August 3, 2010

Rule and Ultimate Standard of Faith

I have been surprised that Anglican liberals have generally expressed few problems with the Sections 1–3 of the proposed Anglican covenant, while expressing nearly universal dislike of Section 4. The action taken by the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia exemplifies this phenomenon. Sections 1–3 deserve more scrutiny, however, before it’s too late.

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a greater skepticism regarding provisions that seem, on the face of it, comparatively innocent. (See, for example, Paul Bagshaw’s somewhat quirky analysis here.) In what follows, I want to raise a concern that should be obvious to all, but, due to the familiarity of the wording in the covenant draft, is likely to be missed.

Before doing so, however, let me say something about the structure of the draft and its significance. The covenant begins with an Introduction that, we are told, must be printed with what follows but is not actually a part of the covenant. I have been perplexed by this characterization and have suspected some hidden agenda behind it. I still do, but I have concluded that the Introduction is incoherent to the point of being of no consequence. I applaud Paul Bagshaw for trying to make sense of it. (See his comments here.) Sections 1–3 of the covenant draft set out the propositions around which future (or continuing) arguments within the Communion will center. Because of this, it is important to be completely comfortable with all of it, both now and forever (into the foreseeable future, at any rate). Finally, Section 4 sets out how Communion churches will fight over disputes involving the text of Sections 1–3.

I now call your attention to §1.1.3: “[Each Church affirms:] the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith [4].” The corresponding footnote cites the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888. The Quadrilateral is widely known and accepted, making its “sides” obvious propositions for incorporation into a covenant. There are problems, however:
  1. The Quadrilateral was never intended to define Anglicanism, although it is often thought of as fulfilling that function.
  2. The Episcopal Church has relegated the Quadrilateral to the Historical Documents section of the prayer book. It does not now articulate official church doctrine.
  3. The wording of §1.1.3 is taken from the resolution of the 1888 Lambeth Conference. It has never been voted on by The Episcopal Church.
The Chicago version of the Quadrilateral, incorporated in the resolution passed by The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops in 1886, said the following: “[We account t]he Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the revealed Word of God.” I consider this statement to be rather too broad and to invite serious questions about what it really means. On the other hand, I love the beautifully Anglican characterization of the Scriptures “as containing all things necessary for salvation.” This formulation says just enough, but not too much.

The covenant draft, however, says too much. Consistent with Resolution 11 of the 1888 Lambeth Conference, §1.1.3 describes Scripture “as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” What does that mean? What could it mean? It appears to say that, of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, Scripture always trumps the other two. And yet, Anglicans eat pork, play football, and seem unconcerned that John places the Last Supper on a different day than do Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We do not seem to treat the Old and New Testament as being “the rule and ultimate standard of faith.”

I don’t doubtKing Bible that many Anglicans read the 1888 Lambeth formulation with an understanding that allows them conscientiously to eat pork, play football, and lose no sleep concocting bizarre sequences of events that allow John’s account of the Last Supper and those of the other evangelists simultaneously to be historically “true.” There are those, however, who will take “rule and ultimate standard of faith” as sanction to elevate particular verses to the status of ultimate, incontrovertible doctrine. I predict that, among such verses, will be Romans 1:26–27.

In other words, §1.1.3 entails Communion approval for and invitation to prooftexting or worse. Arguably, approval of the proposed covenant would represent the adoption by the Anglican Communion of sola scriptura and a rejection of the Hooker trio of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as sources of authority in Anglicanism. Mischief will result.

No Anglican Covenant

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