By Nigel Bovey
His name has been read by millions of people around the world. Martyn Percy is the only non-fictional character in Dan Brown’s blockbusting The Da Vinci Code alive today. ‘Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great canon doctor Martyn Percy,’ says one of the book’s central characters. The Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, the Rev Dr Percy is quoted as saying that ‘the Bible did not arrive by fax from Heaven’. I arrived by taxi at the theological college set amid Oxfordshire barley fields to find out if the claims are true.
Professor Percy, did Dan Brown contact you while researching for The Da Vinci Code?
No. The first I knew about it was when somebody in the States emailed me to say I was in this novel which had been top of the New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year. That was way before the book was published in the UK. It is quite amusing now. I speak in the States about twice a year and I am inevitably introduced as the preacher mentioned in The Da Vinci Code. I also get emails from people asking me if I am real! But Dan Brown and I are in regular touch now – he’s a very agreeable person.
Can everything I need to know about the Bible be summed up by the great canon doctor Martyn Percy?
That is a pretty grand claim and, of course, I couldn’t possibly live up to it. Primarily I’m a teacher specialising in ecclesiology – the study of the Church. I am not a biblical scholar. My speciality is in contemporary revivalism and fundamentalism. Don’t forget, Dan Brown’s book is a novel. He is not trying to rewrite Christianity.
But ‘the Bible did not arrive by fax from Heaven’ quote is yours?
Yes. It’s a phrase I used a lot while lecturing at Cambridge. I think Brown picked it up from an interview I gave to an Italian newspaper.
What do you mean by it?
I’m making the point that, however God makes himself known to us, he always does so through social or cultural forms – a burning bush, a text of Scripture, people’s thoughts, language, through art or other kinds of experience. Nobody ever receives or encounters God purely. Everything that God has to say to us and do to us is mediated.
It is the mediation which actually opens things up to interpretation. So the fact that God speaks to us in words means that the words can be interpreted. The words of Scripture are clear but that doesn’t mean that they are not contestable. We can agree about what the Bible says, but Christians generally can’t agree about what the words mean.
If the Bible had come by fax, rather than being mediated through people who were themselves products of their time and culture, we probably wouldn’t be arguing about anything.
Some fundamentalists believe that the Bible was the result of divine dictation and that the writers had no part in shaping the narrative – deciding what went in, what went out – or that people had any part in compiling the Scriptures.
Most Christians, however, believe that, say, the Gospels were written by men who had 1st-century minds and perceptions.
If the writers were products of their culture, what moral areas of the Bible are being interpreted differently 20 centuries later?
A classic example is usury – mortgages. For a very long time the Church took a dim view of moneylending for profit – a view echoing the Old Testament injunction to the Israelites that they may not practise this with each other, only with Gentiles. That’s part of the reason Western culture in medieval times had Jewish ghettos. People who lent money for interest were compressed into specific zones where that kind of activity could happen. Industry needed capital from the moneylenders, so the practice (and the Jews who practised it) was simultaneously needed and despised.
Homosexuality is an area where thinking is changing. Some people are saying that with advances in moral reasoning in socio-biology, things described as abhorrent in the 1st century are now regarded as natural. Some writers of gay theology are suggesting that being gay is as abnormal as being left handed, and therefore choices gay people make are not necessarily ‘sinful’, as was once thought.
Another example is that slavery was not considered evil in Bible times. But it is today.
Again, there’s a passage in Acts which forbids Christians to eat products made out of blood. Yet there are very few Christians who refuse to eat black pudding on religious grounds.
Some parts of the Bible we just skate over because we assume they don’t really apply to us in the 21st century. That’s down to us interpreting the Bible in the light of changes in our wider culture.
Is that pick-and-mix interpreting of the Bible a modern, New Age, phenomenon?
No. The Bible has always been open to interpretation. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the majority of Christians obeyed the letter and the spirit of the law, right down to dotting the last ‘i’ and crossing the last ‘t’.
The Early Church Fathers and medieval scholars had a very sophisticated view about how to read the Bible. They knew that some parts of it are poetry, some analogy, some are there for guidance rather than as hard and fast rules.
Early Christians were very well aware that the Scriptures provide stories of our encounters with God. By reading them Christians understand how they might encounter God and how they are to run their Christian lives – in faithfulness, obedience and the like. Christianity has never been a faxed set of creeds. The Bible is not simply a rule book. It has the Ten Commandments and the two great commandments – to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself. It has other ‘rules’ too. But it also has other forms of writing which need to be interpreted.
Even the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has been balanced by Christians in every generation who have had to go to war.
If the Bible is open to interpretation, how can Christians claim it to be the authoritative word of God?
The Bible has an authority the Church gives it. The contents of the Bible were compiled over a 300-year period. It was the Church which finally decided what went in and what stayed out.
But the Bible also chooses the Church. The Bible already has an authority about itself, it just took a while for the Church to discern what the complete text should actually look like. The New Testament books, for example, are basically arranged in order of acceptance. Revelation is at the end because it was the last book to be accepted, not the last to be written.
The Bible has an authority, too, because people continually find that through reading it they encounter the living God. They receive clear direction for how to live, on the kind of God that they worship and on how God wants the world to be. In that sense the Bible is a living text – it is having a conversation with us. God is still speaking through those words.
The central theme of The Da Vinci Code hangs on the theory that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene. Dan Brown quotes the Gospel of Thomas. Why were such writings not included in the Bible?
The formation of the Bible arose out of a crisis. Marcion, now regarded as a discredited heretic, proposed that the God of the New Testament was not the same as the God of the Old Testament. To make sense of that, Marcion compiled a collection of writings that he thought fitted in with his view.
In the Church of AD100 it was unclear which were the authoritative writings. People were reading lots of different things about Jesus. The Church had to come to a mind about how to know which writings are authoritative.
There was an authorship test. The writings had to be traceable to someone who was very close to Jesus. There was an historical longevity test. If a ‘gospel’ only started appearing in AD200 and had stories of Jesus running away with Mary Magdalene, this would be seen as a late development and rejected.
What the Church wanted was reliable texts which had been in circulation from as close to the time of Jesus as possible. They wanted the originals who were gathered around the time of Jesus or the immediate Church to be included. So the process became self-selecting. Some of the texts Brown mentions in the book are those which the Early Church rejected as being specious, unauthoritative and uninspired.
How is the Bible the inspired word of God?
Biblical authority and inspiration go together. The inspiration of the Bible is something that is original and individual, but something that also has to be discerned collectively. We all get personally inspired from time to time. But the inspiration of the Bible is something which has been weighed and discerned and found to be collectively and globally inspirational for humanity and the Church.
That is why we can confidently talk about the Bible being the word of God. God is the author, originator and inspirer of what these writings are.But the Bible is also a mixed economy. Not only does it contain what God wants to say to us, it also contains the things people want to say to God – their hopes, aspirations, struggles, disappointments and doubts. In the Psalms, for example, sometimes God is speaking to humankind and sometimes a person is complaining to God: Why have you abandoned me? Why do the wicked get away with it?
The Bible is the expression of a two-way conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. This makes it so rich and explains why it couldn’t possibly have come by divine fax.
Photo: Simon Jenkins
This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission