Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Primates, Anglicans and the Authority and Interpretation of Holy Scripture

A discussion starter by Peter Toon

How the Scriptures are read and interpreted in a Church determines, to a large degree, what that Church believes, teaches and confesses before God and to the world. Let us look at the two ends of the spectrum in the Anglican Way.

1. In one province of the Anglican Church the reading of the Bible can lead many in that province to believe, teach and confess that a baptized Christian, who is a divorcee, may be married in church a second time; that a woman may be ordained to all three Orders of Ministry; that homosexual persons in committed, faithful partnerships may be treated as a married couples, and that God may be addressed by Proper Names that are not only not found in the Bible but are apparently forbidden therein.

In such a situation the Scriptures are seen as being God's words originally addressed to people in different ancient cultures. Further, these cultures are seen as deeply affecting the way in which the divine message is recorded. Thus the duty of the modern reader is to remove, as it were, the heavy cultural packaging (e.g., of patriarchy, or sexism, out-of-date psychology, or whatever else) and to get to the real message, the core belief. When this packaging and presentation is seen for what it is ( as time and space conditioned) then the trained eye can see both what is truly being taught and also what can be set aside or ditched. So, for example, if the text in its common sense meaning teaches that women are not to be appointed as elders, bishops and apostles, then the removal of the cultural packaging and bias can cause the text to read, it is believed, that women and men should be give equal status and opportunities and thus that a qualified woman can be ordained as a church leader. And the same reasoning makes the marriage of divorcees possible and the blessing of same-sex couples desirable. And so on.

Of course, hidden within this approach are all kinds of modern assumptions and beliefs and these vary from interpreter to interpreter and thus not all interpreters agree all the time as to what is the packaging and presentation and as these differ from the core belief or message. Further, those who read the Bible in this manner usually have a mindset that is profoundly affected by such modern ideologies as human rights and the dignity of the self (self-worth, self-realisation etc.).

Let us be clear that people holding to this kind of approach to the Bible are usually utterly sincere in their convictions and find it hard to understand why others do not see things as clearly as they see them! They often have a sense of being 'prophetic' and of blazing a trail by following of which the Church can become relevant and meaningful in western society.

2. In contrast, there are those in Anglican provinces who read the Bible in much the same way as it has been read since the sixteenth century in the major Protestant Churches. That is, while they allow for some cultural conditioning in terms of style of language, forms of dress, types of food, household slavery, debt-slavery and so on, they actually believe that the basic common sense meaning of the sacred text is the correct one. Of course, they insist that the original language is to be consulted, and other proper methods of study are to be followed; but, in the end, they believe that the clear sense of Scripture as a whole, when one part is compared with another, is the Word of God. As such it has to be put into a modern language, but this does not mean in any way that it has to be radically interpreted to teach what is apparently a meaning that is in stark contrast to the common sense one! So what Jesus taught about marriage in its basic common-sense meaning is taken as the Word of God; what the O.T. Law and the Apostle Paul taught about homosexual practices is taken as the Word of God; and what Jesus did in terms of his choice of apostles and what the Apostles did in terms of appointing elders and bishops and providing teaching about Ministry is taken as the Word of God.

  1. The radical method of reading and interpreting the Bible can be held as a general approach and this usually results in the severe pruning of received Christian doctrine and practice. Examples of the use of such a method can be seen in not a few dioceses of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. where traces of traditional Anglican Christianity are hard to find.
  2. The radical method can be held not as a general approach but with regard to one theme or one cause -- or two causes. So there are those who justify the ordination of women from Scripture (and often also the remarriage of persons in church) as they focus on specific texts and passages of the Bible and seek to remove the 'patriarchal, sexist bias' or the cultural covering from them; but then they refuse to use the method generally and so they do not accept the reality of cultural conditioning changing the common sense reading of the texts relating to homosexuality, the Naming of God and other things. Examples of this partial use of the radical method are to be found in many provinces of the Anglican Communion and very obviously in 'evangelical' groupings and very clearly in the recent Primates' Meeting.
  3. There are a few Anglican dioceses and provinces where (as in the Roman Church and the Orthodox Churches, and in many Baptist and Presbyterian Churches) the radical method has no place, and the reading of the Bible is in general harmony with the way it has been read for centuries in terms of ordination, the naming and addressing of God, and of sexual relations.
  4. Those who courageously defend the received Biblical teaching on sexuality and therefore oppose recent innovatory doctrines and practices, may do well to bear in mind that the same type of exegesis and interpretation that justifies the ordination of women and the remarriage of divorcees is used to justify the blessing of gay couples. Also they may care to ponder Article XX of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Anglican Way. For if they are to defend the position they have adopted then they need to have thought through these matters in depth and detail.

Article XX

Of the Authority of the Church

The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and Authority in Controversies of Faith; And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon March 8 2005

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