Saturday, November 17, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Private Prayer

Having completed my discussion of the use and interpretation of Scripture in liturgical contexts, I can turn to the remainder of the topic, beginning first with private prayer.

Lectio Divina

A particular famous and important use of the Scriptures in private prayer is of course the practice known as sacred reading, or in Latin, lectio divina. This has sometimes been worked up into a fairly detailed four-stage method of prayer, but this is perhaps not true to its real nature.

Instead of the most common description of sacred reading as being about particular stages, I want to look "under the hood," as it were, and see what is particular to this form of the use of Scripture which can perhaps illuminate other non-liturgical uses.

The primary thing we notice in attending to this monastic practice of sacred reading, is that it is not merely the text which is sacred, but the manner in which it is read. Moreover, there is reason to think that for monks this was for a long time the only way to read a text, rather than merely one, that it was what it is to read a sacred text.

The conviction then is that the proper way to read the sacred text is to do so in a particular way. Only later does that way become understood as a particular method of prayer. So embedded in this particular method are some convictions about what it is to read properly.

First, and most clearly, reading is done with no particular goal beyond edification. The reading is not targeted at reading any particular amount, or to establish some point or other, or to address a particular question. Of course, these had always been ways Scripture is used, but the prayerful sacred reading of Scripture, as practiced by the monks, was not this.

The assumption is made that God will be met in the text, and if that assumption is correct, if God will be met there, then it will be the transcendent God who cannot be controlled and refuses to be at our beck and call. Indeed, the more sure we are that we will meet God in our reading of the text, the more careful we inevitably will be that we approach without a presupposition of what we will find.

The reading is undertaken slowly as if we were savoring every bite. (And the word ruminatio, rumination, is associated with this practice, after all.) There is an attitude of reception, of waiting, of hearing. This is very different from exegeting Scripture for the purpose of proving a point, or just the scholarly task of hearing what the text says.


Scripture also forms a great source of material for private prayer. The psalms are not merely a great source of prayers for liturgy, but they are also prayers which can be used at need as one's own prayers.

And there are of course a whole host of quasi-liturgical devotions, whose words are substantially from the Scriptures, for example, the rosary, the angelus, novenas, and so forth. As a general rule, the observations I have already made about the Scriptures as liturgical source texts apply here.

But there is an additional aspect to the use of the Scriptures as sources of private prayer, and that is that they are chosen by the individual in a way that the liturgy is not. (And for quasi-liturgical devotions, there is a spectrum here.)

The private use of the Scriptures as prayer then is something chosen, and the question of how the individual can adopt the words of Scripture as her own prayer becomes manifest. What remains, however, once a given text is used and is appropriate, is that it can be a tremendous asset to many to have words provided. This is particularly true at times when words fail, or with individuals who may not know how they feel until they find words for it.


The question now is what implications the use and interpretation of Scripture in private prayer may have for the remainder of the church's life. In one sense, the answer is not at all, and in another, it is immeasurable in every way.

In the former sense, the understandings reached in private prayer have no authority for the church. What one encounters in sacred reading, or the understanding one uses in taking a text as one's own prayer, is not therefore the correct use of the text in preaching or otherwise ordering the church's life. As I have already argued, the liturgical use is primary, and therefore cannot be dependent upon the private use.

This does not mean that the preacher's private prayer and encounter with God in Scripture is irrelevant. It simply means that, once the prayer is over, the preacher must now ask the questions of what must be preached, and there is no question of taking the encounter in private as normative in public. What is to be preached must be judged on a liturgical basis (as I have already argued) and is not to be subject to any particular private encounter, even that of the preacher himself.

But if the prayer is genuine, it will also be that the encounter with God in the text will be transformative, as any true prayer and encounter with God can be expected to be. And this will in turn bear its fruit in all areas. As a Christian becomes more and more conformed to God, especially through prayer and contact with God, we can expect that all their life will become more embued with the will of God, and this applies to their use of Scripture no less than the rest of life.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Supervening Liturgical Authority

We turn now to the last liturgical category for the use and interpretation of Scripture: its use as an authority prescribing or prohibiting liturgical actions.

For some, this follows from a general rule that Scripture must be the authority for all of life. In this of course there is broad agreement, though the exact parameters of what it means in practice are highly controversial. So we will do well, in accord with my general procedure in this series, not to attempt a general, over-arching account, but rather to attempt merely to understand this one small piece.

Positive Obligations from Scripture

We can of course find in Scripture some positive commands regarding worship. For example, that we pray, that we confess our sins, that we give thanks to God, that we celebrate the sacraments, all these are commanded in Scripture.

Beyond this, Scripture occasionally commands certain texts, for example, the Lord's Prayer, as normative for prayer. I have already noted the importance of the Lord's Prayer and lamented its neglect by some churches which proclaim a very high view of the importance of the Scriptures.

What is striking, however, is that the positive obligations from Scripture are so spare. The tractarians as well were impressed by this fact, and concluded from this and from minor references to liturgical practice that the apostles taught liturgical practice, but it was not the role of the epistles (let alone the Gospels) to command this practice to the church.

Here we see a striking variance from the historic position of the Reformed, who proclaim that only what is commanded may be done. As evidence of this, they point to the strong language in the Old Testament which seems to absolutely prohibit any human invention about how to best worship God. For the Reformed, God tells us what God wants from us in worship, and that is the end of the matter.

But of course this is a useless doctrine when it comes time to write a prayer. Did God command this or that particular sentence of thanksgiving? No, of course not. The Reformed plead that God did command, for example, thanksgiving. Yet, the Scriptures do not tell us what the sentence must say. So if we are actually writing a liturgy, we cannot possibly hope to find complete instructions in the Scriptures.

At best we find general heads, and we are left to fill them out. But then we have a loophole through the Reformed principle which is big enough to drive the entire Tridentine liturgy through. We are left then with the Lutheran position.


The Lutheran position then is that some things are obligatory, and some things are prohibited, and in between them are things indifferent. One may do them, but one may not make them a condition of church unity. Of course, the problem with that, again, is that they are a condition of church unity, when we look at the actual folks in the pews.

The exact language of a thanksgiving prayer will serve again as example. The exact wording is an adiaphoron. Now, think of the average worshipper: it is a condition of their participation that they pray that particular prayer, because that simply is the prayer the group is using. And there may well be no other church around for them to attend.

The actual worshipping dynamics of congregations, as I have argued before, always involve people who decide what will happen and other people who simply must take what is offered and do not get to decide. And precisely because of this, talk of "freedom"--or adiaphora in the Lutheran fashion--is quite out of place.

The Authority of the Church

And so who will write that thanksgiving prayer? We cannot find it in Scripture. We cannot say that because it is not in Scripture, anything orthodox will do, without stepping on toes, since the priniciple of adiaphora preserves the right of all to reject the practice without losing unity.

The Anglican solution is to argue that particular churches have the right to order their ceremonies as they see fit, and impose them on worshippers, but must do nothing contrary to scriptures, and must not require to be believed what cannot be proved from the Scriptures. Notice that requirements about practice can be imposed--which is a good thing, since public worship necessarily involves the imposition of requirements about practice.

But this still leaves unsaid why the church should have this authority. And here, we appeal a good old Tractarian idea: the ministerial commission. As we all know, the talk about lay ministry in the Episcopal Church has not replaced the central authority of the rector over worship, nor could it. Indeed, I will subscribe to that hoary old Tractarian conviction that there is a ministerial commission, given to the church, and to particular individuals within it, to order the life and worship of the church. This commission resides in the bishops and the lower clergy to whom they have delegated that task through ordination.


So now we can get to the point! What does this tell us about the use and interpretation of the Scriptures when it comes to their role as the authority for our worship? It tells us that the task of deciding what must be done, when the scriptures do not give us prohibitions or commands, falls upon the clergy, and primarily upon the bishops.

But the interpretation of the Scriptures is controversial. Not everyone will agree on which points have been prohibited or commanded by Scripture. (For example, some believe that blessing same-sex marriages is prohibited, others disagree.) Who is to make the authoritative determination for the church? For either we do the controversial practice or we do not; someone must decide.

Clearly there is no way to separate this deciding (what do the Scriptures require or prohibit for our worship?) from the first one (what should we do when the Scriptures leave us free?). There is no way to constitute an authority for the second which will not, ipso facto be determining the first.

The bishops (and the lower clergy under their deputation) thus for the first time in these essays have a distinctive magisterial role, but one which is entirely practical. (Homiletic, already treated, is another, but does not involve authoritative statements in the way liturgical decisions do.) The bishops have an authoritative role in interpreting the scriptures as far as necessary to determine whether a given practice is commanded, prohibited, or left open to the church to decide: and in the last case, to make that decision.

This process requires that the bishops act with integrity. It is not plenary authority to do what they please with the liturgy; it is an authority constrained by the Scriptures. But, and this is absolutely crucial, the recognition of that constraint is not imposed by someone else. One might disagree with or object to the bishops' decisions about some liturgical question, or biblical interpretation weighing in upon it, but the determination of what to do still resides in the bishops' hands, and they are not acting illegitimately simply because their interpretation differs from one's own.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index