Dear Presbyter, Bring Your Scroll to Church

Over TGC, Matthew Barrett opines the recent trend of pastors bringing tablets rather than Bibles to church in his interesting piece Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church. He argues that something is lost aesthetically and even theologically by his change in media. In sum, as good as tablets are, we should still be preaching from a printed Bible.

I have to say that this is not a new problem. The church has long had to wrestle with how to adapt to the changing literary media of the day. This happened with the advent of the printing press during the Reformation and with the substitution of the codex for the scroll in the ancient church. What is more, last year I had the pleasure of accompanying Dan Wallace and the CSNTM team to Mount Athos in Greece where, among other things, we discovered an as yet unpublished letter from a certain Roman Presbyter “Maximus the Cantankerous”  to “St. Callistus I”  dated ca. 220 AD. In this fragmentary letter, Maximus complains to Callistus about the introduction of codices in churches to the exclusion of the scrolls. What follows is based on my own translation of the Latin.

To Bishop Callistus, my Father in the faith, bishop of Rome, appointed by God, and heir to Blessed Peter. Grace and peace to you O holy prince of the church.

I know this is the fortieth letter I’ve written to you this week about fixing the state of affairs in the Roman church as I know you cherish my advice. But in addition to my concerns about the introduction of chanting in churches, I feel I need to raise another issue with you most excellent Callistus. For I know that you too are concerned with the simplicity of our common worship. I bring before your eminence the recent trend of Presbyters in Rome using codices rather than scrolls in our services of worship, even during the sacred Eucharist.

Let me be clear. I enjoy using codex. It is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive things yet invented. In one light-weight, travel-sized codex the user can access all the contents without having to unroll the whole thing as is ordinarily the case with a scroll. That includes not only the text, but also ornate pictures, and even reading notes in the margin.

And yet I am finding that cutting-edge, 1st-century technology is subtly but quickly changing important, even indispensable aspects of Christianity. Thus, O wise bishop, I am concerned about the ever-growing tendency to substitute a physical scroll with a codex.

To clarify, I am not against presbyters using a codex in the pulpit for, say, sermon notes. They make rather good note books after all. Rather, I’m concerned about replacing the physical scroll with a codex in the pulpit. As the pastor enters the pulpit to bring the Word of God to the people of God, no sacred scroll is to be found in his hand, gracing the top of the podium, visible to the entire congregation as the media at the center of attention. Instead, the congregation sees a codex. While this may seem harmless enough, I believe there are several potential dangers this subtle shift generates.

First, the codex as a replacement for a scroll sends an entirely different message to the congregation. Yes, this codex contains the written text of the Bible, but visually that codex represents so much more. It is an icon of pagan literary culture and is even used for pagan novels. Ask my children. The sight of a codex screams instant access to the story of Xenophon’s  Ephesian Tale or even the anonymous Life of Aesop. In contrast, how simple, and yet profound, is a scroll, written on fine papyrus or parchment, only one page exposed at a time. Carried by Pastor Stevius into the pulpit, this large, even cumbersome scroll, reveals he is ready to bring to the people a message from God himself. In short, a sacred scroll in the pulpit represents something far more focused and deliberate: a visible symbol of God speaking to his people, the master Shepherd feeding his flock.

Second, the codex also moves us  away from the Jewish heritage of our faith. We know that our Jewish friends, though blinded by a satanic lie so that they cannot see the light of Christ, still use the scroll on every Sabbath for the reading of the Law. No doubt our Lord Jesus and our blessed Apostles Peter and Paul themselves also used the scroll when they preached the Word in the Synagogues of Rome. If we are to keep with the traditions of the apostles, then, just as they did, so too must we use the scrolls for the reading and preaching of the Holy Word. If not, I fear, then the Marcionites, who build churches in the same way that bees build hives, will use this new fangled device to push many away from the Jewish roots of the faith into the pernicious lie of the so-called Gnostic faith.

No doubt, my warning touches an uncomfortable and irritable nerve. To insult our use of technology is one of the seven deadly sins in the third century. Technology infiltrates and saturates everything we do, and therefore defines everything we are, for better or worse. But is this subtle shift changing the way we read the Scriptures? Is it ever-so-quietly removing the visual centerpiece of the local assembly? I think so. And while I never imagined I would have to say this, I close with the following admonition: Dear presbyter, bring your scroll to church.

Grace and peace

Maximus

NB: This is a parody, there is no “Maximus the Cantankerous,” and I never went anywhere with the CSNTM team (I should be so lucky!). I have to add this caveat because many people (usually American) often take my humor too seriously. And apologies to Matt Barrett who raises a genuine issue about the theology of Bible media in the church.

  • Praxeas

    The longer recension of Maximus’ correspondence includes this: “Third, the collection in the codex of what purports to be a complete canon of the sacred scriptures creates the impression in the believers’ mind that this artefact can, by itself, contain the whole of truth concerning the Gospel. The heretics have long sought to interpret sacred scripture outside the Church, ignoring the apostolic Rule, and this new collection may encourage the well-intentioned but naive Christian to think they can do so too.”

  • Gary in FL

    Good parody. I read the piece when it came out on TGC and was sorely tempted to respond, but then thought better of it. I’ve observed a lot of commenters on TGC are cut from a different cloth, and I’ve got better things to do.

    Both the original piece and now this post are raising for me some general questions about the Church’s adoption of the codex. Wikipedia leads me believe the codex was invented in the 2nd Century or late First Century, and its use had achieved parity with scrolls by the year 300. First question is, is that basically correct? Second question is, in the early Church’s practice, was it the case that the four canonical Gospels were usually combined into one scroll, or were they normally circulating individually? And then finally, is there any evidence the N.T. book collection was considered to have an order prior to the codex? There’s no obvious reason for scrolls to be thought of as having an order, and yet the Jews did so: The Torah is clearly ordered, and also the overarching order of Law, Prophets, and Writings clearly predates the codex by centuries. Just wondering. Thanks.

  • Marie Peterson

    Well done, brother, well done!!! And Matthew Barrett is a great guy, and he hasn’t lost any of his librariashness (is that a word?)

  • prophetsandpopstars

    Well done, sir, indeed! As a preacher, it is a wild thing to see groups of people following along on their iPhones, kindling books as I mention them, checking us my blog as I reference writing…crazy stuff.

    Couples have started to ask that I use an ipad when I marry them so that their pictures will reflect that they were married in the 21st century.

    I’m going back and forth. Perhaps I’ll allow the meditation of Maximus the Cantankerous to settle into my nerves.

  • BryantIII

    Dear Mike,
    Excellent parody. I would think that for those who have more questions on the codex they check Larry Hurtado’s latest post on the codex at http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/early-christians-the-codex-a-correctionclarification/. It appears that Christians have always been at the forefront of inovation regarding the promoting of the gospel. Whether some of that is good or bad is another question altogether.

  • Christopher Sanchez

    Some Americans may take exception to your caveat, including your humor towards Americans.


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