DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Faith in Search of Understanding
1. The Bible
by Anthony Freeman

The subject here is the Bible. The one I use is a book. It is written in English - the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition). All this is crucial to what the Bible is. Whatever more it may be, it is never less than this: part of our world, a human product situated in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture.

And part of our culture is to give the Bible a special place, and to use it in a way different from any other book, because it is believed to be far more than just a human product. It is used to take the oath in a court of law. It is often carried by brides at their weddings. And in the British Coronation service it is solemnly delivered to the sovereign with words that express a belief about the Bible and that help explain its unique significance: 

We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.

I want to explore here the complex character of the Bible in a way that helps to explain how it developed and also points the way to how we can best understand and use it today. 

I speak from the standpoint of a minister in the Church of England, but I hope that what I say will be helpful to those of other religious traditions, or who are interested from outside any religious commitment.

Traditional Understanding
Behind the traditional Christian understanding of the Bible lies the belief that at certain times in the past God has made known truths that are essential to the proper fulfilment of our human destiny. These truths were made known by divine revelation and would have been incapable of being discovered by merely human scientific investigation or philosophical thinking. 

In the next lecture I shall look at ways of thinking about God, and some problems with the concept of divine revelation. For now I want just to accept - as a matter of historical record - that this is how the Bible has been understood by our ancestors, because otherwise we shall never be able to appreciate the position the Bible now holds in the Christian Church and beyond.

Jewish Background
The concept of a divinely revealed scripture was inherited by Christianity from Judaism. 

Several hundred years before the birth of Christ the Israelite nation was destroyed and its leading families exiled in Babylon. Although some of them returned a generation or so later to re-found a Jewish state in Palestine, the majority of Jews became dispersed in groups all around the Mediterranean, far from their Holy land and Holy Temple, with its priesthood and sacrifices. 

In these circumstances of "The Dispersion" the religious and national identity of the Jews was saved by one thing - the five books of the Law, whose origin was ascribed to Moses, and whose teaching was proclaimed and interpreted by official teachers (the rabbis or scribes) at the weekly gathering known as the synagogue. 

In the absence of any other religious authority, the Law became all-important. No longer were there prophets, priests or kings, through whom God could speak to his people; the written Law - "the Scripture" - was now the complete and definitive communication from God and it had to be the source of all contemporary religious and moral instruction.

It is hard to over-estimate the importance of this change of role for the written Law. It had become the only source of God's will and intentions. There were no longer directly inspired prophets like Jeremiah, through whom God could declare "...  I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel" (Jeremiah 31.31). 

There would and could be nothing entirely new ever again. Everything God might ever want to say must already be contained in the Law, and if this were truly the case - and if the Law was to be of any practical use - then three facts necessarily followed.

  1. It must contain everything that humankind needs to know from God, and therefore must be relevant to all times and places and contain (at least implicitly) the answer to every question and crisis.

  2. It must be totally and equally valid in all its parts and details, since there is no authority higher than the Law to adjudicate that one part is less important than another.

  3. References to the Holy Land, the Temple, and so on, sometimes need to be interpreted symbolically in order to be applied to changed circumstances.

These three convictions were not themselves part of the revealed Scripture. They were entailments that grew out of the practical necessity of being totally dependent on the written Law for all information about God's will.

This brief account is oversimplified. It makes no reference, for instance, to the debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as to the status of other writings such as the prophecies and psalms that now form part of our Old Testament. 

But it shows how the basic concept of a uniquely authoritative scripture - which claims not only to be a record of God's past dealings with his people, but actually to contain his still-relevant direct words and commandments - was already there in first-century Judaism for the Christian Church to take up and develop.

Christian Application
One change that took place when the Church took over the concept of scripture from the synagogue can be understood if we consider that Judaism is primarily a code of behaviour whereas Christianity is primarily a code of belief. 

Put another way, the starting point for Jews is "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God". The starting point for Christians is "I believe in God".

The sharpness of the distinction is blurred in practice by the fact that belief leads to certain kinds of behaviour, and rules of conduct lead to questions about the one who imposes them. But the distinction is important because it meant a shift from the use of scripture to authorise conduct to be followed to the use of scripture to authorise facts to be believed.

Another important change in attitude resulted from the Christian conviction that in the life and ministry of Jesus, God had again spoken directly to his people and ushered in a new prophetic period of directly inspired divine communication. This gave the first Christians a boldness to proclaim new truths about the person and work of Jesus, which were not merely deduced from the old scriptures in the rabbinic manner, but came as fresh new teaching. 

Thus we have Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, portraying Jesus as teaching with the formula, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times ... But I say to you ..." (Matthew 5.21). At the end of the sermon the evangelist comments, "... the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matthew 7.28). Similarly the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews opens his book with the following contrast: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Hebrews 1.1).

In order to justify this novelty, these early Christians endeavoured to show that this situation was in fact foretold in the Jewish tradition itself - the Epistle to the Hebrews for instance is a sustained exercise in this kind of argument. Over the course of two or three generations the Christian Church not only appropriated to itself the Jewish scriptures, but also created out of the writings of the earliest Christians a complementary set of scriptures of their own. 

Thus the Christian Bible was born, with the near-contemporary early Christian writings being treated with the same reverence as the Jews had treated the Law of Moses. Here was the unique, definitive self-revelation of God to humankind. 

What the Law, and to a lesser extent the prophets and psalms, had been to the Jews, the Gospels and Epistles were to Christians. The Jewish scriptures, interpreted as foretelling the coming of Christ and the founding of the church, were now used to give antiquity and respectability to what might otherwise have been written off as a newfangled and upstart religion.

The Contents of the Bible
Once the Bible became regarded as a unique source of authority, it became important to know which particular writings were to be included in the Canon (the official list of contents). 

This was by no means a straightforward business. We are familiar with a standard Old Testament of 39 books and a New Testament of 27 books. But this represents the end of a long process, these 66 originally independent books having been written and revised over a period of some 1000 years, and representing many different kinds of literature - history, poetry, law, liturgical texts, public and private letters. 

The core texts of the Hebrew Bible were inherited by the Church from Judaism. This list was traditionally said to have been completed and formalised by the priest Ezra at the end of the Babylonian exile (around 500 BCE). Modern scholars think it was not until the end of the first Christian century that the Hebrew canon was closed. 

There was also a problem with a number of later Jewish books, written originally in Greek rather than Hebrew. They were accepted as inspired by the Greek-speaking Jews of the dispersion, but treated with suspicion by the authorities in Jerusalem. 

These are for the most part the books known to Protestant Christians (who do not accept them as biblical) as the Apocrypha, and to Roman Catholics (who do accept them as biblical) as the Deutero-canonical books. 

The Church of England - trying as usual both to have its cake and eat it - lists them in the 39 Articles immediately after the contents of the Old Testament. But the following caveat is added, for which it claims the authority of the fourth-century St Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible: These books, says Article Six, "... the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine".

So far as the New Testament is concerned, the core books - the four gospels and the 13 epistles of Paul - were generally accepted by the middle of the second century, but it was the end of the fourth century before the current Canon became firmly established. Up to that time, books that are now excluded, such as the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas, are sometimes listed as belonging, while doubts still persisted about certain other writings - especially Hebrews, Revelation, and a number of the very short epistles - which eventually made it into the official Canon (in the early 5th century).

Authoritative Wording
Deciding which books to include is only the first task when drawing up an authoritative Bible. The next question is which versions of these books - that is to say which translations - are to count as the Word of God? 

Muslims take the simple if drastic route: only in the original Arabic (God's own language) is the Koran sacred. Many Jews would say similarly that only the Hebrew original of the Law (Torah) is authoritative, although it was held at the time of Jesus that the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures known as the Septuagint was divinely inspired. It got both its name and its high reputation from the belief that it was translated simultaneously and independently by 70 scholars who had all come up with the identical translation. And I believe that the Roman Catholic Church still officially recognizes Jerome's Latin version (the Vulgate) as inspired, even where it deviates from the generally accepted original Greek text. 

In practice, most Christians accept as authoritative the particular version they themselves are familiar with, which is one reason why the choice of translation for public worship remains a contentious issue.

Going one stage further back, whether we are using the original Greek or Hebrew, or an English translation, a reliable original text is needed. No original autograph copy of any Biblical book exists. All we have are copies of copies of copies, all of them without exception containing mistakes - some obvious, others where it is impossible to tell for certain which of two or more existing variants is what the author actually wrote. 

And of course the originals themselves may not have been perfect. When Paul was dictating his letters in prison, it is as likely as not that his amanuensis, in far from ideal conditions, did make mistakes. After all, he did not realize that he was writing the Bible.

The field of scholarship that seeks to establish the nearest approximation to the original wording is called textual criticism. It studies all available manuscripts (hand-written copies) in the original language, plus the earliest translations They sometimes give evidence of variant readings no longer extant in copies of the original. 

In the case of the Old Testament, the task is made harder by the fact that the ancient Hebrew alphabet contained no vowels, so the text consists of a sting of consonants only, like modern speed-writing or text-messaging. Sometimes two or more sensible meanings can be extracted by supplying different vowels to the same consonants. 

New Testament Greek manuscripts do not have this problem, but they do contain quite a lot of abbreviations of common words like God and Jesus, and the oldest and best of them are written in all capital letters with no spaces between the words (for example, the Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century, containing part of Luke 24). This is less confusing in practice than it might sound, but it obviously provides a further complication.

The Meaning of the Bible
Assuming that agreement could be reached on which books are part of the Bible, which versions are authoritative, and on the wording of the original text, the most difficult task still lies ahead: What does it all mean? What is the message that God is trying to convey? 

Even the most simple and direct commands can be ambiguous. The sixth commandment, for instance, is "Thou shalt not kill" in the Authorized Version (Exodus 20.13). This could be taken as an absolute prohibition on taking human life (as pacifists argue) or indeed on killing any creature (as vegetarians might claim). But in practice both Jews and Christians have generally made exceptions to the absolute rule. Thus we find that in the Prayer Book Communion service the sixth commandment is translated in the more restricted sense "Thou shalt do no murder".

So much for the easy texts. What about the hard ones? 

You will recall that one of the consequences of accepting scripture as God's word is that it must be totally and equally valid in all its parts and details, since there is no higher authority - certainly not human opinion - to adjudicate that one part is less important than another. So what are we to make of passages that appear to conflict with each other, or that look immoral, or that contain apparently pointless detail? 

For centuries, Christian interpreters followed the example of the Jewish rabbis and applied allegorical meanings to hard texts. We see it in the New Testament itself, where Paul explains the story in Genesis that says God-fearing Abraham not only had two wives (wrong in itself by later standards) but then abandoned one of them with her child (wrong even by the standards of Abraham's own day). 

It is simple, says Paul: Abraham's relation with his two wives and their children is a symbol of God's relation with the Jewish and Christian communities. Well, those of us who today have to interpret not only Genesis but Paul himself, do not generally feel that this sort of explanation makes our task any easier.

Let me give you one more example of this kind of interpretation, because it relates closely to our theme. The little boy in John's Gospel, who gave Jesus his picnic to feed the 5,000, had five barley loaves. Why the detail about the grain used? 

Well, according to Augustine's commentary, barley bread is nutritious but has a notoriously hard crust. Since there are five loaves they represent the five books of the Jewish Law, which do contain the nutrition of God�s word, but which are hard to understand until their true meaning is made clear in the light of the Christian gospel.

At its height, in the middle ages, this kind of biblical interpretation would discern up to four layers of meaning in a single verse - literal, moral, doctrinal and mystical. 

But with the dawn of the modern age there was a move to study the Bible in the same way as other ancient texts such as the poems of Homer and Virgil or the histories of Thucydides and Tacitus. 

Don't start off by making the Bible special, it was said. Treat it like any other collection of ancient writings. Then if it really is unique, its special character will become apparent in the light of patient historical and literary research. 

That remains the mainstream academic view, although the rise of so-called postmodernism has muddied the waters somewhat. However, among preachers and congregations - and also at the official level of many churches - there has been a great reluctance to abandon an essentially ancient or mediaeval attitude to the Bible and its authority.

Using the Bible Today
So how should we, especially those who are trying to be faithful Christians in the modern world, use the Bible? 

It is one of our greatest religious resources. Yet all too often it becomes an impediment and an embarrassment instead of a strength and stay. In a recent sermon at Holy Cross I introduced a metaphor for two ways of using the Bible, and I think it is worth a second outing. 

Some people - those with a traditional approach - treat the Bible as a lens or a telescope. I want to suggest that it is more like a mirror. With a telescope we are presented with a close-up picture of a distant scene, and to use the Bible in this way is to imagine that it gives us access in accurate detail to events that happened long ago and far away. 

Just as the light travels directly through the lens and into our eye, so we think of the Bible as delivering to us information direct from God and the heavenly realm. 

But for reasons that we have touched on already in this talk, the Bible cannot deliver that kind of clear precise information - not about heaven, not even about the past here on earth. 

The process is more like a mirror, where the image we see is not direct but reflected - and to some extent reduced and distorted - by the reflecting surface. So what we read in the Bible is a range of human responses to God, not the word of God direct.

To see how this approach need not imply a diminishing of the value of the Bible, but can enhance it and result in our appreciating it more richly, I applied the idea to Luke's account of the first Easter evening, which had been the Gospel reading at the service (Luke 24.13, 35).

At first sight it is a straightforward account of a walk by two friends from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, their discussion with a stranger, and a meal at which the stranger is made known as the risen Lord. 

It does make sense like that, as a direct transmission of information about a wonderful event. But it is a past event. The Bible has acted as a telescope, bringing a distant scene close to us, but we remain outsiders looking in. It is their story not ours. 

Now look again. Forget telescopes and think mirrors. Think reflected experience. Think how this story might be reflecting something of Luke's own church community and its own experience of the risen Lord, not on the first Easter Day but year after year, and week by week at the Eucharist.

Now what do you see? 

The Emmaus story is suddenly more than a single past event. It lays down a pattern, repeated and reflected from Luke's day to our own - the Christian journey, the opening of the scriptures, Moses and the prophets made relevant to Jesus, the Lord made known in the blessing and breaking of bread, the joyful sharing of the Good News. 

No longer is it a single past event seen through a lens, not even a single past event reflected in a mirror, but a rich pattern of images. The Bible and its story of Emmaus have become a veritable Hall of Mirrors, in which the Christian experience of the risen Lord is reflected and made new in every century at every Eucharist.

I believe that the Bible can best be used today in some such way as this, which is faithful to the view that sees it as a unique channel of God's grace, which engages with the text as part of a living spiritual reality. But it does not require anyone to deny the obvious fact that the Bible we buy is just the latest in a long line of humanly-produced books with all the flaws and ambiguities which that entails.

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