Welcome to the inaugural Adelaide Anglican Blog Conference 2009 on the place of Scripture in the Anglican Communion, and using as a point of departure the clause on Scripture in the GAFCON final statement.
2. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.
I have enjoyed reading other blog conferences (von Balthasar and Barth) and thought it a simple way for Adelaide Anglicans to enjoy and participate in some locally generated theological discussion. Of course, our national and international readers are most welcome! A special thanks to our contributors whose posts will appear on Classic Theology New over the next two weeks. all are free to comment and engage, and debate, if you wish.
GAFCON is the latest result of the ongoing dispute in the Anglican Communion over the ministry of women and the sex life of (particularly ordained) Anglicans. Conceived as an alternative to the Lambeth Conference, GAFCON ended up a conference for Anglican clergy and lay alike from around the world. I have to admit to not being an avid listener or watcher of such conferences, whether official or schismatic. I have not acquainted myself with the huge amount of material GAFCONs (I will use this term throughout to mean both attenders of GAFCON and non-attending supporters) seem to be generating for themselves. However, a couple of points stand out. The first is the very unanglican Primates Council where, so it would appear, a small group determine the orthodoxy (or not) of churches and dioceses. A strange development in Anglicanism (and we should remember that GAFCONs would hold themselves out to be the traditionalists in the current debates) more at home in a church of either a more Protestant or Roman persuasion.
The second is the statement on Scripture. Unsurprising in this statement is the affirmation that the Scriptures "contain all things necessary for salvation" (from the ordinal), and the qualifier “canonical” as a tool in the correct translation and interpretation of Scripture. The surprise in this statement is the words “plain” and “consensual”. Consensual is unusual in the context because I perceive it to be a qualifier I would associate with the more catholic end of the Christian church. I am amazed that representatives of the Diocese of Sydney would put their signature to such a qualifier. Does the consensus of the church include the figurative readings of the patristic period and the middle ages? I can’t imagine how a consensual reading of Scripture could not, but such readings are anathema, I would have thought, to the theological method of Sydney. And if we are to abide by a consensual reading of Scripture, how does reform come in the church? Presumably not through the Bible! Did the Sydney representatives really think about this? Perhaps GAFCONs are thinking that their interpretation of Scripture in relation to who has sex with whom is the consensus of interpretive opinion. Whether this be true or not, for not the first time in trying to claim the whole of the tradition, GAFCONS have overstretched themselves with the qualifier “consensual”.
Perhaps of more interest is the qualifier “plain”. What could GAFCONs mean by this? I would have expected a qualifier like “literal”. Perhaps “literal” has a bit too much baggage these days. So what does “plain” mean? Take, for example, Luke 14:33:
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
What is the plain meaning of the text? If we mean by plain transparent, it seems almost obvious: true discipleship is shown by your material poverty. The history of interpretation of Jesus’ admonitions to give up all one’s possessions (and there are many such counsels from Jesus to evangelical poverty) includes St Anthony (Life of Antony, 4) literally giving away everything in the early days of Christian monasticism. But is this kind of command to be applied literally to all of us at all times? Is this kind of statement from Jesus to be taken as a sine qua non of Christian discipleship?
I already hear the GAFCON response. The canonical interpretation means that this one verse is to be placed in the context of the whole of Scripture. I agree. When read (interpreted) in the context of Luke-Acts, the above verse is not a universal command. Luke makes the first disciples give away everything, not necessarily later disciples. (See Lk 5:11; “everything” is missing in Mark’s original at Mk 1:20; and notice in the sermon on the plain in Lk 6:20 the blessing of evangelical poverty seems to be applied to the already poor disciples alone; while the recipients of Jesus’ teaching are broadened as the admonitions change, see Lk 6:27. See also Lk 12:22; 19:8; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-5:12 ) Paul does not teach the universal necessity of giving away all one’s possessions, and the Old Testament has a more balanced view of wealth. And if we were to apply a consensual reading of Jesus’ commands to give away all one’s possessions, we would most definitely not end up universalizing the command. So from the perspective of a canonical and consensual reading of Scripture we should not universalize the command to evangelical, material poverty. But if this is the case, what is the plain meaning of Lk 14:33?
If it wasn’t already plain(!), the plain meaning of the text cannot mean literal, obvious, or transparent, as if we can simply and easily and immediately extract and apply the meaning of any individual text. We must always interpret the text. This is an important point, for GAFCONs like to say that the fight in the Anglican Communion is about the authority of Scripture. However, the qualifiers “plain” (whatever it means), “canonical”, and “consensual” fall within the domain of interpretation. These qualifiers raise the question – and this is the critical question in the Anglican Communion at the moment, as it has always been in the history of the church – of what makes an authentic Christian interpretation of Scripture. I would think that the debate in the church is not about whether we use the Bhagavad Gita to determine who has sex with whom, but how the Bible is to be read on the question.
I have a suggestion to make: the plain meaning of a text can (occasionally it doesn’t!) become plain (in the sense of apparent) once a reader applies an interpretive technique and lens to the text. (See here for a plain reading of the Psalms from a Christological view, but a reading that is anything but obvious.) Clause 2 of the GAFCON Final Statement is suggesting at least parts of an interpretive model: canonical and (historic and) consensual. But if the plain sense comes after interpretation, how do we know an authentic Christian interpretation when we see it? And for that matter, is such a distinction between authentically Christian or not theologically justifiable? I would have thought that this is the issue at the heart of the fight in the Anglican Communion.
Let me state what I understand to have been the universal practice of the church. It will be a broad-brush picture requiring more refinement at some later point on my blog, but the major points will be clear enough. At the outset, though, let me say that I have sympathy with GAFCONish concerns for the authentic interpretation of Scripture. I think it is possible to make bad interpretations of Scripture which are utterly contrary to the truth Scripture embodies. I cite, as an example of a bad use of Scripture, Sydney’s bizarre doctrinal split (here and here) between the being of God from the persons of the Trinity. This is another case of GAFCONs attempting to universalize their peculiar and idiosyncratic perspective, with the result the clear difference between them and the consensus of the Christian faith. (How ironic!)
Essentially, the canon of truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ transcends any single embodiment of it, whether Scripture, Creeds or liturgy. All of the former do truly embody and carry the truth revealed to us in Christ, but we are not (meant to be) bibliolatrists and whatever the pejorative term is for those people (if they exist) who mistake the other instruments and embodiments of the truth (e.g. Creeds and liturgy) with the truth itself. True, without these instruments and embodiments of the truth, the faith would be lost. Equally true, without people who embody the truth, these instruments alone cannot carry the faith of the church. (Remember, St Paul had to be taught the faith by people; his superlative revelation was insufficient. [See 1Cor 13:23) Of all the instruments and embodiments listed above, Scripture is primary, but it is Jesus Christ who is the truth. (John 1:17; 14:6)
Where does this leave us in a search for an objective means to determine a true or false interpretation of Scripture? The temptation is to construct a rule of faith that can be applied in a logical manner to determine the soundness of a particular interpretation of Scripture. No such rule exists. The rule of faith is the truth itself that is revealed in Christ and held intuitively (but not irrationally) by the church. It is (truly) embodied in the Scriptures, but without this intuitive and complete knowledge the Scriptures will always be misused. Those who wrote (what would become) the New Testament (with its idiosyncratic interpretation of the Old Testament in comparison to the continuing Jewish tradition) and those who determined which books would be included in the canon of the Scriptures and wrote the Creeds, held this faith, wrote about it, preached it, worshipped according to it, and lived it. No one can come to a true knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ in the abstract, detached from the life and teaching of the church, that body of disciples who have carried this revelation for 2000 years, and embodied this truth in their Scriptures, Creeds and liturgy.
This necessarily makes the life of the church messier than the logical application of a set of propositions would allow. However, this is not to say that all is permitted. For example, interpretations of Scripture that do not carefully attend to the text, or ignore the canon of Scripture, or offend the aesthetic whole of the truth as embodied in Scripture, Creeds and liturgy will always be suspect. Moreover, the Scriptures, read correctly through the hermeneutical lens of the Creeds, will disallow interpretations of Scripture that deny the Trinitarian theology of the church, the double homoousios of Jesus, the resurrection of the body, etc. Sometimes it takes longer to adjudicate particular claims and interpretations; sometimes not so long. This also means, however, that it is always possible that what appears to be a novel interpretation is shown to be consistent with the truth and to be upheld. (The use of the Bible against slavery is a good case.) There is no way around this.
Where does this leave the GAFCON Scripture clause? I think GAFCON in its explicit statement on Scripture missed an opportunity to further the debate. While “canonical” and “consensual” go some way, inserting “plain” doesn’t really go anywhere at all. The question we must ask of each other is this: what lens do you use to interpret Scripture? Canonical is good, as is consensual, although secondary to canonical. But alone not enough, for the great heresies can still use the canon and find some common ground in the tradition. How do you determine what is authentic and permissible? And if you say you don’t have such a lens, or that Scripture itself (perhaps more likely from a conservative framework) or Jesus himself (more likely from a liberal framework) is your lens, think again. It is the lens you bring to Scripture or Jesus in the Scriptures that is the question. For my part, the lenses I use are the traditional core doctrines of the church, functioning both theologically and hermeneutically. I will elucidate my thoughts further in the coming weeks on this blog, but here are the core doctrines which are meant to be not just theology, but hermeneutical keys. (This is one of the functions of doctrine.) The doctrines are:
- The doctrine of the Trinity
- The Christian doctrine of transcendence and non-competitive divinity
- The doctrine of grace
This is a superb post on the rule of faith and its relationship to Scripture. And make sure you read the dialogue Halden has with a commentator in the comments section. This is also very good from Halden.
On the deposit of faith, see T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, pp. 30-35. On the canon of truth (or rule of faith), especially as embodied in the credal formulation of the double homoousion, see Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 125-132.
For a beautiful summary of the doctrine of transcendence and non-competitive divinity applied to Jesus, see Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, pp. 1-33.
On the “plain” meaning of the text in the patristic era, see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy. An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, pp. 31-40.