The Archbishop of Sydney, The Most Rev’d. Dr. Peter Jensen is about to retire. He did a farewell interview on the radio which I happened to pick up one morning. He said that one of the goals that he had for his ministry was to have established more ‘Bible based Churches’. When he was pressed on what he meant by this he made a comparison between his Church and other Churches that also relied on ‘Tradition’ as a source of authority in the Church. He mentioned as an example of a place where this issue was important was the issue of same gender marriage. He said that what was at stake was not so much the issue itself but the authority of the Bible. This, I understand is the line that he takes about the impossibility of the ordination of women to the priesthood. There are also some Christians, of which the Archbishop of Sydney I believe is one, who believe that God is revealed to us in propositions (sentences). The aim of the game then is to invite people so give their assent to these propositions.
The Archbishop also made a comparison between his Church and the Catholic Church. He said ‘I would rather invite people to get to know Jesus, and then introduce them to the Church, while the Catholic Church says ‘The Church is the place where you get to know Jesus. So I would put Jesus ahead of the Church.’
There is so much in this set of ideas to be unpacked. Most of it has to do with the question of how the relationship between humanity and God comes to us, now.
First of all, let me look at the relationship between the ‘Bible’ and ‘Tradition’. These two poles are not opposites that need to be contrasted and set as a choice, as if one could have a ‘bible based Church’ or a ‘Tradition based Church’. There may be differences of emphasis, but both the Bible and Tradition form part of the one picture or ‘Gestalt’ of a unified picture. One cannot be understood without the use of the other.
Take for example the Bible in the form that we have it. In the first instance, the Bible IS not the WORD of God. The Bible is words about God. The Bible becomes WORD of God when it take root in us and speaks to us and becomes authoritative for us. As Karl Barth said ‘The Bible is the cradle in which the Word of God is laid.’ As Calvin said, the difference between the Bible as WORD of God and words about god is the activity of the Spirit in the heart of the believers. This is what St. John says in his Gospel. We will be led into new truth about Jesus by the presence of the Spirit. What is lacking in the idea of a BIBLE based Church is the idea that the bible must be interpreted for each generation in the Spirit. It is we who interpret the bible. It is our use of tradition that helps us interpret the Scripture. Different places are going to have different interpretations and different emphases.
There are some people who say that the Bible must be interpreted from within the Bible itself, but even then, what that the interpretative key to the Bible is, from within Scripture is by no means agreed.
It is not that everyone does not have the Bible as an ‘authority’ but that there are varying interpretations in the Spirit that are different from one group to another people. In one sense, to talk about ‘the Authority of the Bible’ is to say ‘We want to impose our interpretation of the bible on you as the Authoritative one.’
As well, the form that we have the bible in is one that has been shaped by the tradition. It was the tradition of oral remembering that preserved the words of Jesus till they were written down. Without the Church we would have no bible. It was the Church that decided from among the candidates what books would make up the canon of Scripture and be ‘The Bible’ and so be authoritative for us. Again, what guarantees the possibility of hearing the real voice of Jesus in the Bible is the presence of the Spirit in the hearts of those who decided on what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’, in the belief that although there is much in the bible that Jesus did not say, what wee have when we listen to it will be a genuine listening to him. So the ‘Authority of the Church is not the Bible alone but an interplay of foreground and background of the one picture Bible-Church in the Spirit. If the Archbishop of Sydney would recognise this, the Anglican Church would get on a lot better within itself.
The same is true of the polarity that he sets up between Jesus and the Church. The relationship between Jesus and the Church is again one of foreground and background of the one picture. There is no knowledge of Jesus without the Church. In the first instance because it was the church that preserved the words of Jesus and gave us the bible. In the second instance, it is the Church in the power of the Spirit that preserves the preaching of the Good News. Where there is no Church, Jesus just does not magically ‘pop up’. Even if this is reported by some people who want to convert Muslims, it is not the normal way of spreading the gospel. St. Paul asks ‘How can they believe if they have not heard, and how can they hear if no preachers are sent?’ And then, in the letters to the Corinthians, it is the presence of the gifts of the Spirit that confirm the presence of the real Jesus with them, after the fact of their belief in Him.
But there is no Church without Jesus. There might be groups of people meeting and so on. But these are not ‘Church’. In the long run everyone who believes in Jesus depends upon the Church, whatever they think of the institution to hear about Him. In the long run everyone who is a member of the Church, like Thomas, needs to come to the place of saying ‘My Lord and my God’ about Jesus. Jesus himself says ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in their midst’. It is too individualistic to imagine that single people ‘get’ Jesus, and then have the possibility of a decision to go to Church or not.
Further, it is God who promises to the Church to be present in the Spirit when people are Baptized or when the Eucharist is celebrated. It is a mistake to separate the ‘getting’ of Jesus from the covenanted means of grace (Baptism and Eucharist) by which God has bound God’s own self to us. It is a mistake to put asunder what god has joined together.
Sure, some people may begin with the Church community where they find a welcome, and move on to discover Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour. Sure, some people may come to know Jesus out of the context of a Church community, but this will not be sustained over time without membership in Christ’s body, the Church. This is the lesson that the Billy Graham Crusade learned after it was criticised for converting lots of people to Christ, but without any Church for them to belong to.
So my main criticisms of the Archbishop of Sydney are two. First he make polarities of opposition out of the foreground and background of the one picture. Second, he neglects the lordship of the holy Spirit in the Church and so reduces the authority of the Church to the ‘words’ of the Bible interpreted by his group.