Andrew Cousland offers some patristic reflections on the use of scripture
WHILE IT HAS BEEN reported in more than one recent article in New Directions that the use of Holy Scripture has been undermined or under attack from liberal opponents as to both its inspiration and its position as a primary rule of faith, it is worth recalling how a great Bible teacher handled the situation in his own day.
In the introductory homily on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, John Chrysostom states:
It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the Grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But since we have utterly put away, from us this Grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.
Chrysostom begins with the remarkable experience of the New Testament Church, whose great reliance on the living spoken Word is borne out by the scant evidence for written liturgy and the delay in writing down the gospel. It was essentially a time when those of the ‘apostles’ doctrine and fellowship’ could say that ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…’.
What then is meant by the pessimistic statement that we have ‘utterly put away from us this Grace’? This seems to have an echo in the versicle and response of the Prayer Book offices ‘Make clean our hearts within us … And take not thy Holy Spirit from us’. Chrysostom speaks of his fear of the total absence of the Holy Spirit, and we are left to contemplate the cause, such as unclean hearts of men and women.
The early Church historian Eusebius speaks of early apostasy when he quotes Hegesippus:
‘but when the sacred band of the apostles had in various ways reached the end of their life, and the generation of those privileged to listen with their own ears to the divine wisdom had passed on, then godless error began to take shape, through the deceit of false teachers, who now that none of the apostles was left threw off the mask and attempted to counter the preaching of the truth’.
Whatever the reason, a serious decline is reported by Chrysostom compared with New Testament times. He continues…’For the former was better, God bath made manifest, both by His words . and by His doings’ and then follows a survey of the Old Testament which in turn leads to the assertion as to why the written word has been given:
‘He discoursed not by writing, but Himself by Himself, finding their minds pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables, and the admonition which is given by these. And this one may perceive was the case, not of the Saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the Apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit…’.
Commenting on the discourse of ‘Himself by Himself’ we see something of the nature of Israel as a Theocracy. The Hebrews were dealing with a living Person not with abstract principles. Any didactic teaching was secondary.
Two of the greatest prophets were Elijah and Elisha, and excepting the historic narratives none of their prophetic words were written down.
The prophet in Israel was essentially the appointed channel of the Lord and His Presence among the people. The fact of a later written record of the prophetic word must indicate a new development and a change, in that moral and intimate relationship.
As we have already seen Chrysostom concludes his first paragraph with the words….’come let us at any rate embrace the second best course’. There is no mention here of reference to a subsequent Council of the Church for some further source of inspiration or to conclude an agreement diametrically opposed to that given under primary inspiration by the Holy Spirit through those ministries directly appointed by the Lord.
Of some recent council decisions there is a very apt reference in the Thirty Nine Articles where it is stated that Councils when ‘not governed with the Sprit and Word of God, they may err, and sometimes have erred’….By the end of the second century AD the Fragment of Muratori indicates something of the apostolic authority and manner in which the Canon of Holy Scripture was to be held within the western church, incidentally confirming the stance of Chrysostom in the eastern church.
The reference is to the writing of St. John’s Gospel following an exhortation by fellow disciples and bishops and a three day-fast …’the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John was to write all things in his own name, and they were all to certify’.
A later reference is made in the Fragment to the apostle Paul’s Letters that although addressed to individual congregations and persons they were……’ to be put in honour however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline….’
As to the imperfections of the written words of the Bible (and such are perfectly clear to the ordinary reader and Bible critic alike) these are invariably due to human agency and to human individuals. These may be scribes, editors or translators. The Bible record itself reminds us of human inconsistencies: – Abraham, the father of the faithful, twice fell into a state of unbelief; King David, ‘the man after God’s own heart’ required the denunciation of the prophet Nathan respecting his adultery (‘Thou art the man’) to bring him to his senses; the dispute between the apostles Paul and Barnabas, (the latter described as a ‘good man and full of the Holy Ghost’).
These all serve to remind us that a slavish reliance on the written word may be mistaken, and that such literalism is also assumed by liberal opposition to the Bible as well. Inconsistencies in the written word should be viewed in a positive light, giving the sacred record credibility, remembering the spirit in which it was written and the Holy Spirit who inspired its characters.
Andrew Cousland is Rector of St. Fraserburgh in the diocese of Aberdeen.