Theology Matters: What do Anglicans Believe About the Bible?
Anglicans believe that the Bible is the word of God. We also believe that this word was written down by human beings.
As the word of God, the Bible has an active power in human lives. This means the Bible is the subject of verbs; the Bible does things. It is a text that works on people, moves people, changes people, and draws people to God. Hebrews 4:12 states, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword.” Because they are true words, because they are God’s words, the words of Bible itself (and its message when preached) have the power to change human lives. So the Bible is not just a text to be examined or studied – it is a text that examines and studies us.
But unlike the Koran in Islam (where the words themselves are sacred), we do not believe the word of God to be identical with the words of the text. It is the message the text contains, or perhaps better the three persons of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to which it attests, that are sacred. The words themselves are just words, written down (and copied) by human beings. We say that these human authors were “inspired by the Holy Spirit,” not that God dictated the words. One of the wonderful implications of the inspiration being in the message rather than in the words is that the Bible can be translated – we can read it (and so it can work on us) in whatever language we natively speak.
This Bible, the word of God written down in the words of human beings, is then then read by us, who live in an entirely different place and time. This means when we read the Bible we’re dealing with (1) the word of God, (2) the original culture of the human authors, (3) the present culture of the human readers. Not only that, all three are deeply embedded and intertwined in one another.
At the heart of many of the controversial issues that have buffeted the Anglican Communion in recent years is an honest disagreement about what stuff in the Bible is part of the living word of God to us today and what belongs to the culture of the humans who did the writing down. This is hard to figure out; there’s no doubt about it. The word of God has a lot to say (that we don’t always like) about what the world is supposed to look like. God had a lot of critiques to make of the ancient world in which the Bible was written and certainly has a lot to say about our own world as well. Faithful Bible-reading people simply and honestly disagree about where in the Bible it the word of God doing the critiquing and where it is the ancient culture.
But even as we face up to this struggle of interpretation, we must also not lose sight of what’s most amazing: that across millennia the Bible still speaks in ways that we can understand and that can bring us into the loving arms of our Savior. As the Catechism in the prayer book says, “God still speaks to us through the Bible” – pretty impressive for an old book.
Now, though Anglicans believe all that about the Bible, there’s nothing peculiarly Anglican about those beliefs. This is good. The Bible is common ground in Christian world, so if we had particularly peculiar views as Anglicans, that would hardly be to our credit. However, there are some Anglican perspectives worth noting.
First, compared to many Protestant denominations, one of the things that’s catholic (small-c) about the Anglican understanding of the Bible is that is makes room for the Church. It’s easiest to see what this means historically. In terms of the New Testament, the canon of Holy Scripture (canon refers to those writings that “made it in”) was determined by the Church. At the exact same time, scripture was being used to determine the bounds of what was theologically in and out of the Church. It’s not a matter of which one came first–the Bible and the Church simply shaped one another. Today, though the issue of canon is settled (we’re not adding more books to the Bible), it is still the case the the Church shapes scripture and scripture shapes the Church. The tradition of the Church determines what sort of interpretations of the Bible are out of bounds; and the Bible determines what sort of innovations in belief and practice within the Church are out of bounds.
But though the Anglican tradition makes room for the Church’s role in shaping and interpreting that Bible, that doesn’t mean that people don’t need to engage scripture directly. Quite the contrary, if our Anglican heritage offers us one indelible belief about the Bible, it’s that we should read it, both individually and corporately. For English reformers and early Anglicans, it was critical that people to be able to read the Bible in English. They risked (and sometimes gave) their lives to give the English speaking people a Bible to read, not to collect dust on bookshelves. They did it so that word of God might touch us and change us, and that God might speak to us through it. Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican reformer who put together the Book of Common Prayer, organized the whole thing around a daily practice of Bible reading and prayer.
The shortest answer to “What do Anglicans believe about the Bible?” is simply “You should read it.”
The Rev’d Andrew Van Kirk is Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s, McKinney.