Monday, February 25, 2008

Anglican Catechism in Outline: The Not-so-Good (Part 1)

I had hoped to get this all into one post. There's just too much....

Having shared what I like about the Anglican Catechism in Outline, let me share some thoughts about other sections of the Interim Report.

The largest section of the Interim Report is titled "Illustrations," and includes four case studies describing educational programs in several areas in the Global South (two in Nigeria and one each in Singapore and Uganda), describing work in varied settings. The reports are detailed and well written, and would, I think, be thought provoking for educators across the Communion. In contrast, the shortest section consists of two Appendices: one on the background of the Catechism of the 1662 Prayer Book, and one on the Revised Common Lectionary.

The section of the Interim Report of greatest concern to me is that titled "Commentary." It includes three papers: "The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture," by Professor Oliver O'Donovan of the University of Edinburgh; "The Creeds," by Bishop Paul Barnett, retired of Sydney; and"The Historic Formularies," by Peter Toon, President of the Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A.

Let me begin by stating that I quite like Bishop Barnett's paper on the Creeds. He focuses on the development of the Creeds as tools for evangelism and for catechesis of those to be baptized. He addresses the histories of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, and some of the significant heretical movements that by reaction helped shaped them in ecumenical counsels. He speaks to functions of the Creeds, and ties them specifically to efforts at catechesis.

This is not to say that I have no questions about Bishop Barnett's paper. He leans heavily on the Vincentian Canon for his description of the catholic faith, and I question how accurate it was, even when Vincent wrote, to speak of "that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." He is also intent right from the beginning to address heresy, something I might have put in the context of the Councils. On the other hand, his emphasis on private judgment as opposed to the reflection of the Church gathered is certainly appropriate. These are quibbles about what is a good paper.

I have somewhat greater concern about Professor O'Donovan's paper on Scripture. His first concern in discussing the authority of Scripture is to describe its election and its perfection. "Scripture is "elect", as Israel and Jesus are elect, to serve the same plan of salvation. It is human writing set apart from every other human writing to serve a function in the saving purposes of God." Initially he distinguishes "God's own self-election" in Jesus from "the election of the Scriptures [as] an act of divine speech." However, he goes on to say,

It is right, nevertheless, that Holy Scripture, in bearing witness to God's deed of salvation, is nothing less than God's own witness to himself. Scripture does not come after what God has said and done, as a kind of secondary report of it or reflection on it. In reading Holy Scripture we hear God's own voice speaking, while at the same time we hear the voice of human authors. These voices, divine and human, bear witness to God's work, and they agree.... The temptation in recent generations has, of course, been to ascribe the task oft witness exclusively to the human voice, so opening up a gap between God's words, on the one hand, and the human account of them, on the other.

While he does not say so explicitly, this would seem to leave little room for any other than a literalist approach to Scripture. This is only reinforced by Professor O'Donovan's equally detailed discussion of the perfection of Scripture. The perfection , like the election, of Scripture "lies in the unique place their [the Biblical authors'] writings were assigned in the redemptive purpose of God."

The perfection of the Holy Scripture is of its own kind, and may allow space for various supposed imperfections that are not relevant to the fulfillment of the purpose in hand.... Neither does the perfection of historical records [in Scripture] consist in their being the most perfectly researched historiography, or the most impartial first-hand sources. The best term with which to express the perfection of Scripture is, perhaps, that used by John Wyclif, when he spoke of Holy Scripture as being "incorrigible." That is to say simply that no interpreter of Scripture can venture or presume to set it right, either by excision, by correction, by privileging a canon within the canon, or by assigning certain ideas to primitive ignorance and other to the Spirit of God, etc. etc.

Thus, we are left with a position that is explicitly inerrantist and implicitly literalist. Scripture, as all agree, brings its interpretation to Tradition and Reason; but Tradition and Reason have nothing to bring to Scripture. I grant that this is "an historically recognized position" (to recall both that unfortunate phrase and its equally unfortunate consequences) within the Anglican tradition; but I would question whether it reflects the breadth of perspectives within the tradition.

I do appreciate Professor O'Donovan's insistence that education in the Scriptures is "a key task of catachesis," and that "in particular it is the foundational act of liturgy, by which every part of common worship - petitionary prayer, praise and sacramental act - is authorized."

He also speaks of "interpretation.... [which] begins in the pulpit." At the same time, the parameters of that interpretation are clearly circumscribed: "It is not a negotiation aimed at striking a compromise between the expectations of the text and the presuppositions of our time; nor can it presume, in the name of whatever cause, to read "against the grain" of the text." So one must ask what place Biblical criticism, and even Biblical archaeology, might have in preaching or instructing the faithful.

More to come.

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