Tract 9 – Anglican Biblical Interpretation

Introduction

My plan is to discuss in order the elements of Anglican Spirituality that I presented in Tracts 7 and 8, beginning with Holy Baptism. However, it occurs to me that to lay a foundation for a discussion of baptism, I should first offer a discussion of Anglican biblical interpretation. Not only is such a discussion necessary as a starting point for understanding an Anglican view of baptism: it will also serve as a foundation for virtually every other aspect of Anglican spirituality.

The Anglican View of Scripture

It’s perilous to articulate an “Anglican” view of anything: everything in church and culture today is “contested.” Despite this possible objection, I am assuming that there is, indeed, an Anglican view of Holy Scripture, even if a significant minority of Anglicans today reject this view.

The abiding Anglican formularies of the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Ordinal are the place to start. The relevant portion of Article VI, “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures,” reads:

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 the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Contained within this statement is the belief, first, that Holy Scripture contains everything necessary to salvation: if it’s not contained in Scripture or can’t be proved by Scripture, it’s not necessary to salvation. Second is the implied belief that if a doctrine or practice is contained in Holy Scripture or may be proved from Scripture and is necessary to salvation, then this doctrine or practice must be believed.

Furthermore, Article VII, “Of the Old Testament,” states that: “both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ.” The Scriptures offer everlasting life to us through Christ. While certain ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament Law are no longer in effect, according to Article VII, “no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

The Articles do not say much more about the Holy Scriptures: they are assumed throughout.

The next Anglican formulary is the Book of Common Prayer. It would be tedious to rehearse all of the references to Holy Scripture in the Daily Office or Holy Communion services: throughout the Anglican liturgies, the Scriptures are assumed to be the inspired and authoritative Word of God, so that the lector can rightly say: “This is the Word of the Lord!”

In “The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” the priest-to-be must answer the following question in the affirmative: “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word?” The priest is then given authority to be a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and is given authority to preach the Word of God. What the priest delivers out of God’s Word, or is agreeable to the same, is to be seen by the people as the means of their salvation.

A similarly high view of Scripture as the Word of God is expressed in the first of the Anglican Homilies, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” wherein we read: “Unto a Christian man there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of holy Scripture; forasmuch as in it is contained God’s true word, setting forth his glory and also man’s duty.”

This high view of Holy Scripture as the inspired and authoritative Word of God was the unbroken belief of the catholic church until the nineteenth century, with the exception of occasional heretical teachers. The rejection of the Scriptures as the binding Word of God is at the root of the formation of both GAFCON and the ACNA as faithful responses to the heretical beliefs and immoral actions of The Episcopal Church and other churches. GAFCON’s “Jerusalem Declaration” states: “We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.”[1] Likewise, the ACNA’s “Theological Statement” reads: “We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.”[2]

The Anglican Ellipse of Interpretation

A high view of Holy Scripture is essential for all Christian belief and behavior, but such a high view is not sufficient in itself to ensure faith and faithfulness. Postmodernity has made us all too aware that the Bible must be interpreted and that the real question is often not which Scriptures do we canonize or what authority do the Scriptures have (as critical as these questions have) but “Who are the authoritative interpreters of Holy Scripture?” Even a heretical Christian group such as the Jehovah’s Witness has essentially the same Bible we have (with the notable exception of John 1:1). Our differences with Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christians stem from our different methods of interpretation, which in turn proceed from who we have chosen to be the authoritative interpreters of Scripture.

In articulating an Anglican view of Scripture, I want to present the case for an “Anglican Ellipse of Interpretation.” Geometrically, an ellipse “is a plane curve surrounding two focal points, such that for all points on the curve, the sum of the two distances to the focal points is a constant.” In other words, an ellipse is drawn around two fixed foci and results in the characteristic elliptical shape around these two foci.

In terms of Anglican biblical interpretation, I believe it’s helpful to think in terms of two primary foci of interpretation, which results in a generous but limited ellipse of interpretation. While the two foci are the most important anchors of Anglican interpretation, everything within the ellipse is fair game.

The two hermeneutical foci of which I am speaking are the patristic consensus and the English Reformation. Granted that each of these foci is, in reality, a rather large focal point not always easy to discern, I still believe that this is most helpful and representative of authentic Anglican biblical interpretation.

Let me begin with the English Reformation. When I cited the Anglican formularies earlier, I was appealing to normative Anglican authorities that are products of the English Reformation. Ever since the English Reformation, Anglicans have employed the Prayer Book, the Articles, the Ordinal (and to a lesser degree, the Homilies) as authoritative interpreters of the meaning of Holy Scripture. While Anglo-Catholics and others may prefer to privilege the Prayer Book and ignore the Articles and some Evangelical and Reformed Anglicans may prefer to privilege the Articles and ignore or diminish the Prayer Book, the truth is that the two work together. They both preceded from the same cultural and religious milieu and largely from the heart and mind of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. These two norms work very differently in terms of how they do theology, but we should begin with the assumption that they are complementary and not antithetical in what they teach.

When I speak of the English Reformation, I have in mind a more expansive definition of that Reformation, believing (along with the academic consensus that has now emerged) that the English Reformation was not limited to the reforms of Cranmer in the 1540s and 1550s but also includes the Elizabethan Settlement, the rise of Puritanism and the Catholic “avant-garde conformity”[3] that arose largely as a reaction to Puritanism, and even the final Restoration settlement after the demise of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. This broader understanding of the English Reformation is crucial to our understanding of the English Reformation and what we should mean by an appeal to it as an authoritative interpreter of Scripture. Rather than relying upon a six-year period of Cranmer’s work and thought, it is more prudent to allow for the dynamic comprehension of the English Reformation that was a process lasting from 1547-1662.

The second focus of Anglican biblical interpretation is the patristic consensus. I have in mind something similar to the Vincentian Canon: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” While this is an ideal that is not always easy to approximate, it is still the noble and laudable goal of all Catholic Christianity. It is a historical, theological, and hermeneutical mistake to separate the theology and hermeneutics of the English Reformation from all that came before. In fact, reformation is only possible if one has some clear notion of a pre-existing standard to govern the reform of the current church. And so it was that Cranmer and the other English Reformers had in mind a restoration of the English Church to a more pure and primitive Christianity, shorn of the accretion of medieval Roman Catholic errors and abuses. The English Reformers make frequent appeals to the Church Fathers and the ancient church: this appeal became more substantial in the hands of the “avant-garde conformists” and Caroline divines.

The Prayer Book, in particular, is our Anglican connection with the patristic, Catholic church, in terms of the three-fold office, the Creeds, the Church year, the lectionary, the sacraments, the liturgy, and the theology incarnated into her liturgies and services. The patristic focus of Anglican interpretation, therefore, includes the following: the three Creeds, the first four (some would say seven) Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the ancient liturgies. This Catholic foundation on which our Anglican formularies are built is what the Caroline divines and avant-garde conformists were trying to reclaim, in contrast to more radical kinds of reformation.

In summary, we need both “eyes” of the Anglican biblical vision: the foci of the English Reformation and the patristic consensus, which together create a focused and three-dimensional biblical interpretation

So much for the two foci of Anglican biblical interpretation. What of the ellipse itself? The ellipse constructed by these two foci results in a generous but limited range of biblical interpretation. By their very nature, Anglicans are potentially the most ecumenical of Christians, a truth that manifests itself in our method of biblical interpretation. Once Anglicans have accepted the inspired and authoritative nature of Scripture, as well as the two interpretive foci of the English Reformation and the patristic consensus, we are free to peruse the treasures of biblical interpretation that reside in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, wherever and whenever she exists. We are free to look at what the Church Fathers have written, but also open to us are the treasures of the medieval Latin church, the Reformation theologians and commentators (and not just those from the English Reformation), as well as modern theologians and commentators. We have liberty to find truth in how not only Anglicans have interpreted the Scriptures but also how our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant brethren have said. This does not mean, of course, that we have no center and that all interpretations are equally valid and authoritative: remember, the ellipse of Anglican biblical interpretation is tethered to the twin foci that create the ellipse. The ellipse is both generous and limited.

An Anglican Hermeneutic Lens

In practice, I want to articulate an Anglican hermeneutic lens by which we can gauge various matters of belief and practice, including such contentious issues as the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the practice of infant baptism, and the ordination of women.

All faithful Christians love their Bibles, so how is it that we come out with such different ideas on doctrines, some of which are very important? The answer lies in hermeneutics, the science and art of interpreting the Scriptures. Once we’ve agreed that the Scriptures are infallible, authoritative, and normative, the question quickly becomes: “But who has the authority to properly interpret the Scriptures?” In most post-Reformation churches, the answer to this question has been: “Every Christian has equal authority to interpret the Scriptures.” Along with this, it’s also commonly assumed (though rarely evaluated) that every Christian is equally trained and equipped to interpret faithfully.

I want to contemplate for a moment a biblical hermeneutic that has helped me many times to see the Bible not only in its original context but also in the context of the early catholic beliefs that have been passed down continuously. It is, I believe, the best way to interpret the Bible. Essentially, we should read the Bible with the entire Church as our best interpreters.

In evaluating ancient manuscripts, we desire the most ancient, the most numerous, and the most widely distributed manuscripts. By this standard, the New Testament is the gold standard since we have an unparalleled number of early manuscripts for the New Testament texts.

We can take this even a step further. The chief argument against keeping an ancient teaching or practice of the Church is that it has not been clearly stated in the New Testament. From the very beginning, we can see that such a hermeneutic tends to divide the Old and New Testaments and immediately dismiss two-thirds of the biblical evidence. A better way of reading what appears to be an argument from silence is to follow the progression of belief and practice in this way.

1. What did God say in the Old Testament?

2. What did God say in the New Testament?

3. What were the relevant beliefs and practices of the early Church in the first several centuries?

4. What did the English Reformers teach and practice (especially in the official formularies)?

5. When did Christians first reject the beliefs and practices of the early Church?

We will see just how powerful such an interpretive lens is in a few tracts from now when I tackle the thorny issue of infant baptism.

For now, I hope that such a biblical hermeneutic will provide a focal point for faithful Anglicans as we walk together in these perilous and contentious times. I pray that with such a hermeneutic, we can remain clearly and authentically Anglican, holding the faith once delivered to the saints where this is reasonably clear and being charitable and generous in matters that are less clear from the consensus of the Church.

  1. Article 2.
  2. Sentence 1.
  3. Peter Lake coined this term to describe the Catholic and anti-Calvinistic movement that included the Caroline divines and others.

 



Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several recent books: Orthodox Anglican Identity, Love Me, Love My Wife, and Take This Cup.


'Tract 9 – Anglican Biblical Interpretation' has 1 comment

  1. November 30, 2020 @ 9:51 am Don Warrington

    “Even a heretical Christian group such as the Jehovah’s Witness has essentially the same Bible we have (with the notable exception of John 1:1).” Depends upon the translation. The Kingdom Interlinear Translation puts it in this way: “In beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward the God, and god was the Word.” This has disappeared, doubtless because they were tired of people using it against their idea. I spend considerable time on this here: https://www.vulcanhammer.org/2013/09/20/my-lord-and-my-god-the-word-was-god/

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