Sermon preached in Holy Trinity Church Geneva
on 26 October 2003 by Prof. David Daniell

Today, being Bible Sunday, I want to speak under the heading of the words of Paul to Timothy, from 2 Timothy 3 and 4, that we heard earlier, particularly:

‘Thou hast known Holy Scriptures of a child - (that is, since being a child) - which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through the faith which is in Christ Jesus’.

Paul takes for granted that Timothy had complete access to ‘the Scriptures’, and has had that since being a child. Not just access to some parts, but the whole of ‘holy Scriptures’. He goes on

‘For the whole Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable to teach, to convince, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness. That the man of God may be absolute, being made perfect unto all good works.’

These are large claims - Scriptures are to be taught, to be used to convince hearers and to correct any wrong thinking, and above all to instruct in righteousness, that great New Testament Greek word dikaiosune, the observance of what is more than just lawful - what is morally right and just in the sight of God, something found in ‘the made perfect’ man of God, -- a fine Greek verb meaning to complete, finished. The marginal note there made by scholars here in Geneva in the 1550’s, developed in Oxford in 1576, says:

‘The Prophets and expounders of God’s will are properly and peculiarly called Men of God’.

Paul sets the stakes high. The most thorough knowledge of all the Scriptures comes first - there is no mention of tradition or reason, said with the Scriptures to be the pillars of the Church of England: there is nothing about a hierarchy of a centralized Church (as with Rome).

Such knowledge of the whole Scriptures has within it the necessity of preaching the word, as we heard. Just as in a seed planted in the earth - the image is mine here, but it is a New Testament understanding - there is all the chemistry of growth and full blooming, so knowledge of the Scriptures contains the chemistry, as it were, of proclaiming, of preaching. It has to happen. Lest Timothy should miss it, Paul gives it the highest possible charge, a charge so strong that it should be frightening:

‘I charge thee therefore before God, and before the Lord Jesus Christ, which shall judge the quick and the dead at that his appearing, and in his kingdom, preach the word, be instant in season and out of season…’

‘Be instant’ rather passes us by in 2003. The Greek verb epistethi has the sense of being skilled, knowing how to, being capable.

This capability in all the Scriptures, says Paul, is urgently necessary, because the time is coming when people will no longer want wholesome doctrine, Paul observes. People will find the whole Scriptures are no longer good enough, being out of date, no longer fashionable. Instead they will develop, in the nice phrase, ‘itching ears’, and go after - in another nice phrase - ‘an heap of teachers’ - and - it is hard not to pick up an interior image here of donkeys - ‘and will turn their care from the truth, and shall be given to fables’.

No, says Paul, know what you have known since being a child, that wholesome doctrine, so important in your healthy growing-up.

On this Bible Sunday, 2003, I find three things that I need to say about this passage.

The first is about Paul’s phrase ‘the whole Scripture is given by inspiration of God’. I shall come to what is meant by the word ‘inspiration’ in a moment. I need to stop on the words ‘the whole Scripture’, and with you, on Bible Sunday, here in Geneva, rejoice with you that everyone throughout Europe has indeed had ‘the whole Scriptures’ ready and open to them in their own language. Since Martin Luther and his German New Testament in 1522 and whole Bible in 1532: since Lefevre and his French New Testament of 1523 and whole Bible in 1530; since - and I can say ‘above all’ because we are here in the English Church - since William Tyndale and his first English New Testament in 1526 and whole Bible in 1537 - the latter half of the Old Testament there dependent on the work of Miles Coverdale, since Tyndale was martyred before he had more than half the Old Testament done - since those hallowed dates it has been possible to have open on the desk, on a family table, in the hand in field and hedgerow, a complete Bible in the familiar tongues of German, French and English, faithfully translated from the original Greek and Hebrew, not in Latin, and not bent out of shape in the vernacular by having had to be first in Latin. What Tyndale and the others opened for us has never since been shut up.

We have all been able to have, for nearly five hundred years, what Paul writing there to Timothy calls ‘the holy Scriptures’. These ‘holy Scriptures… which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through the faith which is in Christ Jesus’, are ours, as Paul said elsewhere, ‘to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’.

I want for a moment this morning for us to just hold in mind the privilege we have, a privilege unknown only twelve generations ago. Until the revolution in religion, which we call the Reformation, the Scriptures were not known, being held by the Church in its iron grip only in Latin, and unknown to the common people. They were brought to the English people in blood. Tyndale was executed outside Brussels in October 1536 for translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English; his colleague John Rogers, who first assembled what he had done, with what Miles Coverdale had done, to make a complete Bible in 1537, was in 1557 the first of the 300 men and women burned alive under the edict of Queen Mary, who was determined at any cost to annul the Reformation in England and drag the country back to the pope.

As some here this morning know, I have just published a large, and as Yale University Press have made it, beautiful book telling the story of the Bible in English from the earliest times until now. Writing it, over fifteen years, I have been struck again and again by the extraordinary courage of the first translators, knowing that they faced certain, and lingering, death for the ‘heresy’ of giving the people the Bible from the original tongues: and, as well, their tremendous labour. Modern papermaking and printing methods can conceal from us just what a large book the Bible is, and those early translations, particularly the English ones, were the work of solitary men - like William Tyndale - cold hungry and in danger - and in his case, permanently in exile.

We rejoice that we have the whole Scriptures, and thank God for their courage and faith.

Telling the story, I am often rebuked for claiming that the people did not know the Bible before Tyndale. Of course they did, say conservative historians. In their churches were stained glass windows and paintings, they could see plays, and the Sunday sermons at mass would give them the stories. They would know their Bibles - Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Jacob’s ladder, David and Goliath. Yes, yes, of course they would, and did. But there is more to a complete Bible than those stories: something like 99.9 percent more.

There are the whole of the four Gospels, and the whole of the epistles of Paul, and especially the epistle to the Romans, the bedrock of Christian theology. These do not appear in stained glass windows, pictures nor plays; nor, I have found, after some research, in ordinary sermons before about 1530. My own working definition of the Reformation is ‘ordinary people reading Paul’. Whether Paul’s own writings would yet count as ‘Scriptures’ when he wrote to Timothy is not known: but they do count, for us, supremely.

In giving the people the Scriptures, all the people all the Scriptures, the city of Geneva in the 1550’s and 1560’s under the leadership of Calvin was supremely important. Here were made those Geneva Bibles, particularly in French and English, which set out to give readers and hearers the very best in scholarship and help. The Geneva English Bible of 1560 became the Bible of the English people, and remained so for almost a hundred years. I cannot speak about the glory of our open access to the Scriptures in this pulpit without paying strong tribute to the Englishmen in this city, exiles from the murderous Queen Mary, who made the first great ‘study Bible’ in English.

My second point is about what are those whole Scriptures which will make Timothy and all others ‘wise unto salvation’. The earliest churches had with them the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek, and these are mainly what Paul means. The Hebrew Scriptures contain many different writings, and no balanced person could maintain that every letter of every word has to be of equal weight and value to our salvation: the great writing prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, contributed quite astonishing revelations, considering the time and place, of new understandings of God, particularly God as servant, in Isaiah, and even Suffering Servant, words taken up a good deal in the Gospels. But at the opposite extreme, one thinks of the tedious genealogies of the Books of Chronicles, and Ezra and Nehemiah; the bloodthirsty exploits in Joshua, Judges made at the behest of a God who is an expansionist military dictator; or in chapters 17 - 26 of Leviticus, what is called the ‘Holiness Code’, the extreme and alarming ritual instructions made by a small cult of super-priests after the humiliation of the Exile in Babylon, setting up the Second Temple in Jerusalem. All these Old Testament parts are a long way from the spirit of Jesus. Having the whole of the Scriptures, as we do, allows Scripture to interpret Scripture, as both Jesus and Paul instructed that we should.

Working closely and reverently and intelligently with the teaching of Jesus, and the accounts of his life, which has to be our centre, and all the work done on his divine and human nature by Paul, guided as we are by his Holy Spirit with us, allows us to understand what is supremely important, namely, the New Testament. Inspiration is the Holy Spirit’s guidance to the central significance of Jesus. His life and teaching are both blazingly simple and very demanding and I have found over a lifetime, constantly presenting me with the unexpected. Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, both loved and hated the Gospels. He loved the ethical teaching of Christ, which he quite rightly found astonishing. A leader of Enlightenment thinking, he hated all the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ of angels and miracles and resurrection. So he, literally with scissors and paste, cut up the gospels and made his own New Testament, and sat back and admired the amazing ethics.

Using, however, as Paul instructed Timothy, to use the whole of Scripture, we can see Jefferson’s ‘mumbo-jumbo’ - which no Enlightenment sage would ever consider – as an attempt to convey something otherwise invisible, in the nature of God. God, as has been noticed, is Different, ‘Other’. He grants us occasional insights, as far as we are able to take them, into a fragment of his nature. Jefferson’s ‘mumbo-jumbo’, angels and miracles and resurrection and so on, are parts of the insights beyond the rational. They are to induce in us feelings of both love and total unworthiness.

A religion is a revelation or it is nothing. The revelation that is Christianity in the New Testament is God’s Fatherhood, expressed, for his good reason, at a precisely observable moment in history (Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’). It is the effect of this that is the double strand of the New Testament: the intricate theology of Paul in his main work, a Jewish - Roman - Greek wrestling at the edges of understanding: and the sublime simplicity of a parable of Jesus like the Prodigal Son, where the father cuts through all the returning son’s abasement in guilt and misery and failure, to run to meet him and make a feast for his return. A Jewish historian pointed out to me that a wealthy and successful middle aged Jewish businessman of the time, as the father in that parable was, would never, ever, run or be seen running. This one does, having seen his son ‘afar off’. It is Jesus’s image of God.

My third point arises from the writing of my book, and is the admission that I have to stand here in Geneva, the source of so much wonderful Bible work, on Bible Sunday, and express a paradox. What is clear as the story unfolds in my book is the extraordinary amount of Biblical translation that has gone on, especially in the last hundred years, and still goes on. And I am only talking about translation into English. There have been, since 1900, about 1,500 fresh translations of the whole Bible or significant parts like the New Testament into English. (I calculate, and demonstrate in the book, that since Tyndale in 1526 there have been some 3,000 fresh translations of the whole Bible or significant parts like the New Testament into English, figures that startle.) Since the Second World War and the triumph of what was America’s first fully American Bible translation, the Revised Standard Version of 1952, many of these have been made in America. New translations, and fresh editions of older translations with different notes, appear in great numbers. Some years ago I stood in a bookshop in California in front of what can only be called a whole wall of different Bibles, some with the extraordinary sticker ‘as seen on TV’ - Bibles with notes for every possible experience in life. America, I realized, is awash with new Bibles. Never before have there been so many: not only with different notes added to familiar older texts, but fresh translations. It is common for a seminary in America to ask its divinity students and candidates for the ministry to know half a dozen different translations made in the last couple of decades. On Bible Sunday the fact of this fresh openness brings rejoicing.

And yet, and yet. Writing my book about the Bible in English, and looking around, I found that as well as there never before having been so many Bibles available’ there has never before been such ignorance. That young people today don’t know their Bibles as we did is what Adam said to Eve. But in so many areas of life, not just in the inescapable bombardment of visual stimuli we will suffer, but in the great disciplines of thought, the Bible has vanished. What should be basic knowledge has disappeared. Historians, even of the sixteenth century, ignore it. It has no place in the excitements of science, the discovering of the world God made -- even though, as I show, the Reformation Bible was the cause of the release of minds into scientific enquiry (the very opposite of what is usually stated). This is a tragedy for what was given to us in blood.

That particular nutrition which Paul insisted was necessary for the child to grow up in maturity of faith, knowledge of all the Scriptures, in so many parts of life is not there. Our response must be to challenge the ignorance and be alert constantly.

We can only pray.

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