Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Scriptural vs. Ecclesiastical Authority

I recently came across an excellent essay written by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, Vicar of Saint James Church Fordham, The Bronx entitled Who's in charge: Judging the Scriptures;

The question of Scriptural versus Ecclesiastical authority, while full of rich and complex nuances, is most certainly not a question of which came first, chicken or egg. While the Hebrew Scriptures clearly precede the foundation of the Christian church, the Holy Bible as we know it was assembled and authorized by that very church. The question of how far the church is limited by Scripture, and how much authority the church has over it, is laid out, for Anglicans, in the Articles of Religion, to which I will return in a moment.

For the present, let me second Fr. Gerald Keucher's observation that there is no reading without interpretation. This is not a novel premise of postmodernism; it is something of which the Rabbis and the Church Fathers were well aware, as they discussed the levels of meaning inherent in the sacred texts. As Richard Hooker would point out, even the "plain meaning" of Scripture is subject to human reason and human authority. "Even such as are readiest to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of holy Scripture; what warrant have they, that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged? Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do?" (Laws, II.VII.8)

But there is more. There are some texts that are perfectly "plain" which nonetheless the church has chosen, in its wisdom, to set aside or allow to fade into obscurity. Few if any Christians will hold that all people must abide by the literal mandates of the entire biblical text. All Christian churches clearly make choices as to what applies to them (and others) and what doesn't, and Christians have been doing so from the time of Christ himself.

While Jesus is reported to have stated that he came in fulfillment of the law, nonetheless he was understood by the church explicitly to have set aside the dietary portions of that very law. (Mark 7:19) The Apostles, believing themselves to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit, continued the process, and set aside many other requirements beyond those they understood Christ himself to have abrogated, most importantly the requirement of circumcision. They were not able to accomplish this without significant and continuing controversy, attested to in the Pauline epistles. The early church continued this process, variously adding to or taking away from the requirements laid down in scripture, even the most solemnly delivered portions of it: they forbade (I think wrongly) the observance of a Saturday sabbath, for example, even though it is one of the Ten Commandments. Closer to home in time and space (because of the problems it created for Henry VIII) the church forbade (and then for political reasons gave Henry a dispensation to allow) something that the Scripture had mandated: a brother taking his brother's childless widow as a wife (Deut 25:5). And we all know what a mess that led to.

Now this is not simply a question of interpretation concerning vague or problematical texts. Rather it is a question of the authority to decide in a given case that a relatively "clear" scriptural mandate or prohibition, which everyone more or less can agree means what it appears to say, is no longer applicable. Given the evidence outlined above that the church has felt itself competent to set aside certain laws laid out in Scripture, we are then left with the question, "By what criterion of judgment is this done." That the church judges the Scripture is manifest; so how does it do so...
If you want a clear, yet concise answer to that final question, follow the link.

I encourage you to take the time to read this essay. Then read it again. Then bookmark it. There has been a great need for such a clear statement from the perspective of orthodox Christianity explaining the actions of General Convention in 2003. This may very well be the definitive statement we have been seeking. Thank you, Tobias.


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