In a highly stimulating essay in a recent issue of the British journal Theology, my friend Richard Briggs, an Anglican priest who teaches Old Testament at Cranmer Hall in Durham, notes some of the ironies of current Anglican seminary education. Specifically, he focuses on biblical studies, his own discipline.
Much of the shape of Anglican seminary curricula, he contends, is shaped by the historical-critical project rather than by the particular questions raised by Anglican ministry itself. So, for instance, the classic “higher critical” Protestant reading of the development of the Old Testament — that the dynamic genius of Israel’s prophetic tradition hardened into the legalism of the priests and Levites, thus neatly inverting the canonical ordering of law and prophets — continues to impact even many Anglican seminaries’ approaches to teaching the Bible. Priority is given to the gospel-oriented book of Isaiah, for example, while the legal code is given comparatively short shrift. Briggs comments:
From within my own Anglican context, what is most striking is that the substance of the conceptualities of priesthood and sacrifice is largely obscured when the agenda is set by the post-Wellhausen low-Protestant reconstruction. Priesthood becomes a puzzle open to historical reconstruction, but the significance of what priesthood actually is and how it might operate between God and humanity is given almost no attention. If biblical studies in Anglican formation were driven by questions arising from reflection upon the practice of ordained ministry, it is hard to imagine that such issues would be left on the margins or handled in this history-of-religion manner.
Because I teach New Testament at an Episcopal/Anglican seminary myself, I was especially intrigued by Briggs’ similar diagnosis of how the more recent Testament fares too. He writes:
[T]he texts that occupy academic biblical studies [in the department of New Testament] are the great Pauline letters (especially Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians) and the four Gospels. Even if these texts do not form a canon within the canon, the issues they raise (atonement, justification, the teaching of Jesus…) fill the syllabus. There is no criticism here that such topics do not deserve their place: they are surely key for any serious Christian study of the Bible in dialogue with the claims of Christian faith. But again, they reflect an agenda (or set of agendas) driven with little specific regard to the formative influence of teaching within particular ecclesiological settings.
Briggs goes on to comment that if Anglican educators took their cues from the basic question, What kind of formation might Anglican ordinands need in order to be faithful in their future ordained ministries?, the curriculum might be shaped otherwise than how it currently is.
[T]he questions generated by Anglican concerns about the significance of ecclesiology should make a difference in practice as to how the priorities of New Testament study are chosen …. [A]n approach by way of the Pastoral Epistles and their concerns with the appropriate character of the episkopos, the presbuteros and the diakonos should commend itself as least as much as an approach by way of Pauline views of justification or Johannine Christology.
Briggs’ entire essay, like everything he writes, is lucid and fascinating. I read it with deep interest because I think all the time about how best to fulfill my vocation as a teacher in an Anglican setting. As I’ve commented before on this blog, I fret over how I may best impart an Anglican understanding of New Testament studies to my students. Is there such a thing, in fact? And if so, how may I go about displaying it in the classroom and inculcating it through academic assignments?
My tentative conclusion thus far is that my friend Richard’s comments here run the risk of obscuring something essential about the New Testament, and that is that the entirety of the New Testament — including the most intricately theoretical discussions of “justification by faith” and “atonement” and “high Christology” — is inescapably ecclesiological and, vice versa, that the parts of the New Testament that focus more overtly on “ecclesiology” and good “order” in the Church are inescapably marked by the “theoretical.” Put another way, I fear that if I took Briggs’ advice and tried to revamp my teaching of the New Testament in order to give weight to the parts allegedly more relevant to Anglican ordinands, I might, in the end, impair my students’ grasp of the deep Christological and soteriological roots of ecclesiology itself.
Perhaps an example will help explain what I mean. Take the Gospel of John, for instance. The great historical-critical treatments of the New Testament give enormous weight to the Fourth Gospel, seeing in it a pitched battle for the development of the “high” Christology that would eventually be enshrined in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. (In Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament, a treatment of Johannine theology takes up the first half of the entire second volume.) In reaction to this, I might be tempted to set my next elective course at my seminary on the Pauline epistle to Titus instead, reasoning that by doing so, I will be helping my Anglican students explore the roots of the threefold order of ministry and gain some purchase on the early Church’s emerging ecclesiology. But what I might miss in doing this is the way that sticking with the Fourth Gospel would lead me directly into the heart of classical Anglican concerns: there is proto-creedal language that might connect my students with Nicaea (John 1); there are pregnant sacramental conceptualities that might lead my students into immediate grappling with eucharistic theology (John 6); and there emerges, at the end of the Gospel, the questions of apostolicity (Petrine and otherwise) and canonicity, which are surely germane for any Anglican understanding of ministry (John 21). In short, John turns out to be no less “Anglican” than Titus; my students just have to learn to see that that is so.
Or consider Romans. The German Lutheran tradition prioritized the teaching of Romans to the virtual exclusion of the supposedly theologically inferior “catholicizing” Pastoral Epistles. So I might, as an Anglican, wish to thumb my nose at this misstep and teach on 1-2 Timothy rather than offer another seminar on Romans. But this might prove deeply misleading for my students insofar as it may perpetuate the very dichotomy it is trying to correct. By treating Romans with its robust doctrine of justification as “theoretical” and preferring instead the more “ecclesiological” Pastoral Epistles, I may end up blinding my students to the fact that, as more recent Pauline studies have emphasized ad nauseam, “justification by faith” is impossible to tweeze apart from “ecclesiology.” Justification, in Galatians and Romans, has everything to do with whom one eats — with whom one shares baptism and Eucharist — regardless of ethnic or moral pedigree. Surely, if anything is, these latter concerns are deeply and obviously “Anglican!” If I simply sidelined Romans, I would overlook that crucial point.
Perhaps, then, what’s needed at seminaries like the one where I teach is not so much a revised curriculum in which the great Protestant mainstays like Isaiah and Ezekiel and Romans and Luke are relegated to the margins and the more ecclesiological and liturgical biblical books like Hebrews and 1 John are foregrounded. Perhaps what’s needed instead are more alert, sensitive, and intentional attempts to expose the inextricable links between Isaiah and Leviticus, between Galatians and Jude, between “justification by faith” and “good order in the church.”
I agree wholeheartedly with my fellow teacher Richard that “the standard academic agenda trumps the approach driven by ministerial formation more or less every time” and that this state of affairs must change if Anglican seminaries are to be true to their mission. I simply think, at the end of the day, that the way forward lies in the recognition that “the approach driven by ministerial formation” may lead one back to precisely those parts of Old and New Testaments that seemed to lie at the root of the initial problem. If Anglican ordinands are to grapple well with their calling to be deacons and priests in Christ’s church, they will need to go through Christology and justification and atonement, through Isaiah and Romans — through Jesus Christ, in other words — and not skip ahead too quickly to “church order” and “ministerial formation.” You can’t have one without the other, of course, and that is the key point.
Wesley Hill’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a fifth-century mosaic of St Paul in San Vitale, Ravenna. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP, and it is licensed under Creative Commons.