June 20, 2005

More from Dr Witt

I am responding here to a series of assertions made by Dr WIlliam Witt concening Let the Reader Understand. In addition to misrepresenting (I hope due to misunderstanding) the essay in question, Dr Witt fails to offer a logical response to its fundamental assertions (the the Church has interpretative authority concerning the Scripture, including the authority to set aside certain of its "plain teachings"; and that this authority is located in the national or provincial church) but rather relies on a "slippery slope" argument.
Ironically, in doing so he (once again) suggests that a national church is incapable of doing something which the Church of England has already done: amend the canon of Scripture. I have asked Dr Witt this question before, and he has not answered, as far as I can find. "Did the Church of England have the authority to amend the canon of Scripture or not."

First, however, to the misunderstanding: LtRU does not suggest that indivudual dioceses have the authority of a national church or province. I have always upheld the authority of national synods in this regard, based on the principle established at the English Reformation. I have also written extensively in opposition to the notion that individual dioceses represent the "basic unit" of the church. Enough said.

That being said, national churches (within Anglicanism) do make (and have made) decisions to "set aside" Christian moral teaching, and to interpret the Scripture -- the changes in policy on birth control, remarriage after divorce, and so on, all bitterly debated in the last century, testify to this reality.

Finally, the "slippery slope" -- the leap from "moral" to "non-moral" (which, by the example he gives, I take Dr. Witt to mean "doctrinal" in a larger sense). As I note above, the Church of England unilaterally (though with sympahty for the Continental Reformers) altered the canon of Scripture itself (by deletion) at the Reformation. (Note that there is no uniform canon between the East and West in any case, so this is a somewhat "local" distinction). There were a number of reasons for this decision, including an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures (as opposed to the LXX), but it was also the case that certain passages in the OT Deuterocanonical books were used to support Roman Catholic doctrines about which the Anglican Reformers were doubtful (e.g., invocation of saints).

When we come to the homoousios -- well, this was a result of a synodical action, and some opposed it at the time because the word was not Scriptural, an "addition" to the text; while others, rightly, argued that even if the word itself was not Scriptural it represented a truth that had been taught consistently. However, dare I raise the question of another difficult word in the Creed -- filioque? Who had the authority to add it? And who to take it out? Clearly this must be a decision of some comptent body, and it would appear to rest at the level of the national church or province. (Actually Lambeth said exactly that some years ago, making the "decision" to affirm provincial autonomy in this matter.)

So the question remains: does a national church have the authority to make decisions concerning moral issues (leaving the canon and the Creed aside for the moment) on the basis of its collective reading of Scripture, including the possibility that a moral teaching appropriate at one time in human history might give way at another time? The examples of slavery and the blood prohibition have been offered in my essay. Although Witt notes Augustine's argument that the Biblical mandate and permission for slavery was eventually overturned because it came to be seen as representing a distortion of God's original intent for humanity as established in Genesis, he has yet to offer a similar argument concerning the blood prohibition -- which would be difficult, since the blood prohibition is also recorded as a part of God's original intent for humanity in Genesis (indeed, the original intent was for vegetarianism; the allowance of meat with the maintenance of a blood prohibition is post-deluvian; and the blood prohibition was maintained up through the New Testament and in the canons of the conciliar church). Has the church erred in this matter?

I will leave it at that for now.

Witt writes:

The document [Let the Reader Understand] claims that it is particularly the local or national church that has the right to make these decisions about which biblical prohibitions are binding or may be set aside, claiming for a local diocese the authority to set aside the moral teaching of the universal Church, and the Scriptures. One cannot help but ask where this principle could lead. Would the local church be free to set aside non-moral principles as well, e.g., the Nicene affirmation that the Son is homoousios with the Father? Could a national church or local diocese decide to add contemporary materials to the canon? Or omit material from the canon that did not conform to contemporary sensibilities?

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