Bishops & the Word
The way I would lodge the charge that the Anglican bishops’ real canon of authority is not Scripture as a whole but some sort of flaccid rule of contemporary value and relevance is by saying that they place themselves against the faith of the Church as a historical body by refusing to recognize Scripture as cohesive and unitary. Thus they regard themselves as under no obligation to recognize the connections between Scriptures the Church has always claimed exist—the Psalms and Christology, or the ordo creationis on the relation of the sexes, for example. They are free to regard Scripture as so many disconnected fragments bound together not by a divine Mind in communion with the Church, but by what their own science is able to discern at any given time. The churches, even in their disagreements over interpretation, have stipulated that the Scriptures are coherent and cohesive, the prophetic and apostolic playing field upon whose authority they can all meet and agree. They have, in other words, regarded Scripture as canon. In making it something less, the liberals sever themselves in yet another way from Christianity as a historical, that is, incarnational, faith.
I know this may seem rather minute, but it is pointless to argue with people on interpretation and the extent of the canon (these may be Christian disagreements) when the real differences are far more fundamental, having to do with the liberals’ complete departure from the Church’s assumption that the whole canon of Scripture is iconic, that is, when rightly interpreted is the Word of God.
Briefly put, the Church begins with the patrimonial assumption that Scripture is true, and attempts to construct its understanding of its meaning in accordance therewith, attributing difficulties to its own incomplete understanding rather than to Scripture itself. Liberalism begins with the assumption that the Scriptures, while important to Christianity, must be demonstrated true by criteria external and superior to the Christian faith itself (which dooms the Scriptures to some degree of falsity at the outset). The Church recognizes no such criteria. I do not believe this means it asserts that the same criteria by which Christians judge truth are unavailable to others. Rather it means that Scripture is the peculiar possession of the Church as the body of Christ and the ground and pillar of truth.
You will notice the connection between liberal disbelief in salvation through Christ alone and the requirement of an external criterion of truth. Christians believe that Christ, whose proper residence in the world is the Church, is the first and final Criterion—the one by whom all things are ordered, and to whom all things refer—since the heavens and earth were made and redeemed in and by him, and shall be consummated by and through him. All times, all things, and all places are ordered toward Christ and find their definition in him. Theological liberalism is not simply agnostic on this point, it denies it from the beginning in its assumption that there are criteria external to Christ by which Christ in the Church, and this includes in the Scriptures, can be authenticated and verified. The gulf between a liberal and a Christian is not negotiable, since so far as a man is a liberal, he does not believe in the Christ of the Church, which is to say, he does not believe in Christ.
Parenthetically, allow me to say something here in praise of the early fundamentalists. They were eminently clear that liberalism and Christianity were two different and antagonistic religions, a point which many subsequent conservatives have become woefully—and culpably, I think—foggy on. Many of them gave up positions of comfort and respect in mainline churches—J. Gresham Machen and my own grandfather come quickly to mind—to sound the alarm and lead as many sheep as could be rallied from the edge of the precipice. Their reward (on earth) for this was not only the predictable abuse of those they rightly accused of apostasy, but also the high disdain of their evangelical offspring, who, repulsed by scars the battle left on their spirits, forgot what the battle itself was about. We shall not be right, however, until we honor them for both their clarity and faithfulness, and are willing to bear the scorn—and the name—that was placed upon them.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Bishops & the Word” first appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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