By The Revd Peter Sanlon
We need reliable information to keep us on the right path to heaven. For this we have the Bible. But our use of the Bible is less than what it needs to be, if all we get from it is accurate information. We must so handle God’s Word that it stirs up love.
The Book of Common Prayer, in its introduction, explains: ‘The people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true Religion.’
Charles Dickens pictured a school class of students, in Hard Times, as ‘little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.’ Clearly, the Victorian author found such a cold portrait of school distasteful. How much more repugnant should we find a vision of preaching or a church service that merely and only aims to fill the mind with facts?
If our experience of church has been to focus exclusively on information transfer, we will find that words in the Bible have been redefined to make scripture fit an intellectualist mould. We will read of ‘faith’ and think it means ‘understanding and assenting to the propositions in the Bible.’ By way of contrast John Calvin notes in his commentary on John ‘no person can be said to have faith in Jesus who does not cordially embrace him in love.’
Information can be rote-learned, drilled into people by means of punishments, threats, rewards or fear. Love, on the other hand, must be awakened by the beauty of the beloved. So Richard Sibbes understood faith as having a ‘transformative sight of the Saviour.’ Growth in godliness or healing in relationships may require some new nugget of information from the Bible – but it is more likely to require a fresh vision of the gentle beauty of Jesus, such that instructions we already know, become pleasant and appealing to us. Preachers who help us become more like Jesus will not only help us understand the Bible – they will stir up love for the author of scripture. Without love for God, we can no more understand the Bible than we can live like Jesus. As Augustine observed in his Confessions, ‘I am carried through life by my love.’
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk