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.

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.

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.

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.

There is No Secret

How should we read the Bible? What questions, techniques, and assumptions can we bring to allow us to infallibly discover what Scripture “really says”? There is no magic. There is no guarantee. If there was some inviolable formula, we probably would have discovered it by now. Or, since God desires for us to know the truth, perhaps he would have included it as an appendix in our Bibles.

In the last few posts, I have been examining how we read and how we ought to read. Prayerful reading is good, large-chunk “survey” reading is good, and memorizing is good, but nothing is foolproof. There are pitfalls with any approach.

I was reproved by my wife a reader after my last post for advocating practices that could promote individualistic interpretation. It was a fruitful conversation. Yes, telling people to privately pray through texts can lead to the dangers of individual interpretation. On the other hand, it can allow us to be be convicted about certain things we may not want to discuss in our small group study.

Do I advocate this method because I am an INTJ and I deplore group projects? Perhaps. I can’t deny that. I don’t totally hate working with others, but I don’t like working with others when work only occurs during the group meetings. Everyone should bring something to the table. If you’re going to be in a Bible study, do some study before you come.

Much of my writing and thoughts on reading Scripture is reactionary to what I see in the church. If I fell into a church that was heavy on private prayer for interpretation, I would likely be advocating coming together to talk about it more.

That is possibly the real key here. There is no one method; we need multiple methods. We need to hear, to read, to pray, to study, to meditate, to contemplate. Then we need to come back again later and do it all over again. Scripture doesn’t change, but we do. Our context does. We have different experiences and different struggles. Miraculously, this one book seems to have something to say about all of it.

We need the Holy Spirit, both in ourselves and speaking through others. We need the church, past and present. God didn’t give us a handbook because handbooks can be used as needed and then set aside. How often do you consult the owner’s manual for your car? Not very often, if you are like most people. Occasionally, perhaps when some new light illumines your dash or you’re trying to remember how to do something like replace a tail light.

But Scripture is not like that. It is a daily source of guidance, comfort, correction, and hope. If someone came to me asking for direction on how to approach Scripture, after finding out what they are currently doing, I would suggest they add something different.

Do you typically just read a chapter per day? Sit down on a Saturday or Sunday and read an entire book. Do you read the Bible through every year? Read a book through every week or month. Do you approach the Bible as an academic? Try more prayer and emotion.

We cannot exhaust the richness of Scripture. It informs our prayers and our conduct. Until we are perfect as he is perfect, we must keep reading and applying.

Steeping

We not only benefit from reading the whole of Scripture as we discussed yesterday. There is also benefit in settling in with a book or a passage and ruminating on it. Choose a chapter or a section of a chapter and read it every day for a month in addition to your regular Bible reading. This will accomplish two things.

First, you will see the chosen passage contrasted to whatever else you’re reading. Sometimes this will bring illumination; sometimes it will bring confusion. It helps you to see Scripture in the light of Scripture.

Second, it will allow the chosen passage to get beyond your initial mental filter. It doesn’t matter if you tend to initially process information as facts or feelings, spending a month with it will give it time to get beyond your first, and maybe second, default mode of interpretation.

As these two things are happening, it is helpful to explicitly pray for God to open your eyes to see and your ears to hear what he has for you. John Chrysostom left a prayer for us that I like to use. Our goal is to know the Trinity better and to become more like Christ. Asking the aid of the one we seek is probably a good idea.

We can also aid the process by spending some time with the passage besides just reading it through. This may not be practical every day, but after having read through it for a week, try praying through it. This shifts our focus from, “What does it mean?” to, “What is God telling me through this?”

When I do this, I have a piece of paper handy to jot down my collected one-sentence prayers in response to the phrases in the passage. I focus on praying for myself rather than using this time to pray for anyone else, because that can be a subtle way to shift my focus off of what the Spirit may be trying to teach me.

I’m not looking for insights into the text as I do this. This isn’t: “Lord, help me to understand what Paul meant when he wrote….” That can be an appropriate prayer, to be sure, but for this exercise, keep the focus on what these verses are challenging you to do, say, or be.

Often, your prayer may seem like you are merely parroting back the words of the passage to God. That is okay; there are no points for creativity here. God isn’t impressed with our original insights. Occasionally, though, something that seems a bit tangential to the passage at hand may be brought to mind. That is okay as well. This is between you and God.

Sometimes, if the passage is a story, it can be helpful to try to see the events through the eyes of each person in the narrative. If it is more of a teaching section, reflect on your various roles and relationships and how it might guide each of them. Even those passages we tend to skim over — genealogies and instructions for sacrifices — can be useful in this regard, though I would suggest starting with something a bit easier. Even in those monotonous genealogies, we can consider the names, some of whom we may know something of, others of whom we must wonder what kind of person they were. For the sacrificial law in the Old Testament, consider the symbolism and the significance of what was being instructed.

Try this exercise once a week on the passage you are steeping yourself in. Don’t be in any rush to share anything you pray with anyone else. If you think you have found something “new,” consider whether it is in adherence with the Creeds and the teaching of the Church. Compare it to your larger reading of Scripture. Finally, if you are stuck in some matter of application, set it aside for now and focus on the phrases that are clearer.