Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Although I have never bothered to count the number of Bibles I have in my personal library, I am confident that they would quickly surpass the number of hours in a day and might even approach the number of hours in a week. Of course, not all of these volumes carry the complete scriptural canon.

At one time I strongly believed that every published Bible ought to contain the entire collection of books and not just, say, the New Testament. After all, the Bible is more than just an amalgamation of ancient texts with spiritual value; it is a single narrative setting forth the world's story, beginning with creation and the fall into sin, and culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world to redeem that creation and to bring to fruition the kingdom of God. Printing the New Testament by itself is tantamount to publishing only the final chapters of a mystery thriller, enabling the reader to enjoy the end of the story but leaving her confused about the beginning and middle. Better to have a complete Bible at one's disposal so as to grasp the whole narrative.

I still believe this to a very large extent, but I've moderated my views somewhat over the years. After all, portions of the Bible have been published since ancient times, as separate scrolls were kept in the synagogues for public liturgical reading at sabbath worship. Books as we know them now did not arrive on the scene until shortly after the biblical canon was closed, and even the ancient codices of the Bible did not necessarily contain every book considered canonical. The Book of Kells, for example, contains only the four gospels.

In many churches, especially the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran communions, a large Gospel book is carried ceremonially to the center of the sanctuary and is read by the presiding minister while the congregation stands, a practice largely foreign to the Reformed churches. Similarly the Psalter has long been published as a separate volume for public liturgical and private devotional use, or as part of another collection of texts in, for example, the Book of Common Prayer and the monastic breviaries. Reformed churches, while properly emphasizing the grand redemptive narrative of scripture, are nevertheless accustomed to bound metrical psalters enabling congregations to sing this book in the course of public worship.

More than in my youth, I can now better understand the reasons for publishing in one volume the New Testament and Psalms, because, in those churches traditionally following a one-year lectionary, virtually all of the readings would be found in it. What I cannot quite make sense of is the more recent practice of publishing the New Testament, along with the Psalms and Proverbs in a single volume. An example of this can be found in the tiny books distributed by Gideons International to school children. While the churches have always recognized the canonical status of the Proverbs, they have not historically drawn on it for liturgical purposes as frequently as they have other biblical books. Why the Proverbs and not, say, Isaiah, which has been regarded as the “fifth gospel” since patristic times?

But perhaps all of this is irrelevant to our current situation. In recent months I have been praying twice daily using downloaded Bibles and similar web-based materials on my computer tablet. Some of these are complete Bibles in a single digital file, while others are partial Bibles. I have more than one version of the Psalms, including Miles Coverdale's somewhat rough-hewn translation from the Book of Common Prayer. Will these take over from the rich feel of leather cover and India paper to which earlier generations were accustomed? I will not attempt to see into the future, but at this point there seems to be plenty of room in the Christian's library for complete and partial Bibles in whatever format we might wish to read them.

Nevertheless, even for those in the habit of praying through the Psalms on a regular basis or who hear only portions of scripture in the liturgy, there is no substitute for indwelling the biblical story, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it. So don't just settle for fragments. Do read the Bible from beginning to end, and find your own place within its narrative. You will not be sorry.

David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.

More on: Bible, Gospels

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles