Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Prophecy, Polemics, and Spiritual Exegesis: Interpretive Warrants for Ruptures in American Anglicanism

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Prophecy, Polemics, and Spiritual Exegesis: Interpretive Warrants for Ruptures in American Anglicanism

Article excerpt

From the very beginning of their movement, Christians have assimilated Hebrew scripture through the practice of spiritual exegesis.1 As John Barton and others note, however, the diversity of spiritual exegesis's interpretative grids can render texts particularly vulnerable to use as ammunition for ecclesial polemics.2 So Stephen Fowl also points out in a recent paper on "The Literal Sense in Thomas Aquinas":

Because they depend on the discernment of similarities between things, similarities which may change over time and may not be easy to discern in the first place, there is an inherent instability in the Spiritual senses of Scripture. This instability makes the Spiritual senses unsuitable as the basis for theology or theological argument.3

Particularly within one comer of modem Christianity, spiritual exegesis of Hebrew Bible texts currently sponsors a bitter, highly publicized ecclesial disagreement involving two leaders of Anglicanism in the United States, Robert William Duncan and Katharine Jefferts Schori. Duncan, formerly bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, was from 2009 to 2014 archbishop of the largest alternative movement of Anglicans in the United States, the Anglican Church in North America (hereafter ACNA); Jefferts Schori is the current primate of the Episcopal Church. Duncan s shift in ecclesial affiliation can be clearly glimpsed through the evolution of his exegesis of Hebrew texts, while Jefferts Schori makes her own theological commitments clear in her interpretive moves.

In what follows, I examine three texts each from Duncan and Jefferts Schori in order to understand and evaluate the impact of this use of Hebrew Bible texts on a large-scale rift in American Anglicanism.4 Already in 2004, the Windsor Report stressed the interpretive difficulties facing the Communion, pointing out that

the purpose of scripture is not simply to supply true information, nor just to prescribe in matters of belief and conduct, nor merely to act as a court of appeal, but to be part of the dynamic life of the Spirit through which God the Father is making the victory which was won by Jesus' death and resurrection operative within the world and in and through human beings.5

The report warned the Communion that it could "no longer be content to drop random texts into arguments, imagining that the point is thereby proved, or indeed to sweep away sections of the New Testament as irrelevant to todays world, imagining that problems are thereby solved."6

As I demonstrate in this essay, American Anglicanism, by pressing biblical texts into fodder for polemics, has failed to heed this warning. In particular, both Duncan and Jefferts Schori have relied upon dubious spiritual exegesis of "prophetic" texts in order to make their cases. First, then, a brief look at spiritual exegesis as a field is in order. With the help of four key scholars, I propose a framework by which to construct my second move: the analysis of Duncan's and Jefferts Schorfs claims. In my third move, this framework produces a nonpolemical exegesis of Isaiah 58:12 that provides an alternative interpretive model for the Anglican reading of Hebrew Bible texts. By way of conclusion, I give special reference to how such a model fulfills the suggestions of the 2004 Windsor Report and offers a way forward.

What is Spiritual Exegesis and What are its Limits?

I begin with John Barton, who challenges modem assumptions that the "prophetic" can be identified by a set of distinguishing features made apparent by historical criticism. It is not that certain books can bear the label "prophetic" because of their placement in the Christian canon, their classification as apocalyptic, or their predictive or challenging tone; to the contrary, one best learns how to read these books by reading them as they were first read in the postexilic era: as secondary literature to the Torah.7 Barton sums up a complication of this approach: "When post-exilic Judaism in its many varieties (including the Christian one) peered into the well of Israel's past and thought that it was looking at these great figures, it was seeing only its own reflection at the bottom. …

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