“…I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”
Those words are but part of the oath that every bishop, priest, and deacon ordained in the Episcopal Church declares to be true. That phrase is as remarkable for what it contains as for what it does not. It does not require anyone to believe that every possible question that humanity may ask of itself or God will have an answer found in the Bible. It does not say that we are required to believe that all the Biblical texts are infallible and self-interpreting. Nor does it require us to believe that these sacred texts are the only source of knowledge in or about God’s world. What we are required to affirm is that the Holy Scriptures are the very Word of God and do contain all things necessary for salvation. Yet, how are the Holy Scriptures the Word of God and how do they contain all things necessary to salvation? Those two questions will have many different answers. But, generally and usually, the Anglican Communion has agreed that the Holy Scriptures in their entirety are the absolute and irreplaceable foundation of who we are as the Body of Christ. .
Certainly the history of Biblical interpretation is fraught with mistakes and disastrous missteps, yet it continues to be the Word of God. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written that the Bible is a record of how people in times past have responded to God’s Word and that we are invited into this conversation with that past (which is also the present through the power of the Holy Spirit) in order to ascertain our way forward toward the kingdom of heaven on earth and in its final consummation. In this way, the Bible is a living document because we continue to have conversations with it. Sometimes these conversations are acrimonious and not worthy of the church of Christ. At other times, our conversations reveal the very grace of God.
Just as our conversations will be different with different people, so will our interaction with Holy Scripture be different if we realize it is made up of many different kinds of literature from many different periods of time and cultural circumstances. We will converse with poetic passages like the Psalms with a recognition that they convey and contain all the emotions of which we are capable. Some of these psalms are horrifying in their brutality, yet the church continues to use them in public and private worship because of their comprehensive testimony to our humanity, both good and bad, for which we are held accountable by the Living and Loving God.
It does not matter in the least if all the historical passages in Holy Scripture are able to be verified by independent archeological findings for they were not written for that purpose. They were written to proclaim that God continues to speak and work and act in and with a very flawed humanity.
The Holy Scriptures are absolutely true in the way that great beauty is true. The witness of Holy Scripture is to an underlying reality of Love that upholds the entire cosmos. Yet that affirmation does not negate that literal fact that is found in the Bible.
The Holy Scriptures do not mandate for all time a static definition of what is good, beautiful and true. To believe so is to deny the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit with the church who Jesus promised will lead us into all truth. The “goodness” of slavery, the subjugation of women, the abuse of the natural order and the assumed evil of the GLBTQ community were all at one time considered “good.” No doubt, as time and circumstances change, other assumed goods will be reconsidered and exposed to the light of God’s love.
In the coronation of the English sovereign, a Bible is presented with the following words “…these are the lively oracles of God.” The Holy Scriptures testify to one immutable fact that God is love, a love which is absolute, creative, and self sacrificing. They are “lively” because they are capable of interpretation and examination and point to the One who “was, and is, and is to come.”