Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Bible as Liberator and Oppressor (midweek)

The Bible as Liberator and Oppressor
Fr. Tony’s Midweek Message
June 21, 2017

Literary critic Harold Bloom made the following comment about the role of Bible in the reformation and in our contemporary world:

“One of the great ironies of Protestant history is that the exaltation of scripture, which in the seventeenth century endowed Baptists and other Protestants with freedom from institutional constraints and with spiritual autonomy, has become, as the twentieth century closes, the agent for depriving Baptists and other Protestants of their Christian Liberty, their soul competency to read and interpret the Bible, each person by her own Inner Light.” (The American Religion, p, 221)

The early reformation’s call for Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone!) was a political act aimed at demanding that the powers of Church and State be held accountable to something beyond themselves.  By it, the reformers sought to rid themselves of what the Prayer Book called “the enormities of the Bishop of Rome.”  Calvinists and Lutherans both sought to end the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” by using the Bible, read without the filter of priest or pope giving the interpretation, to break the power of appeals to tradition and papal authority.   By demanding that Scripture be the sole governing authority, the reformers sought to liberate the Christian to live the Gospel without interference. 

But the appeal to “Scripture alone” was flawed.  Tradition and the authority of the Church had identified which books were included in scripture and which were not.  Scripture had always been read and understood in the context of the Church’s liturgy, worship, and teaching:  you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,” (2 Peter 1:20).   Protestants, once unmoored from tradition and moored in theory only in the Bible, broke into dozens of warring sects and different mutually exclusive understandings of the Bible they claimed was their sole authority.   

The Anglican tradition has always seen the weakness here.  So we have insisted on using scripture only for the limited purposes of establishing doctrine and making requirements of people, but also in using tradition and reason to interpret and apply scripture. 

In the end, it turned out that the Protestant take on the Bible became itself a tyrant every bit as unchallengeable as the papacy of the late middle ages.   Bible translations themselves became dependent on doctrinal formularies of such writers as Luther, Calvin, and Knox.   Take as an example the word “sin” in scripture.  When it is used today, it has a huge doctrinal and emotional baggage, including deliberate rebellion, impurity, and uncleanness.  But these overtones more often than not are not present when the Greek and Hebrew words it translates occur in the original texts.   More often, they simply mean short-comings or failures.  Another example is how the doctrine of substitutionary punishment—a doctrine found as such no where in any Biblical text—seems to be imbedded in the English translation of passage after passage. 

One of the great challenges we face as Christians in this day and age is to find the Biblical text once more liberating, and not a tool for oppression.  We need to liberate the text of the Bible.  We who preach it should preach it in its liberating power.  We who translate it must intentionally seek ways of translating it that reflect this.  We need to work to end the Babylonian captivity of the Bible.  

Our Thursday Bible study class led in the winter by Fr. Morgan knows that one way for lay people to help do this is to always learn to reply to “the BIBLE says,” with the question, “and what else does the Bible say?” 

Grace and Peace,
Fr. Tony+