Biblical Authority and the AAC Talking Points
In time for debates sure to come at GC2006, the AAC has issued a set of talking-points about homosexuality and Scripture. It is a fragmented effort without an explicit, single line of argument, as it aims primarily at supplying ammunition for conflict where scholarly scruples will likely be in low supply: hit hard and fast to score big. Nevertheless, a close look at some of their points might offer an understanding of where the AAC's leaders think the main issues are.
I. the AAC
Worst of all, ECUSA's leadership, they say, has undermined the authority of Scripture, an authority Episcopalians have traditionally given primacy:
[A] The crisis in the Anglican Communion is centered on the authority of Scripture, and it is a crisis that affects each and every Episcopalian.
[B] Richard Hooker emphasized the primary authority of Scripture, with tradition and reason supporting the Word of God. The tripod or three-legged stool illustration that assigns equal authority to Scripture, tradition and reason was a misrepresentation of Hooker and developed in the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Quote [B] seems like a straw-man to me; ECUSA's theologians do acknowledge the primacy of Scripture, but that alone does not say much, and certainly does not say what the AAC's authors have in mind. Scriptural primacy for the AAC's authors seems to mean the Bible simply speaks for itself. For instance, the memo uses such phrases as these, attributing powers to Scripture proper to persons, i.e. personifying:
The Bible condemns
The Old Testament outlines
The Bible acknowledges
Scripture uses an analogy
It seems the AAC's authors take their trope too seriously; strictly and literally, Scripture does none of those things, though let me be the first to admit it would be wonderful if Scripture did. Personification in the AAC's document is not an innocent trope; it masks decisions about interpretation to which the memo's readers are likely not privy. That is, it masks a tendentious reading into the text what the AAC's authors want to find there.
II. Anglicanism on Biblical Authority
In rejecting papal authority and accumulated Roman Catholic tradition during the Reformation, the Church of England committed itself to the authority of Scripture. But elevating the authority of Scripture did not imply for the CoE, at least by the time of Hooker, that the "bare reading" of Scripture by individual Christians constituted a norm for establishing dogma. The reading of Scripture required a context; an individual's reading of Scripture was subject to mediation from the wider community of the church. So-and-so reading Romans may claim it means X. But that reading of Romans is subject to critique from those who know the relevant ancient languages, the history of the period, how the early Church read Romans, etc. The Holy Spirit inspires the church in its reading of Scripture--but the proper reception of that inspiration requires cultivating an understanding of Scripture's context.
Thus, the CoE early on rejected two roads to Christian dogma--one by RC-tradition and papal authority, the other by the bare reading of Scripture. In doing so, the CoE made a circumspect appropriation of Scripture as an authority: our doctrine of scriptural primacy implies that whatever is required of Christians for salvation be justified from Scripture and what is equivalent by contraposition, that what cannot be justified from Scripture should not be required of Christians for salvation. More may be required of Christians than can be justified from Scripture of course, but not as a matter of their salvation.
Note that Anglicanism's understanding of the authority of Scripture does not require its literal inerrancy. First, for a "literal inerrantist" there would be the problem of establishing the literal sense of Scripture; hence the need of clarifying Scripture's context, appreciated even by Hooker and for us, clarifying its context is only more of a difficulty. However, even supposing we could pin down a literal meaning, there remains the question of whether what is said is an error.
It may well be that Anglicanism is committed to Scripture providing inerrant information about what is requred of us for salvation, and so Anglicans cannot avoid attributing some sort of inerrancy to at least that part of Scripture which reveals God's will for our salvation.
Notice what I have conceded opens the door back up to the literal inerrantist. For it is at least logically possible given all I have said that an Anglican insist that the literal inerrancy of the entire canon follows--since all of it reveals God's will for our salvation. Nevertheless, the same door leaves a way open to the more selective Anglican. For it is also logically possible that one admit Scripture contains errors in those parts which do not lay out what is required for our salvation. E.g. we are right not to require circumcision of Christians, pace the OT.
It has been said here and there that ECUSA's dispute over GC2003 really comes down to how the different parties understand the authority of the Bible--well, yes. But within the Anglican framework, how one understands biblical authority is determined--or at least should be determined--by one's understanding of salvation. Of course, how can we understand salvation, given the primacy of Scripture, without recourse to Scripture?
III. Stepping outside the circle
Our reading of Scripture may be informed by what is true outside of it. For instance, To Set our Hope on Christ made the point that some gay relationships exhibit the same effects of the Spirit we find in some straight relationships. That would be impossible without the Spirit's presence, yet the Spirit would not be present in an intrinsically wicked relationship, both of whose members were to be condemed. Thus, experience plainly defies grim expectations for gay relationships based on what was the traditional reading of Scripture on homosexuality:they did not exhibit features we would predict from relationships among candidates for damnation. Experience checked scriptural interpretation--experience thereby called the traditional reading into question.
Going back to Scripture, some found the meaning of scriptural text more equivocal on homosexuality than previously thought. In this way, our reading of Scripture is informed by what is outside the text. That is, our reading should be one that proceeds from having made
contact with mundane reality.
What will defeat the approach of the AAC is not its misunderstanding of biblical authority in Anglicanism; as we saw, it is perfectly consistent for an Anglican to hold the Bible errs on homosexuality, presuming the Bible condemns it, provided homosexuality is not a matter of human salvation. Rather, the AAC's reading of Scripture implies that God issued an arbitrary eternal decree against homosexual couples (n.b. citing statistics and "cured" couples misses the point). God, the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, would not issue such a decree.