Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Supervening Liturgical Authority

We turn now to the last liturgical category for the use and interpretation of Scripture: its use as an authority prescribing or prohibiting liturgical actions.

For some, this follows from a general rule that Scripture must be the authority for all of life. In this of course there is broad agreement, though the exact parameters of what it means in practice are highly controversial. So we will do well, in accord with my general procedure in this series, not to attempt a general, over-arching account, but rather to attempt merely to understand this one small piece.

Positive Obligations from Scripture

We can of course find in Scripture some positive commands regarding worship. For example, that we pray, that we confess our sins, that we give thanks to God, that we celebrate the sacraments, all these are commanded in Scripture.

Beyond this, Scripture occasionally commands certain texts, for example, the Lord's Prayer, as normative for prayer. I have already noted the importance of the Lord's Prayer and lamented its neglect by some churches which proclaim a very high view of the importance of the Scriptures.

What is striking, however, is that the positive obligations from Scripture are so spare. The tractarians as well were impressed by this fact, and concluded from this and from minor references to liturgical practice that the apostles taught liturgical practice, but it was not the role of the epistles (let alone the Gospels) to command this practice to the church.

Here we see a striking variance from the historic position of the Reformed, who proclaim that only what is commanded may be done. As evidence of this, they point to the strong language in the Old Testament which seems to absolutely prohibit any human invention about how to best worship God. For the Reformed, God tells us what God wants from us in worship, and that is the end of the matter.

But of course this is a useless doctrine when it comes time to write a prayer. Did God command this or that particular sentence of thanksgiving? No, of course not. The Reformed plead that God did command, for example, thanksgiving. Yet, the Scriptures do not tell us what the sentence must say. So if we are actually writing a liturgy, we cannot possibly hope to find complete instructions in the Scriptures.

At best we find general heads, and we are left to fill them out. But then we have a loophole through the Reformed principle which is big enough to drive the entire Tridentine liturgy through. We are left then with the Lutheran position.


The Lutheran position then is that some things are obligatory, and some things are prohibited, and in between them are things indifferent. One may do them, but one may not make them a condition of church unity. Of course, the problem with that, again, is that they are a condition of church unity, when we look at the actual folks in the pews.

The exact language of a thanksgiving prayer will serve again as example. The exact wording is an adiaphoron. Now, think of the average worshipper: it is a condition of their participation that they pray that particular prayer, because that simply is the prayer the group is using. And there may well be no other church around for them to attend.

The actual worshipping dynamics of congregations, as I have argued before, always involve people who decide what will happen and other people who simply must take what is offered and do not get to decide. And precisely because of this, talk of "freedom"--or adiaphora in the Lutheran fashion--is quite out of place.

The Authority of the Church

And so who will write that thanksgiving prayer? We cannot find it in Scripture. We cannot say that because it is not in Scripture, anything orthodox will do, without stepping on toes, since the priniciple of adiaphora preserves the right of all to reject the practice without losing unity.

The Anglican solution is to argue that particular churches have the right to order their ceremonies as they see fit, and impose them on worshippers, but must do nothing contrary to scriptures, and must not require to be believed what cannot be proved from the Scriptures. Notice that requirements about practice can be imposed--which is a good thing, since public worship necessarily involves the imposition of requirements about practice.

But this still leaves unsaid why the church should have this authority. And here, we appeal a good old Tractarian idea: the ministerial commission. As we all know, the talk about lay ministry in the Episcopal Church has not replaced the central authority of the rector over worship, nor could it. Indeed, I will subscribe to that hoary old Tractarian conviction that there is a ministerial commission, given to the church, and to particular individuals within it, to order the life and worship of the church. This commission resides in the bishops and the lower clergy to whom they have delegated that task through ordination.


So now we can get to the point! What does this tell us about the use and interpretation of the Scriptures when it comes to their role as the authority for our worship? It tells us that the task of deciding what must be done, when the scriptures do not give us prohibitions or commands, falls upon the clergy, and primarily upon the bishops.

But the interpretation of the Scriptures is controversial. Not everyone will agree on which points have been prohibited or commanded by Scripture. (For example, some believe that blessing same-sex marriages is prohibited, others disagree.) Who is to make the authoritative determination for the church? For either we do the controversial practice or we do not; someone must decide.

Clearly there is no way to separate this deciding (what do the Scriptures require or prohibit for our worship?) from the first one (what should we do when the Scriptures leave us free?). There is no way to constitute an authority for the second which will not, ipso facto be determining the first.

The bishops (and the lower clergy under their deputation) thus for the first time in these essays have a distinctive magisterial role, but one which is entirely practical. (Homiletic, already treated, is another, but does not involve authoritative statements in the way liturgical decisions do.) The bishops have an authoritative role in interpreting the scriptures as far as necessary to determine whether a given practice is commanded, prohibited, or left open to the church to decide: and in the last case, to make that decision.

This process requires that the bishops act with integrity. It is not plenary authority to do what they please with the liturgy; it is an authority constrained by the Scriptures. But, and this is absolutely crucial, the recognition of that constraint is not imposed by someone else. One might disagree with or object to the bishops' decisions about some liturgical question, or biblical interpretation weighing in upon it, but the determination of what to do still resides in the bishops' hands, and they are not acting illegitimately simply because their interpretation differs from one's own.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

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