church documents - such as the communiqué recently
issued by the Churches of the Global South - that pepper every paragraph with
bracketed chapter-and-verse Bible references. It's not because I want to
distance theological disputation from the Bible. Quite the reverse: it's
because this way of referencing the text can distort what the Bible is trying
It is worth remembering that early Bibles had no chapter-and-verse
referencing whatsoever. Eusebius of Caesarea began to categorise each Gospel
into numbered sections, but the first New Testaments to have anything like our
modern divisions of chapters and verses were published by the printer Robert
Estienne in 1550. These divisions did not fall from heaven: he made them up on
the long journeys between his two presses in Paris and Lyons. Over the broad
sweep of Christian history, chapter-and-verse theology is a distinctly modern
Of course, it's a convenience, and helps readers find their way about. But
what it has also done is to give the impression that biblical truth exists at
the level of individual sentences - as if the Bible is built up, truth by
truth, as one might build a house out of bricks. The only other thing we read
like that is letters we get from the solicitor or instructions on how to
assemble an Ikea wardrobe. For the most part, when we read a piece of
literature, we allow it to disclose its message over many pages. The meaning is
revealed within the narrative as a whole.
Imagine how different it would be if we had to find our way around the Bible
by referring to passages as "You know, that bit that comes after he turned
water into wine." That is how the stories were known for many years. Reading
the text without those distracting numbers allows the narrative to flow and the
imagination to spark. Suddenly, you are dealing with a wonderful collection of
poetries, parables, and histories rather than a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
It's clear now that even biblical scholarship got overly caught up in
desiccated arguments about questions that are basically puzzles - such as the
synoptic problem and source criticism. Such scholarship tried to understand the
Bible by cutting it up on the scholarly anatomy table rather than by watching
it dance and sing.
Ultimately, I'm afraid I can't help but think of those who constantly refer
to chapter and verse as the traffic wardens of the biblical scene. It's the
sort of theology employed by those who use the Bible to control people rather
than to inspire them.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in
philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.