18 God has spoken – the power of the interpreter of God’s word

In a recent conversation with an individual who was telling me that fundamentalism has no real place in the Anglican Church, I wanted to tell him about this statement put out on a web-site by a church a few miles away.  This Church of England parish is or was, till the present Vicar arrived, a middle of the road parish but its atmosphere has changed considerably under the new regime.  I pick up only snippets of information about what goes on, so really all I have to go on is their web-site.  I want to do a critique of this extracted statement because it needs to be answered, not only on behalf of the souls who attend this church but on behalf of all Christian people who have Vicars who believe that they are offering coherent and life saving teaching.  The is the statement about the Bible which appears as part of the section ‘What we believe’..

 The Bible is true

We have a ‘high’ view of the Bible.  Jesus’ scripture was the Old Testament.  For him, whatever scripture says, God says (Mathew 15:4).  He lived under their authority (Matthew 4:4).   So, we believe if we are faithful to Christ, our church must hold a very ‘high’ view of the Bible.  Jesus calls us to believe and obey what it says – even when it is not to our liking.  We can’t pick and choose what we will accept or reject from the Bible – otherwise we place ourselves above God’s word rather than under it.

 The first statement that needs to be queried is the one that says that the Old Testament was Jesus’ Scripture.   Yes, this is a true statement up to a point but it in no way stopped Jesus questioning it and changing the teaching.  The formula that is used by Matthew goes as follows ‘You have heard that it was said by those of ancient times …. but I say to you’.  Even Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, accepted that Jesus was like a new Moses giving a new law.  It is no coincidence that he records Jesus going ‘up the mountain’, as Moses had, to deliver his teaching.  The whole tenor of the Sermon on the Mount is that a new revelation, a new teaching is being given comparable to that delivered by Moses.  Christians do not accept the old Law as the word of God without qualification.  I suspect that very few Christians have read, let alone want to follow some of the supposed divine injunctions as set in the first books of the Bible.  We do not regard as binding the commands connected with the uncleanness of women during their menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15.19ff).  This is not because Jesus delivered some new teaching about it, but because we read it as reflecting cultural values from a long dead civilisation which have long since ceased to apply for those who do not live in such a culture.  In the same chapter of Leviticus there are no less than 15 verses instructing the male reader how to deal with nocturnal emissions!  And so we could go on to describe countless other customs in  Jewish culture which touch us hardly at all even if we took the trouble to know about them.

Two things come out of this.  One is that Jesus and the contemporary society in which he lived sat lightly of quite large swathes of Scripture.  The Jubilee idea, when debts were to be forgiven and all slaves released, had long since become only a expression of idealism rather than a course of practical action at the time Jesus appeared on the scene.  Even the strictest practitioners of the law, the Pharisees, avoided selling their daughters into slavery or stoning their blaspheming neighbour!  The parts of the Law that Jesus did discuss, he rarely commended without qualification.  His teaching was new and his ministry, though rooted in the Old Testament was also new.  We call the second Testament ‘New’ and that implies a critique as well as qualification of the Old.

The parish statement that states baldly ‘whatever Scripture says, God says’ is a highly confusing and misleading statement.  If we are to talk about the authority of Scripture we need a far more nuanced approach to our understanding and use of the words and ideas that are set down within the pages of the Bible.

Most people faced by the conundrum of believing divine authorship of a series of texts which reflect the customs (sometimes unsavoury) of a people long ago, will feel utter confusion.  They will look around to find someone who will help reassure of possible answers to this conundrum.  Of course there will always be handy guides to explain it all!  But subtly and imperceptibly the seekers will find themselves beholden, not to the text itself but to these interpreters and guides.  In short the more global the claims for Scriptural ‘truth’, and the consequent increased difficulty for understanding, the more power the leaders of these churches will acquire over those who come to them seeking a way out of this impossible predicament.

What is going on at this village church?  To put it simply, the doctrine of scripture has become a instrument for establishing power over the congregation.  The Vicar, the writer of the statement, has become the sole interpreter of the infallible text of Scripture.  He would claim to be able to provide a way through for those who are utterly confused by these claims for the Bible.  Secondly if there are any who want to remain content to sit on the periphery of this confusing teaching, a second bombshell is brought in.  If you do not accept this interpretation you ‘are placing yourself above God’s law rather than under it’.  The implication is clear.  Unless you accept my teaching and my understanding of scripture, you have no part in this congregation.  Outside the church community you are not part of the elect and so by implication you are beyond God’s salvation.

These words in a village church web-site show me that the worst kinds of fundamentalism are alive and well in the heart of the Anglican church.  The teaching about the Bible has become a weapon with which to threaten and intimidate those who would practise their faith in a different way.  No dialogue is offered or to be expected.

Let us hope that some at least of the church members have not actually read this statement and so for the time being are able to avoid being confronted with this potentially abusive manifesto.  I would like to think that at least some of them are resisting the hidden power manipulation that is going on in these words.

I will update this blog with anything that I hear in the future!

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “18 God has spoken – the power of the interpreter of God’s word

  1. People like certainty. It makes them feel safe. And most people don’t have time to study or meditate. It’s the modern equivalent of the mediaeval concept that most people didn’t have time to pray and worship, the monasteries did it for them. So people trot dutifully along to church and do as they’re told. Without much thinking about it. Should the church be a place of safety? As to the possibility of a vicar’s becoming the only source of all wisdom, I’d say that’s perfectly possible, and indeed, very common. How many clergy give page numbers in the approved edition of the Bible, instead of letting people learn how to find their way in any Bible? Mind you, unacceptably naive though this mission statement may be, I’d want to know he was being high handed in practise. There are plenty who are. They may not all be as obvious as this.

  2. In this church as in others, even though the Vicar starts to teach and preach a ‘high’ version of Scripture, many people, particularly the old, are protected by their ability to switch off during the sermons. I suspect that the best defence most people have against ideas that are alien, even objectionable, is simply to filter out anything they do not understand or agree with. Thus although the ‘what we believe’ is published in the name of the whole congregation, it is in fact the statement of the priest and one or two others. The PCC will have been persuaded to adopt it because they are unable to argue against it. Once again, as Chris knows well, the power of the literate ‘educated’ individual is considerable. They will win all the arguments by their use of rhetoric, even when they are in fact wrong.

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