Essay / Literature

By the Book

“The B-I-B-L-E” doesn’t really pack the same punch for adults as it does for the pre-K Sunday school crowd. But gussied up in the dignity of an Elizabethan homily, the admonition to read my Bible once again demands my attention.

“A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture” is the first sermon of over thirty written as common sermons for the Church of England in the sixteenth century. Along with the Geneva translation of the English Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles, these authorized homilies marked the life and thought of English Protestantism under Elizabeth I. The sermons were intended for common use in all the parishes of the Church of England, authorized to provide sound teaching where there were no preachers, to establish common doctrine, and to preserve its purity.

The first volume of sermons was composed during the short reign of Edward I and collected by Thomas Cranmer, who probably wrote a number of them. This sermon, strategically the first of the series, sketches a practical doctrine of Scripture, demonstrates its patristic and biblical defense, and offers pastoral counsel to alleviate fears and eradicate false notions about reading the Bible. When the sermon was first penned, sometime around 1547, the first authorized English translation of the Bible, the Great Bible, had been published only eight years prior.

Though Wycliffe’s fourteenth century efforts and impulses to translate the Scriptures into English are notable, the history of the English Bible begins more directly with William Tyndale’s translations of the New Testament and parts of the Old (the whole of the Pentateuch), not from the Latin Vulgate but from its original Greek and Hebrew. Only in the sixteenth century did plain English vernacular become (for the English) the best language for both divine revelation and human religious expression.

Not that this was met without resistance. Thomas More famously criticized Tyndale for abandoning Church language: using “love” instead of “charity,” “elder” instead of “priest,” “repent” instead of “do penance,” and “congregation” instead of “church.” Tyndale’s deviation from “Church language” is due, in part, to his fidelity to the Greek text over the Latin, as well as his preference for accessible rather than technical religious language.

The rise of plain English as religious language was strongly occasioned by the style of Tyndale’s translation, and was rooted and reinforced by Cranmer’s work on an English service book, The Book of Common Prayer. Without forfeiting loft and heft, religious language adopted a plain style. The theological conviction that the Scriptures were for all motivated the creation of religious language that all could understand and use.

Tyndale’s efforts anteceded Henry VIII’s advocacy of the translation of Scripture, so it was from the Continent that Tyndale published his New Testament in 1526. Not until 1534, after Henry had Tyndale put to death in Belgium, was there momentum for an authorized version of the English Scriptures. For the 1539 Great Bible Miles Coverdale depended heavily upon Tyndale’s work, revised and supplemented by his own Latin-leaning work. The Great Bible is probably the only authorized English Bible; its use was commanded in every church in the kingdom. Cranmer, in his preface to the 1540 edition, reiterates the growing sentiment that the Scriptures should reach both the ploughboy and the king. He writes that the Bible is for “all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, Lords, Ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wife’s, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons of what estate or condition soever they be.”

The homilist seeks to persuade the church that there is “nothing either more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of Holy Scripture.” Knowledge of the Scriptures is both sufficient and necessary for the salvation of mankind from what the homilist dubs “death everlasting”: sufficient in that “there is no truth, nor doctrine, necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation, but that is, or may be, drawn out of that fountain and well of truth”; necessary for salvation, since “without the which they can neither sufficiently know God and his will, neither their office and duty.”

Calvin chooses as the starting point of his Institutes of the Christian Religion the epistemological crisis of the human creature. “Nearly all the wisdom we possess,” Calvin opens, “consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (35). But there is a problem of precession; the creature cannot know himself apart from knowing the Creator, and, also, is unable to know the Creator. Not that He is not revealed in his creation, but the fall corrupts even the mind and senses that she cannot see the character of God where it is displayed. The deep consequences of the fall include a problem of knowledge to which the only answer is the self-revelation of God in the Scriptures.

The English homilist insists that this double knowledge (of God and of ourselves) is available in the Scriptures as a drink to the thirsty.

In these books we may learn to know our selves, how vile and miserable we be, and also to know God, how good he is of himself and how he communicateth his goodness unto us and all creatures.

Divine communication is not just a sent message. A more ample sense of “communicate” emerges in the metaphors that follow. The words of Scripture are food and drink and life for the soul. By His words, He causes us to partake of his goodness by revealing our misery and its remedy. His communication is so effective that it makes us miserable (though we already were) and heals us with true balm for the soul.

The sermon suggests that this powerful communication is available in both the hearing and the reading of the Word. The importance of reading the Bible is such a common belief in most American churches that it might do to be reminded of the significance of hearing the Word. I am an oddball in my church for practicing listening rather than reading along when the Scriptures are read aloud. But the sixteenth century Christian is more a ready listener and a reluctant reader. Thus, the sermon admonishes the Christian to read. So much of the powerful work that Scripture does is now finally at the very fingertips of the individual (or family, as was the case).

The Scriptures are extolled for their great benefits: they feed, bless, and sanctify; the Bible is a light for our lives and an instrument for our salvation. Its words speak wisdom, give comfort, and make glad. “Through God’s assistance,” its power to convert “through God’s promise” is made effectual for the hearer who receives the words into “a faithful heart.”

The best work of the Scriptures in the life of the reader is a second work of inspiration, the aim of all reading, memorization, and study:

He that most profitteth not always is he that is most ready in turning of the book, or in saying of it without the book, but he that is most turned into it, that is most inspired with the Holy Ghost.

To those who fear that by reading Scripture they will fall into error the homilist replies, “Ignorance of Christ’s word is the cause of all error.” If we fear our ignorance, we ought to read, to correct it. He counsels the reader who would avoid error to practice humility in three ways. The humble reader wants any knowledge she gains to promote the glory of God rather than her own ends. The humble reader does not put all her trust in her own faculties to apprehend the Scriptures and so prays to God for help in reading. And, the humble reader stops expounding the Scriptures when she can no longer plainly understand them.

To those who go so far in humility to fear that the Scriptures are too difficult for any but the learned, the homilist suggests that there is ample terrain for any reader:

The Scripture is full, as well of low valleys, plain ways and easy for every man to use and to walk in, as also of high hills and mountains, which few men can ascend unto.

The Scriptures are often clear and plain, and where things are “spoken in obscure mysteries,” they are spoken in other places more familiarly. The homilist is confident that God intended to reveal Himself to the learned and unlearned, and what He meant to do, He effectively did. And He equipped the hearers and readers of the Word with the counsel of the learned, and, above that, the counsel of that same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing.

Sometimes studying the history of ideas exposes the unfortunate lacunae and errors of contemporary thought. But sometimes, like this one, it supplements and reinforces good intuitions, exposing their origins and construction. Certainly a literate me + the Good Book is no recipe for the Christian life. But evangelicalism is rooted in the conviction that the people of God are people of the book, the Book of books, superior to all other texts in its soul-saving and nourishing coherence, scope, beauty, power, and veracity. And evangelicalism at its best takes seriously the task of making the Scriptures available to all the saints and making all the saints ready and able to receive them.

Share this essay [social_share/]