The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ,
is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same,
and listens not to the voice of a stranger.
—The Ten Theses of Bern (1528), Thesis 1
‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand’ (Jn 10:27-28). The Lord Jesus’ words are a joyful promise to his people of safety and life. When they hear his words, his sheep cry out, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pasture; he restores my soul.’ They hear the Good Shepherd’s voice and they follow him. They do not listen to the voice of a stranger, and when they hear the stranger’s voice they flee (Jn 10:5).
We saw in our previous post that the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd speaks, and he speaks in Holy Scripture. The words of Scripture are the words of the Good Shepherd of his sheep warning, protecting, leading and feeding his flock through the voice of his apostles and prophets. The Good Shepherd speaks. But can we confidently hear his voice?
Can We Hear His Voice?
When it introduces the question of the unity and authority of Scripture, LLF asks a question that might be more telling than the authors realise: ‘How do we enable different parts of Scripture to shape how we read these texts, and does reading these texts shape our overall theology of relationships?’ (LLF, p. 294). The key phrase, I want to suggest, is the first: ‘How do we enable…?’ To frame the question in these terms—with our ‘enabling’ acts of interpretation in centre stage—is to start in the wrong place. And if we start here, it will be all but impossible to arrive at a satisfactory answer.
Lying behind this question seem to be a couple of assumptions. The first is that Scripture is composed of different parts. This misses the fact that Scripture is an organic unity (which can, of course, include the idea of a variety of parts organically related to one another) with one, divine, primary author. Instead, the picture implied by us ‘enabling’ the parts to shape our interpretation, is of a set of more or less disparate parts being brought together by us in our interpretative acts. This becomes particularly obvious in some of the ‘Speakers’ discussed in my first post. Here there is talk of smoothing out rough edges, pervasive tensions, an inherently complex conversation between multiple voices.
The other assumption seems to be that in the act of interpretation what really matters is what we do. It seems that we are the primary agents in the interpretation of Scripture. Using a variety of reading strategies (some better, some worse), we set to work on a passive text, analysing it, studying, assembling, ordering, much as we might any other kind of literature. This emphasis on hermeneutical theory and readerly acts stands behind the massive breakdown of trust that Scripture is Christ’s loving, authoritative voice leading his sheep. But it also stands behind most contemporary conservative evangelical methods of reading the Bible. What matters is that we read the Bible rightly. Behind the question of interpretation—in LLF, as in much contemporary hermeneutics, both liberal and evangelical—is an understanding of the act of interpretation that unduly prioritises our interpretative acts, and that correspondingly downplays what God is doing. God may have inspired Scripture in some way, back in the past; but is he still active in relation to it today, and to us as its readers?
How Can We Not Hear His Voice?
A better approach is to recognise that the One who spoke then is the risen and exalted Lord, who is present with his people and speaks to us today. The same Christ who spoke through the prophets and apostles still speaks today by means of their words. In a number of places, John Webster has drawn attention in this regard to Revelation 1. In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, John sees the risen and exalted Christ, like a Son of Man, standing in the midst of his churches. He is not a passive or distant figure, a person from the past. He is the first and the last and the living One (Rev 1:17-18), the One who spoke direct to Moses from the burning bush (Ex. 3:14), the One who is not silent like the idols (Isa 44:6ff). He is the divine Son who has fulness of life in and of himself, as a gift from his Father (Rev. 1:17-18; Jn. 5:26). He is no mere historical figure. He who once was dead is now alive for evermore (1:19). And he speaks with majestic and lively divine authority. His voice is like a loud trumpet (1:10; cf. Ex. 19:16, 19-20), like the roar of many waters (1:16; cf. Ezek. 1:24-25). By his Spirit in the Scriptures written by John, he speaks to his churches (Rev 2-3). And only the deaf, only the spiritually dead, could fail to hear his overwhelming mighty voice. As he speaks, his is a word that slays and makes alive (Rev 1:17-18), for from his mouth there comes a sharp two-edged sword (1:16).
In the Scriptures, this is the Christ who speaks. In the evocative imagery of Katherine Sonderegger, Scripture is our burning bush, where we encounter the living, speaking Lord. The primary agent in the act of reading Scripture is not us, today, with our sophisticated interpretative methods. We are not called to extract and assemble meaning from an inert text that lies before us, pinned to a board for dissection and analysis. No! The primary agent in interpretation is the risen, exalted Christ, present with us, speaking his Lordly words of summons.
And as the living One who slays and makes alive, not only does Christ speak. As he kills our old, sinful selves, and raises us to new, converted life, he moves us from death to life. And so he creates in us the possibility of truly hearing his voice. By his Spirit, Christ speaks in Scripture; by his Spirit he illuminates our understanding so we can receive his word as it truly is: the life-giving summons of the Shepherd of his sheep.
This does not take away the need for careful, disciplined reading of the text of Scripture. Nor does it mean that the tools of exegesis have no value. But it does re-situate our hearing of Scripture in challenging ways. We read the Bible not in the safe, controlled, comfortable space of our own mind or our own agenda. We read in the presence of its eloquent Author. The fundamental difficulty that besets us as we read Holy Scripture is not the complexity of the texts, nor their cultural and historical distance from us. The primary difficulty we face is that in reading Holy Scripture we are hearing the Lordly summons of our God speaking words of judgement and of grace. We have little grasp of how deeply this disorients and distorts the way we read. Since Genesis 3, we have rejected and feared this voice (Gen 3:1-7, 10). When we hear him speak, our deep instinct is to flee and hide. And only slowly do we learn to love and trust his summons, and to discover in his words the path of life. The problem is not the Bible. The problem is us. Although reading Scripture involves hard intellectual work, our difficulties are not really intellectual. They are spiritual and moral. ‘My sheep hear my voice and follow me’, says Jesus. We do not hear because we do not want to hear. We do not want to hear because a stranger’s voice is more to our taste.
The issues I’ve been exploring over these three posts are not simply academic questions, questions for polite discussion in shared conversations over tea and biscuits. They reveal profound spiritual realities.
There is a right kind of patience required in reading and understanding Holy Scripture as we learn to hear, trust and obey the Good Shepherd’s voice. We are time-bound creatures who learn and grow slowly. We are sinful creatures, and the overcoming of sin’s effects, including its effects on our assumptions and preferences and understanding, is a painstaking process of being slain and made alive daily by the Holy Spirit speaking through God’s Word. All of us are works in progress, so it is right to be patient with ourselves, and patient with one another: willing to listen charitably, examine our own understanding, and return to Holy Scripture for God’s good and life-giving Word.
But there is also a wrong kind of endless deferral of meaning, which in the final analysis is no more than a stubborn refusal to acknowledge what the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, the Shepherd of his sheep, says to us by the agency of the prophets and apostles. Within the Church, says the exalted Christ by his apostle, there are those who are ‘always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim. 3:7). After decades of reports, discussion and circling around questions of marriage, relationships and sexuality, it is not unfair to ask whether LLF is, in fact, a prime example of this dynamic at work. And, as uncomfortable as it is to say these things, this dynamic is closely connected with a massive failure of institutional, collective, and perhaps also individual, character: ‘having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power’ (2 Tim. 3:5).
The understanding of the nature of the Church expressed in the Church of England’s formularies matches closely to that of the Ten Theses of Bern quoted at the start of this post. Christ alone is Head of the Church. His relation to us is one of absolute, loving, authority. He exercises his rule by his Word which both gives birth to the Church and preserves it in life. And his sheep listen to his voice.
LLF is asking us to focus on the diversity of human voices in Scripture, and to validate the diversity of ways contemporary Anglicans put these allegedly disparate pieces together. The pressing question for orthodox Anglicans is whether, it is therefore, in reality, facilitating listening to, and toying with, the voice of strangers. If this is the case, we must sadly conclude that, not least in the way it encourages us to engage with Holy Scripture itself, the Church of England as an institution is silencing the voice of its only Head and Shepherd. It is wielding not the sword of the Spirit (Heb. 4:12), but the sword of its own beheading.
Thank you to Patrick Sneider at Unsplash for the image of the shepherd