There will be an opportunity to Gift Aid your donation, and/or to direct your gift to the brothers, or sisters or a particular house, after you have completed the final page on PayPal (PayPal account not required).

Alan Bartlett: Anglicans and the Bible


Anglicans and the Bible

Alan Bartlett

Should Anglicans (Anglican Franciscans) be fundamentalists? Our instinctive answer is ‘No’. Mainly because ‘fundamentalist’ has such negative connotations but also because most Anglicans would never consider themselves to be fundamentalist, not least when it comes to the Bible. But how often do we reflect on why that is the case or what continuing authority the Bible should have for Anglicans?

It is a peculiarly sharp question for those who honour Francis because he was in some ways a fundamentalist. Whilst cautious of book learning, he was immersed in the scriptures and of course the story of his call reveals his fundamentalist obedience to Jesus speaking through a couple of Bible passages. Yet he was not a fundamentalist in our modern sense because this faith in God speaking through scripture was held within a deep if not uncritical faith in God working through the Church. We are at risk of dangerous anachronisms here because Francis’ world, just as Jesus’ world, was so different from ours in terms of knowledge and perspectives. But the question about how we should relate to the Bible is peculiarly pressing for modern Anglicans, not least because the whole concept of a ‘holy book’ has become tainted.

Anglicans believed and believe in the primacy of scripture. Article 6 (of the Thirty-Nine) says that ‘Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation’. If the Bible was all we had, the Reformers believed, it would lead us to Christ and salvation. In that sense Anglicans believe in sola scriptura (the Bible alone). This remains the Anglican position. Both in the Lambeth Quadrilateral and in the Declaration of Assent, the primary authority of scripture is asserted. So in the Declaration of Assent, the faith is ‘revealed’ in scripture whereas it is ‘set forth’ in the Creeds and our formularies only ‘bear witness’ to the Faith.

But Reformation Anglicans were also committed to another Latin tag, which has had profound consequences for Anglican life and theology. The Classic Anglican understanding of biblical authority was generously permissive – anything can be done which is not obviously contrary to Scripture. The opposite view was found in some Reformed perspectives – only that can be done which is explicitly commanded in the Bible. So, for example, some Protestants destroyed their church organs because organs are not mentioned in the Bible. Anglicans didn’t. Rather they believed that in terms of salvation, and the Bible, there were matters which were adiaphora; unspecified or indifferent or optional. How the Church should be ordered, or what the clergy should wear, were two examples found in Richard Hooker, Elizabeth I’s greatest theologian; though we must note that the Elizabethan Church did give clear if not fundamentalist answers to both issues! Reformation Anglicans were already handling scripture within the triangle of Scripture, Reason and Tradition: we read the Bible with our minds fully alert and also guided by the mind of the Church, not least in the discernment of the Canon. But this does not quite answer the question of authority.

Richard Hooker, in his debates with the ‘Puritans’ in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity reflected on the nature of biblical authority. He noticed how much of the Bible was already subject to ‘interpretation’. So, great chunks of the Old Testament, whilst given as ‘the Word of the Lord’, were deemed no longer relevant. The deep question was whether a particular command was temporary or ‘supernatural’, i.e. permanent. And this decision had to be discerned from an overall reading of scripture not just by reading one text. In the midst of the ferocious Reformation disputes, Hooker took his readers back to essentials. The most important sentence in Hooker about Scripture is: ‘The main drift of the whole New Testament is that which St John setteth down as the purpose of his own history: “These things are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is Christ the Son of God, and that in believing ye might have life through his name”.’ (John 20:31)

The purpose of Scripture is to take us to faith in Christ, not to answer all our questions. For that God has given us minds and the Church. In this next quotation, note how central are the beliefs which Hooker believed had been reasoned by the Church from the Bible, not simply given: ‘For our belief in the Trinity, the co-eternity of the Son of God with his Father, the proceeding of the Spirit from the Father and the Son… these with such other principal points, the necessity whereof is by none denied, are notwithstanding in Scripture nowhere to be found by express literal mention, only deduced they are out of Scripture by collection.’ In other words, we are back to the great triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. All three are essential to good hermeneutics.

A modern scholar of Anglican views on Scripture, Greer, sums up the Classic Anglican attitude to the Bible with perfect ‘balance’: ‘What we have is God’s divine law for salvation revealed in scripture and interpreted by our fallible reason. The Church of England [stood] in the middle ground between Rome’s belief in the insufficiency of scripture and the Puritan view of its omnicompetence. Hooker has no wish to supplant an ecclesiastical infallibility with a biblicism that would make our interpretations of scripture infallible.’(Anglican Scripture, p.30) This is why Anglicans are always wrestling with the Bible.

But are we just stuck in debate? No. A little example: we had a gifted Nigerian Anglican priest in College writing a thesis on the ‘household codes’ at the end of the Pauline Epistles. He was especially looking at the teaching about the roles of men and women in marriage and family. He finished his study by telling us that, in his context, if this teaching was adopted it would radically improve the treatment of women. He then asked a wider question about how we were to understand the purpose of these texts? Were they intended to provide a ‘law for all time’ (one of Hooker’s ‘supernatural laws’) or were they, especially in the light of the life and teaching of Jesus, to be seen as contextual and instrumental pieces of teaching by Paul? Their purpose was precisely to improve the treatment of women by men in these Christian communities at that time but that hermeneutically this teaching sat on top of a much bigger biblical trajectory, which was about the flourishing of women (and men) in God; and that trajectory had a much more radical and open-ended agenda. Indeed it has, arguably, only come to fruition with the (ongoing) liberation of women in the last 150 years.

To amend the little bracelet slogan, good Anglican hermeneutics are: ‘WWJDN – what would Jesus do now?’

Further Reading

A. Bartlett A Passionate Balance (DLT 2007).

A. Bartlett Humane Christianity (DLT 2004)

R. Greer Anglican Approaches to Scripture (Herder and Herder 2006).

N.T. Wright Scripture and the Authority of God (SPCK 2005) f

 

page 6 Alan bartlett and parish team with Abp Cant

 

Alan Bartlett is the vicar of St Giles, Durham; P-in-C of Sherburn and Shadforth; and Cranmer Visiting Fellow in Anglicanism at St John’s College, Durham.