A More Truly Catholic Rule of Faith

Two months ago, Christian Wagner wrote a controversial article in the pages of this publication, titled “A Catholic Anglican Rule of Faith.” Against both a “Reformed option” and an “Evangelical option,” he asserted a “Catholic Anglican option” for a rule of faith. I wish it had been a catholic option, and not an essentially sectarian assemblage of authorities collected from one party, quoting the Reformation divines John Jewel and Martin Chemnitz for ornament while taking Francis J. Hall and Darwell Stone to speak for the whole. Mr. Wagner has since crossed over to Rome, but many others like him have openly wondered about the logical and historical integrity of traditional Anglicanism. If Mr. Wagner’s salvo was his version of John Jewel’s “Challenge Sermon” at St Paul’s Cross, then I write in reply as a Reformed Catholic to say, “To be deep in history is to cease to be an Anglo-Catholic sectarian.”

In speaking of a catholic Anglican option, Mr. Wagner begins reasonably well: he says the rule of faith is the apostolic deposit as a whole, supremely embodied in Scripture, and thus the rule of faith is “Sacred Scripture, as interpreted by the Catholic Church, in the light of Tradition.” Prudently for his case, he quotes a paragraph from Vincent of Lérins, a monk from Gaul who died around AD 445, best known for the maxim, “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Since this “Vincentian canon” is so well known, it is surely to Mr. Wagner’s advantage to quote the same Vincent on the wisdom of placing “the universal decrees and determinations of an ancient General Council” above “the temerity or folly of a few,” and then on matters without such a universal council’s decision to refer to what the ancient fathers “all jointly with one consent, plainly, usually, constantly” – in divers times and places yet within the communion and faith of the one Church – “have holden, written, and taught.” On the way in which we are to read and receive Scripture, Vincent’s is indeed a sound rule of wisdom. What Mr. Wagner would have us understand is that his “Catholic Anglican option” is the standard that Vincent upheld. But the proof falls short of the claim, and Mr. Wagner’s rule falls short of the Vincentian standard.

What the apostles of our Lord received, the apostolic deposit, was the gospel of that same Lord, and no less than his very Holy Spirit sent to dwell within them. The historic teaching of these apostles is multiple times declared in Scripture. One of these places is 1 Corinthians 15.3–8: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” This is why our very creed confesses, as part of the gospel, the existence of the holy Catholick Church and the Communion of Saints as the living evidence and witness on earth of the truth of the gospel. But what neither Scripture reveals, nor the creeds confess, nor the ancient fathers testify, is that there is an apostolic tradition that teaches what Scripture does not. The body of the Christian faith, committed to us, is not “witnessed to by the scriptures and passed down in tradition,” but rather it is the gospel first handed down by the Holy Ghost in the Scriptures and then witnessed to by the fathers in tradition. I do not mean that the Scriptures were first written, and then later on in history the fathers bore witness. What I do mean is that, at all times, God speaks first in the Scriptures, and then man as moved by the Holy Spirit also receives and confesses what the mouth of the Lord has spoken. That is consistently the logical priority as well as the temporal priority through all times and places: whether in the Old Testament or in the New, God speaks, and God causes man to receive his word. That the Church’s historical witness must be heeded as evidence for what Scripture actually teaches, I affirm; that this tradition constitutes a distinct source of spiritual authority, I deny. That is how Thomas Bilson, Lord Bishop of Winchester, following a distinction drawn by Vincent of Lérins, “grounded his use of the Fathers on the difference between their ‘maine consent’ in the rule of faith, and their private opinions ‘in other questions of lesse importance wherein they differ sometimes from each other, sometimes even from themselves.'” The authority of Scripture is intrinsic, and the authority of tradition is derivative.

Even in rites, let alone in doctrine, sola Scriptura is the formal principle of our Reformation. Thus the judicious Anglican divine Richard Hooker, the renowned bane of puritans, says in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5.8.2, “Be it in matter of the one kind [doctrine] or of the other [comeliness, order and decency], what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” In a stroke, Hooker has gathered together the entire counsel of Vincent of Lérins, and more besides. First is not merely Scripture, but rather what Scripture plainly delivers; next to that is whatever any man can conclude of necessity by reason, from the principles of Scripture; third is what the Church rules on either biblical truth or prudent expediency to carry out what Scripture requires. The alternative to this hierarchy of authority is to take some statements of approved doctors of the Church, however many centuries after Christ’s ascension, and to set them up alongside Scripture. It is tendentiously to interpret one quotation from Basil of Cæsarea and take that private interpretation as effectively establishing tradition as an intrinsic spiritual authority parallel to Scripture merely because that quotation says “both of these in relation to true religion,” or to right devotion to God, “have the same force” (ἅπερ ἀμφότερα τὴν αὐτὴν ἰσχὺν ἔχει πρὸς τὴν εὐσέβειαν, On the Holy Spirit, xxvii.66). Does this mean Scripture and tradition are of like importance and intrinsic authority regarding how we are to please God? Earlier in the same work On the Holy Spirit, vii.16, Basil says, “But we are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture.” The universal witness of the Church in practice – what we call tradition – affirms the primacy of Scripture, against a setting up of Scripture and tradition in parallel, by one very simple fact: All of us, Protestants or papists, call canonical Scripture the word of God; none of us, Protestants or papists, dare to give that name to tradition.

Nevertheless, as the Fifth Commandment teaches us, let us be slow to blame our fathers, whether before or after the Reformation. Since tradition is of evidential authority, bearing witness to the truth of what God has written by the hands of first the ancient prophets and then the apostles and their companions, then let us return to tradition about the teaching of Scripture, considering it third in place after what Scripture plainly delivers and what reason can draw out from Scripture as good and necessary consequence. And though the universal teaching of the Church be superior to the teaching of one national church, yet let us not scorn England’s reception of the Christian tradition in favor of a few moderns’ revisionist readings of that tradition.

We might consider the question of images and the authority of a synod called the Seventh Council by its supporters, a synod that pronounces accursed anyone who does not with an outward gesture salute painted representations as standing for the Lord and his saints. It is scarcely to be believed that the Anglo-Catholic bishop Charles Chapman Grafton was a greater scholar of the Church fathers than the English clergy in an age when Joseph Hall said, Stupor mundi clerus britannus (“the British clergy is the wonder of the world”), of such luminaries as Richard Hooker, John Overall, Richard Field, and Thomas Bilson.[1] A well-formed instinct will favor the latter over the former, or at least it will be readier to hear the latter’s judgement than to judge it uncatholic for failing to conform to the opinion of Bishop Grafton. Indeed Grafton himself adduces no earlier date for Western Christendom’s acceptance of the so-called Seventh Council till nearly 500 years after that synod: “At the Council of Lyons, 1274, all were united in accepting the Seven Synods, and as part of Western Christendom the Church in England did so likewise.” Not 100 years later, John Wyclif decried the worship of stock and stone; after another 200 years, the Church of England promulgated the 39 Articles, and the Second Book of Homilies with a homily “Against the Peril of Idolatry” (part 1, part 2, part 3). This is part of the witness of our own tradition, the Anglican tradition, within the Church. The word of another part of the Church is not better than our own; nor is the mere concurrence of Rome and Constantinople (which have erred in so much to this day) of greater authority than the mere concurrence of Baptists and Pentecostals. Rather, the matter must be judged on its own merits, and here we must hear out the renowned learning and wisdom of our own divines. We ought to trust rather than scorn the wisdom and learning of the divines who served the Church of England in an age when they were noted for their piety and learning.

When we hear the Anglican witness through the centuries, against Grafton’s “decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” we have the united consent of the most illustrious Anglican divines until the 19th century, agreeing with the judgment of most of the Latin churches into the high Middle Ages, as late as 1274. The testimony is for four or six, four as defining dogma and sometimes two more working out some implications.

Lancelot Andrewes, successor to Thomas Bilson’s successor as Lord Bishop of Winchester, is well known for his formulation: “One Canon reduced to writing by God Himself, two Testaments, three Creeds, four Councils, five centuries, and the succession of the Fathers in that period – the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after – determine the boundary of our faith.” John Cosin, Lord Bishop of Durham, agrees (“the first four Councils, the first five Centuries”), as does Joseph Hall, Lord Bishop of Norwich (“to the four General Councils, to the concordant judgment of the Fathers for the first six hundred years from Christ”); likewise, the Nonjuror bishops in negotiation for union with the Russians and Greeks resisted being asked to affirm the putative Seventh Council. In the 19th century, Edward Harold Browne, yet another Lord Bishop of Winchester, said in approbation of William Palmer’s work, “It has been shewn, indeed, that the Synod of Nice was not received in the Western Church for five centuries and a half; and it was very long before there was any real recognition of image-worship in the West, except in those Churches immediately influenced by Rome.” Likewise, an alms basin sent by the American church’s General Convention of 1871 to the Church of England bears “the names of the six undisputed General Councils of the ancient Church, whose definitions of the Catholic Faith are accepted by every orthodox branch of the Apostolic Church throughout the world, and always have been”; and to return England’s thanks Christopher Wordsworth, Lord Bishop of Lincoln, wrote a poem in elegiac couplets, including Nomina senarum Synodorum pristina cerno, / Quæ fixam placitis explicuere fidem (“I see the the pristine names of the old Synods, / Which unfolded the faith fixed in rulings”). In 1900, with Canterbury’s approval, John Wordsworth, Lord Bishop of Salisbury, wrote to the Byzantine East that the Church of England did not “consider itself bound by the decrees of the seventh Council (of Nicaea), which were not received, at the time of its meeting, in the Western Church.” Consistently, Anglican divines have recognized four major councils, and two minor; in the times when Christopher Wordsworth wrote on the canon of Scripture, John Davenant on justification, Daniel Waterland on the eucharist, Richard Hooker and Richard Field on the Church, and E. Harold Browne on each of the 39 Articles, never have Anglicans contemplated seven dogmatic councils.

Such has been Anglicans’ understanding of the putative Seventh Council for centuries, longer than that council was accepted in the Latin churches before the Reformation. Such a longstanding consensus should not be taken lightly. The mere fact that talk of seven councils has been en vogue in some circles for about 150 years does not make it mainstream, normative, or true. But Mr. Wagner has favorably quoted Bishop Grafton’s remark about seven councils as a dictum about where the Church’s authority is located. If Mr. Wagner’s standard of catholicity is to disregard the judgement of all Anglican divines before the 1870s, and instead to favor a novelty in the name of universal tradition, then I urge him and all other Anglicans to reconsider the narratives of history that have by one party been peddled and accepted as gospel truth.

So let us judge matters on their own merits, and carefully hear our own fathers, not defer to today’s judgements of Rome and Constantinople. To take a foreign opinion as better and more catholic than the judgement of our own divines, in order to accuse our old divines of being uncatholic, is to beg the question: it is not reason to grant the conclusion in order to prove the conclusion. We have a history, and it is the history of the Church. We need not be dazzled by the shimmer of “history” in Rome and Constantinople, nor taken in by the gaudiness of the competing claims of The One True Church and The Other One True Church. No more are we to seek a Rome of fantasy than we are to seek a Geneva of fantasy, because we have a living Christ of reality.

Shall we lose our nerve because our churches are assailed by the unlawful ordination of women and the toleration of sodomitical “sexual minority” identities? The Church is here, the same as the Church born of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost, the Church whose witness was sealed by the blood of Christ’s apostles, the Church whose witness of the gospel continues today as we partake of the blood of Christ, taking that blood from a chalice and having that same blood spilled in our own bodies. Our partaking of the one true Church is not to be judged according to our conformity to one Rome or the other Rome; rather, it is to be judged by our conformity to that thing which Christ’s blood sealed once for all, and to which Christ’s blood seals us today. Let us not cringe before the extravagance of popery, but bear witness to the glory of Christ already dwelling in us, a glory that has not ceased to shine ever since a wind blew and tongues of fire appeared upon the heads of the disciples and opened their lips in the tongues of every nation under heaven, to bear witness not to the meretricious claims of a “universal bishop” but to the grace of the one whom Gregory the Great confessed against such claims:[2] Jesus Christ, incarnate and born; Jesus Christ, slain and risen; Jesus Christ, ascended bodily to heaven and ruling by his Holy Spirit who speaks in Scripture to save and to judge. The desire of all nations is here: do not deny him here to seek him in another nation, but maintain steadfastly the confession of the one whom you have seen and eaten and drunk, till this world’s history comes to its end in him, to the glory of God the Father.


  1. What Joseph Hall says is, “Tot doctos theologos, tot disertos concionatores, frustrà uspiam alibi hodie sub cœlo quaesieris. Quìd memorem magna illa Ecclesiæ lumina, jam nuper occidua; Juellos, Bilsonios, Greenamios, Babingtonios, Eedios, Hollandos, Playferos, Abbotios, Perkinsios, Fieldios, Hookerios, Overalios, Willettos, Whitos, Massonios?”
  2. “I say it without the least hesitation, whoever calls himself the universal bishop, or desires this title, is, by his pride, the precursor of Antichrist, because he thus attempts to raise himself above the others. The error into which he falls springs from pride equal to that of Antichrist; for as that Wicked One wished to be regarded as exalted above other men, like a god, so likewise whoever would be called sole bishop exalteth himself above others.”


Lue-Yee Tsang

Lue-Yee Tsang studied theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and also writes at Cogito, Credo, Petam. A second-generation Chinese exile in America, he is interested in working with Chinese and non-Chinese Christians to equip the Church in China for domestic and world mission by providing it with important patristic, mediæval scholastic, and early Protestant works.

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