At the end of every class at the Anglican seminary where I teach, my students fill out a course evaluation. Each semester, without fail, I find myself wondering how they will answer one of the pre-written questions: “Did the course help you articulate an Anglican understanding of biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology?” Sometimes I joke with my students, telling them that that question will be waiting for them at the end of the semester and admitting that I live in fear of reading their responses. I wonder what their answers will be mainly because I myself haven’t been able to give a satisfactory answer to the related, underlying question: How will I, as their instructor, teach an Anglican understanding of biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology?
Because I’m a biblical studies professor, I am chiefly interested in what an Anglican approach to a course on, say, the four canonical Gospels would look like. Certainly there is a range of perfectly adequate answers to that question. One could, for instance, assign readings on the Gospels from historical Anglican luminaries such as B. F. Westcott or William Temple. I could imagine a fruitful course on the Fourth Gospel assigning a paper on Temple’s pastoral Readings in St. John’s Gospel and on the theological commentary of the great Anglo-Catholic scholar Edwyn Hoskyns. Or one might devise an assignment in which students were asked to match the movements of the Eucharistic rite with the Synoptists’ Last Supper narratives. Or, turning to Paul, I could conceive of a course on the epistles that asked students to reflect on whether or not Thomas Cranmer’s theology of justification sola fide counts as a good reading of Galatians and Romans, as my friend Jono Linebaugh has recently done. And so on.
Admittedly, though, most of the time, in my own theological reading and writing, I don’t pay much attention to “distinctively Anglican” theology. I confess I’m more apt to read Karl Barth than Richard Hooker, and I’m generally more interested in Augustine and Aquinas than I am in the niceties of intra-Anglican discussions and debates. Historically speaking, I’m partial to the conclusion Oliver O’Donovan draws, in his wonderful book on the Thirty-Nine Articles. It has never been, O’Donovan says, “the genius of the Church of England to grow its own theological nourishment, but only to prepare what was provided from elsewhere and to set it decently upon the table.” How, then, am I supposed to teach the New Testament in an “Anglican way”?
Here, at least, is my current thinking on the matter. If O’Donovan is right, then Anglicanism’s chief glory is to present and embody the faith of the Church catholic — downwind of the Reformation, with a robust understanding of justification by faith in tow — in such a way that Anglicans may be confident that they are adhering to the same apostolic teaching and inhabiting the same ecclesial order as their earliest forebears in the faith did. Anglicanism does not, on this reading, represent some unique “take” on the Christian faith (proponents of a muddled understanding of a via media notwithstanding). Anglicanism is, rather, one reliable way for Western Christians to live out the apostolic, catholic faith. We are distinctive precisely by aiming not to be distinctive. Our theology is the theology of the early church, the era of the Fathers, the best of the medieval world and the Reformation — all set decently on the table in our prayer book and other formularies.
To teach the New Testament in an Anglican way is, then, to teach in order that the New Testament’s coherence is shown to depend on the catholic faith. An Anglican understanding of the New Testament won’t major on reconstructing the historical circumstances “behind” the various New Testament documents. Nor will it put much stock in the passing fashions of the biblical studies guild. An Anglican approach to the New Testament will be far more interested in talking about the way the very existence of the “New Testament” — a formalized collection of books, typically bound in one codex with its counterpart, the Christian “Old Testament” — depends on the nexus of the apostles, their successors, their gospel, its proclamation in word and sacrament, its reception in the following centuries, and its summary in the creeds and councils of the Church catholic.
Robert Jenson once wrote about the canon:
The volume we call the Bible is a collection of documents. The single book exists because the church in her specific mission assembled a certain collection of documents from the very ancient Near East and from first-century Mediterranean antiquity.
Saying this, I mean something commonsensical, that should not ignite theological argument. Protestantism emphasizes that these precise documents impose themselves on the church; Catholicism East and West emphasizes that it is the church that recognizes the exigency. I mean only to make the simple point presupposed by and included in both emphases: the collection comes together in and for the church.
Where the church’s calling to speak the gospel is not shared, the binding of these particular documents between one cover becomes a historical accident of no hermeneutical significance.
Or as I recently wrote elsewhere:
[W]hat we know today as “the Bible” is actually a collection of books approved to be read publicly in the Christian assembly. The “canon” of Scripture is, literally, the rule of which books can be trusted to deliver the words of the prophets and apostles to the people of God. Likewise, the New Testament is called that because it’s titled after the Christ-centered “testament,” or “covenant,” that God made with his people after Jesus’ resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, as promised through the prophets (Jeremiah 31:31).
To read and teach the New Testament as an Anglican — which is, or should be, to read and teach the Bible as a catholic Christian — is to talk about the apostolic, churchly, creedal, eucharistic shape of the New Testament. It is to try to discern the Christian rationale for this particular collection of documents. And it is to read those texts for the ongoing theological and pastoral nourishment of the Christian church today, between whose contemporary existence and whose apostolic beginnings no unbridgeable gulf looms.
I hope that’s what my students write on their next course evaluation. But even if they don’t, that’s how I’ll be trying to teach them, Anglican that I am.
The featured image of Thomas Cranmer was uploaded by Flickr user Skara kommun and is licensed under Creative Commons.