Monday, February 05, 2007

Thoughts on Anglican Covenant & Katherine Grieb

I didn't have time carefully to read the Episcopal News Service's piece on the Anglican Covenant Design Group meeting in Nassau, Bahamas, until last Monday -- after we had consecrated a new bishop and had undertaken our diocesan convention. I was reassured by the comments of Ephraim Radner, who is probably one of the finest two or three theologians in North American Anglicanism today, but it was the reported words from Prof. Katherine Grieb of Virginia Theological Seminary which I had to mull over. (

As one might expect given the bias of the ENS, Grieb was quoted extensively and in the midst of her comments she talked about the varying approaches to Scripture that were gathered around the table in the Bahamas.

"One tradition... understands faithfulness to the text as being a non-complicated reproduction of what was said in the past without embroidery, without modification, taking those great, ancient -- some might even say eternal truths -- and applying them in out life today, no matter how difficult that is. It intends to preserve ‘the faith once delivered to the saints.'" The other tradition "understands the Bible in closer continuity with Judaism that sees the Torah as a living, breathing word, like a tree that has new leaves."

I don't have a razor-sharp mind so when someone makes a statement like that I need to spend a few days trying to get under the skin of what is actually being said. That I have done over the last week, and as I have done so my discomfort with her analysis has increased, for it seems what she is parodying the approach to Scripture which she seems to disdain, while giving more exaggerated credence to the one she holds.

Obviously selected quotes by a journalist must always be suspect for they reflect the editorial bias of the publication and the reporter, but if we have in this quote the essence of what Professor Grieb said, then it seems she does not want to understand what is a catholic and historic approach to handling the Scriptures.

Her analysis is that orthodox people are wooden and unbending in the manner that they handle Scripture, rather than handling Scripture as the living Word of God. Behind her representation is the perceived notion that revelation is wielded inflexibly as we attempt to impose Scripture in an unyielding way upon today's world, however difficult such a task might be.

Katherine Grieb seems to be thinking of Scripture like laws that find their way into the statute book and might be highly relevant in one era, and yet in another they become dead letter because they longer work as society has moved on. For example, there were laws in the past about gentleman and their swords, or regulations about dumping human waste into the streets of a medieval city before modern sewerage was put in place. Folks, she suggests, who hold this view of Scripture are inclined to impose what is no longer relevant upon the contemporary environment in which they find themselves.

In contrast to this, the more enlightened approach to handling Scripture has a fluidity to it, it is rooted and grounded in the past, and parallels the manner in which Judaism approaches the Torah. It is, she says, a "living, breathing word, like a tree that has new leaves."

Implicit in her comparison is that the intelligent way of handling Scripture is the latter, and the immature approach is the former. Also in the way in which she presented herself in what she said to the press, she seems concerned that the eventual Anglican Covenant will not be shaped as she wants it to be (but that is another story).

One of the easiest ways of dismissing an opponent or someone with whom you disagree is to parody them, and all of us are guilty of that. I confess that the approach to authority held by those on the ideological and theological left puzzles me immensely because I cannot see how their positions are tenable in light of the substance of the Gospel, but I have to accept that few of them are really that cynical, so their position reflects their intellectual integrity.

By casting everyone who looks authoritatively to the Old and New Testaments as God's word written in the same rather unreflective mold, Dr. Grieb is playing the sort of game that so many of us in the Episcopal Church have battled against for a long time now, in an effort to makes the likes of me appear to be leftovers from a past that is thankfully now behind us. I sometimes wish I had a dollar for every occasion on which it has been asserted that I have fundamentalist blood flowing in my veins (often from people whose theological education is far less substantial than my own!).

As a biblical Christian I believe, like Dr. Grieb, that Scripture is a living and breathing entity. It is God speaking to us, and asking us to use our intelligence to apply its values and principles to every facet of our lives. Scripture is not to be woodenly dumped down on people, and often its substance requires significant wrestling if we are to understand how it applies to the circumstances in which we live today.

The point, obviously, that Dr. Grieb does not like, I would suggest, is the actual values that are there enshrined within the text. Thus, if we can find some way to manage what it says so that we ameliorate what makes us uncomfortable, then we are going to be able to feel so much more at home.

However, as I read what Dr. Grieb is saying I am wondering whether her approach to the text and doctrine is actually that she wants to re-interpret what the words and phrases are actually saying. The relativism of our culture so often wants us to find our own meanings in the words that we happen to be using, even if that means turning those words upon their heads.

As I understand the mainstream approach of Judaism to Torah, it is to expound the text in such a manner that clarity is given to the ancient and eternal truths that are imbedded within it. Such exposition does not have as its goal the modification of those truths, but allowing such truths to speak with force and vigor into today's world and the lives we now live.

While I recognize that there are alternative streams within Judaism, I hope that Dr. Grieb is not implying that the Jewish faith is willing to subsume the Torah to the values of the prevailing culture. She certainly seems to be coming close to suggesting such a thing.

I have during the last few months made the whole period following the return from the Exile one for study. One of the points that shouts loudest to me from this era of the People of God is that they were wrestling against being swallowed up by the surrounding culture and its values. For Haggai and Zechariah, for example, building the Temple of the Lord of Hosts was of pre-eminent importance because that was as much as anything a tangible act of obedience to the living God. For Ezra and Nehemiah the challenge came from detractors like Sanballat and company, who wanted to join them and then bring in their own syncretistic notion.

Talmudic Judaism developed within the context of those struggles in order to maintain the distinctives of the People of God, and their witness as a covenant community in a difficult kind of world. It is my belief that if we in the Anglican tradition in North America are looking for a period that best parallels our own, then that post-exilic era is the best, for it required the asserting of the truthfulness of God and strong discipline in order to remain faithful.

Faithfulness in the society that has emerged calls forth a different set of emphases than in the past, but those emphases are all to be found there within the pages of the Bible. Our task is to recognize that it is the living, breathing Word of God, and to take both its challenges and its chiding seriously.


Anonymous said...

Fr. Kew,

Thank you for your thoughtful and, as always, irenical post. I had similar reactions to the ENS quotes from Dr. Grieb. At the same time, I find myself wishing you and Dr. Grieb could be in real dialogue, even debate, albeit not through the distorting medium of ENS.

Dr. Grieb was my advisor my first year at VTS, and while she and I don't wind up in the same place on the issue of sexuality, I have immense respect for her. I suspect you misstep when you sense that she is parodying the "catholic and historic approach to handling the Scriptures." (Although I admit the word "non-complicated" here strikes me as quite loaded). I never found Dr. Grieb given to parody or belittling or easy dismissal of other people's views (even when she slipped on the brass-knuckles of scholarly criticism -- I once watched her calmly and thoroughly thrash David Brown, a visiting theologian from Durham University who, I gather, would be included in the liberal wing of the CofE).

I can also attest that Dr. Grieb ill fits the mold of someone who seeks "to find some way to manage what [the text] says so that we ameliorate what makes us uncomfortable," so that she can "feel so much more at home." She's about as serious and passionate a Christian and Bible scholar as I know. If she is at odds with biblical teaching on homosexuality, at least (like Walter Wink) she has the integrity to acknowledge that the Bible says what it says and not something else.

To me Dr. Grieb is one of those conundrums I (fairly uncommonly) find on the other side of the sexuality debate. She is sold out for Jesus Christ. She loves the Bible deeply, and her classes always deepened my love for the Bible, too. She is serious about biblical authority over our individual and corporate lives in areas other than sexuality. And yet, at least in this one area, she seems to say we need to turn to something else besides the Bible to figure out what's in God's will. I must say I don't get it.

Even so, if all our interlocuters in the Anglican Communion were like Dr. Grieb, I'm sure we'd be in a much better place than we are now.

I guess this is a long way of saying Dr. Grieb's comments really do need to be put into the context of her whole system of biblical interpretation and application.

Forgive the length. This is my first ever blog comment...

Yours in Christ,
Kevin Seaver

Richard Kew said...


Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. As I pointed out in the piece I wrote, it is difficult to get a clear picture of someone's convictions from a handful of quotes in the media, and when reading ENS it is always important to take its obvious biases into account. I am grateful to be corrected on mis-perceptions that I had of Dr. Grieb.

It would be very helpful if she were to be willing to clarify what she actually said and meant to ENS because I don't think I was entirely off course when I followed through on her comments as I did.