Not quite the plain meaning

oath on bibleComing to the end of this series on the thirty-nine articles, I take the final two together, since they raise essentially the same concern. Their statements perhaps, first of all, remind us that the articles are in many respects more like boundary markers than a confession of faith. Certain positions are dealt with and options ruled out simply because they are there, rather than from any significant internal logic.

XXXVIII. Of Christian men’s Goods, which are not common
The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

XXXIX. Of a Christian man’s Oath
As we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion cloth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgement, and truth.

These two are interesting less for what they actually say, and more as an example of the problems which the stress on “the plain meaning of scripture” could lead to. In the case of the first it would be quite easy to infer from Luke’s work generally, and the example of the apostolic church in Acts specifically, that the preferable model of the church is of a community that holds all things in common. Is Mark’s gospel story of the rich young ruler told to be an example to follow or singled out as an exceptional memory?

Yet at the same time Luke hints at the reality of what living by faith means:

The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8:1-3)

It is only possible to live a life of holy poverty, because those with wealth are holy enough to be generous. Similarly, Paul’s letters clearly reflect social differences continuing to exist in the church, and the various local churches seem dependent on both the wealth and generosity of heads of households. Indeed, in the case of Phoebe, for example, it is her model generosity as a patron of Paul’s that is expected to commend her to the church in Rome, and, perhaps, to hint that they would do well to get to know her because of it.

In this case, there is clear diversity in the scriptures, and the enthusiastic picture painted by Luke of the eschatological community is relatively quickly sidelined in the face of a call to be generous with wealth, rather than surrender ownership. Within a few centuries the idea of common life becomes part of the vocation of monks and their witness to a more demanding form of discipleship. The day to day world of social interaction in a world of inequality is confronted by the more prevalent scriptural call to generosity, and not by this early form of (perhaps idealised) communal existence. Here the tradition steers the reader between competing but equally plain texts.

In the second case, it is less obvious that there are competing texts in the face of a plain command; “Do not swear at all.” (Matt 5:34). Far from referring to “vain and rash Swearing” as the article puts it, the commandment in context seems to refer to the making solemn oaths to one another invoking the Lord’s name.

The difference between the oaths the text refers to, and those the article refers to appears to lie not in the rashness, but in whether they are voluntary self-decided oaths, or those required by authority (not addressed in the text). Unlike the idea of communal living, there are no other obvious counter-examples to this command in the New Testament, although Paul is reported as being under a vow (Acts 18:18 – which need not include swearing an oath) and Hebrews makes play of God’s swearing an oath (Heb 7:28). Peter’s swearing of an oath at his denial is hardly intended as a positive example to follow.

Looking at the text here, it seems rather more obvious that the “plain meaning” of scripture is more on the side of the Anabaptists than the Anglican Reformers, although it has to be said very clearly that there is no direct reference to a situation where an oath is required by a competent authority, far less a competent Christian authority. Noticeably, recent precedent, even in the Church of England, has given more credence to the Anabaptist reading: clergy on being ordained or licensed are now allowed to affirm their vows rather than swear them. The article, however, is quite clear that the “plain meaning” is the one judged by those who hold authority to be a fair interpretation, and that traditional interpretations together with what seems a reasonable requirement of authority, will guide that interpretation.

It is perhaps ironic that the final articles underline the need for competent authority to pronounce in times of contested interpretation. The existence of the articles themselves as a guide to how the Church reads scripture in disputed matters is brought to the fore. These, with their content, continue to point to a need for authoritative interpretation, and a place for both present authority and past tradition.

The idea of the “plain meaning of scripture” is one which clearly is not intended to include just anyone’s reading of what the Bible says. Indeed, these last articles exclude certain “plain meanings” in favour of (in article 38) other reasonable readings and (in article 39) traditional and pragmatic understandings of the scriptures. The Anabaptists showed the Anglican Reformers some of the possibilities of what sola scriptura might mean, and they did not like what they saw. The articles, and the continued testimony of the prayer book, simply by their existence but also by their content, show that while the primacy of scripture might be deeply valued in the Anglican Church, one could never describe its position as “scripture alone”.