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?