Friday, March 11, 2011

All Things Necessary for Salvation

Centrality of the Bible

A predominant and recurring theme in An Anglican Communion Covenant (1) is the references to the “Scripture(s)” as necessary for salvation. This assertion is found twice in the Introduction to the Covenant Text, and thirteen times in the text itself. This number of references in a relatively brief document surely suggests that the framers regard assent to the Scriptures as one of the major unifying factors for the holding together of a diverse collection of autonomous churches. (2)

In this, they are clearly correct: the animadversion to this centrality is entirely laudable and firmly in the normative Anglican tradition, as the various footnotes clearly show. The biblical writings have long been accepted as one of the primary “legs” of the C of E (later on, the Anglican Communion) stool; the second leg, tradition, is something of a slippery character, but the third, reason, has enabled most Anglican scholars to resist pressures to prop up an irrational approach to the canonical writings. It is almost a reflex reaction to refer to the Scriptures when defining the characteristics of the Church that finally emerged from the Elizabethan Settlement.
The phrase has proved very useful, since it can cover a multitude of hermeneutical positions. Herein, however, is the difficulty that its over-arching presence in the Anglican Covenant presents.

How do We Read the Bible Today?
Is it not incumbent on those who want assent to a strict uniformity from all parts and shades of the Anglican community, to give some indication of the way many contemporary Anglicans read the Scriptures, as compared with the way a vast majority read them towards the end of the nineteenth century? Indeed, in 1888, the date of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, a century of study and critical assessment had already passed, but this movement had moved much more slowly in Britain and the USA than in Germany, and the memory of the outrage following the publication of Essays and Reviews (3) was still very much alive among the Bishops.

It is true that the Covenant ¶ 1.2.4 , as it were, takes brief glance out of the window as the train rushes by, but the paragraph takes the Anglican principle of saying as little as possible as vaguely as possible to new heights. I would be quite happy with that, but the whole point of this document seems to be radically to alter that long and useful tradition. In the light of this, I think we need to take some time to assess as accurately as possible what modes of reading the scriptures are commonly practiced by 21st century Anglicans.

Honest to God Furore

One might begin by recalling the uproar that followed the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God (SCM Press 1963). John Robinson was by then Bishop of Woolwich, and this was an added cause for outrage among conservatives. The truth is, however, as many of John’s defenders pointed out, that there was nothing in the book that had not long been said again and again in University Lecture Halls, Tutorials and Seminars. In the UK the connection between University Theology Departments and the training of Ordinands was nowhere near as strong as in Germany; nevertheless, several leading Theological Colleges (US English – Seminaries) were in Universities, and the Faculty of the others, often set in a Cathedral close, had been educated in exactly the same approach to the Old and New Testaments as had Robinson himself. It was the hermeneutical norm of the Theological Colleges with the exception of about half a dozen Conservative Evangelical colleges: Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Ridley, Cambridge; Oak Hill, London: Clifton, Bristol and two or three more.

Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was in a difficult position; he had had a brilliant academic career, first as Sub Warden of Lincoln Theological College (where I first got to know him) and then as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. His own writings took for granted the methods of historical criticism, but in this instance he was forced to give an official reprimand, and said that these issues should be pursued in the privacy of a Don’s rooms.

Robert Morgan & John Barton on Interpreting the Bible

Robert Morgan and John Barton give an excellent survey of the development of biblical interpretation from the end of the eighteenth century to almost the end of the twentieth in their book, Biblical Interpretation, Oxford 1988.
One of the recurring themes is the importance of holding together the biblical accounts and theological constructs (which involves the religious use of the texts by members of a believing community). When the biblical record was accepted more or less tout court it provided a foundation for the structure of Catholic dogma – Trinity, Christology, Soteriology and the rest, a doctrinal system universally accepted and the basis for the religious life of Christian communities. What happened in the 19th century, beginning with Strauss’s Life of Jesus, was fatally to undermine that foundation:

“For most Protestants, even in Germany, the truth of Christianity depended to an extent now difficult to imagine on a belief in the inspired holy scripture, free of all error”. Strauss showed that “this view was no longer generally held in university theology and among the educated: in some sense, the bible might be inspired; inerrant it evidently was not”. (46).

The authors’ phrase, “now difficult to imagine” is, in effect, the agendum for the rest of the book. They demonstrate clearly, how, by the end of the nineteenth century, the historicity of the gospels had been thoroughly examined, and how clear it is that the Fourth Gospel is almost a different genre from the Synoptic Gospels. This was a major factor in the rejection of the old dogmatic structure since it is in the Fourth Gospel alone that Jesus is heard to proclaim his own divinity.

The historian investigating Jesus is greatly helped by having four sources…Comparison of these lies at the heart of critical study”. The painstaking analytical work made crystal clear “the contradictions between the accounts, especially between John and the Synoptics. … The centuries-long practice of Gospel harmonization is now discredited, though far from dead”. (64).

The Anglican Storm

I have added the italics to pinpoint the eye of the storm sweeping across the Anglican sky. Virtually all the vortices of the present storm go back to Christians who have not been able to come to terms with the historical, literary, sociological and scientific developments of the last two centuries.
The fundamental opposition to the ordination of women is grounded by an appeal to scripture; the insistence that homosexuality is a sinful aberration springs from the interpretation of a few texts; the rejection of evolutionary biology relies on the dogmatic framework that collapsed long ago. All these conflicts and many more result, ultimately, from the clash of views on how the Scriptures can (perhaps, should) be read some two centuries after new historical methods have increasingly revealed that the biblical records could not hold up the massive doctrinal superstructure that had been erected on them.

Revising Theology
Morgan and Barton, as I noted, are consistently concerned to show us how successive generations have attempted to hold together the results of historical criticism with a reasonable theology that will make sense to their contemporary readers. I quote one of the many passages which centers on this important task:

“ [A] theologian has to show that these texts are speaking of God, i.e. the God that he or she acknowledges. A theologian cannot, like a historian, rest content with having described someone else’s religion… In order to fulfill this further theological task… it is necessary to use language, which is not only appropriate to the texts, but which the modern interpreter also deems appropriate to the subject matter. Since theologians understand the subject-matter of the Bible as the transcendent God, who lays claim to them too, theological interpretation has to use the language in which the modern interpreters themselves speak of God. Conservative theologians, who are happy to express their own faith in purely biblical terms, have no problem here; they can simply repeat Paul’s language. But liberals, conscious of the difference in world-view between themselves and Paul, are more aware of the problem of translation or interpretation”. (73)

This, it strikes me is a moderate and calm, not unfriendly view of Fundamentalism. I think it sad that in so many places in the world, people either do not know the facts, or knowing them, are unwilling or unable to face up to them. This second case must surely be true for the churches of Europe and the USA, and I cannot escape the feeling that what we are seeing is a power play in which the Covenant plan is to some extent complicit. In the UK particularly, Evangelicals felt aggrieved by their gradual loss of power from the mid nineteenth until the end of WWII.

They believed that an increasing number of Anglo Catholic and Moderate Bishops were being appointed; that, perhaps because of this, there were fewer preferments to “plum” parishes for Evangelic clergy, and that the increasing solidification of the “centre” with a growing consensus of moderate Catholicism was presenting a church with liturgies and ceremonials of a quasi popish kind: too many candles, too many vestments and even spaces for private confession.

I can remember well, in the earliest phase of my education in theology and history in what might be called a Theological College catholic orientation, though with a lower case ‘c’, witnessing a resurgence of evangelicalism. It seemed as though the Puritan movement was waking after a long sleep, induced perhaps by James 1st’s riposte, “No Bishops, No King”.

Twentieth Century Developments

Before returning to consider the Covenant itself, it is important to note that the task of interpreting the Bible in the light of the flood of new information did not stop at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, several highly important and suggestive techniques have developed: Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, the increasing importance of Sociology in historical study, and a great deal of work on the development of early Christianity, resulting from a new understanding of the importance of the non-canonical writings.
From all this study, a new understanding of the centrality of the community has emerged. Older concepts of “getting to heaven” were clearly less important to the earliest disciples than Jesus’ central teaching about the Rule (Kingdom) of God so pointedly set out in the parables when allegorisation was recognized and discounted. The conservative view of Form Criticism and other approaches to the understanding of the biblical texts is that they are “faithless” and undermine the trust of ‘ordinary’ believers. The truth is that while it is clear that we know a good deal less about the actual course of Jesus’ ministry than was assumed before the nineteenth century, that we cannot assume the words of Jesus in the long discourses of the Fourth Gospel are actual verba Christi, and that not only the Fourth Gospel, but also the Synoptics are under girded by not one theological position, but several, there have also been great gains.

What we have Gained
One of Christianity’s strong claims is that its faith and practice grew out of a real historical context: it was not just another form of the pervasive nature myths of the Mediterranean world. Its positions, therefore, are vulnerable to historical investigation and, indeed, disproof. The critical scholarship of the last two centuries means that we do not have to fight to maintain a position that very few cotemporaries think is a rational one: very few but by no means all, and therein lies the conflict.

Among the other very many gains, we note the greater appreciation for the central place of the early Community: its understanding of this loving, enabling man who revitalized the prophet message of God’s demands for justice, care for the weak and sick, who, indeed, stood accepted criteria of success and power on their head, and taught, in his open table fellowship ,an inclusiveness that Christians have so easily and quickly forgotten. It was as though all they could know of God they saw in Jesus, whom they soon came to call the Anointed One.

Looking beyond the confines of the New Testament we now understand much more about the development of this earliest Community. We understand why “orthodoxy” seems to have overwhelming historical support. Archaeological finds like Nag Hammadi suggest a more varied and complex scene; orthodoxy won and ensured that the records showed it was really the only choice.
We know, too, an immense amount more about the Hellenistic age and can identify its considerable influence both on the development of the New Testament writings and on the doctrinal gestation period of the first four or five centuries C.E.

Both Too Little & Too Much

It seems to me that the phrase, “the results of rigorous study” (Covenant 1.2.4) cannot possibly be adequate to encompass the significance of the development I have so briefly outlined, and which Barton and Morgan lay out for us in great and telling detail. It would, of course, be absurd to expect a short quasi-legal document to present the situation in a succinct paragraph, and this suggests to me the wrong-headedness of a “Confessional” approach. The history of required oaths for a specific and often narrow political or religious position is not a happy one; the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 is a good example (, and the anti-Modernist oath of 1910 is another; this remained in force until the 1960s, stifling genuine biblical study in the Roman church.

If those who believe in a rational approach to biblical interpretation sign on, they run the risk of compromising scholarly integrity; and, in any case, those who take a less rational approach will continue will to insist on an immutable interpretation of the texts and demand the exclusion of those who do not share their position. Ostensibly, this will be on issues like the ordination of women and the accepting of homosexuals: in fact it will be about how we can read the scriptures in 2011.

1) See: No Anglican Covenant Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity

2) Most of these, by the way, are no longer Provinces as in the mid-nineteenth century when Bishop Colenso’s case ultimately arrived at the Privy Council, though the occasional use of ‘Province’ in the Covenant suggests a certain backward (nostalgic?) glance. It is odd that some still wish to be called a Province with its colonial overtones.

3) This book of essays was published just a few months before Origin of the Species, and the ensuing storm over an historical “attack” on the Bible, somewhat delayed the reaction to yet another from science, though when it came, it was even more virulent.

See my essay on “Anglican Polity & New Knowledge”:

4) The Birth Narratives are good example of continuing harmonization: angels, shepherds, lowing cattle and eastern Sages all appear as in a scripted Nativity play. Two of the gospels have no narratives about Jesus’ birth (unless you count “the Word was made flesh"), and Luke and Matthew have widely divergent accounts.

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