Friday, August 29, 2008

Interpreting interpretation in the Jerusalem Declaration

Recently I have reread the Jerusalem Declaration (made as part of the final statement of the GAFCON Conference in Jerusalem, June 2008). It is a fine statement. If it is not applied too rigorously as 'the' standard of Anglican orthodoxy then it may need no particular improvement. But it needs some tuning, IMHO, if it becomes the standard of Anglican orthodoxy (which, as I read the final statement, is a 'plain' reading of that statement in respect of the tenets of orthodoxy and who holds them and who does not). Here (and it may take a few posts to work out) I offer some thoughts on the JD and the question of interpretation of Scripture.

The relevant clauses are:

"1. ...
2. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. 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.
3. We uphold the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic Creeds as expressing the rule of faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
4. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today."

The strengths of these clauses are (a) the connections made between Holy Scriptures // the Word of God written, and between Holy Scriptures and the 'catholic' faith of the church expressed in the 'four Ecumenical Councils', the creeds, and the 39A; (b) steering clear, in a thoroughly Anglican way, from issues re infallibility/inerrancy (which are tricky to define) while nailing down 'contain all things necessary for salvation'; (c) capturing five important modes of Bible usage (translation, reading, preaching, teaching, obedience) and seeking to articulate the 'how' of this usage in terms of concepts of 'plain', 'canonical', 'historic' and 'consensual' reading.

Yet there are weaknesses, even interesting omissions. The first weakness which concerns me is that these clauses do not give much steer as to how to resolve disputes over interpretation. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, for example, involves a plain, canonical reading of Jesus' words 'This is my body', respectful of the church's historic and consensual reading. Protestant alternatives involve plain, canonical readings which, at the time of their introduction in the 16th century were not actually respectful of the then historic and consensual reading of the church! A second weakness is a lack of definition of 'plain', for there are certainly parts of the Bible where a 'plain' reading is (so to speak) what everyone reads and parts where different 'plain' readings emerge. For example, within evangelicalism there have been several 'plain' readings around eschatological matters (a-, pre-, post-, pan-millenialism).

Then, finally, for today, I note the interesting omission of the (to me) important concept of 'Scripture interpreting Scripture'.

Soon I will post on my suggestions for fine-tuning the JD on interpretation.

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