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The Aim of Christian Understanding: Engaged

Mon, Nov 28, 2016

In chapter two of The Formation of Christian Understanding Charles Wood takes on the task of defining exactly what the goal of Christian interpretation of the Bible should be. At the core of Wood’s understanding is a hermeneutical approach centered around a God who actively seeks deep relationship with his creation and a community of believers doing theology together. Though I see need to nuance some of Wood’s main points, his goal of focusing Christian interpretation of Scripture around coming to better know God and applying this knowledge as a theological collective are affirmed by Anglican doctrinal standards and more than applicable to the daily lives of Christians within the Anglican Communion. Wood does theology from within the Methodist tradition. Though I am Anglican, I too, pull from the Wesleyan tradition as I do theology. As the progenitor of the Methodist movements, Wesleyan theology — at its core bounds — fits neatly within the broad theological tent that is Anglicanism. Affirming the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 among other doctrinal standards, I can also pull from the theological thoughts of Wesleyan theologians. As I look at chapter two of Wood’s Formation I will pull from my Anglican standards of doctrine and Wesleyan-Anglican theology to show where my community agrees with Wood’s direction and where we offer critique or different insights.

Wood’s primary claim in chapter two of Formation is that the “principal aim of a Christian understanding of scripture […] is knowledge of God.”1 For Wood this, coming to better know God, should be the driving force behind a Christian’s study and daily use of the Bible.2 As an instrument for revealing who the particular God of the Hebrew and Christian Bible is, Wood claims that the Bible must be read as a source of authority and truth for Christians; i.e. the “Word of God.” Further, Wood laments the interpretation of the Bible — and thus the activity of knowing God — being distanced in the West since the Enlightenment away from the general Christian community and moved into insular academic and clerical circles.3 As an Anglican, I agree with Wood in placing the gaining of knowledge of God at the forefront of the Church’s hermeneutical task, claiming the Hebrew and Christian Bible as the Word of God, and ensuring that the “literal sense” of Scripture — its norm of interpretation — is worked out within the Body of Christ’s Holy Church.

Wood describes God as “objectively indescribable.”4 God as an uncreated, infinite being is beyond our total comprehension. We can never fully know him.5 Through Scripture, however, Wood believes that God discloses himself to creation. Beyond that, God instructs creation in the concepts and skills needed to understand — at least according to our lesser ability — his disclosure.6 Recognized as an instrument of God’s disclosure, the aim of a Christian’s understanding of the Bible moves beyond knowledge of the ancient texts towards a deeper knowledge of acquaintance with the God who is disclosing himself through it. Understanding the Bible, to Wood, means a deeper relationship with — and thus understanding of — God.7 Anglicans agree with this aim of understanding Scripture. As the Bible is daily read and studied, God’s truth and perfect revelation in Jesus Christ are made known. Through the Holy Spirit the Christian reader of Scripture comes to deeper relationship and knowledge of God’s righteous desires for creation.8

St. Paul’s second epistle to Timothy establishes the apostolic era’s view of Scripture being “breathed out by God.”9 By his Holy Spirit, God inspired the authors, redactors, etc. of the Bible to write and compile the narratives and other literary artifacts that would record and make known God’s works amongst and will for his creation.10 If the authors, etc. of the Bible were inspired by God himself, then the Bible cannot simply be a text where ancient authors’ thoughts about the Hebrew and Christian God can be gleaned.11 The God who inspired the biblical authors, etc. still inspires through the text through the very same Holy Spirit.12 Anglicans affirm, with Wood, through the 39 Articles of Religion that Scripture — the “Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament” — is the foundation of the Christian faith.13 As the “norming norm”14 of the Christian community, the Bible should act as the definitive Word of God in points of doctrine and church practice. As a source of truth in the Church, nothing of her “rites,” “ceremonies,” or doctrine can be contrary to Scripture.15 For God to be known through scripture, assent must be given by Christians to the Bible as a source of truth; i.e. as the Word of God.

Wood notes that the Post-Enlightenment West has seen the interpretation of Scripture move away from being a communal activity to being an activity of the academy. As Church academics, especially Protestants, searched for the biblical authors’ “original meaning” in the text, interpretation moved further and further away from the Christian community is it intended to serve.16 For Wood, the “literal sense” of Scripture can only be found by participation in a community of faith. It is the community that defines the “normal” meaning and application of Scripture.17 Anglicans agree that the task of interpretation should not be distanced from the Body of the Church. Theology is to be done openly and communicated such that everyone can understand.18 The doctrine of the church is sourced from the Word of God, but the traditions and ceremonies of each community — their norm of interpretation — can differ — so long as they do not contradict the later. The traditions of the Bodies of the Church are sourced from the culture and worldview of that particular Christian community.19

As already demonstrated, I generally agree with Wood’s claims for the aims of Christian understanding of the Bible and greatly appreciate his call to return the authority of interpretation back to the Body. I disagree, however, with some of Wood’s claims and take issue with the theological direction some of his arguments might lead. First, I take a nuanced stance of disagreement against Wood’s claim of knowledge of God being the principal aim of Christian understanding of the Bible.20 Second, I question if Wood’s understanding of how knowledge of God would play out in a believer’s life veers too close to moralism or a works relationship to God.

It is indeed true that Scripture is our primary means of coming to know the character and mind of God. It is through Scripture that Christians come to learn what sort of God they have to do with.21 To say, however, that the primary aim of understanding the Bible is knowledge of God is to not go far enough. Along side the traditions of the Church and reason, the Bible does hold a privileged place as the rod against which we measure the Church and ourselves.22 The Bible, however, is not simply a means of knowing God better. Anglicans affirm that the Bible contains all the information required to grow towards a saving faith.23 Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Scripture takes on a sacramental nature as a special means of grace through which the ministry of God the Son continues to be carried out in the lives of believers.24 The aim of Christian understanding of the Bible is not just an apprehension of the disclosure of God’s identity, but through this disclosure and deepening relationship, an understanding of and faith in the “perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world” made by Christ on the cross.25 To nuance Wood’s primary aim of understanding Scripture, “the Bible should be read soteriologically.”26 Salvation is the aim of knowledge of God which is the aim of Christian understanding of the Bible.

Wood rightly claims that to hear the Word of God — to understand God’s disclosure in Scripture — leaves one affected. To understand God means the text of the Bible must be lived.27 An uncareful reading of chapter two of Formation — especially pages 40 to 42 — might lead one to an understanding where living the text is obeying the law of the text rather than living out the transformed life the God of the text brings. This, I feel, is where Wood is not clear enough in what he means by living the text. If the Bible is a means of transformational grace for the believer, then it is not simply a list of actions to be done. Relationship with God should lead to a transformation of the believer’s very being. Through scripture the Holy Spirit will disclose the truth of God, nourish the believer’s soul, and train the believer to live and act in accordance with God’s holy will.28 As a “servant to the salvation process” of sanctification or Christian perfection, understanding of Scripture should lead to a transformed life.29 True, this affected life will be lived through actions molded after God and his people’s movements in the Bible, but it must be clear that these actions are the effects or fruits of holiness and not the source. Wood does not make this clear enough.

Given the nuanced additions and critiques of the Anglican tradition, Wood’s argument for directing the efforts of Christian interpretation to collective knowledge and applied understanding of God ring powerfully for me. The tools of modern criticism are useful and bring much value, but only when paired with an understanding of Scripture as the Word of God enlivened by the power of the Holy Spirit, and used within Christ’s Holy Church for increased understanding of and closer relationship to the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In 1888 the Anglican Communion decreed through the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral that proclaiming scripture as the Word of God would be a path towards unity in the catholic Church. Given the focus of Wood’s approach, I think this could become a further reality.


Bibliography

Anglican Church in North America, and Catechesis Task Force. To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. Ambridge, PA: Anglican House Pub Inc, 2014.

Callen, Barry L., and Richard P. Thompson, eds. Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways: Some Constructive Proposals. Kansas City, Mo: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2004.

Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, The Church of England, 1563.

Wood, Charles Monroe. The Formation of Christian Understanding: Theological Hermeneutics. Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000.


  1. Wood, 30. [return]
  2. Ibid., 30-38. [return]
  3. Ibid., 39-48. [return]
  4. Ibid., 34. [return]
  5. Ibid., 37. [return]
  6. Ibid., 38. [return]
  7. Ibid., 30-32. [return]
  8. To Be a Christian, 18-19. [return]
  9. 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV) [return]
  10. To Be a Christian, 18-19. [return]
  11. Wood, 41. [return]
  12. To Be a Christian, 18-19. [return]
  13. Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article 6. [return]
  14. Wesleyan Ways, 9. [return]
  15. Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article 20. [return]
  16. Wood, 43-46. [return]
  17. Ibid. 40. [return]
  18. Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article 24. [return]
  19. Ibid., Articles 20 & 34. [return]
  20. Wood, 30. [return]
  21. Ibid., 41. [return]
  22. Wesleyan Ways, 9. [return]
  23. Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article 6. [return]
  24. Wesleyan Ways, 11. [return]
  25. Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article 31. [return]
  26. Wesleyan Ways, 11. [return]
  27. Woods, 41. [return]
  28. To Be a Christian, 19. [return]
  29. Wesleyan Ways, 13. [return]