God reveals himself in modern experience – true or false? Peter Toon investigates the real foundation of the view that same-sex affection can be a form of holiness
Today, within the old-line Protestant churches, and not least within The Episcopal Church, any traditional church member, if he/she is paying attention, hears often, in a clear or veiled way, a novel view of both divine revelation and human religious experience.
In the submission of The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Consultative Council in Nottingham in June 2005 (entitled To Set our Hope on Christ: Response to the Windsor Report), this novel view was presented in a way that sought to hide its radical nature and make it to be sound, widely-held, biblical interpretation.
I responded to this TEC essay in a large booklet entitled Same-Sex Affection, Holiness & Ordination (available from www.anglicanmarketplace.com), seeking not to deal with sexuality as such but to make clear the presence and foundational nature of this innovatory doctrine of Scripture in the response of TEC to the Anglican Communion.
The innovatory doctrine
A few weeks ago, I listened to Bishop Gene Robinson on TV stating this same doctrine with clarity and apparent winsomeness in a lecture to students in Florida, as a means of defending his own ‘modern’ sexual practices.
The TEC doctrine is simple: that in the two Testaments of the canon of Scripture we have the account of the developing experience of God by the Israelites and then by Jesus and the Christians. Both the experience and the account of it naturally reflect the conditions of the times when it was received and described.
So the received revelation from God recorded in the Bible is a developing and maturing – though very much incomplete – revelation. Further, it has always to be distinguished in its essence from the cultural form in which it is received and understood. In this development the high point, but not the final point (for that is yet to be), is Jesus, in what he is, says and does.
Importantly, God does not cease to reveal himself after the time of Jesus, for being the God of not only history but also of nature; that is, the God of space and time reveals his/her/its mind and will through the varied searching and researching of human beings. And this is obvious, they say, to moderns in the tremendous growth of knowledge by human beings in recent times, of both human beings as complex creatures and of the massive cosmos in which they live. Further, this new revelation both corrects and perfects knowledge gleaned from the religious experience of the Jews and early Christians and recorded in the Bible.
So on the basis that God is alive and well and making himself known to human beings who have eyes to see, the Church has to move on in its worship, doctrine, morals and discipline to pay attention to the God of today; that is, to where Deity is in relation to humanity and the cosmos in 2008. And so the new prophetic agenda of the elite of The Episcopal Church is based on reality as they see it, the God in process revealing himself!
They can hold no other position, they say, for they are committed to the God who is, like the cosmos, in evolution and progress! Part of this reality is that same-sex affection is a reflection of the holiness of God.
But what about the conservative Episcopal opposition to this innovatory approach and in particular to its new stance on sexuality?
There does not seem to be one so-called ‘orthodox’ mindset within the Anglican or Episcopal movement in opposition to that of the Episcopal elite. However, the varied approaches, in opposition to the development and process theory of the progressive liberals, all seem to believe that there are clear and final words of God about sexual relations and other basic matters written not only in the New but also in the Old Testament. And these they quote and cite. But there are problems.
Most Evangelical clergy seem to come out of a seminary training where they daily saw the Department of Old Testament Studies and the Department of New Testament Studies having little dialogue – as a maximum cooperating, and as a minimum going in parallel lines. It was as though the one canon of Scripture was made up of two very different Testaments, and what really connected them was the binding of the Bible in which they were placed.
A crucial omission
Further, there was in the seminary usually no regular worship (i.e. Morning and Evening Prayer) where the Old Testament and the Psalter are read/prayed daily in the context of their fulfilment in Christ in the New Testament readings and Canticles.
This omission makes it difficult for students to establish a mindset wherein the right relation of the two Testaments is known intellectually and experientially The theme of ‘according to the Scriptures’ (i.e. the OT) is critical for early Christian doctrine and devotion and this is caught and imbibed in classic Christian worship.
From such a background as that of the typical seminary, it is difficult to make a reasoned case against the liberal doctrine of the progressive nature of revelation. And, in the present crisis over sexuality, it is also difficult in a modern context to use successfully the Old Testament texts which declare that homosexual practice is sinful.
The position of the Apostles and early Church leaders with regard to the Bible seems to have been different, and may be instructive. For them the Bible, the inspired, written Word of God, was without doubt the Jewish Bible, which most read in Greek.
Jesus as Saviour
Together with this they had the teaching of, and facts concerning, Jesus as the Saviour and how he fulfilled the Scriptures by his words, works and life, death and resurrection.
On the basis of the Bible and with the guidance of the Apostolic Testimony and Tradition (which was simultaneously and slowly being put into writing and circulated), they possessed what has been called the ‘Rule of Faith’, which amounted to a Christ-centred reading and interpretation of the Jewish Bible, as from the God and Father of the same Lord Jesus Christ. Thus they read the Bible in both its common sense mode, and as the text not only approved, but also fulfilled in various ways, by Jesus, the Lord and Saviour.
Therefore they cited the Old Testament, as did Jesus, as the Word of God written, nothing less and nothing more! Then later the ‘Rule of Faith’ gave way to
(a) the collection and acceptance of the books we call the New Testament; and
(b) the fixed Creeds for Baptism of which the Apostles and Nicene are the most well known.
It would do us no harm today to regard the Old Testament as the primary Scriptures of the Lord and the New Testament as the divinely authenticated interpretation of them by the Spirit of the Lord. Hereby we would have a sense of a fixed order of salvation in Christ from one God and Father, made available for revelation to the Gentiles and for us and for our salvation, in the Spirit.
I would suggest that the modern use of the Bible to support innovatory sexual relations, as is the norm in The Episcopal Church in 2008, cannot be overturned by the typical Evangelical use of the Bible. We need to recover the sense that the Bible is first one canon, and then within the canon there are two Testaments, united in and by Christ. If we begin from the presenting doctrine of the seminary and many text-books, that ‘Two Testaments make up one canon’, then we are sure to get things wrong.
(My learned friend Professor C. Seitz of Toronto University is working on the relation of the Rule of Faith to the two Testaments and his insights contain important lessons for Anglicans to learn and utilize in their use of sacred Scripture in worship, doctrine and apologetics.)
The orthodox response
But there is one more thing. Since the scholarly and social elite of The Episcopal Church is advancing a claim for revelation based on the reality of process within both God and cosmos, the orthodox response has to be clear and robust. This will need to hold and expound a sound view of the relation between the Old Testament and the New, within the context of the Rule of Faith, but also with the use and understanding of natural law.
Here much help can be gained especially from modern Catholic writers, who are developing a body of theological work, to show that both homosexual practice and same-sex marriage are ‘unnatural’ in terms of nature as created by God, the Lord of creation. The support by the modern State for these ‘unnatural’ relations and practices will be a means of actually undermining the State in the long term.
Further background to this particular debate and the framework for this call to orthodox biblical reading can be found at www.pbsusa.org