Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly

Sola Scriptura and the Anglican Way

by The Editors

By the Rev. Gavin Dunbar

12905176HERE IN THE SOUTH a lot of Episcopalians or Anglicans are Christians who came out of a Southern Baptist or Methodist background, and are either carrying that with them (‘conservatives’) or trying to escape it (‘liberals’). The result, it seems to me, is that when discussing authorities for doctrine, such Anglicans/ Episcopalians, both conservative and liberal, often fall into a false dichotomy.

On the one side, there is an uncritical absorption of ideas from “Bible-only” American evangelicalism, as if historic Anglicanism is a “Bible-only” creed.  On the other, there is an uncritical acceptance of the idea that Anglicanism relies on a “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as three equal and independent authorities for determining doctrine. Oddly enough, Richard Hooker is often dragged in as supporter of both schools of thought, though in fact his writings support neither.  The Disciplinarian (“puritan”) churchmen he wrote against were “Bible-only” in their teaching; and like other reformers, he criticized the Roman Catholics for relying on what we might call a “two-legged stool” of Scripture and Tradition.

Hooker’s own position was somewhat more nuanced than our own polarities allow for.[1]  In line with Luther, Calvin, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the consensus of protestant orthodoxy, he accepted the “sufficiency” of Scripture alone, as containing “all things necessary to salvation” (Article 6). This is the position sometimes described as “sola Scriptura”, ‘by Scripture alone’, although the term must be used with some care. Hooker says: “The schools of Rome teach scripture to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know that they may in the next be saved” (Laws 2.8.7). Against this elevation of church tradition as an authority equal to that of Scripture and independent of it, Hooker affirms: “the testimonies of God are true, the testimonies of God are perfect, the testimonies of God are all sufficient unto that end for which they were given.  Therefore accordingly we do receive them, we do not think that in them God hath omitted any thing needful unto his purpose, and left his intent to be accomplished by our devising.  What the Scripture purposeth the same in all points it doth perform” (Laws 2.8.5). On this basis Hooker challenges all teachings that rely upon extra-biblical sources and treat them as authorities equal to Scripture.

But like Luther, Calvin, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Hooker did not take “sola Scriptura” to mean “Bible-only”. Scripture is sufficient to make men “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15), but it is not omni-competent: there are many matters in which scripture does not rule alone, and these areas are not just the non-theological arts and sciences, medicine and law, but also in matters of the church’s own polity, ministry, and liturgy (the principal topics treated in Hooker’s famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity).

Church tradition, church governing structures, and reason have a large place in his scheme as authorities, but as authorities subordinate to that of Scripture. In ascribing a degree of authority to the church, for instance, he was simply following the teaching of Scripture itself, which speaks of “the church of the living God” as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  His position is like that of the Articles of Religion, which cite the three Creeds of Catholic antiquity as authorities which “ought thoroughly to be received and believed” but precisely because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” (Article 7).

This approach to Scripture and tradition is spelled out more fully in the first law of the proposed Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum of 1552. The councils are treated first:

Even though we willingly grant great honor to councils, especially universal ones, nevertheless we judge all of them are to be placed far below the dignity of the canonical Scriptures and we also make an important distinction among the councils themselves.  For some of them such as [the first four], we accept and embrace with great reverence. The same judgment we make concerning many others which were held afterward.  In them we see and confess that the most holy fathers have established, according to divine Scripture, many things in a most important and sometimes holy way concerning the blessed and most high Trinity; Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour; and the human redemption procured through him.  However, we do not consider our faith bound by these except to the extent that they are able to be confirmed by the holy Scriptures. For it is obvious that some councils have sometimes erred and have defined things which are contrary to each other…. (Chapter 14).

Likewise the fathers:

We consider that the authority of the orthodox fathers is in no way to be despised, for much of what they say is outstanding and useful.  However, we do not admit that judgment should be made about the sacred Words on the basis of their opinion.  For the sacred Words should be the rule and the indicator of all human doctrine for us. Even the fathers themselves were reluctant to grant themselves such an honor and frequently warned the reader that he should admit [the father’s] opinions and interpretations only to the extent that he was aware that they agreed with the sacred Words (Chapter 15).

In both cases, the authority of councils and fathers is sharply distinguished from that of Scripture, and also subordinated to it, not abolished or denigrated, but in fact established as a (secondary) authority. Interestingly, it was the Roman Catholic controversialist Cardinal Bellarmine who proposed theological language for this relation of the two authorities: Scripture as norma normans (the norm which sets all norms for the Church), and Tradition as norma normata (the norm which is normed, by Scripture!)

The Church of England’s break with Rome in the sixteenth century Reformation was not a break with that which was held and believed to be true by Christians in all ages, but a cleansing of that tradition from accretions which obscured and distorted the ancient faith. It mattered to Hooker, as to Luther and Calvin, that what they taught was in accord with the faith of the catholic Church, and though not unwilling to criticize church fathers and medieval doctors when they departed from the ancient faith, they did so not to disparage church tradition but precisely because these theologians were important witnesses to the faith taught in Scripture, and important teachers of later ages of the Church. Certainly in sermons and in theological treatises they are continually interacting with the church fathers, and other traditional authorities. These were not merely antiquarian exercises, any more than the Prayer Book’s evocation of ancient liturgies meant that it was an exercise in archaeological reconstruction: but witnesses to an unchanging faith in changing historical circumstances.

At times, the Reformers’ strictures against some traditions of the Church may strike the late modern reader as excessively severe, and no doubt at times they were.  But precisely because they held themselves to the bar of Scripture, as they held the church fathers, we may measure them by the same standard, and offer some correction in point of detail. Very often, however, if you read far enough, they qualify their own severity, at least by implication.  Thus Calvin, like other Reformers, has little good to say about a mainstay of pre-Reformation exegesis, the quadriga, or four-fold sense of Scripture, literal, allegorical, anagogical, and tropological, which Augustine defended.  Yet he can cite with evident approval an allegorical treatment of Genesis 27 by Saint Ambrose (Institutes III.xi.22), as witness to the teaching of justification by faith apart from works.

To conclude: the classically Anglican and Reformed approach to doctrinal authorities is not “Bible-only”, nor is it a two-, three-, or four-legged stool.  None of these templates is true to the thinking of the Reformation. Without critical understanding of how these terms, reason and tradition, were used in the context of the era, Anglicans and Episcopalians will only distort history and theology.

If Anglicans and Episcopalians were more serious about the study of the Bible, the ancient Fathers, medieval and reformation divines, they might recover what is lost. If they were students of philosophy they might see the manner in which the term ‘reason’ has changed over the centuries.  But lacking that it would appear that the ‘three-legged stool’ is as useless a model as “bible-only” biblicism, and often seems to be used merely to discredit an authority with which one disagrees! But whether we are in liberal or conservative jurisdictions, we will not recover theological and spiritual health without opening some old books, and reading them with care.

[1] A useful study is Nigel Atkinson’s Richard Hooker and the Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason (1997).

This article is reprinted from the Anglican Way magazine, Vol 27, No 2.