Essay / Theology

Ephiphany and the Bible

On Friday, the Church celebrated the feast of Epiphany, reveling in Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles, and to the world. This day marks his going public, the laying bare of the secret long hid in the counsels of God and only whispered in the prophets.

Isaiah looked forward to Epiphany: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.’

John rejoiced in Epiphany: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’

If you stand back a moment, it really is marvelous to consider that the light of Christ has continued to shine for two millennia. Plenty of historically significant figures have lit up the night like flares, only to dissipate into the atmosphere. The risen Christ continues to shine, illuminating the world these many centuries later as the Spirit bears witness to him in the world.

Nowhere has the Spirit’s witness to Jesus been as brilliant as in the writing, editing, collecting, transmitting, translating, reading and interpreting of the Bible. As we rejoice in the light of Christ at Epiphany, we do well to offer thanks to God for giving us the Scriptures, in whose light we see the light of Christ.

We do well, too, to offer thanks for those Renaissance and Reformation scholars who devoted themselves to the textual criticism and translation of the Bible. In a day of hermeneutical pluralism, it is easy to lament the very accessibility of Scripture in light of its easy abuse. (See Dan Treier’s wise words.) But that is a baby and bathwater moment, a moment of stark, myopic ingratitude.

In the sixteenth century, the Bible was made available like never before. It was read and heard by people who didn’t know Latin, and it re-entered the warp and woof of daily Christian life. Timothy George’s Reading Scripture with the Reformers considers the Bible’s place in that epochal century. (Thanks to IVP Academic for a review copy.)

George’s book introduces IVP’s Reformation Commentary on Scripture (a series which follows IVP’s justly praised Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), and one of his chief burdens is to demonstrate that ‘the principle of sola scriptura did not mean that the study of the Bible should be divorced from interaction with its other readers and interpreters across the ages. But the new understanding of the place of the Bible in the life of the church did mean the rejection of the particular synthesis of Scripture, tradition and papal authority that had come to prevail in the western church during the late Middle Ages.’

‘While in many case they broke with the received interpretations of the fathers and the scholastics who came before them, theirs was nonetheless a churchly hermeneutics.’ It was one guided by the rule of faith, in dialogue with the Fathers and focused on Jesus as the center of Scripture. The Bible took center stage, and the Reformers’ descendents trusted implicitly in the Spirit’s power to conform people to the image of Christ as they studied the Bible. Thus, they read the Bible with the church as well as for the church.

George is just the person to write this book—thoroughly evangelical, but ever ecumenical, with a historian’s eye for anecdote and a theologian’s attention to doctrine. George does away with straw men and tells the far more interesting story of a Reformation that took the church seriously, appealed to tradition (‘a tradition that asserted the supremacy of Scripture over all other ecclesial decisions and documents’) and frequently availed itself of technological and political angles to further its cause. A love of humanism vitalized the Reformation as much as a disdain for scholasticism. Ad fontes! was no mere Protestant byword; it was the cry of textual critics and classicists. Calvin commented on Seneca. Luther followed Erasmus, who he regarded as a ‘philologian’ but not as a theologian. And so: ‘Erasmus is rightly portrayed as the miller who provided the flour for Luther’s evangelical bakery.’

The centrality of the Word entailed the sanctuary being ‘turned into an auditorium, a space more attuned to the ear than the eye, more suited for listening to talks than for contemplating mysteries.’ This was an abrupt, and often ugly, transformation. But we ought not miss the gain for the ear as we gain on the loss for the eye. In putting the Word front and center in worship, the Reformers indicated that Christ is best seen as he is heard. Faith comes by hearing, after all; and so perhaps it is the listening ear that is best prepared to receive the vision of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

It will not always be so. Jesus is coming soon. And at his final advent, we will live a perpetual Epiphany—and a Bible-less one. In that day, when we will know as we are known, we will need means of grace no longer. There will be no temple, no lamp, no reminders of past sacrifice or signs of things yet to come. While we rejoice in the gift of the Bible, in which the light of Christ is made manifest to us, we long for the day when the One to whom Scripture, and all of the means of grace, had pointed so faithfully, will be revealed; and we shall see his face.

‘And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.’ (Rev. 21:22-25)

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