Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Clarity of Scripture (The Strangeness of Scripture IV)


The Anglican Communion worldwide is in continued uproar, with an undoubted if ill-defined realignment in progress. Today (July 6th 2009) the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans will be launched in England, marking another step on the awkward and painful journey variously characterized as one to division or renewal.

The topic of Scripture arises here not only because of its perennial importance to the Church, but because of the centrality given to Scripture and its interpretation in the Anglican conflicts to which I have referred.

There may be some in the Anglican Communion who have lessened the place of the Scriptures vis-à-vis other texts, or who regard aspects of experience or other sources of authority as equal to biblical revelation. They are not all professedly “Liberal”, but there is little point in dismissing the possibility that the caricatures laid by conservatives at the feet of the American and Canadian Churches, and perhaps also in some corners of the Church of England and here in Australia, could not correspond in certain instances to reality. Whether these are the profound or all-pervasive realities depicted in some parts of the Anglican blogosphere is another matter entirely. The greater problem is that Anglicans, who as a whole tend not merely to respect but to love Scripture, genuinely differ about its import in certain cases. My concern here is not to relativise the place of scripture but to consider the conditions necessary for its interpretation, with Scripture itself an indispensable guide for that process.

So while the problem of not taking scripture seriously enough exists in the Church, there may be other problems too. The most obvious is not the equal and opposite, because it does not seem that the Church can take scripture too seriously. There is however a danger that the type of seriousness with which the Church engages with scripture is misconceived.

Much of the rhetoric of interpretation used in the GAFCON study document The Way, the Truth and the Life has to do with "clarity".

I have no great quarrel with what I take to be the genuine or classical doctrines of scriptural clarity and perspicuity, which as defined in a document like the Westminster Confession does not mean that scripture is universally clear or its meanings obvious, but that can be read faithfully, and the message of the Gospel – the Gospel of God’s saving love as uniquely known in the person of Christ – can be discerned therein, without necessarily being provoked or catalysed directly by the teaching authority of the Church.
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Westminster Confession, 1.7)
Despite the focus even in the classically-Reformed Westminster Confession on the clarity of the Gospel rather than of the canonical scriptures per se, many subsequent commentators are clearly concerned, in defending the notion of clarity, not so much with the capacity of scripture to the witness to the Gospel, but to some much more general claim about the plain sense of scripture generally being generally evident.

This seems to be the case regarding the most contentious matters involved in the current difficulties within the Anglican Communion. This diverse group of Anglicans includes Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who reject women’s ordination, and others who accept it; it includes evangelicals who deny any sacramental character in ordination at all, and some who at least advocate lay and diaconal presidency, as well as Anglo-Catholics who persist in a high sacerdotalism.

The Way, the Truth and the Life document states that “in Anglican tradition adiaphora are primarily matters to do with ceremonies and robes, and not issues concerning doctrine or morality”. The implication that ordination, gender and sacraments are not about doctrine might surprise quite a few "confessing" Anglicans, not least those whose difficulties with their national Churches have stemmed in large part from differences over the ordination of women.

In nuanced expositions such as Mark Thompson’s recent A Clear and Present Word, the limitations of the idea of "Clarity" are acknowledged in such a way that there would seem little danger of the more extreme abuses of the idea. Even when appropriately nuanced however, we might still ask whether clarity is a genuinely helpful idea.

The problem with the notions of clarity and perspicuity is that they tend to reify scripture itself in a way that stands in some tension with the Christian notion that the Word is revealed to the Church through the power of the Spirit. A proper doctrine of revelation and even of the reading of scripture does not consist of a set of affirmations about scripture itself as an isolated object, but refers always to the dynamic involving reader, spirit and text. In fact to give a full account even of reading as opposed to revelation would still require a more complex account of “reader” which includes the context.

To emphasize perspicuity and clarity in and of themselves implies that these are qualities inherent in the text, independently of the reader. This smacks of a sort of solipsism of text, which is then somehow understood to have an inherent power even when not read, or a sort of textual equivalent of the medieval scholastic doctrine of the Eucharist, understood to have a metaphysical reality independent of the Eucharistic actions.

One does not have to succumb to the worst excesses of postmodern indeterminacy to insist that meaning is not inherent in a text but made in the encounter between reader and text. Theologically this is affirmed by the Christian insistence on the role of the Holy Spirit, without whom the Biblical text is neither clear nor powerful. “Clarity” should therefore be reserved for God’s Word, rather than for the letter of the text. God’s Word is not the text, but the effective action of the God to whom the text witnesses.

The great irony of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is that its historic catalyst has not really been scripture as such, or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Book of Common Prayer, all of which are likely to be respected and loved as much outside that Fellowship as within it; its catalyst has been the issue of human sexuality. The basis of that opposition is of course understood to be the authority of scripture; but the implication is that scripture is if not more authoritative then at least supposedly clearer about homosexuality than about, say, gender roles.

This must be questioned.

God's Word, GAFCON and the Bible (The Strangeness of Scripture III)


It is a fine thing to say that scripture is God’s Word, but the imprecision with which this identification is often made can have disastrous consequences.

A genuinely scriptural doctrine of God’s Word is not first and foremost a doctrine of the Bible. There is no doctrine of the Bible (in the sense of the complete canon) in Scripture itself, although of course there is a real if limited set of reflections about “scripture”.

What we do find in the Bible is arguably a two-fold understanding of God’s Word, in general and in specific terms. In general, God’s Word refers to the fact of God’s effective revelation, the Word which is spoken and effects what it says. This is the Word of God’s “let there be” at Creation, the Word which for Isaiah will “not return empty”, the Word which speaks hope and judgement through Ezekiel, the Word which is living and active according to the Letter to the Hebrews. God’s “Word” is God's effective communicative action.

More specifically however, God’s Word is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The definitive exposition of this doctrine of the Word is of course the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where the eternal Word is identified both as the effective word of creation and, made flesh and having come to dwell among us, as Jesus. This identification of Jesus as one in the beginning with God, the creative power through which God’s purpose is mediated to all things, is in any Christian reading of the Bible the most fundamental element of a doctrine of revelation; for it shows us that God’s communication is the giving not of propositions, but of self.

What we learn about this self-giving in scripture is derivatively but genuinely God’s Word; it partakes in the general sense of God’s effective revelation, and the Church affirms its character as God-given. In classical Anglican terminology Scripture is “God’s Word written” – insofar as its words are both a form of this effective revelation of God, and particularly as a witness to Christ the Word. Yet that phrase also qualifies the identification – “God’s Word written” is not identical to “God’s Word”.

This terminology however is distorted in some forms of Protestantism, which regard the fact of the canonical scriptures rather than their content as determinative of a doctrine of the Word of God. The orthodox and historic teaching that the Bible can be spoken of as God’s Word is subtly reversed, subject and predicate substituted for one another, so that God’s Word is now the Bible.

The Way, the Truth and the Life, a document issued as a preliminary to GAFCON in 2008 may have to stand as the most authoritative guide to the positions attributable to the uneasy coalition drawn into that movement. The book seems to make a related shift when for instance it states that the “Old Testament is the written form of the word of God” and the Bible “is the Spirit inspired written form of the word of God”. These phrases seem to me to identify Scripture and Word in an exclusive fashion; although there may be no other written Word, this sort of formulation implies direct correspondence rather than, say, participation in the much larger category that the Word of God properly is. And just as seriously, if somewhat differently, it makes what must be seen as a gaffe (!), stating that “Though this fork in the road may present itself publicly as a choice in relation to aberrant sexuality, the core issues are about whether or not there is one Word, accessible to all, and whether or not there is one Christ, accessible to all”. Doubtless the mistake is unintentional and forgivable, but it is real.

When, as so often, “God’s word” is used simply and exclusively as a shorthand for the Bible, this risks making the Bible itself rather than Christ the centre of its witness. The Christological principle may then cease to be the touchstone for the authenticity of scriptural interpretation, giving way to one grounded in abstract notions of communication. An ethical hermeneutic of charity which arises necessarily from the practice of Jesus then gives way to an epistemic requirement such as absolute literal truth, or the more sophisticated notions of clarity or perspicuity.

The implications of this shift are profound, and can extend through the whole of theology; the very character of God becomes a matter of God’s willingness or ability to communicate clearly and effectively, where such clarity is conceived abstractly, rather than accepting the Cross itself as the kind of clarity that God chooses. While there is a danger inherent in more liberal theologies of simply resorting to “mystery” as a sort of sloppy resort for difficulties, it is not thereby wrong to affirm that the character of God’s being and revelation are revealed in ways that are not clear by other standards of clarity.

The "Fathers" and the Hermeneutics of Schism (The Strangeness of Scripture II)


The early Christian writers sometimes referrred to as the "Fathers" of the Church do not envisage an understanding of scripture implied by modern Protestant talk of “clarity” or “sufficiency”. Neither, however, do they imply the need for a sort of external ecclesiastical authority as the arbiter of truth for the average Christian.

Writers of the late second and early third centuries like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen all had to contend with groups who took scripture with enormous seriousness but whose interpretations were wildly different from their own - what we can call retrospectively "emergent orthodoxy". These others, most obviously those loosely termed "Gnostics", tended to wade through scripture with great care, using allegorical methods to claim support for elaborate cosmological myths.

The proto-orthodox response to the Gnostics was not to claim either sufficiency, or even the fairly obvious possibility of clarity, as a retort to the obscurity of these biblical speculations. Rather the early theologians I have mentioned assessed the adequacy of biblical interpretation by the doctrinal and ethical coherence of its results, with the “Rule of Faith” – effectively what we know as the Apostles’ Creed – as touchstone. Of course the Creed is itself largely derived from Scripture and indeed from what one might call its "plain" sense, so the questions of simplicity and accessibility are not irrelevant here.

Yet it was the Gospel, not scripture, whose clarity and accessibility to the simple as well as to the wise they affirmed. These early Christian writers acknowledged there were conundrums in scripture, some accessible only to the mature in faith, some just intellectually demanding, some utterly mysterious. Scripture was not all clear at all.

Yet while the Gnostics saw the capacity to probe these conundrums as a means of achieving spiritual maturity or power, the emergent orthodox rejected such a hierarchy of propositions and persons. While some, like Clement and Origen themselves, felt called to solve or at least probe these mysteries because of their calling as catechists or Christian philosophers, the basis of salvation was for them not knowledge of the answers, but reception of the gracious truth revealed to the poor and ignorant – not least the illiterate - as much or more than to the wise and powerful.

These early Christian writers all gave rather more room to the role of the Church as bearer of that Rule of Faith than some conservative Protestant hermeneutics would now allow.

One of the reasons for the emergence of a strong idea of scriptural clarity was the important realization on the Reformers’ part that the authority of Scripture could not and should not depend on the mediation of ecclesiastical authority. However nuanced it may now appear to be, official Roman Catholic pronouncements still tend to reflect the view that the magisterium of the Church, subsisting in a clerical hierarchy, retains an apostolic tradition of content and method necessary for adequacy of doctrine and interpretation.

The ancient Christian writers I have mentioned did not have this particular issue to contend with; for them, to insist on the place of the Church in the determination of genuine interpretation was not to invoke or even allow such an authority, but to insist that the community of the Church universal that confessed the Rule of Faith was the necessary context in which the adequate reading of scripture could take place.

To set the Fathers and the Reformers at odds here would simply be anachronistic. Yet we can and should ask whether the affirmation that the Gospel can be heard and believed by the simple, not least by reading scripture (otherwise unaided), requires or even allows the conclusion that the the personal act of reading, outside an ecclesial context, is really richer or more fundamental to hermeneutics than the communal act of hearing.

We can also ask whether the fullness of authentic interpretation can ever really be as well-served by schism in search of truth, as by persistence in service of unity. The fullness of interpretation is not the work of the most enlightened or Spirit-filled individual, but the rich, deep and challenging harmony of the action of the Word of God in the lives of all God's people.

This vision is inevitably eschatological - and I acknowledge there are circumstances where unity will appear impossible. Yet fundamentally intepretation is not enriched by isolated pursuit of the truth; schism should be acknowledged not only as regrettable, but as hermeneutically subversive.

The Strangeness of Scripture (I)

Based on a presentation at the St James' Institute Seminar at St Paul's College, Sydney, July 4th 2009

In 1663 Puritan minister John Eliot published the first Bible in what was to become the United States of America, and indeed in the western hemisphere.

It was not a local printing of a King James or Geneva Bible. Eliot had a great heart for mission to the native Massachuset people, and after years of toil had the entire scriptures of the Old and New Testaments translated into their Algonquian language.

However the Massachuset had no written language before this point. To be rendered in their own language, the Bible had to be put into a system of signs more culturally alien to the indigenous people than was spoken English itself. The results were mixed.

A claim that by 1674 30% of the Massachuset to whom Eliot courageously ministered, in ways beyond this publication project, were literate in their own language, can be taken as cause for both joy and pain. The same ambiguity can be seen in a hand-written marginal observation by one original owner of an Algonquian Bible: “I am forever a pitiful person in the world. I am not able clearly to read this, this book”.

Eliot also corresponded with the great Puritan divine Richard Baxter, a great advocate of the clarity of scripture, and obtained permission to translate his Call to the Unconverted into Algonquian. This tract, a call to literacy as well as to faith, was not a success among the Massachuset. While in English its subsequent popularity in America for many years among what David Paul Nord calls the “optimistic, self-reliant, evangelical strain of the Anglo-American Puritan tradition” was remarkable, it was no call that these “pitiful” were able to hear.

This historical example serves as a reminder of just how dependent the clarity of scripture is on culture and other elements of context.

Most Christians in most times have not been literate or sufficiently economically powerful to have regular access to books. The fact that this has changed in the developed world is cause for celebration, but perhaps not unqualified joy. Access to Bibles and to literacy has arguably been an obstacle as well as a path to salvation, at least where it was assumed by those proclaiming the Word that literacy was a necessity, and that a Church whose encounter with Scripture was a ministry of the Word heard more than read, was inconceivable or unacceptable.

It is not in the end plausible or proper to claim that the normal or necessary form of the Church and its common life can only or even normally be determined by the immediate accessibility of scripture to the individual as a book, rather than through the faithful witness of the community to its members, above all in the liturgy.

Irenaeus, second-century Bishop of Lyons, says for instance that
many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God... Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed…. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears… (Adv. Haer. 3.4.1-2)
He could of course have been speaking of the Massachuset - would that he had been.

To claim otherwise, and presume that literacy and, consequently a personal reading of the Bible characterises how we do theology, disenfranchises most of the Church triumphant - presumably to their bemusement. Whether it also disenfranchised the Massachuset people of New England is not for us to judge.

However we can suggest that in contemporary debates, glib references to the 'clear' teaching of scripture which are predicated on mass literacy and private study as normative are dubious.

See further Lori Anne Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 107-111, and David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of the Mass Media in America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).