The Basis of Union

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Jenny Brecknell

 

As our program gets under way this afternoon, we are going to take just a few minutes to remind ourselves of what the Basis of Union has to say about the Bible, since it is the Basis which establishes the parameters for how we use the Bible in the Uniting Church (See Appendix I). Let's read Paragraph 5, which makes the most comprehensive statement concerning the Scriptures:

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.

In the Basis of Union, Christ is "the Word of God" (Para.4), "God's living Word" (Para.11), and "the Word of God on whom salvation depends" (Para.5). Yet there is a recognition, in the Basis, consistent with Reformed thought, that the Word comes to us in three forms, incarnate, written and preached, and that while these are distinct from one another, they are also inseparable. Christ, the Word of God, is "heard and known from Scripture" (Para.5), "that unique prophetic and apostolic testimony" (Para.5) which is the source of our knowledge both of what God has done for us through Christ and of how we are to respond; and Christ is "present when he is preached among people" (Para.4). Christ, God's living Word, the Lord of the Church, comes to us through the Scriptures and through the proclamation of the Gospel. We need to keep these things in mind when we encounter the word "Word" in the Basis.

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This afternoon, I want to highlight three emphases of The Basis of Union on the Bible:

Firstly, The Basis of Union gives high authority to Scripture.

The Basis does not set out "to decide between various theories concerning the authority of Scripture" - it is "more concerned to see that the UCA treats Scripture as authoritative than to define the nature of that authority" - but it does give a high authority to Scripture.

We see it in these extracts from the Basis:

* Scripture is "unique prophetic and apostolic testimony" (Para.5).

* The "faith and obedience (of the UCA) are nourished and regulated" by Scripture (Para.5).

* "(The Church's) message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses" (Para.5).

* Members of the Church have a "serious duty" to read the Scriptures, just as ministers have to preach from them (Para.5).

* Councils of the UCA are expected "to wait upon God's Word" (Para.15).

In fact, in using the word "received", in acknowledging that the Uniting Church has "received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony", The Basis of Union recognises that the UCA stands within a tradition which accepts a completed, closed and inviolable canon of unique, irreplaceable and authoritative books, which not only witness to Christ but through which Christ speaks to his Church.

The Basis of Union also, of course, affirms our heritage in the creeds of the early church, the confessions of the reformers, and the preaching of John Wesley, all of which strongly uphold the authority of Scripture (See Appendix II).

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Secondly, The Basis of Union takes a pragmatic approach to the use of Scripture.

If The Basis of Union is not an academic dissertation on the nature of the authority of Scripture, this is because its focus is upon how Scripture functions in our lives, how we use it. A key word is the word "appropriated": "The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church" (Para.5). The Word of God is heard when Scripture is opened and read, preached from and meditated upon, within the community of faith called into being by the living Word of God.

* Ministers must preach from the Scriptures and administer the sacraments as "effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures" (Para.5).

* "On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments" (para.3).

* The Church is "open to constant reform under his Word" (Para.1), as God, through the Spirit, "correct(s) that which is erroneous in (the Church's) life" (Para.18).

Gordon Dicker, in Faith with Understanding, identifies three approaches to Scripture:

(i) The first equates the Bible quite simply with revelation, seeing it as a series of "true propositions ... supernaturally delivered through the agency of the writers" (in much the same way as the Koran is understood to have been inspired);

(ii) The second is the Liberal Protestant view, in which Scripture is seen as the record of people's developing understanding of the nature of God and their consequent interpretation of events in the light of this understanding;

(iii) The third is a view which sees Scripture as both inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. It is produced by people moved by the gift of the Spirit; and it is appropriated by people whose hearts and minds are quickened by the Spirit to hear the Word of God as they read.

The last of these probably comes closest to the approach described in The Basis of Union. Davis McCaughey puts it this way: "As the church listens to these voices, human voices (in the Old and New Testaments), she hears a Voice not of human origin, the Word of God".

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Thirdly, The Basis of Union sees the need for constant re-interpretation of Scripture.

Paragraph 11 of The Basis of Union speaks of the need for the Church, in its study of the Scriptures, to make contact with contemporary thought, to utilise the tools of modern scholarship, and to "enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries". This is seen as helpful if we are to be "ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds".

D'Arcy Wood sees Paragraph 11 as a "balancing paragraph". While the creeds and confessions remind us of the heritage of the past, Paragraph 11 draws attention to the challenges of present and future - in biblical scholarship, for example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; in doctrinal theology, the emergence of liberation theologies; in ethics, difficult questions such as those posed by in vitro fertilisation and genetic research.

Dr Rowe, a member of the Assembly Task Group on the Understanding and Use of the Bible, puts it this way: "There is the need for every generation to ask afresh how to interpret this gift (the Bible) and how to allow its perspectives to influence our lives. The questions we ask within that generation will affect how we read it".

In every generation, new issues emerge. The challenge is to find the way to bring the truth of who Christ is, what he has done for us, and what God has to say to us through the Scriptures, to bear upon the peculiar issues of our own times and upon the complexities of our individual lives.

Appendix I.

Extracts from The Basis of Union with reference to the Word/word of God.

Para. 1: (The three churches entering union) look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people ... they remain open to constant reform under his Word ...

Para. 3: The Church is a pilgrim people ... On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments

Para. 4: Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God ... Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people's attention and awaken faith ...

Para. 5: The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.

Para. 9: (The creeds are) authoritative statements of the Catholic Faith ... to declare and to guard the right understanding of that faith.

Para.10: The Uniting Church continues to learn of the teaching of the Holy Scriptures in the obedience and freedom of faith, and in the power of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, from the witness of the Reformers as expressed in various ways (in their confessional statements). (These statements remind us, among other things) of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.

Para.11: The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God's ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.

Para.14: Since the Church lives by the power of the Word, it is assured that God, who has never failed to provide witness to that word, will, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, call and set apart members of the Church to be ministers of the Word. These will preach the Gospel ...

(The Uniting Church) comes into being in a period of reconsideration of traditional forms of the ministry, and of renewed participation of all the people of God in the preaching of the Word ...

Para.15: It is the task of every council to wait upon God's Word, and to obey God's will in the matters allocated to its oversight ... (The members of the Congregation) meet regularly to hear God's Word ...

Para.18: The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life

Appendix II.

Extracts from the creeds & confessions of the reformation fathers.

The Scots Confession of Faith (Ch.XIX: The Authority of Scriptures):

As we believe and confess the Scripture of God sufficient to instruct and make perfect the man of God, so do we affirm and avow its authority to be from God, and not to depend on men or angels. We affirm, therefore, that those who allege the Scripture to have no authority save that which it receives from the Kirk are blasphemous against God and injurious to the true Kirk, which always hears and obeys the voice of her own Spouse and Pastor, but takes not upon her to be mistress over the same.

The Westminster Confession of Faith and The Savoy Declaration

(Ch.I: Of The Holy Scripture):

I: Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these ... All which are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.

IV: The authority of Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.

V: We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture ... And ...(by its) many other incomparable excellencies ... yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

VII: All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

IX: The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself ...

X: The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined ... can be no other but ... the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (Westminster)/ the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit; into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved (Savoy).

 

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