Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Clarity of Scripture (The Strangeness of Scripture IV)


The Anglican Communion worldwide is in continued uproar, with an undoubted if ill-defined realignment in progress. Today (July 6th 2009) the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans will be launched in England, marking another step on the awkward and painful journey variously characterized as one to division or renewal.

The topic of Scripture arises here not only because of its perennial importance to the Church, but because of the centrality given to Scripture and its interpretation in the Anglican conflicts to which I have referred.

There may be some in the Anglican Communion who have lessened the place of the Scriptures vis-à-vis other texts, or who regard aspects of experience or other sources of authority as equal to biblical revelation. They are not all professedly “Liberal”, but there is little point in dismissing the possibility that the caricatures laid by conservatives at the feet of the American and Canadian Churches, and perhaps also in some corners of the Church of England and here in Australia, could not correspond in certain instances to reality. Whether these are the profound or all-pervasive realities depicted in some parts of the Anglican blogosphere is another matter entirely. The greater problem is that Anglicans, who as a whole tend not merely to respect but to love Scripture, genuinely differ about its import in certain cases. My concern here is not to relativise the place of scripture but to consider the conditions necessary for its interpretation, with Scripture itself an indispensable guide for that process.

So while the problem of not taking scripture seriously enough exists in the Church, there may be other problems too. The most obvious is not the equal and opposite, because it does not seem that the Church can take scripture too seriously. There is however a danger that the type of seriousness with which the Church engages with scripture is misconceived.

Much of the rhetoric of interpretation used in the GAFCON study document The Way, the Truth and the Life has to do with "clarity".

I have no great quarrel with what I take to be the genuine or classical doctrines of scriptural clarity and perspicuity, which as defined in a document like the Westminster Confession does not mean that scripture is universally clear or its meanings obvious, but that can be read faithfully, and the message of the Gospel – the Gospel of God’s saving love as uniquely known in the person of Christ – can be discerned therein, without necessarily being provoked or catalysed directly by the teaching authority of the Church.
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Westminster Confession, 1.7)
Despite the focus even in the classically-Reformed Westminster Confession on the clarity of the Gospel rather than of the canonical scriptures per se, many subsequent commentators are clearly concerned, in defending the notion of clarity, not so much with the capacity of scripture to the witness to the Gospel, but to some much more general claim about the plain sense of scripture generally being generally evident.

This seems to be the case regarding the most contentious matters involved in the current difficulties within the Anglican Communion. This diverse group of Anglicans includes Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who reject women’s ordination, and others who accept it; it includes evangelicals who deny any sacramental character in ordination at all, and some who at least advocate lay and diaconal presidency, as well as Anglo-Catholics who persist in a high sacerdotalism.

The Way, the Truth and the Life document states that “in Anglican tradition adiaphora are primarily matters to do with ceremonies and robes, and not issues concerning doctrine or morality”. The implication that ordination, gender and sacraments are not about doctrine might surprise quite a few "confessing" Anglicans, not least those whose difficulties with their national Churches have stemmed in large part from differences over the ordination of women.

In nuanced expositions such as Mark Thompson’s recent A Clear and Present Word, the limitations of the idea of "Clarity" are acknowledged in such a way that there would seem little danger of the more extreme abuses of the idea. Even when appropriately nuanced however, we might still ask whether clarity is a genuinely helpful idea.

The problem with the notions of clarity and perspicuity is that they tend to reify scripture itself in a way that stands in some tension with the Christian notion that the Word is revealed to the Church through the power of the Spirit. A proper doctrine of revelation and even of the reading of scripture does not consist of a set of affirmations about scripture itself as an isolated object, but refers always to the dynamic involving reader, spirit and text. In fact to give a full account even of reading as opposed to revelation would still require a more complex account of “reader” which includes the context.

To emphasize perspicuity and clarity in and of themselves implies that these are qualities inherent in the text, independently of the reader. This smacks of a sort of solipsism of text, which is then somehow understood to have an inherent power even when not read, or a sort of textual equivalent of the medieval scholastic doctrine of the Eucharist, understood to have a metaphysical reality independent of the Eucharistic actions.

One does not have to succumb to the worst excesses of postmodern indeterminacy to insist that meaning is not inherent in a text but made in the encounter between reader and text. Theologically this is affirmed by the Christian insistence on the role of the Holy Spirit, without whom the Biblical text is neither clear nor powerful. “Clarity” should therefore be reserved for God’s Word, rather than for the letter of the text. God’s Word is not the text, but the effective action of the God to whom the text witnesses.

The great irony of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is that its historic catalyst has not really been scripture as such, or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Book of Common Prayer, all of which are likely to be respected and loved as much outside that Fellowship as within it; its catalyst has been the issue of human sexuality. The basis of that opposition is of course understood to be the authority of scripture; but the implication is that scripture is if not more authoritative then at least supposedly clearer about homosexuality than about, say, gender roles.

This must be questioned.

2 comments:

  1. But if "clarity" is reserved for the Word and not the text, how do it know it is clarity and not my ownconfusion ? I'm puzzled :(

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  2. Thanks for commenting Grahame. The point I was trying to make was that even in the classical Reformed formulations, "clarity" refers to the Gospel, or the clarity of the Gospel in the text - not for the text to be inherently clear about everything.

    Your comment may also be alluding to the other related posts where I have tried to reclaim "Word" for the second person of the Trinity. Although this means much more than the text, I think Christians do believe that Jesus is "clear" - as well as confronting, comforting and so much more. And I think we believe that the Gospel presents us with him clearly.

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