The Word & the Words
Conservative Christians often say that the brutal conflicts in their churches over sexual and doctrinal issues reflect the fundamental division over the authority of Scripture, but I don’t think this is true any more. The notorious Bishop John Spong gamely—and in a way, rather pathetically—keeps old-fashioned skepticism alive, but few of his allies join him in rejecting Scripture so thoroughly.
Almost everyone believes in the authority of Scripture these days. Almost everyone believes in the Resurrection and other doctrines Spong dismisses as primitive myths and outdated metaphors. The gap between liberal and conservative is, or seems, smaller than it was, and many conservatives have seen this as a sign of the death of liberalism and the beginning of a revival.
The gap seems smaller because the real division is now subtler than it was: the Churches are divided between those who believe that “the Word” is separable from the words of Scripture and those who believe that the words of the Word are inspired and binding. At times, the two will sound very much alike—which is to say, that men committed to the most radical doctrinal and moral innovations will speak, especially when among more orthodox men, as do Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham.
Episcopal Sincerity & Subjectivity
I have before me an interview, a typical one, in which the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, says simply that “our salvation is in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord.” Speaking of his prayer life, he says that “at heart I always remain a praying Christian dependent absolutely on the grace and mercy of God.”
I think he is sincere in this, and yet he helped require that everyone in the Episcopal Church accept women’s ordination, against the plain meaning of Scripture; he promotes the use of feminist language for God, effectively marginalizing and relativizing the revealed Names; and he advocates in word and deed a moral innovation in direct contradiction to Romans 1. He can do these things while declaring his absolute dependence on the grace of God because he rejects the authority of the words of the Word.
He told the Philadelphia Inquirer last year that
Charles Bennison, the new bishop of Pennsylvania, told one of his Evangelical parishes a few months ago that he believed the Episcopal Church should celebrate homosexual marriages, and he was asked how he could say that when the Bible clearly forbade it.
Bennison—who before his election a year ago taught pastoral theology at the Episcopal Divinity School, perhaps the Episcopal Church’s most exotic institution, in which covens of witches flourish and professors write books suggesting sado-masochistic sexual acts as a way of arousing the god within—responded by saying, “Because we wrote the Bible and we can rewrite it. We have rewritten the Bible many times.”
“The text of the Bible is a conveyance of the word of God but is not itself the word of God,” he continued. Therefore we read the Scriptures “for evidence of how our forebears in the faith have struggled with some of the same issues,” but our context is so different that we cannot simply accept their answers.
Bennison’s rule for interpreting Scripture is a subjective one. We know that “this is the word of God and that isn’t” because “in a particular time and place, the reading, the preaching, the teaching of that word succeeds in up-building the community in love.” The question to be asked is: “Does the preaching of this word, in this time and place, help people live lives in community and love with one another?”
This is a rejection of the Word as a revelation. The liberals who declare their absolute dependence upon the grace of God cannot, or will not, say “Thus saith the Lord.” They can, or will, say only “Thus saith the community, most of it anyway, at this point in time, though it has said other things at other times and may change its mind shortly.” Not, really, a faith that will change lives.
Episcopal Limits on God
More liberals than before may speak of their faith in the resurrected Jesus, and in some sense mean it, but they will not support bringing the news of the Resurrection to Jews or Muslims or, really, anyone else. “Anyone who would say that there is no salvation except in Christ has completely missed the point,” Bishop Bennison said, offering an idea of our Lord’s work that would have surprised St. Peter (see Acts 4:12). “I think there are many ways to be saved, and who are we to tell God who [sic] God will receive.”
Of course we are not telling God anything, but listening to what he has so graciously told us. The position Bishop Bennison presents as humbly refusing to tell God what to do is really telling God what he may and may not say to us, as the “I” at the beginning of his sentence says so clearly.
More subtly, at the end of the Lambeth Conference, after seeing the world’s Anglican bishops reject his favored moral innovations by a margin of almost eight to one, Bishop Griswold told them that he “encourage[d] our brothers and sisters in different parts of the world to allow God in the full freedom of the Holy Spirit to lead us on,” because “the journey of faith is, among others, to follow along the path of dispossession.”
It sounds good, this call: humble, patient, open, submissive. But in giving God the freedom to lead us on, he is refusing the Holy Spirit the freedom to speak clearly and finally. He is dispossessing himself, and those who follow him, of God’s Word.
Between those who, like Bishops Griswold and Bennison, believe in an ever-changing word, to be continually reinterpreted by the community—which inevitably means by those in power—and those who know that God has spoken clearly and finally, there is a great gulf fixed. The problem is that we often, and confusingly, use the same words.
The language now used by liberals does not prove that liberalism is dying but that liberals now want some contact with the supernatural and some connection with their tradition, and so we must be more discerning. As the new liberals speak of the risen Lord, the test orthodox Christians must apply is simply: Do they submit themselves to the words of Scripture? For the lover of the Word will love the words in which it comes, and he who does not love the words does not love the Word, but only a word he himself has spoken.
Let them be anathema, if they do not love the words, though they speak of the Word with the tongues of men and angels.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“The Word & the Words” first appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.