Monday, September 1, 2008

Historic and consensual

I have highlighted some important questions concerning the use of the word 'canonical' in the Jerusalem Declaration. There are also some important questions about the use of another 'c' word, 'consensual'. First let's restate the sentence:

"The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading."

What the sentence is trying to say (IMHO) is that the church's interpretation of the Scriptures has often involved settled, widely agreed (consensual) readings which have stood the test of time (historic). Examples include understanding that ceremonial laws within the Mosaic law no longer apply to Christians, and understanding what the New Testament teaches about Jesus Christ as Son of God and Son of Man, in relationship to the Father and to the Spirit, yields the doctrines of incarnation and Trinity. Thus, as we read Scripture afresh in every generation our reading should be respectful of such understanding rather than (say) undermining of it.

But there are a number of readings of Scripture that have not gained wide consent, even among conservative evangelicals. The sharp differences, for example, between Calvinist and Arminian schools of theology, have not yielded a consensual reading on matters of salvation. Ever since Darwin's Origins of the Species, there has been debate about the compatibility of evolutionary biology and Genesis. In this case the readings of Genesis can scarcely be described as 'historic' for the debate is less than 150 years old, and there is no 'consensus', though one might venture to suggest that a strong majority of conservative evangelicals read for compatibility rather than against it.

I cannot help feeling that the sentence cited above involves some wishful thinking that it will not be too closely examined! The fact is that the sentence describes what happens most of the time when most of us read the Bible. But the issue of interpretation is not an issue about most of the readings of the Bible, it is precisely the issue of the relatively few, but greatly troubling readings of the Bible in which there is disagreement. My mind is working slowly - and not yet fruitfully - on a suggestion for a better sentence or two for the JD in respect of biblical interpretation!


Anonymous said...

We will always argue about the meaning of the Bible (nothing new or necessarily bad about that), not least because there are limits to the human life span and our capacity to bind the next generation is limited. The important issue is to what extent are we willing to be bound by the counsels of the past (a kind of theological 'stare decisis'). How to adjudicate rival interpretations of the Bible? Rome has its Magisterium, Orthodoxy its Holy Tradition (what do evangelical Anglicans have?). Neither Rome nor Orthodoxy is quite as unchanging or monolithic as their ardent supporters sometimes claim, but I suspect they maintain a greater feel of continuity through a more rigorous appeal to philosophy (whether Thomas or Palamas) than Protestants, as well as consciously reminding themselves of their historic identity. So biblical studies, systematics and philosophy do belong together. If you get highly biblicistic in your argument - as I think Tom Wright does, in reconstructing his view of what he thought mattered to first century Judean Christians - you can leave out a lot of other, important trans-historical stuff.
All churches have had (and continually have) to come to terms with the meaning of Genesis. Yet even in the 4th century that rhetorically trained man Augustine argued (in De Genesi ad literam) against a literalistic reading of Gen 1-3. He discerned clear literary motifs and symbols. What he did hold was that Adam and Eve were actual historical persons. If we conclude there was no historical 'fall' or historical Adam and Eve (cf Romans 5), then I think we would have to reconfigure a lot of Christian theology pretty drastically.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Indeed, 'what do evangelical Anglicans have?' Until recently I think we had a magisterium of sorts, called 'John Stott and Jim Packer' (!!). Part of our current difficulty is that we do not have a magisterium, partly because we do not have masterful evangelical teachers in our midst (+Tom Wright comes close, but, as you allude, makes a move or two which raises more questions than provides answers).

Augustine's reading of Genesis would be close to my own, but I see Adam and Eve as both symbolic and real, representing 'man' and 'woman' at the beginning of human history (which would be no history without 'the fall'), and summing up in themselves all prior developmental stages in the birthing of humanity.

Your insights here are very much appreciated by me, who is not as expert or knowledgeable in theology, least of all the patristics, as you are.
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Peter, thank you for the compliment, though I don't deserve it, and certainly not from an accomplished Neutestamentler! If I have any wisdom, it's the (reputedly Socratic) kind that's a little more aware of its own ignorance, thanks to some conversations with Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic friends that encouraged me to think a little 'outside the Book' - not against it, mind, but to put the Bible in context for its 'right' interpretation (whatever that is!). That is what Tom Wright is seeking to do as well, even if I'm inclined to demur from some of his moves. Encouragement to do so has also come from some thoroughly conservative evangelical Anglican quarters - e.g. discovering from reading Gerald Bray's 'Doctrine of God' how deeply Calvin was immersed in the Greek Fathers, or Mike Ovey of Oak Hill, London on atonement in the Fathers, or Peter Jensen ('The Doctrine of Scripture') on the Cappadocians on Scripture and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical Anglican roots are not just to be found in the 16th century - as Cranmer would be the first to agree!
Thanks for your blog - it's a great stimulus to my thinking and praying.