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The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics

This post is the first installment in a series on Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition. Subsequent posts will explore how some prominent Anglican interpreters have employed figural reading to help them powerfully relate Scripture to issues they faced in their day. For now, I want to do three things. First, I will suggest that being a community gathered around the Word of God is central to Anglican identity. Second, I will argue that, historically, to speak of Anglicanism as a community gathered around the Word is to speak of the prayer book tradition and the way it orders the communal reception of God’s Word. Finally, I will suggest that this ordered reception breeds a particular response to Scripture: the prayer book’s juxtaposition of “bare” Scriptural texts commends figural reading.[1]

Anglicanism: A community gathered around the Word

In the halls of Wycliffe College, professors have often been heard exclaiming their bewilderment at the fact that, despite all the turmoil and treachery that has beset North American Anglicanism, young students from all sorts of Christian denominations continue to make their way to the college as pilgrims on the Canterbury Trail. Despite their enthusiasm for Anglicanism, these young Canterbury Trail Anglicans tend to share the conviction that things must be done differently. They repudiate the apostasies, hostilities, and lawsuits of previous generations. Yet there is this basic question: Upon what foundation will we build the new edifice? The most convenient solution would seem to involve embracing a preferred local expression of Anglicanism as the ideal that will restore proper order and worship. This approach, however, sets the stage for history to repeat itself. Those that confront the diversity of Anglicanism through the lens of a favored ideal come to the table as ideologues and enthusiasts. When push comes to shove — when occasion permits — young Anglicans are enfolded into the larger ecclesial culture and find themselves using the words of their predecessors: “My ideal of Anglicanism is authentic Anglicanism, and you will, whether you like it or not, fall in line.”

Does it have to be this way?

To a certain extent, Yes. People and their preferences persist, and enthusiasts will continue to impress their preferences on others. This being said, not all ecclesial foundations are created equal. Indeed, I believe that there is a non-ideological foundation that has the ability to serve as the basis of lasting concord. Like other foundations, it is at once both an answer to the historical question What is Anglicanism? and a proposal for Anglicanism’s future: Anglicanism is a community gathered around the Word.

Scripture in the prayer book tradition

Oliver O’Donovan points out that any attempt to grasp the heart or essence of historical Anglicanism is complicated by the fact that it is not “susceptible to the kind of textual definition which the Confessions (on the Protestant side) and the conciliar decrees (on the Catholic) afford.”[2] Anglican catechetical works that mirrored the great catechetical monuments on the Continent were published at various points during the 16th and 17th centuries. These works, however, failed to gain traction, partly because of divisions within Anglicanism. But divisions abounded on the Continent too, and they alone cannot account for the difference. The Continental project of establishing ecclesial identity through doctrinal precision failed in Anglicanism because a different sort of ecclesial identity was already being forged through the Book of Common Prayer.

In the prayer book, Cranmer bequeathed the Anglican Church far more than a rule for common worship. He bequeathed a program for establishing Christian unity in England. Cranmer dreamed that by praying in common Christians would become one in heart and mind.[3] For Cranmer, however, it wasn’t enough just to pray the same words as other Christians: the words Christians pray must be grounded in Scripture. Thus, to read the prayer book is to witness how scriptural texts can be transformed into prayers. And to pray these prayers is to be drawn into what Ephraim Radner calls the “formative Scripturalism” of the prayer book.[4]

The scriptural prayers of the prayer book frame the public reading of the “whole” Bible in the vernacular, as indicated by the lectionary.[5] It would be going too far to say that the prayers are but window dressing. Still, the prayer book often seems to suggest that the public reading of Scripture is the main event. As Radner puts it, the prayer book was built on Cranmer’s conviction that

The “purest” imposition of scriptural “authority,” therefore, is an ordered process whereby the people are exposed to the “whole” Scriptures in a regular and socially interconnected way, such that the Bible’s content saturates their common hearing, and from this, their common life.[6]

To follow the rhythms of the daily office, and to participate in its services, is to enter into what Radner calls the allness of Scripture:[7] all that we are and experience becomes saturated by the Word of God as we gather together to receive all of Scripture as God’s Word to us.

For the Continental Reformers and their Puritan offspring, the most effective way to become thus saturated is to listen to a good sermon. But for the prayer book tradition, it is the “bare” reading of Scripture that takes precedence. The rubrics of Morning Prayer testify to this precedence. After the Scripture readings, ministers are instructed that “A sermon may be preached.” A sermon may be preached. Why may a sermon be preached? A sermon may be preached because Scripture has done its work even when it isn’t. A sermon may be preached because Scripture works on its hearers in its own way, often apart from their interpretations of it. Isaiah 55:10-11 testifies powerfully to this fact:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

In defending the prayer book tradition, and the way it makes preaching discretionary, Richard Hooker (1554-1600) argued that, although we preach when we deliver sermons, we also preach when we read Scripture publicly. Hooker ultimately regarded this second form of preaching superior. He argued that the Puritan elevation of the sermon is a human-centered practice: it relies on the preacher’s choice of text, tailors the Bible to address personal homiletic needs, and makes the human interpretation of Scripture the centre of worship.[8]  The “bare” reading of Scripture, on the other hand, relies on the inherent power of the Word.[9]

Hooker is interested in the way that Old and New Testament texts are read consecutively so that the “whole book of God” is read in a year. For Hooker, this practice enables the allness of Scripture to be imparted to the gathered community. Thus, for Hooker, to speak of the power of Scripture is to speak of the way the reach of God’s counsel is extended over a community as the reach of individual scriptural words is extended through the “bare” reading of juxtaposed Scriptural texts.

“Bare” reading and Anglican hermeneutics

But just how unique is Anglicanism’s “formative Scripturalism”? It is certainly not unique in the sense of being unprecedented. The practice of publicly reading Old Testament texts and then Old Testament and New Testament texts together was crucial to the development of patristic spirituality and theology. In my mind, Anglicanism’s approach does stand out among the historic churches of the West.

The uniqueness of the Anglican approach to Scripture is more readily brought into relief when compared to other Reformation churches. A single example here will suffice. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written in 1734. The librettist is unknown but is thought to be Picander (1700-64). The oratorio is composed of nine pieces of music: four chorales, three recitatives, and two arias. The texts for two of the recitatives are taken directly from Luke’s Gospel. They are important because some of the other pieces comment upon them. The chorales, ecstatic utterances of the soul in response to the incarnation, are the high points of the oratorio. Here there is no “bare” reading of Scripture. We are carried along with sung scriptural commentary so that our souls, too, can find union with the divine.[10]

George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was composed eight years later, in 1741, with the help of librettist Charles Jennens (1700-73), if that’s what he should be called. At most, Jennens can be credited as Handel’s “compiler,” since the text of Messiah is taken entirely from the King James Bible and from the Psalms of the Book of Common Prayer. The libretto is a veritable whirlwind tour of Scripture, which juxtaposes “bare” Scriptural texts one after another.[11] Messiah is a musical tribute to the prayer book’s formative Scripturalism.

The Continental Reformation’s approach to Scripture can be described as “mediated.” The preached word and the theologian’s systematization are necessary to facilitate the proper reception of God’s Word. For Anglicanism, on the other hand, no such mediation is necessary. Anglicanism’s approach to scriptural mediation can be described as commentary deferred. The prayer book tradition elects either to withhold comment or to defer comment until it is satisfied that it has been sufficiently exposed to the allness of Scripture. In other words, Scripture mediates our reception of it. Scripture imparts its allness to its hearers through the reading of juxtaposed scriptural texts, and the reception of this allness is expressed in and through figural interpretation.

The interpreter who receives a single text of Scripture interprets the individual words of that text in order to mediate their application to the contemporary context. But the interpreter who responds to the allness of Scripture receives scriptural figures that  draw together Scripture and the contemporary context. Such an interpreter needs only to follow these figures where they lead in order to further elucidate God’s way with his world. As Radner puts it, the prayer book tradition invites Christians to receive Scripture’s referents as figures that draw us “from one set of referents or beings to another, across times and spaces, whatever these may constitute.”[12]


True to their forbears, contemporary Lutheran and Reformed theologians such as Robert Jenson and John Piper continue to endorse a hermeneutic of three terms that highlights the mediating role of the preached word: Scripture à Gospel (or doctrine) à World. In this configuration, scriptural commentary is crucial to facilitate a linear movement from ancient Scripture to contemporary world. Over the years, Anglican preachers and theologians have, of course, adopted different hermeneutics and homiletics. And in the last 200 years an increasing number have embraced a hermeneutic of three terms that looks to ideology to mediate ancient text and contemporary world. The prevalence of this approach should not obscure the fact that it can hardly be identified as quintessentially Anglican. If we are to speak at all of Anglican biblical interpretation, we must speak of an approach that begins with the juxtaposition of scriptural words and ends with two terms rather than three, with the apposition of Scripture and world in figural relation.

To interpret and to preach the Bible in the modern age is to be confronted with its nakedness. Much modern engagement with the Bible is, accordingly (and following Schleiermacher), an attempt to sew together frail patchworks of leaves to conceal Scripture’s lewdness (Gen. 3:7). These patchworks, however, are both inadequate and unnecessary, for God has provided garments of skin from the body of the Word (3:21). Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7). Royal robes now cover his body from Genesis through to Revelation. And as we read — even the parts that require special modesty (12:24) — we behold his glory, the glory of the one and only (John 1:14).


[1] Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016), p. 7.

[2] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity. 2nd edition (SCM, 2011), p. 6.

[3] Cranmer believed that there was no orthodoxy apart from “communal or authorized Christian life shared among such groups.” See Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 63.

[4] Ibid., p. 100.

[5] There are a few omissions in the 1662 lectionary (most notably the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles). This enterprising blogger has noted them all.

[6] Ibid., p. 103.

[7] Radner, Time and the Word, p. 220.

[8] Ibid., p. 223.

[9] Ibid., p. 224.

[10] In my mind, the Christmas Oratorio perfectly expresses Luther’s conviction that the preacher transforms the word of Scripture into a living word. See A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word: Martin Luther, Doctor of Sacred Scripture (Eerdmans, 1969), p. 90.

[11] The Oratorio moves through the following texts: Isa. 40, Hag. 2, Mal. 3, Isa. 7, Matt. 1, Isa. 40, Isa. 60, Isa. 9, Luke 2, Zech. 9, Isa. 35, Isa. 40, Matt. 11, John 1, Isa. 53, Ps. 22, Ps. 69, Lam. 1, Isa. 53, Ps. 16, Ps. 24, Heb. 1, Ps. 68, Isa. 52, Rom. 10, Ps. 2, Rev. 19, Rev. 11, Job 19, 1 Cor.  15, Rom. 8, and Rev. 5.

[12] Radner, Time and the Word, p. 7.


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