August 31, 2006

Common Cause and Effect

Folks from the conservative wing have been issuing confessional statements for a while now; and it comes as no surprise to me that when these confessions are examined in detail, they sometimes veer from real catholic orthodoxy onto the soft-shoulder of sectariansim while protesting that they are still very much on the road.

The recent Common Cause draft statement is a case in point. Others have noted the odd fondness for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its predecessors. But I was more struck by this clause of the Common Cause confession:

We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.
The latter half of this is very far and away out of the Anglican mainstream, and represents almost lapidary Calvinism.

Hooker addressed this argument, that the Scripture is a limit upon human life rather than the source of its life, in many passages of his work. Perhaps the most eloquent is this simple statement:

It is no more disgrace for Scripture to have left a number of things free to be ordered at the discretion of the Church, than for nature to have left it unto the wit of man to devise his own attire. (III.iv.1)
or at greater length, and with greater relevance to the present situation:

Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of Holy Scripture, each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth. The schools of Rome teach Scripture to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know that they may in the next be saved. Others justly condemning this opinion grow likewise unto a dangerous extremity, as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply, and in such sort that to do any thing according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful. Whatsoever is spoken of God or things appertaining to God otherwise than as the truth is, though it seem an honour, it is an injury. And as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed. (II.viii)
I do wonder if the Common Causers really mean what they say in its literal and plain sense? Shall they begin to shun buttons and chromium, even as they embrace shunning those whose manner of life offends them? Shall we soon see a squad of Black Bumper Bishops, or even more observant Buggy Bishops? I think not. Rather, we will see the usual uneven application of Scripture that is convenient for some to the detriment of others: the font of all sectarianism cloaked as the catholic faith.

— Tobias S Haller BSG

9 comments:

obadiahslope said...

For comparison here is the second "fundamental declaration" of the Anglican Church of Australia.
"This Church receives all the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation. "
The constitution that contains this was adopted in 1962.
I am not sure that the common cause statement is so very different to the ACA one so as to be able to declare one out of the Anglican mainstream and the other in.
Hooker's view of scripture is not binding on Anglicans - and was not the same as Cranmers as you will be aware.

Tobias said...

Dear Obadiahslope,
Thanks for the good word from Down Under. I think if you read carefully you will see the differences between the Australian statement (which rather well reflects the language of the BCP) and the Common Cause confession. The crucial differences lie in the latter's use of the words "final," "unchangeable," and the phrase "and life." No one contests that the Scripture instructs us unto salvation by teaching us the matters of the faith which we could not otherwise know. That is the textbook definition of the sufficiency (not the completeness) of Scripture, and is a basic tenet of Anglicanism, articulated both by Hooker and Cranmer.

But when the Common Cause confession brings in the matter of life it has plainly gone beyond the language of the orthodox Anglican formularies. There are many matters in life about which Scripture is completely silent, and which require us to make use of the ongoing gift of reason and the means of grace in order to frame a proper response.

The point is, as Hooker put it, and as the Australian declaration reaffirms, that Scripture contains "all things necessary for salvation," but not "all things simply." This is the distinction the Puritans did not wish to make, and the reason they came to forbid such things as the sign of the cross in baptism, wedding rings in marriage, and the celebration of Christmas (to the latter of which C. S. Lewis gave a tip of the don's cap in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe! Thankfully, England was eventually freed from the Puritan Winter in which Christmas never came...)

obadiahslope said...

"There are many matters in life about which Scripture is completely silent, and which require us to make use of the ongoing gift of reason and the means of grace in order to frame a proper response."
Well said, agreed.
"The point is, as Hooker put it, and as the Australian declaration reaffirms, that Scripture contains "all things necessary for salvation," but not "all things simply."
Can I suggest a third possibility - that scripture has authority in dealing with matters not necessarily about salvation , but about "life" - without having to say that scripture deals with ALL of "life".
An example might be the injunction to be peacemakers or to care for the poor. These are not matters of salvation, but important scriptural principles - and by which we deserve to be measured whether we be progressive or evangelicals.
In my view, Anglican formularies such as the 39 articles (referenced in the next section of the Aussie Church constitution as "ruling priciples") do not limit scripture's authority to matters pertaining to salvation. Article 20 makes it clear that the church should not decree anything against scripture.
(I am aware that the 39 articles do not have the same status in TEC as they do in much of the communion. But they are anglican in any case.)
From where I sit the Common cause clause is not un-anglican. It may well be un-episcopalian. You are a much better judge of that than I.

obadiahslope said...

As to Father Christmas. He manges to get down under every year and there is never any snow.

Tobias said...

Dear O,
Not wanting to get off into a long debate over the Articles of Religion, but I think my point still holds when one applies a "plain and literal" reading to the material at hand ;-). The Articles nowhere give the Scripture the status of "the final and unchangeable standard for Christian ... life." Article XX, which you reference, is clearly about the church "decreeing" (that is, demanding obedience to or acceptance of) something contrary to Scripture; it is not about the Church using right reason to come to a decision concerning matters about which the Scripture is either vague, unclear, or silent. It is for this reason that the Scripture cannot be -- and has never been held by Anglicans to be -- the final authority or standard -- for the simple reason that the Scripture does not stand apart from the Church which "hath power" to decree and "authority" in controversies of faith. Many, if not most, of the doctrinal positions of orthodoxy are not abundantly clear from the Scripture alone: the Trinity, the nature of the Incarnation, etc., are nowhere in Scripture clearly expounded in the ways in which the church eventually discerned them. ANd when it comes to matters of moral or pastoral theology (the tesnsion with which we are at present embroiled) the Scripture is even less adequate to produce a clear answer divorced from discernment, discussion, and the timely grace of God. Take, for example, the idea of a "just war" -- hardly defensible from the teaching of Christ, who appeared to countenance only complete pacifism.

As to the status of the Articles themselves, the US adopted them (with amendment, some of which dealt with royal matters) in 1801. They have never formally been revoked, but clergy have not been expected to "subscribe" to them in quite the same way as other Anglican clergy. Their present status is best described as ambiguous. Personally I think there is much wisdom in them, and regard them as at least an important historical witness to what may be regarded as authentically Anglican, as opposed to Puritan or Papist.

Finally, I don't know about Australia, but here in the States we do have some remanants of church groups committed to the "literal" biblical lifestyle that the Common Cause unintentionally appears to espouse. It was to these I referred in my closing comments: the Amish who eschew buttons and automobiles (neither mentioned in Scripture), or their more liberal cousins who will drive an automobile but insist on painting the chrome with black paint to avoid all needless show.

obadiahslope said...

tobias,
i think you may be over-interpreting the Common causestatement. Where they say scripture is "final", they mean to say that tradition, experience or reason are not to be placed above it.
These terms are always slippery. When I affirm "sola scriptura" as i do, and possibly you are less likely to, I don't mean to say that I wish to ignore science, or even the nightly news or your blog.
Simply that scripture is the supreme rule of faith, subject only to the one who wrote/inspired
it.
I would be in hearty agreement with you that we must read scripture together, and freely admit that we evangelicals fall down on this.
This is an important point to apply Pauls metaphor of the body and NOT say "I have no need of you".
There will be much concerning which scripture has little information or instruction. your example of a "just' war is an excellent example.
There is also material that takes a great deal of sorting out - slavery is a good example of that.
as an evangelical there is a provionality about what I read in scripture. I must be open to a better truer reading if some else supplies it. Otherwise i have simply stopped reading in effect.
I would not assume that your anglican brothers and sisters are narrowly literalistic. I think our differences are more nuanced than that. And those of us who are more conservative than you are not a monolithic bloc. Far from it.

Tobias said...

Dear Obadiahslope,
I think we are on to something here. My response to the Common Cause Statement was in part an intentional reductio ad absurdum, and we are now coming to the fundamental absurdity: the Common Cause Statement doesn't really mean what it appears to say. It must be interpreted in a generous light which takes "final" to mean "most important." I suppose "unchangeable" will have to be understood as "not changing very much, or only when everyone agrees" -- as in the vexed matter of slavery, for example.

But I hope you see that this very double-speak is what most troubles me with this far-right movement -- and please note I do not lump all theological conservatives into a single camp: I am addressing here only this single statement from the Common Cause movement; though I observe the tendency to interpret the Scripture narrowly against others and generously towards oneself and ones own foibles seems to run the gamut -- and not a few on the "left" fall into the same trap.

As to "sola scriptura" I do not accept the notion: as Hooker says so eloquently, it is impossible for Scripture to stand alone, both for historical reasons (reason, and indeed the church itself, precede the Scripture in time), and for the practial reason that reason itself is a "necessary implement" to understand the Scripture, without which Scripture would be useless. It is not a question of superiority, but of coherence.

I have used the analogy of a Constitution to describe the church's relationship with Scripture: the church "adopted" a canon of Scripture and then agreed to be limited by it, but only to the extent that the church itself be the authoritative interpreter of its own Constitution. This is abundantly clear in the articles, which give the interpretative authority of Scripture to the church. So when Anglicans (or anyone else) say "sola scriptura" the "sola" has to be taken cum grano salis. It is a gesture of intent, and not a literal action.

But then, why wave the flag at all? This seems to me to be where partisanship arises, as people speak in second-level metaphors that don't really reflect an underlying reality all that very well. It would be easier for me not to think my Anglican brothers and sisters were "narrowly literalistic" if they didn't keep harping on how important a "literal" reading of Scripture was. Why can't they just admit that they too are as much engaged in the task of hermeneutics as all the rest of us, even if they come to a different conclusion?

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

obiadiahslope says that peacemaking and care for the poor are not matters of salvation.

Amos and others might well disagree.

Scripture records a lot of people who commit murder or adultery and who are pardoned by God, while special opprobrium and punishment is handed down for those who mistreat the poor. For the rich man who scorned Lazarus, care for the poor was most certainly a salvation issue.

And this is perhaps what most bothers me: that the actual moral concerns of the Scriptures are replaced by the invented ones of modern-day Pelagians, out to demonstrate that they can keep all the law without any help.

Tim said...

thomas bushnell, bsg, writes: "Amos and others might well disagree."

Personally I suspect treatment of the poor might be a matter of the Kingdom rather than salvation, or if of salvation then in a much wider sense than the individualistic approach that evangelicals seem to favour (see Brian McLaren's _A Generous Orthodoxy_ where he addresses this). As such, it is both a desirable aim to get it right, and something to enjoy when you see it happening correctly here and now.

Last I checked, there were plenty enough occasions on which a literal reading of the bible would lead to factual errors (pi!=3, and there is no "tent in the sky for the sun", to name but two). That should define one limit of approach. I'd also say, flip it around: rather than worrying about sola scriptura, recognize the vast extent to which post-Jesus early-church views has influenced the NT (when did Jesus go from declaring the gospel to *being* the gospel?), and say there's truth of some kind to be found there whilst getting on with the rest of your life?