Saturday, February 12, 2011

N.T. Wright Should Admit His Own Church's Failing

Alice C. Linsley

The 1922 Report of the Commission on Doctrine in the Church of England is full of ambiguity when it comes to the question of Creation. The report states: "There are systems of Catholic Theology and of Protestant Theology. To them we have, of course, owed much. But there is not, and the majority of us do not desire that there should be a system of distinctively Anglican Theology." (p. 25)

No worry there. It seems that one can be Anglican and believe just about anything these days. In the USA some Episcopal clergy have been Muslims and Druids, though these were eventually defrocked.

Then there was the falsely reported story about Bishop Bruno giving communion to Hindus. It was credible because, like William Swing, Bruno wants more than dialogue with Hindus. He likely never read the Anglican statement that maintains that the Christian doctrine of Creation "is not to be confused with any doctrine which represents finite individuality as illusory or tends to blur moral distinctions... that both finite individuality and moral distinctions are lost in the Absolute."

The British theologian N.T. Wright may be frustrated with the American leadership of the Episcopal Church, (and rightly so), but he ought not to blame Americans for Bible literalism. Wright says that Americans have more difficulty interpreting Genesis than Brits because we tend to bundle Biblical literalism with conservative social values. I fully agree. Fundamentalist approaches are not helpful in forming a right understanding of Scripture and even less helpful as a basis for informed political views. Young Earth Creationism, for example, is neither Biblical nor scientific but it shapes many Americans' views on politics, family, and education.

Wright received a good amount of criticism for his remarks about the Americans and later stated at this blog, "My only real point was that as a Brit who spends a fair amount of time in America I find the American debates — including those reflected in this blog — to work with a completely different set of assumptions to those elsewhere, including Europe. This doesn’t mean Americans are wrong in the way they line things up and the rest of us are right, but it ought to give us all some critical distance on all of our polarizations."

That said, Wright needs to face that his own Church of England has been far from faithful in applying objectivity. Where is critical distance on the question of women priests and bishops?  Or on homosexuality? Or on the Genesis creation stories?

The 1922 Commission on Doctrine certainly did not do the hard work of sorting out the threads of Genesis 1-3, opting instead for the briefest treatment on the question of Creation (not even 2 full pages) and the dismissal of the material with these words:

No objection to a theory of evolution can be drawn from the two Creation narratives in Gen. i and ii., since it is generally agreed among educated Christians that these are mythological in origin, and that their value for us is symbolic rather than historical.

One notes that the Church of England was quite ready, ahead of the facts, to embrace evolution in its earlier stages. We might agree on the facts of mutation and adaptation, but natural selection and survival of the fittest are hardly uniform laws of nature.

Such quick acquiescence to Darwin suggests that the Church of England had not investigated the binary distinctions evident in Genesis, or the question of a fixed order in creation, or the essentialism of the Biblical kinds. The Genesis claim is that genetic boundaries exist by which the kinds are fixed in essence. This is called "horotely" in genetics and it is based on the belief of Abraham's ancestors that the Seed of the Creator - Horus - is the fixer of all boundaries. Within the kinds, there may be change in form, but not in essence. This is the view of a good number of great philosophers and should not be dismissed.

There is also the concern that the labels "mythological" and "symbolic" in reference to Genesis 1 and 2 permit the Church of England to sidestep the philosophical and anthropological significance of this material.

It is time for Christians on both sides of the Atlantic to set aside assumptions and look with greater objectivity at what Genesis tells us about the world. 

Related reading:  Theories of Change and ConstancyAnglicanism on the Doctrine of Creation; Genesis and Genetics; The Importance of Binary Distinctions; Hierarchy in Creation: The Biblical View; Rightly Reading Genesis 1-3; The United Religions Initiative, A Bridge Back to Gnosticism; Russian Church Seeks End to Darwinian Monopoly in EducationQ and A on Creation and Evolution


Alice C. Linsley said...

N.T. Wright also supports women bishops in the C of E.

Gary said...

Indeed he does support female bishops in the C of E.

However, I don't find his arguments persuasive.

I see more historical reconstruction (some of which may be questionable) and less exegesis in his words, and I don't just mean this essay. Am I alone in this?