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Grain in wood

Article 20 – Against the Grain?

Grain in wood


THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Recently, there was discussion on this site about reading the Scriptures “in the grain of itself”. Reference was made to Article 20 of the 39 Articles of Religion: “neither may [the Church] so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”.

The question that immediately springs to mind in reading the discussion is: does the Bible have such a “grain”?

And, not to beat about the bush, my blog-post-size answer is: no.

Let’s leave to one side the particular Reformation context that the 39 Articles were addressing, and the ripping of the expound-repugnantly point out of the particular article’s context.

Let’s also leave to one side the inability of the Bible even to define its own content, and the different Christian listings of what “the Scriptures” refers to.

Of interest to me and others is that an analogous process to that of the evolution of texts into our Bible lies behind the development of our church leadership structures, sacramental, and liturgical life – an area, possibly similarly normative, that this article appears to have in a blind spot. Let’s leave that to the side also.

So, let’s turn to the contention that the Bible has a “grain”.

Even within the New Testament, covering a relatively short period in comparison with the Scriptures as a whole, and within a relatively homogenous community, spend a little time with such works as that of James Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and, if one is honest (as that author is) we find a set of documents with differing viewpoints. The intersection of the New Testament sets (says James Dunn) is small – Jesus.

Go beyond the New Testament, and the Bible, again if one is honest, soon presents greater conflicts and contradictions, and an often-cantankerous and possibly immoral deity (or deities!).

On the issue du jour, “Biblical Marriage”, the Bible itself has some strong commands:

Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.’ The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.” But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. The elders of that town shall take the man and punish him; they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver (which they shall give to the young woman’s father) because he has slandered a virgin of Israel. She shall remain his wife; he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

Article 20 yourself out of that one!

Rather than contorting the biblical texts to make them fit into some sort of cooked-up homogenous teaching, let us be honest with the complexity of the scriptural texts and their history and cultural context, and rejoice if we can see a trajectory through which God is speaking to us into our day.

Ps. The consoling part of Article 20? If for our salvation we are required to believe all that is clearly taught consistently from end to end of the Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Bible – then that is a very small core indeed. 🙂

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10 thoughts on “Article 20 – Against the Grain?”

  1. I guess I am fortunate that the only ‘constitution’ I am asked to honour is the shortest monastic rule there is – that of St Romuald. I often wonder how the Church would behave if we cleared out all of it?
    At the end of the day, St Matthew 22.36-40 / St Mark 12.30-31 are enough for me.
    If the letter of Church law were to be implemented I would ceased to have existed a long time ago, sinner that I am.

  2. “Cooked-up homogenous teaching”: A great turn of phrase, and bang on! Even within its own historical and cultural context this stuff is pretty bad. Do we really believe that God does or ever has required the death penalty for suspected fornication? And if God has required death for anything, that it should be effected by stoning?

    Stoning is a brutal way of killing someone, and sadly still part of our global landscape. However whenever I hear of it I can’t help laughing at the Monty Python, Life of Brian sketch. “You’ll only make things worse for yourself”: “Worse? How can it get any worse?”

  3. Every day, priests minutely examine the Law and endlessly chant complicated sutras. Before doing that, though, they should learn how to read the love letters sent by the wind and the rain, the snow and the moon. Ikkyu Sojun.

  4. The good summary point you make in this post brings to mind for me St Augustine’s famous reflections on time: “For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not” (Confessions, Book 11, XIV). Likewise, the process by which we hear God’s Word in Scripture is, one might say, perfectly clear except when we examine it.

    People like me who start from a conservative Protestant perspective tend to think that the neat tripartite division of Old Testament law into moral, ceremonial and civil parts, coupled with New Covenant insight into the replacement of shadow ceremonies with the reality of Christ and the importance of grace, solves all problems – except, it doesn’t. A division between moral and ceremonial can be inferred from Old Testament texts such as “to obey is better than sacrifice” and it is more explicitly conveyed in New Testament writings such as the letter to the Hebrews. The argument for separating out and discarding the civil parts is more tenuous, however. I think that the Westminster Confession of Faith was perceptive with its statement that the civil parts of the law do not oblige “…any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (Chapter XIX), but that nevertheless begs the question of how we discern which parts of the law were “civil” and modifiable, and which were “moral” and immutable.

    The example you bring from Deuteronomy 22 highlights the problem exactly. If you searched far enough in the world of evangelicalism you might find a small sect somewhere that wants to apply Deuteronomy 22:13-21 verbatim, but the great majority happily agree that it has been superseded. Yet, how do they justify that? It’s not as though it requires a particular agrarian context to be enforceable, like a sabbatical or jubilee year. The death penalty for certain crimes was abandoned only last century in our own country, but even when it was still in use, the Church did not agitate for non-virginal brides to be executed! Why ever not?

    An increasing number of conservative churches also disregard certain New Testament ordinances. Fewer and fewer require women’s heads to be covered or men to be bareheaded in worship. More and more admit women into ministry and believe they have God’s blessing for it. Some who read a paragraph like this will exclaim, “We need to stop the rot now – bring in the burka before it’s too late”, but most will agree that they have indeed stepped beyond the explicit words of Scripture but not beyond the Word of God. They are recognising the Word of God in their de facto practice, but unlike Augustine in the matter of time, they have not yet recognised how hard it is to pin down the process by which the recognition happens.

    Therefore, there is already a hermeneutic being applied, even by conservatives, which transcends the hermeneutic that is officially taught in conservative seminaries. In principle, there is a good foundation for the attitude you suggest, “…let us be honest with the complexity of the scriptural texts and their history and cultural context, and rejoice if we can see a trajectory through which God is speaking to us into our day”. Unfortunately, this matter of complexity is often raised polemically and pejoratively (though not by you, Bosco) as though it settles a particular contentious doctrinal issue against the conservative viewpoint. Until both sides resolutely see each other in the spirit of your comment, as brothers and sisters whom Christ has called to work together in this complexity, acrimony and misunderstanding will continue.

    1. Thanks, Trevor, for your thoughtful, generous comment.

      On facebook, someone responded to this post by merely quoting Article 7: “Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” As if that somehow settles things. I would have thought that following that threefold division, one would have to say that the particular Deuteronomy text I give as an example would be in the category of “Moral”. Ie. “no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience” to this Commandment.

      Thanks again for underscoring the complexity, and the need to work together in honesty as sisters and brothers in Christ.


  5. But what is the grain? It is the record of the years of growth of a tree. The dark circles are the cold winters – darker and denser when they were particularly harsh. The light areas, the new growth of summer. The whorls and knots, show where new branches emerge. And so, a piece of wood can show a thousand years of history. There is no simple, unifying story here, other than life itself. Maybe too with the Bible?

      1. Thought provoking indeed – thoughts that woke me at 2 am and will doubtless be the means of contemplation today. The tree is both solitary and communal.

  6. It certainly is – and this particular subject is still whirling around in my rather dim head.
    Prayers and blessings. Br G-M

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