Extracts from “Paths to Unity” – Church House Publishing
0-7151-5768-X Reproduced with permission ..........................................................................................................
This is probably the most straightforward of the uses of the Bible found
in BEM. Throughout the document the language used shows that it has
been drawn from the biblical tradition. Although not direct
quotations, these allusions give strong evidence that the authors of
the text are thoroughly steeped in the biblical writings and support
the Montreal statement 'that we exist as Christians by the Tradition
of the gospel (the paradosis of the kerygma) testified in scripture.
A good example of this can be found in 'E. The Sign of the Kingdom' in
the second section of the baptism part of the document. This section
“Baptism initiates the reality of the new life
given in the midst of the present world. It gives participation in the
community of the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of the Kingdom of God and
of the life of the world to come. Through the gifts of faith, hope and
love, baptism has a dynamic which embraces the whole of life, extends
to all nations, and anticipates the day when every tongue will confess
that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
This passage alludes to various different parts of the New Testament,
many, though not all of them, from the Pauline corpus. The reference
to new life in the first sentence evokes Paul's statement in Romans
7.6 that we are now slaves `in the new life of the Spirit'. The
reference to participation in the community of the Holy Spirit is
reminiscent of the many times that Paul speaks of membership of the
body of Christ in the Spirit, the most famous example of which is 1
Corinthians 12.13: 'in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one
body'. The language of the kingdom of God is, of course, from the
Jesus tradition in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. However, in the
second half of this sentence the use of the phrase `life of the world
to come' is intriguing, as although the sentiment is familiar from the
biblical tradition the wording is not. This phrase comes not from the
Bible but from Jewish tradition and is a translation of the Hebrew
phrase ha'olam haba'. This refers to an eschatological expectation which is
similar to but not exactly the same as Revelation's 'new heaven and
new earth' (Revelation 21.1). It is a convenient shorthand but not
actually a biblical allusion. This same shorthand is used at the end
of the Nicene Creed: `We look for the resurrection of the dead and the
life of the world to come'. It is likely that the use of the phrase
here is a reference not to the Bible but to this part of the Nicene
Creed. The final sentence
of this section incorporates two well-known Pauline phrases. The
first, `faith, hope and love', is taken directly from 1 Corinthians
13.13 and the other, 'every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to
the glory of God the Father', is from Philippians 2.11.
The value of this approach is that it
demonstrates in a very practical way the truth of the Montreal
statement 'that we exist as Christians by the Tradition of the gospel
... testified in scripture'.,since it demonstrates that
even the language Christians use to speak of themselves is steeped
with this Tradition. However, this approach should be employed with
One factor that becomes apparent, both in this short excerpt from BEM and
in the document as a whole, is that biblical allusions are more
readily drawn from the Pauline corpus than from any other section of
the Bible. Although direct quotations are slightly more evenly
balanced, as we shall see below, the phrases that have most deeply
affected contemporary Christian language are Pauline. The danger of
this is an implicit bias to a certain strand of early Christian
tradition at the expense of the whole. This raises issues about a
dependence upon one part of the Bible rather than the whole canon, to
which we shall return later.
A second danger was also illustrated by section E, `The Sign of the
Kingdom'. The problem of using biblical allusion without reference is
that phrases may be used which are not actually from the canon of
Scripture. It can often be difficult to work out the source of a
particular phrase and hence the context from which it arises.
Biblical concepts and biblical terminology
Very similar to biblical allusions is the use of biblical concepts and
biblical terminology. These two occur regularly in BEM and the
difference between them is that the biblical concepts include ideas
such as the new covenant, grace of God, reconciliation; whereas
biblical terminology uses words, often in Greek, to refer to a
specific idea such as anamnesis, parousia and epiklesis. While both
biblical concepts and terminology find their origins in the Bible,
they have often come to have a much greater meaning in subsequent
Christian theology. For example, although cognates of the word
epiklesis do occur in the Bible, that precise form does not occur nor
do its cognates mean quite what it is understood to mean in a
For this reason, the use of biblical concepts and terminology does not
quite fit into the category of use of the Bible. Their use is often
more indirect than that. They might be found in some form in the
biblical tradition but have gained their significance and much of
their meaning in subsequent Christian thinking. Biblical concepts and
terminology have an important function in documents such as BEM but
not as examples of direct biblical hermeneutics.
A major criticism of BEM's use of the Bible has been that it can, at
times, appear to be 'prooftexting', that is, pulling Scripture out of
context to support a point made. This is especially true when looking
at its use of quotations from the Bible. Generally speaking, when
quotations are given they are taken out of their original context.
example of this can be found in the ministry section of the document
which claims that the 'Twelve were promised that they would "sit
on thrones judging the tribes of Israel" (Luke 22.30). This
quotation occurs in a section unique to Luke in which the disciples
are disputing which one of them is to be regarded as the greatest,
though none of this is reflected in BEM.
Various writers have defended BEM rigorously against the charge of
prooftexting. M. Thurian argues that there `is no question ... of a
simplistic biblicism treating scripture as if it were an untouchable
law'."' W. Tabbernee maintains in relation to the use of 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 at the start of the
section an Eucharist that this approach `is not a form of "prooftexting"
but a very effective use of the historical critical method'.
Nevertheless various issues are raised by this criticism, which need
to be addressed.
A defence of this approach can be mounted on two levels. A first
consideration is that quotations given within BEM are not entirely out
of context. Rather they are cited against the background of the
extensive biblical allusion that we noted in the previous section The
overall impression of BEM is of a text rooted in and shaped t biblical
ideas and language. 1t is unfair therefore to accuse it of plucking
texts entirely out of context. A biblical context is given in the text
itself by the biblical allusions woven throughout the document.
A second defence is that at times BEM does reflect knowledge and use of
biblical scholarship in its use of quotations. As Tabbernee points
out. the choice of 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 reflects the influence of
biblical scholarship since this is widely acknowledged to be the
earliest written account of the institution of the Last Supper.
Having said this, however, a problem remains which was noted in many of
the responses to BEM. The Report on the Process an( Responses to BEM
stated that although the `use of the scr±ptures was generally and
widely appreciated .. . a number of comments noted a lack of
differentiation in the citations and sensed a lack c awareness of
underlying exegetical issues'.='= This is a
hermeneutical problem. BEM appears to assume that the Bible has a
single opinion on issues, which can be supported by a biblical
reference and which speaks into a single context. Biblical scholarship
has demonstrated that, in many instances, this cannot be upheld.
biblical authors themselves were writing in and to different contexts
and consequently had different opinions. Sometimes these are blatant
disagreements. A very obvious example of this can be found within the
Old Testament. The prophet Nehemiah forbade intermarriage between the
Judahites and the surrounding nations of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab
(Nehemiah 13.23). Where the book of Ruth maintains that Ruth, a
Moabite, was an ancestor of King David (Ruth 4.17; Matthew 1.5). More
often, however, the differences between, and even sometimes within,
texts are more subtle and require detailed exegesis to understand
them. An example of this is Paul's statement about women in 1
Corinthians 11 and 14. In the first he appears to say that women can
speak during worship provided that their heads are covered (11.5);
whereas later he seems to say that they cannot speak at all (14.34).
Simply citing a verse does not do justice to these complex exegetical
An appreciation of the diversity of the Bible and of the contexts of its
readers is very much clearer in the more recent document A Treasure in
Earthen Vessels, though how this appreciation of diversity would be
illustrated in a more practical paper like BEM remains to be seen.
A technique closely linked to the use of biblical quotations is that. of
giving biblical references to support points made elsewhere. This is
the most common use of the Bible in BEM with just over sixty
references to various biblical passages. This practice was also
criticized in the responses to BEM. The Report an the Process and
Responses to BEM states that same responses 'criticize that the
scriptures have not always been allowed to function as the centre and
norm of the faith'. In other words, points are made which are only
later supported by biblical texts, rather than allowing the biblical
text to shape these points in the first place.
A similar defence might be mounted against this criticism as against the
criticism of prooftexting. In many cases, positions stated in BEM have
indeed been shaped by the biblical text over long periods of history.
The fact that the workings that have led up to the adoption of a
certain position have not been shown does not mean that they do not
exist. This is true for all ecumenical documents. Normally only a
final snapshot of the conclusions from a debate can be revealed in
publication. This can often obscure the fact that complex,
sophisticated discussion has taken place in the process that leads up
to this publication. Indeed. Tahbernee maintains that 'the editors of
the Lima text presuppose a certain amount of biblical literacy on the
part of their readers'. Thus explaining why they opted to refer in
passing to biblical texts rather than to explain them in full.
Nevertheless, fair or otherwise, there are times when the impression
remains that biblical passages have been chosen to support an idea
rather than as the source out of which that idea grew. Whatever the
intention of the editors, this can come dangerously close to 'prooftexting'.
choice of passages used in BEM
The choice of biblical passages within any ecumenical document is
interesting since it reveals which texts have influenced the writers
more than others. We noted above that the Pauline corpus has influenced the language and phraseology of BEM more than any other
tradition within the Bible, A further exploration of the passages
actually cited, rather than just alluded alluded to
is even more illuminating.
To begin with, there are many more citations of
biblical references in the baptism section than in either the
Eucharist or ministry sections (there are about 38 biblical references
in the baptism section as opposed to 18 in the Eucharist section and
24 in the ministry section). This seems to reveal a greater dependence
upon the Bible in the discussion of baptism than in the other two
The use of the Old Testament
Also of significance is the scarcity of direct
reference to the Old Testament. There are very few references to the
Old Testament in the whole of
document, in the section on baptism the reference to the Old Testament
is left vague. In talking about the various images of baptism in the
New Testament, BEM states that these 'images are sometimes linked with
the symbolic uses of water in the Old Testament. The vagueness of the
phrase makes it somewhat frustrating, as it does not state who makes
this connection - the biblical writers or subsequent interpreters -
nor does it give examples of the symbolic uses of water that it
in mind. A similar reference is made in the section on ministry to
God's choosing of
again the reference is so vague that it is hard to see what it means
in this context.
The other two references in the Eucharist section
are slightly clearer since the text. makes reference to `the Passover
memorial of Israel's deliverance from the land of bondage'
and to 'the meal of the Covenant on Mount Sinai (Ex 24). However this
reference to the Covenant meal is problematic, as it seems to imply
that the whole chapter describes a covenant meal. In fact it does not. Exodus 24 is one
of the most complex chapters in the book of Exodus. The majority of
source critics propose that it is made up of three different sources
with verses 1-2 and 9-11 from one source (J) referring to a covenant
meal, verses 3-8 from another (E) referring to the sprinkling of blood
as part of the covenant ratification, and verses 15-18 from a third
source (P) and describing a theophany.
It is somewhat surprising that the Old Testament
has so small a role in the document and, when it is mentioned, that
the references are as vague as they are. This is the weakest feature
of BEM's use of the Bible, especially in the light of its dependence
on the Montreal statement, which says that 'Our starting point is that
we are all living in
a tradition which goes back to our Lord and has its roots in the Old
Testament.' These roots are not so apparent in BEM as they might be.
This follows a trend within many Christian communities to focus on the
New Testament almost to the exclusion of the Old but which results in
an impoverishment of the Christian faith. There are many texts from
the Old Testament that could have provided a very helpful biblical
background for the discussion in BEM. For example, the crossing of the
Red Sea, the entry into the Promised Land or Naaman's healing by
immersion in the river of Jordan might all have been drawn out as a
background to baptism. The cyclical nature of history, which saw
redemption occurring over and over again and which allowed the
Israelites to understand the return from exile as a new exodus, might
have provided a helpful insight into the concept of anamnesis, or
examples of prophetic and other calling might have been used to
illustrate God's calling in the ministry section
section on biblical allusions above, we noted the bias in BEM towards
the Pauline corpus in the use of language to speak about Christianity.
Add to this the scarcity of references to the Old Testament and
questions about the use of the canon of Scripture begin to emerge. Use
of the Bible often produces a de facto canon within a canon. This is
natural but should be resisted at all costs.
is important within ecumenical debate to demonstrate, in practice as
well as in theory, an acceptance and use of the whole canon both as a
reflection of the beliefs of the member Churches but also as a model
of good practice for their members.
use of certain New Testament passages.
striking contrast to the way in which the Old Testament is used in BEM,
various New Testament passages are used regularly. Particular
favourites are: the Matthean and Pauline accounts of the institution
of the last supper (Matthew 26.26-29 and 1 Corinthians 11.20-25, three
times each); the great commission in Matthew (28.18-20, twice); Paul's
discussion of baptism (Romans 6.3-11, three times); the Ephesians
passage which mentions the 'pledge of our inheritance' (Ephesians
1.13-14, twice) and the Petrine passage about the purpose of baptism
(1 Peter 3.20-21, twice). One passage, however, stands out because it
is used so often - six times in all, four times in the baptism section
and once each in the other two sections. This passage is Galatians
3.27-28 (in the baptism section, 3.27 is cited once on its own and
3.27-28 three times; in the Eucharist and ministry sections only 3.28
of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with
Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or
free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in
On one level this is hardly surprising, as these verses are among the
most well known and well used verses in the New Testament.
Nevertheless their use in BEM illustrates well some of the problems
that can arise from the technique of biblical citation. The frequent
use of Galatians 3.27-28 requires the text to bear a lot of
theological weight. This passage is cited to illustrate:
1. re-clothing in Christ,
'a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race
or social status are transcended'
3. `the genuine baptismal unity of the Christian community"
'that baptism into Christ's death ... motivate[s] Christians to
strive for the realization of the will of God in all realms of life'
the need to search for 'appropriate relationships in social, economic
and political life'
6. that there is in Christ 'no male or female'.
Some of these seem to be more obvious uses of the passage than others.
Uses one and three fit well as Galatians 3.27-28 is explicitly about
baptism, though other passages could have been used instead to avoid
undue repetition. For example, Romans 13.14 (`put on the Lord Jesus
Christ') could have been used to illustrate being re-clothed in
Christ, and 1 Corinthians 12.13 ('For in the one Spirit we were all
baptized into one body') might have expressed genuine baptismal unity
crucial issue, however, is what views Galatians 3.27-28 can,
legitimately, be used to support. The passage is widely regarded as
being an early Christian, possibly pre-Pauline baptismal formula. An
important interpretational question, therefore, is whether the unity
described by this passage refers to the Christian community in general
or to the situation of baptism in particular If
it is the latter, then what Paul is referring to here is not the
status of Christians within the Christian community but how they
achieve access to it. In other words it does not matter if you were a
Jew or a Gentile, slave or free, male and female before, what matters
is being baptized into Christ. It may not be a passage about how
Christians relate to each other within the body of Christ but how they
enter that body.
The attractiveness of interpreting the passage in this way is that it
makes sense of places elsewhere in Paul in which it becomes, very
clear that there is a difference between slave and free, or between
mate and female because they are required to act in different ways -
the slave in subjection to his or her master and the wife to her
husband. An interesting additional argument that Witherington makes
here is that detailed attention should be paid to the wording of
Galatians 3.28, which states that there is neither Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free, nor male and female. This he suggests refers not to
gender but to marital status.
If Witherington's interpretation of the passage is correct, then
Galatians 3.28 cannot really be used to support statements about a now
humanity the need for appropriate relationships nor to argue that
there is no male or female in Christ. The fourth use of
the passage "that baptism into Christ's death ...
motivate[s] Christians to strive for the realization of the will
of God in all realms of
something of a puzzle as it is not entirely clear why Galatians
3,27-28 supports this phrase. Unlike Romans 6.9ff. and 1 Peter 2.21
4.6 cited alongside it, the Galatians passage states a fact (that all
are one) rather than something which is to be achieved by the
The use of Galatians
3.27-28 in BEM cautions against the natural tendency to have a
favourite passage which is used regularly. Passages can only be used
to support a point if they genuinely mean what the writers of a
document want them to mean. The overuse of Galatians 3.27-28 in BEM
dilutes its value as a revolutionary early text within Christianity
because it has been made to mean too much