Monday, September 24, 2007

Who is Drifting from Biblical Truth

One More Disgraceful Attack on The Episcopal Church is Challenged
by the Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

Editor's Note: This essay was stimulated by a discussion of the remarks of Archbishop Mouneer Anis during Friday's session of the House of Bishops meeting. The archbishop’s remarks reiterated in part the baseless charges that the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Bible.

One of the commenters on the archbishop’s speech scolding the American church was a prominent conservative, Kendall Harmon, whose observations were reported on the conservative website, OneNewsNow:

Dr. Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, says it is very unlikely the Episcopal Church will agree with what Anglican leaders are asking. He says the denomination is in denial about its drift from Biblical truth.

"What's so frustrating about the Episcopal Church," Harmon says, "is they make changes and then when it comes to crunch time, they won't admit that they [made] changes, and instead they play games with words, and they say one thing and do another. And that's what's going to be attempted in New Orleans."

Canon Harmon’s allegations echo old and tired charges against the Episcopal Church. However, contrary to his allegations, this is the hard reality: The Bible is being taken more, not less seriously by the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. This is a truth that Canon Harmon and others in the Network/CANA/AMiA/WhatHaveYa group are unwilling to acknowledge or address.

Biblical scholarship did not end in the nineteenth century, though that is the impression left by those who claim to be the Biblically orthodox. Modern Biblical scholarship seems to contradict nearly every assertion made by those who are charging that the leadership of the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Bible. For instance, nearly every New Testament scholar notes that what once were considered gentle parables of growth (Leaven, Mustard Seed, etc.) have a quite different message – including biting attacks by Jesus on the purity code. It was upon that purity code that Paul based his rejection of homosexual behavior.

When you have Jesus undermining the Biblical basis for Paul’s condemnations, what you have left are Paul’s personal prejudices and beliefs. Was Paul right to condemn promiscuous sex, temple prostitution, and sexual exploitation? Of course he was! However, the evil inherent in those activities has nothing to do with human relationships built on love, mutual caring, and sacramental fidelity. Jesus, apparently, was well aware of the damage done when you impose a purity code onto human relationships filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul, however, must have been out with a cold during that lesson! [Pardon the anachronism.]

Paul corrects his misunderstanding of the continuing authority of the purity code in his long discussions of law and grace in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. However, for a few verses in Romans he seems to forget his own theology – and that lapse has led to the continuing use of ancient rules rejected by Jesus. Worse, Paul's blunder has been used as a weapon to batter and to exclude those we do not understand, as well as to crucify any church that recognizes their full humanity.

Many bishops, priests, and spokespersons from the "right" have derided the growing inclusiveness of the Episcopal Church as though it were a new thing, unrelated to our history. Our history as a Christian church is, of course, a history of ever-expanding inclusiveness. That history of ever-growing inclusiveness began with Jesus and the almost immediate struggles documented in the Book of Acts concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles. That history has continued down to the recent and much, much belated full inclusion of Blacks and women into the full fellowship of Christ’s Body.

How did we miss the persistent witness of Jesus to God’s intention and will that the kingdom be fully inclusive? It is there in plain sight in the parables of the Wedding Feast, the Good Samaritan, the Unjust Steward, the Persistent Widow, and others. In the Marriage Feast, messengers are sent out first to gather the marginalized into the wedding feast and then to those outside the bounds of the faithful in order to make the feast complete. The despised Samaritan is lifted up as the prototype of effective love. The devious steward and the sinful Publican are lauded by Jesus. In the parables of the Lost Coin, the Unjust Judge, and the Leaven, women are used as the metaphor for God. Is it that hard to get what is happening here?

Surely, to accuse a church with a wide embrace for those embraced by Jesus but marginalized by the religious establishment – to accuse us of “abandoning the Holy Scriptures” is to reveal a woeful ignorance of the Bible itself.

When asked about their claims regarding the Bible, invariably the “orthodox” turn to John 14.6, in which John quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” They take that verse of the Bible to have only one possible interpretation, which is – roughly – that it is only through repentance and belief in Jesus that anyone will be admitted to the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately for those who want to use that verse to circumscribe religious reality, several reliable interpretations of that verse contradict theirs, especially when John 14.6 is seen in the context of the struggles between Christian and Jewish sects/communities of the time. If that were not enough, the parables cited earlier and many of the healing stories (including, prominently, the child of the Syro-Phoenician woman) also contradict the "orthodox" interpretation of John 14.6. Jesus is constantly finding and affirming saving faith in those outside the community of faith. For him, that seems to be an occasion for rejoicing, not for hand-wringing. St. Paul, himself, contradicts John 14.6 in his long and often overlooked argument in Romans 9-11, in which he states that the Jews remain the People of God, as God does not break promises. In fact, as Paul notes, because the Christian community has been grafted into Jewish holy history, our relationship to the continuing Jewish community is one of dependence, not as replacements!

For over five years I have asked “orthodox” bishops, priests, and laypeople at General Conventions, diocesan conventions, and in every other forum possible to provide a justification of their "orthodox" stance on Biblical theology that references the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] instead of vague statements about the Bible in general and the usual three to five verses from John's Gospel. There have been no takers. I want to be very clear here: close to six years of asking in a quiet, respectful tone – and no takers. I am amazed that those who are willing to use the Bible as a weapon are unwilling to converse about a central part of it. I keep hoping someone will prove me wrong here.

In a similar vein, I have searched the statements of the Anglican Primates who are most upset about our “abandoning the Bible” for any evidence of the life, the teachings, and the actions of Jesus Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke – and I have found none.

Here are some questions for anyone who wants to charge the leadership of the Episcopal Church with “abandoning the Bible” or failing to acknowledge the real authority of the Bible. I ask these questions not rhetorically, but out of genuine concern:

  • Whom did Jesus heal – and which of the healing stories involve repentance or conversion?
  • How did Jesus choose Levi, the tax collector, as disciple/apostle – apparently without evidence of personal belief or repentance?
  • What do you make of the parables that speak so movingly about sufficient faith outside Jesus' faith community?
  • What is the relationship between Jesus' community and the religious establishment?
  • What is the relationship between Jesus’ community and the marginalized people of his time?
  • Is there any group or class of people that Jesus excluded from his welcoming embrace?
  • How was it, when scholars tell us that Jesus honored women completely, that our church was able to marginalize them for nineteen hundred years?
  • Are there reasons we do not use the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11) and Paul’s list of the indications that the Holy Spirit is present in individuals and groups (Galatians 5:22-23) as the basis for our moral judgments on committed human relationships rather than the regulations of the purity code that even Conservative and Reformed Jews have rejected?
These are not difficult questions. They are questions, though, that reveal the ignorance of the attacks of those who believe that the Episcopal Church does not concern itself with the authority of the Bible. I believe it is disgraceful to ignore the teachings, the parables, the healings, and the loving and affirming relationships of Jesus Christ while charging those who not only affirm, but also treasure those realities with disregard of the Bible.

If there has been a change within the Episcopal Church over the past few decades, the change has come from our reading the Bible and taking its core message with complete seriousness. The change has also come from our willingness to subject our morality to the overwhelming evidence of the morality preached by the Incarnate One – even when it conflicts with the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans. Is that a kind of change to fear or to attack? No, it is not an occasion for attack – or really to fear. It represents the authentic voice of our Lord – and while that voice has often provoked fear, even in the faithful, it is also the path to our salvation.

14 Comments:

Blogger Derek said...

Far better said than I could (although singling out Kendall Harmon seems unwarranted, as he at least has engaged with, rather than merely caricatured, people with whom he disagrees), but this has been my problem with the self-described "orthodox" for years. They ignore the forest of the Gospel for the individual verses trees -- which they even seem to water, train into shapes, and definitely fertilize at the expense of the forest.

9/25/2007 8:20 PM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

speaking of caricatures, derek.

9/26/2007 5:06 PM  
Blogger C. Andiron said...

Shame on you Derek. You accuse the orthodox of cherry picking, and right after Woodward just got through excluding Paul from the canon. Talk about cherry picking.
"Biblical scholarship did not end in the nineteenth century, though that is the impression left by those who claim to be the Biblically orthodox."
No, but it was taken over by liberals with no respect for the Word. Biblical Scholarship isn't like medicine. It doesn't have anything empirical to correct you - it depends on the regenerate soul carrying it out whether it's an advance or not. It doesn't surprise me at all that while many areas of study 'did not end' but rather advanced, Biblical scholarship has been turned aside into the ditch by rebels who want to throw off God's authority.

9/26/2007 9:42 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Perhaps I was making a caricature, but I don't think so. A metaphor is not the same as a caricature.

And then C. Andiron speaks up to make my very point, equating some of Paul's verses with "God's authority" and saying "liberals" have no respect for the Word. THAT is a caricature.

I'll tell you who has no respect for the Word: those who would use individual verses and pericopes of it to detract from the Gospel message of God's love and Christ's redemption of us to that love.

But I will admit to caricature and bias on these grounds: I have yet to meet a true Christian who uses Scripture to deny anyone else a role in the kingdom. Any other kind of "Christian" is easily a caricature, complete with cartoon theology.

9/27/2007 10:23 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

C. Andiron, honestly, where did Thomas deny Paul is part of the canon of Scripture? He said that he believes that Paul contradicts Jesus in certain portions of his letters, but that is very different from Thomas rejecting Paul's letters from the canon of Scripture.

9/28/2007 4:22 PM  
Blogger C. Andiron said...

TBW may consider Paul part of the historical Christian bible and thus canonical in that sense, but if Paul contradicts Jesus all we have is "Paul's personal prejudices and beliefs", and so it's not divinely inspired. In which case, it's just human writing - why bother with it?
There's certainly tensions in the Bible but not contradictions. There's no call for people to give up on divine inspiration like this.

9/29/2007 7:45 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I believe we have a difference of opinion about what constitutes inspiration or revelation. Neither is a form of divine dictation. I like the definition of Norman Pittenger: "Religion is the response to the revelation of reality." The life, teaching, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ and his continuing presence in the Church constitutes the base level of revelation of reality. Putting that into specific moral directives such as women must have their heads covered when in public worship or homosexual people, no matter what their faith or their contribution to the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ, are going to burn in Hell through eternity -- that is another matter.

There are many contradictions in the Bible -- from the most blatant, as when Mark misquotes the prophets at the beginning of his gospel, to Paul's reliance on the purity code after Jesus had declared it no longer binding -- even more than that, actually.

Do continue to rely on the inspiration of the writings of Paul and others, but remember that they are human beings, doing their best with overwhelming material. Paul, for instance, soars into the heavens with his long discourses on the relationship between law and grace, though in Romans 1-2, offers up a blatant contradiction of those discourses, as if he never wrote them.

Thanks for posting your comments. This could be the beginnings of a fruitful dialogue.
Tom Woodward

9/29/2007 10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am curious as to if you have ever read Leviticus 20. The words directly from God to Moses? Are you saying that passage does not apply to us today???

I believe you are speaking heresy when you say that there are contraditictions in the Bible-absolute heresy! 2 Timothy 3:16 says "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

I have a question for you to, Tom, if there are contradictions in the Bible, why are you even using the Bible at all? Do you believe that Bible is the Word of God?

"Many bishops, priests, and spokespersons from the "right" have derided the growing inclusiveness of the Episcopal Church as though it were a new thing, unrelated to our history. Our history as a Christian church is, of course, a history of ever-expanding inclusiveness. That history of ever-growing inclusiveness began with Jesus and the almost immediate struggles documented in the Book of Acts concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles. That history has continued down to the recent and much, much belated full inclusion of Blacks and women into the full fellowship of Christ’s Body."

Are we able to just "include" everyone we want then? No way! If the Bible is the word of God, then it is! And we are to obey it!. The bible is clear about salvation: John 3:16(i am sure you are familiar with).

Concerning women pastors the Bible is also clear: 1 Timothy 2:11-13 proclaims, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
14And Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived, was in the transgression."

By the way, I am a woman. The Bible is clear, "rev."

10/19/2007 5:17 PM  
Anonymous christopher+ said...

It's really not worth quoting Leviticus unless one is truly observing all of its statutes and ordinances (Lev. 20:22), which I imagine the anonymous writer is not.

Lev 20:9, for example, requires death for anyone who "curses" - dishonors, insults - their father or mother. Would Anonymous say "that passage does not apply to us today???" Then again, perhaps there is a ready-made excuse that allows one to cherry pick Levitical statutes at will.

The meaning and application of the Holy Scriptures in the life of God's Church are not quite as clear as Anonymous seems to think. Indeed, she is even at odds with many biblically conservative Evangelicals who make room for the ordination of women. Quite simply, the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures is the ongoing work of the Church - and it's not always easy, and it's certainly not always clear.

Father Woodward, this is a very compelling article indeed. Perhaps someone - Anonymous? - will try to answer your thought-provoking, Gospel-focused questions.

10/20/2007 2:49 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Amen, Christopher. Again and again, Tom Woodward and others have asked the conservatives the simple question: How do you decide which laws are still absolute? How do you decide what portions of Scripture to interpret literally? They never yet have provided an answer.

10/20/2007 9:06 PM  
Anonymous Göran Koch-Swahne said...

"Paul corrects his misunderstanding of the continuing authority of the purity code in his long discussions of law and grace in his letters to the Romans and Galatians.

However, for a few verses in Romans he seems to forget his own theology – and that lapse has led to the continuing use of ancient rules rejected by Jesus."

Do you really find this assuption probable? or credible? or coherent? or anything, really?

Wouldn't it be much much simpler (Occham's razor, you know) to contend somebody else was there, mid to late 2nd century, with the intent (or misunderstanding) of defending the cultural, anti-cosmic, understanding (Vale of Tears, Dust-Ashes-Nothing; Abstentionism) against God's good Creation of the Bible and the Incarnation and the Gospel, just adding a few words?

For Romans 1:26-27 clearly is a latter day gloss, whose negative concept of "nature" was unthinkable even before Clement of Alexandria?

(much less the mandatory "nature" of scholastic "natural law").

And the same goes for the Pastorals...

11/04/2007 4:18 AM  
Anonymous Roger said...

Knowing this is "late" but having just found this site I'm prompted to post...

Christopher...Jesus quoted and, because He is alive, He continues to quote Leviticus. Your premise that only those made righteous by observing all the laws are in a position to quote them would gag us all, leaving lovelessness, murder, lying, adultery, etc...things we shouldn't oppose in word or deed. As Paul points out in Romans, only through Christ is anyone made righteous, not by being able to keep all God's laws.

Re: Lev 20:9; for the believer, the punishment for that sin (and all others) has been born by the Messiah. That doesn't imply we should encourage or enable others to curse their mother or father or commit other sinful acts.

Lisa...I like the fact that you bring "absolutes" into the dialog and believe many are confused by this aspect of the law. I submit there are 2 aspects of the law to be considered...1)behavioral guidelines or rules and 2)the benefits or consequences related to rule observation/adherence.

All of God's rules must be considered absolute in that they describe what one should do to live an abundant life that honors God. If His guidelines are not absolute, neither is He and that defies the logical definition of who and what God is.

As you may know, in Romans (and elsewhere) Paul explains that God's punishment (consequence) for our sins (as defined by absolute law) has willingly been accepted by Jesus, the Christ, the Holy, Anointed ONE who ALONE lived without breaking the law. Due to this, He ALONE has the capacity to bear the consequences for ALL sin and still live.

Because of His Grace and Love and Mercy and infinitely perpetual giving nature, we who believe He bore the burden of our sin are allowed to live even though our sin merits death.

Back to my original intent...the guideline of the law is abolute... if it is not, God is not absolute and if He is not absolute, either nothing is or something else is. If "something else" is, it would be "God"...in that regard, I've searched as far as I can and I haven't found anyone or anything that approaches the absoluteness I've found in the God of the Bible. I'm open to researching and debating other "gods" so please don't consider me close minded.

Regarding "nothing" being absolute...logic dictates that absolutes exist...consider the statement: "absolute truth exists"...this cannot be relatively true (let me know if you disagree) nor can it be false for to say "absolute truth DOES NOT exist" is itself an absolute statement that is trying to be true. Since it violates it's own existence as a logical premise, it is absolutely false. Meditate on this if it's obviousness is not immediately apparent or let me know and I'll try to be clearer.

Moving on...
It appears to many that the consequences of the law should not be absolute because we can't and don't want to live with that. We can all be thankful that God sees it that way as well and Jesus' atonement via the crucification is God's gift/answer for this. In turn, neither rejecting or accepting this gift implies His law is rejected or abolished or void of its' "absoluteness". Jesus fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17) and it remains fulfilled through love (Romans 13:10). If we reject His Love and His Word which include the Law we reject Him.

In closing, I'm glad I don't need to judge who or how God will judge because I know He is on the throne and He has already judged. His law has been upheld and will continue to be upheld based on His Word and history. He has judged me by His love and His law. Both are absolute and remain unbroken. It is we who become broken, by His love and by His law when we reject either and later recognize our failure.

Roger, over

11/06/2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Greiner said...

What an absolute hoot! Hey, thanks for letting me know where Paul lapsed against his own good theology. I'm glad you're here to correct him.

Excuse me, I need CPR. I'm dying from laughter.

Conservatives out there, advice from a brother. Save your pearls.

Peace.

12/04/2007 6:49 PM  
OpenID beemanta said...

Amen "annonymous" and "Mike"! Save your pearls is the best response I have yet seen for Jefferts Schori and her henchMEN! God truly has a place prepard for them and their blind followers like poor Rev. Tom.

12/28/2007 3:47 PM  

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