“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” 2 Timothy 3:16
Sometimes it seems that the Bible is the most owned and least read of books. Even now, there are probably few houses in rural Ireland where there would not be a Bible somewhere—whether it be the family Bible, in which the generations have been recorded, or a Bible received as a baptismal gift, or a Bible received at school, through studying Religious Education or through the work of the Gideons. But if you were to ask how many of those Bibles are read, the answer would probably be not too many of them.
Setting out on a thirteen week survey of the Bible, we are dealing with a book that is really almost unknown to the majority of people. It’s probably less known than the hymn book. Arranging funerals: asking people if there are favourite hymns they would like sung and there will probably be at least a few suggestions; ask them if there are Scripture readings they would like, and they will probably look blankly.
The churches are, in part, responsible for a situation in which the Bible has become an unknown country. Ministering in Dublin, there was no service in our parish on Sunday evenings in July and August, which gave an opportunity to attend worship elsewhere. Going to a large evangelical gathering one Sunday evening was an inspiring occasion. There was great music and singing; there was a very reflective time of prayer; and there was an excellent sermon. Only at the end, did the thought occur that there had been no Scripture reading during the entire hour and a half of the service. A Brethren friend tells of similar experiences and complains of attending assemblies where people might read just one verse of Scripture.
If we look at times of spiritual renewal, right back to the days of Saint Patrick, we see they are times when people rediscovered Scripture, rediscovering this collection of writings which tell the story of God’s dealings with his people.
The telling of the story was one that went through a long process of prayer and discernment. Jewish leaders and then the early Church had to decide what they were going to regard as Scripture; they had to ask themselves, ‘what is to be included? The books were selected according to a ‘canon’ or rule of Scripture, which set down the criteria for what could be recognized as Scripture, and what should be excluded.
If we were asked how many books were in the Bible, most of us would answer sixty-six: thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. But our answer is determined by the tradition from which our version of the Bible comes. Bibles following the Protestant canon, the rule by which books were chosen, have thirty-nine Old Testament books; those following the Roman Catholic canon have forty-six; while those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition have fifty-one. There is agreement between the traditions on the twenty-seven books of the New testament.
The additional books not included in the Protestant canon will sometimes be found in Protestant bibles. They are known as the Apocrypha, literally ‘hidden’. The Apocryphal books come from a time known as the inter-testamental period, the time between the end of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ. In Roman Catholic Bibles, the Apocryphal books will be included among the other books, because they were written as though they were the successor to earlier material. If included in Protestant Bibles, they will generally be in a section between the two testaments. When it comes to the Apocrypha, the teaching of the Church of Ireland is set down in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, where Article 6 says that the church may read the books of the Apocrypha, ‘for example of life and instruction in behaviour; but it does not use them to establish any doctrine’.
The canon of Old Testament Scripture, the list of books to be included, was fixed between 200 BC and 200 AD, while the canon of the New Testament was completed by around 400 AD. There was a long process of prayer, testing and discernment.
Last year, 2011, marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James’ Version of the Bible, and in a BBC broadcast Melvyn Bragg paid tribute to what has been described as ‘the Book of Books’. It has been the best selling book in the world and has had a greater impact than any other book.
Melvyn Bragg saw the King James’ Bible as responsible for the spread of Protestant churches, and being the greatest influence on the enrichment of the English language and its literature. But he saw it as about more than religion and culture. The King James Version has been the Bible of wars, from the English Civil War until modern times. It had a profound influence on social and political movements, including the movements for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women, and it was a major influence in the growth of democracy—all this from a book which is hardly read by many of the people who would purport to follow its teachings.
We sometimes approach the Bible with a casual and almost dismissive attitude, not assuming the seriousness it deserves. The word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek word ‘biblos’, simply meaning ‘book’, so it was traditionally given the prefix ‘holy’ to make clear the point that it was something special, something sacred, that it was not a book like any other.
Our attitude towards the Bible as a physical, material thing would be thought strange by people from other religious backgrounds. Muslims and Jews handle their Scriptures with deep reverence, Christians don’t have such an attitude; Bibles may be thrown around, battered, discarded, even put in amongst other stuff for second hand stalls at church sales, and we remain untroubled.
The Bible is a book that has come to us through centuries of study; it is a book that has changed the world in which we lived; it is a book that should be treated as precious. Even if we were not religious people, the Bible would be a book worthy of respect, worthy of investigation. As Christians, we should hold Scripture in the highest regard, we should be prepared to read, and to reflect on what we have read because we believe through it God speaks to us.
At the beginning of this series, it is worth thinking about what the Bible means to us; we can think about how it has reached us and the impact it has had in history, but ultimately being a Christian is not about history nor about social and political changes, it is about our individual relationship with Jesus.
One of the changes that came when our church moved from 17th Century to 20th Century English in the 1980s was in the words that came at the end of Scripture readings. The words, ‘Here endeth the lesson’ were replaced by, ‘This is the Word of the Lord’. This was a statement of faith; this was saying that this is God speaking to us. The congregational response is our response to hearing God speaking. ‘Thanks be to God’ we say, and I wonder how often we ever stop to think about what it is we are saying.
When we say, ‘Thanks be to God’, we are accepting the reading for ourselves, just as when we say ‘thank you’ for anything else we might be given. Having accepted it, it is our decision as to how we shall respond.
No-one else can believe for us; no-one else can know how great our how little is our faith. Each of us has to ask ourselves, ‘what place does the Bible have in my own personal faith?’ If that place is not large, then the question must be asked as to how we will we know Jesus and what he asks of us if we never read Scripture?
The Bible is our standard of faith, it is our measure of what we should believe and what we should reject. Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which sets out the books of the Bible we believe to be from God, says, ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man’.
The Bible has all we need. In the coming weeks, we shall glimpse what it offers.