By and large you don’t get too many Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors on the campus of a conservative evangelical theological college like ours. When they do, the odds are that the first question is, ‘What do you think is wrong with the world?’
It’s a searching question because it makes you try and boil down all your misgivings into as small a phrase as possible, preferably even a single word. It makes you focus. The short-hand answer is ‘sin’, and put less technically perhaps something like, ‘We have all loved ourselves at the expense of our love of God and of our neighbours.’
In a similar vein, Anglicans at the moment have to answer the question, ‘What do you think is wrong with the Anglican church worldwide?’ Because there’s a pretty widespread agreement something is. And while it is right to answer that question in terms of sin and a disordered love of self, it is also helpful to try and be a bit more specific.
How has sin flourished in the Anglican church worldwide? How has it loved itself? And come to that, isn’t it worth asking the same questions about other worldwide denominations?
Last week, the chair of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya, addressed just such questions. Gracious and softly-spoken, his answer was subtle and penetrating. He spoke of ‘revisionism’.
I had been expecting to hear ‘theological liberalism’ criticised as the great foe. But Archbishop Eliud’s answer is more sophisticated, because he both gets at what lies behind ‘theological liberalism’ as well as giving us a tool to apply more widely and to search our own hearts and minds rather than just looking for the faults of others.
‘Revisionism’ describes the attitude that re-writes what God has said. It doesn’t necessarily never mention the Bible, as it may cite texts and have biblical-sounding phrases. But at the end of the day it is not so much ‘what the Bible really says’ as ‘what I think the Bible really should have said’. It’s like a ransom note composed of different words and phrases cut out of a newspaper. All the words do come from The Mirror but not in their original place or with their original meaning. They are used to say something different. And so it is with revisionism.
The reason why Archbishop Eliud is on the money here is that ‘revisionism’ not only covers the case where, for example, some American Anglicans feel free to re-write marriage. That is a case where parts of the Bible have been edited out. It is revision by subtraction. It also covers the case where someone adds to what the Bible says, for example putting the principle of Sabbath rest alongside faith in Jesus. That too is revisionism, because behind it lies the attitude that Paul or some other biblical writer should have added a bit more. It is revision by addition.
The tragedy is that when we do add our own ‘bit more’, it is sometimes easy to feel more passionate about our ‘bit more’ than it is about the things Paul actually did write. And that makes it all the easier for the first kind of revisionists, revisionists by subtraction, to subtract those parts of Paul with which they disagree, because they may still be happy with the bits we’ve added, such as wearing the right colour robes for the liturgical season.
Now, I think Archbishop Eliud has laid down a real challenge here. It goes beyond world Anglicanism, because revisionism by subtraction or addition is a problem for both denominations and local churches. It is also, crucially, a challenge for those who call themselves conservatives as well as those called liberals. Conservatives have to ask whether they are preserving the Word of God or human traditions. It is a question for me, not just those I see as subtracting from the Word of God.
Archbishop Eliud also implies action. At root he is telling me to read the Bible humbly and let God’s Word shape me, rather than shape God’s Word to an agenda I have devised. I am not sure I always hear humility before God’s Word stressed.
I must also recognise that resisting revisionism is going to look different in different places, precisely because some brothers and sisters will be facing revisionism by addition, and others revisionism by subtraction. This means that sometimes biblical faithfulness will look iconoclastic and anti-establishment, because it is resisting revisionism by addition. At other times biblical faithfulness will look very traditional, because it resists revisionism by subtraction.
This in turn means that biblical faithfulness means working out what kind of revisionism I am called on to resist in my local setting (and it may be both). It also means charitably recognising that brothers and sisters will be called on to act differently from me exactly because revisionism is different in their context. Rather I must encourage and support their resistance in their context, as they should do for me in my mine.
Lastly, why is revisionism so wrong? Remember what we said earlier about sin and self-love. Revisionism is the love of the sound of my own voice. If I really love God and my neighbour, I will want them to hear God, not me.
Photo: Anglicans Ablaze