Saturday, February 20, 2010

Impatience with the Bible--a New Idolatry?

By Robin G. Jordan

Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
" ' You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.'
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Matthew 13:10-17 ESV

In his article, “Falling on Deaf Ears? — Why So Many Churches Hear So Little of the Bible,” Albert Mohler draws attention Mark Galli’s essay in Christianity Today entitled “Yawning at the Word.” Galli is senior editor of CT and in that position monitors developments in contemporary Christianity. He has observed one very pernicious development – the increasing impatience with and resistance to the reading and preaching of the Bible. Mohler in his own article writes:

“Indeed, in many churches there is very little reading of the Bible in worship, and sermons are marked by attention to the congregation's concerns - not by an adequate attention to the biblical text. The exposition of the Bible has given way to the concerns, real or perceived, of the listeners. The authority of the Bible is swallowed up in the imposed authority of congregational concerns.”

As members of a liturgical church that has historically given prominence to the reading of the Bible in worship, Anglicans like to think that they are not affected by this trend. But is that really the case?

In the Anglican Church in Australia, North America, and the United Kingdom free-flowing forms of worship are replacing the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. The reading of the Bible in worship has fallen victim to this trend, as have sermons that explain the meaning of the Bible to the people. As in non-liturgical churches the congregation’s concerns are determining the topics of sermons. This is justified as making worship more relevant to today’s world, more in touch with people’s needs.

Even in parishes and churches that stick to the Prayer Book services or their contemporary equivalent, we see a similar trend. The quality of public reading of Scripture is poor, as is the quality of preaching. Scripture readings are often shortened and periods of silence for reflection upon the lections are frequently omitted. Lectionaries that do not cover the entire Bible are seeing more frequent use. Preachers are taking a text from the Bible and using it as a starting point to talk about things that have no relationship to the text. At best the text may have suggested the topic of the sermon to the preacher.

Among the reasons that Archbishop Cranmer included the reading and exposition of the Bible in the services of the Prayer Book was that he recognized the power of God’s word to give life to the hearer and light and understanding (Psalms 119:50, 119:93 and John 5:24; Psalms 19:7-8, 119:105, and 119:130). He echoes the words of 2 Timothy 3:15 in his conclusion to Confutation of Unwritten Verities.

“Stand thou fast, and stay thy faith, whereupon thou shalt built all thy works, upon the strong rock of God’s word, written and contained within the Old Testament and the New, which is able to instruct thee in all things needful to thy salvation, and to the attainment of the kingdom of heaven.”

Archbishop Cranmer saw the Bible as the key not only to the reform of the Church of England but also to its spiritual renewal. He not gave the vernacular Bible to the English Church but also provided the English Church with a vernacular liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, in which “nothing “ was “ordained to be read, but the very pure Word of God, the holy Scriptures, or that which is agreeable to the same,” and “that in such a language and Order as is most easy and plain for both the understanding of the Reader and the Hearer.”

Cranmer included in the daily services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer the recitation of the entire Psalter in course over a period of one month and the daily reading of a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament. The Old Testament was read through once and the New Testament three times in a year. He included in the service of Holy Communion two readings, the first taken from the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, or Revelation, and the second taken from the Gospels. Cranmer also included in the service of Holy Communion a sermon or a portion of one of the homilies from the Book of Homilies. In compiling these services Archbishop Cranmer followed the apostle Paul’s dictum—“Let all things be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26), for the upbuilding of the Church.

Cranmer’s vision was that the people of each parish of the Church of England would join their minister for the daily services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in the parish church, the minister summoning them to the services by ringing the parish church bells. The praise of God, the reading of his Word, and prayer would become a part of the rhythm of the community, consecrating the day to God. The daily cycle of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer would through the power of God’s Word transform not only the lives of individual members of the community but also the life of the whole community. On Sundays and festivals the minister and the people would gather in the morning for Morning Prayer, followed by the Litany and Holy Communion and later in the day for Evening Prayer. To the reading of the Bible would be added a sermon or homily and the sacrament of Holy Communion. In the sermon or homily the meaning of the Scriptures would be made clear. In the sacrament of Holy Communion God’s Word would be made visible in symbols of bread and wine.

Except in monastic communities, very few, if any, of today’s congregations gather twice a day around the word of God. In parishes and churches where the daily services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are read, only the clergy and a small handful of the laity take part in these services. If Morning Prayer is read on a Sunday morning, it is likely to draw less people than during the week. Most people are not going to attend two services but will choose the service that has music, a sermon, and Holy Communion. Only a choral service of Evening Prayer is likely to draw people on a Sunday evening, the attraction being the music and not the reading and preaching of the Bible.

Most Anglicans and Episcopalians experience the transforming power of God’s Word for one brief hour on Sundays. This is very little time for the Word to affect the lives of individual members of the church community, much less the life of the entire community. The attention to the congregation’s concerns given in the sermon has joined a number of other factors already at work to weaken the effect of the Word upon its hearers.

One factor is modernism that has caused people to question the inspiration of the Bible and the miraculous in the Bible. They have come not to completely trust the Bible or to see the Bible as “embodying absolute and authoritative transcripts of the mind of God.”

Another factor is the sacramentalism that dominates the thought of a number of Anglicans and Episcopalians particularly in North America. This sacramentalism teaches that Christ is present in the sacrament of Holy Communion “in greater measure than any other types of services.” The implication for churchgoers is that they receive more from the Holy Communion than the Word can provide. Consequently they are less willing to sit through lengthy expositions of the Bible. They tend to view the Scripture readings and the sermon as a warm-up for the main event—Holy Communion. This sacramentalism also teaches that the sacrament of Holy Communion has transformative power. Receiving the Holy Communion brings about change in the life of the churchgoer to much great degree than hearing the Word.

The impatience with God’s Word that affects many of today’s churches affects Anglican and Episcopal churches too. Contemporary Christians have come to view the reading and preaching of God’s Word as a hardship that they are not willing to endure. They do not want to hear about God. They want to hear about themselves. An idol is anything that we put first before God in our hearts In many of today’s churches their own concerns, desires, and needs are the idol that the congregation bows before.

Is it a new idolatry? No, it is an old idolatry in a new form. Putting God first does not come easily to us. Our natural tendency is to put ourselves first. Human beings have been doing this as far back as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Our present culture encourages it. We ostensibly gather to worship God and to hear his Word but in truth we are gathering to offer service to ourselves. We trample the courts of God’s temple but our hearts are far from him. God’s chosen people, the people of Israel, were intolerant of God’s Word and even opposed it. We are showing that we are no better than they.

The Bible that we see as causing us privation and even suffering speaks eloquently of the consequences of giving little attention or respect to God's Word. Yet the Bible also speaks likewise of how God will bless those who hear and do his Word. May God grant that we may see with our eyes, hear with our ears, understand with our heart and turn, and be healed.


Reformation said...

Good article, thanks.

Joe Mahler said...

So the old idolatry is reading the Bible, knowing what it says, what it prohibits but ignoring it and following tradition that makes the "Word of God to non effect."

Jim said...

Robin, where are those places? I mean both the places that conformed historically or conform now to the vision you ascribe to Cranmer and those that ignore the lessons and exposition of them in their liturgical practices?

In an industrialized it is hard for me to imagine the parish which is often spread across wide areas coming to morning and evening prayer every day. We are frequently talking about folks who work many different time schedules. If Cranmer's attributed vision made some sense in an agricultural community (I doubt it but perhaps) it dose not in an urban one.

If you want to see communities that come together to read, mark and inwardly digest the lectionary, look to the web and find many liberals. I know of at least three web sites or mailing lists that offer the prayer liturgies and readings daily. Not a good conservative evangelical among them but perhaps there are others.

I do not hear the sermons you decry. While I do not always (or for that matter frequently) agree with some of what I hear, it is certainly based on the lectionary. I am sure some places do other things -- I notice rather political preaching reported on the web from time to time. But the 'trend' I suspect is more perception than data.


Robin_G_Jordan said...


In response to the first part of your comment, may I suggest that you re-read what I wrote.

In response to the second part of your comment, for 15 years I listened to a priest whose sermons often started with a passage of Scripture and then addressed a topic that at best may have been suggested by the Scripture passage. In most cases it bore no relationship to the passage. I listened to the sermons of visiting priests who did the same thing. I visited churches and I listened to the priest preach a sermon in which he also did the same thing. The Scripture just served as a starting point for the sermon. Since I relocated to western Kentucky, I have visited a number of Episcopal churches in western Kentucky and Tennessee and guess what the priest did in his or her sermon. I have studied preaching and the construction of expository sermons, and the difference between an expository and topical sermon. These sermons were not expository. They were topical, using a passage of Scripture to introduce the topic. The literature on preaching does not regard this use of Scripture with favor. Indeed it is identified as an abuse of Scripture.

Jim said...


Leaving aside the question of your reading of Cranmer's intent, I think it is fair to ask if any non-monastic communities ever conformed to your statement of the vision.

As to topical v expository preaching, my observation is that topical is what we do not want to hear, expository is what we do want to hear. Depending on who is listening it could be the same sermon. That is, either the lectionary is relevant to who is listening and how they live or it is a waste of time.