Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation
Wycliffe College, University of Toronto
1. The relationship between scripture and doctrine
Why has an appeal to ‘doctrine’ apparently replaced, or now stands in for, the first-order appeal to scripture more customarily undertaken when the report examines the issue of same-sex blessings? Because no explanation for the prioritizing of ‘doctrine’ as category of its own is given (we leave to the side the passing comments that scripture exists in its liturgical presentation; or that scripture is only ‘doctrine in the making’), one is left to presume. It bears reflection that for a central Anglican thinker like Hooker, even if one chose to pay particular attention to his use of ‘reason’ in relation to scripture (over against appeal to the Church, as in Roman Catholic approaches, in respect of scripture’s authority; or over against something like ‘self-authenticating authority’ with elements of Reformed thought) it remains incontrovertible that within his frame of reference theological statements proceed from scriptural reflection in some form. It is not possible to speak of ‘doctrine’ apart from the sentences, paragraphs, and larger canonical form of the church’s scriptures. Why has the situation changed in the context of our present Anglican struggles?
It is important to reflect on this development, for even if the matter is assessed without the proper proportion, or a wrong explanation is provided, it remains the case that the way scripture has ceased functioning as the chief ground of appeal calls for specific comment. This is all the more true because it would be a curious development if doctrine could somehow become a replacement for scripture, which is the foundation of its very logic and force. In his battle with the Arians over ‘of one substance’ Athanasius engaged in page after page of exegetical argument from Proverbs 8. There was no doctrinal point to be made that was anything less, so far as he was concerned, than scripture coming to its proper boil – recourse to ‘creeds’ or ‘doctrine’ would have begged the question precisely under debate. Scripture was not for him texts familiar from liturgical presentation, nor was it even the NT’s take on the history of Israel’s religion in the OT, but rather entailed a sustained exegetical probing of the plain sense of an Old Testament text (Proverbs 8) so as to hear its Christian voice in respect of creation, God Almighty, and the Son. Just how were these central matters and figures related? Examples from the ante-Nicene fathers would make the point even clearer: there the Rule of Faith is a drawing out of the Christological heart of the scriptures the church inherited from the Jews, in relationship to the growing testimony of what would in time become the second testament of Christian Scripture. Precisely when there are no formal creeds, and no formal ‘doctrine’, scripture does its first-order work. As with the example of Athanasius, that does not change in the subsequent life of the church, but becomes all the more the case, precisely when creedal confession is under pressure or in need of clarification.
One explanation for this recent alternative is that the appeal to ‘doctrine’ sets up the possibility that ‘doctrine’ is more amenable to progression, development, and change, and therein lies the rationale for referring to it, rather than scripture. It serves better the larger purpose of the movement for change in the church’s understanding of marriage. This notion probably has its roots in the idea that scripture too changes, or progresses, from weaker to stronger kinds of claims on the Christian Church, given its two-testament character. This notion has deep roots in late-eighteenth and nineteenth century assumptions about the nature of historical change, and an assessment of the two testaments of the one canon of scripture made on the basis of this, at least in the intellectual West. It does not conform to the longstanding concern in the catholic church for the ontological claims of scripture (that the triune God is at work in creation, in Israel, in promise and in reality); the Old speaking of Christ in its idiom, the New in its idiom. Or in Augustine’s famous expression Jesus Christ is in the Old Testament latent, in the New Testament patent.
This hunch is confirmed by the presence of a single, persistent appeal to one scriptural text in the otherwise untidy and parlous landscape of reflections on scripture in the sexuality debates. One should note that these debates began by challenging assumptions about the plain sense of individual texts traditionally seen to be significant in the way Christians thought about sexuality (Leviticus, Romans, Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians). We leave to the side here whether such individual texts only ever made sense against a much thicker account of sexuality based upon comprehensive accounts of the nature of creation, Israel as bride, covenant relationships as based in love, the Church as Bride of Christ, and so forth. The point to be made is that appeal to individual texts as requiring a fresh reassessment has shifted over the years. This is in part due to the fact that even ‘liberal’ readers of scripture agreed that these individual texts did say what they had traditionally been held to say, and that therefore the Bible really needed to be placed under a more inventive or severe kind of appraisal: it was simply outdated, wrong, or culturally constrained. This is a different line of argument, and so requires, theologically, some defense on the basis of a quasi-doctrinal and non-exegetical nature (the ‘spirit’s new word’). Here is the scripture/doctrine cleavage manifesting itself.
In the wake of this, how might one then think about the role of scripture? This question became acute once the ground was cut out from the under the ‘it is possible to read these texts in some other way’ idea, precisely for those wishing to claim the Bible really was a good, or serviceable book after all and not to be rejected. Post-modernity in some forms came to the aid as an ally, by arguing that ‘plain sense’ or ‘thick accounts’ were themselves constructs, and that texts cannot have the kind of constructive and constraining force Christians have more traditionally taken them to have. The appeal to individual proof texts was stalled altogether by a larger notion that the Bible really cannot deliver something like a plain or constraining sense. At best it instantiates religious motives, or points to ideals or virtues of various kinds. One sees something of this kind of use of Scripture in the St Michael’s Report.
2. The appeal to Acts 15 in the present discussion
The text that has weathered the debates and continues to be appealed to in many circles is Acts 15. One thesis of the present essay is that the appeal to Acts 15 explains why doctrine has become a detachable category, out beyond the traditional appeals to the plain sense of scripture.
Acts 15 records the adjudication of the decision of Peter to baptize a Gentile believer. Attractive here is the notion that Acts 15 speaks of something like ‘the first council of the church.’ On that ground, it serves to provide an analogy to our present discussions, outside the framework of Acts, the New Testament, and Christian Scripture as a whole. The church is now facing a moment of adjudication like the apostolic decision-making event that takes place within the New Testament.
Secondly, Acts 15 is thought to be useful because religious convictions said to be operative in the past are here, it is argued, being set aside. As that was true then, so it is true now. Acts 15 saw the setting aside of older revelation, and we need to set aside older catholic and scriptural teaching on human sexuality.
Thirdly, Acts 15 records that the Holy Spirit was at work in the early decisions of Peter and of the decision-making body in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit is that agent who declares older teaching to be in need of revamping and, if need be, overturning. The Holy Spirit is the warrant for moving beyond scriptural or catholic teaching, and for addressing a new day with a ‘new truth.’
Several things can be said about the appropriateness of these three points, and of others that may be said to follow from them. First, it is unclear in general terms whether the Church in the late modern West may be free to think of itself as on direct analogy with the apostolic community of the New Testament, and this for several key reasons. The Church of the late modern West is divided, and so the claims of one its number (The Anglican Church of Canada) to be ‘the Church’ are themselves part of the cause of the problems we now must face. The fact that other Churches (including the vast majority of Christians today and through time) have reached a clear decision about the matter in question, and base this on either scripture or received tradition or both, establishes the point.
Further, the apostolic community of the book of Acts is facing a problem which in the very nature of the case is an internal NT one, and not easily related to the post-Biblical Church (however we define its scope and character). That is, how is the Jewish Christian body of apostles properly to reflect on an issue involving the extension of the Gospel into a Gentile world? The ruling itself shows that the decision was made precisely as an address to this issue: the gentiles were to be seen as sojourners in Israel, and so those proscriptions that applied to them in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 17 and 18) would here be operative. The very fact that the Western text of Acts has a different set of proscriptions reveals at once that the analogy was imperfect once the Christian Church became largely severed from its Jewish roots, roots which are everywhere in place in Acts and in the apostolic circle which declared Israel’s Messiah Lord and God. This problem (of a Jewish Christian church seeking to bring gentiles into its fellowship in a manner consistent with Prophets and the Holy Spirit and the dominical teaching) is manifestly not the problem of late modern decisions about same-sex blessings.
Then there is the related problem, moving to the second point, that the ruling given overthrows nothing at all. It is seen to be consistent with the prophets. Indeed, as has been shown without a doubt, the ruling is based upon the Law of Moses, and derives its logic from Leviticus’s understanding of the sojourner in the midst of Israel. All in the council agree. The Old Testament spoke, did it not, of the Gospel breaking forth from its own covenantal logic? That question would surely have been answered ‘Yes’ by all involved in the decision. At question was precisely not overthrowing, but upholding the Law and the Prophets. Again, there was no possibility of ‘doctrine’ being anything other than an appeal to the scriptures – an appeal in no way hindered because those in the New Testament had no New Testament, it might be added.
Finally, (in regard to the third point), the Holy Spirit’s work, we are told by Peter, was to bring to mind what the Lord Jesus had said. This simply confirms the larger logic already rehearsed. The Holy Spirit ‘spake by the prophets’ (as the later creeds would put it, based on texts like these, and on the presentation of the Old Testament itself). The Holy Spirit spake in relationship to the dominical teaching remembered. The Holy Spirit spake through scripture and Lord to confirm to all the decision reached. We leave to the side whether Acts 15 was ever very useful given that its proscriptions could be said to be anything but ‘liberalizations’ in respect of sexual conduct now expected of sojourners baptized in the name of Jesus, insofar as the consistent witness of Acts 15 (in the Western text as well) was prohibition of porneia. In the early church this meant the classical understanding of Christian marriage as the sole context for sexual activity.
The late modern appeal to doctrine, with its attendant notions of ‘Holy Spirit overturning,’ has treated the Bible in such a way that it searches for moments of direct analogy, and then applies them, in this way assuming that scripture’s authority has been retained in important ways. An event inside of scripture itself becomes a ‘doctrinal moment’ capable of standing alone, in this way showing the church to be like what it seeks to find. This demands of course a serious commitment to individual texts and discrete episodes (read according to what George Lindbeck calls an experiential-expressivist hermeneutic), and not to the comprehensive scope of scripture, which inheres with its claim to be scripture, and not discrete episodes in religious history.
Here we also see why the report will incline toward saying Holy Scripture ‘contains’ things. That verb of course was deployed in Anglican and more generally Christian circles long before the advent of what Lindbeck classified as the experiential-expressivist handling of scripture, itself an outgrowth of nineteenth century notions of history and biblical reference. By using this traditional word in a context very different than its original usage (there is a pattern developing here), the Holy Scriptures are turned into episodes of decision-making and ‘doctrinal’, spirit-led, reconsiderations. One need only consider that the idea of “containing all things necessary to salvation” sat closely in Anglican articles alongside the idea of scripture “not being expounded in such wise that one portion be repugnant to another.” Both are consistent with the spirit of Cranmer’s collect, whereby “God Almighty has caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning.” The ideas of selectivity or evolving religious history were not key conceptualities in the framework of earliest Anglican Christian theology.
The central role given to ‘doctrine’ follows of course from developments in other parts of the liberal Anglican West, along with its step child ‘core doctrine.’ One can see almost immediately how far removed this notion of a separation of ‘doctrine’ from scripture is from either the Rule of Faith or the baptismal interrogatories of earliest Christianity, or the actual creeds themselves. The exegetical pressure exerting itself in each of these instances is enormous. In modernity this close association of scripture and doctrine could only be ignored by turning the Bible into an altogether different version of the Reformation’s sola scriptura: that is, detaching it from its organic relationship to catholic teaching in the form of creeds and the rule of faith (the word is of course the same one used of canons of scripture), and then creating a ‘core doctrine’ because in the meantime the notion of theological or doctrinal address, in a full sense, had lost its logic and durability detached from comprehensive scriptural moorings. What was left to do, then, was to seize on a text like Acts 15 and say it was offering some warrant for commitments already well underway to full prosecution anyway. It became a doctrinally charged ‘for instance’ from antiquity of modern efforts to introduce change and claim for the changes some loose biblical and theological warrant.
Ironically, this is its own form of selective proof-texting. This is a handling of the Bible said by progressives to be the problem in traditional appeals to texts in defense of Christian marriage and against the blessing of same-sex behavior, and yet in reality, it has its own acute form in most progressive appeals to changing the scriptural and theological teaching. In a debate such as this, it is important to understand how scripture and doctrine reinforce and inform one another, as this has consistently been maintained in classical Anglican and catholic sources.