Is there an “Anglican understanding” of the New Testament? Wesley Hill May 18, 2015 Commentary, Ressourcement At the end of every class at the Anglican seminary where I teach, my students fill out a course evaluation. Each semester, without fail, I find myself wondering how they will answer one of the pre-written questions: “Did the course help you articulate an Anglican understanding of biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology?” Sometimes I joke with my students, telling them that that question will be waiting for them at the end of the semester and admitting that I live in fear of reading their responses. I wonder what their answers will be mainly because I myself haven’t been able to give a satisfactory answer to the related, underlying question: How will I, as their instructor, teach an Anglican understanding of biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology? Because I’m a biblical studies professor, I am chiefly interested in what an Anglican approach to a course on, say, the four canonical Gospels would look like. Certainly there is a range of perfectly adequate answers to that question. One could, for instance, assign readings on the Gospels from historical Anglican luminaries such as B. F. Westcott or William Temple. I could imagine a fruitful course on the Fourth Gospel assigning a paper on Temple’s pastoral Readings in St. John’s Gospel and on the theological commentary of the great Anglo-Catholic scholar Edwyn Hoskyns. Or one might devise an assignment in which students were asked to match the movements of the Eucharistic rite with the Synoptists’ Last Supper narratives. Or, turning to Paul, I could conceive of a course on the epistles that asked students to reflect on whether or not Thomas Cranmer’s theology of justification sola fide counts as a good reading of Galatians and Romans, as my friend Jono Linebaugh has recently done. And so on. Admittedly, though, most of the time, in my own theological reading and writing, I don’t pay much attention to “distinctively Anglican” theology. I confess I’m more apt to read Karl Barth than Richard Hooker, and I’m generally more interested in Augustine and Aquinas than I am in the niceties of intra-Anglican discussions and debates. Historically speaking, I’m partial to the conclusion Oliver O’Donovan draws, in his wonderful book on the Thirty-Nine Articles. It has never been, O’Donovan says, “the genius of the Church of England to grow its own theological nourishment, but only to prepare what was provided from elsewhere and to set it decently upon the table.” How, then, am I supposed to teach the New Testament in an “Anglican way”? Here, at least, is my current thinking on the matter. If O’Donovan is right, then Anglicanism’s chief glory is to present and embody the faith of the Church catholic — downwind of the Reformation, with a robust understanding of justification by faith in tow — in such a way that Anglicans may be confident that they are adhering to the same apostolic teaching and inhabiting the same ecclesial order as their earliest forebears in the faith did. Anglicanism does not, on this reading, represent some unique “take” on the Christian faith (proponents of a muddled understanding of a via media notwithstanding). Anglicanism is, rather, one reliable way for Western Christians to live out the apostolic, catholic faith. We are distinctive precisely by aiming not to be distinctive. Our theology is the theology of the early church, the era of the Fathers, the best of the medieval world and the Reformation — all set decently on the table in our prayer book and other formularies. Advertisement To teach the New Testament in an Anglican way is, then, to teach in order that the New Testament’s coherence is shown to depend on the catholic faith. An Anglican understanding of the New Testament won’t major on reconstructing the historical circumstances “behind” the various New Testament documents. Nor will it put much stock in the passing fashions of the biblical studies guild. An Anglican approach to the New Testament will be far more interested in talking about the way the very existence of the “New Testament” — a formalized collection of books, typically bound in one codex with its counterpart, the Christian “Old Testament” — depends on the nexus of the apostles, their successors, their gospel, its proclamation in word and sacrament, its reception in the following centuries, and its summary in the creeds and councils of the Church catholic. Robert Jenson once wrote about the canon: The volume we call the Bible is a collection of documents. The single book exists because the church in her specific mission assembled a certain collection of documents from the very ancient Near East and from first-century Mediterranean antiquity. Saying this, I mean something commonsensical, that should not ignite theological argument. Protestantism emphasizes that these precise documents impose themselves on the church; Catholicism East and West emphasizes that it is the church that recognizes the exigency. I mean only to make the simple point presupposed by and included in both emphases: the collection comes together in and for the church. Where the church’s calling to speak the gospel is not shared, the binding of these particular documents between one cover becomes a historical accident of no hermeneutical significance. Or as I recently wrote elsewhere: [W]hat we know today as “the Bible” is actually a collection of books approved to be read publicly in the Christian assembly. The “canon” of Scripture is, literally, the rule of which books can be trusted to deliver the words of the prophets and apostles to the people of God. Likewise, the New Testament is called that because it’s titled after the Christ-centered “testament,” or “covenant,” that God made with his people after Jesus’ resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, as promised through the prophets (Jeremiah 31:31). To read and teach the New Testament as an Anglican — which is, or should be, to read and teach the Bible as a catholic Christian — is to talk about the apostolic, churchly, creedal, eucharistic shape of the New Testament. It is to try to discern the Christian rationale for this particular collection of documents. And it is to read those texts for the ongoing theological and pastoral nourishment of the Christian church today, between whose contemporary existence and whose apostolic beginnings no unbridgeable gulf looms. I hope that’s what my students write on their next course evaluation. But even if they don’t, that’s how I’ll be trying to teach them, Anglican that I am. The featured image of Thomas Cranmer was uploaded by Flickr user Skara kommun and is licensed under Creative Commons. 6 Responses Craig Uffman May 18, 2015 Thanks for raising this question, Wesley. I was worried about what you might say on this. We have similar formational influences, however,so it ought not be surprising that I found myself nodding in agreement with most of what you said. I touched on this recently, as well, in a seminar session I led at Rochester Colgate Divinity School. I may diverge from your thinking a wee bit by making one positive assertion that you don’t mention. I make the extended argument here, to which I’d welcome your comment (perhaps via email? My proposal is that Hooker shaped Anglicanism profoundly on this question in his engagement with Cambridge Puritans whom I dub “Ramist Realists.” They are roughly comparable to and precursors of those whom Barth says are confused by the distinction between being biblical and biblicist. William Perkins is the chief antagonist in this story, and at stake is precisely the question you raise. How do we read Scripture? Or, perhaps more narrowly, how do we read Scripture for the purpose of ethical discernment? Here’s the proposed clarification I make: Hooker provides an essential bridge from Aquinas by imagining how to speak of an accessible Eternal Law in light of the Reformation emphasis on an ontology that makes such access impossible except for an irruption of the eternal into time (Luther’s insight that faith forms charity, not, as Aquinas taught, charity forms faith). Whereas Perkins advocated a Ramist-inspired hermeneutic which holds that we avoid risky subjectivity (and achieve objectivity) by mining universal maxims from Scripture in such a way that treats all texts in the canon with the same weight, Hooker rejected that notion, and argued that we find in Scripture both the supernatural law and the natural law. The two categories have different vulnerabilities to our probabilistic error. The former is immutable, the latter mutable. And so we have the freedom and duty to read of how a particular generation of Israel worshipped in response to the pressure of the Eternal Law, and nonetheless, in response to that same pressure, reach different prudential conclusions about how we are called to order our own worship (this is his classic defense of the Elizabethan Settlement’s embrace of forms rejected by Geneva). I am not suggesting that Hooker invented this hermeneutic but rather that he defended it successfully. This hermeneutic has huge implications for how Anglicans read Scripture historically. Because we have a way to think about Eternal Law and its species, we are not forced into a false dichotomy between faith and science, for example. Moreover, over and against, those Barth names blblicists, we don’t argue that sola Scriptura means that we can avoid subjectivity. We don’t argue that the Spirit grants us objectivity or that it is even possible to bypass the faculty of reason. Because we have a Reformation bridge from Aquinas and Bonaventure et al, in response to biblicism, we give priority to solus Christus , which is to say that we read Scripture always in conversation with the entire Body of Christ, humbly because we are always aware that sin blinds each generation including ours. We therefore give great weight to the readings and prudential decisions made by those who walked before us, as well those who read and discern alongside us (i.e., the principle of catholicity), without confusing those prior readings themselves as identical to supernatural law. We are ever aware of our vulnerability to error as a result of our finitude and sin, and so there is an openness to our reading that makes reform not just a possibility, but a freshening feature of our common life. Reply Craig Uffman May 18, 2015 Evidently the URL to my extended argument did not get through the WordPress implementation. You’ll find it in my fourth chapter on academia.edu at https://www.academia.edu/10788178/Chapter_3_-_Special_Equity_and_the_particular. Reply Jonathan Mitchican May 18, 2015 I greatly appreciate this as an exploration. It is refreshing to see a professor of Scripture wrestling with the question of how a particular understanding of the faith should affect our approach to reading and teaching the Bible. Of course, the fact that there is not just one Anglican way of reading is not a unique quirk of Anglicanism. I imagine that it would be difficult also to discover the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox way of reading. There are markers for how each tradition forms us to read Scripture, but that does not mean there are going to be simple and singular answers to what we will find there. My only other qualm would be that the picture of an Anglicanism that simply serves up things from other places is a very recent invention. I have more to say on this topic, but I have actually just completed a post on a similar theme, completely without realizing what you were going to write. Reply Benjamin Guyer May 18, 2015 I wonder if it might be best to ask whether there is an Anglican application or use of the Bible? If we switch the concern of the question from thought to action, might this provide some sort of insight into Anglicanism? I suspect that neither allows for synthesis – there is not a single Anglican understanding, nor a single Anglican application – but the question of use seems to invite historical consideration more readily than the question of thought, because use is obviously historical whereas theology is rather easily subsumed to the homogeneity demanded by the Vincentian canon (“always, everywhere, and by all”). History is about continuity no less than change, and a focus on application might allow for a greater focus upon long-term continuities – in, e.g., liturgy or canon law – rather than short-term changes due to theological debate. Such an approach would also take seriously Fr. Jonathan’s point that Anglican self-effacement is a rather recent phenomenon. What is more, it is a phenomenon that encourages Anglicans to not take responsibility for their own work – that is, their own use/application of shared catholic materials. To use a popular metaphor, we might describe application in terms of language, for language is not something that we simply understand but something that we use. It is true that Anglicans share certain things with other Christian churches, but it is also true that Anglicans have combined these in ways that actually make Anglicanism what it is. To further develop the metaphor: Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics and all other denominations share in common various subjects (e.g., Father, Son, Holy Spirit), verbs (e.g., “Do this…”, “I baptize you…”, “Go forth into all the world…”), and objects (“this bread”, “this cup”, “this Bible”). We share some verbs with some Christians but not with others (the sign of the cross, liturgical bowing), as well as some objects (certain vestments, certain saints). And, some things are wholly unique to us, most notably a whole variety of nouns that might function as either subjects or objects (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Book of Common Prayer). Some of these things translate into other Christian languages; others don’t, and as with all translation, the translator is always a traitor – something is always lost in translation, just as something is always gained. Anglicans have their own history or arranging (and rearranging, via liturgical revision, canon law revision, etc.) these things in particular ways. The Anglican “language”, therefore, is not just about Anglican understanding but also about Anglican application and use at a given point of time and place. Ergo, I am making an appeal here for the study of ecclesiastical history – and, what is more, the recognition that such a study reveals not merely what we share, but that even as we share certain things with other Christians, we use them in ways that are entirely our own. Consequently, one could very well argue that there is a distinctively Anglican approach to everything because we have arranged all of these matters, from the most widely shared to the wholly unique and specific, in such a way that Anglicanism is what it is. In other words, each Anglican use of these things is a distinctly Anglican speech-act, no matter how much we share these things with other Christians. Reply Jonathan Mitchican May 19, 2015 Well said, Ben. I think that is on the right track. Reply What Do Anglicans Believe? An Anglican Priest Explains September 24, 2020 […] However, in another important sense, Anglicans do have a unique set of beliefs that embraces the best of the ancient Christian faith and the Protestant Reformation. In an article titled “Is There an ‘Anglican Understanding’ of the New Testament?” Professor Wesley Hill said the following about Anglican beliefs: […] Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. Δ This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.