Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What does Anglican Christianity say about the Bible? Does the Episcopal Church agree?

Kevin Kallsen's Anglican TV provides this video of Archbishop Mouneer Anis' (Primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Bishop of the Diocese of Egypt in North Africa and the Horn of Africa) lecture, "Recovering the Word of God for the Anglican Communion." The Archbishop gives a good summary of historic Anglican statements about the Bible and how its place in the life of the church.

Kendall Harmon has a full transcript of the address here.

What Archbishop Anis' describes is a Christian fellowship that gives the Bible great authority on paper, but not in practice:

"It sounds from all I mentioned - all these Resolutions and Articles - that the Anglican Communion is a very Biblical Communion founded on the Word of God, formed by it, and our practices are examined by it. It also gives the impression that we are committed to read and interpret the Scripture together as Communion and with our sister churches in order to define the limits of Anglican diversity in submission to the sovereign authority of the Holy Scriptures. But the question is: ‘Are we really doing this?’ I honestly think that we are far from it. In fact if we followed what we and our predecessors decided since 1888 we would not be an impaired and dysfunctional Communion today."

The official website of The Episcopal Church does not have a formal statement on the Bible, but links to a series of papers on the Bible's place in the denomination. Some of the material affirms the vow made by all clergy at ordination, "The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, containing all things necessary to salvation."

But one of the main papers slips into the loopholes created over the years,

"Keeping Scripture, tradition and reason in balance" (Russell & Vogelsang, p. 5). This is the widely taught but made up "three legged stool," attributed to Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, who never wrote anything of the kind. Hooker believed that the Bible was primary, with reason a God-given tool for humans to understand the Word and tradition the church's means for passing on Biblical truth from generation to generation. He did not place them in any kind of egalitarian "balance."

"A Bible study session involves—as a first step—looking at the historical, literary, and theological settings of the text" (ibid). That's exactly wrong. The first step is to read the text itself, in context of the surrounding passages and other related Bible passages, to get at the meaning on its own terms. Then it is time to look at commentaries and other resources that might shed light on context, difficult words, and possibly competing interpretive traditions. Going to commentaries first is to intrude secondary opinions on the text, opinions which are frequently overturned as newer commentaries come out, based on more recent research into history and languages. There is a profound internal church problem when commentaries, which are filled with conjecture (albeit conjecture based on good research in many cases), are given absolute credibility and the Scriptures, supposedly containing "all things necessary to salvation," are held in doubt.

The Episcopal approach has become too much an exercise in saying, "This Bible text was about something way-back-when that isn't relevant to us today, so let's just apply our superior wisdom to stuff that really interests and pleases us."

This approach to the Bible, in which there is no assumption of a coherent message pointing to Christ the Savior, leaves us with a Jesus who is no more than another accident of history, easily defined and contained by reference books: "Jesus came out of a rabbinic tradition that was and is far more interested in raising questions about Scripture than in answering questions" (ibid).

What Episcopalians wind up with is chilling. Compare this teaching from the current Episcopal Church:

"What the Church chooses not to read in public worship also shapes the way we relate to Scripture... The lectionary of the church provides us with an outline of what the church considers relevant for the church today" (op. cit. p. 3),

to what the Anglican Reformers said in the Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer (1549),

For they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once in the year, intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation of God's word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth. And further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.

To the Anglican Reformers, the Scriptures were inherently relevant to human transformation. The Episcopal Church documents, if I am reading them correctly, say that the Scriptures are relevant only when they support what interesting people find interesting, and that there is no unifying truth, only the truths claimed by each group of interesting people.


JD Ballard said...

Two Anglican Myths that I would love to see exploded:

1. The Three Legged Stool -- as you point out, the Anglican reformers wrote of no such thing, nor do the Church Fathers...More like a three rung ladder of decesion making with Scripture occupying the highest place of authority

2. The Middle Way Compromise -- Anglicanism certainly had to define itself over and against both Roman Catholicism and Puritainism, but it was no compromise. Anglicanism is its own position with its own catholic, scriptural, and theological integrity. Not some muddy settlement to make everyone happy and "keep everyone in the tent."

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting contrast that perhaps provides a concrete example of the contrast between contemporary vs. apostolic Christianity.

The Underground Pewster said...

If I am reading those quotes from TEc right, they have come full circle from the time when the Word was controlled by the "papists" and not available to the masses because the masses could not understand these things, through the reformation, the translation of the Bible, the Anglican approach to ground people in the whole Word, and now back to the point where only select passages are to be ommunicated to the masses because the mass can't really understand the Word.

The problems have been identified, TEc has not listened, Mere Anglicanism might be a way to build scripturally grounded clergy and laity to pick up the pieces.

The Underground Pewster said...

sorry for the typos

TLF+ said...

Pewster: the typos have wounded my inner child and I am appealing to NYC to have you reconciled.

JD, the "via media" needs to be cleaned and restored for sure! Right now, it is tossed around as "split any difference" - Anglicanism as middle way between theism and atheism, between Christianity and Islam, etc. etc.

Bryan - thanks for the link. That's spot on. In fact, the "contemporary" gimmicks are what scuttle some promising material in the TEC documents. They have good stuff about how the church year and lectionary help us navigate and learn the Bible, but then wreck this on assertions of every "tribe" bringing its own agenda and interpretation to any passage.

Pewster (behold, the first and the last in this comment!) yes, that was my reaction. They are back to a pre-Reformation church view of Scripture. Put another way, they have accepted Hooker's resistance to Puritan uses of Scripture while rejecting his resistance to Roman institutionalism.

deck said...


The last sentence of the first paragraph of your first post sums up the issues with more than the Bible. The liberal elitists can only maintain control over people by restricting the information those people receive. These are shades of an increasingly Orwellian society.