Thursday, October 9, 2008

How do we know what is Essential?

This is the most recent article (published today) from my ongoing series on the 39 Articles of Religion (the Anglican Confession of Faith) Read the first two parts of my discussion of Article 6 here and here

The next phrase in Article 6 will require some parsing: that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

The battle over the proper expression of human sexuality in the Church has brought with it controversy with regard to the question of what constitutes “essential” doctrine. Which doctrines must be believed, which commands must be obeyed, and what behaviors must be avoided and, conversely, which doctrines and disciplines are appropriately categorized as “disputable”?

That there are “disputable” matters within the scope of orthodox Christianity is indisputable. St. Paul articulates the principle in Romans 14.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master] that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.(Romans 14:1-5)

There are three things we should note for our purposes here.

First, Paul recognizes that there will be a wide variety of disciplines practiced and principles held by believers within the Church. Some of these will conflict with others.

Second. In so far as these principles and practices are matters of “opinion” we ought not, he exhorts, “pass judgment”. We may disagree on “matters of opinion” but we need not divide.

Third: Paul thinks “matters of opinion” are important. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” To categorize something as disputable is not to say that it is inconsequential. Christians ought to be “fully convinced,” that our “opinions” are consistent with the revealed will of God.

Taken together, Paul says that believers must arrive at their opinions soberly and with care and yet mere opinions cannot be forced on another person.

But how do we know which principles and practices are mere “matters of opinion” and which are something more? What criteria do we employ to discern the difference between what must be believed and what is disputable?

This is a particularly troubling question in light of current controversies in the Anglican Communion and beyond. Some on the left, for example, argue that homosexuality falls under the category of “opinion”. The Rev. Susan Russell, the president of Integrity USA, the Episcopalian organization promoting the blessing of non-celibate homosexual relationships appeals to Romans 14 as if it self-evidently applies to sexual relationships. Others do the same with regard to divorce and remarriage, the ordination of women, and the use of birth control.

The answer, according to Article 6, depends upon whether a given doctrine, discipline, or practice can be established or “proven” in scripture.

If it can be shown that a practice is plainly prohibited or a discipline clearly commanded or a doctrine unambiguously taught in scripture, then, by implication, conformity to it may be “required.” Such practices, disciplines, and doctrines are not “disputable”, they are not matters of “opinion”, they are absolute or “essential.”

For this reason orthodox Christians consider doctrines like the divinity of Christ, the Virgin birth and the bodily resurrection “essential” and the standing condemnation of certain practices like incest or homosexual behavior beyond dispute. There is, most agree, scriptural clarity about these matters.

But when Christians appeal to the plain teaching of scripture as the ground of doctrine and discipline the question arises: does scripture reveal anything plainly and to whose satisfaction?

This question lies at the root of perhaps the most popular epistemological objection to biblical arguments: the voluminous mass of conflicting interpretations prove that there is no way to know the true meaning of any biblical text.

There are, indeed, wildly conflicting, confusing, and contrived interpretations not only of obscure and difficult scriptural texts but of the crucial passages--the apparently “plain” passages--that lie at the core of what most churches consider essential doctrine.

How do we maintain the criterion of clarity for determining essential doctrine when so very few passages remain free of controversy? How do we uphold the principle articulated by Article 6 that “what cannot be proven cannot be required” if, in fact, nothing can be proven?

We must, I think, begin by pointing out that controversy or dispute over the meaning of a given text does not necessarily mean that the proper interpretation text is “disputable”.Often the source of controversy is rooted not in the actual text but in an inadequate philosophy of interpretation or “hermeneutic”.

In his book, Truth and Power: the Place of Scripture in the Christian Life, JI Packer writes:
“Faultless formulas about biblical inspiration and authority do us no good while we misunderstand the Bible for whose supremacy we fight. The major differences between historic Protestants and Roman Catholics — papal authority, the presence and sacrifice of Christ in the mass, the form and credentials of the ordained ministry, the way of salvation by grace through faith — are rooted in differences of interpretation. So are the major cleavages between Christians of all persuasions and Jehovah's Witnesses, with their antitrinitarianism, their anticipations of Armageddon and their legalistic doctrine of salvation. Yet these groups have historically maintained the inerrancy of Scripture (some Roman Catholics are slipping these days, but that is a detail) and have claimed that all their distinctives are Bible-based. You see, then, how important the issue of interpretation is.” (p105)

Using the proper hermeneutic, Dr. Packer writes, is key to arriving at a correct understanding of scripture. In this way the bible is not unique. The same principle holds for any work of literature, art, or media.

HG Wells' “War of the Worlds” was broadcast over the radio to thousands of Americans in the 1930's. Many if not most failed to correctly interpret what they heard. Panic ensued. Some Americans loaded into their vehicles and ran for the hills, others locked themselves in their basements and cellars, still others loaded their hunting rifles and prepared to fight off Martian invaders. False reports of alien spacecraft landings flooded local police and military installations. What happened? Listeners employed a faulty hermeneutic. They perceived HG Wells' fanciful story as fact rather than fiction because they tuned in too late to hear the introduction.

Books, movies, and television programs can easily be misunderstood. That does not mean that they have no objective meaning nor does it mean that their meaning is unclear and/or beyond discovery. Like any other task interpretation requires diligence and the correct tools.

The same is true of scripture. Though divinely inspired and inerrant, the bible is also work of human literature and must be interpreted using the same tools and methodologies employed in understanding any other piece of literature. Proper hermeneutics, of course, is not the focus of this essay. Much has been written about it elsewhere. The point is that the principle of scriptural clarity or perspicuity rests on the assumption that the bible, on the human level, is a book like any other book and as such it is at least as accessible and understandable.

In discussing the clarity of scripture Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes:
It [scriptural clarity] does not mean, first of all, that interpretation is unnecessary - the biblical meaning will be delivered up by some mystical process of hermeneutical osmosis. Nor does it mean that an autonomous individual can, by employing critical techniques alone, wrest the meaning from the text. Rather, clarity means that the Bible is sufficiently unambiguous in the main for any well-intentioned person with Christian faith to interpret each part with relative adequacy. In the context of the Reformation, the perspicuity of Scripture was the chief weapon for combating the authority of the dominant interpretive community: Rome...The idea that the Bible is clear does not obviate the need for interpretation but, on the contrary, makes the work of interpretation even more important. The clarity of Scripture means that understanding is possible, not that it is easy. (Is There a Meaning in This Text: pp315-317)

The principle of scriptural clarity is rooted in the fact that the bible originated with God; that it is inspired by his Spirit; that its composition was divinely superintended; that its purpose is revelation; and that its intended recipients are human beings. If we believe these propositions then the basic intelligibility of the bible must be assumed. If God intended to communicate and reveal his truth to human beings through the vehicle of scripture, then scripture must be perspicuous especially with regard to those matters that are essential to faith and salvation.

Since, moreover, the Holy Spirit selected and inspired human writers to communicate in human language to human readers we ought to assume that in so far as we, fellow human beings, understand human communication that we have the capacity to understand scripture not simply in a relative personal manner, but in keeping with the message the human author intended to convey.

To suggest otherwise comes close to denying the possibility of communication in general. Why set scripture apart? If one decides a priori, at the outset, that it is impossible for human beings to grasp the meaning intended by the human author of a given biblical text then he ought not restrict his pessimism to the bible. His assertion cuts to the heart of social interaction; it calls into question the very possibility of human communication in a broad sense.

Apart from postmodern literary deconstructionists, few go there. Though many decide, before the fact, that scripture is indecipherable few carry that assumption into their reading of other types of literature. No one who takes the trouble to read the newspaper in the morning or a book or this article believes communicated meaning to be beyond discovery. Because we are social creatures we human beings assume, as a practical necessity, that we can communicate intelligibly with one another.

That reasonable assumption extends--it must extend--to the bible because while it's origin is divine and its truth divinely superintended, scripture was written by human beings for human beings. The bible, therefore, despite the well known vexing difficulties that attend to specific texts and passages, is at the very least as perspicuous as purely human forms of communication. It is able to be understood in an objective way.

On the assumed grounds of perspicuity, then, Article 6 maintains that what doctrines and disciplines cannot be proven by or are not grounded in scripture cannot be required of any man or woman in the Church.

This, of course, leads to the next question: which scriptures?

Next week...Article Six and the Deuterocanonical books.

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