Address given at Forward in Faith/NA Assembly
June 16, 2011
The Authority of the Bible in Anglican Tradition
A few years ago, I was invited to be a guest speaker in the Lenten series of a church on the theme “The Four Cornerstones of the Church.” Their chosen topics were the Holy Scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and Personal Holiness – all very important, worthy subjects for a study series for Lent. As the first speaker, whose topic was the Bible, I began by pointing out that this was much more than simply one of the four cornerstones of the Church – that all three of the others came from the Holy Scriptures and were, in fact, rooted in the teachings of the Bible. The real significance of the Book of Common Prayer is that it is a thoroughly Biblical document. So much of it sounds like the Bible because it is taken from the Bible. The Ten Commandments are, of course, a central part of the Holy Scriptures, and Personal Holiness has as its source and inspiration and vision, the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. The Holy Scriptures are the foundation upon which the other three are built.
The theme of the teachings in this Annual Assembly reminds us that this is what Forward in Faith, North America, is all about. We have sometimes been criticized for being a one-issue organization, and that is true. But the one issue we are most concerned about is not so much the controversy over the ordination of women as it is the authority of the Scriptures. We are committed to the central authority of the Bible as the Word of God. It alone is the basis for all that we teach, believe, preach and practice. Ours is not a man-made religion, nor are we free to revise the doctrines revealed to us by God to be more pleasing to the modern age. Dean Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London once observed, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.”
In the Anglican tradition, the Holy Bible is revered as central to God’s self-revelation to the world. It is the divinely inspired, revealed Word of God, unchanged from the time of the first Apostles. It expresses the unchanging Gospel of the Lord Jesus for ever-changing times – for, though times may change, the Truth does not. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” (Hebrews 13:8) Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, tells us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”(John 14:6) When certain bishops deny these words, they are no longer true guardians and defenders of the faith, unity and discipline of the Church, as held by Anglicans around the world. Those who abandon the teachings of the Bible also abandon the Anglican way. Such innovators are free to start a new church, but do not call it Anglican if it does not abide by the clear standards and teachings revealed in Holy Writ.
While being clear that the Bible is basic and fundamental to all that Forward in Faith stands for, that it is the foundation upon which everything stands, we must hasten to add that our faith is not in the Bible, but in Jesus Christ. We believe the Bible, because it is the Written Word that bears witness to the Incarnate Word. We are saved by our faith in Jesus, not the Scriptures. So while we affirm that Anglicanism rests on a firm Biblical foundation, we confess that Jesus Christ Himself is that one foundation upon which the Church of God is built. As St. Paul reminded the Church in Corinth, “No other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 3:11) Historic, orthodox Anglicanism is built upon nothing less than the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, and everything else rests upon Him. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul states it in a slightly different way: “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:20)
Whenever we speak about the authority of the Bible in the Anglican Tradition, the conversation soon turns to references to Richard Hooker, the famous 16th-century Anglican divine, who is perhaps the most accomplished apologist that Anglicanism has ever had. As an advocate of the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, he opposed the Puritans “who held to the literal following of the Scriptures as an absolute in the sense that whatever was not expressly commanded in Scripture was unlawful.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church on Richard Hooker, page 654) Most of us remember him for the famous image of a three-legged stool, in describing how Anglicans address the issue of authority in the Church, using Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The problem is that in the common misunderstanding of this concept, the three legs are all equal in importance. This is an error and is not how Hooker regarded them. First and foremost there is the authority of the Bible and the clear meaning of the Scriptures. Second there is Tradition, the Spirit-formed Apostolic Tradition of the Church – the Holy Tradition of the Church of the ages – not just the traditional way that we have always done things, but the mind of Christ as understood and applied by the catholic church. And then third, there is Reason, formed and molded by Scripture and Tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit, as we address contemporary issues from the vantage point of what we have received in the faith once delivered to the saints. But, for Hooker, Scripture is always primary. It is the Bible that establishes the norm in theology, ecclesiology, and morality in the Apostolic Tradition.
Modern day revisionists like to add a fourth leg to the stool, which, of course, is Experience. And as we all know, in this line of thinking, contemporary experience trumps everything else. It is our understanding of contemporary experience that determines what is true and right for today’s Church – the kind of thinking that says “that was then and this is now.” We simply have different interpretations of the Bible, they say, and our understanding of the Scriptures must always be open to new insights as we accommodate out of date teachings to our modern day experiences. This is the kind of world view that is rampant in the General Conventions of the Episcopal Church, as you well know. The truth of the matter is that rather than simply having different interpretations of certain key Biblical passages, revisionists reject these teachings, while orthodox believers submit to them. It is the Bible that stands in judgment of our opinions and experiences, not the other way around.
The Articles of Religion are another obvious place we must look to evaluate how classical Anglicans regard Biblical authority. Article VI, for example, states: “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 Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Article XX, speaking of the Authority of the Church, declares: “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” For the Church must “be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ.”
This same emphasis is further underscored in the provisions of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. First adopted by the House of Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America gathered in Chicago in 1886 as a basis for what is “essential to the restoration of unity among the divided branches of Christendom,” it was later adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. Above all else the Quadrilateral affirms “The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as ‘containing all things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” Note that the three additional points in the Quadrilateral are all derived from the Scriptures and are thoroughly Biblical in origin: the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, “as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith”; “the two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself”; and the Historic Episcopate, after the example of Christ and His Apostles.
It is because of this continuing emphasis on the authority of the Holy Bible that candidates for Holy Orders in our Church must solemnly affirm and then sign this Declaration before the Bishop and congregation: “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” Immediately following the laying on of hands at ordinations, the Bishop gives the newly-ordained priest a Bible, as a symbol of the ordinand’s divine authorization and commissioning, saying: “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given you to preach the Word of God and to administer his holy Sacraments. Do not forget the trust committed to you as a priest of the Church of God.” It signifies both the ministry of the Word in preaching and teaching, as well as the sacramental ministry of the ordained clergy.
We must also note, however, that in Anglicanism the Bible is central not only to the ministry and teaching of the clergy, but indeed it is fundamental and central to the life of every baptized member of the Church. Remember that wonderful Prayer Book Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent: “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” To be rooted and grounded in the Scriptures is the calling of all Anglicans, not just the clergy.
Not only do we affirm that the Bible is our ultimate authority in Christian faith and morals, but it is meant to be our daily guide and companion in Christian living. For all Anglicans, daily Bible readings are provided in the Prayer Book lectionary. A Psalm selection, an Old Testament reading, and a new Testament reading are designated for Daily Morning Prayer and again for Daily Evening Prayer, throughout the year. We are fed by this daily diet of God’s Word. We are drawn to the Bible as our daily bread and sustained by it, as God’s Living Word directing our service and discipleship, by divine inspiration. As St. Paul reminds us in II Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” If we neglect daily Scripture, we do so at the peril of our spiritual health and vitality.
It is for this reason that early English reformers sought to have the Bible translated into the language of the people. It was God’s Word to all His Children, not just to the clergy and to the monastics. Efforts to translate the Scriptures into English were motivated by a desire to make the Bible available to common people for reading and study and began as early as the 14th century with the work of John Wycliffe. In 1523, William Tyndale began a translation of the books of the New Testament, and in 1534, the Canterbury Convocation of clergy petitioned King Henry VIII to have the entire Bible translated into English. Miles Coverdale successfully published one the next year, in 1535, and dedicated it to Henry VIII. It is significant to note that his Psalter remained in constant use in the Book of Common Prayer until modern day revisions of the 20th century. Though there were attempts at various other translations over the years, it must be said that the real crowning event in work on an English Bible took place in 1611 with the publication of what was called the Authorized Version, approved by King James I, and therefore known as the King James Version of the Bible (or as some of us may prefer, “The St. James Version.” How does that saying go, “If it was good enough for Jesus then its good enough for me!”) It is this Bible that became the standard, indeed the only known English Bible, for generations, and is now celebrating its 400th anniversary of continuous use. It is a lasting contribution of Anglicanism to the whole English-speaking world.
Like countless others before us, in reading the Bible we discover that it is the Book with the Presence in it, where we meet the Living God in the pages of the Old and New Testaments. God continues to speak to us still today, as He has in every age, as men and women pray and reflect on the Biblical story. It is called the Holy Bible, and it has been revered for centuries. For in these sacred pages, we encounter the Living God, who seeks to enter into relationship with us. It is a book about God, and it is a book about ourselves.
Again and again, the Bible has re-created and re-formed the Church in times of crisis. Again and again, people have heard God speak to them and been brought to faith by Scripture touching them personally. Here as nowhere else, we discover God’s will for our lives and find inspiration and guidance in our earthly pilgrimage. The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to speak to us, to strengthen us, and to guide us. For as Hebrews 4:12 says: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
In a book by Bishop Michael Marshall entitled A Change of Heart, he writes about the power of the Bible to transform and change people’s lives. In quoting Benjamin Jowett, Professor of Greek at Oxford in the 1850s, who said that the Bible should be read like any other book, Marshall says: “The extraordinary thing about the Bible is that if you ‘treat it like any other book,’ you will find that it is not like any other book. It is a living book, a charismatic book, a book of presence and power. Men and women throughout the ages have opened up on the words of this book and met the living Word in a personal encounter which changed their lives.” (p. 128)
He then recalls the famous story of the conversion of St. Antony of Egypt, who upon hearing the Gospel being read in church one day, heard Jesus speaking directly to him, saying: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”(St. Matthew 19:21) And immediately, Antony gave away all his possessions and went out into the desert to live a strict life of asceticism.
In a similar way, St. Augustine of Hippo on a warm summer day in the year 386, heard what sounded like the voice of a child in a nearby garden saying: “tolle, lege – pick it up and read it.” So he picked up a Bible and read from the Epistle to the Romans: “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13-14) Bishop Marshall writes: “Like a flash all his intellectual wrangling and moral ambivalence were behind him. The living Word of God changed his life.” (page 129) He was baptized and became a devoted Christian believer, and later a bishop, theologian, doctor of the church, and saint.
We could go on and on with countless other stories of conversion and coming to faith where the Bible played a key role. You have your story and I have mine. But what they have in common is coming to know God face to face, in the person of Jesus Christ His Son, as the Spirit of God speaks to us by the Word of God, and we are transformed by His love, power and grace. “It is not a magic book or an end in itself,” observes Marshall (page 129); “rather it is a wonderful means of grace, pointing us again and again from the words to the Word with a living word of comfort, strength, challenge and confrontation if only we have ‘ears to hear’ and ‘eyes to see.’” (Matthew 11:15)
Let us conclude with these stirring words of a great Anglican missionary hymn, that speaks to the power of God’s Word in our tradition:
The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker