One of my favorite bloggers, an evangelical theologian from New Zealand named Dr. Glenn Peoples, recently left (or so I gather) a non-liturgical Reformed church in order to become an Anglican. Is this, as some critics have wondered, a step toward “crossing the Tiber” to Roman Catholicism?
No, he says emphatically. And surely one doctrine that would prevent him from doing so more than any other is Rome’s view of the authority of scripture. He highlights this and other important distinctions between Anglican and Catholic theology and doctrine in this blog post, using the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as his guide.
Methodism, as you may know, is steeped in Anglican theology. In fact, our movement’s founder, John Wesley, adopted, with little revision, 25 of the Church of England’s 39 articles for the independent American church after the Revolutionary War. (Among those articles excluded are those that pertain to the monarchy and British politics.) But Wesley himself lived and died happily Anglican, and his reluctant endorsement of the American Methodist church was a concession to life in post-war America.
In this blog post, I want to highlight what Peoples writes about Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles (which is Article V of the Methodist Church):
The 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.
This article goes on to affirm the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible.
I like what Peoples writes because, however briefly, he demonstrates that the Roman Catholic Church’s dual-authority model (in which scripture and church tradition are of equal weight) represents a later innovation.
The Anglican affirmation that the Scripture stands alone, without peer in authority and is sufficient for instruction in the faith, was no novelty. Instead it was the perpetuation of an ancient school of Christian thought. Many theologians (bishops, in fact) among the Church Fathers have expressed the same conviction. Basil the Great held that in principle all instruction for a righteous life could be derived from Scripture and the help of the Holy Spirit:
Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.2
Of course, Basil did offer his assistance even in telling people that in principle Scripture and the Spirit supplied all that we strictly need. Like Anglicans, Basil had a great love of tradition, but only where he believed that the tradition was derived from the Apostolic tradition that we find preserved in Scripture. Speaking of the Trinity, he says: “But we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you.”
Anglicans cannot accept a doctrine only on the grounds that it is taught by the Church. Instead they say with Gregory of Nyssa:
We are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.4
Anglicans agree with Augustine that “among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life.”
“We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet.”
Gregory of Nyssa
This ancient Christian way of thinking about authority and doctrine finds clear expression within the Anglican Church, setting it apart from the Catholic view in which the Church has the authority to infallibly declare doctrine as binding on the Church, even when it is not expressed in Scripture. Article 20 expresses the contrary Anglican view of Church Authority: “although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.” The Church has no authority either to decree anything against Scripture, nor does it have the authority to enforce anything as necessary when Scripture does not teach it.