March 23, 2017

January 4, 2016

On Attempts to Rewrite the Bible

People who go to church expect to hear readings from Holy Scripture—which frequently then become the basis for the sermon. Actually, all of the so-called “proper” elements of an Episcopal or Catholic mass—the collect, the Old Testament reading, the psalm, the epistle, and the gospel passage are theoretically arranged to show forth or illustrate a unifying theme, which then grounds the homily or sermon that follows.

These selections are called the “propers” of the mass because they are chosen for just that particular day of the liturgical year. (The “ordinary” parts of the mass are those that do not change from day to day: the kyrie, the gloria, the credo, sanctus and agnus dei.) Both the Roman Catholic and the Episcopal Church follow a “lectionary” (schedule of readings) by which supposedly the entire Holy Bible is read aloud in the propers, over the course of three liturgical years.

I say “supposedly”, because as the Underground Pewster regularly points out, the theologians and clergy who assembled the current lectionary routinely excised certain passages from the ones specified in the lectionary. One can only speculate as to the reasons for omission in some cases, while other cases seem clear: certainly hearing nothing but a whole series of “begats” is not very edifying.

Because the Feast of the Epiphany occurs this week, churches are free to use Matthew’s story of the visit of the three wise men in their Sunday readings. We heard, for instance, the first twelve verses of Matthew’s second chapter, finishing with the wise men’s secret departure in order to avoid having to see King Herod again. For the three had been warned in a dream that Herod sought not to worship the new-born Jesus, but to slay him as soon as he could find him, in order to be certain that Herod and his descendants, not Jesus, would be known as “King of the Jews.”

In the Pewster’s church, they seem to have heard an expurgated version of the next eleven verses (Mt 2:13-23), with the account of the slaughter of Bethlehem’s newborn infants left out. Although (as he says) this may have been because that passage already was used for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, it is all too often the case, as the Pewster’s blog chronicles, that the expurgations have to do with leaving out the more “distasteful”, or less savory, parts of the Bible.

Such manipulation of the text of Holy Scripture, even so, is small potatoes compared to the wholesale attempts, ever since Marcion, to refashion and rewrite Scripture to make it more “suited” to one’s objectives. If anything, those attempts have multiplied today, along with the proliferation of “isms” that seek a Bible more in tune with their respective beliefs. “[Men] wrote the Bible,” famously said now-resigned Bishop Charles Bennison, “and so we can rewrite it” (or words to that effect).

The article quoting Bishop Bennison to which I just linked makes this excellent point:

This is a rejection of the Word as a revelation. The liberals who declare their absolute dependence upon the grace of God cannot, or will not, say “Thus saith the Lord.” They can, or will, say only “Thus saith the community, most of it anyway, at this point in time, though it has said other things at other times and may change its mind shortly.” Not, really, a faith that will change lives.

More subtly, at the end of the Lambeth Conference, after seeing the world’s Anglican bishops reject his favored moral innovations by a margin of almost eight to one, Bishop Griswold told them that he “encourage[d] our brothers and sisters in different parts of the world to allow God in the full freedom of the Holy Spirit to lead us on,” because “the journey of faith is, among others, to follow along the path of dispossession.”

It sounds good, this call: humble, patient, open, submissive. But in giving God the freedom to lead us on, he is refusing the Holy Spirit the freedom to speak clearly and finally. He is dispossessing himself, and those who follow him, of God’s Word.

Exactly right. And let’s not forget the very first person who ever tried to rewrite Holy Scripture, in order literally to dispossess us of God’s Word.

His name was Herod the Great.

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Today’s proper from the Unholy Book of Liberal Nonsense, 10:5: “Thus sayeth the Liberals, that 97% of scientists support that man-made gasses are causing climate changes; therefore, go forth and cap ‘n trade and tax the citizens into bankruptcy.  Amen.”

Next week’s proper - “Thus sayeth the Liberals, that ye shall claim whatever sexual orientation thou wantest; therefore, go and use whichever restroom suitheth thee anytime, anywhere, regardless of whatever other men may sayeth.  Amen.”

[1] Posted by B. Hunter on 1-4-2016 at 03:13 PM · [top]

Thanks Alan, for pointing out that parts are left out of the lectionary.  I am retired, so I do not preach as much now, but when I get the opportunity I often do what I call “preach in the gaps”.  I like to preach on the parts left out.

Chuck Lockhart

[2] Posted by Chuck Lockhart on 1-4-2016 at 06:04 PM · [top]

That’s an excellent point, Curmudgeon. 

Its not just liberals that suffer from the tendency to avoid the passages in scripture that make them feel uncomfortable - we all tend to do this.  An astute observer could read our character and foibles just from looking at the parts of scripture we avoid, and the parts we go to repeatedly:

“Give me a used bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places that are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers”.  [John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”]

Anyway, great reminder, and thank you.

[3] Posted by MichaelA on 1-4-2016 at 08:28 PM · [top]

I think a good case could be made for adding the massacre of the Holy Innocent Martyrs to the Epiphany Gospel, but from 1549 on Anglicans have ended the Epiphany Gospel with the angel’s word to go home another way. 
    We celebrated Epiphany with 50 men at Craggy medium security prison in Asheville Sunday, and I was glad to be able to use the Epiphany propers.  The Roman Catholics offer Mass on the Sunday after Christmas, and the Episcopalians on Epiphany.  Usually the Roman Catholics do Palm Sunday and we do Easter.
    I regularly take advantage of the rubric that permits lessons to be lengthened especially when the Lectionary omits uncomfortable passages.

[4] Posted by TomRightmyer on 1-4-2016 at 09:29 PM · [top]

When was the last time anyone preached from the book of Leviticus?  Yet that book is central to Torah and our understanding of the Cross and Communion.

[5] Posted by Br. Michael on 1-5-2016 at 06:03 AM · [top]

This is a question related to this issue.  What are the lectionaries in use in the orthodox Anglican churches?  Here in Fort Worth the Episcopal is still used with some minor modifications.  This is as much personal, as I would like to find one for my personal prayer and daily devotions.

[6] Posted by BillB on 1-5-2016 at 09:20 AM · [top]

BillB, the REC uses the Sunday and daily lectionaries in the 1928 Prayer Book.

[7] Posted by Katherine on 1-5-2016 at 11:46 AM · [top]

The criticism leveled at the Revised Common Lectionary can be directed at the daily office lectionary as well.  For example, the inconvenient bits in Leviticus 18 and 20 are left out as are those of Roman 1. I stopped using it years ago in favour of other methods for reading through the scriptures.

[8] Posted by Ross Gill on 1-7-2016 at 10:15 AM · [top]

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