In the early days of the Continuing Church, in the late 1970s and 1980s, one often saw on the backs of church bulletins or of flyers a set of statements about the beliefs of the Continuing Church.  The last statement listed went something like this:  ‘The Old and New Testaments as the sole guides for Christian morality’. 

That is a very un-Anglican assertion, particularly in moral matters, and also is nonsense.  If the Bible were the sole guide to morality, then the Bible provides no guidance for dozens of important moral issues that it does not address.  The traditional Anglican assertion of Biblical authority is much more, and much more appropriately, careful in its formulation.  The Ordinal, for example, requires from ordinands belief that ‘Holy Scriptures contain all Doctrine required as necessary for eternal salvation’.  That is, the Bible contains all necessary or essential doctrine, all doctrine requisite for salvation.  That is quite different from saying that the Bible is the sole guide in matters doctrinal in general or moral in particular. 

‘Contained’ in the Ordinal’s sense includes both deductions clearly drawn by reason and tradition from Scripture and also beliefs ‘comprehended’ in a somewhat indirect way in Scripture.  Given these facts, the Bible is not ‘alone’ or ‘sole’ (sola), but rather exists as read by reasonable people in the light of Church history.  Anglicans have always been reluctant to assert either sola Scriptura or sola fides without qualification:  faith is not faith apart from love and hope; Scripture is not Scripture without reason or contrary to the great weight of Church tradition. 

One of the first things to be said about the use of the Bible, therefore, is that its proper use involves the instrumental use of reason and includes respectful attention to past reasonable interpretation in the Church concerning the meaning of Scripture.  That is, the use of the Bible embraces reason and tradition.  This assertion clearly rules out merely superstitious uses of the Bible, such as opening a Bible, randomly putting a finger or a pin on a passage, and then taking that passage as an omen or a sign for action or as an answer to questions.  Such ‘use’ of the Bible is magical, irrational, and therefore anti-Christian.

Parenthetically, and before considering more answers to our initial question about the uses of the Bible, I should refer to one significant but not specifically Christian or Anglican possibility.  A negative statement of this use is given by W.H. Auden:

              Thou shalt not be on friendly terms / With guys in advertising firms, 

Nor speak with such / As read the Bible for its prose….

Auden to the contrary notwithstanding, there are devout people as well as those with little or no discernible religion who read the Bible, at least in the Authorized Version, ‘for its prose’:  because literate people know the Bible.  A friend who taught English literature at Hollins College told me once that he always read the Authorized Version because someone in his profession needs to know and recognize the allusions to and quotations from that text which abound in the work of good writers.  Similarly, when the Russian (and Jewish) poet, Joseph Brodsky, was asked why his poetry uses so much Christian imagery, he said, ‘Because I am not a barbarian.’  Whatever version theologians may use, good writers in English know the Bible and the Authorized Version:  they are civilized.  That is one clear ‘use’ of the Bible, but not one that needs to detain us in this post.  Our initial question refers to specifically theological and Christian uses of the Bible, particularly in moral matters. 

As for its general theological uses, the Bible certainly for orthodox Christians is a record of revelation.  By ‘revelation’ I mean God’s self-disclosure to us.  For Christians Jesus Christ is the uniquely decisive revelation of God to our world, and the Bible is the only record we have of Jesus Christ’s deeds and teachings.  Therefore some ‘use’ of the Bible is necessary for our understanding of the vital matter of God’s nature and purposes.  That said, however, does not take us far towards an answer to our question concerning the uses of Scripture.  We may accept formally the decisive authority of Scripture, but still need to know how Scripture is to be applied and used.  The Bible is uniquely important, but how are we to use it?

Regarding general, Christian uses of the Bible, one such use certainly is devotional.  That is, most Christians most of the time probably use the Bible mostly as a source of inspiration and comfort and as the matter upon which they draw in meditation in lectio divina.  This use of Scripture might not immediately occur to theologians, but it is nonetheless of central importance for Christian believers.  To use the Bible devoutly requires attention and effort and time.  How are we to use Scripture?  Well, carefully, with attention, with prayer, with humility, and with a quiet, patient, persevering willingness to learn from it. 

The devotional use of Scripture connects to a significant fact regarding its form, or at least to the form of large parts of it.  That is, large parts of the Bible are narrative.  Jesus did not come down from heaven to hand his disciples the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian formula.  Jesus came and told stories and lived a story himself, which his followers remembered and eventually wrote down.  Creeds and doctrines clarify the stories and fix some of their meanings.  But the stories in turn open the creeds and dogmas and allow for their application and explication.  Creeds are ultimately derived from Scripture and are rooted not least in the biblical narratives.  Yet the stories have a richness that is greater than propositions alone would be.  One might say that the stories have an overplus of meaning, an openness to interpretation and significance, that adds something to propositions, articles of faith, and doctrinal formulae.  The parables of Jesus have their clear teachings but also an open-ended quality:  will the Prodigal Son wander away from the Father’s house again?  will his older brother go into the party or not?  This narrative quality of openness in much of the Bible is a key fact in its usefulness. 

The place of reason and of respectful attention to past interpretation of Scripture and the narrative element of Scripture all rule out certain kinds of biblicism.  The Bible is neither simple nor self-interpreting.  Given these assertions, beyond the level of devotional Bible reading, what is the proper use of the Bible in moral matters?  How is the Bible properly used by Christians, including Christian theologians, when they are faced with moral issues? 

There are, of course, several possible answers.  The idea with which this post began, that the Bible is the sole authority in moral matters, would require that the Bible contain straightforward, easily understood answers to moral questions and guidance for moral agents.  Such clear, simple answers and guidance are usually sought in what are called proof-texts.  Since, as we have already noted, many moral problems are not apparently addressed in the Bible, a more sophisticated version of this approach would accept that reason – and perhaps even reason and tradition – help draw out conclusions in cases that are not immediately addressed in Scripture.  Proof-texts, on this theory, sometimes are direct and clear but at other times require the application and explanation of the texts that may be relevant to the issue without being immediately obvious in their significance. 

One problem with proof-texting, however, is that often clarity is in the eye of the beholder.  Biblical exegetes often deny that the texts in question are applicable to the moral issue in question. 

Debates over homosexual behavior and the indissolubility of sacramental marriage illustrate both the proof-texting approach and also its weakness. 

The classical passages used to provide biblical support for traditional moral claims concerning homosexual behavior include the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Romans 1:26f.  Modernists reject the applicability of both passages to the contemporary question of homosexual behavior.  Such modernists argue, in the case of Genesis 19, that the real sin of Sodom was not mainly sexual but rather involved violation of the compelling claims of hospitality in the Near Eastern world.  On this line of argument, the central issues in classical texts are:  1.  the strong obligation to protect guests and the weaker (in the Old Testament – consider Genesis 19:8!) obligation to avoid rape and sexual coercion; and, 2.  in the case of the Romans passage, the sexual exploitation or abuse of children or of slaves, rather than the comparatively rare (in the context of the 1st century Roman world) possibility of consensual adult behavior.

Even on purely biblical grounds such modernist arguments can be successfully answered.  These examples serve, however, to show how positions based on biblical texts alone are vulnerable to biblical responses that do not in principle reject biblical authority as such but do reject specific conclusions drawn by others from a particular passage on a particular issue.

Likewise, the Markan condemnation of remarriage after divorce (Mark 10:11f.), the ‘Matthean exception’ (Matthew 5:32), and the ‘Pauline privilege’ (I Corinthians 7:9-15), all clearly begin by favoring the idea of marital permanence.  The diversity of understandings concerning the meaning of the supposed Matthean ‘exception’ and of the Pauline privilege, however, suffices to show that Church authority and tradition are closely involved in biblical interpretation.  The biblical text cannot be a sole authority because the texts in question are complex, are not self-interpreting, and are subject to differing and, sometimes, even to contradictory interpretations.  While the texts can be harmonized, an initial reading or proof-texting approach will tend to see them as contradictory or in tension.

The isolation of biblical texts from natural law arguments and from traditional Christian and Church teaching, makes traditional moral conclusions more vulnerable than they really are.  In fact, natural law arguments and unanimous or nearly unanimous Church teaching about a given issue reinforce apparent biblical positions.  Whatever Genesis 19 meant to an ancient Israelite hearer of the story, and whatever Paul meant in Romans 1, the conclusions drawn by most pre-modern readers were in fact those that occur to most users of Scripture through the centuries.  In any case the biblical argument properly does not stand alone, but also is reinforced and buttressed by the other authorities that traditionally guide Christian moral reasoning.

Such moral examples run parallel to dogmatic ones.  It is well known, for example, that the word ‘Trinity’ does not occur in the Bible.  Some kinds of Fundamentalists and biblicists reject the doctrine of the Trinity precisely because of that fact.  Nonetheless all orthodox Christians believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is reasonably concluded from the New Testament, taken as a whole, and also that the Trinity can be seen by way of anticipations and foreshadowing throughout the Old Testament.  Tradition points to this conclusion.  Similar doctrinal examples of the role of reason and tradition in biblical interpretation abound. 

In general, then, the ‘use’ of the Bible for proof-texts in moral matters, as if Scripture regularly provides fool-proof, open-and-shut moral conclusions, is common but not very persuasive.  Such use is most persuasive in cases that in fact are least in need of proof.  Very formal moral rules (‘We should do good’; ‘Love your neighbor’; ‘Always do the right thing’; ‘Do no murder’) are largely immune to attack precisely because they are definitionally true and contain little material content in concrete moral cases.  When a moral problem becomes mixed with material, practical, and debated elements, potential proof-texts tend to become less helpful.[i]  One must, therefore, begin by setting aside the simple idea that the Bible usually provides a source of clear, easily applied, exceptionless, and obviously true moral rules, proof-texts, or moral guides.

I have noted that the Bible contains a record of God’s revelation.  It would be more precise, however, as well as useful at this point, to make a traditional distinction between supernatural and natural revelation.  That is, God discloses himself in ways that natural human reason could not by itself discover, but also discloses himself through natural human reason, at least when that reason is not clouded by sin.  That God exists, for instance, is something that unaided human reason can and often does conclude.  That God is a Trinity is something that the discourse of human reason could not discover without supernatural revelation.  The distinction is often made between ‘natural’ revelation and ‘special’ or ‘supernatural’ revelation. 

Regarding moral teaching and Scripture, one might, given this distinction between natural and supernatural revelation, say that Scripture contains few or no moral conclusions that reason alone might not discover.  Or, to put the same thing the other way, most moral conclusions flow from human nature and from natural obligations that human reason can in principle discover.  If this is true, then the content of morality is mostly a matter not of specifically Christian or biblical obligations, but of natural and human obligations.  Christians should not murder, steal, or lie because the Bible tells them so, but because they are human beings.  Human duties and the catalogue of human obligations and virtues and vices, are not created by special revelation or by Scripture, but by the nature of our being as created by God.

It does not follow, however, that Scripture, as reasonably and traditionally interpreted, is useless.  In fact, special revelation reinforces and clarifies the content of the natural law.  For example, the evil of murder and of theft are not uniquely concluded from supernatural revelation or from biblical authority.  But Scripture assumes, supports, and reinforces these natural moral conclusions, while not adding much to their content. 

In short, both natural law and biblical morality reinforce, support, and clarify each other.  Both are more vulnerable when isolated from each other, whether by fundamentalist biblicism (which undermines the authority of graced reason) or by rationalism (which fails to recognize how sin and self-interest cloud unaided reason). 

The Bible also affects the specific manner in which we fulfil our natural obligations.  There is, for example, a natural need for periodic rest and for time periodically to be set aside to honor God.  That these natural duties should be fulfilled mainly on Sundays is something concluded from and clarified by the New Testament in the light of Church tradition. 

Likewise, the Bible reinforces the importance of moral seriousness and moral care and inspires and moves us to do our duty.  The moral evil and abuse of power in David’s murder of Uriah the Hittite should be clear to men and women of good will whether or not they accept the authority of Scripture or believe in supernatural revelation.  But Nathan’s parable of the ewe lamb moves the reader and brings home in a powerful way the evil of David’s behavior.  Scripture has its ‘use’ in that moral matter.  Nathan’s parable does not provide a proof-text, but its narrative power nonetheless is a powerful guide to the content of the moral law and is an inspiration to those in power who seek to behave well. 

Another possible use for Scripture in moral matters is as source for general moral themes or broad moral principles or, more vaguely still, moral inspiration.  ‘Liberation’ theology and its various, special interest[ii] versions (black theology, feminist theology, ‘queer’ theology, etc.), mine Scripture primarily for stories of deliverance and liberation.  For such liberation theologians, the Bible is chiefly useful for stories of the Exodus from Egypt and of deliverance from the Babylonian exile or similar oppressions; for the interest of some of the great writing prophets in justice for the poor and oppressed; and for the example Jesus gives of openness to women and Gentiles and, implicitly, to the whole world.  Such general themes or examples are, for people inclined to this approach, the essential key to Scripture or, to mix the metaphor, are the clarifying lens that brings the Bible into proper focus. 

Universalists, for example, see in the broad sweep of the Bible a gradual movement from a favored family and people to a universal Church that provides ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’.  No doubt other grand themes, with greater and lesser plausibility, can be proposed that encompass broad swathes of biblical texts. 

This general, thematic approach to Scripture deemphasizes individual passages, or even whole biblical books or periods.  What truly matters, on this view, are the broad themes:  the main use of the Bible is to provide a vast, rich story in which is embedded the grand, normative message or ‘value’.  In moral terms, on this theory, the main duty of the user or reader of the Bible is to fit himself or herself into that story and to live out and encourage its central good. 

Orthodox Christians need not dismiss this approach, though they will not tend to think that it is sufficient by itself or that particular versions of it are plausible.  Christian orthodoxy certainly sees important themes running throughout Scripture and binding its diversity together.  The preparation of the world for Christ, an allegorist’s interest in Old Testament types of Christ, the Church, and the sacraments, and the centrality of faith throughout Scripture, all are matters that traditionally enabled a rich, synthetic view of much of the Bible.  Each of these broad themes matters more than individual texts and helps provide context for those individual texts. 

A thematic approach by itself, however, is not enough.  While careful reading of the Bible will tend to suggest overarching themes to a reader, this approach in isolation lends itself to eisegesis:  the reader will tend to find his or her own preoccupations and interests in the text.  This eisegetical tendency is shown in the very fact that the ‘special interest theologies’ noted above strongly favor thematic interpretation and discount other inconvenient passages, contradictory themes, and, of course, contradictory conclusions from the Church’s interpretive and moral tradition. 

The classical Anglican position to Scripture is, I think, much stronger than an assertion of sola Scriptura (the Bible apart from the tradition) or than what we might call Roman Catholic traditionalism (the dogmatization of pious ideas without clear biblical foundation).  It also, I think, will tend to resist proof-texting and the eisegetical imposition of thematic or ideological ideas.

The Anglican requirement that all necessary doctrines have clear biblical root rules out the idea that necessary doctrines may flow from Church tradition without any apparent foundation in Scripture. The clearest examples of such a ‘traditional but not biblical’ beliefs in the Roman Catholic system are the Marian doctrines defined by popes in the 19th and 20th century.  The Bible is simply silent about, for example, when the Blessed Virgin Mary died and what then happened.  While surely no Anglican Catholic doubts that our Lady is with God in heavenly bliss, no particular answers to ‘when?’ or ‘how?’ can be required as necessary for salvation when Scripture is entirely silent on the subject.[iii]  It does not follow that devout beliefs about such matters are wrong or that they are entirely matters for private, personal decision:  only that they are not essential, necessary doctrines or dogmas.  The essential Marian doctrines concern our Lord’s virginal conception and the unity of our Lord’s person as taught by the title of Theotokos:  these essential dogmas have biblical foundation. 

The classical Anglican use of Scripture in doctrinal and moral matters is perhaps the chief example of a via media between most Protestant versions of sola Scriptura and Roman Catholic willingness to multiply dogmas beyond Scripture even in the broadened sense of a ‘comprehended’ biblical teaching.  This mediating Anglican position, which uses and benefits from other uses of Scripture – devotional, inspirational, thematic, and even occasionally proof-texting – seems to me the best approach available.  More specifically, in moral matters this approach combines reasonable biblical interpretation, guided by tradition, with acknowledgement of natural law theory.  This combination will tend to reach conservative moral conclusions while avoiding the arbitrary and vulnerable biblicism of fundamentalism and proof-texting.


[i] ‘Love your neighbor’ is a ‘formal’ moral principle.   Deciding what is the loving thing to do when, for example, my mentally unstable neighbor asks me to return his guns which he asked me to keep safe for him while he was disturbed, is a ‘material’ dilemma.  A formally true rule is relevant but does not resolve all problems when circumstances and material difficulties accompany my good intentions. 

[ii] ‘Special interest theology’ was a phrase used for such schools of thought by Thomas Langford, the late dean of the Duke Divinity School and provost of the university.

[iii] As my saintly predecessor, Archbishop John-Charles Vockler, put it:  ‘No Anglican doubts that our Lady is in heavily glory.  Whether she got there by the express train or by the local does not seem to us to be very important.’

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