Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Anglicanism's Conceptual Space: A Sketch, Part I

Rancor and misgiving aside, the nature of Anglican Christianity, or rather the norm for how Anglicans live Christianly, may very well undergo significant long term change in the near future, becoming something contrary to what it is now, and has been. To see this, one should consider the question, Are humans capable in this state of infallible knowledge? You will no doubt feel the ambiguities kicking under the pregnant question's surface, but it seems to me some of the division in the world of Christendom can be accounted for theologically by how different denominations reply to the question.

For it seems many will answer with a "Yes" thinking that being Christian requires the church here below have infallible knowledge, i.e.:

(I) If there are Christians, the church has infallible knowledge.

It would not do us much good here below, in this fallen state, to consider the knowledge of those in the communion of saints who have passed beyond into another condition, or even to consider the state of the resurrected Christ, who having ascended is in some relevant sense hidden from us. Still, (I) is significantly ambiguous: How should one explain the church's possession of infallible knowledge? It might be a matter of (A) the church having infallible knowledge expressed altogether, as in its ecumenical councils; it might be a matter of (B) the church having an office with primacy such that infallibility resides in that office; it might be a matter of (C) the church's members suitably inspired each having a power to understand some Scripture infallibly.

It seems to me, as I crudely put it above, these disambiguations of (I) map out a considerable portion of the current theological terrain. We might associate the options roughly with groupings thus:

IA: Eastern Orthodox communions
IB: the Roman Catholic Church
IC: Reformed churches/ communions

But I wager none of these disambiguations apply to Anglicanism historically, speaking in terms of a norm for how Anglicans live Christianly. Thus, I mean to acknowledge Anglicans who miss or even flout the norm, and even to admit they have always been in the number of Anglicans and may even now be in the majority; still, they live Christianly--I contend--contrary to the norm for Anglicans.

Anglicanism early on rejected (I), and so rejects (IA), (IB), and (IC); I am not being particularly original here. In fact, I am inspired by the Catholic Newman's vociferous dismay about Anglicanism being unable to stem the tide of "Liberalism" in England. He felt sure that where the church failed to exercise its infallible knowledge, capitulation to elements contrary to Christianity was inevitable given time; of course, when he affirmed (I) he had (IB) in mind.
Similar misgivings may account for much of the rancor from the Anglican right in our day. They may think like Newman that tide of Liberalism at long last threatens to wash away authentic Christianity, and so the church in its Anglican limb must be enlivened so as to finally openly and consciously exercise its infallible knowledge. I am not sure just how the right means to do this: by employing councils? An infallible office? By insisting of infallible readings of Scripture's "plain sense" by the inspired?

Consider closely how they mean to do this, and you will see, I think, a patina of confusion covering the entire effort. No merely Anglican council could plausibly claim infallibility failing its being ecumenical; no Anglican office in existence could plausibly claim infallibility; no infallible readers of Scripture are at present recognized as such by the Communion--and they are not out there on the horizon; infallibility does not seem likely to "emerge" by some combination of these individually insufficient elements. But if infallibility cannot be so exercised by any instrument or art at our disposal, what of the efforts on the Anglican right? They will not be able to plausibly claim infallibility in dealing with any church matter; they are in effect permanently trapped by the Anglican history denying (I), trapped in a posture of Epistemic Humility, trapped into at most engineering exercises of mediated power more efficient at stifling dissent and dialogue. That the effort seems to be going forward with such verve shows, I think, the seductive influence of power on the mighty in our communion, but little else.


At 2:37 AM, Blogger Annie said...

Forgive me, but this struck a chord with me and I'm just wondering why the Church must be infallable? The truth we need is how, isn't it? It isn't facts that we are dealing with, but method? Perhaps I'm just missing the whole point.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Thanks for your questions. I was working up to saying that it was the norm in Anglicanism to self-consciously reject appeals to infallibility.

In that case, there would be no method for making infallible claims, whether speaking from an ecumenical council or setting out readings of Scripture.

And that, in short, is the conceptual space Anglicanism normally inhabits. The problem now is that competing visions of the norm have come to the fore, and they seem to think claims to infallibility can be made. The resulting incoherence sets us at edge against one another, it seems, in the Anglican Communion.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Marshall Scott said...

I find this very interesting. I'll be interested to see this taxonomy continued.

By and large (notwithstanding some comments from bishops in San Joaquin and Fort Worth) those seeking in current concerns to call us to 1B are largely beyond communion with Canterbury (APA, for example). Most seem to be pursuing 1C.

Perhaps what strikes me is the rhetoric. Those who seek to call for scriptural infallibility do so reacting to a projection of conciliary infallibility: "because General Convention has acted thus, we must reject its pretensions of infallibility, responding with scriptural infallibity." (One could substitute New Westminster, or COE Bishops on civil partnerships.) However, General Convention has not claimed infallibility, but rather a sense of the leading of the Spirit, with all the limitations human sense brings with it. Thus, leadership in TEC has said that TEC "cannot say, "we have no need of you,' " So, because they project onto councils their desire for or their fear of conciliar infallibility, they must respond with a scripture infallibility that affirms them already.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger Annie said...

Thank you. Yes, it is terribly interesting. I do hope you continue. It is also important to me as a pew sitter that this aspect of Anglicanism be preserved. This past year at GC a particular view of atonement was brought up to the vote. Fortunately, it was voted down because it has previously been decided that competing views may be considered equally compelling to TEC. How is this norm ensured?

At 11:16 PM, Blogger Closed said...


I think you've hit at the crux of the matter. Our roominess and that which undergirds that roominess, a fundamental humility that has as Huntington wrote, only a few basic dogmas that are non-negotiable, and beyond this a lot of room for disagreement, variety, plurality--catholicity. Infallibility is to my mind the greatest danger to our Trinitarian understanding that we arrive at Truth through the processes of the community overtime as we time and again gather in worship.

As Annie mentioned, it would seem folks want to harden up that roominess around theological and ethical matters to quite narrow prescriptions (Substitutionary Atonement, for example) of what is the Truth in a way that would allow no ability to tradition (as a verb) in the future as we respond and give meaning to future generations/cultures.

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I so "like a child at home" in the Anglican tradition that I cannot grasp the appeal of Infallibility? Not yet, I fear, but I still don't see it as a thing to be grasped: rather, to be confessed and avoided.

Thanks be to God.


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