Arthur Middleton on Scripture, tradition and reason

Michael Ramsey claimed that it was the nature of Elizabethan theology, rather than imitation of Hooker in the style of Lutherans to Luther or Calvinists to Calvin, that made it possible to appeal creatively to Scripture and tradition, and it must remain so today. Scripture is the supreme authority because it contains all things necessary to salvation, but not as regulations for everything in the Church’s life, for the Church has authority to decree rites and ceremonies. Our Formularies affirm the Old Testament revealing Christ by pointing to him and the New Testament revealing Christ fulfilling what is foreshadowed in the Old. The Bible is about God’s saving work and self-revelation through law and prophets, Christ being the head and climax.

Union of Church and Scripture Scripture became the self-evident basis but because the Bible without the Church becomes a mere collection of ancient documents, scriptural interpretation depends on the appeal to antiquity as mutually inclusive. The Bible and the Church must be dancing partners; where the one is detached from the other it leads to an uncontrollable doctrinal spaceflight. Anglicanism maintained the Catholic notion of a perfect union between Scripture and Tradition or the Church and Scripture, in that the Church’s authority is not distinct from that of Scripture but rather that they are one. The Jesuit theologian Fr George Tavard claimed that, in making Scripture the self-evident basis of Anglicanism but alongside Tradition as mutually inclusive, a consistency with the patristic spirit is maintained.

‘The Anglican Church … tried to maintain the Catholic notion of perfect union between Church and Scripture. The statement of Johann Gropper, that the Church’s authority is not distinct from that of Scripture, but rather that they are one, corresponds to the Anglican view of the Early Church, as it corresponds to the catholic conception of the Church at all times’ (George Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church).

Living experience

Tavard pointed out that most theologians of the Counter-Reformation separated Scripture and Tradition, at different times making one or the other a partial source of faith. He added that ‘In both cases the theology of the catholic eras, patristic and medieval, was better represented by the Anglican view than by many Catholic writers in the Counter-Reformation period.’ Anglican divinity has an ecclesial context in which the Church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence or from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its Catholic fullness that has its roots in the Primitive Church. This appeal is not merely to history but to a charismatic principle, tradition, which together with Scripture contains the truth of divine revelation, a truth that lives in the Church. In this spirit Anglican divines looked to the Fathers as interpreters of Scripture. The 1571 Canons authorize preachers to preach nothing but what is found in Holy Scripture and what the ancient Fathers have collected from the same, ensuring that the interpretation of Scripture is consistent with what Christians have believed always.

‘The voice of the Bible could be plainly heard only if its texts were interpreted broadly and rationally, in accordance with the apostolic creed and the evidence of the historical practice of Christendom. It was the heretics that relied most on isolated texts and the Catholics who paid more attention on the whole to scriptural principles. Two presuppositions are implied: first, that the Bible does provide sufficient guidance to spiritual truth, to the actions and character of God; and second, that the Christian Church does possess sufficient inspiration to give a true interpretation of the records. Neither presupposition can be mathematically proved. Both are axioms of spiritual practice. Those who respond to the Gospel and obey its precepts are the best judges of its truth’ (G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics).

Creator and Redeemer

The third feature in this theological method is the appeal to reason. Hooker’s response to Puritan narrowness, which saw the Bible as a handbook of regulations for everything in life and religion, was to elucidate a much wider and more realistic understanding of divine law. God is Creator as well as Redeemer. The harmony and purpose in the natural order are expressions of the divine Reason which lies behind Scripture and the decrees of Church Councils, emanating from God himself and found in the lives of all his creatures. God’s revelation comes to us in various ways and our reason and conscience arrive at knowledge of God’s will by a number of concurrent means and faculties. In creation God reveals himself as the principle of rationality, purpose and unity, described as the divine Logos that informs our consciences and minds, enabling us to perceive purpose and order in the universe. Such knowledge requires revelation to complete it and redemption to cleanse and free the heart and mind from things that inhibit and corrupt us.

The fashionable addition of experience is unnecessary because Tradition enfolds past and present, and embraces as its source and power the contemporaneity of the Gospel through which the true character of present experience is refracted and thereby critically evaluated. It is a way of looking at and experiencing the world; but with the kingdom of God, the sui generis experience of the Church and not the world, as the ultimate term of reference.