In liturgical cadence the bishop asks for loyalty and obedience. The ordinand, testing tones of piety, says in a grave voice, “I am willing and ready to do so; and I do solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” God is not mocked, and neither is the bishop. The bishop knows too well that obedience is impossible to compel, and so clergy rather often run their own show. As for “all things necessary to salvation,” the claim is cautious and constrained. Once admitting that Scripture does not contain all things, but rather those essential things necessary to salvation, the letter of the text is not the final matter. Of course, sorting out essential from non-essential is the unending hermeneutic problem. We open the book, and we try. We study, pray, and test. There is help, however.
In the stories about the restoration of Jerusalem and its temple following the Babylonian exile, the returning Jews are intensely concerned to restore their ceremonies, their stories, their identity. They want to be pure, which may be laudable and may be dangerous. Standing outside, at the southeastern section of the city wall, at a place called the Water Gate, Ezra takes up the book of the Law of Moses. Standing above the people, he opens the book. Moved by the ceremony, the people rise to their feet, say Amen and bow to the ground. Assisting priests interpret the word so that everyone may understand. The ceremony, the words, and the interpretation wash over the crowd. They mourn and weep. And yet their religion is this: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). No one needs to make the case, using the Bible, for sorrow, grief, and tears. For that the Bible isn’t necessary. The hardships and bitter losses of life will come. What is needed, in a deep down way, is a summons to new life: “the joy of the Lord is my strength.”
I do solemnly declare that I believe the Old and New Testaments, read in the Spirit, and notwithstanding all the violence, are a summons to “fat, wine, joy, and strength.”
And, of course, there is the book of nature. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Day and night speak their wordless eloquence. Under the tent of a blue sky, winds blow, rivers run, tides ebb, the earth moves, and life vibrates. Here too we see, as we may read in holy writ, “the Law of the Lord.” It is perfect not because someone says it is perfect. Rather its perfection is tested. It revives the soul, makes the simple wise, rejoices the heart, shines like gold, and tastes like honey (Ps. 19:7-10).
Jesus reads the book and then sits down. He waits and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). While there is authority in the redacted text and in its recitation, the ultimate authority is Jesus setting out to meet the poor, to free the captive, to heal the sick, to relieve the oppressed.
“The glory of God is a living man,” (Irenaeus). Ask yourself, when you read the Bible: “What kind of a human being do I want to be?”
Look It Up: Read Ps. 19:5, a picture of God’s pursuing love.
Think About It: “If only we could be what we hope to be, by the great kindness of our generous God” (Gregory Nazianzus).