Listening to the Bible: The art of faithful biblical
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The Bible in the Life of the Church
Clare Amos, editor
Canterbury Press £19.99
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CONTRARY to the seminary joke, there was never a German
theologian called Herman Neutic; but the question how we read and
interpret first the Old, and then the New, Testament has dogged the
Church from the beginning. Today it is there in the tensions within
the Anglican Communion, and whether certain kinds of behaviour are,
in the words of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, "incompatible with
The recent Pilling report in the Church of England says that the
"ongoing disagreement on questions of sexuality [turns] on the
meaning and authority of Scripture".
At one level, we must ask whether this is true. The fact is that
few conservatives in the so-called South, and even less their
supporters and funders in the North, take seriously what the Bible
says about wealth. Similarly, on other issues, such as the ministry
of women and marriage after divorce, they manage to live with very
different views, which are based more on their own cultural context
than what scripture might or might not say.
Nevertheless, given what, it is claimed, the Bible says about
human sexuality, and, more importantly, what Anglicans have always
said about the primacy of scripture but also its relationship to
tradition and reason, these two books make an important
contribution to contemporary hermeneutics.
The Bible in the Life of the Church project was set up by the
Anglican Consultative Council in 2009. It was decided, perhaps
wisely, that those taking part around the Communion should focus
not on human sexuality, but on one of the Five Marks of Mission,
which addresses environmental matters. The book records how
different regional groups approached and interpreted the biblical
texts, how they took into account the context in which they were
written, and how far their own context determined what they
understood the text to be saying. Was scripture their point of
departure or their destination? Were particular texts more
important, and, if so, which ones, or scripture as a whole?
Given the current problems within the Communion, some voices are
missing, particularly those who would claim, as the English
Puritans did in the 17th century, that one can read scripture off
the page "without interpretation" (as if that were possible). But
those who did take part show the best side of Anglicanism: a
respect for diversity where differences appear; the need to read
the Bible together as a communal and thereby learning exercise; and
the importance of rehearsing scripture within the shared activity
Such insights would surely encourage Christopher Bryan, who is
concerned with the relationship between biblical scholarship and
the faith and mission of the Church today. He is not afraid of what
empirical analysis may reveal about a text, or the setting in which
it may have been written, but asks whether that is the whole story.
He uses the insights of literary criticism to show that there is
more to a text than the words or the context from which it
To understand a particular book or passage, we need to know its
original setting-in-life in the community of faith, but it also
needs to be read in a way that addresses the setting-in-life of our
own community of faith today. Textual interpretation must have its
scientific elements, but in the end it is an exercise in
imagination, and, therefore, more an art than a science.
That point is reinforced by his inclusion of an appendix on
"Speaking the Word", some very practical advice on how scripture
should be read in church.
What both of these books do is to warn against the kind of
reductionism that fits scripture into our own categories and to
meet our own needs, whether that is the analytical approach of the
historical-criticism school, or the way in which the liberal agenda
of the Jesus Seminar tries to cut it down to size, or its
"instrumental" use by the conservatives, including some around the
Anglican Communion today.
If scripture is the result of the Holy Spirit at work, then we
must be open to the same Spirit as we read and hear it. Or, to put
it more crudely, we must stop using the Bible as a drunk uses a
lamp-post: more for support than illumination.
The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray's Inn, in