See the "blog series" section on the sidebar of our blog main page to read all the posts in our Classical Anglicanism series
In our first post in the Classical Anglicanism series, we discussed essential elements needed to be "Bible Catholics" in the English tradition. In our second post, we discussed the importance of the primacy of Scripture and how a Christological approach to the Scriptures can help us in our Catholicity. In today's post, we will look at how the Anglican Formularies and Church Fathers can help inform our position on Scripture, and the way that Classical Anglicanism approaches the Canon of Scripture.
Scripture in the Anglican Formularies
Holy Scripture contains 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.
- Article VI: Of the Sufficiency of Holy Scriptures for Salvation
Perhaps the clearest statement of the classical Anglican approach to Scripture is the above quotation from beginning of Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Here we find a high view of Scripture that places it above any human entity, even above the Church itself with respect to matters of Salvation and with respect to matters of faith and morals. Nothing can be considered a de fide issue that is not either explicitly found in Scripture or may be explicitly proven from scripture. That is, all of the "must believe" issues in the Faith come directly from the Scriptures. An example of a de fide issue that is explicitly stated in Scripture is the Virgin Birth. An example of a de fide issue that is proven from Scripture is God's Trinitarian nature.
This does not mean that the Church has no authority or that the Scriptures are the only authority for Anglican Christians. Rather, it means that the Scriptures are the supreme authority that trump all other authorities. That is, the buck stops with the Holy Scriptures. Indeed, there have been times with the Church has erred, even in important matters of faith (see Article XIX). The Church's legitimate authority with respect to rites and ceremonies, and over controversies in the faith does not permit it to ever contradict the Scriptures, act against the Scriptures, or enforce as necessary for Salvation any beliefs not found in the Scriptures (see Article XX).
Support from the Fathers
This high view of Scripture without abandoning a high view of the Church is consistent with the Church Fathers' views. Consider, for example, the following statements from St. Cyril of Jerusalem's 4th-Century Catechetical Lectures:
For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures (4:17).
But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. . . . For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. . . . Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them on the table of your heart (5:12).
In these passages, we see again that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority, and that the de fide teaching of the Church must be based on them. The traditions of the Church are indeed authoritative, but only insofar as they are Scripturally sound. While there are certainly Fathers who promote an even higher view of tradition than that of St. Cyril, the consensus of the Fathers is that the Scriptures have primacy over all Church tradition.
The Canon of Scripture
In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church. . . . And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine. . .
- Article IV: Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation
As I wrote in more detail in another post, one area in which the Fathers never achieved full consensus was the status of the books that are known variously as the Old Testament Apocrypha or the Deuterocanonical Books. These books were found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (which was widely used by both Christians and Jews in the Apostolic time), but were not found in the Hebrew Bible. Some of the Fathers, such as St. Jerome (called "Hierome" in the quote above) and St. Cyril considered the Apocrypha to be outside the Canon. Others, such as St. Augustine of Hippo, accepted the entire Septuagint as the Old Testament. Some of the Fathers who accepted the Apocrypha/Dueterocanonicals as canon considered them to be of the least authority among the canonical books. This became the general position of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some of the Fathers made no distinction at all between the Dueterocanoncial books and the books found only in the Hebrew Bible. This has been the official position of the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Trent.
Generally, even among early Christians and Church Fathers who did not consider the Apocrypha to be canonical, selections of it were used in worship, whether as source material for hymns and Canticles, in sermon illustrations, or even as edifying public readings. That is, they were considered outside the canon, but only just; they could be used in the Church for edification and worship, but not for stand-alone doctrine. This is the classical position of Anglicanism, official since the time of the Reformation, a position shared by the Continental Reformers (e.g. Luther and Calvin).
Ultimately, as the Undivided Church never achieved consensus on whether or not the Apocrypha was genuinely part of the Old Testament Canon or not, the post-Reformation Anglican position is consistent with the witness of the Undivided Church, even if it is different from some of the other Christian Traditions who maintain a similar connection to the Ancient Church and Apostolic Succession. We need not depart from our Formularies, nor do we need to bow to the pressure to conform to the Roman or Eastern positions, as the accusation that we removed books from the bible is simply not true. Similarly, the common accusation that Rome and the East added books to the bible is also not true. Rather, the various branches of the Church only reached consensus on the Old Testament Canon after they had gone their separate ways. That said, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics (as well as many Lutherans and some Calvinists) all use these books in our public worship. The practical difference comes down to whether or not we use them to establish doctrine. While this is not an insignificant difference (and I am convinced by historical and Scriptural evidence that the classical Anglican position is better), it should allow us to approach each other with more charity than historical (and often current) polemics have suggested.
In the next installment of our Classical Anglicanism series, we will begin discussing the classical Book(s) of Common Prayer and their necessity for Bible Catholics in the Anglican tradition.