Wednesday, 30 July 2008

How Anglicans use the Bible

I have not met anyone here of whom it would be true to say simply that they do not believe in the Authority of Scripture. How we believe in what kind of authority are other questions. Here are some indications of the ways a group of us form five continents, in Indaba, saw our distinctively Anglican use of the Bible. How are we, as Anglicans, “formed by Scrpture?”
  • The Word of God is a person, not a text. In Islam, for example, the Qu’ran is a privileged untransalteable text. For Christians Scrupture has authority as it is interprteed and applied, not as a simple absolute. We are very resistant to idolatry; idolatry of the book, idolatry of reason, idolatry of tradition. All three are resources for the Spirit, not totems or weapons against other children of God. We need to interpret the Scriptures through the icon of Christ.
  • We take the text very seriously in itself, in all of its subtlety, richness, occasional divergence and uncertainty. We begin with what it means in its own terms and historical context. So we establish the Sctipture we transmit and guard, distinguishing it carefully from our response. For example, in the Early Church women were to wear hats and be submissive so as to win their husbands for Christ. How would a woman in any of our various contemporary cultures behave so as to reflect Christ to her spouse and wn them? Absolutizing wearing hats in itself is a superficial and inadequately contextualized response to this text.
  • We then go on to take an honest view of our real world circumstances. Scripture speaks directly to each person, as who they are and where they are. Therefore we need to be aware of our own cultural spectacles as we read, before we try and inculturate any meaning we believe we can derive from the text. The Holy Spirit inspires a process of recognition and sympathetic resonance, by which Christ speaks to us where we are, and as the people we are.
  • Our Church community and communion that hold us accountable to the Scriptures, as this process is prayerfully pursued in fellowship. If you want to know what we believe, and how the Scriptures form us, worship with us.
  • There has tendency in the post-enlightenment West to erect Reason into an absolute, or even idol. Even Conservative Anglicans sometimes mine the scriptures for soundbites or notions, then extract them from their context and absolutize them in a way that can even compromise basic principles of Christian discipleship. Sometimes (as in prosperity theology) one element is isolated against others in a distorting way. It is the whole counsel of God we must seek, distinguishing clearly between the use of our mind as a tool for discernment, into which God can speak, and any tendency to engage in merely rationalist discourse, Conservative or Liberal.


Erika Baker said...

What a fascinating post, thank you!

One question - I, too, have never come across any Christian who does not believe in the authority of the Bible. But this appears to be a liberal person's point of view, because I have often been told by conservatives that unless we all take the bible literally and unless we give it sole authority, we are only pleasing ourselves.

In the public debate in the last few years there were a fair number of bishops who also said it was time for liberals to return to a biblical faith.

Were you lucky with your group?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I've been really fortunate, Erika — no name calling at any time in my group, which actually includes a bishop who would describe his own approach as liberal (rather than just having that slapped on him as a term of abuse from elsewhere). I think we are blessed by the South African experience, where everyone has been through a justice and reconciliation process that broke down many assumptions, both of self-righteousness and other-bloke's-unrighteousness. We have a very conservative member, but extremely gracious and thoughtful. I think the key discipline with ourselves is to speak for ourselves, not slap terminology on other people, or even worse, argue ad hominem about their motives or "real agendas." We are learning here how refreshing and, well, er, Christian it is to discipline ourselves this way!

Erika Baker said...

Bishop Alan

thank you for your reply, and thank you for sharing your whole experience of Lambeth and of your own learning process with us.

Amidst the predictable reporting outside, and the predictable communiqués' from the inside, and my own very loaded view of what I would like to happen and how I read the reports, your voice is one of the few that give me genuine hope. A deep hope despite of what I fear the ultimate outcome to be.

As long as the church can attract and retain people with your honesty and integrity it is worth staying with.

Paul Davison said...

Bishop Alan:

Thank you for this. I remember once hearing it explained to me that we look for the Word of God, not the Words of God.

Paul Davison
Perry, Georgia

Martin G said...

I read the Bible right through when I was young and I found it gripping, inspiring and convincing.

Now, I don't read it so much, and I certainly don't read it afresh - I look up bits, or I come across bits which I recognise, which is never the same as the first encounter.

I am therefore much more vulnerable to a second hand Bible, which is read AT me by evangelicals. I am sorry to say that my faith in the Bible is now at rock bottom, and this inevitably weakens my Christian faith.

I still take my kids to church in rural England, but I find myself fearing the influence of the Rector, in case he turns out to be homophobic, and will teach them values I abhor. On the other hand, I am too English, or Anglican, to ask him. So when he asked if any of us wanted to go to confirmation classes (my kids are not confirmed, and nor is my wife), I fobbed him off.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Martin, many thanks for your story. What I think we've found here is that we can go deeper in trusting relationships, but it takes time. Some clergy don't have very good listening skills and can seem very inscrutable. I hope yours turns out to be OK, and can create some safe space in which to rediscover the Bible at your own pace...

Anonymous said...

Alan, this isn't received Anglican doctrine you've described, as this is taught by the 39 Articles ('Scripture is the Word of God Written') and the BCP, it's a form of modern, semi-existential liberalism that on the one hand goes back to Semler in his distinction between 'the Word of God' (by which he meant 'timeless truths') and 'Scripture', on the other, sounds vaguely neo-anabaptist in invoking 'the Spirit' ('Geist'). No evangelical or catholic (Roman or Orthodox) would understand your take as being anything like the classical doctrine of Scripture. Read the Cappadocians or even Irenaeus (against the Valentinians) for an understanding of how they appraised and used the Scriptures as the Word of God.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Anonymous (and, by the way, please feel free to use your name), I simply do not recognise the way I or my fellow bishops use the Bible in your hostile account. It doesn't go back to Semier, who I've never heard of; I would say its basic approach goes back to Hooker, as against Travers, the Bible man who preached against him in the afternoons at the temple Church in the 1570's. You talk about"the classical doctrine of Scripture" as some disembodied absolute; which of course it has never been, on anything but an idealised level. The article you quote also speaks of the Church as the witness and keeper of holy scripture. Patristic use of Sctipture encompasses, as I'm sur you know, various principles of interpretation some of them far more figurative and symbolic than what people who use shorthand terms like "classic doctrine of Scripture" usually mean. The Valentinians were an interesting lot — a slightly hyper church within a church, who met privately and developed their own rigorous and highly spiritualised, as opposed to sacramentalised, understadning of the faith in the world.

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