Nowadays there’s been a commendable emphasis on the Christian faith as practice, not just as a set of beliefs. However, it’s often been observed that pendulums tend to swing to opposite extremes, and it would be a pity if the entire Church of Jesus Christ adopted the view that it basically doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we’re all nice to each other. After all, if 9/11 taught us nothing else, it taught us that just believing in God isn’t enough; the things you believe about God are important, too, and make a lot of difference to the way you live.
The service of ordination of a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada includes a strong emphasis on the Christian beliefs that are required of those about to be ordained. The bishop asks the ordinand,
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them?… (Book of Alternative Services, p. 645).
The ordinand’s reply makes it clear where we think that doctrine, discipline, and worship is chiefly to be found:
I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly promise to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Anglican Church of Canada.
This makes it clear that the Anglican Church of Canada teaches that the ‘doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ’ is chiefly to be found in the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which are the word of God containing all things necessary to salvation.
‘The word of God'; what does that mean? In the Old Testament, this phrase is often used to describe the prophetic message: ‘Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying…’ (Jeremiah 1:4); ‘The word of the Lord that came to Hosea…’ (Hosea 1:1). This might give the impression that the prophets were simply automatons speaking words they had no control over, but a glance at their books indicates that this was not so; their writings have obviously been well thought out and carefully constructed. The Word of the Lord obviously came in the words of human beings, and both parts of this statement are important.
In the New Testament book of Acts, ‘the Word of God’ is often another way of saying ‘the Christian message’ or ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’, or even ‘the church of Jesus Christ that is produced by the gospel’. ‘The word of God continued to spread’ (Acts 6:7); ‘But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents’ (Acts 12:24). So ‘the Word of God’ is not identified strictly with words written in a book, but rather with the Christian message proclaimed by the authors of that book.
In the Gospel of John and in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is said to be the Word of God in its highest form. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory’ (John 1:1, 14). Jesus is God’s highest revelation to us of what he is like and of what he requires of us. The Old Testament scriptures tell the story that leads up to him, and the New Testament explores the mystery of Christ and his Gospel and applies it to the varied situations the early Christians find themselves in.
Anglicans tend not to be inerrantists, believing that every word of the scriptures is literally true according to modern standards of truth. On the other hand, neither can we be satisfied with simply relegating the Bible to the status of a historical document, the best that human beings could guess about God and God’s will. We believe that in the story told by the Old and New Testaments God has revealed himself to us, and supremely in the person of Jesus his Son.
We are not therefore free to make up the Christian faith as we go along. Our beliefs and practices must stand in obvious continuity with the message proclaimed by the prophets and apostles, and embodied most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus. This deposit of faith is handed down to us (and is literally handed over to the newly ordained priest when he or she receives a copy of the Holy Scriptures from the hand of the Bishop). We are not then called to make up any sort of message that tickles our fancy or harmonizes easily with the preferences of our hearers. We are called to proclaim the message that the Scriptures contain, and to apply it afresh to the very different world situations we find ourselves in today. This will take every ounce of energy we can give to prayerful study and honest wrestling with the message God has entrusted to us.
This is demanding, and only those who have tried to do it know just how difficult it can be. I know a retired teacher who regularly kids me about how easy we clergy have it; we can spend all week preparing one fifteen minute talk, whereas he and his fellow teachers had to be on deck for hours and hours every week.
Well, I have no desire to belittle the excellent work done by teachers. But I would suggest that the work involved in listening carefully and prayerfully to a biblical text in order to discern what God might be saying to a community of faith in this exact moment of its life is a very different thing than presenting a lesson to a classroom. Yes, we may take a lot longer to prepare a much shorter lesson. But that’s because we aren’t actually presenting a lesson at all: we’re announcing a call from God to the people in our congregations, and we want to make absolutely sure that we’re getting it right. If anyone thinks that’s easy, I challenge them to sit down in the presence of God, read a passage from the Bible, and answer three questions: ‘What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean to me?’ Those are the fundamental questions that preachers are called to answer week by week. The last one is perhaps the most challenging: how is God addressing us in this text today? Unlike a school curriculum, this is hard to pin down; it’s not just a matter of presenting academic information, but of passing on God’s specific message to this community, and the individuals in it, at this point in their lives.
That’s it for today. When I come back to the ordination service, I’ll address the phrase ‘all things necessary to salvation’.