Scripture, Sinners, and the Fractured Anglican Church

I have spoken, frequently, of the sinful nature of the church and Christianity. I have posted a Barth quote on a few occasions: The “sum total of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified” (CD I/2, 354). I have hinted at and made allusions to the present separation between Anglicans and Episcopalians. But I have skirted the issue. I want to at least make one post that more directly engages the question. I have a lot to say. But I want to try to focus mostly on the role of Scripture.

If we take the Barth quote as a concise summation of what I’ve been aiming at over the last few posts, then we are led to the following conclusion: any exegesis or interpretation of Scripture must be forgiven if it is to be justified.

Not surprisingly, I’m going to unpack this conclusion with….some more Barth.

There is no more dangerous subjectivism than that which is based on the arrogance of a false objectivity. Not the fact that Holy Scripture as the Word of God is obscure and ambiguous, but the fact that it is the Word of God for the Church on earth, and therefore a teacher of pupils who are lost sinners, is what makes the much deplored divergence in its understanding possible, and, unless the miracle of revelation and faith [meaning concretely the work of the Holy Spirit] intervenes, quite inevitable. (CD, I/2, 553).

Barth is not elevating Scripture to the level of divinity, as if it originated in heaven and then dropped down, unblemished, from the skies. For Barth, Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that it continually becomes the Word of God. Scripture does not imprison God; it does not give us a hold on God, a way to control and place ourselves as lords standing over and against God. Scripture continually becomes the Word of God. Scripture, therefore, does not stand on its own but depends on the continual work of God. “The witness of Holy Scripture is…the witness of the Holy Spirit” (538). That Scripture reveals the Word of God depends on something outside of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a miracle that Scripture is the Word of God.

It is a miracle we hate and wish to reject. We want something more substantial, something much more immediate and direct, something that we can get our minds around (and get our hands upon). We turn to tradition, to culture, to reason, to mysticism, to ethics, to the individual, to the Church, to the creeds, to the Fathers, to Thomas Aquinas, to Luther, to Karl Barth, to anything, or anyone, even to biblicism, to give us some kind of assurance that we have heard rightly. That we–and that always means, and not them–are in the truth, exist as the bearers of the truth. We want direct access to revelation, to possess it and hold it, to claim it as our own and justify ourselves with it. We want to win, and we are always tempted to turn the Bible into a book that assures that we win, that our beliefs, our knowledge, our actions, our piety, our theology–our lives–are good enough and strong enough to win. Biblicism (what those on the left call “fundamentalism”) ignores our dependency on the Spirit, and hence forgets that there is no direct access to revelation in Scripture. It forgets that only the Spirit removes the veil that makes Scripture obscure, that prevents us from encountering God’s Word–Jesus Christ–in Scripture (cf. 2 Cor 3). Or, it presumes too quickly that it has the Spirit. The Spirit opens my eyes, not yours, and I live confidently (and hence with complacency). Regardless, I know I am right, that I read Scripture rightly, and that I am on the inside, on the side of truth, on the side of goodness. It never crosses my mind that I might need to repent. It never crosses my mind that the first and last thing I must do, whenever I read Scripture, is to repent.

The “conservatives” see the “liberal” Episcopalians as placing themselves as lords over Scripture. They do not like the text, so they ignore it, or proclaim a revelation that “completes” it. In a global context, African and Asian bishops have protested that the Western Anglican churches have acted with the typical, but lamentable, Western hubris. God’s revelation is proclaimed by the West; the backwards “rest” need to hurry up and get with the times. They wonder why people embedded in a culture that is without a doubt sexually disordered (for a quick example, which Amy Laura Hall used in class, consider the production and consumption of pornography here) feel they are in a position to declare to the rest of the world a new word regarding human sexuality. However, the fundamental point is neither sexual disorder nor imperialist arrogance; the breaking point is the refusal to submit to God’s Word.

That, at least, is how I see the debate shaping up, and like any debate, both sides want to win. Both sides claim that the other side fails to read Scripture properly. But that raises the fundamental question: how do you know when you are reading Scripture rightly?

That is the question we want to ask, but it is, I think, the wrong question. It is a question that can only be answered in a way that provides self-justification. The appropriate turn is not to some kind of agnosticism. That too would still be a claim to possess the right way to read Scripture. Nor is the way forward to simply proclaim our inability to read Scripture rightly. That path would eventually lead to mysticism, or atheism, or some other claim to be in the right (see my post on the “true standard religious game”). As Luther put it: the Holy Spirit is no skeptic.

How, then, to proceed, without trying to win? How to move forward? The first step is to accept that Christ has bound us to Scripture, that we cannot move away from it, nor we can ever make it our own. We are dependent on something that is itself dependent. We are not free to move past Scripture and find God apart from its testimony. We are bound to it. But it does not bind God. Its witness, its status as “the Word of God,” depends on the work of the Spirit. We are dependent on something that is itself dependent, and hence, something that can never be brought under our control. We are never the masters but only claimed for obedience.

The Word of God is necessary for us. It is also sufficient. But this sufficiency does not lie in itself–how could it–but in the sufficiency of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. We need not worry about whether Scripture is “inerrant” because its testimony does not point to itself but to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Scripture is not worried about cleaning up its own contradictions and discrepancies precisely because the authors of Scripture wrote as witnesses, as those who attest to something beyond themselves. The sufficiency of Scripture lies in Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Scripture is good enough for us because it truly points beyond itself, to the one who truly holds us in his hands, Jesus Christ. (But remember, Christ has bound us to Scripture, and so we never have access to Christ apart from the witness itself, the Words of Scripture).

Let me try to speak more plainly. Both the liberals and conservatives (to make crude generalizations) are attempting to bypass the weakness of Scripture. Both are seeking a way to possess Scripture, and to possess Scripture, they need to supplement it. Conservatives postulate a kind of direct access. Scripture says X. Boom! End of story. They forget that Scripture itself depends on the Spirit, and that the Spirit speaks through Scripture to sinful people. Liberals postulate a cultural supplement. It’s the march of human freedom. Of progression. Of love. And this cultural thread either bypasses Scripture completely or absorbs it within its own trajectory. Scripture’s voice is either not binding at all, or it is binding but, not surprisingly, it articulates the cultural thread within which we are already located (using a variety of “exegetical” methods to justify the approach). To put it crudely, I have not yet met someone who was adamantly opposed to homosexual unions until they read Scripture and then, after reading through the Bible, became convinced that they were wrong and that God clearly approves of such unions. Both sides, therefore, want to supplement Scripture (elevate it beyond its, meaning our, weakness) and neither wants to embrace the necessity of repentance.

The way out that I am suggesting, unfortunately, isn’t really a way out. It doesn’t actually solve the issue. But I think it is the only Christian way forward. It involves these two key points. First, we exist in a twofold state of dependency: we (A) depend on the Spirit to speak to us (B) through Scripture. We are dependent on Scripture, which itself is dependent. It’s a position of weakness, but one of joy, for we wait with expectation for God to reveal Godself to us, to speak to us again of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we wait without anxiety because we know we are safe in his hands. Secondly, in light of Christ’s extension of forgiveness, we begin our exegesis with the freedom of repentance. The Word on which we depend tells us again and again that we are always in need of God’s grace and that grace is to be found! Our piety may be something for which we will have to repent; but we can repent, because we know we are secure in Christ’s hands! In short, revelation tells us that we are sinners, justified by, not exegesis, but simply by the faithfulness of Christ.

Maybe at a later date, and after reading some more Barth, I will be able to sketch out a bit more clearly what exegesis from within a posture of weakness and repentance involves. But for now, I simply want to suggest that all of us need to take quite seriously the fact that, at the end of the day, we will all need to repent for where we stand. It’s the only place safe for us. We must be forgiven if we are to be justified. Including, and especially, for our Christianity; which means, including, and especially, for our readings of Scripture.

*I stole the language of “winning” from J. Kameron Carter.*
This entry was posted in anglicanism, barth, carter, ethics, homosexuality, scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Scripture, Sinners, and the Fractured Anglican Church

  1. Tim Otto says:

    Are you sure you're not just a charismatic in Anglican drag?! 🙂 Thanks Tim for this thought provoking help with how we approach scripture. I'm not sure I love your take on scripture (you mean I can't use it as an source of my self-righteousness?)but the approach you articulate has the advantage of seeming, well,. . .true. This approach both respects the authority of scipture, while acknowledging the difficulties that any serious reader encounters. I look forward to your thoughts about how we read from a position of humility and repentance. Gratefully, Timo

  2. Tim,Thanks for reading it. I feel like I've gotten in over my head here–as you know, biblical studies was never my interest! And I especially appreciated your comment about my Anglicanism. Fortunately, you can be both charismatic and Anglican (and, my Anglicanism has shifted some too–more to the, "well, this can be a helpful way to be Christian" and less of the "this seems close to the "true" church").

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