George Sumner, Anglican Theological Review

January 2, 2022

“It is a particular pleasure to review this book, since I was among some Episcopal ordinands at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who were struggling to understand what it meant to be an Anglican. We asked Professor Rowan Greer for an extended reading course on the subject in the fall of 1978. He turned his expertise in Scripture and patristics to bear on this question, and this book is the fruit of almost thirty years of work. It is written in an easy style that belies his enormous erudition in the field. This is really a book about Anglican identity and authority, though his transposing of those questions into the key of Scriptural interpretations makes those seemingly overtilled fields fruitful once again. In a time when Anglican identity is very much in play, and when the number who actually know the more detailed plotline and actors is few, this book is particularly welcome. While Greer is clear that his intention is to write a primarily descriptive work, the issues are live, the normative implications unavoidable.

The issue at the heart of Greer’s treatment is the relation between church and Scripture. He finds this in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century differences between ‘conversion’ (protestant) and ‘ecclesiastical’ (catholic)  (p. 27) understanding of the Christian faith. For example, he finds in Richard Hooker’s treatment of justification and sanctification of baptism and Eucharist, a careful balancing act between the two approaches. Greer goes on to trace the same issue in the great nineteenth century figures of John Henry Newman and F. D. Maurice. And in between he treats generally forgotten figures like Joseph Hall, John Pearson, and William Chillingworth with a masterful touch. Intruding on this first tension is of course a second, the tsunami called modernity, which he traces for the Cambridge Platonists through the latitudinarians and on the modernists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He shows with care and detail how, for example, the meaning of a word like ‘reason’ changed tellingly over time. He also notes how the acids of criticism came to attack the very core of the faith in a way that a scholar like Charles Gore thought could be avoided. For Anglicanism, as with other Western traditions, the categories of experience and history lacked the bulwarks to withstand this process. Greer does seem to put more emphasis on the positive effect, the overcoming of a simple inerrantism, than on the negative effects of criticism as it was used in the last century.

The book concludes with a constructive chapter, where Greer enlists several Anglican authors, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his vision of the Scripture’s Christ in the church through the Spirit and for the preacher (what Coleridge called the ‘pentad’); and Edward Hoskyns and his sense of overcoming criticism by its own use in the service of the kerygma. (One might here compare Markus Bockmuehl’s retrieval of Hoskyns recently in his Seeing the Word.) Greer goes further afield in a summary of modern historical critical  method that seems more tangential to his argument as a whole. In general he would emphasize that the Scripture is the church’s book, and as such its function for the sake of the church’s life must be given first consideration—as it has since the very establishment of the canon with the creed in the Irenaean era.

It is precisely with this matter of function that my first question for Professor Greer arises. For while the Bible as Scripture may indeed come from mater ecclesia, one crucial function it plays is precisely to be a norm for, and sometimes a two-edged sword against, the church ( by doing which it is of course serving to keep that very church faithful). This norming function must be maintained, the Protestant note of the church as creatura Verbi protected.  I believe that Greer would agree, for he talks of a dialectic of Scripture and church, but this norming side can present a challenge to tradition-oriented voice like Newman on the one hand or any member of experientialist moderns on the other.

This leads to my second question, which I can best express with a bit of academic geography. Not far from Rowan Greer’s office at Yale was that of George Lindbeck, a major contributor to the ecumenical conversation between Roman Catholics and Lutherans that bore fruit in a common understanding of justification. How might this consensus provide a fuller account of the concept than Greer offers? In another direction was Brevard Child’s office. What contribution can the canonical and post liberal approaches to Scriptural authority—affirming of historical criticism within limits, self-consciously creedal, wary of experientialism—make to the constructive proposal Greer offers? For aren’t these issues his? Those same issues were, and are, played out in Anglicanism, in its own inimitable style, and no one is more able to guide us through the twists and turns of the tale than Rowan Greer. May his new book be read by all interested in that Anglican story, and the wider Christian hermeneutic tale as well.”

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