Sunday, July 05, 2009

God's Word, GAFCON and the Bible (The Strangeness of Scripture III)


It is a fine thing to say that scripture is God’s Word, but the imprecision with which this identification is often made can have disastrous consequences.

A genuinely scriptural doctrine of God’s Word is not first and foremost a doctrine of the Bible. There is no doctrine of the Bible (in the sense of the complete canon) in Scripture itself, although of course there is a real if limited set of reflections about “scripture”.

What we do find in the Bible is arguably a two-fold understanding of God’s Word, in general and in specific terms. In general, God’s Word refers to the fact of God’s effective revelation, the Word which is spoken and effects what it says. This is the Word of God’s “let there be” at Creation, the Word which for Isaiah will “not return empty”, the Word which speaks hope and judgement through Ezekiel, the Word which is living and active according to the Letter to the Hebrews. God’s “Word” is God's effective communicative action.

More specifically however, God’s Word is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The definitive exposition of this doctrine of the Word is of course the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where the eternal Word is identified both as the effective word of creation and, made flesh and having come to dwell among us, as Jesus. This identification of Jesus as one in the beginning with God, the creative power through which God’s purpose is mediated to all things, is in any Christian reading of the Bible the most fundamental element of a doctrine of revelation; for it shows us that God’s communication is the giving not of propositions, but of self.

What we learn about this self-giving in scripture is derivatively but genuinely God’s Word; it partakes in the general sense of God’s effective revelation, and the Church affirms its character as God-given. In classical Anglican terminology Scripture is “God’s Word written” – insofar as its words are both a form of this effective revelation of God, and particularly as a witness to Christ the Word. Yet that phrase also qualifies the identification – “God’s Word written” is not identical to “God’s Word”.

This terminology however is distorted in some forms of Protestantism, which regard the fact of the canonical scriptures rather than their content as determinative of a doctrine of the Word of God. The orthodox and historic teaching that the Bible can be spoken of as God’s Word is subtly reversed, subject and predicate substituted for one another, so that God’s Word is now the Bible.

The Way, the Truth and the Life, a document issued as a preliminary to GAFCON in 2008 may have to stand as the most authoritative guide to the positions attributable to the uneasy coalition drawn into that movement. The book seems to make a related shift when for instance it states that the “Old Testament is the written form of the word of God” and the Bible “is the Spirit inspired written form of the word of God”. These phrases seem to me to identify Scripture and Word in an exclusive fashion; although there may be no other written Word, this sort of formulation implies direct correspondence rather than, say, participation in the much larger category that the Word of God properly is. And just as seriously, if somewhat differently, it makes what must be seen as a gaffe (!), stating that “Though this fork in the road may present itself publicly as a choice in relation to aberrant sexuality, the core issues are about whether or not there is one Word, accessible to all, and whether or not there is one Christ, accessible to all”. Doubtless the mistake is unintentional and forgivable, but it is real.

When, as so often, “God’s word” is used simply and exclusively as a shorthand for the Bible, this risks making the Bible itself rather than Christ the centre of its witness. The Christological principle may then cease to be the touchstone for the authenticity of scriptural interpretation, giving way to one grounded in abstract notions of communication. An ethical hermeneutic of charity which arises necessarily from the practice of Jesus then gives way to an epistemic requirement such as absolute literal truth, or the more sophisticated notions of clarity or perspicuity.

The implications of this shift are profound, and can extend through the whole of theology; the very character of God becomes a matter of God’s willingness or ability to communicate clearly and effectively, where such clarity is conceived abstractly, rather than accepting the Cross itself as the kind of clarity that God chooses. While there is a danger inherent in more liberal theologies of simply resorting to “mystery” as a sort of sloppy resort for difficulties, it is not thereby wrong to affirm that the character of God’s being and revelation are revealed in ways that are not clear by other standards of clarity.

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