Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Scripture works on diversity in unity, does orthodox Anglicanism?

This week I am following on from last week’s post, where I draw attention to John’s theological work in John 3:15-18, as he uses literary skill in those verses, as well as his facility with Greek to develop what he sees as the truth about Jesus. 

Thus, whether these verses are the end of Jesus’ own conversation with Nicodemus, or John’s commentary on what Jesus has been saying to Nicodemus, we find something which is both critical to our understanding of Jesus and distinctive (compared to, say, Matthew, Mark, Luke or Paul when they share through their writings their own distinctive understanding of Jesus).

What John writes about Jesus is different to what any other writer in the New Testament writes. What John writes about God's love for the world and about what God seeks from the world, "believe", is different to what any other writer in the New Testament writes. There is diversity in the New Testament.

The New Testament is united in its focus on Jesus Christ. It is bound together by Christ. No other figure - man, woman, apostle, politician, angel, figure from Israel’s past - comes even close to Christ as the single, undivided object of the New Testament writings’ devotion, commitment and worship. The unity of the New Testament is Jesus Christ. 

Yet this unity is unity-in-diversity as we read four different gospels, five if we allow that Paul’s writings constitute a fifth gospel, as well as the insights and disclosure of James, Peter, Jude, the anonymous writer to the Hebrews, and John the seer of Revelation.

Put another way, the church accepting through the first centuries that a particular set of writings bore the mark of authenticity and authority as accounts of Jesus and the earliest understanding of Jesus and then, finally, determining the canon or rule that this set and no other writings constituted the New Testament, pulled off an amazing feat. That feat was publishing a diversified account of Christ which was and is also utterly unified. There is one Christ in the New Testament but many insights into that Christ.

The New Testament (indeed the whole of Holy Scripture but it is a longer account to bring the Old Testament into this post) gives permission for the church of Christ to live out this phenomenon of unity-in-diversity. Indeed, diversity in the New Testament is reflective of different churches across the Mediterranean world and their distinct interests in the reality of Jesus Christ and how his teaching and example of life were to be lived out by his followers.

A regret I have - I do not think I am alone - is that some particular theology within the Anglican Communion in recent decades seems loathe to allow that there might be diversity of thought within the Communion between Anglicans who love our Lord, that there could be on some matters a “good disagreement”, and that our unity (our Communion) might be in Christ and not in monochromatic thinking on matters which are secondary to our belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (to summarise the Creeds).

This is not to say that there should not be criticism of what Anglicans say and think. I am myself quite critical of quite a bit of what I read across the Anglosphere most weeks. Anglicans are as capable of saying naff things as any other kind of Christian. And by "naff" I mean things that I, at least, cannot agree with because I cannot see the reasonable case within Scripture and tradition for the argument being made. As, indeed, various commenters here - quite regularly!! - do not agree with me.

But is the criticism going to be grounded in acceptance that diversity of thought within the Anglican Communion is permissible or grounded in determination to dismiss those who think differently? A recent book, The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (edited by Gerald R. McDermott, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020) is full of good things and a range of essays from a diverse set of Anglican thinkers. It acknowledges, for instance, the possibility that Anglicanism can diversely include Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. But strikingly it cannot envisage, none of the Anglican contributors can envisage the possibility of being orthodox yet thinking diversely about homosexuality! Any such difference in thinking (that is, difference in appreciating what Scripture teaches, or in what science tells us) is dismissed.

By contrast, another recent book, The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture by R.W.L. Moberley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2020), offers this account of the challenge of understanding Scripture according to the many contexts in which each reader/interpreter stands. After distinguishing five different contexts within which biblical content is heard (origin, canon, Judaism, Christianity, historic and contemporary cultures), Moberley writes:

"In general terms, however, the question of how best to do justice to and appropriately interrelate all these contexts is probably the greatest and, as yet, least-worked-out challenge facing those who would interpret Israel's scriptures as Christian Scripture. It should be clear that there will never be just one way of doing it." [p. 8].

In particular, Moberley goes on to observe that in the perennial debate between authorial intention and reader response (here, "text-hermeneutic and reader-hermeneutic"),

"A text-hermeneutic considers the semantic potential of the words of the text and recognises that they may be open to more than one valid construal, according to context. A reader-hermeneutic recognizes the importance of the context of the reader: the particular pre-understandings and knowledge oand interests and questions that an interpreter brings to bear, all of which make for a difference in reading. Thus, the exercise of a text- and reader-hermeneutic is integral to reading as Scripture." [p. 9].

Is it possible that Anglicans, whether describing themselves as "orthodox" or otherwise, taking to heart what Moberley says, might be more alert to the inevitability of diversity within our Anglican ranks?

And in that alertness, might there be greater empathy with those whose views are disagreeable? 


Unknown said...

Thank you, Peter, for this fuller presentation of an argument that you have made in passing from time to time.

Babel and Pentecost do incline me to recognise that God uses some organic non-uniformity in humanity and so in the Body. But I have to force my imagination rather hard to see either a *churchly* or *denominational* Anglicanism as analogous to say the Johannine community.

(1) The canon of apostolic documents reflects (a) Israel's several post-exilic fragments, (b) the Lord's rescue of each of them from their errors, and (c) their mutual recognition in his restored Body. Neither side of That Topic has this cosmic gravitas.

(2) "Diversity" implies the hero of modernity-- the solipsistic individual who, suspended between all possible worlds, chooses his beliefs from those he espies in that *view from nowhere*-- in whom Christians and postmoderns cannot believe.

(3) One can acknowledge disagreement as a passing condition of the Body that is not God's final will for it, but an unqualified embrace of diversity of opinion as a good in itself sounds, at least in theological matters, like resignation to nihilism.

Obviously, you believe something much better. But the idiom of diversity seems to obscure that.


Jean said...

My immediate response upon reading your post Peter was, “Oh yes the different viewpoints people hold within a single congregation can be diverse indeed on a multiplicity of subjects.” My second response upon some consideration was realising I can ‘live with’ or ‘alongside’ many whose theological viewpoints vary from my own, however, if a theological standpoint I encountered was significantly at odds with the foundational teachings and person of Christ and was preached in a church I attended, I would find dealing with that more challenging.

BW’s use of the words “unqualified embrace of diversity of opinion” I think is where the rubber might hit the road. It goes too far along the common secular response to matters of immorality, ‘I don’t mind what other people do so long as isn’t hurting anyone else.’ Such standpoints tend to fall too heavily on the desire for every person’s opinion or actions to be equally embraced, with any measure of examination in regards to what is actually true or moral/wholesome/beneficial? being perceived in a negative light. And of course the Emperor who began to place more credence on opinion while discarding sound reasoning ended up wearing no clothes....

Anonymous said...

Couldn't resist.

There is a rabbinic saying, "the Torah has 70 faces", meaning that there are multiple ways of understanding and interpreting Scripture. Disagreement and debate over it's meaning were, and are, considered normal in Judaism, and many of those disagreements are presevered in Biblical commentaries and the Talmud.

We have four Gosepels, but more, we have differering, even contradictory, points of view and statements throughout the Bible. We even have differing and sometimes contradictory portraits of God. None of this is a problem. The diversity of Scripture only becomes problematic when we treat the Bible as a book of systematic dogma and an instruction manual for living or running society, much like an instruction manual for your dishwasher. Then we have to desperately try and paper over the differences, explain away the diversity, and engage in hilarious and absurd attempts to harmonise the contradictions.

Scripture however, like God, refuses to be put in a box. Trying to do so is the path of idolatry. Putting God in a box is a good way to end up in the belly of a fish! The diversity and the contradictions of Scripture are deliberate, they are there by Divine design. When we understand Scripture as Story, a Story we have to enter into, participate in, and live out of, then the diversity and contradictions cease to be problems, and become ways of learning and growing in Wisdom. Wisdom, in the Biblical sense, is the point of Scripture, not dogma and law. It is Wisdom, both in Scripture, and in the Wisdom made flesh, that is our centre, our guide, and our goal.

When we try to make the Bible into a book of innerant dogma and law, then our only result is to create hundreds of different denominations in a never ending and impossible quest to find the "true and pure" church. When we live out of the Wisdom of Scripture and in the unity of the Wisdom made flesh, unity and diversity in the Church are possible.

Human beings however tend to resist Wisdom. Her path is hard and long and requires ruthless self-honesty and humility. She offers no easy and pat answers or solutions to the challenges of life. She does not grant us the easy out of black and white thinking or simplistic moral legalism. The path of dogma and law, of fear and control, is easier, at least in the short term, and feeds our ego's desire for self-righteous posturing.

Only time will tell in which direction the Anglican Communion will go, or if it can hold together while the Powers and Principalities of fear and control try to tear it apart. Wisdom is in short supply in our age. But I have it on good authority that there is always reason to hope.

Peter Carrell said...

Hello All
True, my thinking could be sharper re “diversity”; and I could have usefully added a paragraph re Anglican diversity premised on credal agreement; and possibly another one about Anglicanism and Johannine thought: what it means to actually believe (some Anglicans have been more famous for their doubts than their beliefs) and to love one another.

True, also, that the Anglican Communion may not have a future given the pathways it has already travelled this century!

Jean said...

😂... always so much more one could have done...

what intrigued me was how not worried (how’s that for a double negative) I can be about people’s theological thinking at a congregational level, allowing room for faith to grow and realising the plural we wrestle/grapple with different aspects of ‘following Christ’ depending on our make-up/life experiences. Yet then in contrast when I consider some of the theological thinking I have encountered among the masses (excuse the pun) being preached I suddenly find myself all ready to hog tie anyone who would consider voicing their perspectives 🙈.

Jean said...

Apologies for sending in a few too many comments, this will be the last comment for today.

Just to say I do concur with your post in general Peter. I can disagree with Baptist friends regarding the absolute necessity of adult immersion baptism, or Catholic friends regarding praying to the Saints etc yet I can attend a Presbyterian church, Pentecostal church, Catholic Church etc and be every bit at home among them as brothers and sisters in Christ and my closest christian friends do not attend Anglican churches. I can also find myself doing a lot of eye-rolling when I hear people refer to the different church denominations as different religions! In this respect I do believe there is much to be gained by agreeing to disagreeing and focusing on the main thing.

I also can see that different christian traditions ‘major’ more or less depending on aspects of the Godhead, and there is much to be gained by them all.

Relating all the above to the biblical NT writers I can see the value of their varied recounting of insights into the nature and teachings of Christ... however, in what way do you see them as disagreeing with each other? Certainly the disagreements between Christians arise often from the interpretation/contextual understanding etc of what was written but is this same type of disagreement actually within the NT itself, noting that difference isn’t disagreement? This is an actual question not a challenge to your thinking, as i know your knowledge of scripture is greater than mine

MarcA said...

I remember a bishop once saying there is a difference between what a person needs to believe to be a Christian and what a Church needed to be a Church. I once said this in a sermon and was suprised how many people told me after they had found that remark helpful.
Perry Canterbury UK

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Jean,
I have tried to "cover my tracks" by emphasising "unity in diversity" and that means that some disagreements cannot be accommodated in Anglicanism (e.g. insistence on adult baptism only is a point of disunity not a mere point of disagreement).

Nevertheless your question is important because while we can likely all accept differences within unity, we are going to debate whether any, some or all disagreements by Anglicans can be accommodated within one Communion.

Within the NT itself it is argued whether James is merely different to Paul or in disagreement with Paul (indeed, there is a case for saying that the Reformation turns on Luther thinking there is a disagreement, not merely a difference, between the grace he sees in Paul and the law he sees in Catholicism based on Matthew and James).

There do seem to be disagreements within the Corinthian church (and between factions in that church and Paul himself), and they do not lead to Paul suggesting anyone leaves.

In the particular area of human relationships, men and women in the church, I can think we can reasonably conclude that (e.g.) Matthew's Jesus on divorce is not as harsh as Luke's Jesus; and John's Jesus notably says nothing on divorce and seems quite tolerant of the marital situation of the Samaritan women in John 4; and then Paul on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 introduces a novelty not known in the gospels but which attends to a circumstance unknown to Jesus (that an unbelieving spouse might separate from a believing spouse); and then, what IS Paul (of Corinthians, of 1 Timothy, of Acts) saying about whether women should be silent in church, teach men ... difference or disagreement?

Finally, we might note the sanguine view Paul in Romans 13 takes on relationships between Christians and the emperor compared to John in Revelation: difference or disagreement?

Unknown said...


Although it is slightly underwater in the OP, Peter is defending a rather patristic dialectic between the *regula fidei* (eg the Apostle's Creed) and the apostolic documents. Of course, his starting point in the Fourth Gospel is very conducive to this way of looking at *pistis*, but the others do not pose any epistemic challenge to it.

A pleasant contemporary implication of this ancient tradition is that we need not get mired, as the old moderns did, in the quicksands of defending the Bible as a Perfect book or a Magic book. It is what it is, and what it is has been enough for millennia of preachers and readers.

This tradition is a thick fog rolling onto the battlefield of polarised moderns. Does it blast the defensive walls of "conservatives" at their foundations? Or does it liberate them to embrace and transmit *paradosis* for the first time in centuries? Does the criterial *rule of faith* underwrite any and every cause "liberals" might champion? Or does recollecting the Judaic roots of trinitarian faith reframe all of our projects in ways yet to be discovered?

In the peace of the Lord, we pray for the world and do works of mercy. We do these things with less confusion when we are not for or against the dreams of modernism.


Unknown said...

Jean, you cannot possibly post too many comments.

When theology gets silly in the streets, some simple cognitive fixes often help. And some non-uniformity arises organically from the created order.

Thank you, Shawn, but do resist!

In the context of + Peter's reflections on St John's gospel, your allusion to Wisdom is very suggestive.

Blessings on your studies.


Unknown said...

If we think that God-- the one who dispersed Babel to the ends of the earth, judged nations outside his covenant with Israel, and was heard in many tongues at Pentecost-- wants uniformity of identity, thought, and action, then why do we think so? If he doesn't, then is it remarkable that voices variously situated do not sound the same?


Unknown said...

An answer to + Peter's query.

When they think of the Bible's documents as products of its origin in time, *unschooled* believers cannot hear God's voice in them. Full stop.

Those of them who most want to hear his voice avoid seeing the gospels as parallel but different accounts of the life of Jesus. In so doing, they pre-empt + Peter's analogy from parallel ancient texts to parallel contemporary opinions.

For them, that analogy sits outside the moat around faith's defensive walls. Those behind the parapets do not refute it, but neither do they seriously engage it.

*Custody of the heart* is an older spiritual discipline than the Bible itself. To a believer in YHWH, it is more important to hear the Lord than to be on the right side of an ephemeral argument. Indeed, some of the most pointed warnings from Jesus and the apostles are directed to those who argue to no fruitful purpose.

Do *schooled* believers hear God in the scriptures? Do they see one Lord Jesus in the four gospels? Some do, some don't.

Why the difference? That topic is for another day.


Peter Carrell said...

Again, thank you for helpful, thoughtful, thought-provoking recent comments here.

A thought from me ... imagining a cartoon featuring a dialogue between [say] Luke, John, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Eusebius ... and the dialogue summarised is:

Luke and John, you compose differing lives of Jesus. Justin and Irenaeus, you gather up all the writings of the apostles and their mates, and treat Paul generously with a decent share of the collection.

Eusebius, throw a few curve balls into the historical air about who wrote what and when.


Well we want to throw some shade on 20th century liberal and conservative moderns.


We'll put together a "New Testament" which has just enough coherence for some conservatives to get worked up trying to harmonise everything; and just enough difference for the coherence to not quite come together and create plenty of grounds for liberals get worked up over how much diversity there is between documents and thus how futile harmonization is.

What then?

One day in the 21st century they'll all come to their senses and be nice to each other.

Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter; once again I see the wisdom that you are perpetuating on your blog. with regard to this particular thread; I am drawn to the following paragraph, which I believe addresses the conundrum of recent conflict with the Anglican Community:

"The New Testament is united in its focus on Jesus Christ. It is bound together by Christ. No other figure - man, woman, apostle, politician, angel, figure from Israel’s past - comes even close to Christ as the single, undivided object of the New Testament writings’ devotion, commitment and worship. The unity of the New Testament is Jesus Christ."

This confirms my understanding of the place of the Johannine literature in the New Testament. At first glance, it may seem that the claim of John to the be 'The Beloved Disciple', could ne considered either extravagant or merely boastful. However, there must be a reason for the inclusion of that pericope in the canon of Scripture (if it's really there; I don't read Greek). that being the case, then could not Jesus have made John the primary source of his most innermost thoughts on The Father's Love for ALL humanity? This would certainly inform the Church Catholic (and Orthodoxy) of a more precise soteriology than that of the Purists, who prefer to stigmatise those they consider to be 'less than worthy'

I'm mindful of Pope francis' recent writing of the Eucharist (as Bowman has reminded me) as being 'Food for Sinners' - and not an exclusive reward for the 'Righteous' ("Who went away justified?) - Shades of certain US R.C. bishops' opposition to President Biden's access to the Eucharist.

I, personally, am not unduly worried about the future of the Anglican Communion, believing that God's people, called by Christ into a Eucharistic Family, will always survive any battle involving the suspected 'orthodoxy' of its member churches. I'm always prone to ponder the words of Jesus when it comes down to 'who is In and who is OUT' :- "They will know you are my disciples by your LOVE!"

"Come Holy spirit, renew within us the fire of your LOVE"

Jean said...

A bit of of a ‘distracted by the non-virtual world’ pause since my last comment.

Thanks for your reply Peter and BW. I do believe I might most closely resemble Bowman’s analogy of faith with a moat around it - albeit hopefully not totally unschooled. On the up-side almost every comment you post BW I learn a new word!

I am yet to be fully convinced of a case for a parallel of differences between NT writers echo-ing the disagreements within or between Christian’s now. Arguments over practice and belief or the living out of the Christian faith are obviously recorded in the NT books, as are different stances on matters of a similar nature. What is missing for me is while the NT writers appear to confidently share their teachings I cannot recall reading any NT biblical text which actively disagrees with the writer of another book. As contemporaries the plural ‘we’ put a lot of time into providing the reason why we do what we do as say different church bodies as well as defending why what we do is a better way than other church bodies. The NT writings as a collective come to me as being almost impossibly paradoxical at times as per the curve balls in your most recent post Peter yet inexplicably still on the same page - still unified, and so much more so than the church today.

The quote from the post Fr Ron uses and you wrote Peter about the unification that comes from being ‘in Christ’ I like to think of us the key. Yet a unity born of true leading into truth by the Holy Spirit requiring neither abandoning reason nor discounting mercy. Like you point to the possibility Peter that Luther may have subscribed so much to some teachings he neglected others. You mention ‘custody of the heart’ BW and hearing from God as usurping ephemeral arguments and I think you may have a point. Having had the blessing of being a part of an Anglican congregation made up of people from different denominations and witnessing in respect to Baptism; children being christened and others dedicated, and adults being confirmed and others adult baptised - with respective parents and adults following their convictions by God and their own consciences; I have seen that the importance of the rite and it’s celebration by the body of a church can supersede how it is undertaken.

What comes to mind as I write is the paradigm shift the first Christian’s undertook as they grappled with their Jewish roots and their new beliefs, in particular the way God worked to clarify the differences for them. For example the dream of the net with all different types of food in it - and the instruction that there was no (longer) any ‘unclean’ food. Transformation and insight are two things that push my buttons. If you haven’t ever heard Fr Cantamalessa’s (the preacher to the papal household) testimony I do recommend it, not only does he have a fantastic sense of humour it is a fascinating faith journey.

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Jean,
Agreed: the most vitriolic disagreements, the widest differences between Christians today are not comparable to the differences within the NT.

My point - clearly needing development as this thread continues! - would be something like this:

- in our strong disagreements and disputes we are more like the squabbling Corinthians than like (say) Paul and James, or the four gospel writers, whose differences are insufficient to lead to exclusion from the coherent unity-in-diversity NT;

- yet there are disagreements among us which, with a bit of patient discussion, could turn out to be more like the differences within the NT, though right now, in the heat of the "cultural wars" moment, we may be incapable of seeing that;

- further, while we don't see direct disputation in the NT between writers, there are some significant differences among them on some matters (e.g. in some writings, the second coming of Jesus is expected "very soon"; in others, likely written later in the first century AD, the second coming of Jesus scarcely figures).