Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Mere Knowledge of Scripture

“'Bible Religion' is both the recognized title and the best description of the English religion. It consists not in rites or in creeds, but mainly in having the Bible read in Church, in the family, in private. Now I am far indeed from undervaluing that mere knowledge of Scripture which is imparted to the population thus promiscuously. At least in England, it has to a certain point made up for great and grievous losses in its Christianity. The reiteration again and again, in fixed course in the public service, of the words of inspired teachers under both covenants, and that in grave majestic English, has in matter of fact been to our people a vast benefit. It has attuned their minds to religious thoughts; it has given them a high moral standard; it has served them in associating religion with compositions which, evenly humanly considered, are among the most sublime and beautiful ever written; especially, it has impressed upon them the series of Divine Providence, in behalf of man for his creation to his end, and, above all, the words, deeds, and sacred sufferings of Him in whom all the Providences of God centre.”

-John Henry Newman, The Grammar of Assent, Bk. 56-57.

[In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul instructs Timothy regarding the main tasks as a pastor he is to perform win Paul's absence: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” I have been thinking lately that these three things are still vital signs of a church's health.

Paul follows up: “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 'Diligence in these matters' includes the three things he mentioned above, it seems. The quote from Newman stirs cultural memory of a time which is now largely past, but in which the “mere knowledge of Scripture” through “the Bible read in Church, in the family, in private” was a marked sign of Christianity in England. I know there are considerations and questions that deserve attention regarding what this meant in Paul's day. It might be suggested that as far as such public Scripture reading, it was called for by the high rates of illiteracy of the time. There is certainly a place for discussion about the formats that modern shapes of living call for in advancing this “mere knowledge of Scripture”, but a bottom line for a healthy church is that Christians should know and be taught to know the Scripture. Paul even ties up these labors of Timothy with salvation for him and his hearers.

Sometimes the classical liberal notion of the equality of religions is held forth in the old adage that the different religions are like a bunch of blind men in a room with an elephant who have never seen an elephant and who latch onto just part of the elephant and think it is the whole and dispute with each other that the dimensions of their part of the elephant are the correct one. The problem with this analogy, which is meant to suggest the folly of adhering to any one religion, is that it presupposes a bird's eye view, a superior vantage point. In order to see the folly of the blind men you have to presume to see the elephant whole (or the Brahmin spirit, or the Oversoul or whatever you call it). Rather than exposing the pride and folly of the religions it turns out to conceal a presumed superiority which may turn out to be the most acidic pride of all. And this vantage point becomes the effective religion, rather than any one of the religions.

Contrast then with the kind of devotion Paul is speaking of here. He does not speak of Christianity as merely a culturally positive local place to plant yourself, one which is interchangeable with other faiths. He does not harbor a sense that it is bigoted and a fallacy to presume that Christianity has some special corner on the truth, some X marks the spot. Rather he says that these things mean salvation. Not fashion and fancy but life and death.

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