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Has the Episcopal Church really been "Falsely Accused"? Part VI
Stand Firm ^ | 9/06/2006 | Matt Kennedy

Posted on 09/09/2006 5:20:46 PM PDT by sionnsar

At the 75th General Convention the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon gave the Episcopal Church the opportunity to reaffirm the classic Anglican and Episcopalian stance with regard to the primary authority of the scriptures when he introduced resolution DO69 which originally read...

This morning we will move on to asses the third “charge” as articulated by Fr. Tom Woodward in his apology for the Episcopal Church, Falsely Accused.

This section of Fr. Tom’s apology is chock full of mischaracterizations.

Thus my response will be somewhat corrective. But I will also seek to demonstrate that in fact both the Episcopal Church as a legislative body and so called “moderate” leaders of the Episcopal Church do not consider the bible to be the primary authority in the Church.

Before getting started it might be helpful to review the classic role or place of the scriptures in Anglicanism as articulated by Richard Hooker and as confessed in the Articles of Religion. Here is a relevant section from my recent article Is Sola Scriptura Anglican?

Anglicans, especially evangelical and/or reformed Anglicans, have embraced a more moderate form of sola scriptura as a “via media” between Rome and the radical reformers. All things must be tested in light of the biblical witness, but not all things must conform to biblical precedent. In other words, change is possible, "new things" can happen in the church, so long as the new things do not contradict the eternal Word of God.

All other sources of revelation must be tested in light of the bible, the one infallible source, but there is room for dynamic change within biblical limits. Whatever does not contradict the scriptures is not forbidden by them.

Within this framework, tradition and reason stand as secondary sources of revelation and thus, secondary sources of authority. They are not negated, but they are subject to the biblical witness. As Richard Hooker wrote:

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth... (Laws, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14),

Likewise, we read in article 20 of the Articles of Religion:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in the Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of the Scripture, that it be repugnant to another…

And in article 34:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries , times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposefully, doth openly break the Tradition and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority ought to be rebuked openly…

Both articles and the passage from Hooker show that sola scriptura; the dogma that scripture alone, as the infallible source of revelation, is the norm by which all other norms must be normed, stands at the center of classic Anglican thought and teaching.

This is not to say that there are not other legitimate Anglican viewpoints. Some of my Anglo-catholic brothers and sisters may tend toward a more Roman understanding of the interplay between the scriptures and tradition and this is certainly acceptable within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.

But it is not acceptable, and never has been, to elevate the teachings of the Church or the decisions of a provincial or even universal council of the Church over and against the revealed Word of God.

This principle is made explicit in articles 20 and 34 of the Articles of Religion (as quoted above).

It was set down at the Lambeth Conference of 1888:

That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion:

a. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of the faith.

….(Resolution 11 of the Lambeth Conference of 1888 published in the 79 BCP p.877)

It has also been made explicit in the Catechism published the Book of Common Prayer (1979) of the Episcopal Church:

Q. How do we recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit?

A. We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures.

(BCP p.853)

Thus, it is the established doctrine and rule of faith that the Church is under the authority of the Holy Scriptures and cannot legitimately ordain or institute anything contrary to them.

There is a very good reason for this. When the Church begins to assume that its decisions are consistent with God's will without any objective means to test that assumption, the Church, whether she means to or not, sets herself up as the final arbiter of truth; and in doing this, she usurps a role and an authority that belongs only to God. When this happens theological reflection, doctrine, and discipline all become subservient to human perception and preference, rather than divine revelation, and the Church inevitably devolves into a distorted mirror image of itself. In other words, when the bible, God's Word revealed, ceases to be the final authority, the Church becomes her own god.

This, essentially, is the charge against the Epsicopal Church with regard to biblical authority. In elevating Gene Robinson to the office of bishop and in promoting same-sex relationships, the Church has ceased to sit under and begun to stand over the scriptures.

This charge is somewhat mistated by Fr. Tom:

Charge against Episcopalians: The Holy Scriptures are historical relics and are not be taken seriously.

This is not the charge. I do not doubt that many, if not most, leaders in the Episcopal Church take the bible “seriously” and that the bible is given serious consideration in the Church’s deliberations. However, as evidenced by the actual decisions the Church has made with regard to homosexual behavior, it can no longer be said that the TEC takes the bible as her primary “authority".

Fr. Tom goes on to defend against the mistated charge by making a series of mischaracterizations with regard to the position of his opponents. Here is the first:

Anglicans around the world have held different beliefs about the nature of the authority and interpretation of Holy Scripture. What is new is the Network/Nigerian contention that there can now be only one way of interpreting the Bible and only one way of considering its authority.

As I noted above, Anglicans (including the Episcopal Church) have always agreed with regard to the nature and primary authority of the scriptures in the Church. The “different beliefs” to which Fr. Tom refers, as I noted above, primarily center upon the place of tradition in relation to the bible.

But no orthodox Anglican of any stripe today or in the past would suggest anything other than that the bible is primary and that the Church has no authority to act contrary to it. Thus, the “differences” were within the context of an overall “agreement” about the normative force of the Word of God over the Church.

The “Network/Nigerian” contention is that this classical stance, which did and does indeed leave room for theological comprehensiveness, has been abrogated.

Orthodox Anglicans most definitely do not think that there is only one way of considering authority or only one way of interpretation. A surface review of the various differing positions of global south provinces with regard to women’s ordination will tell you as much. But while there are differences with regard to what the bible says on various issues, and differences with regard to the interplay of revelation and tradition, all orthodox Christians agree that the Church is bound to submit to biblical revelation.

If, for example, the orthodox leaders of an orthodox province like Kenya or Uganda that currently ordains women were to be persuaded that such ordinations violate the Word of God, they would submit and cease the practice.

The assertion from the “Network/Nigerian” contingent is that this is not true of the Episcopal Church; that the decisions to ordain and consecrate bishop Robinson and to legitimize same-sex relationships were not “in accord” with the scriptures but contrary to them. If indeed it were to be shown that the Episcopal Church were violating the scriptures, there would be no repentance.

How can we make such a charge? We simply listen to the leaders of the Episcopal Church and pay attention to the legislated decisions of General Convention.

At the 75th General Convention the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon gave the Episcopal Church the opportunity to reaffirm the classic Anglican and Episcopalian stance with regard to the primary authority of the scriptures when he introduced resolution D069 which originally read:

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 75th General Convention acknowledges that the Bible has always been at the centre of Anglican belief and life, and declares its belief that Scripture is the Church's supreme authority, and as such ought to be seen as a focus and means of unity.

This language which clearly reflects the classical understanding of biblical authority was rejected. In its place the following resolution was passed:

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention acknowledge the authority of the triune God, exercised through Scripture.

What does that mean? Not much. Of course the authority of the triune God is exercised through scripture. It is also exercised in the Church and through the use of godly reason and in global weather patterns. There was and is no question about this.

The question was whether the Episcopal Church was willing to acknowledge the supreme authority of the bible as it relates to the decisions of the Church.

The 75th General Convention refused to do so.

But this is to be expected. Only a year prior to GC2006, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was even more explicit:

"Broadly speaking, the Episcopal Church is in conflict with Scripture. One would have to say that the mind of Christ operative in the church over time has led the church to, in effect, contradict the words of the Gospel.”

Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
Sermon delivered in Salt Lake City, UT, April 27, 2005

To claim that the “mind of Christ” has led the Church to contradict the divinely revealed Word of Christ is to repudiate the 2000 year teaching of the Christian Church, the established doctrine of the Anglican Communion and the teaching of the Episcopal Church as articulated in the 79 Catechism.

But, of course, he is not alone. Here is Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori speaking to the issue of biblical interpretation as quoted by the Washington Post:

"All language is metaphorical, and if we insist that particular words have only one meaning and the way we understand those words is the only possible interpretation, we have elevated that text to an idol," she said in a telephone interview. "I'm encouraging people to look beyond their favorite understandings."

On the surface this does not appear to be all that stunning, simply a regurgitation of the standard revisionist line. But think about what it means to say that “all language is metaphorical”. It means, essentially, that for +KJS the bible has little if any objective meaning beyond the meaning the Church chooses to supply.

If “all language is metaphorical” then the biblical proscriptions against adultery and homosexual behavior can, if the Church so chooses, simply represent modes of speaking about “unfaithfulness”. If all language is metaphorical it means that the content of language is utterly relative. It means that the classic understanding of biblical authority; the understanding that scriptural commands form the boundaries for ecclesial decision-making is null and void.

When we compare this resolution and these statements to Fr. Tom’s apology we see that when Fr. Tom says:

We believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is primary in encountering and experiencing the living God.

He cannot mean “primary” in the classical sense. The classical confessions and statements above not only identify the scriptures as “primary in encountering and experiencing the living God” but they also declare that the scriptures provide an objective boundary for such experiences beyond which the Church cannot go.

This is why Fr. Tom’s subsequent claims are so deceptive:

We value the Bible for what it reveals, which is often in parable and through the experience of those living in the stories, rather than in lists of rules and proscriptions. Most of us believe that improvements in translations of the Bible and the light that has come from recent discoveries and new tools for understanding the Bible can only deepen our understanding of the meaning and message of Scripture.

This is a classic false dichotomy. Either the bible is rich in parable and told through the “experience of those living in the stories” or it is a “list of rules and proscriptions.” There is, for Fr. Tom, no in between, no via media. Fr. Tom displays a dramatic failure to recognize the depth and variety of literary genres contained in the bible. There is, in fact, both parable and proscription.

But his apology is entirely consistent with +Schori’s claim that “all” biblical language is “metaphorical” and it ends in the same place. The experiences of the Church today are at least as authoritative as those recorded in the scriptures if not more so. Thus the scriptural “rules” and “proscriptions” do not bind us.

But, of course, the canons of the Church do.

Fr. Tom goes on:

The majority of Episcopalians believe there is room for various approaches to and interpretations of the Bible – and that part of our common life is to be spent in dialogue between and among those understandings. The Network/Nigerian coalition seems to want to excise from The Episcopal Church any interpretations other than their own narrow and restrictive interpretations.

I addressed this point above. Yes, there is comprehensiveness to the Anglican understanding of scriptural authority but the comprehensiveness is limited. It does not include those who would argue that the “experiences” of the contemporary ecclesial community trump or override revealed commands.

Finally Fr. Tom concludes:

It is destructive of the whole church for them to claim that anyone who does not agree with their peculiar point of view is a heretic, apostate, or enemy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We invite them to coexist with us, but not to attempt to destroy us with this new, rigid exclusivism.

I think I have made a strong case that the Episcopal Church has stepped beyond the limits of Christian orthodoxy with regard to the doctrine of biblical authority.

Moreover, I believe that the term “rigid exclusivism” applies more correctly to those who, like +Schori and Fr. Tom, refuse to allow the biblical texts to speak for themselves, "rigidly excluding" from the outset the possibility that the bible includes binding proscriptions, laws, and commands that are far more than metaphor.

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant

1 posted on 09/09/2006 5:20:47 PM PDT by sionnsar
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2 posted on 09/09/2006 5:21:19 PM PDT by sionnsar (†† | Iran Azadi | SONY: 5yst3m 0wn3d, N0t Y0urs | UN: Useless Nations)
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