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Chalcedon and the Church's culture wars

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 8 February 2019

In my last two posts here and here I attempted to shed some light on what I have called the culture wars that continue to be waged in the Church. These wars are about how the bible is to be read and they have damaged the reputation of the Church and split it between Evangelicals and Liberals. I have attempted to show that neither an Evangelical nor a Liberal reading of the bible is adequate, the first because it brings the epistemology of modernity to an ancient text and hence misrepresents it, and the second because these texts are examined in the light of modern science and discarded as being irrelevant to our time.

Both Evangelicalism and Liberalism inherit understandings from Enlightenment rationalism. Evangelicalism relies on the importance of fact, of observable events that can be shown to have happened. They bring a positivism to biblical texts that leaves them with a host of unexplained questions. Such questions bring the rationality of faith into disrepute and act as a barrier between the Church and secular society.

Liberalism also clings to Enlightenment rationalism but reacts to unnatural events in the bible by rejecting them as the understandable mistakes of a prescientific culture. In the process, they miss the theological point the writers are trying to make and impoverish the tradition. In an attempt to tame scripture so that it is accessible to the modern mind it produces an easy gospel, conformed to the times, in which the necessity of love is becomes a central ideology. One wonders why anyone would be interested in such a construction.


It has occurred to me (probably not an original thought) that the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, arrived by the Council of Chalcedon (451CE), is crucial to our understanding of how to read Scripture. The Council wrestled with the question of how Christ could have two natures, a human nature and a divine nature without one dominating the other and without splitting off divine aspects from human aspects. At the level of Scripture this was answered by invoking the Spirit of God. Thus Mary was I told by the angel: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35) and Jesus himself declares that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.." (Luke 4:18) This is very much in the vein of Old Testament Prophets except that Jesus himself is identified with God, the leap that alienated Judaism from Christianity.

The solution to how the infinite can dwell in the finite without mutual destruction was eventually solved in the personalist/relational mode; Jesus was the one whose life-act was thoroughly conformed to God. His humanity was intact in that he thirsted, suffered and died but these were acted out in complete obedience to the Father and was, as such, inseparable from the Father. Jesus is what we may become. It is this relation that engenders relations between human beings in a way that was previously impossible and became expressed as the imperative to love. Love is thus not an ideology for the cure of the ills of the world but an established reality, bought at a cost, that follows from the death and resurrection of Christ.

The doctrine of the dual natures of Christ spring from the New Testament that presents us with the whole of the life of Jesus; His conception, birth, infancy, teaching, controversies, miracles, graceful relationship with others, murder, resurrection, ascension and future is a seamless whole. This is why we can attribute inerrancy to the bible, not in that all things described therein must have happened as is set down, but in that the whole of Scripture bears witness to the incarnation; the presence of God in this man Jesus of Nazareth. This narrative is the gift of God and the work of men. It is built on historical events and invented legends and, as with the dual natures of Christ, we cannot dissect out the divine from the human, the infinite from the finite because they are totally intermingled. Our understanding of the identity of God does not come from abstract arguments for the need for a first cause or from the spiritual needs of humanity, but from events in the life of the nation Israel and the life of this man Jesus, a son of David.

Understanding Scripture as the gift of God and the work of men is the narrow gate by which we may enter into communion with the divine. When Scripture is read as part of the liturgy the reader is be right to exclaim, at the end of the reading and imitating the words of the prophet; "Thus says the Lord." He cannot make this claim with provisos that Paul belonged to a patriarchal society or Matthew had a trouble with the law or Luke made these stories up. As with Christ, the divine is inseparable from the human. The Word comes to us in human clothing.

The parallels between the two natures of Jesus and the two natures of Scripture sheds light on how we should read Scripture. Evangelicals tend to neglect the human and make the text divine in a literalist fashion. Thus, the different stages of development and contexts of the writers are ignored as are the conflicts in the narratives such as the obvious difference between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The result is the suffocation of modern critical/historical study of the texts and an agonising and transparent attempt to harmonise differences. The slogan "If it is in the bible, I believe it" signals a mind trapped by ideology and closed to investigation; hardly the freedom of the gospel.

Liberals tend to neglect the divine because divinity has no place in their conception because there is no place for it in modern thought to which this thinking is in thrall. Scripture becomes the work of men and as such may be dissected in a way that is liable to miss the forest for the trees. Being such, it becomes not the divine Word but a compendium of wisdom and Jesus the good teacher. Both Evangelicalism and Liberalism miss the point and are really two sides of the same coin.


Scripture is the place of meeting of the community of Christ. Even though there are tensions in the texts, even though the writers did not share our scientific view of the world or our understanding of human psychology or our view of the status of women, this does not exclude us from communion with the writers whose only aim is to evoke the presence of Christ in our midst in their various fashions.

Thus, the purpose of Scripture is not to provide proof that amazing things have happened and that the spirit world exists, as Evangelicalism would have it. Nor is it to provide a wisdom that is indiscernible from humanism as Liberalism would have it. Its sole concern is to present Christ in the midst of his community the Church. There is a circle here. The Church, the risen body of Christ, reads Scripture so that Christ may be present, and the community becomes the body of Christ.

It is this hermeneutical circle that governs interpretation. Such interpretation is not simply a list of the sayings of Jesus and the application of them to our lives. While the teachings of Jesus are important, they do not carry the day, neither do the moralistic teachings of Paul, for example his banning of women speaking in Church. The task of the preacher is one of discerning how Scripture makes Christ present to His community. In order to do this, he or she must understand how the presence of Christ enables, through his intimacy with us, intimacy and right relations with all of humanity. This is the good news in a nutshell and why the Church goes on so much about love.

This is the only way that the Church can live by the grace of God and why she may decide to ordain women, welcome gay people and allow divorce, not because the Church is "progressive" but because it is called to be the compassionate and forgiving Christ, who welcomed sinners and ate with the unclean and disturbed the pious. Interpretation of Scripture is wholly theological i.e. it is determined by how God is revealed in the man Jesus.

Evangelicals may say that the above is a sophisticated way of eroding the authority of the bible. But what kind of authority are we talking about? Here, again we have to do with theology and the distinction between law and grace, flesh and spirit. The authority of evidence looks very much like the flesh to me rather than spirit. A moral code derived from the sayings of Jesus looks like law rather than grace. If we are to read Scripture on its own terms, we must abandon methods of reading that contradict the centre of the gospel, it exists as witness to God's gracious word to us in Jesus.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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