Whether systematic or not, all theologies rely on a set of underlying philosophical principles. Sometimes these principles are openly acknowledged, sometimes not, but either way the end point of a given theology is largely determined by where you start. This became somewhat apparent to me in the recent conversation about satisfaction in which a number of Eastern Orthodox commenters said that the scriptural passages that refer to God’s wrath must be metaphorical because wrath simply does not fit into the picture of a loving God. In other words, a particular understanding of the doctrine of God drives the interpretive model of Orthodox theology. There is a rich and diverse theological landscape that one finds in Orthodoxy, but it is all rooted in a common beginning point that sets the stage for how the rest is to be received and processed.
This is not dissimilar to what happens in other theological traditions. Like Orthodoxy, Calvinism also begins with the doctrine of God, particularly emphasizing God’s sovereignty, which leads to a whole host of conclusions about how salvation works, what the purpose of the Christian life is, etc. Lutherans start with justification and the cross. Baptists start with personal conversion and transformation. Roman Catholics begin from the doctrine of the Church and particularly the petrine ministry. None of that is to say that these traditions only care about those things. That would be overly simplistic. Nor is it to suggest that they do not examine all the evidence. A good deal of energy is wasted in our disagreements among ourselves as Christians when we shout verses of Scripture or passages from the Fathers at one another, as if the other side is unfamiliar with them and had never considered them before. For the most part, the difference between varying Christian traditions is not in the evidence. It is in the way the evidence is processed. It is a divergence of first principles that separates us and makes it difficult for us to understand one another.
Wherefore Art Thou, Anglicanism?
In light of this, I have been puzzling over the question of what the starting point is for classical Anglicanism. It is a difficult question to answer for several reasons. Since modern Anglicanism is so drastically divorced from its classical sources, in most enclaves of Anglicanism today the starting point for our theology is being provided by some other tradition. But even where there is consistency with our historical theology, there remain several viable candidates for an Anglican first principle. Classical Anglicanism takes very seriously the notion of common worship, for instance, and so a compelling case can be made for worship as the starting point of our theology. Likewise, there is a good case to be made that the starting point for classical Anglicanism, like Roman Catholicism, is the doctrine of the Church. The Anglican reformers and divines certainly placed a great deal of importance upon both common worship and the doctrine of the Church, but the more time I spend considering this question, the less I think that either of these are the starting point for our theology rather than the natural fruit that comes from having a theology built upon our actual first principle.
Grounded in Revelation
In the nineteenth century, as the Anglican Communion began to take shape, a great question hung in the minds of Anglicans about how to build bridges with the wider Christian world without losing our own distinctiveness. This question fueled the writing of William Reed Huntington’s classic The Church Idea and eventually led to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which remains a hallmark of Anglican theology to this day. The original purpose of the Quadrilateral was simply to lay out the terms upon which the reunion of the Christian Church might be established, paring down to the bare minimum of what is necessary for a body of Christians to be properly called a church. However, over the years, as the Anglican Communion has drifted further and further away from her own foundations, the Quadrilateral has become something of a homing beacon, guiding us back to our roots and to our core convictions. I have written here before about what the Quadrilateral has to say about the sacraments and about the ministry. However, there is an inherent order to the four points of the Quadrilateral, and what we believe about Baptism, the Eucharist, and the episcopate, comes directly out of the first two points of the Quadrilateral:
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
The Anglican Reformation was not about creating something new but about recovering something old. What the Anglican reformers discovered when they read the Fathers of the earliest era of the Church was that they held a particular care for Scripture and they exercised a way of reading Scripture that animates all of the Church’s life with the Holy Spirit. It became immensely important to the renewal of the Church of England that Scripture form the foundation of every doctrine, not in an individualistic fashion in which each man reads and makes up his own mind, but in a communal and traditional fashion, in which the Scriptures are read as the Church has received them. Responding to Rome, John Jewel wrote in his 1562 Apology for the Church of England, “Wherefore, if we be heretics, and they (as they would fain be called) be Catholics, why do they not, as they see the fathers, which were Catholic men, have always done? Why do they not convince and master us by the Divine Scriptures?”
Scripture, Tradition, and Reason Redux
The starting place of Anglicanism is the doctrine of revelation. That is the doctrine that colors how we see all else. Our tradition is founded upon Scripture, tradition, and reason, not as three co-equal categories, and certainly not as three legs of a stool, but as three interconnected parts of a whole fabric of divine revelation that cannot be separated if we wish to see the complete picture of the Gospel. Holy Scripture provides the foundation and it is the final authority. But Holy Scripture cannot be properly understood outside of a conciliar framework. The ancient creeds are affirmed along with the Scriptures because they truly teach what the Scriptures reveal and because they represent the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit within the Church to speak God’s Word to us, not a new Word for each generation but the same Word truly explicated. When we read Scripture in conjunction with the creeds and the teaching of the Church, we can apply reason to our reading to see the patterns and the order that exists in the Scripture. Reason and tradition do not prove anything about God for us apart from their consistent grounding in the Scripture. Scripture needs tradition and reason to be properly understood, but Scripture steers the ship. Even though reason would lead us to expect logical patterns in what Scripture reveals, we correct our faulty, fallen reason with the Scripture and allow God’s revelation to lead the way, even when it seems to lead us into seeming contradiction, even when it seems to lead us away from what we held before. We accept the correction of Scripture, read through the conciliar and patristic tradition, and when we do so we assume that new light will emerge for our reason to ascertain.
One of These Things is Not Like the Others
This starting point in the doctrine of revelation differentiates Anglicanism from Rome and the east because classical Anglicanism requires an unswerving fidelity to the Scriptures as the fullness of revelation and the final authority. The Fathers are held in the utmost respect in Anglicanism, but they are not a means unto themselves. By their own writings, they bound themselves to the Scriptures and they bid us to do the same.
On the other hand, Anglicanism’s rock solid insistence upon reading the Scriptures within the life of the Church and through the lens of the Fathers prevents Anglicanism from collapsing into fundamentalism and the rampant individualism of modern Evangelicals and Liberals (excepting, of course, our own Evangelicals and Liberals who eschew Anglican principles in favor of their own). Nor does classical Anglicanism fall into the trap of confessionalism, writing in stone that which the Church has not yet received in a catholic, conciliar fashion. Our formularies are of paramount importance to us, but they are not absolutes. The Book of Common Prayer can be revised. The Catechism can be expanded. The Articles express the Catholic faith, and yet there is freedom for evolution of thought in how we understand and apply them, so long as we do not traverse their plain, grammatical sense.
Where Do We Want to Go?
How does this work in practice? Well, for starters, it means that there is nothing in our theology that we need to protect from Scripture. Returning to the conversation about satisfaction, for instance, Scripture paints for us a picture of a God who is loving and who exercises wrath against sinners. The tradition confirms this picture and puts it in context along with the full range of imagery that Scripture employs. And reason tells us that, while we might see a contradiction between God’s love and His wrath, the problem must not be with what Scripture reveals but with our perception. The starting point determines the outcome. We start with God’s revelation and therefore that is also where we end up, standing in awe, gratefully receiving the mystery of God.
Of course, as with everything else, the degree to which Anglicanism produces this kind of theological fruit is in direct proportion to how faithfully Anglican churches adhere to authentically Anglican principles. It is considerably easier, especially today, to adopt a different theology under the banner of Anglicanism and follow it out to its natural conclusion than it is to rely on the musty, overlooked Anglicanism of the past. But if our starting point becomes something other than God’s revelation, our ending point will be equally divorced from the truth that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. If God’s truth is where we want to end up, then it makes little sense to start anywhere else than in what God has actually said.