The Episcopal Doctrine of Scripture

Unfortunate is the word that springs to mind when one considers the perspective of conservative evangelicals toward an Episcopal doctrine of the scriptures. No, most Episcopalians may not defend the theory of biblical inerrancy strictly taken, but this conclusion does not suggest that Episcopalians do not believe the Bible. Samuel Wells, Dean of Duke University Chapel, notes that Episcopal theologians "have been more inclined than many others to emphasize natural revelation"1 more so than divine or special or particular revelation with regard to Scripture -- but not without sufficient reason, even sufficient biblical reason, as Wells rightly notes:
The empirical tradition in English philosophy, which favors observation, experimentation, and experience, coupled with the American pragmatic tradition, which perceives the meaning of a concept in its practical outcomes, steer Anglican and Episcopal theology toward the tangible signs of divine expression. There is good precedent for such convictions in the Bible: Psalm 19:1-2 declares, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge."2
Though natural revelation fails to declare details concerning God's intricate plan of salvation for fallen humanity, and for that we need divine revelation, the authors of the scriptures themselves, including the Psalmist (Ps. 19:1, 2), Job (Job 9:4-10), Sts Luke (Acts 17:23, 24) and Paul (Rom. 1:19, 20), denote the significance of nature. Still, we do need special revelation in order to better understand the orthodoxy of God regarding "the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the life of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit, the form and process of salvation, and the hope of everlasting life with God."3

Episcopalians tend to agree with Paul Tillich in that, though the Bible is significant in the life of both the believer and the Church, we also need church history alongside the history of religion and culture.4 This notion is actually a long-standing Anglican tradition reaching back to the theology of Richard Hooker: "He says that if there is a consensus of persons of moderate judgment, who believe that proposed readings are neither unjust nor unreasonable; and that those interpretations of Scripture promote godliness, have been sanctioned by ecclesiastical tradition, or have been approved by the legitimate authority of the church; then it is appropriate for the community to affirm them."5 What we believe about the Bible, as well as the teachings contained therein, must be considered within the community of the early Church fathers of at least the first three centuries, as well as later voices, weighing all that has been traditionally held, taught, and especially what was perceived as essential.

What Episcopalians insist as a necessary component of our understanding of the scriptures is the distance between ourselves and the people living in their various cultures with practices and ceremonies and perspectives that are irrelevant for our day. Take female pastoral ordination as an apt example. While St Paul writes, "I [am not currently or presently permitting] a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12), the phrase contextually presented as a present active indicative, this is not to be read for all time as, "Do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise pastoral authority over a man." Given the patriarchal culture of that era, and the fact that a woman's role in society was as a second-class citizen with no public voice, objectified as property, yet actually permitted by the same apostle to pray and to prophesy in Church (1 Cor. 11:5), we have sufficient -- even biblical -- reason to suspect a modern notion that longs to regress to a cultural practice of a by-gone era restricting women from pastoral (or other ecclesiastically authoritative) ministry.



So, while a conservative evangelical who espouses the theory of biblical inerrancy may insist that women should not pastor a congregation that includes men, their particular adherence to inerrancy is irrelevant. What matters most is the interpretation of those scriptures handed down to us by the grace of God through faithful men and women throughout the Church age.

An older Anglican tradition considers Scripture, tradition, and reason as the three pillars for properly understanding the Bible. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral proffers Scripture, tradition, reason and experience for proper biblical comprehension. Paul Tillich considers language, poetry, philosophy, religion in particular religious and cultural traditions when considering the significance and place of Scripture in one's life and in the life of the Church. Anglican theologian John Macquarrie suggests that "there are six formative factors in theology . . . experience, revelation, scripture, tradition, culture, reason."6 What shall we conclude? Who is right? Who is wrong?

I fear too many believers miss the forest for the trees when considering the various understandings of the word of God. Do not miss this significant truth: all of these believers in and followers of Jesus Christ want a well-informed understanding of the Bible! Their longing is not to undermine Scripture but to better understand the revelation provided to them by the grace of God. Episcopal deacon Vicki K. Black and Episcopal priest Peter W. Wenner insist that the Bible is the Church's book: the Bible's story is our story.7 They expound further: "At the heart of the Bible is the story of God's people and their ongoing relationship with the God who created them, invited them into relationship, saved them, and forgave them."8 The people of God today are the people of God yesterday to thousands of years past and future. If the Bible demonstrates no other reality, then it highlights the base fact that all human beings are alike, no matter what century or what culture. We all share the same human struggle.

Our authors also insist that the Bible is "a living book."9 Its history and its practical teachings on living life before God, in honesty and integrity with oneself as well as with others, are just as relevant today as they were for those of another time and another culture. This is not to suggest that every story or every event read is easy to understand. "While our varying interpretations of the Bible can be a source of conflict among Christians, studying the Bible with other people [and in conjunction with the early Church fathers] can also offer the great reward of learning how God works in different and varied ways with God's different and varied people."10 The Bible, in the Episcopal tradition, is given its proper authoritarian place as the truth of God to a fallen and needy people11 -- this to the degree that two-thirds of the prayers in the Prayer Book are taken either explicitly or implicitly from the scriptures.

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1 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 29.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ian S. Markham, Understanding Christian Doctrine (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 73.

5 Wells, 31.

6 Markham, 74.

7 Vicki K. Black and Peter W. Wenner, Welcome to the Bible (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2007), 3.

8 Ibid., 7.

9 Ibid., 8.

10 Ibid., 9.

11 Christopher L. Webber, Welcome to the Christian Faith (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 17-20.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.