We are NOT Fundamentalists!
(We’re way more traditional -- and because of that -- way more progressive than that)
When the United States was a new nation, Episcopalians dominated our national life and gave the nation its most important institutions. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians (then known as Anglicans). Fifty-six percent (56%) of those who drafted the Constitution were Episcopalians.
Today Fundamentalism is the most prominent face of Christianity in America. In sharp contrast to the Anglican Christianity of this nation’s founders, Fundamentalism is characterized by a fear of eternal punishment, and belief that the Bible is composed of God’s own actual words.
Episcopalians come from a deeper and more ancient stream of Christianity. We put our faith in the power of love, rather than fear. We believe that God’s Living Word created and continues to create the world, that God’s Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and that Holy Scripture is a divinely inspired human witness to the activity of God’s Living Word in the world. We understand, as the first Christians did, that when the Bible speaks of God’s “Word,” it is not referring to itself; it is referring to the creative activity of God’s Living Word in the world. Like the first Christians we understand the Bible, not as God’s own words sealed in a book, but as a collection of divinely inspired human witnesses to the Living Word of God.
What is the “Word of God”?
“In the beginning was the Word . . .” (Jn 1:1)
The most common Greek word for “Word” used in the New Testament is “Logos.” But, the common English translation, “word” is almost misleading; there is no real English equivalent for Logos. The great Episcopal theologian and Greek scholar, William Porcher DuBose felt that “Eternal Reason,” (meaning, “intelligence, will, purpose”) would be a closer English equivalent for Logos than “Word.” Concerning the Logos, DuBose wrote, “The material universe is the concrete expression of an ideal principle, which not only as first-cause gives it existence, but as final-cause gives it reason, meaning and purpose.” By way of example, what we call the laws of nature are an expression of God’s Logos. That is what the Gospel of John has in mind when it goes on to say of the Logos, “All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being.” (Jn 1:3.) The author of Hebrews echoes this when he writes about the Logos incarnate [“made flesh”] in Jesus Christ: “ . . . in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the world.”
The Bible is a witness to the action of the Eternal Word (Logos) in the life of Israel and as made known in Jesus Christ. But only Jesus himself is properly called the “Word of God.” That is what the Bible teaches.
The idea that the Bible is God’s own literal words is a widespread but relatively modern heresy. Literalism turns the Bible, a divinely inspired but humanly crafted collection of books, into an idol. Apart from the Psalms and a few Hebrew Scriptures, the first Christians did not have the Bible as we know it. The Bible didn’t fully take the form it has today until the 4th century; although, we do know from early Christian writers that most churches were using most of the same books we have today by the end of the 2nd century. But it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that anyone suggested that the Bible was made up of God’s own literal words.
If you look at how the early Christians understood and used scripture, you would be hard pressed to find any early Christian writer who thought that the Bible should be read literally. Indeed, in the Bible itself St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the scripture about ‘not muzzling the ox that treads the grain’ is not really about oxen and grain. (Deut 25:4, 1 Cor 9:9.) Early Christian writers looked to the Old Testament for types and analogies of deeper truths revealed in the Good News of Jesus Christ, such as where St. Peter explains the story of Noah’s ark as a type “corresponding to . . . baptism,” in which eight persons were “brought safely through the water.” (I Pet 3:20.)
Rules and Regulations
The first Christians, even in the New Testament itself, did not look to the scriptures for factual information, or for rules and regulations, but for types and analogies of truths more fully revealed in Jesus Christ. That is why Paul says that when we read scripture we need to be aware that “the letter [of the Law] brings death, but the Spirit [of the Law] gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6b.) That is also why Paul feels free to advise the Corinthians to appreciate the letter of the Law but live by the the principle that, although all things are lawful for Christians, we must be principally concerned, not with whether our actions are lawful, but whether they are “helpful.” (I Cor. 6:12, 10:23.)
For the first Christians and for us, love, not law, is what must finally govern all our actions. That is because what the incarnation of God’s Logos revealed in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is that “God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8.) By and large, doing what is loving will also follow the law, because, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:14).
But doing the right thing is not always the same as doing the legal thing. Thus, Jesus felt free to pluck the grains of wheat and eat them on the Sabbath, an act for which the Bible plainly states he should have been stoned (Mt 12:1-8, Ex 31:14-15). Peter, against the clear mandate of scripture, welcomed and shared fellowship with Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. (Acts 10.) In modern times, the public and prophetic acts of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., are great examples of love’s demands trumping the dictates of law. Love make us who we are and guides us in what we do. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (5:22-23.) These are the traits we work to cultivate faithfully in ourselves.
Science and Religion
One of our Celtic Christian forebears, John Scotus Eriugena (815-877) wrote:
“Observe the forms and beauties of sensible things, and comprehend the Word of God in them. If you do so, the truth will reveal to you in all such things only he who made them, outside of whom you have nothing to contemplate, for he himself is all things.”
For the first Christians and for us modern Episcopalians, the same eternal Word of God which became incarnate in Jesus Christ is active everywhere. (Eph 4:6) It is active in creation. (Jn 1:3-4.) It exists in the image of God contained within every human being that walks the earth. (Gen 1:27.) It is even active in other religions. (Acts 17:26-28.)
We regard Holy Scripture for what it is, a collection of many different types of literature from many times and many cultures which we keep and maintain as a divinely inspired witness to that Living Word. That’s why we find no conflict in the two widely divergent creation stories that appear in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2; the details of those stories may be inconsistent with each other, but the teachings are not. That is why we find no conflict in the Word found in Holy Scripture and the Word as it reveals itself in nature. (Dinosaurs and evolution never posed a problem for Anglicans/Episcopalians. Neither do the Big Bang or String Theory.)
How we read Holy Scripture
A typical Sunday worship service in the Episcopal Church includes four (4) Scripture readings: An Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a reading from one of the Gospels. When Episcopalians read Scripture we do so prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal what the words meant to those to whom they were written, how the Church has understood the words through the ages, and what they might mean for us today. Episcopalians are profoundly rooted in Scripture and in a far more traditional way than many other churches.
The witness of Scripture to the Living Word [Logos] of God is what makes us Episcopalians who we are. Our deeper connection to scripture prevents us from being Fundamentalists. Ultimately, God is not found in a book, even a book like the Bible full of many witness to God’s presence. Our God is present with us, not as an idea, but as a living reality. That is why we are not Fundamentalists. As Pope Francis recently put it:
“Our God is a God of nearness, which accompanies. Fundamentalists push God away from the companionship of his people; they dis-incarnate him, they transform him into an ideology. Therefore, in the name of this ideological God, they kill, attack, destroy, and calumniate. Practically, they transform this God into a Baal, into an idol.”
We couldn’t agree more.
© 2015 Fr. Joseph Farber+
1 DuBose, William P., The Reason of Life, p. 13, Longmans, Green and Company, 1911.
2 Note, Paul says, “fulfilled,” not “followed.” It is an important distinction.
3 From Eriugena’s commentary on the Prologue to the Gospel of John, appearing in, The Voice of the Eagle, p.25,, ed. Christopher Bamford, Steinerbooks, 2000. Emphasis added
4 Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are the “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism, as articulated by Richard Hooker (1554-1600).