The Witness of the Church to the Holy Scriptures:
A Sermon Preached in S. Stephen's Church, Providence, on the Sunday Sunday in Advent, December 10, 1893.
By George McClellan Fiske.
Providence: Snow and Farnham, 1894.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“I will build My Church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against It.” S. Matt., xvi., 18.
“My Words shall not pass away.” S. Luke, xxi., 33.
The theme of the Church to-day is Holy Scripture. This subject is proposed to us in connection with the great truth of Christ's coming. We are reminded of the great part which Sacred Scripture occupied in making ready for Christ those who received Him when He first came, and the likewise great part the same Sacred Scripture, now completed by the addition of the New Testament, will occupy in preparing souls to welcome Christ when He comes again. How to recognize and esteem the Scriptures we are taught by the Church. It is well that we should clearly understand this. Out of the world's many books, of whose making there is no end, who or what has taught us to call one book, the Bible, that is the Book? Who or what has taught us to call the writings of which it is composed the Holy Scriptures, that is the Holy Writings? Who or what has taken charge and had oversight of this Book through all these many ages? [3/4] There is but one answer to these questions. The Church has done all these things.
It is very unfortunate that the positions of the Church and the Bible, in the order of time, are not more correctly apprehended. The Church came first. Before God gave any written revelation He prepared a place for it. Before the Scriptures of the Ten Commandments, written by the Finger of God on two tables of stone were given there was an organization of people to receive them. And so with the Christian Church and the New Testament. The Christian Church, i. e., the Catholic Church, is not founded on the Bible in the sense that the Bible was written first and-then the Church formed out of what men found written therein. The Church was founded by and on Jesus Christ. It came from His own living, personal, spoken word, commandment, and instruction. And, after His Church had been for some time in the world, teaching men His Faith and Precepts, and feeding them with His Sacraments, the Holy Ghost, who came into the Church on the Day of Pentecost to abide forever in it, caused to be written, gradually, one after another, the several books which form what is known as the New Testament.
The Bible is God’s Gift to His Church. It was written especially for the patience and consolation of Christ’s members. It is the Church alone which has the key to the Bible. It is only the Church that can [4/5] give any reliable account of the Bible; only the Church that can tell what the Bible means; only the Church that can teach us how to use the Bible aright.
It is impossible for us to consider the fact and the history of the Bible without at the same time considering the fact and history of the Church. For it is a fact that there has been always one Church of God in this world; one Church formed and authorized by God and not by man. That Church has had a continuous existence. Before Christ came there were schisms in it, and secessions from it, but God did not recognize these self-separated factions as His trustees. When Israel seceded, it was, tribally, strong. It numbered ten tribes, while Judah had but two. Yet the gifts, and promises, and covenants went not with Israel, but with Judah. God did not forsake Israel. There were prophets of His own in it. But, nevertheless, the whole system of worship and teaching, the whole provision for transmitting the life of the Church was with Judah. With it abode the temple, and the sacrifices, and the priesthood, and the oracles of God. It was then, as it has ever been, one of the distinctions of God’s Church that it was the custodian of the Bible. God had His Church all along, and one of its great offices and purposes was to take care of and hand down the Bible, and to teach men what the Bible was, and what was in it. One of the great advantages and privileges of [5/6] the divinely-constituted Church was that it possessed the Bible.
This fact, then, of the One Divine Church in the world, we must start with. This Church, which, in its ancient form and limits, we know as the Jewish Church, kept and witnessed to the Bible. That Church may have had and did have great faults and corruptions. It may not have lived up to the Bible and its own witness to the Bible, but nevertheless, that witness to the Bible and its promises was faithfully and consistently maintained. The Jewish Church, when our Lord came, was ready to teach Herod and the wise men truly what the Scriptures said about the birth of the Messiah. Then God, coming in human flesh, continued His Church as He saw fit, in the world-wide organization, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic. And His Church, thus developed in Himself, into the Catholic Church, continued to be the witness and keeper of Holy Writ.
Now this One, continuous Church of God, both in its Jewish and Catholic stages of existence, has borne one, uniform, unvarying witness to what Holy Scripture is. From her men have learned what the Bible is. She has taught them that the collection of books, which she shows them and reads to them, is the Book of all others. She has taught them that it is the Book because it is different from all other books. It is different because it is inspired, because it is the work of the Spirit of God. Its writings are the Holy [6/7] Writings because they are due to the Holy Ghost. Inspiration, to the Church, has always been a mystery. She has always reverently bowed before it as a fact unique and inexplicable, but has never adopted a definite theory to explain inspiration. In the words of Bishop Forbes: “Although the Church has never yet ruled in what measure that inspiration is given or in what way it works, yet from the beginning it has been believed that God the Holy Ghost inspired certain persons to record certain events; that in accordance with the promise of the Lord that the Comforter should bring to mind all the matters to be recorded, these authors owed the remembrance of the facts to supernal illumination, and that therefore there is no room for allowing of any errors, even the slightest.
Following the analogy of the Incarnate Son Himself, of His Church, and of His Sacraments, the devout student recognizes a Divine and a human element in the Inspired Word. He is no more disturbed by the provincialisms of S. Mark than he is with the evil lives of the rulers of the Church, or by anything else that exhibits the human organ in the Church, but he cannot allow the human element to account for what seems to imply the slightest historical inaccuracy, beyond the use of popular, unscientific language, the employment of which is a necessity if the revelation is in any sense to be intelligible to those to whom it is made. The God of Truth cannot give imperfect or mistaken information, and he sees the dilemma [7/8] and accepts it: that either the Bible must be true in every respect or not the Word of God at all. He can accept no such patronized and apologized-for document as the half-belief of the present day would seek to put before him. Making every allowance for the possible errors of copyists, where mistakes may have crept in, he is bound to stake the issue upon the absolute genuineness and truthfulness of what is given to him as the Holy Scriptures.”
The sixth Article of Religion plainly asserts that the Church has been our guide to the discernment of inspired writings, when it is said “in the name of Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” The Bible is now so ancient that men forget through what visible agency the Holy Ghost acted in gathering up and arranging and certifying the Scriptures of heavenly truth, in which He had spoken by the Prophets and Apostles, and which He has caused to be written for our learning that, through patience and consolation of these Scriptures we might have hope. That visible agency was the Divine society, the Church. “Among the spiritual faculties of the Church,” says Bishop Forbes again, “is that of a certain instinct whereby truth is distinguished from error in consequence of an indwelling of God the Holy Ghost.”
This spiritual faculty, the Church, as one body, brought into exercise, until by her complete endorsement and acceptance the rule or canon, as to what books were sacred and of permanent and indisputable authority, was fixed and certain. This was so long ago and has been so enduring a work that men in these latter days forget, I say, what they owe to the Church for the Bible which they enjoy. The Church has, moreover, interpreted Holy Scripture for us. She has done this by the use she has made of it in her worship, services, and offices for the administration of the Sacraments.
So that the Church has protected and cared for Holy Scripture. She has told us what books are Holy Scriptures. She has testified to the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and by her applications of it has guided us to some of its most important meanings.
Now, there have always been attacks and assaults on the Bible. They are as old as the Bible, certainly as the New Testament itself. The Bible has been attacked by open enemies, infidels, atheists, and such like.
Today we stand exposed to one of the most insidious, plausible, and dangerous attacks upon the Bible which, has ever been made. It is made under the profession of love and veneration for the Bible and of profoundest reverence for truth. It is made with weapons forged out of extensive learning and fine scholarship. Its methods and its principles are [9/10] foreign to the English Church, the English people, the English mind. Its home at present is in Germany, that land of erudition, that land of theory and speculation, that land of rationalism and of hostility to the Catholic faith.
These “armies of the aliens” call the criticism, with which they are treating the Word of God, the “Higher.” The very name, though, chosen, I suppose, to designate the range of what it takes in hand in distinction from less vital and important matters to be enquired into concerning the Scriptures, this very name “Higher” seems providentially to set forth in more glaring relief the presumption and arrogance of what it proposes.
I cannot go into the details of this destructive plan for recasting, as it vaunts itself on doing, the Holy Bible. It is conspicuously concerned at present with the Old Testament. Suffice it to say that it largely destroys the antiquity of the Old Testament. It resolves history into myth and allegory, literal personages into legendary characters, who never existed, and the Divine Law, in many respects, into clever compilations and inventions of sagacious men hundreds of years later than the narrative, as we have it and as we have believed it, would imply.
It is further said that the Bible is to be dealt with and interpreted just like any other human production, and that it is inspired in no way different from the inspiration of the writings of poets and philosophers and geniuses of mankind, whether heathen or Christian. Underneath all the candour and devotion to truth avowed by these enemies of the Word of God lurks a prejudice which makes impartiality and open-mindedness impossible, and that is a prejudice against and hatred of the miraculous and supernatural. The Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, Dr. Ellicott, says on this point that not merely does this modern view prepare the way for a denial of the supernatural, but that it owed its very origin to the assumption that the existence of the supernatural in these early records is exactly that which wrecks their credibility. “This perhaps is not absolutely stated in so many words, but it is impossible to deny that the preconception and assumption which runs through the whole of the particular critical investigation to which I am referring is a disbelief in the possibility of the miraculous. We thus do not deem it unfair to say that the whole system of Old Testament criticism as set forth by some, at least, of these foreign expositors is based upon rejection of special revelation, miracles, and prophecy, — in a word, the supernatural in all its relations to the history of the chosen people.” Now, to a great many people these themes are welcome and attractive.
They wear the charm of novelty and freshness; [11/12] they have the prestige of illustrious names, and they foster the pride of intellect in having made new discoveries. It seems like progress, like the unearthing of treasures of hidden or buried truth. But really what does it amount to after all? Only ingenious theory, conjecture, imagination, opinion.
With those carried captive by it, who are outside of Catholic bodies, I am not now concerned. It is not surprising that such should adopt this startling, curious fabric so deftly wrought out by human speculation. Their adoption of it would be only the logical outcome of their principles. They do not believe in One, Divine, Inspired Church, which is the organ of the Holy Ghost. With them there are churches many, and all are human societies, and every man is free to interpret the Bible as he chooses, and the opinion of the brightest mind is therefore likely to be nearest right. I am not concerned with such people. If they work out the destruction of their faith it is most sad, but it must be expected, if they will bow down before the great golden images of individualism and private judgment.
But I am concerned with Church people who [12/13] may be carried away from the simplicity of their faith by this German philosophic guile, as they go about in search of new ideas, and, anxious to keep abreast of modern thought, may perhaps take up with what they suppose to be the result of the most advanced study and latest research in regard to the Bible. Now here comes the question for every Churchman, What shall settle this matter? The consent of a few learned men, or the consent of the Church? Because every Churchman—and by Churchman I do not mean one whose whole idea of the Church is contained in that meagre word “Episcopalian;” I mean one who believes, as the Faith of his New Birth teaches him, in One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church, and rejoices that he belongs to it—every Churchman, I say, ought to be as deaf as an adder to this whole impious theory. He ought to be utterly impervious to it. And why? For this very simple reason. It is utterly contradictory to and irreconcilable with what the Church witnesses concerning the Bible. Here are two witnessing bodies. One is the Catholic Church; the other is a group of scholars. Which shall we believe? The Church, of course. Now you, good people, who want to keep the old Bible, the Word of God, and who at the same time are saying that one Church is as good as another, and that all religious bodies are of equal authority, know not what you say. If God made several churches, then one church is as good as another.
But if Jesus Christ made only One Church, then you are certainly very wide of the mark to say that one Church is as good as another. The fact is, you cannot keep and defend your Bible against these foes of its truth and integrity and inspiration unless along with the Word of God, you acknowledge the Church of God. If you deny the Church of God to be a Divine Teaching Body, you deny the only supreme witness on earth, the only witness that can be held to be of any weight against these Biblical iconoclasts. If you want to keep the Bible, plant yourself squarely on the Church as its Witness and Keeper. Unless you believe rightly in the Church you will drift about, a prey to every blast of vain doctrine that whistles about your ears.
The Church and the Bible stand or fall together. There is no security for a firm faith in the Bible as the Word of God, save as it is linked with a proper conception of the Church.
On the other hand the Church idea perishes without the Holy Scriptures. Some have thought that it might be possible to admit all the damaging claims and demands of the critics and yet keep the Church as a living body of Divine authority and truth. This is a vain hope. The loss of faith in the Bible depraves at once the reality of the Church. It takes the Church’s word out of her mouth. This revolutionary process applied to the Old Testament involves an attack on the truth of our Lord’s Person and Office. If the histories and other parts of the Old Testament are not true, what becomes of Our Lord’s quotations of and references to them? If these Scriptures are not stored with prophecies of Him what becomes of our Lord’s injunction, “Search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of Me.”
Why, these wise men say, with an audacity that is simply blasphemous, that He was mistaken, or that He spoke under the limitations and imperfections of human faculties. When that is admitted what becomes of our Lord as an omniscient infallible Teacher, as a Source of truth? In fact, grant these conclusions of the rationalists and the whole foundation of the Christian religion as a Divine Revelation is weakened and undermined, and the collapse of the structure resting upon it must soon follow.
Let Church people believe firmly and rightly in the Church and then they will be in a right mood and attitude to listen to her message and her testimony, and will not easily give ear to inferior, untrustworthy and unaccredited witnesses.
If people had less fear of being “Ritualists” or “High Churchmen,” and a great deal more fear of being infidels, skeptics, impugners of divine truth, and gainsayers of inspiration, it would be much more creditable to their intelligence and common sense. Let them find out what that which they ignorantly or contemptuously call “Ritualism” or “High-Churchmanship” stands for, and they will see that it is the only position which will present a calm, confident, undaunted front to the boastings of unbelieving intellect. They will see that it stands for the Bible and for Revelation, with its miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural character. If you would defend the Bible you must stand by the Bible on the Church’s ground. Never countenance or encourage any teacher of God’s Word, save as he teaches in submission to and in accordance with the Church’s witness.
People often weaken, no doubt, their hold on God’s Word unconsciously, by allowing themselves to listen to expositors of the Bible, who expound it in opposition to, or ignoring, the Church. They thus open their minds to receive conflicting and strange interpretations, perverting and wresting the Scriptures. No one, clergyman or layman, has a right to interpret the Scriptures in disregard of the Church’s view and use of them. For instance, the other day I heard of a priest of the Church expounding the third chapter of St. John’s Gospel, our Lord’s interview with Nicodemus, without a solitary reference to Baptism. Now the Church, by making that passage of Scripture a part of her Office for the Baptism of Adults, has indicated to us her understanding of its bearing. And a man, a priest, an official teacher of the Church, who deliberately ignores it, does despite to the Church and violence to Scripture.
I would shun the teachings of any clergyman who would do that. Here, in this pulpit, every sermon, instruction, exposition of Scripture is uttered in submission to the Church. It is the habitual intention of us clergy, who are set to teach here, to handle Scripture with due heed and respect to the sense in which the Church has declared and witnessed to it. And if anything we do say, ever is contrary to the Church’s witness of the meaning of Holy Scripture, we say it unconsciously and unintentionally, and we retract it beforehand humbly and heartily. If I could not say this ex animo, if such were not my intention, I should deserve to be silenced and deposed this very day! As a steward of the mysteries of God, as ordained by the Holy Ghost to teach and preach, as having received the office and gift of prophecy, as taken by ordination into the prophetical office of our Lord, I am in honor bound to have and keep and observe an intention of that kind.
And, so far as in me lies, I allow no one to teach religion, to teach the Bible in this parish, who does not teach with the same intention and on the same principle of deference and submission to the Church’s voice as a witness. As a Watchman of the people, as bound by my vows of ordination to be ready, with all faithful diligence, to “banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary [17/18] to God’s Word,” I should be most unfaithful and slothful as a pastor of the sheep of Christ did I not require this of teachers, for whose teaching I myself am responsible before God. This is the only spirit of loyalty and reverence. Beware of any teacher who spurns, or neglects to teach according to, the Church. I would most earnestly warn you against being drawn into Bible classes taught by those who are either outside the communion of the Church, or who, if in the Church, despise and set at naught her witness. Besides goodness, refinement and learning there is one other indispensable qualification needed for a competent and trustworthy Bible teacher, and that is—submission to the authority of the Church. What is the good—yes, how great may be the harm, for Church people to be joining Bible classes taught perhaps, by persons who deny, repudiate, are ignorant of, or dispute Apostolic Succession of the Christian Ministry, Baptismal Regeneration, Confirmation, Absolution, the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Real Presence. For instance, how will, how can such a teacher deal with our Lord’s commission to the Apostles, when He breathed upon them and said: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”? The Church has committed us to an interpretation of those words by using them as her formula in the ordination of priests. But do you suppose that a person belonging to an organization that does not believe in a priesthood or in the power of absolution is going to give the Church’s interpretation?
Or again in the Acts of the Apostles, what is a person who does not believe in Apostolic Succession, or in Confirmation by bishops, or in the Sacramental Gift of the Holy Ghost bestowed on the baptized, what is such a person going to say when he or she comes to that passage where S. Peter and S. John go down to Samaria and lay their hands on the baptized so that they receive the Holy Ghost? Can you expect that a person who rejects Confirmation, who has never been confirmed, is going to explain to the class that that means Confirmation as it is in the Church now? Of course you can not expect it. But the Church has “through the ages all along” looked upon the events related in this passage as an instance of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and as such our branch of the Church has inserted it in her Confirmation Office in the prayer-book. How can a person, who disbelieves in these great truths of the Ministry and Sacraments set forth in Holy Scripture—how can such an one be considered as a proper instructor for Churchmen and Churchwomen? And how can Church people conscientiously place themselves or their children under an instructor of such a description? You do no honor to the Holy Scriptures when you commit yourself to a teacher who does not and will not teach the Scriptures as the Church teaches them.
 There is one simple question you want to ask about any Bible teacher, It is this: Does such an one teach and explain the Bible, guided by the Church? If not, then such an one is no proper teacher for you.
You may say, that everybody is at liberty to explain the Bible as he pleases. If you say that, you disparage and falsify both Church and Bible. You cannot say that, and be a true and faithful member of Christ’s Body the Church, nor can you say that and at the same time treat the Bible as it deserves. That is not the principle of the Church as a whole, nor of that Branch of the Church to which you belong. It was one of the principles of the English Reformation that the Bible was to be guarded, as to its exposition, by the testimony of the Church. A canon of 1571 enjoins that preachers “shall take heed that they teach nothing but that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops have gathered out of that doctrine.”
We Churchmen, priest and people, have no right to interpret the Bible as we please, without attention to the ways in which it has been unfolded and applied by the Church. The Church is constituted by God to have the custody of the Bible, and you cannot set that fact aside without danger of making shipwreck of your faith. If you would keep your faith, and hear the Bible as it is in truth, the Word of God, “hear the Church.”
 The Bible, as it has come to our branch of the Catholic Church, our English Bible, is a standing monument of the Church’s office towards the Scriptures. As we examine it and note the words that are used in translation, the words and terms and phrases that occur in the marginal readings, and in the headings of the chapters, it is impossible not to see that that translation is the work, not of an independent, self-constituted sect, but of a Catholic body. The tone and flavor and ring of the nomenclature show that a Branch of the Catholic Church has had charge of the Bible as we have it. Suppose that a translation of the Bible were to be made now by that indefinite concourse known as our “Common Christianity,” and their work would have a coloring and effect entirely different from the English Bible as it is. There would be as much difference between our present English Bible and the probable work of such hands, as there would be between this edifice, arranged and appointed as it is for our worship, and what it would be, could we imagine such a thing, if it were turned into a Congregationalist or Baptist meeting-house.
The English Bible is a Church work and not a sect work. It is a Catholic work and not a Protestant work. It is the work of men who believed in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, Witness and Keeper of Holy Writ, and who also believed the Church of England to be a Branch of that One [21/22] Church. The men who translated our Bible into English were not men who thought “one church as good as another,” and anything a Church that chooses to call itself so. They were not men who thought themselves at liberty to turn their backs on antiquity and interpret the Bible as suited their fancy. The Bible done into English is the work of the English Church, and it is Englished in Catholic language.
Stand by the Church. Receive the Bible as the Church delivers it to you. Look at it as she looks at it. Read it under her direction, and no novelties in Biblical criticism of this or any other generation will for one moment disturb your peace or shake your confidence in the Holy Scriptures.
Of the Church, our Blessed Lord has said: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Of the Bible, He has said: “My Words shall not pass away.” By His own blessed lips He has certified the Old Testament, and by the mouth of His Church He has certified the New, to be His Words. The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms are all about Him. There is only one subject in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and that is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made Man for our salvation. All has to do with Him.
So the matter stands. Christ says of His Church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and of the Scriptures: “My Words shall not pass away.” [22/23] The Church, which Christ empowered to speak for Him, has kept on saying of the Scriptures just what Christ said. The Church says that the Holy Ghost “spake by the prophets.” The critics and the newspapers say that He did not speak by the prophets and that “the infallible Bible is gone.” The Church says what she has always said, that the Bible is the Word of God and that His words shall not pass away.
Now, which will you listen to and follow, the Church, or the critics and the newspapers? As for myself and (I trust I can say) my house of this parish, we will choose the Church.
Before we go hence it will be good for us to make here before God some solemn acts of faith in the Church and in the Bible.
“I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” Witness and Keeper of Holy Writ. May I live and die in her Communion.
I believe that the Holy Ghost spake by the prophets, and that Jesus Christ was born and died and rose again, according to the Scriptures. May I live and die holding fast the Scriptures as the Church has delivered them, and may they be a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my paths.
I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. And I hate and abhor and detest with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind, whatever would impeach the veracity, the supernatural inspiration, [23/24] and the authority of the Scriptures contrary to the witness of the Church concerning them.
After our acts of faith in the Bible and the Church, let us pray that all who sin by pride of intellect, by depraving the Scriptures, may be converted, that their souls may be saved in the day of the Lord. And then let us pray that to our life’s last hour, we may have but one feeling and but one firm belief abo the Bible from beginning to end, “these sayings a faithful and true,” and that we may inherit as; eternal heritage the benediction, which declare “Blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this Book.”