Saturday, September 12, 2009

Response to Anonymous re: Hermeneutics, etc.

Dear Anonymous,

    First, thank you for your thoughtful response – I will try to be faithful in responding to you. I tried to post this in response to your comment, but this was too long. Others should reference your comment to the previous posting on the Seven Bishops.

    I take responsibility for not be as clear as I should have been re: Bronze Membership. I was trying to make two points. First, the assertion by some conservatives that there is only one interpretation of a key part of the Bible is outside traditional Anglicanism. To take a few instances: Luke's account of the Virgin Birth is taken by Roman Catholics as literal and thus as core doctrine – many Episcopalians agree with that interpretation and many do not, preferring either to reference the meaning of Isaiah's prophesy in which the word Luke takes as "virgin" has a preferential meaning of "young maiden" or to treat this part of the birth narratives as metaphorical (retaining the sense of the passage as asserting God's initiative in the Incarnation while leaving open one or more literal meanings of the passage). I would also cite John 14.6, which most conservatives claim is the church's assertion that there is only one way to the Father and that is through belief in Jesus Christ. There are many reputable scholars who dispute that claim on a number of reasons (including Paul's argument in Romans 8-11). A third instance has to do with the Words of Institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Roman Catholics insist on a literal meaning of the words couched in Aristotelian terms, while Episcopalians have settled on the Doctrine of the Real Presence, while allowing our people to believe the literal.

Why should orthodoxy be dependent upon one of several faithful interpretations of a key element of Scripture? As I understand it, through most of the history of our church we have allowed a certain level of ambiguity in our interpretation of Scripture, while ruling some things out of bounds. To put this another way, almost all religious language is metaphorical and even while dealing with metaphorical and other language we are dealing with different texts, both of the Hebrew and Greek versions of Jewish and Christian Scripture – and within the same ancient text we are dealing with historical and cultural influences in trying to derive an accurate translation. However, the point in all this is to honor Scripture as best we can (even in its complexity and ambiguity) and to remember that the end is faith in Jesus Christ.

My second point has to do with Tradition – especially with those parts of our tradition which have defined who is in and who is out. Our tradition, until recently, has included the treatment of women as property, the Jewish religion as dispensable, the support of human slavery and the exclusion of various minorities. Most of these have been overturned by a deeper reliance on the overall meaning of Scripture and by reason and experience -- but through all this the same arguments for keeping those parts of our tradition and for discarding them have been offered again and again. It is those arguments that dominate our discussions on the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full ministry of the Church. I believe the liberals are using the same basis for their wanting to clarify or overturn this part of the tradition as was used in dealing with slavery, the full personhood of women and the status of Judaism. It seems to me that the conservatives want to beat the dead horse over and over again.

Regarding hermeneutics: we have not begun to engage one another on this issue. I believe the various sides are working in good faith. There are problems with the authority of the Law and of the Holiness and Purity codes. There are places in Scripture where Jesus refers to their on-going authority – and other places, primarily for me in the parables, where he clearly undercuts their authority. We are still struggling with the intent and authority of various parts of John's Gospel. As I have often argued, when conservatives and liberal are struggling over our Scriptural mandates, the former refer almost exclusively to John, the latter to the Synoptics. I hold that we cannot exclude one another on the basis of a preference for one Gospel tradition over another. Those who claim orthodoxy as their sole province make a different claim.

I hope this clarifies things – even if we continue to disagree. To be clear – are you saying there is only one reliable strain in these matters or only one interpretation that is faithful?

Tom Woodward

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