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HOW DO WE KNOW?

In a pre-Lambeth Conference letter the Canadian Primate made the following observation:

“Many say, as a group of Canadian Anglican theologians have said, “the interpretation of Scripture is a central and complex matter and that, at times in church history, ‘faithful’ readings have led to mutually contradictory understandings, requiring ongoing dialogue and prayer towards discernment of the one voice of the gospel”.

Well yes. What is not noted here is how or by what method those involved in “ongoing dialogue and prayer” have usually gone about establishing which interpretation is that which has been received “everywhere, always and by all,” as dear old Vincent of Lerins put it. We are in our present pickle not because we haven’t insight into how the Church and even the churches hitherto have made up its/their mind, but because of two fairly recent developments. By recent I suppose I really mean widespread.

The first development is that the old sources we once used, which we believed to be reliable and “inspired” are now as much the source of differing interpretations as are biblical texts. Anglicans once looked to the undivided Church, its Creeds, Councils and “Fathers” to establish whether a belief was crucial or not, or even if not crucial of long standing and veneration. So that in applying Vincent’s “canon” – how does one know how to establish a true reading of Scripture or a true interpretation of doctrine? – it was possible to deduce what was believed “everywhere, always and by all.” Anglicans were carefull to draw a distinction between “matters essential” and “matters indifferent”. In the first section, in what the late Archbishop McAdoo termed the “hapex” are those theological and christological dogmas upon which there has always been general agreement among what the Early Church described as “Catholics”. (I am not talking about Roman Catholics, Anglo Catholics or Eastern Orthodoxy!!)

Nowadays there’s a powerful academic school which tends to treat all pre-Conciliar evidence, whatever its source, whether what we once termed “Catholic” or “heretical” or “schismatic” as of equal value. Now one doesn’t doubt that in schools of neutral academic research and scholarship, such a method is entirely appropriate, as long as it is as fair and objective as is possible for humans to achieve; in itself a tall order. In church-sponsored faculties and seminaries there ought to be a presumption that those who teach believe that which the Church has always taught. This does not mean that they should not research all scholarship or present fairly alternative views. But in the end, particularly in the training of clergy and active laity, the task is to promote genuine prayerful learning inspired by God through Scripture, the Tradition and sanctified reason.

The second development is the whole notion of “development” itself. One constantly hears that God is “saying a new thing.” It is claimed that church Conventions are used by the Holy Spirit to say new things. Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will lead the church into all truth is linked to a “progressive” concept of a constantly developing “truth” which God gives the church as humans progress and are able to absorb such truth. It’s a Darwinian form of revelation.

What seems to matter is not what the Church has said, but whether the Church or even churches or bits of the Church has said anything lately. If it hasn’t been voted on lately it isn’t necessarily true.

Two problems, it seems to me, arise in such a time. The first is what is glibly described as “fundamentalism.” Biblical texts are set forth in what is often described as a “plain and literal” sense, consciously or unconsciously hearkening back to church Reformers, usually of 16th Century vintage. We have seen this in the passion which has arisen from the recent writings of Bishop Tom Wright of Durham about Justification. The Bishop of Durham is biblically excommunicated by those who are utterly sure that the Protestant Reformers enjoyed a certain quasi-infallibility and that to question their views is to question essential the doctrine itself.

The second and one might say opposing problem is raised by those who are waiting eagerly for God to say something new, or who believe that God has said something new to them and assume the mantle of prophet as they announce such a new revelation to the Church and the world.

The United States seems to have this latter propensity in its DNA. Perhaps it is inevitable that those who incorporate in their state-myth ideas culled from the Old Testament story of a people being given a new land by their God, a place where freedom dwells, will be drawn to new revelations. Mormonism, and “Christian Scientism” are but two examples of this tendency.

Nor is such an encultured progression confined to living into the Exodus. Just as “fundamentalists” tend to live in “Geneva”, so many “modernists” are comfortable in seeking to apply the latest evidence from psychological, sociological and medical research to their biblical and theological research, with perhaps more emphasis on the former than the latter.

Such a tendency easily leads to a form of Gnosticism. Christianity once believed that although the Faith offers more than enough opportunity for the pursuit of godly reason and intellect, its basic tenets were available to all and were for all. On the other hand there have always been those of a Gnostic turn who were either willing to claim special knowledge or to assign to special Teachers their consciences in meek obedience.

The question then of authority, of what the Church believes and how it receives belief is vital. If everything is up for grabs at a moment in history how does the Church and how do Christians discern the one voice of the Gospel? By what process may we evaluate how modern scholarship, often as transitory and conflicted as biblical interpretation, informs belief and practice. How may we know that “culture” rightly or wrongly informs belief and practice?

If our bishops at Lambeth concentrate on saying something clearly to the Communion about how the rest of us are supposed to hear and receive the Word of God Incarnate, the Word of God written, and the Word of God incorporate in the mystical body which is the Church, we might begin to get somewhere amidst our conflicts. A good beginning would be to approach humbly the way in which Anglicans once did their theology and spirituality, not as an exercise in archaeological religion but to discover again how God’s unchanging Revelation in Christ lives anew in every generation.

anthony.clavier@gmail.com

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