Taking the Bible seriously, but not literally

[A sermon preached at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane at Evensong, on Sunday, 26 August 2012.]

Anglicans have a long history of taking the Bible very seriously while avoiding the folly of taking it literally.

In the Articles of Religion, commonly known as the Thirty-Nine Articles, we find the Church of England carefully setting down some important principles about the place of Scripture in the life of the church, the obligations—both moral and theological—flowing from Scripture, and some significant limitations on the capacity of the church to use the Bible.

As we have slowly and reluctantly come to terms with the European cultural revolution known as the ‘Enlightenment,’ we have found—not surprisingly—that even these carefully-crafted articles seem rather out of date, if not irrelevant. It is not so much that they are wrong. It is more that they are addressing questions that no one really cares about any longer, and doing so in ways we find less than compelling. They are top-down theological statements, and we just don’t buy that way of determining truth any more.

The Articles of Religion capture the mind of the church up to the time they were written. They reflect the best of faithful scholarship prior to 1562. Naturally, they do not engage with or reflect the changes that have happened in the 450 years since then.

In the spirit of the Articles of Religion, how might a faithful and informed Anglican from the twenty-first century take the Bible seriously, while avoiding the error of taking the Bible literally?


Over the past few months I have been privileged to work on the development of the BIBLE360 program. This program was commissioned by the Archbishop and then announced at Synod in June, as part of his call for members of this Diocese to engage more directly with Scripture. Since returning from Israel last month I have begun to present these seminars in parishes and deaneries around the Diocese; 3 so far, and 12 to go before Christmas!

As you may know, the Archbishop has challenged all members of our church to do three things in the twelve months between Synod this year and Synod next year:

  1. Participate in a BIBLE360 seminar;
  2. Engage in daily Bible reading;
  3. Join a small group with a focus on the study of the Bible and its application to life.

We estimate that at least 800 people will have attended a BIBLE360 seminar before the end of this year, and we are planning for several thousand to have done so by June next year.

As was clear from the Archbishop’s charge to Synod, central to this whole program is the belief that we need to take the Bible seriously, but should not make the mistake of taking it literally.

In the next few minutes I hope to give you a sense of what we do at a BIBLE360 seminar, and why it matters for the long term health of the church as well as the wider community.

The plastic Bible

Taking the Bible seriously involves developing a realistic—“eyes-wide-open”—sense of what the Bible is really like. At times I discern a romantic and mistaken sense of what kind of text we actually have, and what we might realistically expect the Bible to do for us in the life of the church.

Some of these issues are addressed in more detail in a new book, The Once and Future Scriptures, that will be published later this year, with essays by several senior priests from our diocese. More about those issues at the book launch soon!

Last year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. It was an important anniversary and provided an opportunity to reflect on a book that really changed—and in many ways, shaped—the world as we know it.

During the 400 years that have passed since the KJV was published we have gained access to a treasure trove of ancient biblical manuscripts. We now have a vast set of information simply not available to the faithful scholars who laboured to create the KJV.

For the record, we have around 5,500 Greek MSS for the NT and a further 5,000 or so in other ancient languages: Latin, Syriac, etc.

Among these 10,000 or so MSS are the great fourth-century and fifth-century Bibles, which are our oldest substantial copies of the Bible.

Of these, the most significant is the Codex Sinaiticus from St Catherine’s Monastery at Mt Sinai. This is the oldest Bible anywhere in the world. It dates from some time in the fourth century. In other words, there is a gap of around 300 years between the time of Jesus and the oldest surviving copy of a substantial portion of the Bible; and even this marvelous MS is missing about half of the Old Testament (Genesis to 1 Chronicles).

Sinaiticus includes the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, and two other early Christian documents not found in our version of the NT: the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Similar variations from the contents of later Bibles occur in other ancient MSS and in other lists of books accepted for reading in the church.

In addition to the inclusion of books not found in many modern English Bibles, Sinaiticus also has some other surprises for us:

  1. Some words are not written out in full, but simply represented by abbreviations. This may seem a minor point, but it raises the issue of how obsessive we wish to be about the individual words that constitute the sacred text. And the words are not insignificant terms, but the sacra nomina: God, Jesus, Christ, Lord, and similar words.
  2. All of the texts is written in capitals, without any spaces between words, and with no punctuation. Without spaces and punctuation the meaning is often uncertain and needs to be decided by the reader.
  3. Further scribes over 800 years or so have made some changes to correct what they saw as omissions and other errors. This was an ancient MS that kept evolving for almost 1,000 years. Similar developments have been studied in other major codices.
  4. Some of the books in Sinaiticus (and also in other ancient MSS) are longer or shorter than the forms we know for the same biblical books from the KJV.
  5. Finally, for now, we can note that Sinaiticus has some important textual variations so that a number of passages long accepted as part of the Bible and therefore included in the KJV are now left out of modern Bibles. This is good news for those of us not so keen on handling poisonous snakes in worship, as those verses from the end of Mark 16 have now been removed from our Bibles!

The Bible seems to be less fixed, and rather more ‘plastic’, than we might have anticipated. It has changed its contents in minor and major ways from time to time and from one place to another.

Very few of these changes involve major theological issues. However, it is time for the ecclesiastical ostrich to pull her head from the sand and take seriously the kind of book we actually have in the Bible.

There is no ancient copy of the Bible that matches exactly with a modern Bible.

We do not have the original for any of the books in the Bible, but only copies of copies of copies.

Indeed, with hand-written documents the very idea of an ‘original’ document is questionable. As such a book is hand-copied, another original document is formed. There was very little capacity for ‘version control’ of documents in the ancient world, and readers back then were less naive about that than many modern Christians seem to be.

As early as Jeremiah, we find warnings about the lying pens of the scribes (Jer 8:8); and Ignatius of Antioch (Phila 8:2) prefers the “unalterable archives” of Jesus’ death and resurrection over the written documents of the church.

In which ever way we imagine the Bible to function in the life of the church, we must have a view of Scripture that is realistic about the contingent nature of its contents and the vagaries of its transmission through time.

We do not have a perfect Bible, nor do we have a perfect church or a perfect reader. We can kid ourselves otherwise, but in the end we must adopt a mature outlook.

This is the real Bible that we actually possess. It did not drop out of heaven fully formed, and its journey through time has been marked by controversy and sanctity.

A diverse text

At this point in time we have an agreed reconstruction of the ancient biblical texts based on the best judgements of scholars from a wide range of faith traditions. No ancient MS matches the latest edition of the Biblica Hebraica the Septuagint, or the Greek New Testament.

However, the diversity within Scripture is more extensive than textual variations, or differences over which books to include and the order in which they should be arranged.

The more important diversity that needs to be accommodated as we read Scripture relates to the variations in genre within the Bible.

Richard Burridge was referring to this very point in his sermon here just two weeks ago.

In the second session of the BIBLE360 seminar we explore some of the different genre to be found within the Bible, including:

  • narratives: stories, history, legends, gospels, acts
  • lists: genealogies, places, tribes, heroes
  • laws: rules and regulations for religion as well as everyday life
  • prophetic texts: oracles, promises, sermons, threats
  • liturgical texts: especially the Psalms
  • wisdom literature: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes
  • letters: especially in NT, but also in OT
  • apocalyptic writings: especially Daniel & Revelation

If we mistake the genre, and read hyperbole as regulation (for example), we end up with gross mistakes in our interpretation of Scripture. We would also have churches full of blind people, who had torn out their eyes, and amputees who had removed their hands.

When this happens—as it often has done in the history of the church—well-meaning but mistaken people turn religion into a toxic recipe rather than the elixir of life. All too often the Scriptures have become ‘texts of terror’ endorsing ethnic cleansing, homophobia, patriarchy, racism, slavery, violence, and xenophobia.

Sometimes the Bible is indeed guilty of celebrating and promoting such atrocities. In such cases we need to have the integrity to reject such teaching, and turn away from such evil practices.

Some of the time when the Bible is invoked in support of power and privilege the problem lies with the reader rather than the text.

The creationism debate arises from a total misunderstanding of both the contents and the genre of the Bible. Rather than embrace the wonderful new insights into the universe being gifted to us by the sciences, some people of faith persist in reading the creation myth of Genesis 1 as if it were a description of how God created the world.

Category error. Genre mistake. Garbage in, garbage out.

When we tune our reading of the Scripture to the appropriate settings for the genre being read, we are open to new wisdom for our lives.

In the BIBLE360 seminars participants explore different biblical texts, noting their genre, and exploring some of the ways in which their favourite Bible passages can be read (or cannot be read).

We also discover the power of imagination to assist us in entering into the world of the texts, and being surprised by joy at the fresh insights this can open up for us.

The Bible in the Life of the Church

One of the most challenging aspects of a BIBLE360 seminar is not the discovery of the vagaries of the Bible’s own history, or the immense diversity of its literary forms, but rather the questions that arise around the use of the Bible in our own lives and in the life of the church.

At one extreme, we may know people who still use the Bible like a promise box. Some here may know I mean, but for others (thankfully) the allusion will break down. Error 404.

The ‘promise box’ was a small cardboard container inside which were placed dozens of small pieces of paper, each carefully rolled to form a tiny tube. On each piece of paper was printed a verse from the Bible with a ‘promise’ thought to be relevant to Christian life. These were selected at random, using a very small pair of metal tongs.

Such a verse-a-day approach to reading the Bible places the reader at the centre of the process, and totally ignores the context of the biblical verse being picked. These words are timeless, unrelated to historical context, and directly relevant to me personally. While many people found this a helpful devotional practice, I consider it barely better than checking the stars in the newspaper.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have high-level commissions of the national and international church comprising a careful balance of well-qualified people from different theological perspectives, seeking to determine the meaning of Scripture for the church today on controversial questions such as conception and fertility, sexuality and gender, stem-cell research, refugees, climate change, or end of life issues. No random picking of Bible verses here. But no clear and simple answers either.

In our seminar we review our church’s received traditions about the importance of the Scriptures, and explore some of the ways in which we encounter the Bible in the life of the church. We appreciate how Scripture permeates our worship, but we also note how some parts of the Bible are rarely heard in the liturgy, or carefully side-stepped in our personal and collective lives.

As part of this segment in the BIBLE360 seminars we take up the challenge of Richard Burridge for our reading of Scripture to begin with Jesus. As followers of Jesus it is his words and his actions that create the lens through which we read the Bible.

This does not mean we find Jesus hiding under every rock in the Old Testament, but it does mean we read those ancient Jewish texts with Christian eyes. We respect their Jewishness, and affirm the Jewish readings of their own sacred texts which are also the larger portion of our own Bible—but we read the Bible as Christians; indeed as Anglicans!

We neither seek nor offer a package that explains the Bible, imposes a unity across its many different documents, or requires us to read the Scriptures in one particular way. But we do affirm the belief that nothing matters more in the Christian life than engaging with the Bible.

As I have found myself saying at these seminars, “I can imagine being a Christian without a church, but not without a Bible” With the Bible—and the support of other disciples of Jesus—I can rebuild the church. Without the Bible, I could never be sure my church was faithful to the legacy of Jesus. And as a Christian, that matters to me.


The final stage in a BIBLE360 seminar is for people to determine their own response to all this. We share some practical ideas about reading the Bible, accessing the resources we need, finding a small group of people with whom to share our study of Scripture.

By the end of the seminar, however, it comes down to the individual response each participant makes.

These seminars include information, but they are not just about acquiring more knowledge.

These seminars encourage us to see the Bible afresh, but they are not just an enjoyable day spent working with Scripture.

These seminars invite participants to make explicit personal plans for their own engagement with Scripture, and to decide what they will do about getting started on those plans … in the next week.

I offer the same invitation to you here this evening.

We can sit in this cathedral and hear others talk about the Bible. We can stay behind for a few minutes to argue with the preacher about our favourite theological hobby horse. Or we can quietly determine right now that this week the Bible will get more attention from us than it did last week.

Whether that happens or not is entirely your call.

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  1. Greg, I do not need any convincing and will be attending your lectures. My wish would be that this email could be sent to every member of our parish. Of course some may throw eggs at it!
    Regards, Enya.

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