The English Bible

Caution and restraint

The English Bible has played such an immensely important part in Anglican devotion that today, with so many English translations circulating, it is hard to imagine that until 1536, the possession of an English Bible could result in punishment by death. The Church feared that uncontrolled access to the Bible by individuals without the necessary qualifications was dangerous and liable to undermine the authority and stability of the Church. Such thinking was based on a number of things. First, the Bible could be misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted, even by those who could read the Latin and there was an increasing number in the sixteenth century. The Church believed that she was responsible for teaching people about God, his nature, his mighty acts, and his will. This was part of the magisterium given by Christ to his Church, something in the possession of the church authorities whose interpretation must be accepted. Secondly, the Church had accepted the Vulgate as the standard text of the Bible, so that only Latin Bibles were approved which meant that the Church knew exactly what text scholars and teachers were using. Also, this would prevent the great mass of the laity from reading the Bible and making their own interpretations. As the danger of heresy grew more alarming, the Church had become more restrictive about translating the Bible into the vernacular and had to be cautious about biblical translations. A translator turning a text from one language into another can introduce some error, and when it comes to translating the words of Scripture the danger is even greater, as the translator can so easily introduce his own ideas as to what the text is trying to say. Look at some of the English Bibles of today to see how easily this can be done, even by fully accredited scholars and those obsessed by political correctness and inclusive language.

Some precedents

Yet ever since there was an English language there have been English translations of the Bible. The earliest datable fragment of English poetry is a paraphrase of part of Genesis in Anglo-Saxon. A painting of Bede on his deathbed dictating his translation of St John’s Gospel was stolen from my church in Boldon. Also, he translated the Psalms and other Gospels into Anglo-Saxon. King Alfred translated part of the Book of Exodus. The Bible is part of the English heritage because of people like Caedmon, Alfred the Great, Richard Rolle, Wycliffe and William Tyndale who translated parts of the Bible from the original languages that became the basis for the Authorized Version and the Revised Version. In 1535 Myles Coverdale, using Tyndale’s work and others, produced the first complete English Bible in exile on the continent.

An English Bible

One great practical reform that Cranmer longed to promote, though he was not the first English churchman to desire it, was the circulation of the Bible in English. The inspiration for this general diffusion of the Bible for ‘vulgar people’ in the ‘vulgar tongue’ came from his reading of the Fathers and from the fact that the Anglo-Saxons had translated the Bible and read it in what was their ‘vulgar tongue’. Cranmer’s liturgical revision was concerned to embody such biblical material in its lections. It is to the Fathers that he appeals to justify an English Bible in the face of petty quibbling objections from bishops. In 1539 Cranmer wrote a Prologue or Preface, which was published in April 1540 and prefixed to the Great Bible, appointed to be read in churches that year. He appealed to St John Chrysostom’s sermon ‘De Lazaro’, on the benefits ‘lay and vulgar people’ can derive from reading the Scriptures. He intended to claim nothing more than what Chrysostom had written. Chrysostom is concerned that those who listen to his sermons should read their bibles at home between these sermons and memorize what he has preached on such texts as they read; ‘and also that they might have their minds the more ready and better prepared to receive and perceive that which he should say from thenceforth in his sermons’. All these things have been written for our edification and amendment. The reading of Scripture is a great and strong bulwark against sin, and ignorance of it can ruin and destroy those who do not know it. Such ignorance causes heresy in corrupt and perverse living.

As Chrysostom is cited to reprove those who refused to read the Bible, Gregory Nazianzen is used to reprove another sort of offender. In Gregory’s time there were some who were ‘idle babblers and talkers of the Scripture’ without allowing it to affect their lives by increase of virtue, or example of good living. Cranmer summarized what Gregory wrote. Gregory claimed that not every one is able to dispute the high questions of divinity and that it is dangerous ‘for the unclean to touch that thing that is most clean; like as the sore eye taketh harm by looking at the sun’. Contention and debate about Scripture is most hurtful to ourselves and to the cause we have furthered. He is not dissuading people from the knowledge of God, and reading or studying the Bible. It is as necessary for the life of a person’s soul, as breath for the body. If it were possible, Gregory thinks it good for anyone to spend all his time in that, and nothing else, commending meditation and study of Scripture always, night and day, and sermons to be preached morning, noon and evening. What he forbids is fruitless reasoning, not reasoning that is good and godly. Cranmer, quotes Gregory’s words,

the fear of God must be the first beginning, and as it were an ABC, of an introduction to all them that shall enter to the very sure and most fruitful knowledge of holy scriptures. Where, as is the fear of God, there is the keeping of the commandments, there is the cleansing of the flesh, which flesh is a cloud before the soul’s eye, and suffereth it not purely to see the beam of the heavenly light. Where, as is the cleansing of the flesh, there is the illumination of the Holy Ghost, the end of all our desires, and the very light whereby the verity of the scriptures is seen and perceived (Id. Orat. xxxix).

Anglicans can be thankful that through the influence of the teaching of the Fathers an English Bible is authorized and their liturgy packed with biblical material that is read and heard throughout a continuous cycle.


A fundamental concern in the promotion of an English Bible is the ‘proper’, historical setting or context of the Bible, the living apostolic community, the catholic Church of the Fathers, which ensures authoritatively, normatively, and critically the historic continuity of the apostolic community and her apostolic faith and praxis. Michael Ramsey said that Anglicans do their theology to the sound of church bells and it follows that they read their bibles to the sound of those same bells. This does not attempt to add anything to Scripture, but is concerned to ascertain and disclose fully the true meaning of Scripture. As Professor Hanson put it, the life of Christianity depends upon the Church dancing with the Bible, and the Bible with the Church, the Church may indeed be lost without the Bible, but the Bible without the Church is dead, a collection of ancient documents and no more. Fr Tavard SJ claims that such a way of reading the Bible is consistent with the patristic spirit in maintaining the Catholic notion of a perfect union between Church and Scripture. In 1571, the Canterbury Convocation adopted a canon, which spoke clearly of the sources for the Church’s authority in matters of doctrine. Here Articles VI and XX formally committed the Anglican Church to the principle of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture and the canon gave practical expression to this principle. The clergy must never teach anything to be believed by the people, but what is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old or New Testament, and collected out of that same doctrine by the Catholic Fathers, and ancient bishops.

This witness to Scripture is of crucial importance. The appeal to the early Fathers has long been a distinguishing feature of Anglican theology. When there are conflicting claims as to what constitutes true Christian doctrine, the early Christian Fathers, when there exists a consensus amongst them, judicate the orthodox way. This would become a way to mediate apostolic life throughout the generations of the Church in all its fullness. As such it would become not only the method of the Anglican Reformers and Caroline divines but also of the theologians of the Catholic Revival within Anglicanism. This echoes the voice of no less an authority than St Augustine: ‘The Church must be shewed out of the holy and canonical scriptures; and that which cannot be shewed out of them is not the Church’ (de unit. eccl. 4). Anglicans were therefore confident to make their appeal to the early Fathers, who upheld orthodox doctrine ‘with none other force than with the holy scriptures’ (1.9), because the Fathers held the Holy Scriptures to be ‘the heavenly voices, whereby God hath opened unto us his will’ (II.9).

The Preface to the 1549 Book points out that for the Fathers Divine Service was for a great advancement of godliness. They arranged for the whole Bible to be read once every year; intending that the clergy should, by frequent reading and meditation in God’s word, be stirred up to godliness themselves and more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine and to refute erroneous doctrine. Also the people by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed by the love of his true Religion.

Reading the Bible

Generations of Anglicans have become familiar with the Bible through the Book of Common Prayer, when many households had this resource of prayer and biblical material. Here they could read the Bible with the Church alongside the sequence of the Christian Year that links Holy Scripture with the credal understanding of the Faith, as the great events of sacred history are commemorated in the Church’s worship. In today’s cycles of readings for the Sunday Eucharist, the lessons may be split up to provide a daily bible reading during the week preceding the Sunday. This encourages a more intelligent participation in the Ministry of the Word in the Church’s liturgical worship. Reading the Bible in this way provides it with a living context for worship, doctrine and life, the comprehensive perspective in which the true intention and total design of divine revelation can be detected and grasped. It also demonstrates that the sacraments are the expression of God in action.

Cycles of readings for Morning and Evening Prayer can provide an ordered daily reading of a book from Old or New Testament. Reading the Bible with the Church helps us to grasp that Scripture was first compiled and edited for proclamation in public worship, where it finds its dynamism and vitality in proclamation, announcement, and address to God’s people. The Word of God is to renew, revitalize and re-establish our identity as members of God’s people. Central to our experience as the living community of God’s people is a divine and living Person in dialogue with his people, in response to whom that community continues to grow as it allows itself to be formed by the living God. Every day is a Day of the Lord when we must listen to his voice and realize that bread alone is not sufficient for daily life, but every word that comes from the mouth of God.

To communicate the corporate memories of the community of faith, its written records – the scriptures – need to be read again and again. The corporate memories contained in scripture enable us to grasp our self-identity as the Church where the Christian recovers and appropriates for his own life the experiences of Israel and the early Church.

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College Durham, a writer and lecturer.