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Where have all the Scriptures gone? - by Ephraim Radner

Where have all the Scriptures gone?

A short comment and prayer after first reading the Colorado Taskforce Report set up by Colorado Bishop Rob O'Neill

By Ephraim Radner

The Taskforce has labored valiantly, like Atlas, to bear the weight of a broken diocese, fractured church, and disintegrating Communion upon its shoulders. Theirs is a mighty and praise-worthy effort. It is informed by an evident love for the Church, a genuine desire for a life of mutual charity, and a hope that we can all agree on how and why. They have – as I know from speaking to several of the Taskforce’s members personally – modeled the call they have made to all of us to sacrifice, to forbear, to be patient. But I fear that the burden of this church’s travail is too great for a restrained endurance and, as with an unwitting Samson, there are sounds of cracking overhead (Judges 16).

Was it ever really possible to structure a common life within the diocese upon a firm and compelling spiritual basis, when that basis itself – the substance and authority of the Church’s proclamation and teaching of the revealed truth of Christ – is what is in rancorous dispute? Can there be an accountability for common life, when the accounting reference itself – the character of Christ’s own teaching -- has become the seeming source of our divisions? The Taskforce has met this insurmountable logical challenge by simply defining the Church apart from this teaching, wishing thereby, perhaps, to disarm the dissension’s cause. Let not the Scriptures speak, that we might have peace (cf. Jeremiah 36:23; 38:4).

There is no doubt that the Scriptures are contested in their meaning and application; there is no denying that their demands cut against many a preconception and prejudice we hold dear in this debate; there is no question but that a considered and unflinching encounter with their call would make us all, in different ways, squirm and even tremble. The Scriptures foment turmoil, it seems; by definition, then, the Taskforce must question how they can be the actual basis for a Rule of Common Life.

Thus, although the Taskforce affirms that they have made use of the “best of Scripture” (TFR, p. 7) – what portions are “not so good”, I wonder? – and that their rules are “grounded in Scripture” (a deliberately vague description, TFR, p. 9), Scripture itself rarely makes an appearance as an authoritative framework to the church’s common life.

It is referred to only in passing and in unexplicated footnotes. The Taskforce instead tells us explicitly that the sources of our Episcopal Church’s identity and authority are, not the Scriptures themselves, but the “[binding] decisions of the first seven Ecumenical councils” (TFR, Principle 1) , and the various doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation to which these councils gave definition. And, again, we are told the bishop’s “authority” is accountable, not to the Scriptures and their teaching, but to networks of mutual and personal relationships (TFR, 3A-E; 4:A-C). And, again, we are told that theological “teaching” is to be oriented towards, not the explication of Scriptural truth and directive, but to the equipping of diverse “journeys of faith” (TFR, 9C; cf. p. 7; 5A).

Nothing in this report speaks to the final, essential, necessary, and sovereign authority of God’s Word for the life of the Church. But how could it? To do so would be to open Colorado to the further divisions of two against three, brother against sister, parent against children, mother against father (Luke 12:51ff.; cf. TFR, pp. 5, 7). I am sympathetic to the dilemma the Taskforce has faced in this matter; but I am not encouraged that we are in fact being turned towards the speaking of our Lord. And if not that, then what?

The exiling of the Word, in fact, leads to a number of odd characterizations that the Taskforce gives to the very church we are called to build in common; odd, because no one has ever quite seen Anglicanism this way:

1. The Seven Ecumenical Councils? Anglicans have only rarely and then idiosyncratically referred to the “binding” authority of the “seven Ecumenical councils”. The last, for instance, speaks primarily in defense of the veneration of images. Now while this may seem innocuous and even attractive to some, it was a practice the English Reformation, led by Thomas Cranmer no less, strongly condemned (cf. Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles). The same council affirmed as “inspired by the Holy Spirit” canons that condemn “sodomy” and “fornication” by clergy and laity alike , and demand for such transgressions extreme penance. Is this what the Taskforce had in mind by commending the “binding decisions” of these councils, or the “received norms of the Great Tradition” (TFR, p. 9)? We are puzzled.

2. And even if Anglicanism has more generally preferred to receive only the first four councils (this was Hooker’s view, long reiterated, and taken up by the first Lambeth Conferences ), these were always subjected to another and far higher standard as their test, simply because all councils are inherently fallible and have in fact proven so. Articles 19, 20, 21, and 24 of the Thirty-Nine Articles make clear that even General Councils may “err in matters pertaining unto God”. This has always been an Anglican admission and even assertion. And are these councils now, in Colorado for some geographically peculiar and providential reason, to become our main articulated foundation in common life?

3. Of course, the same Articles – and the many Anglican divines who have granted solemn respect for General Councils (as would I, and I hope all persons) – have made clear that only conformance with God’s Word and “holy Scripture” assures conciliar authority on a given matter. All teaching and practice, order and discipline, is to be tested directly and definitively by the words of Scripture. Article 19 of The Thirty0Nine Articles, defines the visible Church as that congregation “in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance”.

How is it that this most traditional and central element of Anglican self-understanding – the Church as Scripture-bound even in its sacramental life -- has disappeared in the Taskforce’s call to accountability? Does the church’s discipline lie in being subject to all rules of restraint except those of Scripture (TFR, p. 19)?

Whether or not one uses the Articles as canonically demanded doctrinal tests , no one can deny the fact that, in this matter, they express the consistent claim of Anglican identity: the Scriptures of Christ stand at our center; they render Christ to us (they are His word!) and they form the “foundation” (with “Christ as its ‘cornerstone’) of the Church itself that makes us “no longer strangers” but “fellow citizens and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19f.) .

How might we have a “rule of life” that would lead us back together in bonds of mutual charity and respect without the “rule of the Scriptures”? And how might the very foundational doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation have meaning apart from their basis in and expression of God’s self-revelation in the Word?

Without the Scriptures, how are we to know what is the “historic faith and order” we are to “uphold and propagate”, as our Constitution demands? (The Taskforce leaves this phrase out in quoting from our Preamble, preferring instead to speak only of “communion with Canterbury” [TFR, Principle 4]; but the lacuna is deeply significant and disheartening.)

Without the Scriptures, a document like The Virginia Report provides controlling direction to common life uninformed by the very “council” (Lambeth 1998) which granted the Report a measure of commendation (even while that council defined clearly the definitive authority of the Scriptures within the Anglican Communion, including on matters of sexual self-expression).

Without the Scripture, a General Convention in 2006 becomes the arbiter of our future life and Christian discipline (TFR, 2B) as a diocese, in the face of and contrary to teaching that is already established within a Communion the Virginia Report is designed to protect. “Restraint” and “waiting” easily become a form of evasion of subjection to the Communion and the Scriptural teaching and authority it expresses.

Without the Scriptures, what faith exactly is the bishop to “guard”, and what is he to “teach”, and we in faithful subjection to him (TFR, p. 15)? (Bishop and clergy have all vowed their commitment to the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as “the Word of God” , but this vow, the only written subscription demanded of those ordained, is not even explicitly mentioned as informing the demands of ordination or of the “rule of life” we hold in common. )

Without the Scriptures, we assert diverse authorities as they serve our cause, and discard them as they prove unhelpful (The Report’s lack of clarity about “grounding”, “norms”, and “touchstones” is a clear opening to such confusion.)

Without the Scriptures, the Church has nothing to teach but a fading wish.

Oddly enough, the one concrete thing we do have in common as followers of Jesus – the Word that witnesses to Him and that springs from Him and that is opened to us by His Spirit (John 14:15-27) – this seems to have no necessary or demanded place among our “rules” of common living and offers no discipline of understanding and subjection. Subjection to bishops, we are told (TFR, pp. 15, 16, 20); not to the Scriptures!

Where have the Scriptures gone?

They seem to have been banished by a church that fears their disruptive power. If ever there were a time for an Irenaeus, Athanasius or an Augustine, for a Luther or a Calvin, a Barth or a Delbrel, even for a Ridley or a Latimer (of blessed death and witness), who, for all their weaknesses and even within this mean corner of Christ’s Kingdom, might yet stare welcomingly into the “word of God, living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), it is surely now. It is time again to be gathered, just as Our Lord has prayed for our unity, “sanctified in the truth which is thy Word” (John 17:17). I would join the Taskforce and the diocese in such a prayer as this. That in it, we might be joined to Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is Rector Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from Yale University and is an accomplished violinist and scholar

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