Scripture in the Anglican Tradition
Charles Simeon once said, “The Bible first, the Prayer Book next, and all other books and doings in subordination to both.” Anglicans love the Bible. In fact, when most people attend an Anglican church, the first thing they notice is the central role of the Bible. Each Sunday, there are usually four readings of Scripture: one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels. Commenting on this grand biblical heritage, bishop and scholar N. T. Wright says, “The reading of Scripture in the Anglican tradition is one of its great glories. “
In this way, Anglicanism is firmly planted in the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). With other Reformation traditions, Anglicans audaciously believe the Bible is not the work of mere men to be read like a novel or newspaper, but that it’s actually the Word of the Living God. The Bible says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16 NKJV). Inspiration literally means God-breathed. So if you believe the Bible is actually God’s inspired Word, then the implications are absolutely astounding and a whole new world of possibilities begins to open up to you.
While the traditional documents reviewed in the previous chapter reveal much of the Anglican belief system, Anglicans ultimately turn to the Bible as the source of all beliefs. Time and time again, Christians throughout the ages have searched God’s Word to find strength and encouragement for life’s greatest challenges. Although the Bible isn’t a magical answer book, it is the place where one learns about God’s plan and purposes. The Bible offers a foundation of faith so that we can find answers to many of life’s toughest questions within the larger story it is telling.
The Language of the People
One can see this love of Scripture by looking to history and seeing the way Anglicans have produced a number of the earliest translations of the Bible into English. A few notable Anglicans have helped in translating Scripture. In the 1380s, John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate. Wycliffe has been as the “Morning Star of the Reformation” because of his desire to translate the Bible into the language of the common people.
During 1525–1526, William Tyndale wrote a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek. William Tyndale is called the father of the English Bible. He attended Oxford and Cambridge and eventually left the university world to translate the English Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek. Unfortunately, the church was opposed to his attempts at translating the Bible into the language of the English people and he was forced to go into hiding. He became known as “God’s outlaw.” Despite persecution and attempts on his life, Tyndale eventually succeeded in translating the entire New Testament and some of the Old Testament into English. In 1535, he was betrayed by a friend and arrested. He paid for his work with his life and was strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels. However, in the end, Tyndale was victorious because his translation became the basis for English translations of the Bible since that time.
In 1604, King James I of England authorized a new English translation of the Bible that would be read by Christians across England. He commissioned a team of biblical scholars to translate the Bible into English. It was finished in 1611, and quickly became the standard for English-speaking Protestants around the world. It became known as the King James Version of the Bible. Its poetic language and lyrical rhythm has had a profound influence on the development of the English language and literature for over 400 years. The King James Bible continues to be read by millions of Christians around the world.
Prayer and the Bible
Anglicans believe that prayer and Bible study are inseparably linked. Scripture should always be read in the context of prayer because prayer is the medium that brings us into contact with the same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Bible. As we read the Scriptures, the Spirit applies the truths of the Word to our hearts. Prayer is the necessary means whereby we understand the Word of God. Without the assistance of the Holy Spirit in prayer, our Bible study will be in vain.
Anglicanism arose out of the Reformation, and from its inception proclaimed that the “Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation.” Strongly influenced by Reformation thinkers of his day, Thomas Cranmer wholeheartedly believed in the importance of spending time in the Scriptures daily. This explains why the Word of God functions as the very foundation of the Book of Common Prayer, which is saturated with Scriptures from the Old and New Testament. Cranmer once said, “The people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”
For Cranmer, Scripture and prayer hold to one another through an intricate connection. In his mind, these pillars of the faith should not be separated. Cranmer’s vision for the Daily Office was a matrix of prayer and Scripture woven together, exposing the reader to the presence of the Living Word. Cranmer’s collect for the second Sunday of Advent shows his intimate love for the Scriptures:
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Thomas Cranmer’s vision for Anglicanism included reading Scripture daily throughout the year. He restored the ancient practice of reading through the entire Bible in daily prayer. His greatest desire was to put the Bible and prayer in the hands of ordinary people so that they would be in place where the God of the Bible could transform their hearts and lives. This is why Cranmer devised a Bible reading plan (lectionary) through which everyone could hear the Scriptures on a regular basis.
Bishop John Howe said of Cranmer’s scriptural legacy, “In a stroke, he made the Church of England the greatest Bible-reading church in the world. Nowhere else is the Bible read so regularly, so comprehensively, and at such length as in the public worship of the Anglican Communion.”
The enduring legacy of the Book of Common Prayer owes a debt to the book’s scriptural basis and doctrinal accuracy. The book contains the entire book of Psalms and also a reading plan for the entire Bible, thus biblical references and doctrinal themes pervade its words and prayers. Dr. John Sentamu, archbishop of York, reminded us, “The Prayer Book places the Bible at the heart of the church’s worship and on the lips of the people. It teaches the grace and mercy of God, and it preaches Jesus as a living Savior, not a dead master of a bygone age.”
Reading the Bible can be a little overwhelming at first because of its sheer size and the extent of its different doctrines, characters, stories, and themes. But there is good news: we don’t have to be systematic theologians to read and understand God’s Word. Reading the Bible is more like a marathon than a sprint, so I recommend that you start small and finish big. It will take a lifetime to study the entire Bible, and even then, we will never know all there is to know about it.
To help with this daunting task, the Anglican tradition has a historic and systematic way that every Christian can read and hear the Scriptures throughout the Christian year. Here are several things that we can learn about reading the Bible from Cranmer’s preface to 1549 Book of Common Prayer.
- The Bible should be read by everyone. In the spirit of the Reformation, Cranmer wanted every man, woman, boy, and girl to have access to the Word of God in their own language.
- The Bible should be read everyday. Cranmer wanted to Christians to be exposed to the Word of God daily through morning and evening prayer.
- The Bible should be read through in a year. Cranmer devised a Bible reading plan that would allow people to hear the Bible read through in a year.
- The Bible should be read privately and publicly in worship. The uniqueness of Cranmer’s common prayer is that it was meant to facilitate both private and public reading of Scripture.
As mentioned above, the Book of Common Prayer contains a systematic Bible reading plan called a “lectionary.” A lectionary is simply a list of Bible passages for personal reading and study, or for preaching in services of worship. The lectionary readings from the Book of Common Prayer are used for daily services of worship and for Morning and Evening Prayer. In Cranmer’s first Prayer Book of 1549, the lectionary appeared as a guide for twelve months, January to December, and provided Old Testament and New Testament lessons for every day of the year. Cranmer intended the Scriptures to be read at Morning and Evening Prayer so that they would become ingrained into the daily rhythms of peoples’ lives.
Since that time, there have been many versions of the daily lectionary. Some lectionaries go through the Bible in a year, while others follow a two or three-year cycle. Many of the most recent lectionaries are designed for Sunday services of worship and adhere to the church calendar. In recent years, there has been a move toward uniformity among the various lectionaries, such as the Revised Common Lectionary. Regardless of which lectionary or Bible-reading plan you follow, there is nothing more important than a regular reading of the Scriptures.
Cranmer poetically said, “In the Scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul.” This means that the Scriptures are the very place where we encounter the Lord and where He feeds us with His daily bread. It was Cranmer’s deep hope that, in this way, all Anglicans would hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures. Just as Moses encountered God in the burning bush, we also come face to face with God through the Scriptures. A. W. Tozer reminded us: “The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.”
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