The doctrine which is most central to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is the final authority of Holy Scripture for faith and conduct. Upon the teaching and content of the Scriptures, the English Reformers attempted to rebuild the Church of God and renew the way of Salvation in their land.
However, in terms of method, let us note that, only after declaring the common, received Faith of the Church, in God the Holy Trinity and the One Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate Son of the Father, do The Thirty-Nine Articles turn to the describe the Bible. This is because, to put it formally, the Order of Reality (that which truly is) comes before the Order of Knowledge (how and where we find the One who truly is, the Reality).
Article VI is entitled, “Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation.” Here we read this declaration:
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 to be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.So, why is Scripture authoritative? Because of its unique message which is centered upon Jesus the Christ and declares the gift to mankind of everlasting life through, in and with him.
Holy Scripture contains all things – the information, ways and means – that are necessary for eternal salvation; that is, of bringing sinful men living in an evil age into the full redemption and glory of the kingdom of God of the age to come, through, in and with Jesus Christ the only Savior. This unique information is found absolutely nowhere else. And, very importantly, the authority of this message in the words that it is provided is objectively true without any reference to methods of interpretation. God has given to the world a means, a way, and an order of knowledge concerning his relation to us as the Savior and Redeemer. This order of knowledge, this way whereby we may know what he is saying and giving to us, is the Holy Scripture, nothing less and nothing more. It is the Bible, first of all in its original languages, and, secondly, in faithful translation into the vernacular. This is why one of the first acts of reformation in the Church of England was placing a large English Bible in every parish church of the land.
Since the Holy Scripture is the unique order of knowledge, a major discipline of the Anglican Way is to read the Bible prayerfully and meditatively daily in order to know and receive the fullness of the message of salvation. Public hearing of the reading of Scripture is a means of grace from God. There is no sermon appointed for the Daily Offices but only in “The Order for Holy Communion” on the Lord’s Day and high festivals by The Book of Common Prayer. Thus by each and by all the basic way to salvation (which includes living by faith in faithfulness and love) may be known through the daily hearing and/or reading of the Bible. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the Homily on Reading Scripture, written by Archbishop Cranmer, and found in the First Book of Homilies, with the title, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture.”
In The Ordinal this question is asked of the candidates for ordination to the presbyterate:
Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? Are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scriptures?Having answered in the affirmative, the candidates also promise “with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word,” and “to frame” his own life and that of his family, by the same Word of God written. Immediately after ordination he is given a Bible and told to “Take authority to preach the Word of God…”
But where does the authority of the Creeds, which are received as true in worship, lie? In Scripture, or alongside it, in “Tradition?”
In Article VIII “Of the Three Creeds”, the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian are named and then it is stated “they ought thoroughly to be received and believed.” But Why so? – “for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” That is, the Church in her continual reading of and meditating upon the Bible over the centuries has found that the basic dogmas of the Trinity and the Person of Christ stated in these Creeds are faithful elucidations and statements of the Faith that is presented dynamically and in the common sense mode in the content of the texts of the books of the Bible. Thus, these teachings become helpful, in turn, in the continual reading of the Scriptures, for they supply to the faithful a kind of structured mindset through which the message of eternal salvation in the Bible becomes the clearer in the daily reading thereof.
In Article XX, “Of the Authority of the Church”, there is a clear rule of interpretation of the Bible provided:
The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it is 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 anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.Here it is assumed that it is not the solitary individual but the Church, through her ordered persons and means, which interprets the Bible in terms of creating doctrine and morals. Further, the basic unity of the whole canon of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is assumed here as a given, on the basis that its single Author is God himself. Thus, because of this unity, there will not be teaching in one place that contradicts teaching in another place; rather, differences will be complementary aspects of truth, or insights into truth, within the historical relation of God to his people in the old and then the new covenants of grace. Also the Church is seen as the guardian of the Scriptures, preserving them intact in space and time, with the duty before God of requiring as sound doctrine and morals only that which is clearly present and taught within Holy Scripture.
The Church “is not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation,” which is not clearly taught in the sacred Scriptures. This is why Article XXI declares that:
General Councils may err, and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.
Obviously the Church of England did not think that the first four Ecumenical Councils erred in things pertaining unto God, for within the first five Articles of Religion it declared the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ set forth in the decrees of these Councils and also used in public worship the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, derived from these Councils.
Further, no orthodox Anglican divine of repute has declared that the fifth and sixth Ecumenical Councils at Constantinople actually erred, for their teaching is basically a filling out of the principles of Christology from the Declaration of the fourth Council (Chalcedon 451).
However, there has been a welcome by only a few Anglican divines for the Decree of the Seventh Council (Nicaea II, 787); this is because it presupposes the lawfulness of the invocation of the saints and the BVM, and then also both declares the rightness of the veneration of icons and also sets this devotion as within the way of salvation. Of this Council, many have said and do say, “it [probably] erred in things pertaining unto God.”
The classic Anglican position has been and remains,
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 to be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.This is why it has never officially embraced doctrines, dogma and forms of worship based on unwritten and written traditions and set forth from such by the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon August 10, 2006