Anglican Covenant

Puritans, sectarianism and the Bible

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Behind the current controversy over same-sex partnerships lies a dispute between Puritan and Anglican ways to handle disagreement.

At the Reformation one of the central questions was how to interpret the Bible. Catholics and Protestants alike believed the Bible was the supreme authority, but they interpreted it differently. Catholics claimed that God had given the Church authority to interpret it. Protestants denied that it had that authority; so how did they interpret it? At first most Protestants argued that the Bible should not be interpreted at all, but should be accepted literally just as it is. In order to justify this idea they argued that every text in the Bible is easy to understand. This is where the rhetoric of 'the clear, plain teaching of the Bible' comes from.

Among Puritans this produced some distinctive ideas. One was that all Christians, at all times and places, are duty bound to obey all the commands in the Bible. In practice this is quite impossible: there are many hundreds of commands, plenty of which contradict each other, or would be quite impractical, or which we would now consider barbaric. Few today, for example, want to reintroduce slavery, or capital punishment for the huge range of offences listed in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Nevertheless some aimed to do just this. The Anabaptists are usually credited with making the strongest efforts, but even they eventually settled for the Sermon on the Mount. Their attempts seem absurd today; but they did not seem absurd at the time, because in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries very few people had a sense of historical change. They believed their society was much the same as that of the first Christians.

Those committed to accepting, uninterpreted, 'the clear, plain teaching of the Bible' were faced with a theoretical problem. They dutifully read the Bible and accepted what they took to be the clear, plain meanings; but their neighbours, equally committed and equally dutiful, disagreed about the meanings of some texts. Because their theory about the Bible did not allow for such disagreements, they all too often resorted to the only explanation available within their theory - that whereas they were being guided by the Holy Spirit to read the Bible correctly, their neighbours who understood it differently were in fact being guided by the Devil. Out of this conviction there developed a tradition of bitter sectarianism, with competing sects each claiming to uphold biblical truth against the others.

Many Puritans also held the principle that the Bible provided guidance on every aspect of the Christian's life. They therefore responded to every question by looking for a biblical answer. Once found, the answer was treated as divine guidance, and thus became another potential source of disagreement with those who had found different answers.

Those parts of Protestantism which inherited this set of ideas about the Bible have, since then, had a tragic history of sectarianism, with one bitter dispute after another causing churches to split. Time and time again a section of a congregation has denounced its minister for being untrue to the Bible and set about building a rival chapel across the road.

While most of Protestantism mellowed, that sectarian tradition still influences current debates. Firstly they made sure their own commitments were spelt out clearly in the foundation documents of their churches, and in many cases they are still there. Secondly in the nineteenth century religious revivals many felt their own church was too liberal, and responded by setting sail for new lands where they could found a church of their own. Some Anglican provinces today began in this way. This is why some of them have never represented the ethos of the Church of England.

Thirdly, the Puritan approach has proved attractive to many evangelicals reacting against the 'death of God' movement of the 1960s, with its simple appeals to 'the clear, plain teaching of the Bible' and refusal to tolerate diversity of opinion.

The new Puritanism is in reality very different from the old. Reformation Puritans believed in an unchanging world where the nation should be governed according to biblical principles, and set out to make it happen. They aimed to obey all the commands in the Bible, struggled, and eventually concluded that they could not. Their modern successors have much narrower aims. They inherit the rhetoric, focus on those biblical texts which suit their objectives, and endlessly cite them as Scripture's teaching while paying little or no attention to texts which do not suit their purposes.

If they succeed in changing the ethos of Anglicanism, so that it becomes more inclined to insist that everyone believes the same thing, the history of Puritan sectarianism shows all too clearly what will be in store: one schism after another. (More on homosexuality as a divisive issue).

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