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In our introductory blog post in this series, I outlined the most important elements necessary for us to be "Bible Catholics" in the Anglican tradition. Today, I want to discuss the most important of these elements: the Holy Scriptures.
This should by no means be a controversial topic among Anglicans, at least not on the surface. Regardless of churchmanship, regardless of which "stream" we favor, all Anglicans should ultimately look to the bible first and foremost. Indeed, the Scriptures are supposed to hold a place of supreme authority among all Christians, regardless of denomination or tradition. The unfortunate truth, though, is that among much of Anglicanism, especially in North America and Europe, the essentiality of the Scriptures is simply not a top priority. I've often spoken with clergy in some of the more theologically liberal ends of the Anglican Communion who don't know their bibles, don't trust their bibles, and frankly have a lot of silly beliefs about the bible that are more appropriate to characters in a Dan Brown novel than to ministers and preachers in Christ's One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. While some of this is due to poor formation of the clergy (a situation the English Reformers understood all-too-well), much of it is also rooted in philosophical assumptions that treat novelty as superior to antiquity, buying into secular perspectives on morality, ethics, and humanity. In short, rather than being formed by the Scriptures, many in our wider tradition want to shape the bible to fit their agenda. While it is beyond the scope of this blog post to get into details on this lamentable trend, suffice it to say that a return to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority for the Church and for Christians was by far the most important reason that the Anglican Church in North America formed as a province.
The Importance of Scripture
As Christians, we are first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ. In Scripture, we have the most important and reliable witness to Christ's story and teachings. This certainly puts a special emphasis on the four Gospels, as they are the record of Jesus' life and teachings. Most importantly, the Gospels give us an account of Christ's passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, giving us the basis for our belief that he is who he said he is. From there, the Acts of the Apostles give us the record of his followers' deeds and the expansion of his Church. The Epistles record the Apostles' inspired teachings for his followers, as they apply Christ's teachings and life to the issues facing the early Church. In Revelation, we are given a glimpse into the Heavenly Temple, and are shown things that have happened, are happening, and will happen from the point of view of the supernatural.
In all of these texts, through the inspiration of God the Holy Ghost, we are given the most important tools, teachings, and stories for our lives as Christians. When we downplay them, we do so to our peril. Any Christian tradition that does not view the Scriptures with the highest of esteem is bound to go astray. As St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, KJV).
Yes, All of Scripture
"The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral."
- Article VII, Of the Old Testament.
But what about the Old Testament? How does that affect us as Christians? It is interesting to point out that when St. Paul wrote the verse quoted in the previous paragraph, the context specifically refers to the Old Testament, as the New Testament was still being written! This means that the Old Testament Scriptures are just as important when it comes to our formation. In Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, one of the foundational Anglican formularies, we are reminded that we cannot pit the Old Testament and New Testament against each other as if they were contradictory. Even with respect to the Law of Moses, the general principles and moral laws are just as applicable to Christians as they were to the Hebrews, though the specifics of the ceremonial and civil precepts do not apply in the same way as they did before Christ.
We are also reminded by the Article, that both halves of our bibles bear witness to our salvation in Christ. Jesus himself speaks of this in two key passages of the Gospels. When rebuking the Pharisees' self-righteousness, Jesus said, "For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me" (John 5:46, ESV). After the Resurrection, when walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus put the events of Holy Week into a greater perspective: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" Luke 24:27, ESV). From these two passages, we learn that the best way to approach the Scriptures as Christians (and Anglicans) is in a Christological sense, realizing that all of Holy Writ (both Old and New Testaments) is ultimately about Jesus. It is ultimately the story of Our Lord, and we therefore must be trained to see him in the all of Scriptures, even if he sometimes seems hidden.
In his early 5th Century commentary on Isaiah, St. Jerome famously wrote, "Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ." As Christians, our top priorities are knowing Christ and sharing him with a fallen world. We cannot do this without the Scriptures being our ultimate source of authority, doctrine, and identity. Of all the traditions that maintain Apostolic Succession, we Anglicans are the ones who have historically held Scripture in the highest regard. My prayer is that we take up that mantle once again.
In the next installments of this blog series I will explore how the Fathers and Formularies inform our position on Scripture, and discuss some of the issues regarding the Canon of Scripture.