The Basic Need: Liturgy or Bible?

Every now and then people like to say provocative things to make other people think, freak out, or somehow be surprised and see things in a new way.  Protestantism takes for granted that the Bible is centrally important to the Christian faith, and without it there can be no Christianity.  And so one Roman Catholic writer one day decided to poke back at that assumption with a slightly different assertion: “No Bible? Fine.  No liturgy? No Christianity.”  Feel free to check out the article in full:

As an Anglican Christian, I highly value both the Bible and the Liturgy.  I would not want a church to lack either, and when one is absent everything falls apart.  A liturgical church without paying any attention to the Bible which permeates the liturgy is an empty collection of useless gestures and pontifications.  A Bible-preaching church without paying any attention to the Liturgy that gives the Bible a context is an aimless collection of teaching endlessly swept away with secular culture (be it modern, popular, old-fashioned, or whatever).

The Bible through the Liturgy

But let’s look closely at this artificial Bible versus Liturgy debate that the Catholic article made up.  There was indeed a time when the Church existed and the Bible did not.  The New Testament wasn’t entirely written until as late as the 90’s AD, meaning Christianity grew explosively for half a century without it.  The Jewish Christians had the Old Testament, and both Jew & Gentile believers had the Apostles’ testimonies, so there was a semblance of what would come to be “The Bible” in their midst, but for the most part all that they had was a liturgy – a way of worshiping that connects the core events and doctrines of Christianity with the lives of the Christians in community.

Let’s take this further; the makeup of the New Testament wasn’t universally agreed-upon until the 300’s AD.  Until then you had a shorter list of books in some places (often leaving out books like 2 Peter and Revelation) and a longer list of books in others (often adding 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas).  This website has a neat table showing the New Testament’s book list according to different people in history.  I don’t point this out to disparage the veracity of the New Testament; most of it is pretty consistent, and I am unashamed to trust the decisions made in the 300’s… they’re also the ones who wrote the first draft of the Nicene Creed and began the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church.

But let’s take this yet one more step further.  Until the 1500’s, the number of literate people was very small.  So the Bible was not “freely accessible” to most people.  Instead they heard it read to them in Church… that is, yes, in the liturgy.  They received the Bible through the liturgy.  Even today, there are many Christians who don’t read the Bible on their own, thus only hearing it when in Church.  In a liturgical church, the Bible permeates the worship service and the readings are carefully selected so that the participants will hear the most important passages to instruct and exhort them.  A faithful participant in a robust liturgy will absorb a great deal of Scripture, even if that person is unable to read!

Bible without liturgy?

My many friends in non-liturgical or semi-liturgical churches will be asking what the point of liturgy is, though, if one can and does read the Bible?  The primary issue of Bible-reading without participating in the liturgy is the problem of divergent and contradictory interpretations.  During the Reformation, the Catholic Church “banned” private Bible-reading not because they were anti-Bible, but because too many people were interpreting it according to their own minds, apart from (and in conflict with) the historic faith.  Even some of the Reformation churches temporarily “banned” private Bible-reading for the same reason.  The message on both sides was this: “stop adding to the confusion with your own not-thought-through interpretations, and come listen to a good preacher help you make sense of it first.”

This may come off as controlling and paternalistic.  In a sense it is.  But if we really do believe in Truth, and the Scriptures as the Word of God (which both Protestant and Catholic believers do claim), then there is a right interpretation and many wrong interpretations, and we should take great care to be sure to get it right!

One of the greatest aids to biblical interpretation, historically, is the liturgy.  I’ve already written about this in the past, how the liturgy is a context or habitat in which the Bible is best read.  Please go to that link and read the blog post if you don’t know what I mean.

We need both!

As much as I (sometimes) enjoy the provocative language used by the Catholic article, “liturgy only!”, and the provocative language used by most Protestants “Bible only!”, I accept neither extreme.  The Liturgy, without the Bible, is meaningless and dead.  The Bible, without the Liturgy, is confusing and too-easily manipulated.  The Church really does need both in order to be whole.  While it is true that the individual Christian can survive without reading the Bible so long as the Liturgy remains saturated in Scripture, there is great value in private Bible-reading which should not be neglected by those who are able to read.

If you’re in a liturgical church and you don’t read the Bible on your own, you should!  The simplest way to start is to read the Scriptures for Sunday Mass before and/or after you go to Mass.  Let the liturgy of the Church stay with you throughout the week by dipping back into the same Scriptures.  Perhaps they’ll launch you on to reading other verses or chapters as well.

If you’re in a Bible-preaching church with no traditional liturgy, well, that’s harder to address.  You can latch on to whatever semblance of liturgy exists, such as by reading the same book of the Bible that your preacher’s sermon series is going through.  You could also make a point of attending a liturgical church in addition to your own, perhaps on weekdays, and actively seek out and ask how the Bible functions in that worship setting.  There are also many great devotional resources available that can direct your Bible-reading according to the seasons of the Church year.

This old book we call “the Bible” and the ancient liturgy both are such beautiful treasures and valuable tools for Christian growth.  I honestly wouldn’t want to go without either of them, and earnestly wish for all Christians to invest in both of them more deeply.


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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