The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Over thirty years ago, while training for ordination at Cuddesdon Theological College, I attended a placement at Chalgrove parish church in Oxfordshire. The chancel contains one of the most complete series of wall paintings in the country (Nicholas Pevsner: The Buildings of England published 1947) and the 44 images there, present one of the best impressions of a fully painted parish church interior of the medieval period (Royal Academy of Arts, 1987). I am delighted to say that just a few week's ago the Church Council received a huge grant for their restoration and preservation.
Whenever experts examine ancient religious wall paintings, they're usually acutely aware of and sensitive to the fact that although the work is created by a fellow human being, it's inspired by God. The intention behind the work is to communicate faith, an attempt to portray the Christian story in a particularly visual way. Since most medieval paintings are not fully preserved, they require further interpretation, and when we look closely we too become consciously aware of our own efforts to find meaning and understanding: for example, what are the biblical references or underpinning theology? What does it all say to us about the medieval church?
Reading paintings is rather like reading biblical texts: we increase our understanding by recognizing both the craftsmanship of the creation, and the choices that the artist or author have had to make in order to portray the topic a certain way. Yet there's still that instinctive feeling that texts are somehow different from paintings, for texts do slightly differ from art in that they actually seem to come out and say something. This, I suppose, is because we have assertions "in black and white" to fall back on. We can restate a text, but we can't restate a painting or action. When we look at a passage of scripture, we see that a text is rather like a collection of symbols on a page. When we read, we bring our understanding of those symbols, for example when we put them into social and historical context, we begin to see what might make sense, or what we imagine the author may have intended.
Our New Testament lesson this morning from St Luke's Gospel (Luke 24. 25-32) tells us that Jesus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to those around him the things about himself in all the scriptures. Jesus explains to his followers, that when we look at the ancient scriptures, their context and interpretation are vitally important. And of course this principle of seeing things as a whole applies just as much to scripture as any other written communication. It's therefore entirely logical to see that context clarifies the meaning of the word, or the phrase or the sentence. It's also important for us to understand not only the context of an entire book, for example Genesis or Isaiah, in which a passage is found, but also how that book fits into the wider context of the whole bible. Coupled with this, we also need to recognize where the passage fits into the flow of history.
Understanding and applying what the writer's saying - makes a huge difference, if for example we're able to grasp whether the passage may be from pre-Mosaic Law, or post Babylonian Exile. Indeed another example tells us that just because God commanded Israel to sacrifice lambs at the Passover, it doesn't mean we should do the same today. Since the Bible was revealed progressively, there are instances where later revelation supersedes earlier revelation. In other words no verse of Scripture can be divorced from the verses around it. Interpreting a verse apart from its context is rather like trying to analyse a medieval wall painting by looking at only a single square inch of it.
As Christians, we read, interpret and apply the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ. It may be helpful to think for a moment - on how all the various genres of the whole of Scripture, in other words all the different types of literature, address Christ. In the Law we find the foundation for Christ, in History we find the preparation for Christ, in Poetry we find the aspiration for Christ, in the Prophets we find the expectation of Christ, in the Gospels we find the manifestation of Christ, in Acts we find the propagation of Christ, in the Epistles we find the interpretation of Christ, and in Revelation we find the consummation in Christ.
Although there's no divinely authoritative basis for viewing the Bible in an eightfold structure, it does help us understand our Christian insistence that the Scriptures be understood Christocentrically, that is firmly based on the teachings of Christ. Five times in the New Testament, Jesus affirmed himself to be the theme of the Old Testament Scripture (Matthew. 5:17; Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; Hebrews. 10:7) and from this perspective it's quite natural to see these eight interpretations of Scripture, in terms of its one theme, Christ. It's therefore quite logical for us to feel that all scripture from Genesis to Revelation really is a complete unity, not a collection of fragments, but has, as we say, an organic character. It's one connected story from beginning to end, and here we see something growing before our eyes.
We're reminded again that reading biblical texts is rather like reading medieval wall paintings, we need to see them in their totality. At the time of the Reformation the paintings at Chalgrove were only preserved by being hidden under lime wash and consequently many on the north wall are now indistinct. Indeed two of the paintings on the south wall were covered by marble memorials while the paintings lay hidden under the lime wash, so they too require substantive interpretation. The images, which clearly depict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the day of judgement, fulfil Old Testament prophesy and together bring to completion the divine story of our redemption. Reading paintings is rather like reading biblical texts.