By Robert MacSwain

Having read both Bishop Daniel Martins’s “Top Ten Rules for Reading the Bible” here on Covenant and Bishop Jake Owensby’s “Eight Things to Know About the Bible” at Pelican Anglican, I thought it would be a helpful contribution to the current conversation on both of these blogs to direct readers to the “Ten Themes” and “Seven Principles” of Anglican biblical interpretation that were identified by the Anglican Communion’s “Bible in the Life of the Church” project and published in the report Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery (2012).

Unlike the two lists offered by Bishops Martins and Owensby, these points are made in the report without further discussion, but it is both interesting and encouraging to see how much overlap there is between all three of these sources. As indicated below, the “themes” were compiled as a list of descriptive observations — what the members of the steering comittee thought was the case in regard to characteristically Anglican biblical interpretation — whereas the principles were offered somewhat more normatively as proposals for best practice.

So, to complement the lists offered by Bishop Martins and Bishop Owensby, here are the Ten Themes and Seven Principles of Anglican biblical interpretation offered by Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery.

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Ten Themes (descriptive observations)

  1. Anglicans accord Scripture a central place in the life of the Church.
  2. Anglicans value biblical scholarship while acknowledging that Scripture must also be read within the context of the Church’s practice in order for us to hear its fullest meaning.
  3. Anglicans experience the Word of the living God through the words of Scripture as we participate in liturgy and worship.
  4. Anglicans recognise that the application of Scripture to complex issues requires serious study and prayer.
  5. Anglicans recognise that there is a healthy and necessary diversity of views on the interpretation of Scripture but that such diversity exists within limits.
  6. Anglicans recognise that both the original contexts in which biblical texts were written and the contemporary cultural contexts in which they are heard are important to the way we read Scripture.
  7. Anglicans recognise that Scripture “reads” us as we read the Bible.
  8. Anglicans recognise that we hold a great deal in common on these issues with our ecumenical partners.
  9. Anglicans recognise that the dynamic interplay between Scripture, reason and tradition constitutes a classic Anglican way of viewing and approaching Scripture.
  10. Anglicans recognise that every generation has to approach anew the task of engaging with and interpreting Scripture.

Principles (normative proposals)

  1. Christ is the living Word of God.
  2. The Old Testament is the foundation of Christian Scripture.
  3. The Bible is to be taken as a whole and has within it great depths of spiritual meaning.
  4. There are many different literary genres in the Bible, which are to be distinguished carefully and consistently.
  5. An accurate reading of the Bible is informed, not threatened, by sound historical and scientific understanding: the God who inspires Scripture as a true witness is the same God who created the world.
  6. The Bible must be seen in the contexts of the world in which it was written and also brought into conversation or confrontation with our worlds in order to discern God’s will for us today.
  7. We listen to the Scriptures with open hearts and attentive minds accepting their authority for our lives and expecting that we will be transformed and renewed by the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.

Cited from Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery: Report of the Anglican Communion “Bible in the Life of the Church” Project (2012), 41-42.  See also Clare Amos (ed.), The Bible in the Life of the Church (2013).

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is Associate Professor of Theology at University of the South, and a Steering Committee Member and Coordinator of the North American Regional Group of the “Bible in the Life of the Church” Project. 

The featured image is “Latin Bible” (2015) by Robert Cheaib. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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The trick it seems, is keeping these themes and principles as servants, and not masters. They must be servants of the basic asymmetry between us and Scripture: Scripture is not the ultimate authority over us – God is – but God has placed Scripture over us (in a way I don’t want to nail down). We must be careful not to try and slip out from under its “subsidiary” authority.

Charlie, Are you (like me) somewhat uncertain about the use of normative principle 1, “Christ is the living Word of God? It’s true, of course, but I know I wonder if it’s necessarily all that useful when talking about normative principles for biblical interpretation, unless we somehow expect Christ as the living Word to contract the (dead?) word of Scripture. But perhaps someone else might have a better idea. After all Scripture is itself alive: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and… Read more »

Robert MacSwain

Zack, thanks for that comment / question. I think the point of the first principle is to avoid confusing the primary referent of the “Word of God” (Christ, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity) with any other referents, such as Scripture (in whatever sense we mean when we describe it as the Word of God). I was thus intrigued by your citation of Hebrews 4:12. Aside from familiar association in some Christian circles, is there anything in the context of that passage which even suggests that the author actually has Scripture in mind, as opposed to the voice… Read more »

Thanks, RM. Yes, I understand that basic point, but I actually think it’s of unclear help in providing a set of normative principles for interpretation, other than suggesting that Christ as the Word of God is a norm (or external authority). Is it thereby suggesting that the Gospel accounts are the interpretive matrix for the rest of Scripture? I’m amenable to that. Is it suggesting that the spirit of Christ might lead us to new meanings? I’m amenable to that, within certain frameworks. But I worry that, for most, citing Christ as the Word is simply a way to wiggle… Read more »

Robert MacSwain

Zack, thanks for the further clarifications / questions. I think you are absolutely right that the first principle (“Christ is the living Word of God”) functions less as a normative hermeneutical guide for specific texts and more of a foundational theological claim that guides our initial approach to Scripture as such. I don’t think it is intended to set up a tension or potential conflict between Christ and Scripture so much as to remind us that describing Scripture as “the Word of God,” while perfectly legitimate and of course deeply embedded in the Anglican tradition (cf. ordination vows, etc.), must… Read more »

Brian Alberti

I opine in all charity and brotherly love that “Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery: Report of the Anglican Communion ‘Bible in the Life of the Church’, appears at first glance to recommend a way of reading scripture that is rather Heideggerian. I am particularly fond of theme #9 to the extent that it recognizes the interplay between scripture, tradition, and reason as a classical Anglican way of viewing and approaching scripture. But what in actuality does it mean? Whose rationality are we to embrace? Are we to embrace the rationality of the early church fathers? Should we recall the rationality of… Read more »

Robert MacSwain

Brian, you should audit the seminar Ben King and I are teaching this semester, “The Anglican Tradition of Reason: Butler, Newman, and Farrer”!

Sounds wonderful from here! Say hello to Ben.

I have no disagreements with any of the comments, but… I did have in mind this: “The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the… Read more »