I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” This adequately describes the way that many modern western Christians understand and practice the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. All that matters is what the Bible says. All other sources of authority, such as reason, the Councils of the Church, the creeds, or the patristic witness, are all dismissed as man-made innovations. The Bible is the only authority, which really means that the individual Christian is the only authority since he or she can dismiss what any other person says about the Scripture. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid, and so the only one I can rely on to interpret the Scripture is me. The Holy Spirit speaks directly to me about what the Bible says.
The Root of All Heresy
It is easy to see how, from here, we arrive at bizarre modern sects like snake handling Pentecostals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even the hatred and vitriol of the Westboro Baptist Church. If the Bible says only what I think it says than it can be made to say anything I want. This is obviously heresy. It denies the foundations of basic Christian doctrine by separating Christians from the life of the Church. Virtually all heresies find their root in this kind of exulted individualism. We might even say that Sola Scriptura of this sort is the root of all heresy just as pride is the root of all sin.
So obviously the Reformation was a sham and we should all be making our way across the Tiber, right? Well, no, because smart, truly Reformation oriented Protestants will tell you that the modern, popular version of Sola Scriptura bears little to no resemblance to the classical Reformation doctrine. Reading Reformation era confessional documents like the Westminister Confession or the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, it becomes clear that for Reformation Christians there is not an outright rejection of tradition or the rightful place of the Church in establishing doctrine, but rather an affirmation that the Scripture is the norm by which all of these things are judged. In that respect, the continental confessions are not much different than the 39 Articles which declare that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Scripture gets the final word, but it is not open to endless interpretation by each individual person. Much like a person must be taught the principles of mathematics before solving complex equations, a person ought to be formed by the Church to truly understand the fullness of what Scripture has to say. Teaching doesn’t change the math, it just makes it accessible. According to Reformation Protestantism, the same is true of the effect of tradition and Church doctrine upon Scripture.
The Myth of the Three-Legged Stool
Anglicanism affirms the classical Protestant approach to the Scripture, but with a fairly sizable caveat. For Anglicans, the interpretation of Scripture is not the work of individuals who have been formed in the Church. It is the work of the Church herself. Article XX, on “The Authority of the Church,” makes clear that the Church is bound by Scripture. The Church cannot toss Scripture aside or “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Nonetheless, the Church is “a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ” and she has been given “authority in controversies of faith.” In order to accomplish this task, the Church applies particular interpretive lenses to the art of interpretation, the lenses of reason and the teachings of the Fathers.
Modern Anglicans often cite the “three-legged stool” as being one of the great pillars of our faith, that we rely not on Scripture alone but on Scripture, tradition, and reason to give us a good footing. Each of these legs is equal and each is equally necessary. Much like a stool missing a leg will collapse, a faith that is based on just one or even two of these elements will not be able to stand. Proponents of the “three-legged stool” generally believe that the late sixteenth century divine Richard Hooker was the architect of this idea. In fact, the term never appears in Hooker’s work and he would be quite horrified to encounter it. What Hooker did say was this:
What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever…
For Hooker, reason is one of the great gifts of God to humanity. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Aquinas, Hooker was a great believer in natural law and in the ability of man to apply logic in understanding the world around him. This same logic, Hooker believed, could be applied to the Scriptures, allowing us to understand them and to see the patterns within them whereby the voice of God found therein could be understood by the Church. Thus, the teaching of the Church through the centuries, what we call sacred tradition, can be trusted to give us the pure Word of God and, if reasonable, must be trusted above our own private interpretations.
Hooker’s approach was unusual in that most Anglican Divines gave much less emphasis to reason. Not that they ignored or dismissed it, but rather that it was simply assumed. William Beveridge’s lengthy exposition of the 39 Articles, for instance, is subtitled “The Doctrine of the Church of England Consonant to Scripture, Reason, and Fathers,” but the focus in almost every essay is upon Scripture and the Fathers alone. Beveridge assumed that if he made the case for the Articles on the grounds of Scripture and the Fathers then the reason of his arguments would be obvious. Reason is what allows the Church’s teaching to be understood, but the Church’s teaching must begin by relying on the consistent witness of the Fathers, which always leads back to Scripture. They are not three separate sources of divine revelation but three interlocking tools that have to be used together in order to reveal the truth of God to the world.
Bringing Christ into Focus
Classical Anglicanism has no “three-legged stool.” What we do have is something more akin to a telescope with three different lenses. If we imagine the thing that we ought to be looking at is Christ Himself who reveals the fullness of God to the world, the Bible then is like a telescope pointed directly at Christ, making Him plain to see. The witness of the early Church becomes a second lens within that telescope which can be applied in order to make the image that much clearer. Reason is still a third lens, through which we see how all the rest come together. In this model, reason and the Fathers are not separate sources of authority to be weighed against the Biblical witness. Rather, all three form one coherent whole in which reason and the Fathers serve to make the lens of Scripture clear enough that we may see through it perfectly. Remove the supporting lenses and the first lens, that of Scripture, is still capable of working, but the image one sees through it can easily become distorted. However, remove the first lens and the supporting lenses become completely useless. All three are necessary, but Scripture is the lynchpin. The Fathers and reason are incapable of showing us God unless they are applied to the Scripture where God has made Himself known.
The Ecumenical Imperative
The three lens telescope is a good system. It relies wholly on God’s Word, while nonetheless acknowledging that God’s Word must be interpreted in order to be applied. Most importantly, it functions within the confines of the Church that Christ has established. While every individual has the ability to take these lenses and use them to see Christ and receive Him, it is only the Church as a whole that has been given the Holy Spirit for the sake of guarding the faith once delivered to the saints. The uncomfortable mission of Anglicanism, therefore, must always include a striving towards unity in the Body of Christ, especially across ecclesiastical lines, since our shameful divisions in the Church can only hinder our ability to receive the great promise that Jesus has for us, the promise of Himself given fully to His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.