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OF SOLA SCRIPTURA, CULTURE and COMMISSIONS

Recently Frs. Oz Guiness and John Yates lamented that the doctrine of “sola scriptura” was no longer received in the Episcopal Church as being normative.

One of the problems of our having a multi-stranded tradition is that we can pick and choose which strand we want to claim as normative and build a “Brigadoon” to which we may refer for an idealized vision of what we wish Anglicanism to be and to judge what is wrong about the church at this moment. Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals are particularly prone to this exercise. The Left, as a creation of the 60’s more than an heir to the old Broad Church party, has little tradition to idealize.

Our Reformers and their C0ntinental brethren did attempt to assert a doctrine which suggested that the Holy Scriptures alone were a sufficient authority not only for doctrine, but for “manner of life.” English separatists suggested that as episcopacy wasn’t clearly taught in Scripture it could be abolished along with the sign of the cross in baptism, ancient fonts, wedding rings, surplices, and the Feast of Christmas. In reality, as was later pointed out by Jeremy Taylor and others, a “tradition” of interpreting Scripture developed. It was deeply reactive to Roman Catholicism, dismayed by Ussher’s and Pearson’s rehabilitation of Clement and Ireneaus, both of whom demonstrated that episcopacy was “early” and essential, and largely shaped by the writings of Calvin’s disciples. Certainly here was no “sola scrioptura” but the Bible interpreted through the lens of a new “tradition” and a new reason.

I’ve worked in parts of the Episcopal Church in which a tradition of biblical interpretation consists of the reading of a passage, after which participants react to three posed questions. In other places a holy huddle meets and decides just how a passage affects them. References to context or to scholarly review are not encouraged. Much of this sort of naive bible study originated in the Charismatic Movement. What doesn’t seem to be absent is bible study, or at least it seems more obvious than it did thirty years ago. That there seems to be no commonly accepted method of biblical interpretation seems obvious, but one doubts whether there ever has been in the history of the Church, never mind Anglicanism.

Except to say that our Elizabethan Divines and their heirs placed a great emphasis not on preaching, but on the liturgical reading of the Scriptures in the context of the Christian Year, by which Holy Scripture was to be read, marked, learnt and inwardly digested. These Divines were appalled by the ad hoc choosing of “hot texts” by Puritan preachers, who used note appended to the Geneva Bible as if they were scripture and whose sermons concentrated on narrow interpretations of Calvin’s teachings. It was not so much that “Church Divines” differed greatly on the substance of the faith, but rather that they inherited a tolerant and patient pastoral approach to human frailty. Indeed as priests were parish priests and not merely shepherds of the “saved” such an attitude was essential. The pastoral emphasis of Anglicanism has always been suspect to those whose religion is ideological and narrow.

Mind you I am with the Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics on the matter of culture. I just can’t see, for the life of me, how cultural norms may form some seat of authority for the Church. Certainly they frame the context in which the Gospel is offered and the church organized for mission. Christianity has been profoundly radical when it has been counter-cultural, and dreadfully pathetic when it has said “Amen” to cultural norms. This was true for the Evangelicals in the late 18th and early 19th Century, to the Anglo-Catholics in mid century Victorian days and to the Liberals in the 1960s.

What if, as has been suggested on this blog, people decide that they don’t think marriage is necessary? It’s an interesting prediction and with much evidence to support it in Europe and in a growing sense here on our East and West coasts. More and more there’s a dysfunction between Christianity and local culture, left and right, in the West. If the church is to be the church, she must sit in justice/mercy on both cultures and its own. Our horrible divisions are largely framed in terms of these two cultures, and our tactics imported from them.

And this brings me, finally to the appointees to the Anglican Communion’s new commission on a Covenant agreement, a minimum norm describing and limiting what we are when we claim to be Anglican Churches in Communion. Already the left is screaming that the Commission isn’t ideologically balanced. Is TEC ideologically balanced? When General Convention and its Houses create commissions and committees to address controversial subjects, are they ideologically balanced? If they had been we might still have a common language with which to speak with each other. Over nearly forty years we have lost this language and lost the ability to talk to each other. The Commission members have a decade to learn again a common language, as each area of the Communion offers its best minds, its theological traditions, its scriptural world-view and its cultural suppositions. That offering may be an extraordinary step forward. We as a church may learn something from it. We need to find a way not to attack each other, or endlessly talk to each other from our own camps, with our own jargon, but to submit all these factors at the bar of Scripture, Tradition and sanctified Reason. If we were to take such a sacrificial risk, I believe God would finally get a word in edgeway.

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