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Remarks by Hon. David Kilgour
To A prayer breakfast, Ottawa
June 4, 2008

Two contradictory messages about the Bible caught my attention this week. The first came from my friend Dennis Ignatius and his electronic reflections on faith ( and read in part:

"God has put into our hands awesome power to impact the world – the message of the Gospel. It is the power of God. It is life for those who are dead in sin, light for those who sit in darkness, food for those who are hungry, healing for those who are sick, and hope for those who are desperate. Think what that means."
The second opened an article by John Vissers, principal of the Presbyterian College in Montreal, whose denomination-- and my own-- is holding its annual General Assembly this week in Ottawa. Vissers writes in the June Presbyterian Record that Bible reading is in a difficult period for mainline Protestant churches ( He refers to a former colleague, who concluded that essentially two groups do most of the serious reading: "those of us who make it say whatever they want, and those of us who make it say nothing at all."

The Bible

In the short time available, permit me to pass now to the phenomenally successful British writer on spiritual issues, Karen Armstrong, and her 2007 book, The Bible. Her publisher (Atlantic) notes on the jacket that it is estimated that more than six billion copies of the Bible have been sold over the past two hundred years in more than two thousand languages. Readers are also told that the contents of Armstrong's work trace how its sixty-six books have been created by scores of people over hundreds of years.

Peter Stanford, a reviewer of The Bible in The Independent newspaper in London, concludes "…as well as leaving you with a clearer, more historically accurate picture as to what precisely the Bible is (and isn't), (Armstrong) also makes you want to go back and read it again with fresh eyes." Another reviewer, Hugh MacDonald in the Glasgow Herald, adds, "This is not an obituary for the Bible, but a biography of a book that still lives, breathes and can preach the most essential of messages."

Let me refer only to a few of the points the author makes in this book:

  1. The scripture of various faiths is being criticized today. For example, some Christians campaign against the teaching of evolution because it appears to contradict the creation account in Genesis. Some Jews use God's promise of Canaan (modern Israel) to the descendants of Abraham to justify oppression against Palestinians. Some terrorists use the Qur'an to justify atrocities. Armstrong therefore stresses entirely reasonably that it is more important than ever to be clear what scripture is and what it is not.

  2. The Bible notes that an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, for example, very few readers imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origin of life. For centuries, Christians and Jews alike insisted that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither "possible nor desirable".

  3. The New Testament began as an oral proclamation and from the beginning had no single message. Competing visions were placed side by side without comment and there was not historically great interest in discovering the original meaning of a biblical passage. Later on, she notes, Bible interpreters "felt free to change it and make it speak to contemporary conditions…the Bible 'proved' that it was holy because people continuously discovered fresh ways to interpret it…exegetes continued to make the Word of God audible in each generation."

  4. Armstrong: "Human beings seek ekstasis, a 'stepping outside' of their normal, mundane experience. If they no longer find ecstacy in a synagogue, church or mosque, they look for it in dance, music, sport, sex or drugs. When people read the Bible receptively and intuitively, they found that it gave them intimations of transcendence…"

  5. The book has a long chapter on modernity, which closes with the conclusion of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), formerly professor of comparative religion at Harvard, who stressed the importance of understanding the Bible historically. Armstrong goes on, "It was impossible to say what the Bible 'really' meant when any one of its verses was likely to have been interpreted in several different ways. Religious people have all worked out their salvation within the confines of a particular place and time. The Bible has meant different things to Jews and Christians at different stages of their history, and their exegesis was inevitably coloured by their particular circumstances. If an interpretation concentrated only on what the biblical author said, and ignored the way generations of Jews and Christians had understood it, it distorted the significance of the Bible."

It is clear that author Armstrong does not favour slavish conformity in interpreting the Bible. She likes Hans Frei, who says that the Bible has been a subversive document and suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of Amos. Even Calvin insisted that the Bible was not a scientific document and that those who wanted to learn about astronomy or cosmology should look elsewhere.

The debate continues. For example, as Armstrong notes, the Bible is a patriarchal text, and opponents of feminism can find biblical authority, but some well-known New Testament authors thankfully had very different views, and Armstrong stresses that they can be cited to show that "in Christ there was neither male nor female and that women worked as 'co-workers' and 'co-apostles' in the early Church. Hurling texts around polemically is a sterile pursuit. Scripture is not able to provide certainty on this type of question." Permit to add a personal thought here: those on any continent who rely on scripture of any kind to beat or abuse women should be expelled from their places of worship and prosecuted vigorously in the courts of their countries.

The final page of the author's Epilogue deserves the last word in this talk this morning: "An exegesis based on the 'principle of charity' would be a spiritual discipline that is deeply needed in our torn and fragmented world. The Bible…is being distorted by claims for its literal infallibility; it is derided—often unfairly—by secular fundamentalists; it is also becoming a toxic arsenal that fuels hatred and sterile polemic. The development of a more compassionate hermeneutics could provide an important counter-narrative in our discordant world."

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