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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

A short Diatribe on Anglican Biblical Interpretation

A Short Diatribe on Anglican Biblical Interpretation

by The Rev. Michael Russell,

Rector of All Souls Parish, Point Loma, Diocese of San Diego


            Holy Scriptures are being bandied about a great deal in this current conflict, especially by people who claim to be traditionalists and so-called “orthodox Anglicans.”  Homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says its wrong and that’s it, goes their pronouncements. They stab their fingers at Leviticus 18, 20, and Romans 1 crying, “See, See!”  In actuality their manner of using the Bible and the authority they suppose they give to it are far more akin to the Calvinism Mr. Hooker opposed, than to anything ever Anglican.

                They are fond of rallying around the “plain truth” of the Scriptures without apparently having any depth of knowledge in the plain truth of 400+ years of Anglican heritage with respect to careful Biblical Interpretation.  We who disagree with the violence they thus do to Scripture have no further to look than the Elizabethan Divine and foundational theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker.

            Hooker addressed the Calvinists of his day, usually called Presbyterians or Puritans, denying repeatedly in the course of the Laws their claim that the entire rule of one’s life and of Church polity must be found in Scripture and thus anything not positively commanded by God was sin.   He not only says that they are wrong in that claim, but they do not actually believe or practice it themselves. Moreover, he is quite comfortable with The Law of Reason, written into our human flesh, functioning very highly in the arena of knowing between good and evil.

                In Chapter 8 of Book II he comes to discuss the truth in the matter.  In essence he says this:

1)       Scripture is perfect for the purpose for which it was created: to teach us those things necessary for salvation;

2)       People (Rome) err when they narrow this perfection of Scripture by suggesting that Church Traditions must be added to scripture in order for people to discover that is necessary for salvation.

3)       But other people err in widening too far the scope of Scripture’s purpose by arguing that it contains ALL necessary things and that ALL things in scripture are necessary for salvation.  This assertion he will dismember in books III and IV.  He concludes book II:

“…so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed.”


                Book III goes on to carefully parse through the Calvinists assertions.  But most interesting to this are chapters X and XI, which deal with the mutability of God’s laws and the capacity of the church to change or add to them.  He writes, “The nature of every law must be judged of by the end for which it was made, and by the aptness of things therein prescribed unto the same end.” (III.X.1)

                For a law to continue to be in force its original end must still be possible and the means to that end must still be effective to achieve it.  If either of those no longer pertains, then laws may be changed.  He goes on further in Book X to make a distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, acknowledging the perpetual authority of the moral laws, but the mutability of the ceremonial and judicial. 

                “Aha!” cry the Calvinists, “Our point exactly.”  Except for the fact that Mr. Hooker confines the category of moral law to the 10 Commandments, all the rest in the Torah being ceremonial or judicial.  In Chapter X section 6 he lays out the reason they are different and in X.9 gives the narrow end of the ceremonial and judicial laws, “Unto their (the Jewish people) so long safety, for two things it was necessary to provide; namely, the preservation of their state against foreign resistance, and the continuance of their peace within themselves.”

                And thus the Levitical injunctions against homosexuality, which the Calvinists would have us believe were chiseled in the same stone as the 10 Commandments, aren’t.  In fact they were created for the end described in the paragraph above and that end, no longer pertaining means that we are no longer bound by those laws except insofar as our capacity to Reason leads us to believe that they would be for the good.  And about that there is obvious disagreement, but not authoritative Scriptural injunction.

                This distinction, between the moral and ceremonial and judicial laws is included in Article VII of the 39 Articles.  Moral laws we must keep the other we may observe or not as Reason teaches.  The Right Reverend Gilbert Burnet in his early 18th century “Exposition of the 39 Articles of the Church of England” acknowledges the same distinction in his discussion of Article VII.  Bishop Burnet would expand the moral laws to include derived corollaries (he is quite firm for example that divorce is perpetually forbidden) he nevertheless continues the interpretive framework established by Mr. Hooker.  He writes:

                There are two orders of moral precepts; some relate to things that are of their own nature are inflexibly good or evil, such as truth or falsehood; whereas other things by a variety of circumstances may so change their nature, that they may be either morally good or evil:…” (p. 130)

Now I suspect that as a man of his time and from reading the passage around this quotation Bishop Burnet would have shared the opinion of our Calvinists on homosexuality.  Yet he maintains even here the distinction found in Mr. Hooker, which makes this an issue for Reasoned judgment of time and circumstances rather than solemn pronouncement that a perpetual evil is at hand. Burnet’s “Exposition,” by the way was the text on the 39 Articles that The Most Reverend William White included in the curriculum for Theological Studies adopted at the General Convention of 1803.

In sum then, our present crop of Calvinists continue to trouble the church as they always have these 403 years since the death of Mr. Hooker by attributing too much to the scope of Scripture.  And just as Mr. Hooker did then we must do now, which is to rejoice in the hermeneutic he developed and learn again from him how to discern what kind of things things are, what are the ends for which they were created and what are the apt means for achieving them.  In doing this we can further agree with Mr. Hooker in his Learned Discourse on Justification, that the foundation of faith, that which is necessary for salvation, is the simple affirmation that Jesus is Lord that we made on 2 Epiphany when reading I Corinthians 12:3.


                Please share this as you see fit.

       Michael Russell


(The greatest shame of our nodding our hats to modernism is that we stopped making Mr. Hooker basic reading in seminaries long about the 1920’s:  before the Folger Edition began being published in the 1980s and my company republished the Keble edition in 1994 there has not been a major edition available in the U.S. since the Everyman edition in 1925.)


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