The Rev was sitting at home, gazing over his most treasured possession. Sitting encased in its own glass house atop the fireplace (the original Edwardian fireplace no less) there sits a not particular well-kept 1978 edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This is not a first edition original. Nor is it in anyway an edition published near to the time of John Foxe. Nor does it contain any character, an artful binding or anything to suggest it is worth much. In fact it looks like the mess of the car boot from which he bought it (not directly from a car boot obvious, but from the man who owned the car boot).
But Foxe’s Book of Martyrs has special power. It is not just another book. It has been a staple for interpreting the protestant reformation in England and Scotland, the true birth place of Christianity for many, (you might at least be forgiven for thinking so based on the reformed church’s constant reference to it).
And the Rev continues in his delusion. For Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as informative and inspiring as it is, is a book, written by a man with an agenda and a bias akin to anyone who uses writing to promote a particular perspective and worldview. Some today even agree with John Foxe’s worldview, i.e. that all Catholics are in fact demons in disguise and protestants are the real saints. But that’s another matter.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs has nothing on the Bible of course. For “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17
But what is Scripture? One of the Rev’s heroes, fellow Christian blogospherite, Tim Challies has an answer.
He says, “The Bible is a collection. It is a collection of all that God meant to communicate to us through inerrant and infallible words. God spoke, men wrote. Men wrote the exact words of God exactly as he breathed them out. Over 1,600 years they wrote them as histories, as letters, as prophecies, and as poetry. They wrote whatever he spoke until he stopped speaking.” This is an excellent example of a standard Reformed (i.e. Calvinite) perspective. Yet, it’s somehow inadequate.
When Jeremiah was receiving what God spoke, he then communicated it to whoever was listening (and usually upsetting them as a result). Jeremiah, being a human being, set in a time and culture, using a specific language for a distinct audience (a language that reflects the way people think at that time), was bound by the constraints all human beings have in relation to culture, language, thought processes, geo-political situations and much, much more. So what Jeremiah communicated to the people and what we now read was also fixed into his very specific context. So were Jeremiah’s words for us?
When Paul was writing his letter to Philemon, was he writing to me? Yet Philemon is contained in the recognised canon of Scripture as per the Thirty-Nine Articles 1563 or the Westminster Confession of Faith 1647 (which ever tickles your fancy). So does the currently recognised list of first century works mean that Philemon was written for me?
The Rev is in no doubt that Philemon is an important part of the canon of scripture. The Rev is in no doubt that the canon of scripture, compiled based on the four assumptions of Apostolic Origin, Universal Acceptance, Liturgical Use and Consistent Message is scripture, the same as Paul mentions in Timothy (see above). The Bible is very true and its message is very real. The history of salvation is still being played out and we are part of God’s great story. The Bible is very true in every way. And it’s absolutely every way human. It’s bound by time, language (and the worldview that the language is based on), culture, geo-politics and much, much more.
There is a danger with presuming that the Bible was directly written for me. The danger is that it leads to superstition, laziness or the use of an opposing worldview to interpret it (i.e. systematic theology). Superstition in thinking that the Bible is Other Worldly, a mystical object (like Harry Potter’s wand) with power apart from interaction with the human mind. Laziness in that I don’t need to understand it to know its power. Opposing worldview used to interpret it meaning that it will be misunderstood and misrepresented.
One of the most important aspects of the Reformation was the idea that the Bible can be read and understood by everyone. This combined with the emphasis on the use of exegesis (taking out the message) as opposed to reliance on official dogma. Exegesis takes time. It’s a skill learned, not a quality automatically planted into the brain upon conversion. If the Bible were written in 21st Century English, we wouldn’t have to work hard to understand it. But it’s not, so we can’t.
So was Jeremiah, Isaiah, Matthew or Paul writing their works for me? No. Yes in that the truth which their God inspired words contain is equally true for me, but in every essence historically, geographically and politically no.
So the next time you pick up the Bible and read it, think about who it was written by, where the events it describes took place and who was originally going to read it. If you can do that every time you come to the Bible, you’re already half way to understanding it.