Category Archives: Bible

Book Review: Holy Writings, Sacred Text

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John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 1997. 210 p.

Published in England as: The Spirit and the Letter: Studies in the Biblical Canon
SPCK, London, United Kingdom. 1997.

I first discovered this book about six years ago through the footnotes of Christian Smith’s provocative work: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Smith challenges the presuppositions of what he terms “solo scriptura,” the evangelical (or even fundamentalist) view that the Bible is all-sufficient. In this view, anyone can read the Bible and discover what they need to know for salvation.*

He lists many problems with this view, but one of the most damning is the observation that if the Bible was really that clear, then why under this approach do we have such widespread interpretive diversity? Let’s park that thought for a moment and look into Barton’s book.

There are several interesting bits in Holy Writings, Sacred Text. Barton examines how different New Testament texts were handled in the early church, and whether or not those means of using them were consistent with how other Scripture (the Old Testament) was handled by these same authors.

He also examines different characteristics of what makes a work sacred, mostly from Judaism, and considers the possible implications for the New Testament. His insights into why Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs were questioned as being part of the canon are interesting.

Barton’s main goal in this book is to define the the term “canon” and to examine the implications of the various ways in which the term has been used over the centuries. He also tries to intuit what the Church Fathers thought about the New Testament in particular in terms of the various definitions of “canon.”

If you think this sounds like a niche book appealing mainly to those interested in theology with a bent toward epistemology, I won’t correct you. This is an academic work that is probably found mostly in theological libraries or as the text for graduate-level theological courses. But Barton does draw some conclusions that have implications for a much wider audience.

Much of the work deals with questions of authority, either explicitly or, more often than not, implicitly. After all, the question of canon is a question of what works are authoritative in the life of a believer. In the strictest sense, a canon is a body of works which are both granted authority and are deemed to be complete — no more can be added. This raises the secondary question (which Barton leaves largely untouched), “Who has the authority to grant this authority?”

Barton states this most explicitly in the middle of the book: “…it is universally true that traditions giving an authoritative interpretation of a written text are in effect — though not in intention — more authoritative than the text they interpret.” (p. 102) In other words, whatever person, institution, or “tradition” declares the teaching (or canon) of scripture to be authoritative has more authority than the scripture.

If that seems hard to swallow, consider a more humdrum parallel. When I have been overseas for extended periods, I have signed a general power of attorney for my wife in order to enable her to conduct business on my behalf. It is a very powerful document (and your attorney will caution you before you assign such power to anyone), but I can revoke it as well. If I can give and take away, I have more authority than the document itself, even if it can grant equal authority in terms of signing a lease or some other legal document.

Barton’s work placed a fundamental question in my mind when I first read it, and re-reading it recently has not changed it. “On whose authority do I accept that the Scripture is authoritative, trustworthy, and complete?”

Barton spends a fair amount of time considering the early church councils and the Church Fathers. He’s an Anglican priest in addition to being an Oxford scholar, so that isn’t all too surprising. I concur that those are authoritative sources, if for no other reasons than that they were much closer to the events recorded in Scripture than we are and large groups of people still appeal to them as authoritative.

For me, the real insight of Holy Writings, Sacred Text is that it forced me to examine what I thought about the role of tradition in my faith. It is a question for all believers to consider at some point. How do we know that what we believe is worth believing?


* Smith uses “solo” instead of “sola” purposefully to underline the ideal of “just a believer and a Bible.” Neither he nor I discount that Scripture can speak directly to a person, but as I detailed earlier, this is not normative. We need reason and tradition in order to protect us from drifting into heresy.

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Familiarity and Novelty

I’ve been reading upcoming texts in the lectionary for Sundays in Lent, and Psalm 23 shows up a few times. It is a very familiar Psalm to many of us. As I read it in the translation we are using for service, though, I had to slow down and read what it actually said instead of what I had memorized in my head. The same happens with the Our Father (aka the Lord’s Prayer) which most people (myself included) instinctively say in the translation in the Book of Common Prayer.

The reason we trip up when using “modern” translations on these two sections of Scripture is because we know them well in the older forms. This obvious bit of information led me to a less obvious hypothesis: If we were immersed deeper in our Bibles, we would be less likely to change translations, and the market for new versions would decline.

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I’m sure the current glut of versions is being driven by more than just our biblical illiteracy. There is a lot of capitalism-driven profit seeking from publishers; they see a market niche and are trying to exploit it. But it is hard to exploit a niche that doesn’t exist.

Our lack of biblical literacy is certainly an issue. We would do well to internalize the words of Scripture. They certainly have a better chance of being recalled if they are embedded within our minds and hearts. We can’t be formed by that which we are not allowing ourselves to be shaped by.

I stand by my assessment that the prevalence of translations is, in part, a reflection of our lack of engagement with the Bible.

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Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

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The Daily Lectionary: Why Bother?

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If you’ve read my past few posts, you may be asking yourself, “With all the challenges of creating a good daily lectionary, why not just start at Genesis and read through to Revelation in a year and be done with it?” Good question.

My initial answer is that there is nothing wrong with reading Scripture that way. There are many plans that will get you through the Bible in a year (or less) that you can access for free. There are some advantages to a daily lectionary sanctioned by the church, however.

First is coordinated reading with the rest of the church. You are reading the same passages on the same days. This may seem like a small thing, but there are times when knowing that we are not just making this up as we go along becomes important. There is value in bringing questions about a passage to your priest or your friend, knowing that it will be fresh in his mind since he recently read the same passage. A priest should be able to reference a passage in his sermon, knowing that at least some of his congregation has read it that week.

Having the readings correspond with the seasons of the church year is also an aid in devotion and further solidifies us as we are all figuratively and literally on the same page with where our focus lies. Advent, Lent, and Easter take on deeper meaning as seasons when we follow the lectionary which tries to steer us to appropriate and fitting readings for these seasons.

This leads into the second benefit which is accountability. The church says we are to read this today (just as she teaches us to pray). “Did you read your Bible today?” becomes a more meaningful question when the assumption behind it is “according to today’s lectionary.” There is no waffling and saying “yes” because you read the one verse at the end of a devotional.

But the most important reason to follow the lectionary of your church is submission. Yes, in some ways it is a trivial thing. As I said above, there are multiple ways to accomplish Scripture reading. But if your church says, “This way,” to respond, “No, my way,” reveals a problem. The Church does not say that you cannot also do it your way. Read Scripture as much as you want. But at a minimum, do it her way.

This simple act of submission teaches us to be obedient to the Church and her teaching both on the level of understanding salvation history and doctrine and in actually submitting to something. As you may be able to tell, I have strong feelings on the subject of lectionaries, so this has been tough for me. I have a hard time submitting to one that I think is less than great. But I am trying to learn to color within the lines. My non-parenthetical lectionary is an attempt to add some of my personal devotion on top of the lectionary instead of replacing it.

If you have not been a follower of the lectionary in your devotional practice, I challenge you to try it. If you aren’t Anglican, find the one your church prescribes. If your church doesn’t prescribe one…that’s probably a separate post. Join with the church in prayer, in reading, and in worship, that we might be one.

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A Non-Parenthetical Lectionary

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The Anglican Church in North America has published a daily office lectionary based on the 1962 Anglican Church of Canada daily lectionary. I will critique its manifold problems in a future post, but I have been working on a solution. First, an explanation.

What do I mean by “non-parenthetical”? Two things. First, it is a reference to a line in the preface to the first English Book of Common Prayer (1549) which says, “For they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once in the year.” Did you catch what was in the parenthesis? Or the greatest part thereof.

This remark has haunted Anglican lectionaries to this day. To my knowledge, none of them manage to include the entirety of the Scriptures in a year. This leads to the second sense of parenthetical which is that within some of these lectionaries, there are parenthetical verses listed — those that can be read, but are not prescribed.

What have I done to correct this? The simple thing to do is to divide all Scripture into 365 bits and go forth. But, because of the church calendar and the desire of most people to not put the New Testament off until Autumn each year, it is not so straightforward.

I have conducted a thorough analysis of the ACNA Daily Lectionary as it is to be read for 2017 (starting with Advent in 2016). Some of what I discovered in this analysis will be in my critique of this particular lectionary.

What I then set out to do was to add what was missing in a way that made sense. This allows a reader to use the NPL and still be “in synch” with others who are reading the ACNA Daily Lectionary. The largest change I made was to shift a chapter from Morning to Evening in a few places in order to preserve continuity.

Where possible, I have inserted the missing sections into the readings. If this was not possible, they were included in the 5th column which I have labeled “Supplementary” and can be read with Morning or Evening, or at any other time throughout the day. As much as I could, I tried to keep these readings near other related readings, though some were just placed where there was room. For example, Leviticus was deliberately placed in Lent in order to highlight the sacrificial system which Christ came to fulfill and complete.

I not only included missing Old Testament and New Testament passages, but also the entirety of the Apocrypha as recognized by the Anglican Church. (Some parts of the Apocrypha are included in the ACNA Daily Lectionary.) Because of the number of chapters omitted, I also repeated a few of the less-repeated New Testament chapters to fill things out.

My goal was to create a lectionary that follows the ACNA Daily Lectionary while also addressing its omissions. I wanted to create a daily lectionary that is non-parenthetical in either of the two senses addressed above. I believe I have accomplished that for 2017. If you find any errors or omissions, please let me know so I can address them.

Non-Parenthetical Lectionary

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Men Without Hats?

No, this isn’t a trip down memory lane, though if you want to relive The Safety Dance, you may. Today, I’m thinking about 1 Corinthians 11. This passage often brings up questions about women covering their heads, but it also states that men should not be covered when they pray.

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.

1 Corinthians 11:4 (ESV)

It’s easy to miss this injunction because most of the first 16 verses of this chapter are making the case for women to be covered. I have never (knowingly) prophesied, but I do pray, and it seems pretty clear that when I pray, I am not supposed have my head covered.

This has been culturally reinforced and supported in the United States as long as I know. Gentlemen remove their hats when they come indoors and when they pray. As fashions have changed in the last 50 years, with the demise of men routinely wearing hats, this has not been much of an issue. Occasionally, a young man will wear a hat indoors, and while routinely ignored in stores, it may attract some ire in a church.

One can find a surprising amount of discussion online on the decline of men wearing hats over the last century. However, I have been unable to find anything even close to the controversy that women’s head coverings seems to generate. This seems a bit odd since the same “formula” used to justify women being continually covered seems to apply to men just as well.

If man is not supposed to be covered when he prays, and we are called to pray without ceasing, then it logically follows that he should never wear a hat. But no one (that I can find) is proclaiming this “rule” or looking down on Christian men for wearing a hat outdoors. I have never heard of a Christian soldier asking for a religious exemption from wearing a hat or helmet.

What does this tell us? I’m not entirely sure, but I think a few conclusions can be drawn.

First, our culture’s practice has more force on us than we care to admit. We take our views of men’s hats from our culture, and since it doesn’t challenge scriptural teaching (unless we take the above “always pray, never cover” as binding) we accept it.

Second, we seem to ignore some passages of Scripture. Paul devotes 16 verses to the issue of head coverings. It seems to have been an important issue, yet these verse are not addressed in any major Sunday lectionary.¹

Third, it might be good to question why we do what we do. It is probably proper to allow custom and culture to dictate many matters of style or fashion for us, but do we ever reflect upon them from a Biblical perspective?

Finally, this may seem like making a mountain out of a molehill, but the means we use to resolve such issues are very important. The way we address controversial or contested topics with and in the Scriptures will dictate how we approach other issues with possibly farther-reaching implications than putting on or taking off a hat.


¹ I checked the Revised Common, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican Church of North America Sunday lectionaries.

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Withered

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The Anglican Church in North America has their own Sunday Lectionary now. I had been using the Revised Common Lectionary for the past several years, but decided I should probably get in line and use the one prescribed by my church. There is a lot of overlap, as there is in most post-Vatican II lectionaries.

There are also some differences. Some I discovered as I compared the two when the ACNA lectionary was first published, such as less diversity in the Psalms read. Others, I am discovering along the way. I don’t mind some passages being moved to other dates, but I can never be pleased about a passage dropping out of the lectionary.

To be fair, the passage I have in mind was hardly even in the RCL. It occurred as part of the Gospel reading for the Ninth Sunday of Epiphany and the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary time of Year B.  Due to the movement of Lent-Easter-Pentecost on the calendar, these Sundays don’t occur very often.¹

I read an article this week that made reference to the healing of the man with the withered hand. I thought it was meaningful so, as is my custom, I printed it off and went to file it on its appropriate Sunday. I checked my scripture index for the ACNA lectionary and found nothing even though the story occurs three times in the Synoptic Gospels.

Curious, I checked my index for the RCL and finally found it. Sure enough, the ACNA Sunday Lectionary shortened the Gospel reading for those Sundays and the story of the man with the withered hand was gone. Here’s Mark’s account of the healing, which is the one in the RCL:

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Mark 3:1-6 (ESV)

I’m not even sure I know what it means to have a withered hand. Crushed, deformed, broken, and paralyzed are all I have a frame of reference for. When I read withered, I think: dried up, shriveled, like much of the leaves and flowers in early November. The idea is pretty clear, however, that this man’s hand was useless.

We are apt to miss what is going on with this man for all the tension in the room with the Pharisees. Set that aside for a moment, though, and just consider the man standing in front of Jesus and the congregation with a hand that does not work.

“Stretch out your hand.”

Two miracles occur here. The first, that we often miss, is the man doesn’t reply, “I can’t.” We have the idea that this may have been a lifelong deformity. He hadn’t been sitting on his hand in Synagogue and it fell asleep and was temporarily unresponsive. That requires no healing, only time to awake. It was obvious to all that this hand was not mission capable.

“Stretch out your hand.”

He does, and it is restored. Through his faith, he attempted to do what his experience in life up to that very moment had taught him was impossible. Through this faith, he was healed. Faith takes action on the command of our Lord.


¹ In the next 20 years from 2017-2036, there is no Ninth Sunday of Epiphany. Only the four latest possible dates for Easter allow for this many Sundays in Epiphany. The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary time fares a little better, occurring 6 times in the next 20 years, but only half of those (2018, 2024, and 2027) fall on Year B.

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