Monday, 24 November 2008

The plain meaning of the Bible

Does the Bible have a plain meaning? Clearly much of it does. But equally clearly understanding of things such as the nature of poetry, of Graeco-Roman biography and letters, and of changing world views, would warn anyone off such a simplistic notion, and that is just in relation to the New Testament. The idea certainly doesn’t appear to be something the Bible or the Anglican Communion has ever taught. Even so, it seems that some Anglicans think it is a required belief.

The question arises because the Jerusalem Declaration agreed by the pilgrimage event held there shortly before the Lambeth Conference is quickly being used as a shibboleth (for example, those attending the launch of the new break away Anglican Province for North America early next month will be invited to sign it). The Declaration says that ‘the Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading’.

Most of this sentence appears to be an interesting take on what have been recognised to be the cornerstones of Anglican theological reflection: scripture (the canonical Bible translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed - including the word ‘interpreted’ in this list would be equally normative), tradition (‘respectful of the church’s historical reading’) and reason (‘respectful of the church’s consensual reading’ - unless this phrase was chosen to keep the Bible hostage by meaning others should only teach what the drafters agree).

But how did the word ‘plain’ get in there? The Bible itself teaches very little about the Bible. What the New Testament does teach is that the Bible is incisive, inspired and useful, and that parts of it are difficult to understand. Anglicans have explicitly never been required to believe more than this. Yet assent is being invited to a novel additional proposition that the Bible has a plain meaning, a proposition which itself actually appears directly to contradict part of this biblical teaching.

At the end of last week I was looking at what the New Testament teaches as being unnatural (men wearing long hair was one of the very few examples), discussing what demon possession might mean (in relation to the television programme Apparitions), and reading Daniel and Revelation at Matins (including complicated plays on numbers in both); the claim that this should all be understood only in a ‘plain’ sense does appear somewhat surreal.

The picture is one I took on a previous school trip to Gainsborough Old Hall a couple of years ago; it is the kitchen roof.

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