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The Strangeness of Scripture

ISS Reports


An address by Associate Professor Andrew McGowan on June 26, 2010


After the arrival of the Puritan refugees in what became the Massachusetts Bay colony aboard the Mayflower in 1620, a new settlement across the Charles River from their centre at Boston was founded in 1630, called the Newe Towne. And at Newtown — its name changed to Cambridge after 1638 — Eliot was to publish the first Bible in what was to become the United States of America, and indeed in the western hemisphere.

It was not a local printing of a King James or Geneva Bible. Eliot had a great heart for mission to the native Massachuset people, and after years of toil had the entire scriptures of the Old and New Testaments translated into their Algonquian language. [1]

However the Massachuset had no written language before this point. To be rendered in their own language, the Bible had to be put into a system of signs more culturally alien to the indigenous people than was spoken English. The results were mixed. A claim that by 1674 30% of the Massachuset to whom Eliot courageously ministered, in ways beyond this publication project, were literate in their own language can be taken as cause for both joy and pain. The same ambiguity can be seen in a hand-written marginal observation by one original owner of an Algonquian Bible: "I am forever a pitiful person in the world. I am not able clearly to read this, this book". [2]

Eliot also corresponded with the great Puritan divine Richard Baxter, a great advocate of the clarity of scripture, and obtained permission to translate his Call to the Unconverted into Algonquian.[3] This tract, a call to literacy as well as to faith, was not a success among the Massachuset. While in English its subsequent popularity in America for many years among what David Paul Nord calls the "optimistic, self-reliant, evangelical strain of the Anglo-American Puritan tradition" was remarkable,[4] it was no call that the "pitiful" were able to hear.

This historical example serves as a reminder that clarity of scripture and more broadly the efficacy of the proclamation of the Gospel are highly dependent on context.

Most Christians in most times have not been literate or sufficiently economically powerful to have regular access to books. The fact that this has changed in the developed world is cause for celebration, but perhaps not unqualified joy. Access to Bibles and to literacy has arguably been an obstacle as well as a path to salvation, at least where it was assumed by those proclaiming the Word that literacy was a necessity, and that a Church whose encounter with Scripture was a ministry of the Word heard more than read, was inconceivable or unacceptable.

It is not in the end plausible or proper to claim that the normal or necessary form of the Church and its common life can only or even normally be determined by the immediate accessibility of scripture to the individual as a book, rather than through the faithful witness of the community to its members, above all in the liturgy.

Irenaeus, second-century Bishop of Lyons, says for instance that

many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God... [rule of faith follows]. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed.... If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears... (Adv. Haer. 3.4.1-2)

He could of course have been speaking of the Massachuset. To claim otherwise disenfranchises most of the Church triumphant. Whether it also disenfranchised the Massachuset people of New England is not for us to judge.

It is therefore necessary to place the importance of scripture in a broader context.

The Anglican Communion and the Bible

The Anglican Communion worldwide is in continued uproar, with an undoubted if ill-defined realignment in progress.

The Australian Church has so far not been institutionally riven, but is culturally and theologically so. Neither the persistence of unity so far, nor its abiding fragility, can be underestimated. The Diocese of Sydney, with its energetic and committed promotion of a distinctive brand of Reformed Anglicanism, has turned into a para-denominational movement, with local parishes attuned to Sydney evangelicalism found in all major Australian cities, the same growing in influence in some other Dioceses, and also now breaking the banks of the institutional structures as men trained at Moore College, and others who have emerged from key parishes here, exercise significant influence across a variety of Australian locales and ministries.

An institution like Trinity cannot compare itself to Moore, except that it has become clearer to us, too, that we cannot serve the Church by passive dependence on existing local structures, and must rise to the challenge and promise of a fluid environment where the heritage of Anglicanism is contested, and perhaps the nature of the Gospel itself is too.

We are no longer focussed merely on training clergy who may serve the needs of a dying Church adequately if hopelessly, but more and more on equipping lay and ordained leaders who will renew the Church in forms whose specifics we cannot yet imagine, but which will demonstrate the conviction that one can love Jesus and the Bible and, for their sake, love the Church and the sacraments too. This we believe to be at issue, and this mission is one worth offering beyond our traditional geographical reach given the needs and challenges of the Church.

Yet we are not intent merely on providing the brains trust for a Fellowship of Inclusive Anglicans intent on going its own way as a mirror image to the children of GAFCON. We are keen to engage in the national and international debates with as much honesty and force as charity will allow, believing that we have more to learn from one another despite the depths of present difficulties, including about Scripture.

The topic of Scripture arises here not only because of its perennial importance to the Church, but because of the centrality given to Scripture and its interpretation in the Anglican conflicts to which I have referred.

There are those in parts of the Anglican Communion who do seem to have lessened the place of the Scriptures vis-à-vis other texts, or who regard aspects of experience or other sources of authority as equal to biblical revelation. They are not all professedly "Liberal", but there is little point in dismissing the possibility that the caricatures laid by conservatives at the feet of the American and Canadian Churches, and perhaps also in some corners of the Church of England and here in Australia, could not correspond in certain instances to reality. Whether these are the profound or all-pervasive realities depicted in some parts of the Anglican blogosphere is another matter entirely, and I suggest the value of such claims is small. The greater problem is that Anglicans who, taken as a whole, tend not merely to respect but to love Scripture, genuinely differ about its meaning in certain cases. My concern here is not to relativise the place of scripture, but to consider the conditions necessary for its interpretation, with Scripture itself an indispensable guide for that process.

So while the problem of not taking scripture seriously enough exists in the Church, there may be other problems too. The most obvious is not the equal and opposite, because it does not seem that the Church can take scripture too seriously. There is however a danger that the type of seriousness with which the Church engages with scripture is misconceived.

The story of the Massachuset Bible has its own lesson, if an ambiguous one. And the assumption that individual Biblical literacy is a necessary component of the life of faith has certainly encouraged the exercise of private judgement in ways previously not imagined; while there may be more Christians who understand their faith better in relation to scripture, there are certainly more who are divided from one other over matters of interpretation also.

In what follows I want to explore elements of an authentic Anglican approach to scripture, bearing in mind a few different points of reference: one will be the early Christian writers whom we call the Fathers of the Church; another, classical Anglican formularies and positions; and a third, the current circumstances, in which the appeal to scripture has played such a significant part.

God's Word

It is a fine thing to say that scripture is God's word, but the imprecision with which this identification is often made can have disastrous consequences.

A genuinely scriptural doctrine of God's word is not first and foremost a doctrine of the Bible. There is no doctrine of the Bible, in the sense of the complete canon of Christian scripture, in scripture itself, although of course there is a real if limited set of reflections about "scripture".

What we do find in the Bible is arguably a two-fold understanding of God's word, in general and in specific terms. In general, God's word refers to the fact of God's effective revelation, the word which is spoken and effects what it says. This is the word of God's "let there be" at Creation, the word which for Isaiah will "not return empty", the word which speaks hope and judgement through Ezekiel, the word which is living and active according to the Letter to the Hebrews. God's "word" is effective communicative action.

More specifically however, God's Word is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The definitive exposition of this doctrine of the Word is of course the first chapter of John's Gospel, where the eternal Word is identified both as the effective word of creation and, made flesh and having come to dwell among us, as Jesus. This identification of Jesus as one in the beginning with God, the creative power through which God's purpose is mediated to all things, is in any Christian reading of the Bible the most fundamental element of a doctrine of revelation; for it shows us that God's communication is the giving not of propositions, but of self.

What we learn about this self-giving in scripture is derivatively but genuinely God's word; it partakes in the general sense of God's effective revelation, and the Church affirms its character as God-given. In classical Anglican terminology scripture is "God's word written" — insofar as its words are both a form of this effective revelation of God and particularly as a witness to Christ the Word. Yet that phrase also qualifies the identification — "God's Word written" is not identical to "God's Word".

This terminology, however, seems to be distorted in some forms of Protestantism, which regard the fact of the canonical scriptures rather than their content as determinative of a doctrine of the Word of God. The orthodox and historic teaching that the Bible can be spoken of as God's Word is subtly reversed, subject and predicate substituted for one another, so that God's word is now the Bible.

The Way, the Truth and the Life, a document issued as a preliminary to GAFCON in 2008 may have to stand as the most authoritative guide to the positions attributable to the uneasy coalition drawn into that movement. The book seems to make a related shift when for instance it states that the "Old Testament is the [emphasis mine] written form of the word of God" and the Bible "is the [emphasis mine] Spirit inspired written form of the word of God".[5] And just as seriously, if somewhat different, it makes what must be seen as a gaffe, stating that "Though this fork in the road may present itself publicly as a choice in relation to aberrant sexuality, the core issues are about whether or not there is one Word, accessible to all, and whether or not there is one Christ, accessible to all". Doubtless the mistake is unintentional and forgivable, but it is real.

When, as so often, "God's word" is used simply and exclusively as a shorthand for the Bible, this risks making the Bible itself, rather than Christ, the centre of its witness. The Christological principle may then cease to be the touchstone for the authenticity of scriptural interpretation, giving way to one grounded in abstract notions of communication. The ethical hermeneutic of charity then gives way to an epistemic requirement such as absolute literal truth, or the more sophisticated notion of clarity or perspicuity. The implications of this shift are profound, and can extend through the whole of theology; the very character of God becomes a matter of God's willingness or ability to communicate clearly and effectively, where such communication is conceived abstractly, rather than accepting the Cross itself as communicating the kind of clarity that God chooses. While there is a danger inherent in more liberal theologies of simply resorting to "mystery" as a sort of sloppy resort for difficulties, it is not thereby wrong to affirm that the character of God's being and revelation are revealed in ways that are not clear by other standards of clarity.

Clarity and Perspicuity

I have no great quarrel with what I take to be the genuine or classical doctrine of scriptural perspicuity which, as defined in a document like the Westminster Confession, makes the claim, not that scripture is universally clear or its meanings obvious, but that it can be read faithfully, and the message of the Gospel — the Gospel of God's saving love as uniquely known in the person of Christ — can be discerned therein, without necessarily being provoked or catalysed directly by the teaching authority of the Church.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Westminster Confession, 1.7)

In nuanced expositions such as Mark Thompson's recent A Clear and Present Word, such limitations are acknowledged in such a way that there would seem little danger of the more extreme abuses of the idea.[6] Even when appropriately nuanced, however, we might still ask whether it is a genuinely helpful idea at all.

To insist on the importance of "clarity" as an inherent quality of scripture has meant, historically, to claim that the literate were arbiters of truth to the great mass of believers. Thus Eliot and Baxter felt compelled to bring both reading and the printed Bible to the people like the Massachuset, conceiving of no other proper way of bringing the Gospel.

The problem with the notions of clarity and perspicuity, even if properly restricted to the affirmation that the Gospel is itself clear, is that they tend to reify scripture itself in a way that stands in some tension with the Christian notion that the Word is revealed to the Church through the power of the Spirit. A proper doctrine of revelation and even of the reading of scripture does not consist of a set of affirmations about scripture itself as an isolated object, but refers always to the dynamic involving reader, spirit and text. In fact to give a full account even of reading as opposed to revelation would still require a more complex account of "reader" which includes the context.

In any case, to emphasise perspicuity and clarity in and of themselves implies that these are qualities inherent in the text independently of the reader. This smacks of a sort of solipsism of text, which is somehow understood to have an inherent power even when not read, or even of a sort of textual equivalent of the medieval scholastic doctrine of the Eucharist, understood to have a metaphysical reality independent of the Eucharistic action.

One does not have to succumb to the worst excesses of postmodern indeterminacy to insist that meaning is not inherent in a text but made in the encounter between reader and text. Theologically, this is affirmed by the Christian insistence on the role of the Holy Spirit, without whom the Biblical text is neither clear nor powerful. "Clarity" should therefore be reserved for God's Word, rather than for the letter of the text. For God's Word is not the text, but the effective action of the God to whom the text witnesses.


The early Christian writers whom we refer to as the fathers of the Church do not support an understanding of scripture implied by modern talk of "clarity" or "sufficiency". Neither do they imply the need for a sort of external ecclesiastical authority as the arbiter of truth.

Writers of the late second and early third centuries, like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen, all had to contend with groups who took scripture with enormous seriousness but whose interpretations were wildly different from those of emergent orthodoxy. These, most obviously the so-called Gnostics, tended to wade through scripture using allegorical methods to claim support for elaborate cosmological myths.

The orthodox response to the Gnostics was not to claim either sufficiency, or even the fairly obvious possibility of "clarity", as a retort to the obscurity of these biblical speculations. Rather the early theologians assessed the adequacy of biblical interpretation by the doctrinal and ethical coherence of its results, with the "Rule of Faith" — effectively the Apostles' Creed — as touchstone. Of course the Creed is largely derived from Scripture and indeed from what one might call its plain sense, so the questions of simplicity and accessibility are not irrelevant here.

Yet it was the Gospel, not scripture, whose clarity and accessibilty to the simple as much as to the wise they proclaimed.[7] All these early Christian writers acknowledged there were conundrums in scripture, some accessible only to the mature in faith, some purely intellectually demanding, some utterly mysterious.

Yet while the Gnostics saw the capacity to probe these conundrums as a means of achieving spiritual maturity or power, the emerging orthodox rejected such a hierarchy of propositions and persons. While some, like Clement and Origen themselves, were called to solve or at least probe these mysteries because of their calling as catechists or Christian philosophers, the basis of salvation was not knowledge of the answers to these questions but reception of the gracious truth revealed to the poor and ignorant — not least the illiterate — as much or more than to the wise and powerful.

The Bible and the Church

It must also be said that these early Christian writers all gave rather more room to the role of the Church as bearer of that Rule than Protestant hermeneutics would.

One of the reasons for the emergence of a strong idea of scriptural clarity was the important realization on the reformers' part that the authority of Scripture could not and should not depend on the mediation of ecclesiastical authority. However nuanced it may now appear to be, it is still strictly Roman Catholic teaching that the magisterium of the Church, subsisting in a clerical hierarchy, retains an apostolic tradition necessary for the adequacy of doctrine and interpretation.

The ancient Christian writers did not have this particular issue to contend with; for them, to insist on the place of the Church in the determination of genuine interpretation was not to invoke some third party or external authority, but to insist that the community of the Church universal that confessed the Rule of Faith was the necessary context in which the reading of scripture could take place.

To set the Fathers and the Reformers at odds here would simply be anachronistic. Yet we can and should ask whether an affirmation that the Gospel can be heard and believed by the simple, not least by reading scripture (otherwise unaided) requires or even allows the conclusion that the normal context for the proclamation of the Word is the personal act of reading rather than the communal act of hearing.

We can also ask whether the fullness of authentic interpretation is really as well-served by schism in search of truth as by persistence in service of unity. I do not expect this will convince all, and I myself acknowledge there must be circumstances where unity is impossible. Yet schism should be acknowledged, not only as regrettable, but as hermeneutically subversive.

Clarity and the Anglican Communion

Despite the focus we have seen in the Westminster Confession on the clarity of the Gospel rather than of the canonical scriptures per se, many subsequent commentators are clearly concerned, in defending the notion of clarity, not so much with the capacity of scripture to the witness to the Gospel, but to some much more general claim about the plain sense of scripture generally being evident, whether regarding a particular text or a particular issue.

This seems to be the case regarding the most contentious matters involved in the current difficulties within the Anglican Communion. This diverse group of Anglicans includes Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who reject women's ordination, and others who accept it; it includes evangelicals who deny any sacramental character in ordination at all, and some who at least advocate lay and diaconal presidency, as well as Anglo-Catholics who persist in a high sacerdotalism.

The Way, the Truth and the Life document states that "in Anglican tradition adiaphora are primarily matters to do with ceremonies and robes, and not issues concerning doctrine or morality".[8] The implication is that issues like liturgy and ministry might not be about doctrine would surprise quite a few confessing Anglicans, not least those whose difficulties with their national Churches have stemmed in large part from differences over the ordination of women.

The great irony of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is that its historic catalyst has not really been scripture as such, or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Book of Common Prayer, all of which I suspect are likely to be respected and loved as much outside that Fellowship as within it; its catalyst has been the issue of human sexuality. The basis of that opposition is of course understood to be the authority of scripture; but the implication is that scripture is, if not more authoritative then at least supposedly clearer about homosexuality than about, say, gender roles. This must be questioned.

The Bible and Slavery

An unwillingness to step beyond insistence that the Bible is clear is, however pious to the ear, less than the Bible demands or the Church needs.

Another historical example concerning the use of the Bible in America is worth considering here. During the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century, Americans became increasingly divided on the question of slavery. Common however across the political divide, due to the success of the Great Awakening and then the Evangelical Revival, was a tendency towards acceptance of the clear authority of the Scriptures understood in their plain, literal sense. Amid the increasing confusion of denominationalism, "Scripture alone" had taken on a somewhat new sense and power; all else divided, and Scripture alone united.[9]

As the conflict over slavery escalated, first in the political arena and then ultimately in America's bloodiest war, the equal appeal in both North and South to the plain meaning of scripture as the basis for the utterly opposing positions held seems rarely to have led to circumspection about the principles of interpretation themselves, largely because they were the same. The result seems to have been confusion and anger, and a paradoxical failure to maintain theological conversation that made its own contribution to the conflict to come.

A British observer, James Stirling, who was an opponent of slavery, nonetheless confessed himself quite convinced, exegetically at least, by the arguments of the southern preacher Albert Taylor Bledsoe:

I must confess that, as against his opponents the orthodox Abolitionists, he is perfectly triumphant... [A consideration of the patriarchs, the Mosaic law, and the New Testament] are irresistible proofs that the institution was recognized by the founders both of Judaism and Christianity. How those who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible... are to reconcile these facts with modern anti-slavery notions, it is, thank goodness, no business of mine to find out.[10]

While not all are convinced by contemporary theological arguments that compare the change of heart and mind by most western Christians over the Bible and slavery to the more controversial shift in some Christians' thinking about human sexuality, there is a clear analogy, at least in historical and hermeneutical terms, in the insistence on the part of some that the teaching of the Bible is clear and unavoidable, and the insistence by others that the teaching of the Bible is quite different. While the conflict is less dreadful in terms of violence, there is also a real parallel in the way opposing and inflexible claims about what scripture supposedly says clearly and irrefutably are linked to a breakdown of relationship.


I have sought here to that suggest three inter-related issues are worthy of greater consideration by those in the Anglican Communion — meaning all of us — who love the Bible and wish the Church to benefit from its gift in fullness.

The first is that the Bible is God's Word written, not the whole of God's Word. Only a Christological understanding of the canonical scriptures and more importantly of revelation itself, of the Word, can protect the Church from sliding from the distinctively Christian understanding of the God revealed in Christ to a God who is very good at revelation. The character of the Bible does not come to us in terms of its being a book among books, but in terms of the man it presents who among all women and men shows us uniquely the reality of God. Its own character then, as clear or as anything else, is only with some danger abstracted from the event of proclamation.

A second that follows is that the Bible is not first and foremost a literary gift to the individual Christian — although it may be that too. It is first and foremost a gift to the Body of Christ, to be proclaimed and heard, as well as read and studied. In the last analysis, the call to read and study the Bible is situational, not the heart of the Gospel but an opportunity afforded by circumstance to some, who are not thereby more advanced in Spirit than the great mass of illiterate saints in the Church triumphant.

And a third which follows is that the hermeneutics of schism must be seen for what they are, both as failure and as loss. Failure, because the claim that anything other than the Gospel itself is clear in scripture has been shown to us in the past to be highly dubious; loss, because it is the Church catholic, not an external magisterium, which gives us the human horizon against which scripture must be read and whose wounds are therefore wounds to our own collective knowing. Neither "Liberal" nor "Conservative" can afford to separate from the other for the sake of truth without realizing that the conditions for finding truth are thereby compromised.


  1. I am significantly dependent for this account on Lori Anne Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 107-111, and David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of the Mass Media in America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 20-22.
  2. Cited in Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1988), 31.
  3. Not, pace Ferrell, A Call to the Converted. See further on this David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of the Mass Media in America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22-3.
  4. Faith in Reading, 22.
  5. The Way, the Truth and the life: Theological Resources for a Pilgrimage to a Global Anglican Future (London: Latimer Trust, 2008), 61.
  6. A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (NSBT 21; Downers Grove, Ill.; InterVarsity Press, 2006).
  7. E.g., Tertullian, De Anima 2.7; De Praescr. Haer. 14.3-5.
  8. The Way, the Truth and the Life, 23-4.
  9. Mark Noll, America's God, 379-80.
  10. Stirling, Letters from the Slave States, cited in Mark A. Noll, "The Bible and Slavery", in Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Regan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 46.

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