That it may please thee to give to all thy people increase of grace to hear meekly thy Word, and to receive it with pure affection, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit;
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

 

As I said yesterday, a colleague of mine who is an Old Testament scholar new to Anglicanism asked me a few months ago about what I thought a distinctively Anglican approach to the study and interpretation of Scripture might look like. I was hard-pressed to describe how Anglicans are currently teaching Scripture and hermeneutics in a way that differs significantly from the mainstream of Biblical Studies generally.

I noted what Wesley Hill has said on this blog about teaching the New Testament in an Anglican fashion, and I imagine that Garwood Anderson, Michael Cover, Esau McCaulley, and others here might provide their own glosses.

But as a historical theologian, I have a couple of observations to offer on how certain figures central to the Anglican tradition have treated Scripture in the past, and I am willing to offer them up as worthy of consideration.


 

As I noted yesterday, for the earliest Anglicans, the question was less one of understanding the text than of knowing what it is rightly to take up the text. The search for attaining a faithful understanding of Scripture begins by assenting to its authority. And acknowledging and appreciating the authority of Scripture, they were convinced, was a matter of faith, not knowledge. Then I looked at certain remarks by Archbishop William Laud on how it is we come to discern and appreciate the authority of Scripture.

Stressing faith over understanding was hardly unique to Laud. As we turn to the First Book of Homilies, we find Thomas Cranmer applying the quality of the individual’s will to the ability to rightly understand the text. In the first homily, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” Cranmer wrote that our attitude to Holy Scripture was dependent upon the quality of our affections. For those “as be desirous to enter into the right and perfect way unto God must apply their minds to know holy Scripture,” and “as drink is pleasant to them that be dry, and meat to them that be hungry, so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy Scripture to them that be desirous to know God or themselves, and to do his will.”

Such is the reception Scripture receives from those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness.”

Conversely, those who are “drowned in worldly vanities … [desiring] such vanities rather than the true knowledge of God … neither savour God nor any godliness.” For “them that have their minds corrupted with long custom of sin and love of this world,” the sweetness of the Holy Scriptures “is as bitter to them as wormwood, not for the bitterness of the meat, but for the corrupt and bitter humour that is in their own tongue and mouth.” The perversity of heart of these “fleshly men, which care not but for their carcase” results in “corrupt judgment,” which produces “the stinking puddles of men’s traditions, devised by man’s imagination.”

Cranmer bids us forsake such corruption of heart, and instead hear and read the Scriptures “reverently,” searching “for the well of life in the books of the New and Old Testament … for our justification and salvation.” By this he means, of course, that pure rather than “corrupt” judgments on the nature and meaning of the text are founded upon the criteria of the heart seeking after God, eschewing the delights and distractions of the world.[1]

In this vein Cranmer brings to bear Augustine’s thoughts on the necessity of humility in engaging the Scriptures rightly. However much one may engage the text and turn its pages, true understanding evades all but those who read it with the right disposition and true grace. He articulates this point later in the homily, in a passage worth quoting in full.

In reading of God’s word he most profiteth not always that is most ready in turning of the book, or in saying of it without the book; but he that is most turned into it, that is most inspired with the Holy Ghost, most in his heart and life altered and changed into that thing which he readeth; he that is daily less and less proud, less wrathful, less covetous, and less desirous of worldly and vain pleasures; he that daily, forsaking his old vicious life, increaseth in virtue more and more. … For without a single eye, pure intent, and a good mind nothing is allowed for good before God. And, on the other side, nothing more darkeneth Christ and the glory of God, nor bringeth in more blindness and all kinds of vices, than doth the ignorance of God’s word. (Homily 1, 10)

Humility is a central posture in achieving this participative reading, which is fundamentally an ethical enterprise. Only pure intention ensures freedom from serious error in interpretation. In a later passage, also worth quoting in full, Cranmer makes the connection between purity and accuracy in interpretation explicit.

If you be afraid to fall into error by reading of holy Scripture, I shall shew you how you may read it without danger of error. Read it humbly with a meek and lowly heart, to the intent you may glorify God, and not yourself, without the knowledge of it; and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect; and take upon you to expound it no further than you can plainly understand it. For, as St Augustine saith, the knowledge of holy Scripture is a great, large, and a high palace, but the door is very low; so that the high and arrogant man cannot run in, but he must stoop low and humble himself that shall enter it.[2] Presumption and arrogancy is the mother of all error: and humility needeth to fear no error. For humility will only search to know the truth …. (Homily 1, 12-13)

Archbishop Cranmer is a faithful student of Augustine and the tradition, and these examples provide further evidence of English Christianity’s independent and thoughtful engagement with the most ancient traditions of the Church catholic in its emphasis on the will and, ultimately, the foundational Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.

The Anglican tradition’s emphasis on the ethics of the right interpretation of Scripture is perhaps most succinctly and powerfully expressed in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s “Form of Consecrating of a Bishop.”[3] In the Examination, the Archbishop asks the candidate several important questions related to his disposition to and intentions regarding Holy Scripture.

First, does the candidate believe “that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?” The candidate is also asked about his commitment to the proper use of the Scriptures.

And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach or maintain nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the same?

Finally, the archbishop examines the bishop-to-be with the following words on how to reach a correct understanding of the sacred text and fulfill said pastoral task:

Will you then faithfully exercise yourself in the same holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer, for the true understanding of the same?

Here we see that the task of interpreting Scripture (which the prayer book seems to assume is integral to the ministry of those in Holy Orders, especially to bishops) is fundamentally an ascetical task with pastoral application. The sense of “exercising” oneself in the Scriptures, and the grace-filled nature of the relationship between prayer and understanding the text, are straightforward and unmistakable.

It is worth concluding with a little further reflection on the prayer book’s sense of the inherently pastoral nature of interpretation. It knows nothing of biblical interpretation as a private or academic task. From the “Ordering of a Priest” the bishop’s examination runs thus:

Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?

And in the “Consecrating of a Bishop” the archbishop gives the following exhortation upon handing over a Bible:

Give heed unto reading, exhortation, and doctrine. Think upon the things contained in this Book. Be diligent in them, that the increase coming thereby may be manifest unto all men. Take heed unto thyself, and to doctrine, and be diligent in doing them: for by so doing thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.

The handling of the sacred text is no idle or speculative task, but requires full engagement of the heart, the whole human person.

For the determinative texts and thinkers of the Anglican tradition, such as William Laud, Thomas Cranmer, and the Book of Common Prayer, the right handling of the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15) is a matter of life and death, concerned with the salvation of both oneself and of the body of Christ. And it requires a heart that not only acknowledges the authority of its Divine Author, but gladly assents to its plain meaning. There is no true biblical study outside of these recognitions and commitments.

Admittedly, these fundamental commitments may not be unique to Anglicanism, since they are fundamental commitments of the ancient church. But this is precisely the point. Our identity as Anglicans (and part of our contemporary appeal as a tradition) is wrapped up in continually calling to mind our pre-modern heritage, while also endeavoring to be the living continuation of the church of the apostles and ancient fathers.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Jeremy W. Bergstrom is canon for vocations in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, and priest-in-charge of St. Christopher’s, Dallas. His other posts are here

The featured image is Gerlach Filke’s portrait of Cranmer (ca 1545). It is in the public domain.


[1] Homily 1, 9-10: “This word whosoever is diligent to read, and in his heart to print that he readeth, the great affection to the transitory things of this world shall be minished in him, and the great desire of heavenly things, that be therein promised of God, shall increase in him.” I use the edition in The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches, ed. by John Griffiths (Oxford University Press, 1859).

[2] See Confessions III.5; and Sermon 51.6. See also De doctrina Christiana I.36.41 on charity ensuring freedom from error.

[3] The 1662 carefully preserves Cranmer’s original form from 1549. Further quotations are from the 1662.

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