Arthur Middleton on the Bible and Liturgy


An English Bible

Today it is difficult to imagine that possession of an English translation of the Bible could result in one’s being found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. The reason behind this thinking was the Church’s fear that uncontrolled reading of the Bible by people lacking the essential qualifications to understand what was being read might undermine the authority and stability of the Church. The Church’s official biblical text was the fourth-century text of the Latin Vulgate, and although an increasing number of people could read Latin the risk of being led into error was great. This standard text was used by scholars and teachers: it was the Church’s responsibility to communicate the right interpretation of the Scriptures, or unorthodox interpretations would emerge. This would lead to heresy that would corrupt other people and rob them of salvation. It was this increasing concern regarding heresy that provoked stricter rules about translations of the Bible into the vernacular.

John Wycliffe had produced English translations of the Bible in the fourteenth century which led to stricter laws that made the possession of such a translation a criminal offence. John Moorman pointed out that the Lollard translations prompted the calling of a Provincial Council in 1407, which passed a resolution that ‘no one shall in future translate on his own authority any text of Holy Scripture into the English tongue […] Nor shall any man read this kind of book.’ [John R. H. Moorman, The Anglican Spiritual Tradition, London: DLT (1983), 14]

Today’s problems

Our own day is not without its problems in translating the Bible. In 2003 Pope John Paul II condemned The New Revised Standard Version as an incorrect translation. The translators came to the translation with certain political and sociological assumptions from late twentieth-century western secular culture, central to which was the secular doctrine of political correctness. So all language about God, humanity, and society was rewritten within the cultural limitations of how the sexes are being engineered to relate to one another in our modern secular world. These assumptions emerge from the modern discussion as a priori guides, telling the translators beforehand what to see and how to translate the text.

A proper approach to the text will let questions emerge from the data observed, even though these are ancient texts and the emergent questions may be irrelevant. Their irrelevance will mean they are independent of the modern discussion and can cross-examine and critique the presuppositions of our modern concerns. The translator’s task is to establish a strong, independent voice, and as far as possible keep these biblical writers true to themselves so that they can speak not only to our questions but also against them.

Unwritten traditions

Another reason for resisting vernacular translations of the Bible was the Church’s belief that, alongside the written Bible, she possessed certain unwritten traditions that were received directly by the Apostles and had the same authority as Scripture. This was ratified by the Council of Trent which not only accepted the Old and New Testaments but also ‘the said Traditions, as well as those pertaining to faith as those pertaining to morals, as having been given either from the lips of Christ or by the dictation of the Holy Spirit and preserved by unbroken succession in the Catholic Church’ [H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, OUP (1959), 365].

More recently, Margaret Barker has written that “There was far more to the teaching of Jesus than is recorded in the canonical gospels. For several centuries a belief persisted among Christian writers that there had been a secret tradition entrusted to only a few of his followers. Eusebius [Church History, 2:1] quotes from a now lost work of Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes: ‘James the Righteous, John and Peter were entrusted by the LORD after his resurrection with the higher knowledge. They imparted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the seventy, one of whom was Barnabas.’ This brief statement offers three important pieces of evidence: the tradition was given to an inner circle of disciples; the tradition was given after the resurrection; and the tradition was a form of higher knowledge, i.e. gnosis.” [Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest, London: T. & T. Clark (2003), 1].

If the secret tradition did concern the practice and meaning of the sacraments, and if this tradition was rooted in the symbolism of the temple and the teachings of the ancient priesthood, its recovery is of more than simply academic interest. It has been all too easy for sola scriptura scholars to dismiss such a claim, and then find themselves constructing theological positions that are not biblical, because they have ignored the environing traditions that could have illuminated the meaning of the biblical texts. An extreme example would be R. P. C. Hanson’s assessment of St Basil: ‘Behind this unfortunate and totally unjustifiable claim for a genuine apostolic origin for liturgical and customary practice of the contemporary Church, lies uncertainty about how to use biblical material’ [Barker, Great High Priest, 11].

St Basil

In chapter 66 of his treatise On the Holy Spirit, Basil claimed that there were teachings from the Apostles which had not been committed to writing. Such traditions consisted of facing east to pray, marking with the sign of the cross, and the epiclesis. It cannot be coincidence that all three were customs from the First Temple. Basil explained that ‘they had been kept in silence and in secret,’ and concerned ‘liturgical customs, prayers and rites of sacraments’ and the theological doctrines implied in them. [Margaret Barker, Temple Theology: An Introduction, London: SPCK (2004), 21-22]

The Church of England in the early years of the sixteenth century continued to think in these terms about a vernacular translation of the Bible. This was anathema to the radical Protestants for whom the Bible was the unique means of communication between God and man, because everything necessary for salvation and the knowledge of God was found therein and it needed no additions from tradition or reason. Stephen Gardiner was a typical Henrician bishop who stressed the traditional coinherence of the Scriptures and the Church: that the interpretation of the Bible in the Church was necessary if the Bible was to mean anything, for the Church expressed the life that the Bible indicated. It follows that the meaning of the sacraments and everything in the organic life of the Church are a fulfilment of that life which is proclaimed in the Bible.