Sunday, January 3, 2016

On Attempts to Rewrite Holy Scripture

People who go to church expect to hear readings from Holy Scripture -- which frequently then become the basis for the sermon. Actually, all of the so-called "proper" elements of an Episcopal or Catholic mass -- the collect, the Old Testament reading, the psalm, the epistle, and the gospel passage are theoretically arranged to show forth or illustrate a unifying theme, which then grounds the homily or sermon that follows.

These selections are called the "propers" of the mass because they are chosen for just that particular day of the liturgical year. (The "ordinary" parts of the mass are those that do not change from day to day: the kyrie, the gloria, the credo, sanctus and agnus dei.) Both the Roman Catholic and the Episcopal Church follow a "lectionary" (schedule of readings) by which supposedly the entire Holy Bible is read aloud in the propers, over the course of three liturgical years.

I say "supposedly", because as the Underground Pewster regularly points out, the theologians and clergy who assembled the current lectionary routinely excised certain passages from the ones specified in the lectionary. One can only speculate as to the reasons for omission in some cases, while other cases seem clear: certainly hearing nothing but a whole series of "begats" is not very edifying.

Because the Feast of the Epiphany occurs this week, churches are free to use Matthew's story of the visit of the three wise men in their Sunday readings. We heard, for instance, the first twelve verses of Matthew's second chapter, finishing with the wise men's secret departure in order to avoid having to see King Herod again. For the three had been warned in a dream that Herod sought not to worship the new-born Jesus, but to slay him as soon as he could find him, in order to be certain that Herod and his descendants, not Jesus, would be known as "King of the Jews."

In the Pewster's church, they seem to have heard an expurgated version of the next eleven verses (Mt 2:13-23), with the account of the slaughter of Bethlehem's newborn infants left out. Although (as he says) this may have been because that passage already was used for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, it is all too often the case, as the Pewster's blog chronicles, that the expurgations have to do with leaving out the more "distasteful", or less savory, parts of the Bible.

Such manipulation of the text of Holy Scripture, even so, is small potatoes compared to the wholesale attempts, ever since Marcion, to refashion and rewrite Scripture to make it more "suited" to one's objectives. If anything, those attempts have multiplied today, along with the proliferation of "isms" that seek a Bible more in tune with their respective beliefs. "[Men] wrote the Bible," famously said now-resigned Bishop Charles Bennison, "and so we can rewrite it" (or words to that effect).

The article quoting Bishop Bennison to which I just linked makes this excellent point:
This is a rejection of the Word as a revelation. The liberals who declare their absolute dependence upon the grace of God cannot, or will not, say “Thus saith the Lord.” They can, or will, say only “Thus saith the community, most of it anyway, at this point in time, though it has said other things at other times and may change its mind shortly.” Not, really, a faith that will change lives.

More subtly, at the end of the Lambeth Conference, after seeing the world’s Anglican bishops reject his favored moral innovations by a margin of almost eight to one, Bishop Griswold told them that he “encourage[d] our brothers and sisters in different parts of the world to allow God in the full freedom of the Holy Spirit to lead us on,” because “the journey of faith is, among others, to follow along the path of dispossession.” 
It sounds good, this call: humble, patient, open, submissive. But in giving God the freedom to lead us on, he is refusing the Holy Spirit the freedom to speak clearly and finally. He is dispossessing himself, and those who follow him, of God’s Word.
Exactly right. And let's not forget the very first person who ever tried to rewrite Holy Scripture, in order literally to dispossess us of God's Word.

His name was Herod the Great.


  1. If you have not read it, you, as an attorney, would enjoy Tertullian's Adversus Marcionem, which is a very lawyerly refutation of Christianity's first great heretic.

    From the end of Book III of same:

    "You, however, argue for another Christ, even from the fact that he tells of a new kingdom. You need first to cite some instance of kindness given, or else I shall have good reason to doubt the credibility of so great a promise as you affirm is to be hoped for. In fact before all else you need to prove that he who you profess promises heavenly things, has any heaven of his own. As things are, you are giving invitations to dinner, but now showing at which house: you are telling of a kingdom, but not pointing out the palace. If it this because your Christ promises a heavenly kingdom when he has no heaven, in the same way as he made profession of humanity without having a body. What a phantasm it all is! What a hollow pretence of so great a promise!"

    Sound familiar?

  2. Two or three hundred years ago, I believe it was 1960, and it had fallen to this inadequate person to read the 2nd Chapter of Luke. As a preppy-in-training, a ninth grader (boss-class because the 9th grade was the end of Junior High in McAllen in those days), tall and lanky and a known Episcopalian, the English lit teacher tapped me to be the deliverer of the Good News on the night of the Christmas Pageant at Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar Junior High School.
    The appointed time came for me to stride to the lectern, and I had determined where the reading would stop.

    Everyone had some approved place, some wanted more and some wanted less. But Father Rilling told me, "Read until you know it is time to stop."
    Because there were 1,000 people in the gymnasium - auditorium (we even had a theatre stage with real live heavy curtains - and the programme was long....much very beautiful music, hymns, and carols, with a Jewish girl singing a solo part....I knew where the reading would end. It was very clear.

    Avoiding all the purification according to the Law of Moses and all the circumcising....pretty terrifying for some certainly, it was determined that it should be avoided, and the issue was done. I stopped at the point where it is written, "And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." Luke 2 verse 19.

    The reading received a long standing ovation. It was one of life's moments. King James and Mary were the true stars. And I am using that same Bible to keep my words fresh, that I used that night in McAllen.

    Can you all imagine? In a public school in these days?

    The other postings by our Host have left me depressed more than a little during the past three or four days. They were necessary postings, however.
    We have been a bit under the weather and self-involved like all narcissists. But the posting "On Attempts to Rewrite Holy Scripture"has served to restore me and after reading it, I determined to post something of lesser quality, but totally inspired by Dr. Haley's observations.

    We have never read a posting here with which we have had a disagreement. We ride to the Banquet of the Epiphany to-morrow night at Saint John's in McAllen....wondering as the Wise Men leave if there will still be a place where the ancient words, all of them, can still be said.

    El Gringo Viejo