Sources of Authority

In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) Richard Hooker emphasizes the relationship betwen Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.
In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) Richard Hooker emphasizes the relationship betwen Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.

A Matter of Consensus
Anglicans historically have recognized a three-fold source of authority in the Church: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Each of these three has a kind of priority, each is somewhat different in its function, and each depends on the other two. In discerning and applying these authorities Anglicans strive for consensus according to the principle laid down by Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century: that is truly catholic and is to be believed which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all (semper, ubique, et ab omnibus).

That is, a particular teaching is most likely to be true to Scripture, reason, and tradition, if it is ancient and has been widely received and taught, not just by this Church or that, but by a consensus of the Churches through time and space. Particularly clear examples of consensus teaching are the doctrinal definitions of the ancient Ecumenical Councils. These definitions were reached in the first instance by meetings in which the whole Church was represented, and then were received by the consensus of that whole Church over time.

Scripture has priority because it is the unique record of God’s unique self-revelation. In particular Scripture is the only reliable access to the words and teaching of Jesus Christ and is the only reliable record of the beliefs and teachings of his apostles about him. For this reason Anglicans historically have believed that nothing is essential for salvation which cannot be proven from, or at least be shown to be firmly grounded in, Scripture (cf. Book of Common Prayer [1928 American edition], pp. 533, 542, 554, and 603). Other beliefs may be true, and important or even necessary for membership in the Church; but they are not absolutely necessary for salvation. Anglicans also have historically and strongly distinguished dogmas or essential doctrines (which are few and clearly established in Scripture) from pious opinions and inessential truths and matters indifferent.

It might be helpful to suggest in this matter that the teaching of the Church may be viewed in two ways at once. On the one hand the Church’s teachings all hang together and reinforce each other. In this respect the authority of the Church is broad and encompasses teachings far beyond the doctrines which are found explicitly or implicitly in Scripture and which are essential for salvation. On the other hand, the multiplication of doctrines, particularly of essential doctrines, can be harmful and create obstacles to acceptance of the Church’s central teachings.

In this respect it is useful to emphasize the most clearly biblical and important doctrines, and to let the others fall into a hierarchy running from the essential through the important to the more or less unimportant. Protestants have historically failed to see that the whole of the Church’s teaching, as elaborated in the consensus traditions, hangs together. Roman Catholics have historically tended to treat subsidiary teachings and rather inessential elaborations of doctrine as virtually equivalent to matters with clear Biblical foundation. Scripture itself is not revelation: God incarnate and the Holy Spirit in the Church are God’s self-revelation. But Scripture is the record of that revelation and the root from which the tradition grows.

Reason also has a kind of priority. ‘Reason’ is a complex thing, but by ‘reason’ here is meant at least the ability to understand and use human language and abstract concepts; the ability to follow logical arguments, to make valid deductions, to detect fallacies in arguments, and to synthesize information and arguments. It is obviously impossible to read or hear the Bible if one does not have the use of reason. Likewise, reason is necessary to grasp the meaning of Scripture, to understand particular passages in context, and to reconcile apparent contradictions. More generally speaking, Anglican Catholics strive to be reasonable. That is, Anglican Catholics seek to balance religious emotion and experiences with reasonable discussion and logical argument.

While parts of the Christian revelation are above reason, none is against reason. A doctrine may begin with the revelation of something that reason by itself could not have discovered, such as the Trinity. However, once such a doctrine is revealed, its meaning can and should be reflected upon by reason. If Scripture is the main source for the revelation of Christian doctrine, reason is the main instrument for grasping, understanding, developing, and applying such doctrine. Scripture does not interpret itself. Its meaning is not self-evident. Reason is needed to understand and interpret anything, including Scripture. But such reason must be illuminated by grace, which practically means that it must attend closely to Scripture and tradition if it is to avoid gross error.

The tradition of the Church also has a kind of practical priority, because tradition summarizes the reasonable interpretation of Scripture by the many ages of the Church that have gone before us. Since Christ promised to be with his Church always (St. Matthew 28:20) and to lead it into all truth (St. John 16:13), Anglicans historically have believed that the great weight of the Christian tradition is a reliable guide to the mind of Christ and to the proper interpretation of Scripture. The Church, inspired by the Spirit, is Christ’s abiding presence in the world, and tradition is the record of the inspired mind of the Church. Tradition interprets Scripture and summarizes the reason of the past concerning Scripture. A strong respect for reason and for theological tradition distinguishes Anglican Catholicism from many forms of Protestantism and gives Anglican Catholicism its characteristic ethos.

Moreover, tradition is not simply a body of writings or ideas. The praying and worshipping Church is the context for all theology. The grace-filled liturgy, the grace-filled prayer of Christians, and the grace-filled lives of the saints, from the days of the apostles to the present, are the broader tradition within which the creeds and councils occurred and still are held.

Scripture cannot properly be separated from tradition and allowed to stand alone, not least because it was the inspired Church which decided which books should be included in Scripture and which not. Tradition, in other words, defined what is authentic Scripture and what is not. Without tradition both the content and the interpretation of Scripture will be thrown into radical doubt. Without tradition, broadly defined to include the worshipping life of the Church, Scripture has no context and is a mere, dead text.

And so it appears that the three authorities of Scripture, reason, and tradition are mutually supportive. Together they are strong and stable. Religious movements that divide these three tend to be unstable and unreliable. The Anglican three-fold source might be compared to a tricycle or a stool with three legs, which is much more stable than a unicycle or a stool with only one leg.

Perhaps a better image is the threefold cord which, as Scripture says, “is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12): when two or three cords are twined together they can hold more than the sum of what they can hold separately. The total they can bear is more than the sum of their separate strengths. So too with the threefold and mutually supportive sources of authority in the Church as understood by Anglicans. The search for consensus also lends stability, for the authentic and reliable tradition of the whole Church is beyond the fads of the day. Those who hold to the threefold source and the consensus of the ages will not be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

Foundations of the ACC
Because Anglican Catholics believe in the unique authority of an unchanging canon of Scripture, their fundamental understanding of theology is conservative, though not static. Anglican Catholics hold to “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (St. Jude 3). The basic doctrines of this faith do not change: they were ‘once delivered’. Nevertheless, our understanding of these doctrines can grow. So, for instance, during her first centuries the Church discerned in Scripture the divinity of Christ, and she defined that divinity to mean that Christ was “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God,” and “of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed).

The three Creeds of the Church, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian, establish her conclusions about the most important of such essential doctrines. Theological reflection on the meaning of these doctrines may develop and grow, but the development cannot contradict the basic formulations of the doctrine. The possibility, for example, that Christ is a creature, has forever been excluded by the Church’s doctrine and creed. While understanding of Christ’s divinity and all of its implications can develop, it may not develop arbitrarily; it may only time to develop in eccentric ways that are at odds with the consensus of the ages than are Churches with Apostolic episcopacy.

This idea of authority implies a method in theology. That is, from the Anglican Catholic understanding of authority comes a way to go about answering religious questions and to achieve assurance in matters of faith. Furthermore, the threefold source, guided by the search for consensus within the context of Churches with the Apostolic Succession, also supplies much substance and content for theology. For instance, ‘Scripture’ as understood by reason and tradition includes some concrete historical claims: e.g., that there was a real human being named Jesus, who was conceived by a virgin supernaturally. ‘Tradition’ includes creeds and authoritative definitions and interpretations of Scripture by the early Church’s Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. ‘Reason’ includes common sense, reasonableness, and systematic logic. The Anglican Catholic understanding of authority tells Christians both how to go about learning what to believe and what in particular is to be believed.

In summary, then, authority rests originally and uniquely in God’s will, of which Scripture is in many respects the unique record. Scripture itself is understood and apprehended by reason and tradition. These three sources are mutually supportive and influential. The best guide to the truths of Scripture, reasonably and traditionally understood, is the consensus of the apostolic, episcopal Churches through time and space. These truths are authoritatively summarized in the three Creeds of the Church and are elaborated by the fuller teaching of the Ecumenical Councils. These, in turn, have shaped the founding documents of the Anglican Catholic Church–The Affirmation of St. Louis and the Constitution and Canons of the ACC.