Let’s be honest: When you think of a “Bible church,” you probably don’t think of an Anglican church. Nevertheless, Holy Scripture has played a very important role in the Anglican tradition.
Let’s take a look at what some of the foundational documents of Anglicanism have to say about the Bible!
By the way, these Anglican “formularies” are:
- The Book of Common Prayer + Ordinal;
- The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion;
- The Books of Homilies.
(If this week’s topic interests you, you should check out chapter 6, “Scripture: Anglicans and the Bible” in Simply Anglican by Winfield Bevins.)
The Book of Common Prayer and the Bible
Because it is composed of mostly Bible passages, the Book of Common Prayer is sometimes referred to as “the Bible arranged for worship.” It also clearly teaches that one of the main purposes of worship is to hear the Word of God. As the 1662 Book of Common Prayer explains, the enduring value of the “Common Prayers in the Church” was that they exposed people to the Bible. The Church Fathers
“so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over every year; intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers in the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation in Gods word) be stirred up to godliness themselves and be more able to exhort others by wholesome Doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the Truth; and further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true Religion (“Concerning the Service of the Church,” emphasis added).
And consider how the 1662 BCP’s Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent describes the Bible:
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The Prayer Book clearly prioritizes Scripture. Whether it’s through the daily rhythm of the Daily Office or the weekly rhythm of Holy Communion, the Anglican life is designed to help people hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Bible.
(What do Anglicans really think about the Bible? Read this by Winfield Bevins.)
The Ordinal and the Bible
If you take a look at the Ordinal in the 1662 BCP (“The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons”), it is striking how it primarily describes Christian pastoral ministry in terms of Scripture. (Andrew Atherstone really brings this point home in his recent book The Anglican Ordinal: Gospel Priorities for Church of England Ministry, a worthwhile read, even if you’re not in the CofE!)
For example, when someone is ordained as a Priest, the Bishop says to the ordinand:
“…consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of your selves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures: And for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside (as much as you may) all worldly cares and studies.”
“So that as much as lieth in you, you will apply your selves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way; and that you will continually pray to God the Father, by the mediation of our onely Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the holy Ghost; that, by daily reading and weighing of the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry, and that ye may so endeavour your selves from time to time, to sanctifie the lives of you and yours, and to fashion them after the rule and doctrine of Christ, that ye may be wholsome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow.”
Anglican clergy should be willing to sacrifice “all worldly cares and studies” so that they can read and study the Bible. Only then will they be so saturated in Scripture that they can minister effectively!
The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Bible
So much for the Prayer Book and the Ordinal. Let’s talk about the Articles! Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion is about “the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for salvation.” It begins:
“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.”
So Anglicans refuse to require (as necessary for salvation) things that can’t be proven in/by Scripture.
Here it’s worth mentioning that Article VI applies to doctrine and to what we do/don’t include as elements of the gospel. It’s different from the debate between the “regulative principle” and the “normative principle,” which have to do with elements of worship and tradition.
- regulative principle: “The theory of church government and worship that stipulates that not only church doctrine but also church practice, must be based on clear scriptural warrant”
- normative principle: “The theory held by Lutherans and Anglicans that what is not forbidden in Scripture is admissible in the practice, worship, and government of the church. It is the opposite of the regulative principle generally adopted by Calvinists.” (Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms).
Along these lines, consider how Article XX, “Of the Authority of the Church,” describes the relationship between the Church and Scripture:
“The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.”
When it comes to doctrine, Anglicans should not require anything to be “believed for necessity of Salvation” that cannot be found in or proved by Scripture. But when it comes to worship (“Rites or Ceremonies”), Anglicans should not do anything that is contrary to God’s Word.
The Books of Homilies and the Bible
The first homily in the Books of Homilies (another foundational document or “formulary” for Anglicans) is “A fruitful exhortation to the reading and knowledge of Holy Scripture.” Most likely composed by Thomas Cranmer, it begins:
“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. And there is no truth nor doctrine necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation, but that is or may be drawn out of that fountain and well of truth. Therefore as many as be desirous to enter into the right and perfect way unto God must apply their minds to know holy Scripture; without the which they can neither sufficiently know God and his will, neither their office and duty. And, as drink is pleasant to them that be dry, and meat to them that be hungry, so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy Scripture to them that be desirous to know God or themselves, and to do his will.”
OK, but HOW do Anglicans read the Bible?
We’ve gone through the Anglican formularies and learned just how foundational the Bible is to the Anglican way of following Jesus.
But perhaps you’re still wanting more specificity. A method, perhaps. I often get asked “What do Anglicans say about such and such a verse/passage?” It’s difficult to answer such questions because Anglicans frequently disagree with one another about biblical texts. There is no single approach to Anglican biblical interpretation that is specific enough to yield uniform results when applied to particular passages.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that we’re left with an “anything goes” approach to the Bible! (If you’re interested in learning more about distinctly Anglican approaches to biblical interpretation, you should take a look at this essay by David Ney and this essay by Charles Erlandson.)
The ACNA Catechism, To Be a Christian, has an important section on the Creeds and Holy Scripture. This section lays out some of the basics of how Anglicans interpret the Bible in light of the Church’s tradition, particular as distilled in the ecumenical creeds. Consider the following summary, which I’ve formatted with bullet points:
(Q33) How should Holy Scripture be understood?
Because Holy Scripture was given by God to the Church, it should always be understood in ways that are faithful
- to its own plain meaning,
- to its entire teaching, and
- to the Church’s historic interpretation.
It should be translated, read, taught, and obeyed accordingly. (Nehemiah 8:1–8; Psalm 94:8–15; Acts 8:26–35; 18:24–28; Jerusalem Declaration, Article 2; Articles of Religion, 20)
So, when Anglicans read the Bible, they should use the best tools available to get at the “plain” meaning of the text, taking care to read both the Old and New Testaments as a unified whole that point to the Triune God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (See Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles, “Of the Old Testament.”).
And, because we don’t read Scripture in a vacuum, Anglicans also emphasize the importance of Church tradition when reading the Bible, with extra weight given to the consensus interpretation of Scripture in the early “patristic” period.
Want to learn more about how to read the Bible?
Check out the following excellent resources:
- The BibleProject
- How to Read Scripture for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart
- How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Fee and Stuart
- Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall
- Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition by Craig A. Carter
- Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard
- Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley
Plus, if you’re looking for biblical/devotional material written by an Anglican, you should check out the work that David Roseberry is putting out:
(These books pair nicely with Anglican theologian W. David O. Taylor’s Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, with an Afterword by world-famous Anglican, Bono!)
Looking for Bible commentaries on sale?
That’s all for now!
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(Originally published as The Curate email newsletter on March 8, 2021. To receive The Curate, please subscribe to Anglican Compass.)