Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Derek Olsen
A few weeks ago, Fr. David Simmons, an online colleague, wondered aloud what implications Rowan William’s move to discipline the Episcopal Church held for the future of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. A document coming from the end of the 19th century, this quadrilateral lays out the four basic requirements for church unity from an Anglican perspective: the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Dominical Sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist), and the Historic Episcopate. Has the Episcopal Church breached these and, if not, is the Archbishop of Canterbury overturning this century-old statement and imposing newer, more stringent requirements on us?
It’s a good question, and one that requires a thoughtful response. I myself hold the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in high esteem. In my mind, it’s the clearest expression of the faith that we hold, a faith that is catholic, apostolic, and reformed; a faith where the judicious application of reason and the historic traditions of the church mutually inform our belief and practice. And yet Chicago-Lambeth is not enough and, in truth, it never has been.
From the earliest days of the church the Bible has been a battleground. The question has never been whether the Scriptures were believed, rather, the question has always been how the Scriptures have been believed and how they have been enacted. The issue is interpretation: who controls it, who decides it, and who adjudicates what’s in bounds and what’s not.
The first great statement around Scripture and interpretation comes to us from Irenaeus of Lyon († c. 202) at the beginning of our history. Irenaeus stood just one generation away from the Apostles—according to church tradition, the teacher of Irenaeus was the martyr Polycarp who had learned the faith at the feet of the John, the Apostle and Evangelist. Irenaeus, in speaking about the Gnostic Valentinians notes that they did, in fact, use the canonical Scriptures, but he rejected the means by which they did it:
Their method of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which was skillfully constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that the miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives fables, and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.
Irenaeus recognized that the Gnostics were using legitimate materials—the Scriptures—but the problem was with the underlying patterns in which they deployed them. What stabilizes the pattern to keep the image of the king rather than the dog or the fox? It can’t be the materials themselves, but rather the interpretive framework within which they are set. Irenaeus identified two reinforcing frameworks that helped keep the shape of the faith. The first was the creed. The creed, contrary to the belief of some, isn’t merely a list of doctrines to be believed. Instead, the creed is an interpretive lens, a perspective from which to view the Scriptures. They sketch the interpretive boundaries. Any readings that fall within those boundaries are legitimate. It’s only when—as with the Valentinians—readings start transgressing the boundaries that we have problems. (The Valentinians in particular denied that the Trinity had any part of creation, arguing that creation was a morally problematic act from which human souls had to be freed; the creeds reject this reading at their very start.)
But even the creed was not entirely sufficient in the eyes of Irenaeus—one more factor was required: the apostolic succession. For Irenaeus, the apostolic succession was fundamentally about organic continuity. In its most basic sense apostolic succession refers to how bishops are consecrated, but the process has safeguards built into it. The requirement that a bishop be consecrated at the hands of three others ensures that the three agree that new bishops 1) have been correctly taught the basics of the faith as it had been received from their teachers back to the apostles, 2) have sound moral conduct, and 3) can properly teach the faith as they have received it. These requirements mean that the bishops (and the priests as they began adopting the teaching functions once held exclusively by the bishops) were the human face of the interpretive framework. They used their discretion to apply the creeds and the teachings of the apostles to the Scriptures to the best of their ability.
So—coming from Irenaeus at the dawn of the church, we receive the three fundamental marks of the church: the Scriptures, the creed, and the apostolic succession. But even these are not enough.
The other day I was standing in my kitchen with my landlord as repairmen assessed the failed air conditioner. He nodded to my mixer and said, “We have one just like that at home—we use it to make the holy bread.”
“Ah,” I replied, “with…yeast, I suppose.”
“Of course,” he replied. My landlord is Egyptian; his father was a Coptic Orthodox priest and they left their homeland in search of opportunity but also to avoid oppression from the Muslim majority.
“The yeast, you know, is sin. The baking kills the yeast and the bread rises. Just so, Jesus kills the sin and rises.”
I’d never heard this particular explanation, and my mind turned over Bible verses relating to yeast, testing the yeast-as-sin interpretation: the leaven of the Pharisees, a little yeast leavens the whole lump, cast out the old leaven, then, conflating Luke’s leaven in the lump with Sarai’s preparation of the bread for the three holy visitors I arrived at Rublev’s depiction of that event: the icon of the Trinity with the Eucharist. In those moments I caught sight of an alien framework, a tissue connecting these passages and others unnamed in a framework foreign to me.
“Hmm,” I replied. “Well, we’ve always used the directions for the Passover bread—that it be unleavened.” And my mind conjured the framework familiar to me: a typological interpretation that finds the Passover bread as a type of the Eucharist, a sacramental system grounded in the theological valence of the Last Supper being simultaneously a Passover supper.
“Oh,” he replied—then pulled out his iPhone to show me photos of a cross in Egypt from which holy oil flows. We studiously avoided what we were both thinking. One of the six points that formally kicked off the Great Schism in 1054 between the Eastern and Western churches was the use of yeast in bread for the Eucharist. It may seem like a silly point—and one not covered in Irenaeus’s marks of the church—but reflects a deeper division about how the linguistically and culturally divided churches not only interpreted Scripture but applied it, turning it into liturgy and directions for practical life.
A few weeks earlier I had been sitting in a mall food-court with one of my best friends from college, meeting over our respective lunch hours. Raised Roman Catholic, in recent years he’s been in the evangelical world, attending various places: Assembly of God, Baptist, and one of the CANA churches in Virginia. His question was simple on the surface: “So—tell me about the whole gay bishop thing…are you really okay with that?”
As I paused to formulate the clearest response I could in the short time we had, I felt a huge conceptual gulf open between us. I’ve been engaged in the academic study of Scripture for almost twenty years; I’m familiar with a whole gamut of interpretive methodologies, original languages, and comparative sources from the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. During this time, he’s been in church communities that emphasize the simplicity and transparency of the Scriptures that present a very specific and very modern methodology for interpreting the Scriptures as the univocal “literal” sense. What separated us and our positions was not simply a disagreement about the meaning of a few scattered passages in Scripture.
Rather, what separated us was our entire conceptual frameworks for comprehending what Scripture is and how we approach it to begin the work of interpretation, let alone where our conclusions lead concerning how we and those around us should act in light of God’s call to us. I think we’re equally committed to the importance of Scripture in the Christian life. But our interpretive processes and the inputs that inform those processes are worlds apart.
In both of these cases, with my Coptic landlord and my evangelical friend, the difference is not that one of us takes the Scriptures seriously and the other does not. It’s not even the application of the creeds, the use of the sacraments or the fact of the apostolic succession. It is a matter of interpretation.
Casting a literary critic’s eye upon the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as it appears in our prayer book, my eye lights on a key issue. The Quadrilateral is only both Chicago and Lambeth through harmonization. There are actually two documents—the 1886 Chicago document, passed by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and there is the 1888 resolution passed by the Lambeth conference. There are two chief differences between them. First, the American 1886 statement has a literary context: there is a lengthy explanatory statement with four separate points that set forth the logic and impetus for the statement relating to the purposes of the early Ecumenical Movement. The Lambeth resolution has only a vestigial opening—lacking the length and the rhetorical urgency of the American text—offering a more reserved purpose: “…the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made toward Home Reunion.” I note the use of the term “basis.” In short, the Lambeth resolution understands the four articles of the Quadrilateral to be a beginning and not an ending of the requirements for unity. These are the sine qua non without which discussion cannot commence; conclusion is not in scope here.
Second, I notice that the very article most in contention here and elsewhere is not the same between the two. The first article in the American understands the Scriptures as: “the revealed Word of God.” The Lambeth resolution is rather different and, incorporating a bit from the Articles of Religion, understands the Scriptures: “as ‘containing all things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” There’s a clear difference here between the two statements. Not only that, as an interpreter, I despair of the wording from Lambeth—rule and ultimate standard of faith how? According to whom? By what manner of interpretation?
It’s precisely these points where the Quadrilateral shows the limitations of its purpose. As a rough and ready rule for churches eager for reunion, it fits the bill; it describes an acceptable minimum standard of agreement—when agreement is being sought. But as a means for maintaining fellowship—well, it’s simply not capable of bearing that weight. There exists too much territory within “rule and ultimate standard of faith” to make it a document capable of maintaining an already fractious relationship.
An Archbishop considering the Lambeth resolution will properly see minimal standards that must be met, not the only four tests allowed.
Is the Archbishop right? Do we need a Covenant to nail down matters more? Well—these are broader issues yet. However we attempt to resolve them, the Quadrilateral may serve as a guide, but cannot serve as an answer.
Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.