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The Authority of Scripture

An address by Fr John Slater

13 July 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

What a marvellous image Jesus gives us as the man with a log in his eye tries to take a speck out of another man’s eye. We are warned against assuming that we are righteous and can stand in judgement on our fellow men and women. Well, in the past few weeks a lot of people have been declaring themselves righteous and standing in judgement on Canon Jeffrey John who was to be consecrated as Bishop of Reading. I think, perhaps, you have a right to expect me to say something about an issue which has divided the Church of England in a particularly unpleasant way.

Quite frankly, the archbishop seems to have been effectively blackmailed - first by the Archbishop of Nigeria threatening to leave the Anglican Communion, and secondly by wealthy Evangelical parishes threatening to withdraw financial support from the national Church. This is hardly how decisions should be made in the Church of Jesus Christ. And all this over a question of sexual ethics about which Jesus himself says not one word in the Gospels.

But the real reason why this debate has grown to such vast proportions is that the sexual issue is only the smallest tip of an iceberg. What is really being debated is the status and authority of scripture in the Church. This has been an issue lurking in the wings for two hundred years but the Church has never faced up to it openly. Until the sixteenth century Reformation, the authority of scripture went hand in hand with the authority of the Church’s tradition - the two were in a creative dialogue with each other. Then came Martin Luther with his new theological position - scripture alone! The Church in Western Europe has been divided ever since.

But the real crisis only began at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the scholarly study of the societies in which the scriptures were written and critical study of the texts themselves. People may ask, Is the Bible true? But the Bible is a library of 66 very different books - poetry, biography, history, law, prophecy. The history may not be very accurate, but the writings of the prophets are often sublime. And all these writings need to be understood in their historic contexts. For Christians, the key texts must always be the four Gospels, with all other biblical documents evaluated in the light of the teaching of Jesus.

But throughout the twentieth century this scholarly evaluation of the scriptures was challenged by the movement we know as Fundamentalism which sees the 66 books of the Bible as a single absolute authority for Christians. The danger here is that the Gospels can end up being interpreted in the light of the Old Testament Law. And this is what is happening in the present debate about sexuality where the Book of Leviticus is quoted, setting at nought the broader and more tolerant attitudes of the Gospels.

So we now have a two hundred year old tradition of liberal biblical scholarship, understanding the different books of the Bible in their historic context and learning more about how each was written and for what purpose. And at the same time there are those who regard every sentence of scripture as inspired by God and eternally binding on the church. This is the real issue and unlike the sexuality debate it has real importance for the kind of religion Christianity will be in the future.

How refreshing, after this theological controversy and division, to return to the more generous spirit of today’s Gospel, Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.
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