John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

On The Role of Scripture in the Church

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

[I wrote this essay for a seminary scholarship application. I was asked to take the ordination vow below from the Episcopal Church and describe how our church tradition views Scripture as compared to a different tradition I'm familiar with.]

 

"I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation."

The Role of Scripture in the Life of the Episcopal Church,
and as Contrasted with Another Denomination

For nearly two thousand years, Christians have believed that the Old and New Testaments are in some form foundational to our faith. In this we share some identification with the other Peoples of the Book, Jews and Muslims, yet in addition to our distinct differences with these other faiths we have large divides on how to approach the Holy Scriptures within our own faith.

While one of the unique attributes of the Anglican tradition is that we value unity and diversity over uniformity on many topics which results in a broad range of understandings of topics like "the Word of God", there are some core perspectives we share as distinct from many other Christian denominations. To explore this I will contrast my upbringing within the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) with my new home in the Episcopal Church.

The Bible According to the EFCA

I was raised primarily in a church which began as a non-denominational Bible church but joined the EFCA denomination halfway through my 22 years in attendance. This tradition served as the original foundation of my faith, started me on my journey of engaging with Scripture and desiring a life of service to God more deeply, and also provided the theological storyline which I finally became convinced could not be sustained morally or biblically, leading me into the Episcopal Church.

The EFCA's Statement of Faith on the nature of the Bible declares it to be the verbally inspired Word of God, inerrant, the complete revelation for salvation, and the “ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged.”1 Further, they have an understanding of using "a Christological lens"2 to read Scripture which, in contrast to the Anglican use of the same term, sees all of the text as speaking about Jesus.

The Bible in Practice in the EFCA

Through a strongly conservative position on inspiration and inerrancy, the Bible is elevated within this tradition to be seen as the literal words of God, in which God overtakes even unique authors' voices for "God's purpose and intention."3 The text is also declared to be the complete and exclusionary authority over both salvation, which is understood as primarily about humanity's individual eternal states after death in either heaven or hell, and the rest of all human endeavor and knowledge.

Whether intended or not, these views of Scripture lead to several distinct practices as compared to the Anglican approach. First, every verse and short excerpt is considered instructive outside of its own historical and textual context. Bible verse memorization and the preaching of long analytical sermons on a few isolated verses are common in the tradition. Second, since all of Scripture is read as speaking of Christ, the Epistles and Old Testament narratives may take equal or even higher priority in preaching over the Gospels. In my personal experience, the Prophets are rarely read or studied in the EFCA from either pulpit or classroom. Third, Scripture is upheld as speaking directly to and in authority over all other sources of knowledge. This contributes to high rates of rejection of research and findings in both hard and soft sciences, with negative effects especially for those who may need psychological help. It also means that Scripture is often experienced as a source of rules and moral expectations for behavior. Fourth and finally, the focus on "salvation" as being primarily something we experience after our physical deaths on this earth removes most application of God's will toward our natural environment and the transformation of our lives before death is often reduced to a signifier of our eternal destination.

Significantly, the statement on "The Bible" for the EFCA comes immediately after the first article on "God" (this is newly reversed from the 1950 version), and two entries before any mention of Jesus Christ. I believe the implication is clear: the Bible is preeminent in the teaching of the EFCA tradition over and above the living Christ.

The Role of Scripture in the Episcopal Church

In contrast, the Episcopal Church focuses less on the detailed exposition of the nature of Scripture, and more on how the Bible is interacted with and how it instructs the life of the church. We contain a wide spectrum of intellectual understandings of the text, but a unity around its use in practice. In regard to our perspective on the nature of the text itself, we break from the EFCA in our general rejection of the concept of inerrancy, our embrace of scholarship which puts verbal inspiration in question, and in not claiming the authority of Scripture over all aspects of life and knowledge. We affirm the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God in a sense, but we don't see them as the words of God. Our Catechism begins with the humanness of the books, written by people “under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” to show “God at work in nature and history...and to set forth the life and teachings of Jesus and to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom for all people.”4  The Rev. Dr. Frederick Schmidt has written that while the Bible plays a central role for Anglicans, "it has rarely been used in the sharply prescriptive fashion that has characterized some traditions."5

He continues with describing a distinctly Anglican understanding of authority: "Authority shares the same root as the word 'to author' and as such, refers first and foremost, not to the power to control with all that both of those words suggest,  but to the capacity to author creativity, with all that both of these words suggest."6 Schmidt goes on to explain that, at its best, the Anglican tradition seeks to use Scripture to illuminate, to understand, our existing reality so that we are able to transform it, not to force our reality to conform to the the text like other denominations seek to do. To do this well we must understand the context from which the texts first emerged, so that we can get to the spirit behind the words.

The Bible in Practice in the Episcopal Church

In my study and experience of the role of Scripture in the Episcopal Church thus far several things stand out in positive contrast to the EFCA’s perspective I was formerly trained in.

First, engaging with and being led by the Spirit through Scripture is seen as a corporate practice, a work of the people, not a static personal belief. David Ford prioritizes our journey with Scripture as strongly influencing our understanding of it, writing that "we have lived within and inhabited [the Bible], through worship, preaching, teaching and meditation."7

Second, we are required to engage with the entirety of the text by submitting to the discipline of the prescribed lectionary readings. When Schmidt was asked by a member of the EFCA why someone who had great interest in the Bible would be part of the Episcopal Church, he responded "Because we read the whole of Scripture and not just the parts of it that suit us."8 Because we are unable to avoid troublesome or contradictory sections of the Bible, we are forced to acknowledge its complexity and challenge to certainty of interpretations. In addition, we count more of the original canon as Scripture than the EFCA as we continue to read the Apocrypha.

Third, we believe that our faith requires the use of both tradition and reason to understand the Bible. We do not see Scripture as authoritative over science or other forms of reason, and we see it as a product of and through the eyes of tradition. By openly acknowledging these contributions, we gain control over them rather than being controlled unconsciously as some others are who fail to understand this.

Finally, our understanding of the Christological lens necessary in reading the Bible is different from the EFCA. Instead of seeing all of Scripture speaking of Christ, we see Jesus Christ as speaking for God above the rest of Scripture. This is emphasized in practice when we elevate the Gospel reading in our liturgy above the reading of the other passages. For us as Episcopalian Christ-followers, Christ is the “norm” of Scripture, clarifying and taking precedence over the rest of the canon.

Conclusion

The Book of Common Prayer states that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (p. 855). We understand this work to be undergirded by Scripture which gives us all that is necessary for salvation. In considering this work of salvation, we may contemplate the root of the word, sózó in Greek, which can be read as to heal or make whole. The Holy Scriptures lead us to the healing of the world, by revealing the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who we believe is the true incarnation of God’s Spirit on this earth, calling us to work together to welcome the kingdom of God from heaven to earth.

Endnotes

  1. "We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises." — EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 2. (2008).
  2. "We read, interpret and understand the Bible through a Christological lens, through Christ, or we misunderstand the Bible, or we read it as Jew (particularly the Old Testament) not a Christian...Christ is the focus of the Bible..." — Greg Strand, Director of Biblical Theology and Credentialing, EFCA SoF Article 2 Commentary (2008), p. 8.
  3. "To embrace the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures means that we believe the Holy Spirit guided the writers of Scripture, 'through the words of human authors,' such that even their choice of words conformed to God's purpose and intention." — Ibid. (p. 5)
  4. “An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism” — The Book of Common Prayer (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979), 853.
  5. Frederick Schmidt, Introduction to the Conversations with Scripture Series, p. x. 2009.
  6. Ibid.
  7. David F. Ford, "The Bible, the World and the Church I" in The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference 1998, ed. J. Mark Dyer et al. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 332.
  8. Marcus Borg, “Does the Bible Matter? Progressive Christians and Scripture,” Patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg. 2014.