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Hearing the Word of the Lord? (1)

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

‘This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.’

These words are shared and spoken by Anglicans around the world when we hear the Bible read. But what do we mean when we say them? The tension at the heart of the Church of England—not least in its conversations about sexuality, relationships and marriage—is that its bishops, priests and people have no agreed answer to this question. It is to the great credit of Living in Love and Faith (LLF) that it recognises and addresses this disagreement head on.

LLF on the Unity and Authority of Scripture

In its discussion of the unity and authority of the Bible, LLF asks ‘how directly, and by what means, people expect the Bible to provide God’s authoritative answers to the questions that concern us’ (p. 294). What follows (pp. 294-303) does not attempt to provide a definitive answer —the purpose of LLF isn’t to give clear-cut answers. Instead, the authors of LLF aim to describe (and to begin to evaluate) something of ‘the range of possible answers’ one might find in the Church of England. They do so by imagining a panel of seven speakers, representing seven different viewpoints, answering the question of how they listen to God in the Bible.

Speaker 1, believes that the Bible is a God-given ‘manual for living’, which is ‘truthful, without error, and clear’. Speaker 7 regards the Bible as ‘a collection of fallible human voices’ and is ‘wary’ of any sense of God’s involvement in bringing the texts together for a particular purpose. In between there are a variety of voices that recognise Scripture is, in some sense, divine—the product in some way of God’s intention—and also composed of a variety of human voices from different historical and cultural contexts. Speaker 2 builds on Speaker 1 by emphasising the need to pay attention to a text’s historical context and to take into account ‘everything’ about marriage and sexual relationships in the Bible. Speaker 3 further emphasises that we must read Scripture in light of the centrality of Christ’s work and teaching. Speaker 4 goes further by seeing ‘deep and pervasive tensions’ in the Bible—it’s ‘an inherently complex conversation between multiple voices.’ Speaker 5 goes beyond this, explicitly claiming that sometimes the Bible gets things wrong—some of its teaching on sexuality ‘just doesn’t line up with the most central things the Bible says about love’. Speaker 6 views the Bible as ‘a collection of human words’, but believes these words have been ‘brought together by God’ to witness to his love for the world in Christ.

We can see that there are two questions at the heart of their disagreements. First, how do we account for both the unity and the diversity of the Bible? And, relatedly, how do we account both for both God’s action and intention in relation to the Bible and for the intentions and actions of the Bible’s human authors?

In evaluating these different positions, LLF quickly dismisses Speaker 1, for failing to take the humanity of Scripture into account, and Speaker 7, for denying that God has any role. But it then argues that, within the Church of England, each of Speakers 2-6 has a valid point of view. In a second blog post, I’ll address the deeper evaluative question of how we should think of the relationship of the Bible’s divine and human authors, and how that affects our responsibilities as Christian readers of Scripture. But before that, in the remainder of this post, I’ll ask a few preliminary questions about how LLF has framed the conversation.

How Helpful is LLF’s Treatment?

First, we need to ask if LLF is fair to dismiss Speaker 1 so quickly. It’s certainly a convenient rhetorical move to lay out a spectrum of opinions, remove the two extremes, and then claim that everything that remains has some validity. And LLF is right to remove Speaker 7 from consideration, because they clearly don’t see the Bible being in any sense God’s Word to us: it’s simply a collection of human documents. Speaker 1’s understanding of Scripture, and reading Scripture, is rather crudely expressed. One would certainly hope for something better from someone with some theological education. But in dismissing it, there’s a real risk of unchurching a lot of faithful, if theologically somewhat naive, Bible-believing Christians. To do that, especially in such a hasty manner, is very serious indeed. There’s also risk that, in presenting quite such a crude summary, LLF has descended into caricature. It would surely have been helpful to have included a more sophisticated position that connects the inspiration, sufficiency, clarity and authority of Scripture, recognises that some passages of Scripture are less clear than others, and recognises the need to read Scripture as a whole. Without this, a significant number of conservative evangelicals within the Church of England might feel unrepresented, or might feel lumped with Speaker 1 and dismissed.

Secondly, the flip side of this is that even after Speakers 1 and 7 have been removed, we are left with radically different positions. And, at least some cases, these positions contradict one another. Each position is defended as within the ‘mainstream of the church’s conversation’, so it seems that a resolution to questions of sexuality is, in principle, impossible. Speakers 2-4 claim that the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and relationships is coherent, true and authoritative. But Speakers 5 and 6 deny this: they think parts of the Bible are wrong. Yet all are to be regarded as being part of the Church of England’s ‘mainstream’. At this point, we seem to be left with an intentional commitment to institutional pluralism on matters of sexuality and relationships—a pluralism to which everyone must, at some level, subscribe. It’s hard not to see this as the outcome towards which LLF is leading.

Thirdly, it’s not clear how we should understand the relationship between the positions of the seven speakers. Are they supposed to be largely distinct positions? Or could at least some of them be seen as building on, but not contradicting, other speakers? Each speaker picks up from the previous person by saying something like ‘I agree…but’. By the time we reach Speaker 5, we’re clearly in radically new, and less than consistently Christian, territory—the belief that some parts of the Bible, even when rightly understood, don’t align with the Bible’s central message. One way of reading the relationship between the first four speakers would be to say that, without leaving behind Speaker 1’s commitment to the inerrancy, clarity and sufficiency of Scripture, the next three speakers offer an increasingly sophisticated account of how we read Scripture. However, it’s equally possible to understand the later speakers as implicitly rejecting or contradicting some or all of Speaker 1’s commitments. It’s just not clear.

This is a real problem because it leaves evangelicals, and other conservative Anglicans, with a dilemma. Should they read the different speakers with maximum charity and say, ‘Yes, I too could affirm that if I undestand the words in this way. So it’s fine’. Or should they be more suspicious and say, ‘This sounds like something I could say, but I recognise it could be taken to mean something I’d fundamentally disagree with. So I’ll reject it’. One potentially pernicious side-effect of this ambiguity, then, might be to divide conservative Anglicans who are in basic agreement with one another. We could end up with one side viewing the others as unnecessarily cynical and uncharitable in their interpretations, and the other side viewing the former as politically naive and gullible. This is something for evangelicals and others to be aware of, and to resist, as they relate to one another. Another pernicious side-effect might be to embrace as basically orthodox those who can say the same, apparently orthodox, words, but with radically different understandings. This could then cloak radically different understandings of how to deal with questions of sexual ethics under a thick cloud of affirming the same form of words, but with different meanings.

In fairness to LLF, it acknowledges that it has offered only ‘brief and simplified sketches’. But given the problems I’ve outlined, I’d suggest that these are unhelpful oversimplifications. Worse they introduce serious, and potentially deeply dishonest, ambiguity into the conversation. They are therefore more likely to cause misunderstanding and confusion than genuinely to illuminate the different positions held in the Church of the England. When we add to this the framing of what is and isn’t considered ‘mainstream’, it seems that one likely effect of LLF will be to marginalise at least some conservative Christians. Another, equally serious effect will be to solidify the embrace and affirmation of pluralism in the Church of England’s understanding of marriage, sexuality and relationships. After all, we are told that this is not ‘an argument between one group that sits light to the authority of Scripture and another that takes it seriously’ (p. 300). I seems clear, from any traditionally orthodox understanding of Scripture, that this claim is wrong. But everyone in the Church of England is expected to affirm it.

If I’m right, this is already extremely serious. In a second post, I will offer a deeper analysis of the Bible’s divine and human authors, and then in a third, our relationship to the Bible as readers. It’s only then that we’ll see quite how serious the situation is.

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