Ian, who writes from Australia, says that he has a lot of difficulty talking to other young Christians about why the historic teaching of the Church ought to carry any weight. Here’s part of his letter:
…If I make the point that something is what the Church for over 1,500 years universally taught, their immediate response without the slightest degree of hesitation is usually, “they could have been [and probably were] wrong”, and, “we simply have to figure out things ourselves as best we can”. And what I find perhaps most intolerable is that I can’t use The Book of Common Prayer to prove things to people either because their immediate response is, “but what does the Bible say?”, followed by, “the Prayer Book must be wrong”, or, “we’re not interested in what the Prayer Book says, only in what the Bible says”… Another question relating to this that I’m not sure how to answer is why our appeal should be to Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers and the Primitive Church, as this is a point I sometimes make but then aren’t sure how to respond when I’m asked why?…
One question worth posing to anyone who says that they trust the Scriptures but not the teaching of the Church is to ask them on what grounds they trust the Scriptures. They may give a vague answer like, I just believe they are God’s Word, which is a nice way of saying they have no basis at all for trusting in them. Or they may point to something like Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But that is simply circular. Saying that we trust Scripture because Scripture says to trust Scripture is a tautology. Besides which, when Paul made that statement in 2 Timothy, most of the New Testament had yet to be written. He was talking about the Old Testament. So why believe that Paul’s letters are anything special? Or the Gospels? Why trust any of it at all?
Why We Should Trust the Bible
The reason to believe in the books of the Old Testament is because Jesus believed in them, quoted from them, and taught from them. After He rose from the dead, the Lord Jesus came to His apostles and taught them to understand how the Scriptures pointed to Him and His work. Prior to that time, though the Old Testament was held to be God’s Word, the people did not understand the great mystery to which it was pointing:
[Jesus] said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)
Jesus teaches His apostles what the Scriptures mean and then He sends them out to be His witnesses to the world. As part of that witness, they began to write letters, histories, and other documents that were meant to let the world know who Jesus is and what He did for us. Local churches in various places revered these words from the apostles because they knew that such words carried the teaching of Jesus. Over time, the Church as a whole authenticated certain writings as being truly apostolic in origin and excluded others as not. This became the New Testament. This is why we should trust it, because the Church authenticated it, because it is apostolic in origin.
My Bible Can Beat Up Your Bible
So we trust the Scriptures because they come from the apostles. If we want to know whether something is a part of the apostolic faith or not, we can look to the Scriptures to guide us. But what happens when both sides in a given argument claim the Scriptures support their point of view? “There are no controversies of faith but what are grounded upon the Scriptures,” wrote the seventeenth century bishop William Beveridge in his Ecclesia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica. Beveridge says that when Christians disagree, they always point to the Scripture to make their case:
The Scripture itself cannot decide the controversy, for the controversy is concerning itself: the parties engaged in the controversy cannot decide it, for either of them thinks his own opinion to be grounded upon Scripture. Now how can this question be decided better or other ways, than by the whole Church’s exposition of the Scripture, which side of the controversy it is for, and which side it is against?
In making the case for the Church’s role in determining controversies, Beveridge turns to Acts 15. There we see the early Church dealing with the controversy of whether or not Gentile converts must be circumcised in order to become Christians. Beveridge points out that the method they employed to decide the question was to gather all the living “apostles and elders (presbyters),” with the apostles taking precedence as those sent and taught by Christ Himself. They invoked the Scriptures, but they also invoked their personal knowledge of Christ (See especially Peter’s speech in verses 7 through 11). In the end, they reached a decision and appointed others to carry that decision to the far reaches of the Church. We trust the decisions of the apostles for the same reason that we trust the Scriptures, because the apostles were taught by Jesus and given the Holy Spirit so that they could protect and hand on the faith. Their successors are who we today call bishops. They have been sealed by the same Holy Spirit and given the same teaching to protect, proclaim, and preserve. The decrees of councils must be received by the whole Church, including the laity, in order to truly be binding. There have been councils led by bishops that have come up with things that have not stuck once they reached the people. Yet bishops are the ones who lead councils and who make the decisions therein because of their apostolic calling.
The Formularies and the Fathers Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate
So the bishops, as the successors of the apostles, are chiefly given the responsibility for deciding controversies of faith, and yet in our own time there are many different Christian leaders who claim for themselves the authority of bishops and who claim to teach nothing but what is contained in Holy Scripture, yet who teach things that differ dramatically from one another. Moreover, there have been competing councils. Christ wants us to be united as one Church, and yet for the moment we are divided, so how are those of us who are not bishops to know whose teaching we can actually trust?
According to Beveridge, “Whatsoever doctrine you find to be clearly propounded, asserted, or suggested, either in our Articles or Common-Prayer Book, you may and ought to rest fully satisfied in your minds that that is the true doctrine of the Apostles, which you ought to continue firm and steadfast in.” He says this because the prayer book and the articles are founded upon the Scripture, not just as one person or one group has read it, but as “the Church of Christ in all ages hath believed to be consonant with [the apostles’] writings.” The standard that Beveridge reaches for here is the same as found in the fourth century maxim of Saint Vincent of Lerins who said that what we ought to believe as the true apostolic doctrine of the Church is that which “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells us that He is building His Church upon the faith of Peter “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If what Jesus said is true then there is a true Church which has endured in every age, even when false churches and pretenders that have crowded up around her. So if the Church we are a part of is the true one, it must be grounded in a teaching from the Scriptures that has consistently existed, going all the way back to the beginning. The Early Church Fathers are our most reliable witnesses then for helping us to know how to truly understand the Scriptures as the apostles taught. The earliest of the Fathers were taught by the apostles themselves. If what we are teaching in our age as being from the Scriptures was unknown to the Fathers or contradicts them, then we contradict Jesus by suggesting that there is somehow a gap between His giving of the apostolic teaching, which He promised that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to protect, and our own more enlightened time.
That does not make the Fathers infallible. They were sinners just like us and they were shaped by their own eras just as we have been shaped by ours. Plus, the Fathers did not always agree with one another. Yet there are a surprising number of things which they agree on quite consistently. These things are not over and above Scripture but flow from it. When we read Scripture with the Fathers, we are far less likely to innovate and far more likely to understand the apostles on their own terms. This is why the bishops of the true Church in every age have looked back to the Fathers to guide their understanding of the Scripture. It is why, as Beveridge says, we can trust in the Anglican formularies, because they not only reflect back to us the teaching of Scripture but the teaching of Scripture as it has been consistently received in the Church throughout the centuries. It is why, when we are trying to discern which Church is true and which is false, we ought to ask which Church the Fathers would be able to recognize as their own. Saint Athanasius may not have worshipped from a Book of Common Prayer, but he would recognize in our liturgy the same faith that he defended against the Arians in the fourth century (who also claimed the Scriptures for their own); the same faith handed on by Peter, James, John, and the other apostles; the same faith which was given by Jesus Himself.