The Anglican Way: Scripture First But Not Alone

Anglicanism is sometimes called the via media, the middle way, by which the person making the assertion usually means that Anglicanism is somewhere between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as a tradition within the larger world of Christianity. In Anglican apologetics, the idea of the via media is often used to show the reasonableness of Anglicanism in comparison to the extremes of other types of Christianity. I have never been comfortable with this over-simplistic distinction. For one thing, it sets up a strange kind of Christian grid. Why are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism by nature extreme? Are we really lumping all of Protestantism together as if there are no distinctions between, for instance, a Pentecostal and a Mennonite? And where do the eastern churches fit into this? But even if we leave these questions aside, we are still left trying to explain what we mean when we say we are in the reasonable middle. Otherwise there is no content to the claim. Does being in the middle mean that we cherry pick our beliefs and practices from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as we see fit? If that is the case, then Anglicanism is simply a free-for-all in which we use tradition to meet our needs and our wants, rather than being informed by tradition or allowing it to shape us. Anglicanism in this model becomes parasitic, stealing what it needs to survive from the wider Christian world and offering nothing back in return.

While some contemporary Anglicans have opted for this “anything goes” approach, I firmly believe that classical Anglicanism feeds us something much more substantial. Rather than thinking of the via media of Anglicanism as a reasonable alternative to the strictness of other Christian traditions, we would do well to think of it as its own distinct expression of Christian faith and practice that has important elements in common with Roman Catholicism and the various Protestant churches and even the churches of the east but is effectively its own animal.

Anglicans and Scripture

Perhaps the most obvious example of this Anglican distinctiveness is found in the way that Anglicans read the Bible. From the outside, one can see ways in which the Anglican approach to scripture looks similar to the Catholic approach and to the various Protestant approaches, though it follows neither line neatly. The Bible has always held a place of supreme authority in the formulation of doctrine for Anglicans. Jesus Christ is the one sure revelation of God, and holy scripture is the one sure record of that revelation, being itself both inspired and revealed by God. Article VII says “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.” This understanding has been held continuously down the ages in Anglicanism, being one of the vows made by those seeking holy orders on the day of their ordination. While in the Roman Church, priests are given a chalice and patten during their ordination to symbolize their receiving the power to consecrate the Eucharist, newly ordained Anglican priests are given a Bible to show that all their authority, including the power to administer the sacraments, is rooted in scripture.

In this respect, Anglicanism appears quite Protestant. Yet Anglicanism deviates from other Protestant approaches to scripture in several significant ways. While Anglicans have joined other Protestants over the centuries in arguing for the clarity of scripture and for the ability of the individual believer to be guided by the Holy Spirit in the reading of scripture, Anglicanism has also insisted upon the importance of the Church in interpreting scripture. Both the sixteenth century reformers and the seventeenth century divines asserted that scripture must be read in the light of the writings of the Fathers of the first five centuries of the Church, appealing to them not as an independent source of revelation but because they are closer to the source. No individual father is elevated above the others, but where there is wide convergence of the Fathers, their opinion should take precedence over the novel ideas of modern people. Anglicanism also accepts the first four ecumenical councils and the creeds as being guiding principles for understanding the faith that is delivered to us primarily from the scriptures. Likewise, while the Anglican reformers saw the shaping of the liturgy as an opportunity to accentuate certain theological ideas, they also understood that the liturgy itself was a source of received tradition about the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Article XX declares that the Church may decree rites and ceremonies as she sees fit and that she is the arbiter of controversies of faith, but that she may never exercise this authority in a way that is contradictory to scripture or that elevates one part of scripture so as to render another invalid. Scripture must be read and understood as a whole.

One can see in this appeal to liturgy, councils, and the Fathers an echo of the Eastern approach as well as that of Rome. An even more pronounced synergy with the Roman approach can be found in the Anglican appeal to reason as a means by which we can understand that scripture is worthy of the authority we see in it. Some people may be surprised to hear that the Anglican appeal to reason resonates with the Roman approach to scripture, but without the Thomistic idea of natural reason with its Aristotelian underpinnings, Richard Hooker and his compatriots could never have articulated the Anglican approach. Hooker in particular argued that Rome was wrong to insist that we need believe anything other than what is provided in the Biblical witness in order to be saved, but that continental Protestants were equally wrong in asserting that the Bible is sufficient not just for salvation but for everything. Hooker’s work shows that natural reason is required for us to understand that the Bible is a source of revelation in the first place. We do not come to the Bible as blank slates. We are able to receive biblical revelation because God has first placed within us reason and shown us, through the natural world, that there is an order to the universe.

The Uniqueness of the Anglican Approach to Scripture

So we can see how the Anglican approach to scripture has some consonance with Protestantism and some consonance with various Catholic traditions. But does that mean that the Anglican approach to scripture is just a random, forced hybrid of the two? Certainly not in Hooker’s estimation. “Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of Holy Scripture,” he says, “each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth” (The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book II, Chapter viii). Neither of the two approaches that he saw being worked out by Protestants and Roman Catholics were sufficient, because neither one was true to the witness of the early Church or what can be rightfully discerned through reason. Anglicanism proposes a completely different approach, which is consistent with certain parts of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant approaches, but only in so much as they are true. The great Anglican reformers and the great Anglican divines, while they sometimes came to dramatically different conclusions, were generally in agreement about this practice. It has shaped the Anglican worldview for nearly five hundred years.

Is this approach unique? Certainly not in its individual components. Scriptural supremacy, patristic interpretation, and human reason are hardly the property of Anglicanism alone, nor could we boast if they were since such uniqueness might suggest novelty and a break with the faith of the apostles. Yet the way that Anglicans combine these things does seem to be distinctive in Christianity.

It would be wrong to say that Protestants universally do not turn to the Fathers, since many of them do, particularly those schooled in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, but most Protestants do not see the Fathers as an authority, certainly not as one that trumps what the Holy Spirit might be saying to the individual believer or even what the Spirit might be saying to an individual church. Furthermore, few traditional Protestants would be willing to say that natural law helps to shape our ability to understand scripture, or that we can reason our way to a place of seeing that scripture is an authority at all. Still fewer would believe that the Church should have the last word in matters of controversy regarding the scripture.

Roman Catholics see scripture as having a sort of parallel authority with tradition and with the teaching office of the Church, but not as being above those other sources of authority and certainly not as being over the Church herself. Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, view scripture as a part of the tradition rather than above it or parallel to it, effectively making scripture subordinate to the Fathers and the Church. Anglicanism uniquely asserts the authority of all three sources of authority while maintaining that scripture holds the highest place, leaving open the possibility for error in the teaching of the Church or even errors in the interpretation of the Fathers, but not in the Bible.

Anglican Comprehensiveness

The classical Anglican approach to scripture is a prime example of the way in which the via media of Anglicanism operates as a unique practice and tradition within Christianity, but it is far from the only example. Yet so often today, the uniqueness of the Anglican way is forgotten even amongst Anglicans themselves who identify more with one of the various parties within Anglicanism–Catholic, Evangelical, or Liberal–than with Anglicanism itself. Thus, when trying to do good scriptural interpretation, many Anglican Catholics are more likely to consult the most recent Roman Catholic Catechism than the Catechism of their own tradition, found in the traditional versions of the Book of Common Prayer. Likewise, many Anglican Evangelicals are more likely to read commentaries by non-Anglican Protestants than to consult their Anglican Catholic colleagues. This is not to say that consulting non-Anglican sources is bad. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the strength of Anglicanism that we are able to draw on the teaching of so many different parts of the Christian world without giving up our essentials. Nevertheless, if we never learn to approach the scriptures in the way that classical Anglicanism lays out, we never get formed in our own tradition, and the gap between the parties within the tradition widens.

Anglicanism is not merely a space in which one can practice being Catholic or practice being Evangelical. Anglicanism is Catholic and Evangelical. This is not because Anglicanism strives to bridge the two streams, but because the Anglican way, in its attempt to be authentic to the witness of the early Church, manages to carry along what is most true and authentic about Catholicism and Evangelicalism in the process. It is this comprehension that Anglicans of all stripes need to learn once again to celebrate and explore.

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8 Responses to The Anglican Way: Scripture First But Not Alone

  1. Pingback: Either Anglicanism is the Truth or We Should Shut Up About It | The Conciliar Anglican

  2. James says:

    I’ve been enjoying your posts on Anglicanism. My current tendency of thought is that these beautiful principles of organization would work for a rather well-behaved bunch; but a group that’s as confused, disorderly, shouty, with many strongly predisposed to discarding important principles in practice simply means that this type of polity and non-confessional approach could work well for another body – but not our own – and that we will likely fall as a body.

    Thinking about its principles is, nonetheless, a beautiful preoccupation; and who knows, just maybe someone will listen amidst all the sex-and-who’s-the-boss talk!

    Here is a passage from Charles Gore’s The Basis of Anglican Fellowship about “Anglican Comprehensiveness” which I find particularly apt for today. And I applaud that you are one of those who focuses on such “principles.” Though I do wish that, amongst those principles, we’d aim for more clear thought on CLQ #1 & #2 (we seem to be hitting #4 a lot in discussion, and sometimes judging #1 & #2 on the basis of what we think of #4).

    Thus in this twofold affinity with Catholics and Protestants, on the basis of an intelligible principle, the Church of England has claimed comprehensiveness as its glory. It has given the utmost scope for liberty of opinion. But a comprehensive body means a body which can tolerate much difference of opinion and practice among its members because it is at the basis bound strongly together by principles held in common. Otherwise it is not a comprehensive body at all, but a mere consensus of jarring atoms, held together by some external bond. It is these common principles which are now imperilled amongst us in three directions – first, by the recent tendency of the critical movement which has resulted in what, I think, is an inordinate claim for licence of opinion among our clergy, threatening most fundamentally our basis of faith; secondly, by the Evangelical movement, especially strong in the mission-field, towards fellowship among Protestants, which has had its outcome in proposals which seem to threaten our Catholic basis in organization; and, lastly, by the tendency of the extremer members of the “Catholic” movement, which in its turn seems to ignore the appeal to antiquity and Scripture, as restricting the dogmatic authority of the Church, and to leave us without any reasonable basis for resistance to the claims of the Roman Church. These three movements appear to be facing straight away from one another with a markedly disruptive tendency; and the great body of the Church has meanwhile been strangely blind or indifferent to what has been going on. It has occupied itself in what are called practical matters, and has been markedly unwilling to think about its principles. Thus the common mind of the Church – the common perception of its principles – has been becoming singularly weak, and its power of holding divergent tendencies together on the basis of a common unity has become proportionately enfeebled. There is, therefore, at the present moment, in my opinion, nothing so essential, if the Church of England is to fulfil its special vocation, as that we should consider again what we stand for.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      That is an interesting and salutary quote from Bishop Gore. Thank you for posting it.

      I am not at all optimistic about what is happening in our Anglican institutions today, but I think that what has allowed us to step to the brink of institutional chaos is, ironically enough, an over-emphasis on institutions and an almost complete amnesia about what it is we actually teach and do. I agree with you that we have focused too much energy on conversation about bishops as a structural matter (rather than as a theological matter), and not enough time at all talking about scripture and the creeds. I think that the future of Anglicanism lies not in some sort of magic institutional solution to all of our problems but in a recovery of classic Anglican doctrine and practice. And the beauty of that is that such a recovery does not have to wait for institutional scaffolding to get started. We can begin that recovery right now, in our parishes and in our lives as individuals, as clergy and as laity.

      • James says:

        I suppose that one thing we could also do is simply agree to submit some of the problems that plague us to a few major churches which have shown themselves to be faithful to Trinitarian Christianity in effectively preventing the situation we currently have, where top-level leaders deny the divinity of Christ and the Resurrection – and agreeing that we will take their suggestions seriously (or perhaps even: that we will comply with what they decide for us) – such a convocation from representatives of the Roman Catholics and Baptists (imagine what that would look like!). The world’s largest Protestant body has gone seriously off the rails – see e.g. Wthis article. In some way it’s as if we are in a situation of civil war – when one looks at the condemnations each side has for the other – some e.g. opposing faith the Risen Christ – the central aim and point of Trinitarian Christianity – as a dangerous form of “fundamentalism.” This is indeed an attack upon the very heart of Trinitarian faith. This might also help bring us toward repentance, or constitute an important part of our repentance – publicly acknowledging that we are destroying one another, in taking aim at those places that hurt most – and that we can not even agree on, e.g., whether it is important for us to encourage our members to believe in God.

        Polities engaged in civil war don’t tend to do well around the discussion table in absence of authorities from areas which understand the necessary principles and disciplines involved in productively living in peace.

        I realize that at first glance, this may sound pointed primarily at “liberals.” But “liberals” also generally do not claim to prioritize the maintenance of teaching according to a creedal faith; thus in a certain sense, it’s “conservatives” who have failed the most for having failed to prevent this situation. And we are one body – we are all in this together – we hurt together, and those that stay with us must heal together.

        Yes, we can “start at home” and “work at home.” But as you’ve so brilliantly pointed out in your “Anglican hardware” posting – many of us are missing out on a notion of catholicity and the body of Christ, and don’t “feel” the agony of other parts of the body which are in urgent need (whether they acknowledge this or not). We must indeed work with a firm emphasis on our own parishes – but each parish which is healthy should also be allocating resources toward helping the larger body at points of greatest need – and in our Communion, this is most definitely: spiritual need.

        Perhaps what “conservatives” need is a greater appreciation of the church as the body of Christ – which means living in a manner which sees beyond the immediate purview of one’s parish – and also avoids the temptation of skipping over concern for diocese and national church, by springing directly to concern about missions in places distant and exotic – learning to place attention on those areas of the diocese and national church which are most needy, even if they tend to respond ungracefully (and as anyone who has done significant work with the needy will know … graceful responses, in dealing with the needy, tend to be somewhat rare).

  3. Eugene says:

    In this article you said: “Jesus Christ is the one sure revelation of God, and holy scripture is the one sure record of that revelation…”.
    I think what Orthodox people would say is “Jesus Christ is the one sure revelation of God, and the Holy Spirit is the one sure record of that revelation.” I think that would be not only the Orthodox, but the biblical approach. And then we (St. Basil, me, St. Gregory Palamas, the host of martrys, the single mom who lights a candle for her son who’s in jail, the Twelve Apostles, etc.) are the sure record of the Holy Spirit, and we wrote a book about it.


    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Eugene,

      I think I understand what you’re getting at, but you probably want to try to formulate that differently. The Holy Spirit is not a record of God’s revelation. He is God revealed. But I take it that your point is that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church and that the Bible is the Church’s book, a record of the revelation that was delivered to the Church. I would certainly agree with that, if that’s what you mean. I think, however, that as an Anglican, I would want to also go a step farther and say that scripture is inspired by God, and that therefore the Church, while the keeper and defender of Holy Scripture, is also under the authority of Holy Scripture. In one of the early Anglican formularies, the 39 articles of religion, Article XX says “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.” As the Church, we are the keepers of scripture, and we are given authority because the Holy Spirit dwells within us, but that authority is dependent on God’s revelation, not on anything inherent to us.

  4. Eugene says:

    Hi, Father,

    Thanks for the response. I do get it. On the other hand, I think this discussion illustrates some key differences between Anglicanism and (Eastern) Orthodoxy. The way in which you describe and discuss Holy Scripture seems to me to have that distinctly Protestant tinge about it (and I say this without malice or “triumphalism”): to wit, the description of the Church as an entity distinct and apart from Scripture (“under” it); and Scripture as distinct and apart from the Church (“over” it). It’s different from the Orthodox outlook, which I believe would go: we have only one Sacrament, one Mystery, when all is said and done: the Church. And the Church — either as Resurrection or Crucifixion — is the revelation of God. All things within the Church are sacraments — the Scripture as well as the Holy Mysteries. All things within the Church are sure means of grace and enlightenment. It’s a terrifying thing to consider, but we (the Church) are the revelation of God. We express that revelation in various ways.

    The risky thing about the Orthodox Church is that we claim no source of correction and authority beyond that of the Holy Spirit; we would not “parcel out” a pope, a magesterium, or a book to hold up as the ultimate authority, although all of these have influence, some (like Scripture) more than others. This can make for some confusion. But the Holy Spirit will always reveal things in His good time.

    I get some of these ideas from a little book by Fr. Seraphim Rose titled “God’s Revelation to the Human Heart.”


  5. Pingback: The Anglican Way: Magisterial Worship | The Conciliar Anglican

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