Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Scripture Alone (4 - final for now)

I find that some Christians are edgily nervous about how we speak about Scripture. A good Anglican phrase like 'God's Word written' (Article 20) as a description of Scripture raises eyebrows twitchily. The gist of such responses as I best understand them is that the Word of God is in the text but is not the text. After all 'the Word' is Jesus Christ who is alive and reigns in heaven and thus is certainly not a set of words, not confined to one book, and not constrained by the limitations of first century men and their pre-Christ predecessors. Positively, so this theology goes, Jesus Christ the living Word of God lives in and through our lives, not via a text.

I suspect that a great attraction of this line of understanding of the relationship between 'the Word of God' and the printed words of Scripture is that Scripture itself, read from start to finish, makes all readers nervous about siding with law over grace, and about the prospect of being enslaved by the letter rather than being made alive through the Spirit. Further, (as recently pointed out here in a comment to an earlier post in this series) Jesus himself warns against reading Scripture in such a way as to not see the wood for the trees:

'You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.' (John 5:39-40)

Yet even here, Jesus offers an important clue about the significance of 'Scriptures' (here directly meaning the Old Testament writings): 'they bear witness about me.' What is true of the Scriptures of Jesus' day is also true of Scripture (Old and New Testaments) of our day: they bear witness about Jesus.

But there is something we might miss here. The writer of the fourth gospel writes these words down for the benefit of his readers. How are his readers to 'come to [Jesus] that [they] may have life'? By reading the words of the Gospel according to John is the answer.

'Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.' (John 20:30-31)

In other words, for John the 'words' of Scripture (the Scriptures of Jesus, which we know as the Old Testament; the new authoritative writing being written down by John as witness to Jesus) lead to 'the Word' which is both alive and gives life. No division exists between the words and the Word, between text and the Truth. A similar situation is expressed in the closely related First Epistle of John: the Word of life is the eternal life in which believers participate, attested to in words proclaimed by the writer and his colleagues, and in the specific instance of this epistle 'we are writing these things so that (y)our joy may be complete.' (1 John 1:1-4). Again, no division exists between words and the Word, between text and the Truth: written words give and enhance life in Christ the living Word.

In the end Scripture is much much more than a set of books reflecting the constraints of the contexts in which the actual words were written in ancient times, seemingly beyond our present power to fully comprehend a world unknown to us. Scripture is the means by which we meet Christ, anticipated in the Old Testament, presented in space and time in the gospels, and interpreted for us in the epistles. The power of the words of Scripture lies in their presentation - making present to us - Jesus Christ the living Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. The Word of God, Christ as the full revelation of God, is written for us in the pages of Scripture. We know no other Christ, we have no other access to Christ the Word than through Scripture.

When we think about Scripture as the Word of God written, as the unique witness to Jesus Christ, we see tradition and reason pale almost to insignificance. Reason tells us nothing about Christ. Tradition is the church seeking to understand Christ, but can add nothing to Scripture and always needs testing that it is aligned with and not against Scripture, lest we dishonour the fullness of Christ revealed to us in Scripture.

Scripture Alone because no other source of revelation leads us to the true Christ. We could say that the Word became text and dwells among us still!

For Anglicans, if this line of thinking is acceptable, we might take care when speaking about 'Scripture, Tradition and Reason.' These three are not a trinity of co-equal authorities. If Christ is the centre of our communion together, then Scripture is both supreme authority above Tradition and Reason, and Scripture is the expression of the Word from which Tradition and Reason proceed.


liturgy said...

You keep repeating phrases like "tradition is the church's own developing store of understanding of Scripture". This identification just isn't true. There is much in tradition that sits alongside, rather than within the scriptures. In fact, the scriptures are part of the church's tradition! The scriptures are within the church's tradition. Without tradition you would not even know which texts are the scriptures and which are not.

Scripture apart from tradition, ie. "scripture alone" results in an ever-increasing fragmentation of Christianity.

Those who cry "scripture alone" cannot even agree on the most basic Christian beliefs and practices. To hold to "scripture alone" must make one lie awake in bed at night wondering why God made such a poor job of them.

You have not quoted any Anglican formulary that has the protestant rallying cry of "scripture alone".

Those who do not hold to "scripture alone" treasure the scriptures and find God in and through them.



Father Ron Smith said...

That took a lot of words to say, Peter, but in essence, you are right when you say the the words of scripture (esp. John 20:30-31) lead to The Word, but they are not actually The Word, who has been 'made flesh in Christ Jesus'. We worship, not the words of Scripture, but the Word-made-flesh to whom they point. Simple! This is why the enactment of, and participation in, the Eucharist is actually more important than just listening to the words of Scripture

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco and Ron,
Thanks for thoughtful comments. A couple of questions come up for me:

(1) Are Anglicans restrained from arguing for a theological proposition because it is not yet a formulary?

(2) If we would not know Scripture apart from the tradition of the church, how would we know when the tradition has gone wrong?

(3) [More or less the same as (2)] Why are we Anglicans and not Roman Catholics if we follow your line on tradition, Bosco? (And if we ceased being Anglicans, would it be better - more faithful to the tradition - to be Roman or Eastern?

Finally, I suggest that the 39A have plenty to say about 'Scripture Alone' (albeit distinguished from some meanings of the phrase; and without actually using the phrase) since Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, and no church council is above Scripture.

Brother David said...

and no church council is above Scripture.

Then how did the canon(s) come about? Who decided what was "scripture"? And which "council's" determination is the most authoritative?

I ask because we do not have a Joseph Smith who hands us a text as if it came directly from the hands of an angel of God.

Anonymous said...

Dear Peter
Thank you raising once more this important topic. cCuld I remind readers of the important sermons of the day of Oliver O Donovan published on the Fulcrum website, esp the 4th, Scripture and Obedience, where speaking of the authority of the scriptures he says, "God has set them apart. As as he has set apart a particular race and a particular member of that race for the salvation of the world, so he has set apart particular writers to bear a definite and decisive testimony to what he has done" The sermon presents his reasons for this bald statement at length.
I think it's quite clear that even Rowan Williams holds to the priority of scripture; but this is not the same as scripture alone, and I think that we will do better exploring concepts like the authority of scripture.
Rhys Lewis

Peter Carrell said...

Hi David,
From one perspective my note which you refer to simply reflects, "XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture."

From another perspective, it is right to ask how we get Scripture in the first place as an agreed collection of writings. Without trying to sort a long debate in one sentence, I understand the debate to be about whether the canon of Scripture impressed itself on the church such that its conciliar decision was a recognition of the intrinsic authority and veracity of these writings (generally the Protestant view) or whether the church determined in council that these writings would be the canon, rather than another set, and thus Scripture is under the authority of the church (the Catholic view (?)).

Which council's determination is the most authoritative? Excellent question for which there are differing answers ...

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rhys
Thank you for that reminder. I am not going to disagree with you that 'authority of Scripture' is more important than 'Scripture alone.' If I post once a day most days of the year ... I should get to the authority of Scripture sooon :)

liturgy said...


First a couple of asides:

1) Barring a few changes of words, I cannot see any difference between your “protestant” and your “catholic” view of how councils decide the canon. Unless your version of the catholic view is that it is the council’s choice of a text that suddenly makes it inspired – which would be complete novelty. Councils recognise a text’s inspiration. Either way, by recognising the place of councils you have already abandoned “scripture alone”.

2) In your passion for the 39 articles, I love your acknowledgement that “General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes.”

3) I want to return to a point I made that

“Scripture apart from tradition, ie. "scripture alone" results in an ever-increasing fragmentation of Christianity.

Those who cry "scripture alone" cannot even agree on the most basic Christian beliefs and practices. To hold to "scripture alone" must make one lie awake in bed at night wondering why God made such a poor job of them.”

You continue IMO with sleight of hand. An important part of sleight of hand is distraction. Jan 11 you write “Why are we Anglicans and not Roman Catholics if we follow your line on tradition, Bosco? (And if we ceased being Anglicans, would it be better - more faithful to the tradition - to be Roman or Eastern?”

Yes there are a handful of very similar denominations that follow my line – and these form the majority of Christians now and historically. Deciding which of these denominations to serve in may be an interesting but not critical discussion. By bringing it up you are distracting from the point relevant to this thread that those who follow “scripture alone” cannot agree on what the scriptures actually teach, and so result in 33,000 protestant denominations (give or take a few thousand) who, as I have already mentioned, disagree on some of the most fundamental issues. You have not IMO in any way satisfactorily responded to the inability of “scripture alone” to settle disagreements.

“Scripture alone” has been irrefutably demonstrated in its historical application as being fundamentally flawed.



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
'Scripture Alone' as a doctrine has many difficulties, as you point out here and in earlier comments. One of which is that 'Scripture' itself is the product of conciliar work in the church. Another of which is the evidential fissiparousness of churches which have majored on 'Scripture Alone' (perhaps worse when there has not been a minor in Tradition and/or Reason?).

What I think that means for my musings here (which I would not claim to be either a definitive nor an exhaustive treatment of Scripture Alone) is that (1) it deepens the importance of a few comments urging me to focus on 'Authority of Scripture' rather than 'Scripture Alone'; (2) it suggests that 'Scripture Alone' is an unfortunate phrase because it appears that what is more relevant is the exceptionalism rather than the singularity of Scripture, so better might be 'Scripture Above' or 'Scripture Ahead' (of councils, tradition, reason, etc).

As for princes and councils and the 39A: realising I may have given contrary impressions over the years, nevertheless I do not hold that the 39A is an inerrant collection of articles correct in each and every article for all time. The sentence you point to re princes/councils is not only difficult for us here Down Under (and for others in other places) but also, arguably, represents the weakest point in reformed English Anglican ecclesiology because such notions have disabled a steady 'catholic' development of global Anglicanism.

Nevertheless there is much in the 39A which is excellent and I commend them for daily study by all Anglicans!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
One further comment re your critique of 'Scripture Alone': you make much of the multiplying divisions of 'Scripture Alone' churches. But is it not true that the non-division of non-Scripture Alone churches has some difficulties, arguably severe in some eyes, as well?

The unity of Roman churches, for instance, involves hierarchical control with the pope at the top (something many Anglicans deem to be the significant point of difference between Anglicanism and Romanism).

The unity in doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox churches nevertheless does not involve (or does not appear to involve) an ecclesio-political unity between patriarchs/patriarchates, with some outcomes being very bitter indeed.

As for the Anglican way: where it is not divided it is very diverse - to a point where sometimes it seems difficult to know what it is that believe in common ...

So, yes, 'Scripture Alone' churches have problems, but there are other problems to contend with. Is being an Anglican to belong to a church we deem to have the least problems of all churches!?

liturgy said...

Thanks, Peter, for the clarification where we can be much more in agreement.

In your search for a definition of Anglican, what about "those who daily study the 39 Articles"? ;-)

Peter Carrell said...

But then I would have to exclude undisciplined Anglicans such as myself ...:)