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Rowan on the Bible

An Address by Fr John Slater

27 October 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Instead of looking at today’s Gospel reading, I want to share some thoughts concerning the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the criticism of his appointment by some members of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. That criticism revolves around the new archbishop’s way of interpreting the Bible. Because Rowan Williams has a liberal attitude to homosexuality, some Evangelicals conclude that he does not accept the authority of the Bible.

Since his appointment to lead the Church of England in the next decade, Rowan Williams says that he is having to think a lot about what being Anglican means. He looks at the upheavals of the sixteenth century Reformation when the Church recovered the centrality of the Bible. But he also sees that ever since that time there have been different ways of understanding the scriptures. For some, the Bible is in every word true and literally the word of God. For others, biblical texts need to be understood in their historical context and interpreted in the light of the Church’s tradition and with all the benefits of human reason.

But it would be quite unfair to suggest that those who follow this liberal attitude to scripture are not taking the Bible seriously. For the past two hundred years, scholars have been studying the biblical texts to discover exactly when they were written and for what purpose, who they were written by and what earlier sources they might have drawn upon. It seems to me that to read the scriptures today while ignoring this tradition of biblical scholarship, is like living in the twenty-first century while trying to ignore the scientific advances of the past two hundred years. Rowan Williams does take this scholarship seriously but can still make this profound statement about the place of the Bible in the life of the Church.

I believe that the Bible tells us what we could not otherwise know: it tells us that God, the maker of the world, is committed to that world, and desires with all his being to save it from disaster and the imprisonment of sin; that he does this by calling a people to witness to him by their prayers and their actions, in obedience to what he shows them of his will through the Law; that he brings this work to completion when God the eternal Son, the eternal Word, becomes human as Jesus of Nazareth, and offers his life to destroy or to ‘soak up’, as you might say, the terrible consequences of our sin; and that Jesus is raised from the tomb to call a new people together in the power of the Spirit, who will show what kind of God God is in the quality of their life together and their relation with him. This is revealed in the acts of God in history, and it is once and for all set out in the Bible. There is no going round this or behind it.

To say that the Bible is inspired is to say at least that God’s Spirit comes to us through the text to call us to repent and be converted. Some would want to say further that we must also say certain things about the absolute accuracy of every detail in Scripture if we believe in inspiration.

I understand that impulse, but I don’t think it is a view on which Anglicans have ever wholly insisted or agreed… But I can say with complete conviction that a Church that does not listen for God in the Bible, and treat the Bible as the unique touchstone of truth about God and about us is losing its identity, its raison d’etre.

Well, that is a remarkable statement of faith, a very personal summary of orthodox Christian belief which both affirms the central place which the Bible must have for all Christians and also gives space for scholarly criticism of the biblical texts. Perhaps this controversy should encourage us all to take our Bible reading more seriously. The Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, Tom Wright, is publishing a series of quite short commentaries on different books of the Bible which I would recommend to you.
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