A meditation from Dr Peter Toon, President of the Prayer Book Society of the USA
All Christians claim that the Bible (the One Canon with Two Testaments) is fundamental to Christianity. Without the Bible it is probable that there would be no Christian Religion at all in the world today.
Yet there are within the Christian Church throughout the world a variety of doctrines and views as to what authority the Bible should have in the Church, and how it should be interpreted. Within what we may call the Anglican branch of the worldwide Church, two basic approaches to the Bible, which have been present for a long time, have come into open and severe conflict over the last few years. And the focus of the controversy has been what the Bible says about “human sexuality,” specifically whether the church should bless a union of two people of the same sex/gender, who claim to be living in a covenanted partnership and ordained a person in such a “relationship.”
Let us call one view the “traditional” and the other the “radical” and describe them in general terms, recognizing that within each category there are variations, from mild to extreme.
The simplest way to present the “radical” approach to the Bible is to describe it as “The Book of Experiences”. That is, it is unique in that it is the record of how Israelites, Jews and Christians experienced God, as written by themselves of themselves. Their telling of this story was within their own social and cultural horizons but, even so, it is, and will always remain, unique for it is the first and only record of the how people responded to redeeming actions and words from the Creator God, including pre-eminently the response to Jesus, the Messiah and unique “Son/Child” of this God.
Yet this “radical” approach does not stop here, for it believes that in the Experience of both the Church and the world, God has continued to reveal Godself as the centuries have gone by. Thus it is, as it were, as if there exists a Book that is continually being written as the Church and the world experience more of God. The original Bible has the two foundational chapters (OT & NT); but, in the twenty-first century, the Church has other chapters to read covering further records of experience of claimed Revelation over the centuries. And. specifically, it has the chapter now being written of the seemingly abundant revelation of Godself during the second half of the twentieth century, and this is the source of much inspiration and action today by progressives.
Through Experience – of persons individually, of couples and of community as well as through research upon human psychology and actions – God has revealed much and will reveal more. And this revelation through experience both modifies and perfects what has been previously held to be the will of God, based upon the initial experience of the first Christians. Thus what would, according to original biblical categories (found in chapters 1 & 2 of the enlarging book) be declared to be sin, immorality and dis-order, is now, in a much later chapter, declared to be known as holiness, morality and order.
It is easy to see how this seeming reversal by God of God’s own will can be; but only if one reflects upon two things. First, that the original two chapters are said to be expressed within the cultural framework of their time and so carry much of this (e.g. patriarchalism and sexism) into their presentation of the good life. In the second place, that God is seen as the God of process, the God of evolution, the God who changes in interaction with the universe. Or, God is understood to contain the cosmos within his/her Being and to be, as it were, continually birthing it and thus in constant movement and change (this is panentheism).
To summarize. For the modern, Anglican “radical” what is called “The Bible” is unique and can never be replaced. However, it does not contain the last word in terms of what should be believed, taught and confessed by the churches – and this for the simple reason that God is in process and evolution and is continually revealing more to his/her receptive children through both their experience of life and of scientific reflection upon it. So God is proclaimed as Love, who welcomes everyone just as he or she is, and affirms and supports each human being in a life pursued according to personal “orientation” and “self-realization,” Thus, on this view, the Church should be inclusive, welcoming and affirming all and not being guided by old, obsolete, standards belonging to a patriarchal, sexist society.
[Added note: Usually the same approach is used with reference to both the acceptance of the ordination of women as deacons, presbyters and bishops and the right of “heterosexual” persons to experience serial monogamy in search of happiness. Thus all these things come as a package of new morality.]
For Anglicans, the traditional approach to the Bible is expressed in The Thirty-Nine Articles, which with The Book of Common Prayer and The Ordinal belong to the subsidiary formularies of the Anglican Way – immediately under the unique authority of Scripture.
Article 6 begins: “Holy Scripture sets forth everything that is necessary for our salvation. Consequently, nobody should be required to believe as an article of the Christian Faith, or to regard as necessary for salvation, anything that is not found in Scripture or that cannot be proved from Scripture.” Then the books of the OT and NT are listed, after which is stated: “The books known as the Apocrypha are read by the Church, as Jerome said, because of the examples they provide of heroic lives and faithful conduct, but the Church does not use these books to establish any doctrine.”
In a sentence, the One Canon of Scripture with its two Testaments provides God’s Word to us concerning what we are to believe, teach and confess with regard to faith and morals. And what it provides is the final word of God, not one that is subject to later development or change. It is, however, the final word of God stated in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and thus has to be translated into other languages and explained within later cultures – and this is often a difficult task.
The actual facts and teaching are not subject to change. This is so because the doctrine of God associated with this traditional approach proceeds from the complete distinction between God and the cosmos, along with the insistence that God created the cosmos out of nothing. So the eternal Being of God is one unique, self-existent form of being and the being of creatures is a wholly different form of created being. Thus God is believed to be first of all transcendent, wholly above and beyond the created order, and then, secondly, immanent present by his Spirit through the created order keeping it in existence and order. Into this world, this God, who is the almighty Father, sent his Son and Word to become Man and as the God-Man become the Saviour of the world and to reveal the nature, attributes and will of God to mankind.
The Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is not, therefore, a God in process, or in evolution, or in emergence, but is the great YHWH, the I AM WHO I AM, and the I WAS WHAT I AM AND WHAT I SHALL BE. And in the Bible, and in the Bible only, according to the traditional approach is the authoritative message of how created and sinful human beings may know this living God. the Father. through Christ Jesus, the Son, and by the Holy Spirit; and live as his adopted children to his glory. Included in his will, says the traditionalist, is the doctrine that only male and female are to be united in holy matrimony as one flesh for procreation and intimacy, and there cannot be any holiness attached to same-sex unions, fornication, adultery, serial monogamy, or polygamy.
[Added note: Usually those Anglicans who are committed to Trinitarian Theism and the authority of the Bible believe that the church cannot either ordain women or bless serial monogamy; and this is what is presented in The Book of Common Prayer and The Ordinal.]
In the light of what has been presented above, it does not really matter either which modern version of the Bible or which Lectionary are used by the Radicals, because the Bible used is ultimately only the first two chapters of the long story. In contrast, the choice of version of Bible and Lectionary matters to the Traditionalists for they desire to know as accurately as possible what God has said and to know it in the best ordered way.
Further, it would appear that the Radicals and the Traditionalists not only have very different doctrines of God and Revelation but also that they worship two different Deities – or one Deity perceived and addressed in two opposing ways. It is not always easy to see this because some Radicals make use of traditional hymnody, music, ceremonial and liturgy; while in contrast some Traditionalists use modern music and liturgy.
What seems to be clear is that these two different Religions cannot stay permanently together in one jurisdiction, be it a diocese or a province. If either group concedes any major point to the other side it loses its integrity and its whole position becomes unstable. Yet there is no reason why a reasonable and just separation should not and cannot be negotiated!