People (chiefly Canon Kendall Harmon), attempting to make sense of the controversy in the Anglican Communion right now, have claimed it helpful to describe the two competing views of how the Church should use the Gospel to understand and speak to culture as being either “reasserting” or “reappraising”. (Reasserters seem to be understood as those arguing that the Gospel is a timeless truth that transcends any momentary culture and that the task of the Church is reassert the timeless truths to the society of their day. Reappraisers conversely seem to be those arguing that the teaching of the Gospel needs to be heard in conversation with the best of modern learning and that given new information and insight, the Gospel message might need to be reappraised should earlier cultures have misunderstood its meaning.) My own discomfort with the language of dichotomy has been what has urged me to try to find a third term, a via media that would be able to comprehend both poles and those who did not find that they fit into either category. Christopher Evans blogging now at “Thanksgiving in All Things” has done a very good job of trying to develop what that this sort of comprehension might best be described as.
I came across an essay by John Becker, a former deputy to General Convention, which was posted online today. One of the things that I learned as a physicist was, when encountering a series of assertions, to not try to pick each one apart, but rather to look to see if the underlying axioms were valid or not.
John has this early on in his essay:
The central heresy of the Episcopal Church has been the idea first put forward by Jack Spong, and apparently accepted by the Episcopal establishment, that all the traditional truths of the Christian faith are negotiable. There are no doctrines governing personal behavior, or articles of religion which are applicable at all times, in all eras, for all peoples.
The revisionists believe that because of Man’s supposed increase in knowledge and wisdom, we should adapt our faith to the times in which we live; and since the times in which we live are decadent times, we should accept and assist in the process of decadence. This is precisely what we are doing.
John is using the pejorative term “revisionist” here rather than the more intentionally anodyne term “reappraiser” but I think he means this to be a critique of reappraisers and their work as well. John’s point seems to be that any claim that modern people might have a better understanding of the Gospel or, because of additional texts or uncovered knowledge a more accurate reading of the biblical teaching is to put it bluntly, “horse-feathers”.
Later on today I came across the following quote by Pope Benedict XVI in his most recent publication Jesus of Nazareth:
[Unity] with the will of God the Father through communion with Jesus, whose “food” is to do the Fathers’ will (cf. Jn 4:34), now gives us a new perspective on the individual regulations of the Torah as well. The Torah did indeed have the task of of giving a concrete juridical and social order to this particular people, Israel. But while Israel is on one hand a definite nation, whose members are bound together by birth and the succession of generations, on the other hand it has been from the beginning and is by its very nature the bearer of a universal promise. In Jesus’ new family, which will later be “The Church,” these individual juridical and social regulations no longer apply universally in their literal historical form. This was precisely the issue at the beginning of the “Church of the Gentiles,” and it was the bone of contention between Paul and the so-called Judaizers. A literal application of Israel’s social order to the people of all nations would have been tantamount to a denial of the universality of growing community of God. Paul saw this with perfect clarity. The Torah of the Messiah could not be like that. Nor is it, as the Sermon on the Mount shows – and likewise the whole dialogue with Rabbi Neusner, a believing Jew and a truly attentive listener.
That said, what is happening here is an extremely important process whose full scope was not grasped until modern times, even though the moderns at first understood it in a one-sided and false way. Concrete juridical and social forms and political arrangements are no longer treated as a sacred law that is fixed ad litteram for all times and so for all peoples. (emphasis added) The decisive thing is the underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus. It frees men and nations to discover what aspects of political and social order accord with this communion of will and so to work out their own juridical arrangements. The absence of the whole social dimension in Jesus’ preaching, which Neusner discerningly critiques from a a Jewish perspective, includes, but also conceals, an epoch-making event in worked history that has not occurred as such in any other culture: The concrete political and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislations, and is transferred to the freedom of man, whom Jesus has established in God’s will and taught thereby to see the right and the good.
(cf. Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday 2007 p. 117-118)
That reads like a reappraising argument to me.
We have new insights into the teachings of St. Paul and into the relationship between the Jews of Jesus’ day and the early Church. These new insights have helped us to see something we’ve not seen before. This is not to say that Pope Benedict would in any way claim that the Bible supports the full inclusion of Gay and Lebian Christians, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. My point here is that Pope Benedict is describing a situation in which new information has allowed the Church to revisit its sacred texts and reevaluate its understanding of them given these new insights. (This is exactly what’s going on in little and big ways with the new-perspective-on-Paul that I blogged about earlier today).
I want to argue that any attempt to claim that there is no place for the Church to revisit its sacred texts to gain new insights because of recent knowledge is wrong. This is but a simple example of how it fruitfully does happen. I do not believe that one can make a claim that reappraisal is warranted in all cases or even in most. But I think that once we admit the such reappraising is a logical possibility we have to agree that dismissing arguments out of hand because they are deemed to be “reappraising” is not terribly helpful to our common enterprise of following Jesus as his disciples.