Will Joint Bible Study Bring Fellowship?

By F.F. Bruce

Some of the most desirable things in life are obtained not as goals for which we chart a straight course but as by-products of other pursuits. This is true of Christian unity. There are movements which make Christian unity their sole or principal aim; there are others which exist for quite distinct purposes but find that in the course of fulfilling them they have achieved a remarkable degree of Christian unity. In this connection I think of the great Bible Societies. In England the British and Foreign Bible Society, from its inception in 1804, has been. thoroughly “ecumenical” in its constitution and in its day-to-day working. The local Associations of the Society in all parts of the country, with Christian people of widely varying church affiliations have cooperated happily in promoting the aims of the Society, and thus have realized at “grass roots” level a practical measure of Christian unity. The Bible is a bond which binds Christians together.

Our generation has seen the growth of a number of societies for Bible study which are international and interconfessional in character. One in particular, the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, enables New Testament scholars of many lands to meet once a year and profit by the sharing of one another’s studies. These gatherings are more ecumenical than the World Council of Churches; the members hardly notice (and care less) whether it is a Roman Catholic or a Quaker who is reading a paper, presiding over a session, or conducting prayers. The purpose of the gathering is Bible study; the ecumenicity is a by-product, and all the more substantial for that very reason.

I venture to predict, therefore, that joint Bible study, whether among academic specialists or among Chris¬tians with no pretensions to expert scholarship, is going to make an increasing contribution to real Christian unity.

Within individual confessions, too, Bible study is an activity that can have revolutionary implications. The Churches of the Reformation are based on the principle of the necessity of constant reformation in accordance with the Word of God; they have no justification for their existence if they depart from their biblical foundations. But one of the most impressive and unpredictable features of the Roman Catholic Church today is the unfettered biblical study which, is being fostered within it. The Dominican Revue Biblique, the Pontifical Biblical Institute’s Biblica, the American Catholic Biblical Quarterly, are but three of a number of periodicals in this field which command the mounting esteem of Bible students of all confessions. At the General Assembly held in 1960 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the Scottish Reformation, the late Sir Thomas Taylor invited his fellow-presbyters to “note with interest and sympathy the growing emphasis which the Roman Church is placing on the study of the Bible, particularly in France. Now the Bible is an explosive book when it gets into men’s hands and is taken seriously. Look at what happened at the Reformation all over Europe! I say therefore, watch with interest and sympathy this new Roman Catholic interest in the Scriptures: it could be fraught with consequences of the greatest moment.”

Professor G. C. Berkouwer in Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought instanced as one result of this biblical movement the exposition of a genuinely scriptural understanding of justification by faith alone in the writings of such men as Hans K√ľng and W. H. van der Pol. Without indulging in wishful thinking, one may say that where the Bible is freely studied, astonishing things can happen. Evangelical Christians should pay much closer attention to the biblical movement in the Roman communion than to the Vatican Council recently resumed.

Public interest in the Bible remains unabated, as is shown by the avidity with which fresh news is greeted about archaeological discoveries in Bible lands. We may well be only on the threshold of a great new era in biblical archaeology. The achievements of Israeli archaeologists since the establishment of their young state barely fifteen years ago give promise of a rich harvest in years to come; while over the way, in Jordan, Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations recently begun in Jerusalem have already helped us to understand better the defences of the holy city in the biblical period. While archaeology is but ancillary to the study of the essential content of the Bible, a good handmaid can do great service to her mistress.

New Bible translations continue to appear. Some of them are welcome; with others we could easily dispense. But in every way, for whatever motive, the Bible is being translated; “and in that I rejoice.” The continuing impact of the RSV in America and beyond is well enough known to readers of ETERNITY, the recent publication of so thoroughly evangelical an edition of the RSV as the Holman Study Bible can do nothing but good. In Britain the sale of over four million copies of the NEB New Testament in the year following its publication speaks for itself; we are still waiting as patiently as we can for its Old Testament companion. The new Jewish version now approaching completion, and the excellent Confraternity Version produced by American Roman Catholics, are also doing their part in extending the knowledge of the Word of God in the English-speaking world; and parallel work is being done in many other languages, both east and west of the “iron curtain”.

An especially interesting experiment is the unofficial Bible version being produced by a team of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish scholars under the leadership of Professor Albright. With all this biblical activity, Christians should pray that the purpose of the Bible shall be increasingly fulfilled in the lives of those who translate and study it: that they may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

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Dr. Bruce [was] professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, England, and [was] a consulting editor of ETERNITY. He is author of The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Inter-Varsity), Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans) and numerous other books and articles.

F.F. Bruce, “Bible: Will Joint Bible Study Bring Fellowship,” Eternity 14.1 (Jan. 1963): 27-28.

This article was originally published in Eternity Magazine by Evangelical Ministries Inc now the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org.

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