Tract X – The Word of God and The People of God

While some of my Tracts for the Times 2.0 have been more academic (especially the ones on English church history), my goal in the Tracts on Anglican spirituality is, at least in part, to provide brief but substantial works on topics essential to an understanding of Anglican spirituality. While much of the material in these Tracts will be familiar to Anglican priests, scholars, and educated laity, my hope is that they will not only enrich such readers but will also be an excellent resource to put into the hands of those who want a deep Anglican teaching on these topics without having to scour libraries for the appropriate material.

It’s not easy, for example, to find a brief account of the Anglican method of biblical interpretation, such as I provided in Tract #9. While much has been written about the Church from an Anglican perspective, it’s difficult to find substantial writing on this topic that is also brief and easily read. I hope to fill this gap with Tract #11. Missing almost altogether is a discussion of how the Bible and the Church go together, even though this is among the most crucial of topics.

For many Christians, the Bible and the Church are implicitly understood as two separate things that have no necessary connection. One of the greatest errors of modern Christianity is the notion that an individual can have a private relationship with God apart from the Church. The fact that the Word of God is now be a portable book or even text in a smart phone allows for us to be deluded into thinking that the Word of God can be safely separated from the Church. Since the separation of the Word of God from the people of God has had such detrimental effects on God’s people, and especially on their understanding of themselves as the Church, a Tract such as this has become necessary.

For this reason, in Tract #10 I will present an explanation of how the Word of God (the Bible) and the People of God (the Church) go together by discussing two points:

1. How we got the Bible

2. What the Bible says about the Church

 

How We Got the Bible

Most Christian don’t know much about how we got the Bible. Once we know this, however, we can more easily see why I say that you can’t have the Bible without the Church (and vice versa).

So, how did we get the Bible?

The Bible was originally written over a period of about 1500 years. The Old Testament books were written from the time of Moses (a little later than 1500 B.C.) until the time of Malachi (around 400 B.C.). The New Testament books were written over a much shorter period of time, from the 40s A.D. until sometime near the end of the 1st century.

After the books of the Bible were originally written, however, how did they become the Bible? It’s helpful to think of the formation of the Bible in five stages:

1. Writing – Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, each writer of the Bible wrote one or more of the books of the Bible. Almost all of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in koine (“common”) Greek. When the Bible was written, it was always written in the context of the Church, either the Old Testament Church, Israel, or the New Testament Church. For example, the book of Genesis was written by Moses for the people of God at the time of the giving of the Law and the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

2. Transmission – After the original manuscript was written, each book of the Bible had to be faithfully transcribed, or copied, so it could be passed down to other generations and circulated more widely. This copying of the Scriptures was done in the context of the Church: for most of history, no one would have had the Scriptures except the Church and church leaders.

3. Canonization – At some point, the Church had to confirm or ratify which books of the Bible were truly inspired.

The Church played an important role in determining the canon of the Bible, but this role must be correctly understood. On the one hand, the divine nature of the books of the Bible was recognized by the Church before the Church ever officially compiled a list of canonical books. On the other hand, in the fourth century, especially, the Church began to officially declare the canon of the New Testament that had already been accepted unofficially. What’s most important to know is that if there were no Church, we would not have an agreed-upon Bible today.

4. Translation – Early on, the Church translated the Bible into vernacular or local languages. Unlike the Koran, which is theoretically only the Koran in Arabic, Christians believe they truly have the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures, even when translated. Until the twentieth century, the Bible was translated and published by the Church.

5. Interpretation – Even though you can and should read your Bible, it needs to be interpreted. God has given special authority to the Church to guard the Scriptures by faithfully interpreting them. Jesus gave His authority to His apostles, such as St. Paul, who passed on this authority to men like Titus and Timothy.

So, this is how we got the Bible that you read today.

Up until the nineteenth century, the majority of Christians would only have heard the Word of God in Church, and not read it at home. They understood intuitively that the Bible and the Church always go together.

What the Bible Says About the Church

There’s a second reason why you can’t have the Bible without the Church: what the Bible itself says about the Church. The assumption of the writers of the books of the Bible is that the Word of God is inseparable from the people of God.

Imagine, for a moment, that you lived in Israel at the time of Moses and you wanted to know what God had to say. No one in Israel would have ever thought that he could be a good Israelite and not live as part of Israel and its religious culture. It would never have occurred to anyone that the Word of God was something separate from the people of God and was primarily an individual possession: in fact, such an idea would have been an impossibility.

To be an Israelite, one had to be circumcised (or be a female in the household of a man who was), live by God’s Law as proclaimed and taught by the “church” leaders, attend the three annual feasts of the church, offer up appropriate sacrifices of the church, etc. To be an Israelite, you had to be a member of Israel, God’s people. Not only did God teach this in His Word but He embedded this truth in the corporate life of Israel.

No good Israelite in the Old Testament would ever have said, “I can have a good relationship with God, without being a part of Israel.”

The New Testament is all about the Church

What about the New Testament?

The truth is that the New Testament is all about the Church, and after the establishment of the Church at Pentecost (that is, after the Gospels), every book of the New Testament assumes that individual Christians are members of a local church: every book.

If you read the book of Acts, written by St. Luke, you’ll quickly discover that the book is all about the Church. More specifically, it’s about what Jesus Christ, now ascended to heaven, continues to do and to teach through His Church. On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus filled His Body with His Spirit, and the Church became the living presence of Jesus on earth.

This is why throughout the rest of the book of Acts, the apostles teach the things Jesus taught and do the things Jesus did. St. Stephen dies in the way Jesus did, forgiving his murderers. The apostles perform the same kind of miracles as Jesus did, even raising people from the dead (for example, Eutyches in Chapter 20). It’s clear that the book is about Jesus Christ continuing to live through His Church.

The book of Acts is unique, but most of the New Testament is made up of books which are letters. Let’s look at these letters by beginning with a simple question: to whom were the letters written?

There are twenty-one letters in the New Testament. The following letters are all written directly (and clearly) to churches: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. That makes nine of the twenty-one letters we can easily see are written to churches.

What about the others?

Let’s deal with them in order.

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are easy to deal with. Even though they’re not written to churches – they’re written to church leaders! Timothy and Titus were among the first bishops, who were elders and rulers over a group of churches. Each of these three letters is all about how Timothy or Titus should govern the church, including the qualifications for elders and deacons, the church leaders.

While Philemon is primarily written to an individual slave owner, and not a church, if you read Paul’s entire greeting, he makes clear that he’s also writing to “the church in your [Philemon’s] house” (verse 2). It appears as if Paul wants the entire church to hear the letter and help Philemon do the right thing.

There are several places in the letter to the Hebrews where the author makes it clear that he’s writing about the church. For example, in 12:22-23, the author writes: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” The words “assembly” and “church” clearly refer to the Church, while “the heavenly Jerusalem” is another name given to the Church (see Rev 21).

In 13:7, the author writes: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” In this context, he’s clearly speaking about faithful rulers in the church.

Most clearly and significantly, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:25). The author is writing to a church with leaders. In this church, some of the members have given up being a part of the church’s worship, which the author considers something to be corrected.

James’ letter is written to the twelve tribes. Most scholars believe this means Jewish Christian churches, for it would make no sense for the letter to go out to each individual Jewish Christian. James speaks of how to treat poor people in the assembly or church (2:2). He speaks of teachers in the churches to whom he is writing (3:1). James also assumes there are elders in the local church to whom people should come for healing, anointing, and prayer (5:13-14).

Peter, in his first letter, writes to the “pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1). While he doesn’t mention the word “church,” the only way the letter could be circulated to the Christians in these regions would be if Peter were writing to churches. Notice, too, that Peter is writing to a region where Paul also wrote a letter: Galatia.

Peter clearly thinks that his audience is the church, the community of God’s people, for he tells his audience “you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God” (2:9-10).

In his second letter, Peter talks about false prophets who arose among the people (2:1), and he’s writing to the same people as in his first letter (3:2), so everything we said about 1 Peter applies to 2 Peter.

John’s first letter doesn’t spell out to whom he is writing, as do his second and third letters. But he is writing to those he considers his little children, and we know that John ministered to churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He is obviously writing to a large group of people, whom he refers to as “little children,” “fathers,” and “young men” (2:12-14).

2 John is written by the elder to the elect lady and her children, the elect lady being the church (1:1).

3 John is, once again, written by the elder. Even though the letter is written to an individual, Gaius, John is clearly writing to Gaius in the context of the church, which he references in verses 6 and 9-10.

Jude makes clear in verses 3-4 that he’s writing to a community of believers. He speaks of their “common salvation,” as well as those who have “crept in” to it.

This leaves only John’s Revelation, which is not a letter but is written in the genre of apocalypse, which speaks of the revelation of earth-changing events. John’s Revelation is clearly written to churches, for he says that he’s writing to: “the seven churches which are in Asia” (1:4). John writes the entire Apocalypse to these seven churches, as well as a specific message to each in chapters 1 and 2. The Asia here is Asia Minor, the place where John served as a kind of bishop over several churches.

The Revelation ends with a bang – and with the Church! For in the end, Revelation is about Jesus Christ marrying His Bride, the Church (see Revelation 19:7-9 and 21:2, 9-11).

You see, then, that the entire New Testament is about the Church and is written to the Church and individual churches.

More, of course, could and should be said about the intimate unity between the Church and the Bible, that is, the People of God and the Word of God. For example, the written Word of God (the Bible) is the revelation and bearer of the Incarnate Word of God to us, while the Church is the Mystical Body of this Incarnate Word of God on the earth. The saving acts of God revealed to us in the life of Christ in the Gospels (and in the Christological types of the Old Covenant) are the same saving acts of God that the Church partakes of today, including the mystagogical participation in them that takes place in Baptism and the Eucharist. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to communicate to us the life of Christ through God’s chosen vessels of both Bible and Church.

For Anglicans, especially, the ultimate unity of Bible and Church is evident every Sunday morning when, in the Church, as God’s people united as the Body of Christ, we hear the Word preached and prayed and partake of the Body and Blood of the Word made flesh. The liturgy is the starting point of our lives as members of the Church, and even when we are reading, studying, or meditating on the Bible privately, we are always reading with the Church, the whole Church, which is one in time and space.

You can’t have the Word of God (Bible) without the people of God (Church), and you can’t have the people of God without the Word of God.

  1. This Tract is largely a revision of Chapter 7 of my book, Love Me, Love My Wife: Ten Reasons Christians Must Join a Local Church. This book is a brief, biblical discussion of ecclesiology and what the Scriptures say about the nature and significance of the Church. It’s only about 50 pages and written in an easy-to-read style to make it easily accessible. The year 2020, with its temptation towards virtual church, has made the book more relevant than ever.

 



Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several recent books: Orthodox Anglican Identity, Love Me, Love My Wife, and Take This Cup.


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