The Scottish Episcopal Church uses the strapline ‘evangelical truth, apostolic order’. Though each of the words is found in the New Testament, the phrase as such was coined by the American Episcopal priest John Henry Hobart in 1807. He called it his ‘banner’. (He was later consecrated the third Bishop of New York in 1816.) Hobart was keen to accent both evangelical truth and apostolic order in the Christian life.
Evangelical truth summarises a key belief of the early Church that was emphasised anew at the sixteenth-century Reformation in the British Isles, namely that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation. It is in the Bible and the Bible alone that God reveals truths we could never know by our own power, insight or industry. It is the Bible and the Bible alone that is the ultimate authority for our Christian life both in doctrine and ethics. ‘Evangelical’ as Hobart understands it follows from its Greek root: ‘good news’, ‘gospel’, that is the truth revealed in Jesus that sets us free (John 8.32). The only way to know Jesus, to know of the most profound realities, is to look to Holy Scripture.
It is for that reason that our divine worship, the liturgical life of Episcopalians, is overwhelmingly scriptural. The Scottish Book of Common Prayer, if one looks closely, is about eighty-five percent quotes, references and close paraphrases from the Bible. Likewise, a close look at any of the SEC’s contemporary liturgies shows that when we are at corporate prayer, we immerse ourselves in biblical language, imagery and symbolism. For most of us, though, corporate worship is available only on Sunday (the current pandemic notwithstanding). Yet, on the other six days of the week we have just as much need to be nourished by Holy Scripture. The seventeenth-century priest and poet George Herbert reminds us that worshipping God is not solely for Sundays: ‘Sev’n whole dayes, not one in seven, I will praise thee’. The same, surely, is true of spending time with Holy Scripture.
Because we Episcopalians, like all Reformed Christians, see Holy Scripture as fundamental to our faith and everyday lives, it is important for us to keep our biblical literacy alive. It behoves us to read Holy Scripture daily and to ensure that we study it seriously as lifelong students of God’s Word. The early Christians were wont to read the Bible in the vernacular, as we see in the example of St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, the lingua franca of his day, and to rely on the help of the Holy Spirit in their interpretation. The Reformers, although they read the texts in the original languages and expected ministers to do the same, were lively translators. They wanted the Word of God to nourish each and every one of us spiritually. We have a great legacy of translations of the Bible into English from John Wycliffe’s work in the fourteenth century through the King James Version in the seventeenth century up to twenty-first century translations like the English Standard Version (2001) and the Modern English Version (2014).
We need the Bible’s daily nourishment. It is Jesus himself who reminds us of this in his earthly life. Each of the Synoptic Gospels recounts the Temptation, but Matthew gives us a particular insight. Jesus is preparing to begin his public ministry. He goes into the wilderness to fast and to pray for forty days. The forty days recall the forty years that the Hebrew people were in the desert as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. The Tempter seizes the opportunity to sorely tempt Jesus, who of course in his human body and nature is tired, worn and hungry. ‘If you are the Son of God’, says the Tempter, ‘command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ Jesus, fully aware of the insinuation that he should commit an act of hubris by making his own manna, replies: ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”’ (Matthew 4.1–4).
The temptation before us today is to forget the wisdom of our strapline taken from Hobart’s banner, ‘evangelical truth’, which provides the nourishment we need in the contemporary worldly wilderness where a cacophony of voices similar to the Tempter’s tell us that the surest guides for our thought and behaviour are found other than in the words that come to us from Holy Scripture as interpreted in the Holy Spirit. It is also Jesus himself who tells us why he came: that we ‘may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10.10). The life that Jesus brings, here and hereafter, is the Good News that our deepest desires and our spiritual hunger are assuredly met, and that all things necessary to salvation are given us in Holy Scripture.
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015, and is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.