Rowan Williams on the Bible (1)
Today we continue our series of reflections on Rowan Williams’s book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. We move on to the second big theme of the practice of being Christian — hearing God speak through the Bible.
For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God. (p. 21)
Rowan Williams emphasizes that the key word in this discussion is “listening.” He reminds us that our modern view of a person sitting alone in a room reading the Bible is not the experience that the vast majority of Jews and Christians who have received the scriptures have had. It has only been for the past 500 years that most people have had access to a written copy of the entire Bible. Scripture has been something people have heard read and recited to them, usually in the context of corporate worship and catechism studies.
Now I say this not to deny the importance of all Christians having a Bible in their pocket with which they are familiar, but to point out that very often we make a set of assumptions about what is central and most important for Bible reading, which would have been quite strange in many parts of the Christian world for many centuries. And it still is strange to many of our fellow Christians today. (p. 23)
And so the practice has been to hear, to listen as the word is spoken. In my view, there is something advantageous in this. A book can be impersonal. It can lead us to think that our primary responsibility is to study, analyze, parse. On the other hand, the spoken word reinforces the I-Thou relationship inherent in conversation.
Furthermore, having my own Bible tends to prioritize personal interpretation over hearing the word in community. It can distance us from remembering that the scriptures came to us through the church and are part of a history and tradition of God’s people hearing God speak.
However, as Rowan Williams reminds us, the claim that God speaks through the Bible turns out to be a rather complicated matter. “[You] soon discover that what the Bible is not is a single sequence of instructions, beginning ‘God says to you …’” (p. 24). Rather, the scriptures are made up of a collection of “books” with an incredible diversity of literary genres and a complexity that resists any naive expectation of simple understanding of what God is saying.
The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made … Where are you in this?’ (p. 27)
This is the main question that opens us up to hear God speak — where am I, where are we in this story? And how do we faithfully play our part as the story is unfolding today?
21 thoughts on “Rowan Williams on the Bible (1)”
Yes. I was part of a fundamentalist SBC church culture that still had the lingering effects of the ‘Landmark Controversy’ – and its insistence that only churches that followed that path were true New Testament churches. The problem with that kind of ‘originalist’ movement is that there was no pristine ‘original’ to emulate. The New Testament is literally the story of the early church trying to figure things out on the fly – what about Gentiles? What about the place of women? What about the OT Law – is it binding? There is really no ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ – it’s all in flux. At the end of the first century it’s still in flux – thus the lingering questions (and more to follow) about the nature of Christ, the Trinity, etc., many of which persist to this day. Thus the councils to address those issues.
At least the Catholic and Orthodox churches (as well as those who follow in their path – like Anglicans) acknowledge the ongoing nature of God’s revelation and work beyond the end of the first century. Though there are some who believe the arbitrary point in history at which all truth was finally revealed is the Reformation period (cf John Piper’s ‘The Future of Justification’). The Reformers finally got it right so there’s no need to learn any more about the first century or the issues of that day (and of course we can safely disregard about everything from the end of the first until the sixteenth century).
Maybe “inersectionality” hits a little too close to home?
I am not sure that it is the case that Protestants in the main don’t value the early Church and its councils. The key word is “early”. Protestanism is originalist in nature. A great deal of value is placed on attempting to recreate and follow the example of the early church; the attitude tends to be that the Church lost its way early on and the aim is to get back to whatever notion one has as to what the “original” church was like without the accretions of tradition in subsequent centuries (except where you agree with the accretions, of course).The objection is to the claiming of ongoing and continuing authority by the church as an organisation simply through its institutional continuity with the earliest church.
The really dodgy bits of this are that it takes an arbitrary point early in the history of the church and decides that before that point the church knew everything and did everything right, whilst after that point nothing it learnt or did had any value, and that in general Protestant denominations happily produce their own position statements and declarations of doctrine and confer on themselves (without even the Catholic Church’s historical foundation for it) the same right to decide what is or is not required belief and practice.
I remember hearing about how a ‘culture’ read the Bible in a way that encouraged and promoted ‘slavery’ in our country. And later, the descendants of this culture fell into promoting misogyny, racism, and in time, took also to expressing Islamophobia and homophobia. In particular, the most recent display of ‘cultural’ application of God’s Word was to have mounted a terrible persecution of people who are trans.
So, I wonder about all of us that we bring TO the Bible who we really are, warts and all, and for those of us who use the Bible to justify our sins, what are we doing? And why? And are WE not also altered when we bring down hatred on others? Or maybe, unbeknownst to ourselves, does the Bible plant a seed in our consciences that, in time, will awaken us from our sleeping so that we will see beyond our fears into a better way of being?
I’m betting on the latter case. There IS something in Scripture about how when God sends His Word forth into the world, it does not return to Him until it’s work is accomplished.
So, maybe the great work of sacred Scripture is to plow up our fallow ground. And to render us . . . to tear us away from that which keeps us from the love of God . . . . ? How many thousands, millions, have read the Holy Gospel of St. John and come away in a situation where they are experiencing ‘conviction’ and with broken hearts are seeking God’s forgiveness and His peace?
I think the real work of sacred Scripture is to take us down to the bone yard (Thomas Merton’s phrase) and then in time to lead us by the still waters. . . . . a massive journey towards the light
Every year, after Great and Holy Friday services, the entire Psalter is read in a darkened sanctuary, usually by the young people, Then, after Holy Saturday Services (“Let God arise and His enemies be scattered”) the entire book of Acts is read aloud.
Both are very moving experiences for those who can endure it.
When I look at the way Jesus and the apostles handled Scripture, and especially when I compare it the predominate Talmudic hermeneutic which was just then emerging (and diverging) from the prophetic tradition, I have to admit that Rohr has a point, and a strong one. The Bible needs to be read in the same Spirit in which is was written. Practically, for proud, money-crazed sex-mad Blodgetts like myself, that means it needs to be read together, so that “each fills up what is lacking in the other”.
I remember visiting an Episcopal church years ago on Palm Sunday. The reading was just about the whole crucifixion account from Mark (which amazed me as a Baptist – they read about 10 times as much Scripture as I was used to). The eerie part was the congregational response – we read the ‘Crucify Him!’ part – it really hit home where we would probably have stood as Jesus was being led to the cross.
I think we’re so used to reading the Bible on our own, or hearing small snippets read (usually to support a topical sermon) that we fail to realize, and as CM (and Rowan Williams) point out, that for centuries that’s how Christians ‘read’ Scripture. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be in a first- (or second-) century house church hearing the Gospel of Mark read for the first time. ‘What’s he going to do next?’ and all that.
Sounds cool. When I recently led classes on Galatians and Ephesians, we read through them in their entirety, too, to get an idea of the overall flavor of the letters/epistles. We could then reflect back on the “entirety” of the letter when we came to individual verses, reminding ourselves that they’re merely one or two lines in longer letter.
TWICE in the last year my conservative Evangelical church took a night where we, as a congregation met to publically just read scripture. The first time, we had 3 readers and read through the Book of Hebrew – broken into 3 phrases, with a hymn at the breaks.
The second night we read Galations and Ephesians – broken into two phases with a hymn.
It was amazing
Well said Adam. For me too it was my ‘rationalism’ that led me to see how irrational most systematic theology actually is. The Bible just has too many voices and viewpoints for a ‘systematic’ understanding of God (almost like he doesn’t want to be put into a box).
About 4 years ago I was in a Bible study with too many ‘theologians’, who practiced competitive theology, usually as a full-contact sport. They were discussing 1 Cor 1-3 (about the perils of ‘worldly wisdom’), which is not what Paul is concerned about in that passage at all (though for years I believed that – though questioning how someone like Paul, who often alludes to Stoic ideas, would believe that). It was one of those ‘ahah’ moments when I realized how little we really understand Paul (or much else in the Bible for that matter) – we’re just too far removed from his world. At that moment I thought (which I have repeated many times) that if there’s a theology test at the pearly gates, we’re all screwed. God must be far more gracious than most of us think, and it must not depend on having precisely-defined (and accurate) theology (my apologies to my Reformed friends). In fact, as Pete Enns points out, the certainty that comes from that precisely-defined theology can easily be mistaken for ‘faith’.
Yeah. Apologies to you and Chris. I’m just overly sensitive on this matter (which in itself is not rational 😉 ).
As a fiercley rational anti-“Spirituality” guy I don’t feel necessarily left out by what ChrisS says [although I have not need for Trinitarian babble to get there].
I feel it more acknowledges the limits of our understanding – which are severe – than gives any ground to Hocus Pocus Handy Wavy Whoo Whoo.
It is by my Love for reason and argument that I reject much of the “rational” religion – Systematic Theology, etc… – on the grounds that it is not rational, logical, or reasonable. By the last chapter it is as much Handy Wavy Whoo Whoo as the mumblings of the most ardent mystic.
I’d put the focus on Orthopraxy, and much of the dilemma disappears. There is plenty to “walk humbly”, etc… to keep one intellectually engaged without much Theological Whoo Whoo. How am I to do that? How am I to love my neighbor? How am I, as much as it depends upon me, to live at peace with everyone, while not being silent when Good is spoken of as Evil? These questions are sufficient to occupy a lifetime.
Also, looping back to the post, Orthopraxy, unlike Orthodoxy, cannot be found outside of community
> I mean look at the new ‘Social Justice’ document put out by John McArthur and tell me
…how you don’t throw out ***EXODUS***? I mean, the guy denies the concept of Intersectionality – that being that some people exert coercive power over other people.
Hell, pitch the ENTIRE OLD TESTAMENT.
That guy needs to lay off the hard drugs for awhile.
Sorry that us irrational types are so much greater than you guys. Somebody has to be really awesome and then others much less awesome. No wait, that’s not it. Believe it or not I find myself to be quite rational. I have to run a business every day and order priorities, track the jobs and the finances, etc. Even the most rational person though cannot entertain the possibility of prayer and communion with God as a rational exercise. It’s like reading the paper while making love. A time and a place for everything. The “language” of the heart is more than our words so we can’t only rely on rationalism. We must own our rationalism and not be cornered by it. To know God requires going beyond it because it simply isn’t capable of dealing with God. Sometimes it’s rational to put your rationality on the nightstand for awhile. It’s the rational thing to do. Just my thoughts.
I think that was actually J.B.S.Haldane, not Neils Bohr.
“Verbal Plenary Inspiration” — dropped down directly from Heaven, dictated word-for-word by God Himself in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe.
“I mean look at the new ‘Social Justice’ document put out by John McArthur and tell me that the Book of St. James belongs in the Bibles of those who have signed his new theology?”
Actually, Christiane, I was struck by old fashioned the “Statement on Social Justice” was. Its subtext is the view that the purpose of the Church is to “save souls” not attempt to reform society. This is why it is being criticized not just by the “liberal” proponents of the social gospel but also by “conservative” political evangelicals. This was the old view that was dominant among most protestant churches back before the “political” gospel began to hold sway. Not that these folks weren’t conservative or even political (my parents freely admitted they voted for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic) but agitating for a particular political agenda was beside the point and a step down for the true purpose of the Church – to rescue as many souls as as possible before the wrath that is to come. It will be interesting in light of the current environment to see whether or not the old view will make a comeback. (The drafters of this statement intuit that when Trump goes down he’s going to take a lot of folks with him.)
OTOH, that paradigm kinda leaves us rational, less relational types relegated to the status of second-class citizens of the Kingdom.
I have to quote Richard Rohr today. There is a difference between knowing information and communing in Spirit.
“Our supposed logic has to break down before we can comprehend the nature of the universe and the bare beginnings of the nature of God. Paraphrasing physicist Niels Bohr, the doctrine of the Trinity is saying that God is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think. Perhaps much of the weakness of many Christian doctrines and dogmas is that we’ve tried to understand them with a logical or rational mind instead of through love, prayer, and participation itself. In the end, only lovers seem to know what is going on inside of God. To all others, God remains an impossible and distant secret, just like the galaxies.”
Where am I in this story? That’s a loaded question if I ever heard one. It’s not, “What can you learn from these stories?” It asks how God is continuing the unfolding of the story. It implies that God is actively writing this story and that I am a character in it. It means I am as accountable as Moses or Paul. I may not be any more important than the woman who threw in a small tithe into the till in Jesus’ story but I am fully accountable for whatever talents, great or small, have been handed to me. I am called. As one who is called, logically, I must hear and listen. The Bible is essential for upbringing in the faith and more but it is not a replacement for the even more critical communion with the Holy Spirit which is where the rest of the story, living and sharp, is being written. If I have learned anything yet it is that God will not be neatly kept and does nothing to pacify our expectations.
“Furthermore, having my own Bible tends to prioritize personal interpretation over hearing the word in community. It can distance us from remembering that the scriptures came to us through the church and are part of a history and tradition of God’s people hearing God speak.”
I have wondered about how it can be that ‘the Bible’ is so accepted among those who Christian people who have no faith in the early Church Councils that collected together and affirmed the writings that are included in the CANON as authentic sacred Scripture.
Seems to me that IF people don’t value the authority of the early Church and its Councils, then they need to go back into examining what WAS written in those days and come to some new conclusions based on a set of criteria that they have developed that is INDEPENDENT of the early Church and its Councils . . . . . . otherwise, it seems they have accepted the ‘authority’ of the early Church regarding the choice of the canon. Does this make sense?
I mean look at the new ‘Social Justice’ document put out by John McArthur and tell me that the Book of St. James belongs in the Bibles of those who have signed his new theology?
I’m trying to make sense of some of this stuff from a Catholic point of view, and I’m struggling. Could use the thoughts of others here for some help seeing this through their perspectives, hopefully.