Scripture, Tradition, and the Anglican Communion

Right now in Jerusalem, conservative Anglican bishops from around the world are meeting at the Global Anglican Future Conference (or GAFCON) to discuss issues surrounding the possibility of a schism (or, euphemistically called “realignment” by the conservatives) in the Anglican Communion. If you read/watch the news at all, you have probably been told that what is at issue is homosexuality: the Episcopal Church (as well as other “progressive” churches like the Anglican Church of Canada). The conservatives, however, deny that the issue is homosexuality. They claim that the issue is the authority of Scripture.

There are a number of problems with the claim that only the authority of Scripture is at issue in the current controversy. Most obviously, there is the fact that many gay Christians do in fact attempt to support their position from Scripture. (For one among many examples, see Mel White’s essay at the Soulforce website.) Conservatives may disagree with the pro-gay interpretation of Scripture, but it is simply false that all (or even the majority of) gay Christians reject the authority of Scripture.

Moreover, when many conservatives say “authority” what they mean is “inerrancy“. (A major moderately conservative theologian who actually understands the difference is N.T. Wright. See his excellent essay “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?“) The mistake here is the failure to accept the Bible as it was given to us: in the form of culturally mediated narrative, not a set of timelessly true, quasi-scientific propositions.

Another problem is that most conservative appeals to Scripture assume the incoherent Reformation idea of Sola Scriptura. Appeals to “The Bible Alone” are always self-deceptive. In reality, all appeals to Scripture are located within the Weslean Quadrilateral of Scripture-Tradition-Reason-Experience. Without Tradition, there is no Scripture: for example, we only know which books belong to the Bible by the authority of the Church. Without Reason, we cannot make sense of Scripture: for example, we only know when a particular passage is hyperbole or metaphor through our Reason. And it is simply impossible to interpret any text “neutrally”, without bringing one’s own personal and communal experiences to the text: in theological terms, this is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation.

The source of all these errors is the desire for unambiguous and “absolute” truth. (Less charitably, I am tempted to say that the error is the desire to use the Bible to control others, forcing them to submit to one human interpretation of God’s Word rather than to God Himself, the Giver of Scripture.) But there is no unambiguous truth. God has not given us a Bible which can serve as a rule calculator or mechanistic world-decoder. Like it or not, God has given us two texts — Scripture and Nature — which are both ambiguous and which both require the ongoing, messy task of interpretation by our fallible human community. The search for Truth is infinite.

So, while Scripture does seem to be at the center of the current Anglican controversy, the issue is not that one side accepts Scripture as the Word of God and the other side rejects it. The issue is that one side believes in the “perspicuity of Scripture” (i.e., that the Bible is so clear that it does not need interpretation) and the other side believes in hermeneutics (i.e., that all texts require interpretation) and human fallibility.

But more than this disagreement about the nature of Scripture (better: disagreement about God and the nature of human beings God has created), I believe one of the most fundamental issues dividing Anglicans is the concept of Tradition. The number of conservative Anglicans who are Biblical Fundamentalists as described above is relatively small. Many of those who are considering leaving the Anglican Communion appeal to Tradition, rather than to uninterpreted Scripture. But the assumption they make about Tradition is that it is constituted by an infallible body of doctrines which have been handed down from the Apostles to us. This view, of course, is just another kind of fundamentalism (a Catholic fundamentalism), and, as such, has all the same hermeneutic and phenomenological problems of Biblical Fundamentalism already discussed.

In contrast to this static view of Tradition as unchanging, mainstream Anglicans have a dynamic view of Tradition as evolving through time. This contrast is the contrast Alasdair MacIntyre has in mind when he contrasts Burkean vs. Narrative views of Tradition. These two concepts of Tradition are what I was really interested in when I started this post. But since I’ve been writing for quite a while at this point, I will stop here and continue my discussion of Tradition later this week.

One thought on “Scripture, Tradition, and the Anglican Communion

  1. Here is a nice commentary by theologian John Milbank on the gay controversy; makes the interesting point that one of fundamendal issues is the role of authority and solving the gay issue "requires a recognition of the role of developing tradition and the authority of the church to recognize authentic developments. It requires a Catholic and not simply Protestant perspective (though many Protestants may have such a perspective)."I hadn't thought of the disagreement about tradition in terms of the Catholic/Protestant divide, but I think Milbank is right. Catholics think authority is ultimately in the Church, and that is why they can accept that doctrine changes over time. Protestants, on the other hand, think authority is only in the Bible, so they think correct doctrine is once and for all determined by what the Biblical authors thought in the first century.For example, The Bible doesn't teach the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact the Bible seems contradictory on the question of Christ's divinity. (More conservatively, we could say the Bible is ambiguous about the question. Is Jesus "God" or "the Son of God"?) But, since the the Church eventually agreed on the doctrine of the Trinity, then it has become true for us. Protestants, on the other hand, have to say that the Bible always taught the doctrine of the Trinity but the Church only figured it out later. The problem with this view is that — besides being implausible in the case of the Trinity that the New Testament authors acually understood and believed this doctrine — it does not allow the Church to learn and adapt to new situations. We don't live in first century Palastine, so we're going to have to adapt our theology to make sense of our ever-changing embodied situation. Another way to put the objection is that it limits God and doesn't allow God to ever do anything new. Jesus certainly didn't think of God that way, because he saw God as doing something different than the Old Testament.

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