The Ways of Obedience: Scripture and Global South - Michael Poon

The Ways of Obedience: Scripture and Global South: 1
Michael Nai-Chiu Poon, Singapore

“Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts: . . . ” (Venite)

It was not a time for elation for Global South Primates when they received the Communion Sub-group Report at Dar es Salaam in February 2007.  The remarkable turn of events in that mid-February weekend did not change that.   All the more the present is not a time for celebration, but for self-examination and more costly discipleship, for the sake of the common good of the Communion.

The present does not merely call for a refreshed study of the methods of interpreting scripture (cf. Tanzania Communiqué, on “The Hermeneutical Project).  Such can become a self-absorbing exercise that reflects “internal division” rather than having anything to do with the transforming good news for a world inflicted with human grief, borrowing Canterbury’s words.2 More pointedly, such exercise is safe.  It is difficult for the Communion to come to a common mind on methodology anyway.  All can continue their own familiar and separate ways.

To obey Christ today, Global South churches need to submit themselves to the Scripture in a more radical manner. It takes more than merely having orthodox upbringing and evangelical friends for a person to be an orthodox today.   The crisis is not out there in the West, but at the home front.  The challenge before the churches is in translating their formal confession of the authority of the Scripture into practice:  what does it mean in concrete terms for Christian communities to live under the authority of God’s Word?

There is of course an easy response for this.  Philip Jenkins’ analysis shows such way in his book The New Faces of Christianity:  Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: OUP, 2006).  In the opening Chapter “Shall the Fundamentalist Win?”, he tried to explain why the Global South adopts a literal interpretation of scripture:3

For the growing churches of the Global South, the Bible speaks to everyday, real-world issues of poverty and debt, famine and urban crisis, racial and gender oppression, state brutality and persecution.  The omnipresence of poverty promotes awareness of the transience of life, the dependence of individuals and nations on God, and the distrust of the secular order.

To Jenkins, the Bible speaks directly to Christians in the Global South because they are more able to connect their impressions and sensations with those in the Biblical world.   Jenkins’ depiction of the Global South is problematic.  After all, some of the most sophisticated world-class cities are in the Global South; Christians there also adhere to “literal interpretation” of the Bible.  I have suggested elsewhere nation building projects in the past sixty years led to a heightened institutional and homogeneous understanding of religions.  This may offer a better explanation for the Global South Christianities we now witness.4

More relevant for our present discussion, Jenkins suggests that those who live in the crisis-ridden Global South are more able to understand the Bible and to submit to its authority.  Their tragic life contexts provide the direct interpretative lens for understanding the Bible.  Following this logic, there would then an unbridgeable divide between those in the “advanced and stable” societies in the Northern Hemisphere and those in “underdeveloped” regions in the Global South.  Whilst those in the richer countries would need to emphasize their distance from the Biblical world; those in the Global South simply can embrace the Bible without any difficulty.  If the Communion adopted such line of reasoning, the Hermeneutics Project would break down with incommensurable cultural and social contexts – “the Bible speaks (or does not speak) to my life situation.  That’s all there is to it!”5

But this would not do.   Submitting to God’s Word is never merely a social phenomenon. It is a faith-decision: to obey and follow Christ in the present time. Oliver O’Donovan notes in his Fourth Sermon on the Subjects of the Day: “Scripture and Obedience”:6

The authority of Scripture is proved, then, precisely as it does, in fact, shed light on the decisions we are faced with, forcing us to re-evaluate our situation and correct our assumptions about what we are going to do.”

. . . The most mysterious [and the more highly dangerous] question anyone has to face is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation I am facing mean?   If we have even begun to appreciate the nature of this question, and how a false judgment of ourselves can lead us to destruction, we shall be on our guard against any hermeneutic proposal to reverse the sequence of discernments, starting with our own situation and turning back to Scripture to look for something there to fit it.

What does it mean for churches in the Global South to move beyond asking “what does Scripture mean” to under the light of God’s Word “what does the situation I am facing mean”?

(1)  Global South churches need to widen their horizons for God’s Word.  The Word indeed is for the People of God, because it is meant primarily to be the life-giving Word for our societies and nations.  Remove the socio-political contexts, the prophets’ ministries in the Old Testament would become unintelligible. The Scripture does not merely offer Christians an inner motivation in carrying out humanitarian tasks in this tragic world.   God’s Word is the life-principle for the world (Psalm 95-100); all the more we should attend to it in this age when human errors carry irreversible outcome for the future of the world.

Put in another way, the Scripture is not merely a manual for Christians alone.  It presents to the whole creation the vision and glory of life before God.  Irenaeus noted: “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man is the vision of God. For if the manifestation of God in creation gives life to all who live on earth, much more does the revelation of the Father through the Word bestow life on those who see God (adv. haer, 4.20.6).”  Christian communities today must therefore devote themselves to understand how the life-giving Word is connected to human life in all its profundity.

(2) To speak God’s Word to our nations effectively, Global South churches need to pick up the Scriptural concepts for such tasks. This is why the question “what does the situation I am facing mean” is “more highly dangerous”.   Earthly authorities often demand absolute loyalty; thus confessing Christ alone is Lord can carries dire political consequences.  Martyrdom indeed is a reality for Christians around the world. 7  At the same time, martyrdom by blood may not be the only way for confessing Christ. To allow God’s Word to become life for our nations, merely to responding to the immediate issues and crises is not enough.  We need to learn how to interpret aright – to see life whole. To do this, we need to come to study the Scripture in a deeper way:  to understand the theological concepts behind the many statues and commandments.  (Romans 12:2).8   We can do this well only if we let the Scripture speak to our mind and through the communion of saints.  This is why we always attach importance to “reason”  and “tradition”. These are not faculties that are independent of the Scripture.  Rather, until the Word grips the imagination and intellect, life is not truly transformed. And unless the present-day Christian communities are able to inherit the theological questions and histories of Biblical interpretation of their forebears and those around the world, they abstract themselves from the God’s purposes for the Communion of Saints.

(3) The ministry of God’s Word must again become the focal point in public worship. We cannot take this for granted.  Busy pastors often delegate their teaching responsibilities to parish assistants, who in their turn may pass this task to young people.   They again would perhaps substitute the ministry of the Word with Praise and Worship sessions.  Though the Book of Common Prayer still occupies a nominal position in many churches; in practice “contemporary and free style worship” becomes the staple diet for many congregations. Thus, present-day Christians (Anglicans in particular) are in danger of not able to memorize hymns, prayers, and even the Scripture.  Issues and sensations drive our religious activities. I believe this weakness lies behind Jenkins’ observation that churches that was once orthodox can easily become otherwise in the next generation.9

Since the 1970s, the Anglican Communion has devoted considerable energy into structural issues. We moved confidently in creating new instruments and superstructures along the way.  Indeed, given enough financial power, we can engineer churches and dioceses to conform to ACC guidelines.  The present Anglican crisis recalls the Communion to re-examine the foundations of its communal life.   Often we forget the Anglican Communion came about in haphazard ways: mainly through mission initiatives from those at the ground-levels.  Along the way, those from other traditions – whether evangelical or catholic – were enlisted to “Anglican” enterprises to bring God’s Word to the mission fields.  The missionaries in the first half of the nineteenth century – I refer in particular to those who worked in China – were confident the converts could organize their own churches under God’s Word alone.  The sacrificial translation of the Bible into vernacular would make no sense if this was not so. These forebears played an important role in shaping the Global South understanding of the Scripture and ethos.

What do Global South churches understand by “Scriptural authority”?  Perhaps a better way to ask is: What has the profession “We believe the Holy Scriptures as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith” produced in our ecclesial and national life?   We can do well by asking the Provinces:  How has the Word shaped your churches and your nations?   Our submission to God’s Word is proved by the fruit: that the Word so shape our communal life that it becomes a new vision of social life for the present world.

Let Jesus Christ become the centre of our public life.  There, the King gathers his own around him.   He shall authenticate his own authority over the churches and all nations.

Lent 2, 2007   Singapore Footnotes:

1 I am grateful to Dr Ian Welch, my historian colleague in Canberra, for encouraging me, soon after the Primates’ Meeting in Tanzania, to write something on how the Global South understands by Biblical authority.   I take his invitation as a gentle reminder that submitting to God’s Holy Word is something for Global South churches as well.

2 Archbishop’s comments at the final press conference in Tanzania,  20th February 2007”, Archbishop of Canterbury Press Release, .

3 Philip Jenkins, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, Christianity Today.

4 “Theological Education and Nation Building”, Trinity Theological Journal 14 (2006): 124-139.  See also Adrian Hastings’ analysis of the importance of text in nation building. “The nation and nationalism” in The Construction of Nationhood, Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge: University Press, 1997): 1-34.

5 Note ECUSA Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s revealing perception of the Anglican Communion: “A number of the primates represent provinces, especially in westernized or developed nations, where homosexuality is recognized and discussed. . . . There is a final group of primates who are exceedingly exercised about our church’s actions, and see them as anti-scriptural and incredibly difficult for them as they attempt to evangelize in their own contexts [italics added]”.  See “A conversation with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori”, Episcopal News Service, February 28, 2007.

6 Oliver O’Donovan, “Scripture and Obedience”, Fulcrum.

7 Here I recall my earlier conversations with my friend Ephraim Radner.  See his eloquent essay “Communion’s Martyred Depth”, Global South Anglican, .

8 I am ever indebted to Professor Oliver O’Donovan for his contribution to hermeneutics.  See in this connection, “Israel and the reading of the Scripture”  in The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge: University Press, 1996), 21-29; “The Authority of Christ” in Resurrection and the Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986): 140-162; and “The Scriptures” in On The Thirty-Nine Articles (Carlisle:  Paternoster Press, 1986): 49-64.

9Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

13 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    If the Church values the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, it will raise up preachers and teachers and sustain them so that they are free to do that and only that. This is the work we are being distracted from by TEC’s attention getting behaviors. It is time to come away from the sodomites and dust their condemned terrain from our feet.

  2. ERIK LARSEN Says:

    The Episcopal Church does indeed value the preaching and teaching of the “Word of God”.  In fact, we recognize our Lord Jesus to be that Word.  And so I ask the people who would wipe their dust, “what would Jesus do?” (to put the proverb back to them)  Mu guess is that he would run away from the homophobic hypocrites as fast as his human/divine feet would carry him.

  3. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Indeed Jesus’ love extends to all, but repentance is how we receive it. The Episcopal Church no longer believes in the necessity of repentance. That means that homophobia, along with other sinful behaviors and attitudes, will continue, as only the preaching of repentance can transform our hearts so that we are able to love as Jesus loves.

  4. Sean+ Says:

    To echo some of Erik’s comment…
    The traditional understanding of the “Word of God” in Anglicanism is Jesus the incarnate Word of God described in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Case in point, the collect for the 2nd Sunday in Lent which reads,

    “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

    You might say, “It’s just semantics.” Well, it really isn’t just semantics. We worship the Word - the 2nd person of the Trinity, not the book. The other formulation (God’s Word = Bible) is foreign to the way we Anglicans have traditionally spoken about holy scripture. The latter formulation seems to imply the locus of our faith being in the book and not in the Risen Lord, and I would argue that would be a misplacement of our faith.

    My hunch is that in the quote from Ireneas, you are hearing him speak of the “Word” - the 2nd person of the Trinity, and not holy Scripture.

    Thank you for an engaging and thoughtful article!

  5. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    You create a false dichotomy. All of the Bible points to the Word Incarnate. There is nothing in the Bible that is extraneous to Jesus, Messiah. This is what the Church Fathers realized as they studied the Scriptures and what a faithful reading of the Bible reveals to people today.

  6. Sean+ Says:


    I would suggest it is not a “false dichotomy.” Jesus isn’t the Bible. The Bible doesn’t call itself the “Word.” It calls Jesus the Word. The Church Fathers would have never seen the New Testament scriptures as “God’s Word” because the canon of the New Testament Scriptures were not intact until later. Perhaps the septuagint. But my point is that the Church Fathers frequently refer to Jesus as the Word of God and less frequently as Holy Wisodm.

    Even Irenaeus who struggled against Gnosticism and gnostic scriptures would not have seen the written word and Jesus the Word of God as being equal or one in the same. In fact the canon of the Christian scriptures was not set until 394, and there was still movement in the canon long afterward.

    Even more to my original point: there is not a reference in any Book of Common Prayer to the Scriptures as “the Word of God” only to Jesus as the “Word of God.” The closest you get is that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1886 adopted a statement in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral that said, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the “revealed Word of God.”  In 1888, the Lambeth Conference came back and said “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation.”
    However, there are no references to the Scriptures as Word of God in the 39 articles and to my knowledge, and in any edition of the Book of Common Prayer published thus far, beyond the Chicago side of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

    You can suggest, I think, from Anglican Tradition that the human authors of the Holy Scriptures were inspired by God. I think you can argue that the Scriptures are the church’s book because the universal Church continues to use them and read them each week. But I don’t think you can argue that the scriptures as “word of God” has had a place in Tradition in our stated Anglican theology enshrined in our Books of Common Prayer. The BCP has always been the greatest statement of our theology.

    You may argue that that notion of Bible as Word of God is what is now at operation in many countries. I would suggest to them to revise their prayerbooks accordingly, because this idea is new and foreign to many of us Anglicans.

  7. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    I agree that evangelical Anglicans tends to equate Bible and Word Incarnate, but when pressed most evangelicals make a distinction. I would also agree that the Word is always embodied.  Before the 4th century, the Gospel was embodied in the lives of the saints and through the preaching of those in apostolic ministry. The need to inspire and spiritually form Christians was met in the lifetime of the Apostles by depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the life our Lord Jesus on the walls of tombs where martyrs were buried and where secret services were held. By the time that the persecutions stopped in the 5th century, most of the significant events narrated in the Bible were painted on the walls of churches. These icons represented the embodied Word, or in a mystical sense the Word Incarnate made visible in the lives of His saints, martyrs and confessors. Salvation is not a concept. It is always and only an embodied reality.

  8. bill+ Says:

    In response to Sean:  Of course the Logos is not the Bible.  In my years as an evangelical Episcopalian I have never heard them conflated.  However, in the 1979 BCP of my American church the reader of the Old Testament and Epistle proclaim “The word of the Lord” upon finishing the lesson and the congregation replies “Thanks be to God.”  Is this unique to our prayerbook?

    In any case, I think we all agree that we worship Christ, not the Bible.

  9. Sean+ Says:


    I would agree with the heart of what you are saying. The church is an outward and visible sign of God’s presence at work in the world about us. I believe the Scriptures. The concept of embodiment has it’s roots in the Incarnation of our Lord. You are right. Salvation is an embodied reality, along with creation, redemption, sanctification, etc.

    My concern is that the Scriptures (or a specific person’s interpretation of them) can be worshipped instead of the Risen Lord.

    Concerning the whole controversy, the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, has written a new piece well worth reading.

  10. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    I’ve already read the statement of the Primate of Wales. He insists that orthodox Anglicans “pluck texts” and use them out of context. He states, “One has to examine the logic and direction of the Bible as a whole, and not pluck texts from it and use them legalistically.” I wonder about a Primate who makes such a statement after not bothering to attend the Primates’ gathering in Tanzania.

  11. Dan Isaacs Says:

    Sean states: “there are no references to the Scriptures as Word of God in the 39 articles and to my knowledge, and in any edition of the Book of Common Prayer published thus far.”
    I wonder if you have ever read the 39 Articles. Try # XIX ‘the pure Word of God is preached’, or if you think that ambiguous, try: XIX, ‘governed by the Word of God’; XX, ‘contrary to God’s Word written’; XXII, ‘no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’; XXIV, ‘plainly repugnant to the Word of God’; XXVI, ‘hearing the Word of God’; XXXIV, ‘ordained against God’s Word’.
    Plain as a pikestaff.

  12. IanWelch Says:

    Dr Poon’s paper encourages us to reflect on the Bible today not simply as an historical document but its meaning for today’s widely varied Christian communities. Some correspondents have chosen, correctly, to highlight Christ as the living Word within a high view of the place of the sacraments in the church and of the church itself as being Christ’s body.

    That in no way reduces the importance of the written Word. We know little of our Lord from sources other than the Bible. All Christians place the Biblical revelation beside, and generally ahead of, the experience of Christian people over two millennia in different cultures in different parts of the world, i.e., ‘tradition.’

    Even with the Bible as our shared core document and helped by tradition, Christian people manage to differ in many points of understanding and lifestyle. Most Christians would add the issue of authority to the central place of the Bible and tradition.

    Most people are aware that the Bible was written over centuries in different cultures and we do not, and cannot, always literally apply every chapter and verse to our present world. But that in no way takes away the historic Anglican (and Christian) view of Biblical authority although we need to be discerning about what we understand by that authority and, in particular, how Biblical authority relates to everyday life in any generation or particular culture. As the Abp of Wales noted, the throwing of isolated texts is not really much help in dealing with the complexities of life.

    In considering one aspect of tradition, Dr Poon drew attention to the current decline in the quality of public worship. The consistent reading of the Bible; the exegesis, or explanation of each book and of the whole; the explanation of doctrine and its roots in Holy Scripture; and all the other teaching aspects associated with Anglican public liturgies, is in grave danger of being lost under the guise of being ‘contemporary’ in worship. Indeed, generations are now arising who are in grave danger of being conformed to today’s culture with no foundation for tomorrow. If we are to discount the Bible what is to replace it, and what is to be our measure of what is and what is not acceptable for Christians?

    The issue that is confronting the Anglican Communion is far more than a conflict of cultures or of tradition. The Episcopal Church has decided to take a cultural position that is understandable, even praiseworthy, in terms of the ugly prejudices of the secular world but, to other Anglicans, that decision ignores the teaching of Scripture as well as Christian tradition while tampering, in the eyes of many other Anglicans, with the question of authority. It is not a light matter because it goes to the heart of Christian life in family and in society.

    A rather cavalier North American approach to the Bible, tradition and authority has led the Anglican Communion to a political impasse that is likely to reach far beyond the limits of, in world terms, a tiny segment of the Christian Church in North America.

    The issue is not one of literalism, nor fundamentalism, nor evangelicalism, nor sacramentalism, or even of how we interpret ‘the Word’ still less of north or south but of ultimate authority in the Christian Church, and confidence in that authority. We need to stop using the Bible, in particular, as a bludgeon, a textbook or, worse still, a sword to destroy others. That is not taking us anywhere in this discussion.

    We are suffering from an excess of intellectual offerings, mostly from non-parochial sources that are intellectually outstanding but quite inadequate in explaining how Christians are to live their everyday lives. We need to break out of the predominantly academic and confrontational shape of the current debate, and out of an ‘us and them’ state of argument and explain exactly what Anglicans, and indeed all Christians, understand about authority, tradition and Scripture in today’s world. Given the conspicuous decline of the Anglican Church in its North Atlantic context it seems that we must look elsewhere to answers to this question.

    Ian Welch

  13. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    A very fine assessment of the current crisis, Ian Welsh. Ultimately, Christianity isn’t a religion of the intellect, but of the illumined heart.  The heart illumined by the Holy Spirit understands and trusts the Biblical revelation. The illumined heart doesn’t seek to injure anyone, but to speak a word of grace and to heal.