The Hermeneutical Transformations of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente

Differences in Biblical interpretation is a common cause of debate among Christian churches. Moreover, a denomination may also change how it interprets scripture at different points in its history. The latter applies to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), as this church’s hermeneutical position has continuously evolved since its establishment.

Peter-Ben Smit’s “The Bible in the Iglesia Filipina Independiente” illustrates how the IFI has transformed in terms of interpreting Scripture throughout the three main phases of the denomination’s historical and theological development. These developments show that these hermeneutical changes run parallel to the church’s historical trajectory.

For Smit, professor of contextual Biblical interpretation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Biblical interpretation is always influenced by its historical context, a point that he also emphasizes in his other work published in the journal, “Contextualizing the Contextual: A Note on the Revolutionary Exegesis of Gregorio L. Aglipay” (Smit 2017, 72). As such, understanding exegesis can only occur by comprehending the ecclesial and theological context of how these interpretations developed.

Smit analyzes several statements and confessional documents of the IFI, its representatives, and representative bodies. The scope of this study encompasses the first one hundred years of the IFI since its proclamation on 3 August 1902. Additionally, his work utilizes a tripartite periodization of the IFI’s history: the IFI under one of its founders and first obispo maximo(supreme bishop, OM), Gregorio Aglipay (1920–1940); the IFI under a strong Anglican (Episcopal) influence (1940–the 1970s); and the IFI’s rediscovery of its nationalistic heritage (1970s to the present).

On 1 October 1902, the IFI drafted its first provisional constitution, published in 1903. This document stated that the IFI considered itself both in dogma and creed as catholic but that its loyalties were not tied to the Pope and that it was against doctrinal renewal. When it came to reading the Bible, the church adopted an orthodox approach, opting not to stray from the mainstream catholic interpretation. This constitution would not last, however, as the church would adopt a new one on 28 October 1903.

The successor document, “Doctrine and Constitutional Rules of the Philippine Independent Church,” had a significantly different approach to the Bible compared with its predecessor. Rather than emphasizing the IFI’s stature as an independent catholic church, the document adopted as its guiding principle the need to restore the worship of God and the purity of the Word, which supposedly had been clouded by obscurantism. It also underlined the role of the Bible as a source of worship and guide for Christian life to attain eternal life. Additionally, the new constitution disapproved the use of commentaries on the Bible, especially Roman Catholic ones. Instead, the church used the sciences, utilizing concepts rooted in the Enlightenment like natural law.

On 13 January 1923, Aglipay wrote an article about his newly developed theology based on Unitarian theology. His ideas were not officialized, however, as Aglipay penned the article on his own accord. Aglipay’s theology posited that science should be used in correctly interpreting Scripture. Nationalism was also a part of his theology, as he envisioned independent Filipinos subscribing to the teachings of nineteenth-century Filipino heroes who pushed for ideas related to enlightened modernity. This brand of nationalism also entailed political and religious liberation from foreign influence (Smit 2017, 73). Alipay’s ideas deviated from mainstream Catholicism and were not representative of the IFI. Acceptance of these ideas might have only been true among leaders like cofounder Isabelo de los Reyes Sr., who, alongside Aglipay, asserted a nationalism that had an emancipatory and civic character.

Aglipay’s death on 1 September 1940 resulted in changes in the IFI’s theology that can be characterized as a return to the 1902 constitution. However, this development would only transpire after the Second World War, a period marked by internal difficulties. Under the leadership of Isabelo de los Reyes Jr., the church went back to its mainstream albeit independent catholic position, as articulated in the “Declaration of Faith and Articles of Religion of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.” This document asserted the authority of Scripture, deemed to contain everything needed for salvation. Unsurprisingly, it did not mention Aglipay’s application of the modern sciences in Biblical interpretation. The document also supported the belief in miracles and a Trinitarian faith, which did not fit Aglipay’s theology. The IFI also distanced itself from the 1903 constitution and the “Fundamental Epistles,” which were once considered “the doctrinal and canonical basis of the IFI.”

During Ferdinand Marcos’s administration, the IFI’s theology evolved again, a phase in its hermeneutical transformation that continues into the present. The denomination incorporated its nationalist heritage in its emphasis on the struggle for civil rights and social justice. Although the IFI eventually returned to its nationalist roots, the church did not deviate away from mainstream Christian theology. Instead, the IFI incorporated the prophetic aspect of Christian theology, which led the church to develop its version of liberation theology. Not surprisingly, these developments led to new ways of reading Scripture. For instance, a 1976 document titled “Statement on Church Mission” indicated the IFI’s stance on Scripture as a source of worship and guidance for social justice. It held that the Bible carries the authentic word of God and thus serves as a tool for the mission of liberation, which could be accomplished by interpreting Scripture based on the context of the present-day realities in the Philippines.

The IFI has made substantial changes in how it has interpreted Scripture from its inception to the present day. Beginning from maintaining a mainstream catholic position without papal authority, the church quickly utilized the modern sciences as part of its theology. After the Second World War, it returned to mainstream Catholicism, and a few decades later, the church evolved once more by incorporating the IFI’s nationalist heritage through the lens of liberation theology. This latest phase not only continues to this day but also carries much significance in relation to the country’s contemporary realities. The IFI’s present-day theology is significant as the church’s dedication to social justice puts it at the forefront of confronting societal ills, which in some cases have led to violent acts directed at the church’s members. In the past few decades, prominent IFI clergy have become victims of “red-tagging” and extrajudicial killings, such as murdered priests William Tadena and OM Alberto Ramento. Overall, the changes in hermeneutics discussed above are a product of the church’s history and present realities. At the same time, these interpretations have a bearing on Philippine society, as the IFI’s beliefs shape how its members act toward fellow Filipinos.

Read the full article of Peter-Ben Smit in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, volume 69, number 3, 2021.

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