The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology




An open BibleAuthority and the Bible

by Christopher Ash


The appointment of Dr. Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury triggered a controversy in parts of the Church of England unparalleled in modern times. Many Christians are puzzled and confused. They are exposed mainly to sound-bites slanted this way and that by editors and do not know what to think. What follows is my attempt in one local Church (All Saints, Little Shelford, near Cambridge) to address some of the substantial issues arising in the controversy.  They have been only lightly edited.

I have been asked to make them more widely available. Although there are many other things that could (and probably should) have been said, and other angles explored, I hope these sermons may be of some help for Church members and Ministers in elucidating at least some of the substantial issues surrounding the controversy.

Christopher Ash
December 2002


These three sermons were first delivered on December 1st, 8th, and 15th 2002.

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.  (Hebrews 1:1-4)

"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. "In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me."  (John 16:12-16)


"In the past God spoke…in these last days he has spoken…"

The claim that God has spoken is one of the great glories of the Christian faith. God has spoken repeatedly and reliably. And he has made sure that men and women have a trustworthy record of his words. If this is true, it is a wonderful thing. The heavens are not made of brass. There is a living God; he is not distant; he has spoken to us. He wanted to speak; he has succeeded in speaking, to teach us his law and to call us back to him by his gospel. And we must heed his words.

This is a great claim. It is our subject this morning. But sadly against a background of controversy.


Introduction: a background of controversy

As Dr. Rowan Williams takes up his post as Archbishop of Canterbury, we must pray for him. The responsibility entrusted to him by God is very great. We will all be aware that his appointment is proving very controversial. Why? After all, most of us have a strong innate respect for properly constituted authority in the Church. Everyone agrees Dr. Williams is most likeable and extremely able man. He has all the makings of a most effective Archbishop. So why the controversy?

Answer: because some in the Church of England think his teachings are not properly Christian; while others maintain that they are. Those who think they are not argue that whatever his abilities and however likeable he may be, a person whose teachings are not properly Christian ought not to be Archbishop. Some have been quite vociferous in their concerns; but the concern in the Church of England extends more widely than the vociferous minority.

So the controversy is about whether or not the new Archbishop's teachings fall within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, of true Christian teaching. That is the debate. It is a controversy unparalleled in modern times for an Archbishop. It must be causing considerable strain on Dr. and Mrs. Williams and their family; we must pray for them.

My instinct was to do only that: to pray. To ignore the controversy itself, but just get on with being a local Church, and not worry about the wider Church. That was my instinct; I suspect it is shared by many of us. But I fear it would have been an insular response, and an evasion of responsibility.

So I am going to try to preach three sermons addressing some of the substantial issues raised. Most of us have only  heard soundbites, slanted various ways depending whether we read The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph or somewhere in between!

First, today, the issue of authority; how Christians ought to approach disagreement, to what authority we bow. I take this first because it is the fundamental question in any controversy.

Second, next week (click here to read the next sermon), with some trepidation, sexual ethics, since this is the most controversial of the new Archbishop's views.

And third (click here to read the third sermon in this series), the whole question of whether it matters what an Archbishop thinks, the question of the implications of the controversy for the Church of England and for us. I suppose this will be the most practical of the sermons.

I hope these 3 sermons will prove a good idea. In each sermon I can only touch on some of the topic; but I shall do my best. I want to speak with confidence about basic Christian truth and with caution about the teachings of Dr. Williams. Confidence about basic Christian teaching, for these are things Christians have believed for centuries; we are not thinking about these for the first time. Caution about Dr.Williams' teachings, partly because some of them are not easy to understand, and partly because of course I have not read all his writings.

But I have managed to read about 30 of his published sermons on a variety of subjects; and I've read and dipped in a number of his other writings. He may of course change his mind; as you will see, I rather hope he does on some subjects. But I can only work from what he currently says his teachings are. I hope I shall be accurate and fair. But my understanding of his teaching is bound to be provisional.

So while I shall say confidently some things about the Bible's teaching, I shall also say more cautiously things about Dr.Williams' theology. I hope you will bear with that distinction between confidence and caution; it would seem to be necessary.

First, then:


A. The Need for The Bible

Why has God spoken (as Christians believe he has)? Two answers: the primary answer is that if he had not spoken we would never know that he is love and that he has open arms to welcome back to him any man or woman who will turn from sin and trust in Christ. We would not know that if God had not spoken.

We ought to know just from the world we live in that there is a God and we ought to worship him; Paul teaches that in Romans 1. We don't need the bible to show us that. We know guilt without the bible. But we would not know gospel. The bible is there, in the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:15, to make us wise for salvation. It is a wonderful claim that God has spoken to call us back to him.

Second, we need the Bible to live in harmony in the Church. For there will be disagreements. Sometimes important disagreements, and we will look at one next week, about homosexual practice. Painful disagreements. Not trivial things like style or personality. What then do we do? If any community is to live in harmony there needs to be authority, to which we bow.

To simplify, there have been four candidates for authority in the Christian Church:

There is Tradition: authority is to be found in the teachings traditionally taught by the Church.

There is Reason: we must use our minds and accept the conclusions to which our thinking leads.

There is Experience, which is a little broader than Reason: we must ask what Experience shows us to be true and bow to that, what we 'know' or 'feel' or 'sense' or inwardly experience to be the case.

And there is Holy Scripture. Tradition, Reason, Experience and Scripture. All are important.

And the mainstream position of the Christian Church down the ages is that Scripture is given us as the supreme authority, which is what Scripture itself claims to be.

So we listen carefully to tradition, how Christians have interpreted scripture down the ages. We do not arrogantly assume that we alone can interpret scripture aright in any old idiosyncratic way.

We use our minds, we reason, but recognise that our thinking is not as reliable as we would like.

We relate scripture to experience in the real world.

But in the end, we bow before the revealed word of God. When we have done all our thinking and our feeling and our relating to others who have grappled with God over the centuries, we bow before the word of God.

The Bible is, as has been well said, the sceptre by which the Lord Jesus rules his Church.

I have not yet found in Dr. Williams' writings an acceptance of this supreme authority. And it troubles me that I have not. I hope I am wrong. And if I am right, I hope and pray that he will change his mind.

But, for example, in a sermon in a theological college he addresses the problem of controversy, different students holding different beliefs. He is sensitive to the hurt that may be caused by casual or dismissive remarks about another's beliefs. He is clear that the different beliefs matter; it's no good telling us to believe them less strongly, as if they didn't matter.

But when we appeal to Christ for an answer, according to Dr. Williams, Christ has nothing to say. We are faced, as it were, by a silent icon of Christ on the wall. We make our arguments to Christ; and we find he is, in Williams' words, "the totally enigmatic face on the wall, the cross, the bread and wine. Silent signs, as silent as he was before Pilate, consistently refusing a straight or simple answer."

Well, Christ was certainly silent before Pilate, as he will always deny insight to us when we are not willing to obey (cf. John 7:17). But we must remember that he has not always been silent; he has spoken, God has spoken and we must heed his words. This is orthodox Christian belief. We take our controversy to the bar of scripture. I know as well as the Archbishop does that scripture won't always produce simple answers. We all know that submitting to scripture must be done together with thought and debate. But it is to scripture we go and to scripture we bow.

And although Dr. Williams calls the bible the word of God, having read 30 or so of his sermons it does not seem to me that he regards it as his supreme authority. He takes it seriously. But he does not always feel bound to accept what it says.

So what is his authority? I'm not sure. If I may say so, I think Dr. Williams is an unusually eloquent and perceptive observer of human experience. Several times reading him I have found myself saying, "that is a very perceptive observation of how people are and how we feel, of our fears or our hopes." I sometimes feel the same when I read a novel or a poem. And I am grateful for it. Some of what Dr. Williams has written is very good indeed. Some of his social comment in the extracts of his book Lost Icons is very penetrating.

If experience is his authority, we should not be surprised that sometimes he will seem to be spot on and at other times less than properly Christian. Because experience is an unreliable guide. And if I disagree with you on the basis of our experience, who is to arbitrate between my experience and yours?

So I am concerned that Holy Scripture does not seem to be the new Archbishop's supreme authority in practice, as it ought to be for a Christian minister.


B. The Nature of the Bible

This leads to my second point. What kind of book is the bible? The answer of Christian orthodoxy down the ages is that the bible is the trustworthy written testimony to Jesus Christ.

God spoke through the prophets before Christ. The Lord Jesus himself believed the Old Testament to be the inspired word of God. Consistently, his attitude to the Old Testament scriptures was absolute respect and obedience. He submitted to them in his life. He appealed to them in his controversies as the final authority. He never set himself above them; he never claimed the right to distinguish good parts of them from faulty parts. It is one of the most remarkable features of his earthly ministry.

We trust the prophets as they looked forward to Christ; and we trust the apostles after Christ as they gave reliable testimony to him. We heard in our second reading Jesus' promise to the apostles that the Holy Spirit would lead them, the apostles, into all truth. We have the result of that ministry of the Spirit in the New Testament.

Prophets and apostles, all testifying in reliable written words to the great Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. I could expound on this for much longer, but in a nutshell, that is the answer Christians have given down the ages.

And so we submit ourselves to the whole bible as the coherent word of God. We grapple with the bible as one big story, trustworthy in all its parts.

Now the bible nowhere claims that God spoke by dictation. As Hebrews 1 says, God spoke in many and various ways. He spoke through a varied bunch of people. Each with their own style, and personality. Each in a particular context. But as they spoke, God spoke.

From what I have read so far it does not seem to me that Dr. Williams shares this submission to the whole word of God. And that troubles me.

The technical term for Dr. Williams' theology is that it is apophatic. That means that we may only ultimately speak of God by negation. Whatever we say about God, we must qualify by saying that it is not actually so and our human language is inadequate. In this theology, God speaks above all by silence, or by inarticulacy, what Dr. Williams calls, "the inarticulate crying of God in the stable" and "the wordless cry from the cross." It is with this paradoxical silence, this dark night of the soul, that God answers, or does not answer, our questions.

Now I want to say something positive about Dr. Williams' motivation. It would be easy to parody his views. Dr. Williams has a passionate concern that we do not domesticate the bible to make it a tool in our hands to make life comfortable for ourselves. He passionately wants us to experience God as the one who questions our presuppositions and challenges our complacency. We must never, he says, allow what we call 'God' to be the echo of our own voice, what Dr. Williams calls, "a loud echo of our need to be told we are right". To do so, he rightly says, is to make God into an idol. He's right. We must applaud that concern. The word of God calls me to repent; it never affirms my self-righteousness. He's right about that.

But how is the word of God heard? It is here that I am troubled by what I have read. For when he says he believes the Bible to be the word of God or the "touchstone of truth about God", he does not mean what Christian orthodoxy means.

In his own words, "(S)cripture is the record of an encounter and a contest… Here in scripture is God's urgency to communicate" – so God is trying to speak – "here in scripture is our mishearing, our misappropriating, our deafness and our resistance." By that he does not mean simply that scripture shows us men and women grappling with God and sometimes getting it wrong. That would obviously be true. All the so-called 'heroes' of the bible got it wrong and frequently.

But what Dr. Williams means goes beyond this. He means that the writers of scripture sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong in their writings, that is to say in the Bible. So, for example, he says that Luke "does not seem to have understood particularly well" the parable of the Unjust Steward (recorded in Luke 16). In Dr. Williams' authoritative judgement, when Luke puts it where he does in his gospel, he shows he hasn't understood it very well.

Or, to take Paul: on the Damascus Road Paul had "perhaps one of the most luminous moments in the whole of the New Testament"; but when we come to the letters to Timothy and Titus we find letters which, though they purport to be written by Paul, are actually written "by a later generation" who "bundled" Paul's authentic insight with a whole lot of less worthy thought. Or, to take another example, in the book of Revelation we find "two scripts". Some of it is wonderful, words which have been "etched upon the Christian imagination for centuries"; but interwoven with that we find what he calls "page after page of paranoid fantasy and malice", "sick and diseased".

So the bible is a mixture. It is men and women grappling with God, with mixed success. And so when Dr. Williams comes to holy scripture he says the Church must "listen for God" not "listen to God"; we must listen carefully so that by the Spirit through the mixed truth and misunderstanding in scripture, we may hear God speak.

But Christian orthodoxy has always insisted we must take the whole testimony of scripture and submit to it as a coherent whole. We do not have the authority to pick and choose, to select which parts are authentic and which parts mistaken.

The problem of course is that when we do, who decides? Who decides which letters or parts of letters in the New Testament are authentic and authoritative and which are muddled and misconceived? Who decides when Luke got it right and when he got it wrong?

Because whoever decides is the authority. It is an irony really, that this apophatic theology, in its desire to place itself under God, ends up slipping into the place of authority itself; because in the end (on this view) I decide when I have heard the voice of God and when I am just reading diseased misunderstandings of God.

So this understanding of scripture troubles me. While we must pray for Dr. Williams,  I cannot welcome the appointment of an Archbishop who feels free to treat Holy Scripture like this. I hope he will not do so in future.

But as we close, let us rejoice that God has spoken. He is trustworthy and he has given us trustworthy words, a wonderful gospel. I pray that whatever happens in the Church of England, we may continue to rejoice in that and joyfully to submit to God's loving authority.

Christopher AshAbout the Author

Christopher Ash is the Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London, and was previously the minister of All Saints Church, Little Shelford, near Cambridge. He is the author of Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP 2003) and Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the book of Job (IVP 2004).