How We Got the Bible
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, December 8, 2019
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
So likewise, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand… Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
HOW DID WE GET THE BIBLE? We have dozens of English translations of the Bible, in colorful bindings, with thousands of marginal notations and commentaries, all starting “In the Beginning God.” They come printed, ready-made for us. How did this majestic work come to be?
The idea of holy writ is common to many religions—Jews & Christians have the Holy Bible. Moslems read the Koran. Hindus, Zoroastrians, Egyptians, Taoists, and Buddhists all have their holy books as well. Recent religions have their Book of Mormon, writings of Mary Baker Eddy, Dianetics, Science of Mind and so on. What makes ours any better or more true? And of what value is our ancient book?
The Bible meets a real needed for us. It stands so that our claims to truth will not be changed, perverted, watered down, altered, or follow man instead of God. If there is something divine in Scripture, we dare not change it. It establishes authority—in order to weigh any new thought, doctrine, revelation, or interpretation—to see if any new teaching bears out in the light of Scripture.
Scriptural writings contain divinely given knowledge, cultural history, wisdom, accounts of origins, divinity and humanity, all defined for us. It’s our story, for the most part, and how humans have encountered God. It’s not really God’s story, except as people have encountered Him. God’s own story would be something indeed.
The Bible comes by co-authorship. We read it in our own human languages, written by human hands with human thought, but it also has a divine source, the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and His protection of the message. It’s guided by the Holy Spirit, and therefore eternal and consistent. It is human, and its books come by various authors, in their own times, circumstances, and purposes. As Christ is God in man Incarnate, the Bible is God’s word incarnate in human language, a kind of divine and human cooperation.
But it is not automatic writing or simply divine dictation. The Koran claims to be written by an angel-visitor, Gabriel. But the Bible is given to conscious subjects, writing as inspired by God and kept from error.
I like to say, “The Bible Didn’t Write the Church.” That is, we didn’t first have a holy book, then having read it, we started a church based on it. Instead, the Church was created by Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit, with a precious deposit of truth and the first generation’s experience of the 2nd Person of the Trinity on earth. And these first members, in time, wrote their stories and their letters. The Church existed decades before writing any of the New Testament. The Word of God, as describing the Bible, is the voice of the Holy Spirit, joined with the voices of human writers speaking to us today with His authority and the authority of the Church.
The Church has within itself, and only within itself, the authority to create, select, preserve and interpret the words of Scripture. It is against the Bible itself to consider personal, schismatic or novel interpretations. St. Peter writes, “We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:19-21
The “Word of God” does not apply to any one word or phrase in Scripture as though each and every word, especially in our English translations, exists as the divine revelation. Viewing each passage in light of the whole Bible is essential in order to avoid error. Scripture interprets and confirms scripture. The truth comes line upon line, verses and authors lending to a whole story, a network of truth and revelation. It also is established by a combined, historic understanding of many Christians looking at the same verse.
We believe in Scriptural inerrancy, that the Bible is true. We believe God made the heavens and the earth by speaking them into existence through the Word, the divine 2nd Person, in the Presence of the Holy Spirit. But to understand Scripture requires that we not insist on over-literal interpretations where they are not intended. Is that important?
Jesus is said to have bodily risen from death. That was not poetic, allegorical, nor was it a mere vision. He ate food, invited people to touch Him, said a ghost does not have flesh and bones as He evidently has. On the other hand, whether Jonah was swallowed by a whale or a great fish, may not be so important. That he was swallowed by some sea creature is enough to know.
What was known as “scripture” to early 1st century Jews and Christians was roughly the same books as our Old Testament today plus Greek books we call Apocrypha. Different Jewish sects attributed varying authority to different books. The Sadducees gave authority only to the first five Books, the Books of Moses, the Torah. Pharisees gave authority to many books, the Old Testament we know, plus commentaries and applications.
The “Bible” Jesus knew consisted of books comprising the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and the Song of songs). These writings comprise earth’s history & a family history of the Jews, God’s Law & self-revelation, prophecies, songs, poetry, philosophical discourses, personal testimonies, court documents, genealogies, and apocalypses—things generally regarding the end times.
The Jewish canon for their Old Testament books reached its present form (Genesis to Malachi) only after 70 AD, after the destruction of Jerusalem, decades after the church was born. Events related in The Acts of the Apostles were already history. A Jewish council was called, in part to distinguish Judaism from its troublesome Christian offspring. They determined to exclude certain books, the Greek Apocrypha, preferring Hebrew books alone as being inspired. To create a canon is to certify some things as being your authorities for your religion or group, and exclude others. To add the Koran or Book of Mormon to the Bible, for instance, creates error and conflicts with the Bible. The Jews decided to stop their canonical books at Malachi, the last book given in Hebrew.
And who wrote the New Testament books? Our first author was likely St. Paul. He wrote various summaries of the faith, arguments against heresies, explanations of Jewish, Greek and Roman worldviews, settled pastoral issues, mentoring his understudies, and kept the Gospel message brief: Christ was God and man, and He died and rose again. He wrote no word of the Nativity or miracles, and very few of Jesus’ teachings. His letters—we call Epistles—were sent, copied, circulated, and read in churches to teach and establish rules of conduct and faith.
The Gospel was at first an oral tradition. Teaching out loud was the common manner of transmitting truth in the 1st century. People would create the story, make a fairly set speech for the Apostles to deliver. The close similarity we find in the first three Gospels stems from this single oral tradition. Matthew, Mark and Luke all wrote their books based on it, adding comments of things they additionally knew. John, however, seems to have written a completely new thematic drama of who Christ was, and adds many important details, enriching the account of Christ’s life, miracles and teachings.
If today there was no Bible canon, and you had to select from all the available writings on Barnes & Noble shelves, what books would you choose for your authoritative books? Beside the books chosen as our New Testament in the early centuries, there were for them many other books in circulation: so-called Gospels of Peter, James, Thomas; the Epistles of Barnabas, Clement, and Ignatius, the Shepherd of Hermas, and a teachings called the Didache. These also were available and used as teaching texts for a time.
But time and inspiration seem to have made the choices. Although no Great Council of the Church ratified any list of New Testament canonical books, our canon was generally in use throughout the wide array of churches from western Europe to Persia by the end of the 2nd century. They sensed the authority of our current New Testament books through trial and opposition, correction of error, and the guiding light of the Spirit.
One measure of authenticity that was consciously used by them was the selection of 1st century eyewitnesses. Either the author was an Apostle of Jesus, or he wrote from teachings directly gained from them. Other books, valuable as they may be, were excluded from our canon.
This is the Church’s book, our own library. Only the Church has the right to interpret and stipulate what is meant by what we read in the Bible. Every cult starts when someone reads the Bible and invents their own meaning for the words. A Bible verse can prove anybody’s so-called fact. It must be the Church that determines what it means.
A biblical word or verse may not be interpreted alone by itself, but in the light of all other verses. The Church first brings its apostolic eyewitness accounts, the original Gospel and Apostolic doctrines, then confirms them with Scripture. A Scripture must be interpreted in light of the context, meaning and purpose of its own book. Long-held historic, Christian interpretations hold more weight than novel “discoveries” and new “revelations” wrung out of Scriptures by violence to their original and true meaning. 20th century doctrines such as the Latter rain; new Prophetic or Apostolic offices; the Pre-tribulation “Rapture,” the Prosperity Gospel, or necessity of tongues cannot be insisted upon as they conflict with 2,000 years of Church teaching.
St. Paul wrote that the sacred writings were given to teach us, so that the long suffering shown in their time-proven words might strengthen and comfort us. Rom 15 St. John wrote the most controversial book in his visions of heaven, and the last days of this world, with the sun blackened out, the moon gone bloody, everything on earth in shambles, then the Son of man returning for us in a cloud with glory. But Revelation is just as Jesus had told us, promising to us that His words would never pass away. His words are enshrined in this compendium of the writings of many holy people, astonished people, inspired people, knowing they must write, sensing what words to use, keeping faith with the Spirit, making His truths known. He would guide the selection process of which writings to include, written over 1500 years and in many nations, leaving a deposit of truth that holds together, agrees in every important detail, though written by many hands. This book, this sacred story, is our story and the tale of those who encountered their God.
Incarnation is the central truth and wonder of Christianity. No other faith has it as we do, the Word of God is first a Person, Jesus Christ, given to us solid and human as we are, who was and is God’s Word for eternity. Then this book, His story, is given to us inbreathed with the truth of God’s unique self-revelation. We value it, prize it, use it. But we don’t worship it.
But don’t do as I did as a young man, leaving it with other books on an unused shelf. Take it, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it. It is mental and spiritual food to you. God and man worked out together its content and writing, saving, translating, and distribution of it.
It is a light in our dark world. It is our story, our common past, and our future. Read it. All we do here in this sanctuary is proven by its passages. All we are, all we believe, is proven by its authority.