intervention by the Rt Revd N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham (Church of England)
Synod of Bishops, 14 October 2008
Your Holiness; your Eminences and Excellences; brothers and sisters in Christ:
It is an honour and privilege to be here, and to bring you greetings from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
We face the same challenges as you: not only secularism and relativism, but also postmodernity. Challenges, though, bring fresh insights and opportunities. Uncritical rejection of cultural pressures is as unwise as uncritical embracing. Uncertainy here breeds anxiety, and I have detected some anxiety in this Synod: anxiety that the Bible might tell us things we didn’t expect or want to hear, and also anxiety lest the Bible’s powerful message should be stifled.
To get the balance right, I propose a fourfold reading of scripture. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.
- The heart: Lectio Divina, private meditation and prayer, and above all the readings in the eucharist.
- The mind: historical study of the text and its original contextual meaning.
- The soul: the ongoing life of the church, its tradition and teaching office.
- The strength: the mission of the church, the work of God’s kingdom.
Some insist on the heart to the exclusion of mind, soul and strength. Then you have a dangerous and vulnerable anti-intellectualism. But with modern critical study you often have the opposite: thousands of pages of research from which we only hear the faintest echo of the word of God: parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Then we bishops naturally react, insisting on ‘devotional’ reading only, or strict magisterial control. We then run the risk that we never hear God saying anything which has not already been controlled and neutralised. We need all four ‘loves’, in proper balance, as our hermeneutical principle.
In particular, we need fresh mission-oriented engagement with our own culture. Paragraph 57 of the Instrumentum Laboris implies that Paul’s cultural engagement on the Areopagus merely purifies and elevates what is there in the culture. This, to be sure, is part of it. Paul begins with the Altar to the Unknown God, and speaks of the true God. But Paul also confronts head-on the idolatry of ancient paganism, its temples and sacrifices. In our own culture, some elements need purifying and elevating, but we must also confront idolatry (today, in particular, Mammon!). This cultural discernment applies not least to the tools and methods of historical/critical scholarship themselves. As a religion of incarnation, we are bound to do historical research. But this is sometimes confused with scepticism, and we must distinguish.
So, yes, we read the Canon as a whole; but the climax of the Canon is Jesus Christ, especially his cross and resurrection. These events are not only salvific. They provide a hermeneutical principle, related to the Jewish tradition of ‘critique from within’. The narrative of scripture enshrines the path of death and resurrection as the principle for its own understanding.
H. E. Cardinal Dias gave a splendid lecture at the Lambeth Conference, in which he spoke of three moments in the life of Mary: Fiat, Magnificat andStabat. To these, I add the other relevant verb, which Luke repeats: Conservabat. Let us apply these to our reading of scripture. First, God calls us through scripture in sovereign love and grace, and the response of the obedient mind is Fiat: let it be to me according to your word. Then we celebrate, with our strength, the relevance of the word to new personal and especially political situations: Magnificat. Then we ponder in the heart what we have seen and heard: Conservabat. But scripture tells us that Mary, too, had to learn hard things: she wanted to control her son, but could not. Her soul is pierced with the sword, as she stands (Stabat) at the foot of the cross. We too must wait patiently, letting the written Word tell us things that may be unexpected or even unwelcome, but which are yet salvific. We read humbly, trusting God and waiting to see his purposes unfold.