Anglicanism and “Sola Scriptura”
On this page, I am posting excerpts from previous posts, mostly from 2004, on sola scriptura and Anglicanism. Hopefully this will be a helpful resource as this issue comes up a good bit.
From April 2, 2004: Sola Scriptura vs. solo Scriptura
There is another new Anglican blog, Pontifications, which I think is worthwhile reading; I will be adding a link to the Pontificator shortly. But he has a post titled No More Bible Reading! where he discussed sola Scriptura:
After the historical meaning is determined, to the extent that such determination is possible, the Christian interpreter must still take the further step of determining its canonical or Scriptural meaning. This meaning, or meanings, can only be discerned by a community that has been reborn in the Spirit and discipled in the practices of charity, self-denial, repentance, prayer, confession, and Eucharist.
This is why the Protestant principle of sola scriptura is inherently unworkable. It divorces the Bible from the only community that is capable of interpreting it as the Bible.
I would like to suggest that perhaps these comments would apply better to the concept of solo scriptura. There is a book on this very concept, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, which is by Dr. Keith A. Mathison and published by Canon Press.
Dr. Mathison does a superb job of documenting that the true doctrine of sola scriptura is the one that was held by the undivided Church of the first three centuries and upheld by the magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin. That is, sola scriptura is the assertion that Scripture is the final authority in doctrine, and that believers should heed the creeds and confessions of the Church in interpreting Scripture. He shows that the version of the doctrine held by today’s evangelicals is actually “solo scriptura” where one does not have to consider the statements of the Church (such as the Nicene Creed) in formulating their beliefs. Evangelicals today all too often “re-invent the wheel” at best, and fall into heresy at worst, when they disregard the teachings of the historic Church as expressed in its Creeds and confessions. This is also the version of “sola scriptura” often criticized by Roman Catholic writers–and it is indeed an easy target. But true, historic sola scriptura is far more easily defended.
On the other hand, Dr. Mathison also states that Roman Catholicism has forsaken the true tradition of the church, which he shows to be “sola scriptura”, for its own tradition of the infallible magisterium of today, where Rome’s doctrine is whatever Rome currently teaches, and by its own internal, self-authenticating definition it is the Tradition of the Church. Dr. Mathison shows that this definition of Tradition, in conjunction with Cardinal Newman’s theory of doctrinal development, means that Rome now seemingly does not have to be consistent with Scripture or tradition, even its own pronouncements. (A good example of this is the change from “there is no salvation outside the church” expressed by a Pope in the Middle Ages, to what is seemingly a universalist attitude held by Vatican II.)
My thinking is that Mathison’s position on Rome could apply equally as well to ECUSA’s treatment of Scripture, for there we have not only bishops and others re-interpreting Scripture, we have them simply discarding Scripture based to some extent on their perceived authority as shepherds of the Church. A strong and correct view of sola scriptura would go a long way towards correcting this major problem in Anglicanism today.
But don’t take my word for it–read Dr. Mathison’s book!
From August 19, 2004: There has been quite a bit of discussion in the Anglican blogosphere recently about the concept of sola scriptura. To my thinking much of the criticism of this is actually directed at the idea of solo scriptura, which is not quite the same thing. Be that as it may, James Kiefer has written A Defense of “Sola Scriptura” from an Anglican perspective. The reader may find this to be quite well-done and informative; I really liked it as being true to the historic Anglican position as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles.
From August 24, 2004: Thoughts about the Anglican view of Scripture
As I have indicated in the past, I do not see “sola scriptura” as being something to be avoided, and it is my belief that the concept we sometimes see being denounced as “sola scriptura” is actually “solo scriptura”, where believers are expected to read the Bible and form their beliefs without really considering, perhaps, what their fellow believers in ages past had held as the Truth. The true expression of sola scriptura does consider the traditions of the Church in doctrinal formulations; Keith A. Mathison has explored the difference between solo and sola scriptura in his excellent work, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. An evaluation of solo scriptura can be read in this excerpt from his book, which is Chapter 8, A Critique of the Evangelical Doctrine of Solo Scriptura.
The above being said, I have to say that in reading Hooker, one does not find the concept of sola scriptura clearly stated. The Bishop of Woolwich, Colin Buchanan, in his Is the Church of England Biblical?, states that the Anglican view of Scripture might best be called “suprema scriptura.” I would say that this expression is one with which Hooker could well have agreed. Bishop Buchanan writes:
In the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), Article VIII states: “The Three Creeds…ought thoroughly to be received and believed, for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” This is a crucial test-case, for the creeds have often come near to claiming an independent, indeed autonomous, life of their own (two of them, for example, form a side of the “Lambeth Quadrilateral,” i.e. as a second side quite apart from the side represented by Scripture; but here in the Articles all other distinctive claims of theirs are set aside–the Church of England does not receive the Creeds simply as coming from General Councils; she does not receive them according to the “Vincentian Canon” as having been believed everywhere, always and by all people; she does not receive them as a valuable ingredient in the inherited riches of the traditions of the Western Church. These attributes and buttressings of the creeds are no doubt of great interest, but the Church of England cuts through all those possible qualifications–the authority for receiving the creeds is that to us they encapsulate the teaching of holy Scripture.
The Reformation formularies spell out this supremacy of Scripture in dozens of ways, but the ordination services are a key example. From 1550 on the intending deacons were asked, “Do you unfeignedly believe all the Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament?” And the intending presbyters and bishops were asked: “Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?” Instances could be multiplied, but these are sufficient for the moment to indicate that the secondary formularies of faith of the independent reformed Church of England in the sixteenth century pointed to a primary formulary in the text of Scripture and entrenched the actual life of the church within the reading of that Scripture…(emphasis in bold is mine–Will)
The greatest threat to Anglicanism today truly is the loss of confidence and trust in the authority of Scripture. I believe that if we strive to return to the view of Scripture as expressed by Bishop Buchanan and, much earlier, by Cranmer, Hooker and their contemporaries, Anglicanism can indeed be restored to health.
From August 25, 2004: Additional thoughts on the use of Scripture from Bishop Buchanan
In my previous post, I quoted from Bishop Colin Buchanan’s Is the Church of England Biblical?. Bishop Buchanan has some additional thoughts about the study and use of Scripture in the life of the Church, which I have found to be worthy of thought:
Whatever the temptation to declare Scripture perspicuous at sight–for that would cut so many corners and deliver a simple and credible doctrine to us ready-made–it cannot quite be done. So we have to affirm some simple qualifiers or provisos, preferably ones with some transparency or self-authenticating validity. The simplest form I can conceive for these now follows:
1 Scripture yields its meaning to persistent study;
2 All Scripture has more to teach as generations pore over it;
3 No Scripture will yield its truth in the face of a simple evasion of the need to discover its original meaning (ideally in the original language) in its original setting for its original addressees;
4 No Scripture will be truly comprehensible if we overlook its literary genre;
5 No Scripture will help us if we are blind to the limitations of our own generation and to the blinkers with which we are likely to read the text;
6 No Scripture will help us if we do not attempt to relate it to other Scripture so that a consistent whole may be found;
7 No Scripture will help us if we insist on grappling with it as an individualistic task without reference to what others have done with the text in the past and are doing around us at the moment;
8 No Scripture will help us if we are determined not to act on its teaching once discovered;
9 No Scripture will help us if we do not hold to some provisionality in our understanding of it, pending some further light as may affect our understanding.
These are admittedly fearsome warnings with which to hedge the revelation of God: but one can see them at work in the doctrinal debates of the fourth and fifth centuries about the nature of the Trinity, and they led then to a virtual consensus which was not so much imposed by hierarchical authority but rather was expressive of a growingly common mind about the teaching of Scripture. It is safer and truer (and a hundred times more helpful) to affirm the principle of transparency in Scripture, however qualified by the procedural warnings set out above, than it is for one moment to concede that the Bible is a priviledged book in a special code to which only certain categories of people have access.
The warnings are needed–but they are qualifiers to the general principle: that Scripture was written to be read and understood within the life of the people of God. Thus we can still at root even assert the controverted principle of “private judgment”–if we mean that Scripture is to make its own impact upon its readers, without that meaning being precluded, coloured or warped in advance by imposed hierarchical interpretations or by equally tyrannical rationalistic presuppositions. Interestingly, there are strong hints of that actual force of Scripture (i.e. in providing the umediated truth of God) in the latter part of the question to candidates for the presbyterate and episcopate: “And are you determined…to teach nothing, as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?”
The overt sixteenth-century Anglican presuppositions here are threefold:
1 Scripture has a discoverable and trustworthy meaning;
2 the individual minister at least has to let that meaning impose itself upon him;
3 that meaning has to be taught to the lay people.
It has to be confessed that the Reformers held to a very strong distinction between the ministers who were to teach the faith, and the laity who were to receive the teaching. Nevertheless, there exist under the overt presuppositions three less overt ones:
1 lay people have open Bibles;
2 they too have to be “persuaded” that any particular teaching is Scriptural;
3 they may therefore in principle challenge the exegesis of any teacher (though they were usually liable to be in trouble if they tried this in some Tudor or Stuart reigns.)
As I see it, these principles affirm the responsibility of the clergy to teach doctrine in accordance with Scripture, and the responsibility of the laity to study for themselves so that they may discern when and if they are being led astray by their shepherds.
From August 26, 2004: Dr. J.I. Packer on “A Stunted Ecclesiology?”
Thanks to Touchstone’s archives, Dr. J.I. Packer’s essay A Stunted Ecclesiology? is available online. Dr. Packer shares his thoughts with us about both the “churchliness”, as he puts it, and the weaknesses of evangelicalism. I found his comments about the evangelical view of tradition to be of interest in view of some of the discussions we have seen in the Anglican blogosphere recently:
Evangelicals do not regard tradition, or any part of it, as infallible, any more than they view present-day expositions of Scripture from pulpits, platforms, and podiums, and in printed pages, as in any way infallible. Their goal is canonical interpretation, that is, understanding reached by letting the corpus of canonical writings elucidate itself from within, as the various books link up with and throw light on each other. Evangelicals know that the Bible, thus canonically interpreted, must itself be the assessor of all attempts to expound and apply it. So, as the eighth of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles says, even “the Three Creeds” (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) “ought thoroughly to be received and believed,” not simply because the church commends them, but because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”
Evangelicals value tradition, then, as a repository of God-given insight—that is, of ripe skill in listening to what the Bible says and verbally reproducing it in ways that transcend the limitations and relativities of particular cultural backgrounds. Thus, evangelicals value Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology and Augustine’s analysis of sin and grace, all of which were wrought out in the Greco-Roman intellectual world, and they value also the Reformers’ Christocentric bibliology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, which were wrought out in the intellectual world of Europe’s Renaissance. The evidence for that is the long series of theological treatises and textbooks affirming the general Reformational point of view that have been written during the past half-millennium; though coming from a wide variety of geographical and denominational sources, they are extraordinarily similar in substance on all of these basic themes.
What Dr. Packer writes here about an evangelical view of tradition would fit in well with what Keith Mathison calls “Tradition I” or true sola scriptura–and what the Rt. Rev. Colin Buchanan would call suprema scriptura. Of interest also is Dr. Packer’s listing of five “stunting elements” in evangelicalism; it would be advantageous to Anglicans to consider these and work to correct any of these flaws in our churches.
From August 27, 2004: Article XX and “private judgment”
One of the texts I use in studying the Articles of Religion is one by Edgar C. S. Gibson, Bishop of Gloucester 1905-1922, and titled The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. (It was first published in 1896, and my edition was published in 1912.) It is quite interesting reading as it gives some insight into the mind of the Anglican Church before 1930.
Particularly interesting, to me, are some comments the Bishop makes about Article XX, specifically the portion that states the Church may not so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another, and Besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation. Bishop Gibson writes:
These limitations follow naturally from the position claimed for Holy Scripture in Article VI, and would seem to require no further comment or illustration here.
But there are difficult questions which it is possible to raise concerning the exercise of the authority thus limited, which it may be well briefly to consider. Who is to decide whether the Church has exceeded the power thus conceded to her? And what is to be done if it should appear that as a matter of fact she has exceeded them? On these points the Article is silent. They raise the whole subject of the relation of Church authority to private judgment. Obviously there is no other body or society on earth with the right of reviewing the judgments of the Church and pronouncing upon them. But still the case may occur when it appears to some individuals, perhaps to a very few, that the judgment of the Church is wrong. To say that it is an impossibilty that God would allow His Church thus to err, is to be untrue to the whole teaching of history. There was a time when “the world groaned and found itself Arian,” and when Athanasius stood contra mundum; and what has occurred once may occur again. With our eyes, then, open to the teaching of history, we cannot insist that a man must bow to the judgment of the Church. He is not called on to accept as truth that which his deliberate conviction tells him is false. While he will rightly and naturally give the greatest weight to the judgment thus expressed, feeling that it is far more probable that he should be mistaken than that the whole Church should be wrong, yet in the last resort he himself must be the judge. He must be true to his conscientous and candid convictions. The right of private judgment is inalienable. He cannot divest himself of it.
This ties in, I think, with the concept of suprema scriptura in that we have a responsibility to study the Scriptures for ourselves, as did the Bereans of Acts 17, to verify the doctrines we are taught.
From August 28, 2004: Article VI, Scripture and Tradition
Another textbook on the Articles of Religion that I have found useful is An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England, by the Rev. G.F. MacLear, D.D., and the Rev. W.W. Williams, M.A., which was published in 1896. The Rev. MacLear was Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, and honorary Canon of Canterbury, while the Rev. Williams was a Fellow at St. Augustine’s College.
About Article VI, they have some perceptive comments, I think, that relate to the issue of sola scriptura (or suprema scriptura) that we have been considering:
…As long as the Twelve Apostles were living, they were themselves abiding witnesses to the facts which they preached. But when the time came for them to be scattered throughout the world, or to depart from this earthly scene, it became a matter of the highest importance that authoritative records should be put forth by those who had exceptional knowledge of the events they described, to supply the place of the oral teaching then in use. Thus the five historical Books of the New Testament came to be written, and twenty-one Epistles, and one Book of Prophecy, were put forth from time to time as the special circumstances and requirements of different Churches called for them.
Claim of the Apostles. But though the writings of the New Testament came into existence under these conditions, the writers, instead of appealing to any other independent and coordinate authority, make the same claim for what they wrote, as they do for the Scriptures of the Old Testament. This we say to you by the word of the Lord, S. Paul writes to the Thessalonians (I Thess. iv. 15). Which things also we speak, he says to the Corinthians, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth (I Cor. ii. 13). The things which I write unto you, he says again, they are the commandments of the Lord (I Cor. xiv. 37). Once more, writing to the Galatians, he says, I make known unto you, brethren, as touching the Gospel, which was preached by me, that it is not after man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. i. 11, 12). The Apostle nowhere appeals to any oral teaching besides his own as of coordinate authority with his. He speaks as one conscious that he is under the guidance and suggestion of the Holy Spirit, as much as the writers of the Old Testament.
In my next post, I will continue with the thoughts of MacLear and Williams on Tradition, which continues further in their chapter on Article VI.
From August 29, 2004: Further on Article VI from MacLear and Williams, regarding Tradition
Continuing from the previous post, here are some of the thoughts of MacLear and Williams on Tradition, from Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England:
Tradition.Thus without laying down any theory of Inspiration, the Church of England declares that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” The Roman Church, on the other hand, holds that there is an unwritten word of God, or tradition, which is of equal value or authority with the written Word. The Council of Trent declares that “the truth of the Christian Revelation is contained in the written Word and the unwritten Tradition, and that the Council receives and venerates with an equal feeling of reverence and piety all the Books of the Old and New Testaments…and also the traditions relating as well to faith as to morals, as having been, either from the mouth of Christ himself, or the dictation of the Holy Ghost, preserved by continuous succession in the Catholic Church.” This teaching makes tradition an authority independent of Holy Scripture, so that Scripture is not the sole source of Catholic truth, and it holds that an Article of the Faith may rest on Church teaching alone, as a sufficient basis in itself. But this is a departure from the primitive conception of the authority of Scripture. For on turning to
The Testimony of the Fathers, we find
(a) Irenaeus saying, “We know that the Scriptures are perfect as being spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit”;
(b) Tertullian writes, “I adore the fullness of Scripture, which declares to me the Creator and His works”;
(c) Origen says, “In the two Testaments…every word that appertains to God may be sought out and discussed, and out of them all knowledge of things may be understood. And if anything remains, which Holy Scripture does not determine, no third scripture ought to be received to authorize any knowledge.”
(d) Again S. Chrysostom writes, “Look for no other teacher; thou hast the oracles of God; none teaches thee like these.”
(e) Once more S. Augustine says, “In those things which are plainly laid down in Scripture, all things are found, which embrace faith and morals.”
Such quotations might be greatly multiplied. Those given are sufficient to show that the Fathers of the Primitive Church found the Rule of Faith (a) in the Bible as its sole source, and (b) in the Creeds as interpreting the Bible. They did not appeal to some independent tradition, teaching doctrines not to be found in Scripture, but to the Creeds taught to Christians, and confessed by them at their Baptism. This ancient idea of the Rule of Faith teaches us to decline with emphatic decision doctrines which lack any Scripture warrant, and which came to prevail, and then only partially, in a later age of the Church.
As one can see, MacLear and Williams sound very much like Keith Matthison in The Shape of Sola Scriptura–so much so that I do wonder how much Matthison has been influenced by some of these Anglican writers.
From September 11, 2004: Dr. J.I. Packer on “Encountering Present-Day Views of Scripture”
Dr. Packer writes this in The Foundation of Biblical Authority, edited by James M. Boice and published in 1979:
Roman Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, and Orthodoxy characteristically say that though the God-given Scriptures are a sufficient guide for faith and practice in themselves, they are at key points unclear and can rightly be understood only by the light of the church’s God-taught tradition. By contrast, Protestantism’s many blends of rationalism, mysticism, and existentialism (unstable compounds, all of them) characteristically say that while it is fairly clear what beliefs and behavior patterns the Bible writers want their readers to adopt, the books vary so much from each other, and Scripture as a whole stands at such a distance from the modern world, that the Bible cannot be a sufficient guide for today till what it says is sieved, edited, and recast in the light of all that our age takes for granted. Let it be said that both positions invoke the Holy Spirit, the former as author of both Scripture and tradition, the latter as illuminating mind and conscience to enable each individual to formulate his personal understanding of Christianity. Let it also be said that both types of position are held with learning and integrity and admit of a great deal of internal debate and adjustment (a factor that tends to prolong the life of scholarly options), and there is no sign of their imminent decease. Not, of course, that their vitality implies that either is wholly right.
Against both, evangelicalism characteristically says that Scripture is both clear and sufficient; that the God-given Scriptures are the self-interpreting, self-contained rule of Christian faith and life in every age; that, though the canonical books were composed over a period of more than a thousand years, during which significant cultural shifts become apparent in the records themselves, they do in fact present within the framework of progressive declaration and fulfillment of God’s saving purpose in Christ a consistent view of how God deals with men; that, since God does not change nor, deep down, does man, this view remains true, timely, and final; and that the central covenanted ministry of the Holy Spirit is to lead us to the Scriptures that he inspired, to open the Scriptures to us, and so to induce both conceptual and relational knowledge of the Father and the Son to whom the Scriptures introduce us. It is further characteristic of evangelicalism to insist that both the church and the individual Christian must live by the Bible (that is, by appropriate contemporary application of biblical principles); that the proper task of the teaching and preaching office that God has set in the church is to explain and apply the Scriptures; and that all beliefs, disbeliefs, hopes, fears, prayers, praises, and actions of churches and Christians must be controlled, checked, and where necessary reshaped – reformed, to use the good old word – in the light of what God is heard saying as the Spirit brings biblical principles to bear.
Evangelicals see this methodology as entailed in acknowledging the divine authority of the teaching of Christ’s apostles, whose message we have firsthand in the New Testament letters, and of their Lord, to whose mind, as all sober criticism allows, the Gospels give ample access. For the teaching of Christ and the apostles includes, on the one hand, a use of Old Testament Scripture, taken in conjunction with their own message, which assumes that God’s definitive instruction comes in both, and, on the other hand, a diagnosis of the fallen and unaided human mind as dark, perverse, insensitive, incapable, and untrustworthy in spiritual matters, needing to be enlightened and taught by God at every point. Though all men have an inescapable awareness of God that comes by way of his creation (Rom. 1:19-21, 28, 32), there can be no natural theology of traditional Thomist type: only through Scripture are these inklings of our Maker brought into true focus, by being integrated with the revelation of the living God that Scripture contains.5 Scripture here means the Old Testament that Christ and his apostles attest, plus the New Testament, which their own inspiration produced, and for true knowledge of the true God we are shut up to Scripture absolutely. So, at any rate, evangelicals see the matter.
It must be noted here that Dr. Packer is distinguishing between evangelicals (who I think he would say adhere to the classical sola scriptura of the Reformation) and other Protestants who in reality adhere to solo scriptura.
From October 22, 2004: “The Word of God and the Church of God” by Rob Smith
Rob Smith, who lectures at Sydney Missionary and Bible College in Australia, has written The Word of God and the Church of God, which looks at the threats to Biblical authority in the Church, how to reaffirm that authority, and how to implement the authority of Scripture in the Church. His passage on the implementation of the authority of Scripture is something to consider for all of us:
But if the Bible is indeed our final authority, then it’s not enough simply to affirm Scriptural supremacy in theory, we must implement it into the lives of our churches. How do we do this? What will it mean? Once again, I shall make three points:
[i] First, we will allow the Word of God to hold pride of place in the life of the church. This means that we will give attention to the public reading of Scripture and to preaching and teaching (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). It will also mean that we will seek to ensure that these activities are done well. Whilst being sensitive to the needs and the capacities of our congregations, we will resist the demand for short sermons. For as P.T. Forsyth rightly observed: ‘a Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short stature.’
It will mean that we commit ourselves to personal and corporate Bible study, adopting methods and utilising resources that let the text speak for itself, rather than certain kinds of devotional notes which tend to speak for it and often undermine its meaning. It will further mean that we seek to allow Scripture to establish our priorities, again both personally and corporately, resisting the inherent consumerism (fuelled by the proliferation of endless life-application Bibles) which dominates contemporary Christianity, encouraging our native self-centredness and leading us to impose our agendas on Scripture, rather than the other way round.
In short, we will take seriously Scriptures’ own claim to be sufficiently powerful to lead people to salvation and to thoroughly equip believers for every good work. This belief is winsomely expressed in Article VI of the 39 Articles:
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. (Art. VI).
[ii] Second, we will test all things by the Word of God, holding on to what is good and avoiding every kind of evil. This means that we will review everything in the church, and never assume that any particular tradition or form of practice is here to stay. If, for example, certain songs have outlived their usefulness, either because they don’t communicate any more or because they’d been done to death, then they must be put to rest. Likewise, if the wearing of robes communicates that the ministers of the church belong to a higher spiritual order, then they must be destroyed. We must be ready to become all things to all people so that by all means we can save some (1 Cor. 9:22).
It also means that we will be ready to test the use (and usefulness) of certain gifts, as well as all claims to spiritual or prophetic insight (1 Thess. 5:13). The key question to ask is this: Do these things lead us more deeply into the knowledge and love of Christ, or do they take us away from him? Given that the Spirit who leads the children of God is the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures, there can be no conflict here. As Calvin long ago pointed out:
[T]he Spirit promised to us has not the task of inventing new and unheard of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel. (Institutes, I, IX, 1).
[iii] Third, we will approach the important tasks of Biblical interpretation, in a biblically consistent manner. The whole issue of interpretation is crucial. For the Bible can only rule over effectively us when it is properly understood. And it can only be properly understood when it is rightly interpreted. Therefore, we need to interpret the Bible in a way that is faithful to itself, and consistent with its claim to supremacy.
The claim of the Roman Catholic church is that the Bible badly needs an outside interpreter for it ‘does not bear its plain meaning on its face.’ This claim, however, is Biblically inconsistent; for it suggests that the authoritative keys which unlock the meaning of Scripture belong to the church. This, once again, places the church over Scripture, and therefore undermines Biblical authority. In a similar vein, Post-modern approaches to interpretation suggest that it is the reader who supplies the interpretive keys. This then places the individual over Scripture.
By way of contrast, the Reformers insisted that the Bible must be interpreted ‘from within’, letting it speak for itself in its own terms. They thus suggested three interpretative principles, which have come to be known as ‘The Analogy of Faith’. The principles are these: (1) That the final interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself; (2) that Scripture must never be interpreted against Scripture; (3) that the obscure parts of Scripture must be interpreted by the clear ones. Again the Westminster Confession makes a helpful statement on this point:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (The Westminster Confession of Faith, I, IX).
Article XX of the 39 Articles also reflects this understanding when it declares that ‘it is not lawful for the Church to so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’ What this means in practice, then, is that we need to work hard, work humbly and to work prayerfully at the task of interpretation. We need to constantly allow Scripture to correct our false interpretations of it, so that we might faithfully hear and head the Spirit’s voice. Moreover, as part of encouraging people to read the Bible, pastors need to instruct and guide their congregations as to how to responsibly interpret and apply the written Word.
The entire article is well worth reading; if Anglicans in the West (particularly the USA and Canada) had followed this counsel, the Eames Commission and the Windsor Report would never have been thought necessary.