Book Review: Anglican Bibliology for a Progressive Audience

Gregory C. Jenks (Editor)
The Once and Future Scriptures: Exploring the Role of the Bible in the Contemporary Church
Salem, OR: Polerbridge, 2013.
Available at Amazon.com

See other reviews by Mark Thompson and Neil McKinlay. For a critique of progressive Christianity in Bribane see Ralph Bowles.

“If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
-St. Augustine

I’ve found myself persistently involved with a wide variety of Christians from various traditions and have tried to understand what they think about Scripture and what they do with Scripture. From the ultra-conservative to the ultra-postmodern, I’ve tried to engage with how different theologies address the power, purpose, promise, and problems that Scripture bequeaths to us. I’ve co-edited a volume on Scripture, proposed a bibliology in my own systematic theology, and am currently writing up a contribution as an international observer to the in-house American inerrancy debate. Thus, as a theologian and as an Anglican, I was very interested to read about a collection of essays on Scripture put together by a number of Anglican scholars from my native city of Brisbane.

In the foreword, Archbishop Philip Aspinall notes that “Few Anglicans in Brisbane have any depth or knowledge of the Bible; few read it or study the Bible regularly” (ix) which is sad given that “The Bible is the bedrock of the faith” (ix). He notes that an intelligent reader will have difficult questions that must be addressed and a pre-Enlightenment view of the Bible is no longer possible. Aspinall then asks, “Is it possible for today’s Anglicans to hear God speaking through Scripture” to which he gives a “Resounding, yes!” He believes that in Scripture we can “hear … the voice of God calling us into life” (xi). A fine foreword that tries to balance several competing claims all at the same time.

In the “Introduction” Gregory C. Jenks (see his earlier book The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives) argues that biblical criticism has eroded confidence in the Bible as the “word of God” in the traditional sense and this “offers us the opportunity to re-imagine the Bible, taking it seriously while refusing to take it literally” and a chance to reaffirm that “God is encountered when these sacred texts are read from the vantage point of faith, hope, and love” (1-2). While the Bible is a “problem” for the church, it is also a “source of faith, hope, and deep wisdom” (2). The authors are approaching the project of re-thinking the role of Scripture as Anglicans with “a deep love of our church’s ancient traditions, forms of ministry, sacraments  and – in particular – the Scriptures that have such a special place in the life of our church” (2).

In the first essay, Gregory Jenks  (“The ‘Problem’ of the Bible”) argues that historical criticism has made historic affirmations of the Bible’s authenticity untenable. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, he thinks it has become “exaggerated and naive” to believe that the Christian Scriptures are “uniquely authoritative, inerrant, infallible, historically correct, self-sufficient, internally consistent, self-evident in their meaning, and universally applicable” (11). Jenks is convinced that much of the Bible is sheer fiction. So what is needed is a form of “ascendent religion” with a “critical (prophetic?) stance” towards the Bible and which finds common ground with “artists, philosophers, scientists, and literary scholars” (12). For its own sake, as for ours, the Bible needs to be re-imagined, only then can it have relevance for readers. The Bible can be utilized in human transformation like ecological justice and “this kind of Christianity will draw us beyond the Christian Scriptures.” So instead of “rehearsing the mighty acts of God” we can discern the wisdom of God for present times (19). This is followed with some tortured interpretation of the articles and Anglican constitution concerning revelation and inspiration. Of course, it does not enter Jenks’ mind that the assured results of biblical criticism might not be so assured, given the sheer volatility of biblical criticism itself as a discipline, evidenced by the constant revision of its own theories (who really believes in JEDP in its original form and historical Jesus studies are currently like an asylum?)

Cathy Thompson (“Scripture as Normative Source in Theology”) engages in a postmodern approach that affirms the integrity of scriptural texts as well as the freedom of theologians to interpret them. For her, “normativity” is “suggestion of meaning” rather than “enforcement of truth” (41). At one point she calls the Bible overtly “patriarchal, racist, imperialist, and homophobic” and we must read against the grain of the text (33). Her conception of the development of christology is ill informed, appealing as she does to the notion that the christological titles were ambivalent and inconsistent, and were over cooked in a metaphysical stew later on. Better descriptions for the origins of christology are available (sadly no mention of Hurtado, Hengel, Dunn or others can be found here). I remain unsure as to how the cultural situatedness of the Bible requires a partitioning of text and authority. Neither does Thompson sufficiently wrestle with the possibility of a creedal and catholic context for the origin and interpretation of scripture.

Steve Ogden (“Wisdom as Well as Facts”) points out that the war between fundamentalists and progressives is simply unwinnable for any side (note: anyone who is not a progressive is a fundamentalist for evangelical conservatives apparently hold the same epistemology! [n. 2]). Ogden rejects the epistemology of both groups and urges instead a communal context for reading, not for historical truth, but for wisdom. While I appreciate the turn towards epistemology as the root of the divide, the problem here is that the depiction of evangelical hermeneutics is caricatured. It is filled with so much straw, you could take one of the arguments, stick a costume on it, and audition it for the role of the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. How I wish Ogden would pick up a Kevin Vanhoozer or an Anthony Thiselton and critique that!!

Nigel Leaves (“Scripture, God-Talk, and Jesus”) writes as if the Jesus Seminar is still the hip and coolest thing in Jesus studies. He is seemingly unaware that the Jesus Seminar is now a joke in historical Jesus studies and lampooned as the “California Jesus” by Gerd Theissen and Richard Burridge. From his essay, I don’t think he’s read a book about Jesus since 1999. I like his approach of beginning with Jesus, even a historical Jesus, but his Jesus looks strangely like a pomo progressive. His assumption is that the Bible is not revelation but an anthology of religious anthropology. Thus, Leaves proposes that if Christianity is to survive, then, it must “develop an inclusive theology and break free from the dogmatism and exclusivity that characterizes its conservative elements” (75). I should buy Leaves a subscription to the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (for which I’m on the editorial board), but it might send him into a bout of depression when he finds that the Cynic Jesus died around the same time that the comedy show “Mad About You” was cancelled.

Susan Crothers-Robertson (Scripture and Formation for Ministry) looks at scripture in ministerial formation. She takes on J.I. Packer’s view that candidates for ministry are not well-served by exposure to biblical scholarship. For the most part, it’s an okay essay, it posits scripture as important to spiritual formation, but I prefer to speak of “believing criticism” when it comes to biblical study and emphasize as well the importance of theological reading (i.e., reading in a Nicene-Chalcedonian context). She does advocate, however, a view that while the scriptures are central, they are not infallible, and are “open to criticism” (90). The problem is that whatever authority you critique then by becomes your de facto infallible authority.

Marian Free (“The Bible in Liturgy”) talks about the role of Scripture in liturgy. She opines the decline of numbers in attendance in church, but I think it might have something to do with her suggestion about drawing on the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Philip. She makes a wonderful exhortation to preach the gospel (107), though I’m not sure what gospel she means if the androgynous Gospel of Thomas is on the menu.

Peter Catt (“Scripture, Science, and the Big Story”) is the oddest piece, arguing that we should reject the biblical storyline since it created the oppressive “Christendom narrative” and opt instead for a meta-narrative based on quantum physics and evolution.

I would aver that the central contention of this book is that Scripture is safe for progressive Christians because it is not normative but is negotiable. I would even argue that the primary aim is to reject the notion that Scripture is the “norming norm”  as tradition has often put it, thus freeing us to either cherry pick its contents, or to disregard it entirely. The book, for reasons well-motivated given the context, is about liberty from biblical authority and imagining an Anglican future where the Bible has no more authority than archived copies of the church bulletin.

Let me say that I understand the dilemma of grappling with difficult passages (difficult theologically, historically, and ethically) and trying to show the relevance of a book that includes pre-scientific creation accounts, ancient near eastern law codes, Jewish poetry, Graeco-Roman biographies, lengthy letters with heavily didactic content, and an Apocalypse, all written in times and places very foreign to our own time and place. I also get the challenge of showing how the Christian Scriptures speak to a largely post-Christian and secular audience who are more readily entertained by reading 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight novels. I am also cognizant of the situation in Brisbane where most Anglican parishes and the Anglican social services are inhabited by people who don’t know anything about the Bible, don’t believe the Bible, are not remotely interested in the Bible, and even find a large proportion of the Bible repugnant – how do you interest them in taking the Bible seriously? I get it!

However, if you find yourself asking a question along the lines: Why should Anglicans (or any Christian for that matter) bother to read Scripture, then something has gone seriously wrong. Even worse, telling people that the Bible is okay because it is not binding nor believable, and one should feel free to pick and choose verses or vignettes that sound warmly queer or wonderfully quaint, is not exactly a winning strategy for stirring people to take up and read Scripture. In fact, I would say that you are willfully departing from the catholic faith when you insist that God does not actually reveal himself in Scripture, when you start denigrating the biblical authors as morally reprehensible ignoramuses (esp. the Old Testament and St. Paul), mock its contents, chastize people who actually believe it, and urge people to take it in any sense other than literally. You do not salvage Scripture by savaging it.  You do not make Scripture sacred by sanitizing it of orthodox Christianity.

I think it important to comment on the type of Anglicanism and the type of Christianity that the authors are projecting. I get the impression (and its only an impression) that while some of the authors enjoy wrestling with Scripture as a religious problem, and though they appreciate something of the Bible’s antiquity and aesthetics,  they do not actually like Scripture as an authoritative text, and as such  they would like to be free from Christian Scripture and the insipid dogmas that it generated. Liberation from such textual tyranny would enable the authors to forge a post-Christian and post-Theistic faith. A faith gladly pruned of its malodrous catholic and orthodox roots and finally free to forge new ways of expressing religious consciousness in a postmodern age. After reading the book I am left wondering (and I’m not wondering far from their intellectual line) that some of the authors would much prefer that congregations publicly read Germaine Greer than Genesis, Noam Chomsky than Chronicles, Oprah than Obadiah, Marx than Mark, or the Gospel of Philip rather than Philippians. These other texts would seem to be far more conducive to the ideologies that the authors want to cultivate and the Bible in fact seems to be inhibiting progress towards a shift in values towards this direction. In deconstructing the authors’ intellectual plane as it appears to me (though appearances can be deceiving) a few of the authors look to be strangely reminiscent of the arch-liberal Bp John Colenso and like him are really closet unitarians who only remain part of the established church because they want to be players in the big game. At the end of the day, the authors seems to believe that the only reason for keeping Scripture in the Church is because heavily vetted fragments of the Scriptures can provide a religious grammar to anchor projects relating to eco-care and neo-marxism in something vaguely transcendent. Much like the United Church of Canada, the authors look as if they are plotting a course towards a transcendent atheism which knows neither revelation nor redemption; a faith beyond canon and creed; a community embarrassed about its religious heritage and now wants make good by plotting a way that it can make minimal usage of its scriptural paraphernalia while retaining a philanthropic role for itself in society. In sum, this book is not only inconsistent with the teaching of the 39 articles and the model of using Scripture set forth the in BCP, it seems to be a cross between an esoteric revision and a wholesale rejection of their claims about Scripture in toto.

The absurdity of the book can be easily demonstrated. Imagine the ‘Victor Hugo Society” where its president gets up and denies that Victor Hugo really wrote Les Miserables in any direct sense (though the guy who wrote it might have had an experience of him in some French cafe), the President then deplores Valjean’s shameless accumulation of wealth and his participation in the student uprising, accuses Valjean of keeping Cossette as his sex-slave, insists that the voices of Javert and Thenardier were suppressed and need to be heard afresh, suggests that we abandon the grand narrative within Les Miserable because it oppresses alternative readings of the French Republic, and asks the society if there is any reason why anyone would continue to reading a book that promotes morally debased and economically unfair beliefs. This sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, but when Anglican scholars try to convince us that Scripture is aesthetic but not authoritative, and it cannot be taken to heart except with a list of qualifications as long as the Via Dolorosa, it is hard to take them seriously.

Finally, I remain impressed how open minded progressive are so close minded towards views other than their own. These essays are not ground breaking feats of research, they are deliberately narrow in the scholarship they interact with, and the book looks little more than preaching to a very shrinking choir.

I pray that the Brisbane Diocese has a “Barthian Moment,” where some eccentric  priest in the place – much like Karl Barth in 1918 – stands up and starts preaching Scripture with the ferocity of a man or a woman who really believes that God is making his arresting voice heard afresh. A preacher who has the chutzpah and conviction to say that Scripture is not a warm up act for ethics or economics, but it is about God confronting us with his all-embracing grace and his all-satisfying majesty. A vicar who might show scandalous contempt for assuaging secular unbelief and talks with outrageous disregard for cultural acceptance. A preacher who drops a bombshell in a postmodern paradise and says that Scripture is not a mirror, not a maze, but the divine “memra,” a word from another world. A preacher who acts if he really believes what he/she is’ preaching so that audiences will discover that the Word of God is not an symphony of religious aesthetics, not a relic of a once religious past, but Scripture is the Holy Spirit speaking to us, and his Word is Christ, and Christ is Saviour – and Christ’s love is infinitely fulfilling, his goodness is immeasurably bountiful, his compassion is eternally enduring, his death breaks the bonds of death, his resurrection makes all things new, and his promise to be with us till the end can never be broken. Perhaps then, as St. Paul says, “through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement that they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).

  • Martin Kemp

    Well, there are some champions of biblical orthodoxy up there in Brisbane; if you ever get a chance to speak to Rev Adam Lowe (Parish of Noosa), ask him about some of the broader work he is doing in the diocese, including lecturing in NT at the theological college as an evangelical, no less! We don’t necessarily need a neo-orthodox revolution to start making some ground, as much as we might like the odd bit of drama.

    • JD

      there are some of us up here fighting hard, mike knows us, we would really like evo’s to know that there are still some Christian ministers within the Brisbane Anglican diocese. Interesting fact though. it’s the evangelical church that are growing. feeling called to come up north?

  • Richie

    Michael, this review is on the money point by point throughout. Thank you for taking the time for doing this. It is actually an indictment of a movement that began long ago in mainline churches and is the exact reason that I personally left the Presbyterian Church of the USA for the house church movement forty years ago.

  • Barry

    In your quest to understand progressive Christianity you might be helped by an essay written by David Hollinger, Professor of History at the University of California at Berkeley: “After Cloven Tongues of Fire”, available here: http://history.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/cloventongues.pdf. Hollinger’s analysis is incisive and very insightful.

    • Mr Fast Bike

      Hollinger’s adress is very helpful! I’ve been struggling to hear a ‘new’ voice from God after turning from my last twenty years of devotion, study and teaching in conservative churches. I believe the very serious questions that lead to answers such as these presented in ‘The Once and Future Scriptures’ are not dealt with in the conservative church in a manner that breaks free of its circular reasoning.

      Pete Enns is providing a forum that seeks to move forward while maintaining a faith: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/05/the-biggest-obstacles-to-staying-christian-the-next-step/
      I follow with interest, but wonder how he does it…
      May God bless us?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X