Monday, January 10, 2011

Scripture Alone (3)

Part of my musing about 'Scripture Alone' is that the future of the church (all churches, around the world) will depend on Scripture as the one common authority for faith and practice. One contributing observation here is that when the Reformation utilised Scripture as a plumbline to measure the then Western European church an eventual consequence was that the Roman-led Western European church in the centuries following (enlarged, of course, through those centuries into a global church) itself drew closer to Scripture and sought more rather than less justification from Scripture for its decisions.

There are glaring Roman exceptions, but even these can be argued to highlight the increasing rather than decreasing role for Scripture. Thus I notice Diarmaid MacCulloch in his monumental A History of Christianity mentions such a glaring exception, 'In 1950 [Pius XII] used papal infallibility to define the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, a move which infuriated Protestant, Orthodox and Eastern Churches alike' but goes on to also observe the character of internal Catholic opposition to the move 'and which did not please those Catholic theologians who cared about the doctrine's lack of justification in the Bible or in early Church tradition.' (p. 952) In my personal reading of Catholic literature I find an increasing recognition of the need to underpin doctrine with Scripture. It is a subjective judgement I know, but I find it difficult to believe that Benedict XVI, careful scholar that he is, making a similar unScriptural definition some sixty years later. In those six decades a renewed interest in bibical scholarship has been expressed, as well as a new freedom (with some constraints) to engage in critical scholarship free of the anti-biblical scholarship 'Modernist' campaigns of the era between Vatican 1 and Vatican 2.

Nothing is simple about the apparently simple phrase 'Scripture Alone'! For the church of the future a complex discussion will concern the question 'what Scripture?' (the Protestant Bible or Catholic Bible or Orthodox Bible?!) There will continue to be vigorous discussion about interpretation of Scripture. But at least there will be such a discussion rather than, say, a discussion about abolishing Scripture or relegating it to the archival bowels of theological libraries. Why will we retain Scripture? I will attempt to reflect on that in the next post, and do so in such a way as to re-express why Scripture is unique, and thus why some credence may be given to the idea of 'Scripture Alone.'


Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, the cry of 'Sola Scriptura' is a pretty old definition of what Christianity is really all about. That does not mean that it remains the infallible measure of how the Church is governed in this modern age. For instance, as you must very well recogise, the cosmic reality has turned out to be very different from the primal under-standing of the Scripture writers, and on that ground alone it would be difficult to continue to advocate 'Scripture Alone' as your headline for a serious theological proposition.

You have mentioned the pecularity of Roman Catholic definitions of 'papal infalllibility'; but there are also problems with Protestant definitions of the *infallibility* of certain of the Scriptural writings. The modern hermeneutical process has helped us to better understand the Scriptures - as a product of their particular context of culture, time and place - requiring careful interpretation and understanding in successive ages of the Church.

As you so obviously are diffident about the 'infallibility' of any papal declarations, so I am more than diffident about the supposed infallibility of past definitions of what the Scriptures may have to dogmatically 'tell us' about the doctrine of Christ and The Church. The Holy Spirit still needs room to move amongst God's people.

This is one good reason why we Anglicans are still open to the three charisms of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron,
I would advocate 'Scripture Alone' as a serious theological proposition precisely on the grounds that from Scripture alone can we derive our doctrine of Christ and the church. Tradition and reason shape our doctrine of Christ and the church but ultimately they too stand under the authority of Scripture, since reason tells us nothing about Christ and little if anything about the church as the body of Christ, and tradition is the church's own developing store of understanding of Scripture.

That Scripture and science have had to part company, at least in the sense that we now view Genesis 1 and 2 as a theology of creation via narrative and not as a storehouse of scentific facts does not improve the ability of tradition or reason to tell us of the doctrine of Christ and the church!

The Holy Spirit does indeed need room to move among God's people and we appreciate the guidance of the Spirit in working out the detail of governing and managing the church in different times and varied places. But I am not aware of any serious, mainstream, Trinitarian Christian church which ultimately holds that the Spirit might teach us in 2011 something which contradicts core doctrine of Christ and of the church as set out in Scripture. However I would be happy to be provided with counter examples to that specific assertion!

liturgy said...

There is further sleight of hand here, Peter. Thanks for the honesty of including the “or” in MacCulloch’s quote – but its presence appears to have made no impact on the rest of your reflection.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
No sleight of hand is intended on my part: I too noticed the "or". Of course! The observation I draw out at that point is a tendency within Roman theology to pay more attention to Scripture; but I am not saying exclusive attention is being paid to Scripture.

As for the future, I could be wrong; but I am raising the idea that increasingly Scripture will become more important to all Christians.