On my holidays, I had conversations with a lot of friends about the state of the Church in general, and in Australia in particular. One thing that disturbed me was a document from the Diocese of Armadale (Rural, North West New South Wales) which their clergy are now required to sign. I thought it serious enough to share with you, showing you how I think this requirement is a quite scary development. This reflection is a bit longer than usual, but I hope you will bear with me.
The first clause goes: We believe in the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead:
So my first response is ‘So what?’ Everyone who has been baptized or confirmed affirms this. So my question is, what is the necessity of making up yet another statement of belief apart from the historic creeds to which all Christians are asked to ‘sign up’? Why is it necessary to circumscribe the faith in a tighter formula than these? What is going on that a diocese thinks that it can make up its own statements of belief apart from at least a conversation with the rest of the Australian Church, let alone the world wide Anglican Church? This is highly irregular.
We believe: The divine inspiration and infallibility of the Holy Scripture, as
originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
This too is highly problematic. The first question is ‘What do they mean by ‘Holy Scripture’? Do they mean the Bible or something else? The Orthodox view is that the Bible is not Scripture. The Bible, according to those most orthodox of scholars Karl Barth, and John Calvin is the ‘cradle’ in which the Word of God is laid. The Bible becomes Scripture when under the work of the Spirit, we really hear it and act on it. But this is not the Bible alone. And we all know that the Bible is full of contradictory statements about matters of faith and conduct, and that there is lots of conduct, especially in the Old Testament, but also in the new that we do not follow now. So without the Spirit and interpretation, the Bible cannot be either infallible or the supreme authority on matters of Faith and conduct. This is the role of the Scripture (Bible + Spirit+ Believer). The Holy Spirit according to John’s Gospel is the Lord, and will lead us into new truth abut Jesus. If this is so, then the Bible alone cannot do this.
Second, if they do mean the Bible here, what does ‘originally given’ mean? The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek. Do they mean this? If they mean English, this translation cannot be described as ‘originally given’. If they want to claim this, which translation into English is authoritative, and who says so and why?
Second, if you look at the Greek of the New Testament, you will find just for the one verse of Luke 2:14 ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among those whom he favours’ at least four different variants in ancient manuscripts. This goes on and on. Just what can be then meant by ‘originally given’. The phrase dissolves into meaninglessness.
We believe: the universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature and the fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
On the surface, this is not remarkable, so why put it in? Is not the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed enough? But to dig a little deeper, I want to ask about he meaning of ‘God’s wrath and condemnation.’ This phrase belongs to an understanding of salvation that has at its centre an angry God, who is not pleased with us, and who actively punishes us in some way. Yet this is not what the Bible in general says. St. Paul in Romans Ch1 talks about the wrath of God, but in v24 he describes this wrath, not as an active punishment, but as a giving up of people to their own passions. That is: God’s wrath is shown in not saving us from the consequences of our turning away from God. God acts more in sorrow than anger.
We believe: The conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit and his birth of the virgin Mary. This too is in the creeds. Why try to make up anything else. How the virgin birth is interpreted is an open question. But that Jesus was born of the Spirit is not.
We believe: the redemption from the guilt, penalty, power of sin only through the sacrificial death, as our representative and substitute, of Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God.
Who would not want to be guiltless, un-penalised and not subject to the power of sin? This is also in the creeds ‘Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven…’ But the word ‘substitute’ is problematic. This word implies a version of the Easter events known as the ‘penal substitutionary atonement’. I can’t go into the details of this here, but you can look it up. This doctrine was thought out by St. Anselm in the 10th century, and so is very late, and is by no means the only valid interpretation of these events. A series of events is not subject to just one meaning as everyone knows. Variations in understanding of the Easter events are legitimate and necessary. That is why the creeds do not specify a particular ‘theory of the atonement’. Why should anyone be corralled into only one version of the atonement when this has never been the case throughout all of Church history?
We believe: the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Again, this is unremarkable, unless the writer of this document wants to specify a particular meaning of ‘bodily’. St. Paul again talks of our resurrection bodies as being very different from our bodies before he resurrection. Also the resurrection is not an event within our history, but an event that inaugurates an entirely different and new history. (A new creation (Romans 4) means a new history of creation.) As such it is a unique event, not one that can be compared to others. To speak of a ‘bodily resurrection’ in the sense that Jesus actual body, the one he had in Galilee is somewhere, is to misread St. Paul’s understanding of the resurrection and as such is not orthodox Christianity.
We believe: the necessity of the Spirit to make the death of Christ effective in the individual sinner granting him repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. This is fine. It is what I said above. But it is not possible to make the Bible infallible apart from the work of the Spirit, and then go on to claim the necessity of the work of the Spirit in order to be able to hear properly what the Bible is saying. If the writers of this document want to claim the necessity of the work of the Spirit in making effective the work of Christ, then they need to say it about the Bible, as well as here.
We believe in the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit in the believer and the expectation of the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is totally unremarkable, and is in all the creeds. Why do the writers need to add anything to what a person has signed up to both in baptism and ordination, unless there is a special hidden meaning in the words ‘personal return.’ How this might be interpreted is anyone’s guess, but what worries me is that this document is like a doctrinal ‘litmus test’. I am afraid that it seeks to sort out the people who know what this secret code means, and agree with it. The very fact of questioning what the words actually mean, separates the questioner from that group who implicitly know what they mean and join that group. This then is not a broad statement of faith like the creeds which captures a wide variety of orthodoxy, but a narrow statement of faith designed to separate out one form of Christianity, which does not look too orthodox to me, but which is dominant in the diocese of Armadale. Questioning is not a form of apostasy, but a form of faithfulness.
We believe the 39 Articles, and hold the Creeds, Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian and the theological perspective enshrined within the Book of Common Prayer. All ordianands must give assent to this before they are ordained. There is no need to ask people to sign up to it again.
So there you go. That is the state to which one part of the Church in Australia has come. The area is lovely, but it is a pity that orthodox Christians cannot go there to work.