The Authority of Holy Scripture: A Rookie Anglican Guide

By

Anglicanism is deeply committed to the authority of Holy Scripture. It seeks both to uphold the authority of Scripture in doctrine, and also to apply the authority of Scripture in practice. This double dynamic of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) is reflected in Cranmer’s lovely Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (598, BCP 2019).

The Authority of Holy Scripture in the Old Testament

The case for the authority of Holy Scripture begins in the Scriptures themselves. The Old Testament understands itself as the Word of God, delivered by God to his prophets who faithfully wrote them down. For example, God explains to Moses how he will use prophets to deliver his word, just as he had used Moses to deliver his law:

Sponsored

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).

Thus the prophetic texts that made it into the Old Testament canon were those acknowledged as the Word of God. Similarly, the Psalms of David, and the Wisdom Literature of Solomon, are included not as human song and advice, but also as divine prophecy and wisdom. In their own poetic way, these texts also contain passages that speak to the authority of the scriptures. For example, see Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
    enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
    and righteous altogether (Psalm 19:7-9)

The Authority of Holy Scripture in the New Testament

Jesus situates himself the prophetic tradition of Moses, indeed as the future prophet that God has raised up. Jesus declares that he has not come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17). Thus Jesus upholds the authority of the Scriptures, insisting that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

At first the disciples do not understand so great a mystery. Peter can only think of building booths when, at the Transfiguration, Jesus stands alongside Moses and Elijah, conversing with the Law and the Prophets (see Matthew 17). But in time, and through his death and his resurrection, Jesus instructs the disciples in the Holy Scriptures, showing they point to him, and how “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

With new understanding, Peter at Pentecost makes use of the authoritative Scriptures, appealing to Joel and to the Psalms of David to explain the Holy Spirit that has come (see Acts 2). Moreover, Peter speaks explicitly to the authority of the Scripture in his Second Epistle:

No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-20).

Similarly, Paul explains to Timothy that “All scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). In Hebrew, the word for breath, ruah, is the same word for Spirit. Thus Paul, like Peter, ties Holy Scripture to the work of the Holy Spirit. This same idea we confess in the Nicene Creed, when we say that the “Holy Spirit…has spoken through the prophets.”

We Do Not Subtract From Holy Scripture

Because Holy Scripture is the Word of God, we do not subtract from it. We do not take away any of its teachings. In other words, we acknowledge the Holy Scriptures to be true.  We will not say that any part of the scriptures are false. To be sure, we may say that certain interpretations of the scriptures are false, but even then “we may not so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (39 Articles of Religion, #20).

This is why, when the Scriptures speak clearly on a topic, as for example in the definition of marriage, Anglicans accept what scripture says. We do not abandon Scriptural teaching in a misguided attempt at relevance. We do not forsake Scriptural truth when it offends social sensibilities.

We Do Not Add To Holy Scripture

Just as we do not subtract from scripture, neither do we add to it. Anglicans believe in the Sufficiency of Scripture, that everything we need for salvation is plainly taught within the Scriptures. As our Articles of Religion put it: “Holy Scripture contains 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” (39 Articles of Religion, #6).

The Sufficiency of Scripture is one of the key differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholics accept the authority of the Pope and his teaching office, over and above the teaching of scripture. Roman Catholicism requires belief in extra-biblical doctrines, such as the Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption.

While Anglicans do accord authority to the Church and the clergy, this is always a subsidiary authority, which rests upon the authority of the Scriptures. Thus, when the clergy teach contrary to scripture, as they have and as they will, Anglicans believe the people are called to correct them with the authoritative Scriptures.

Joy in the Authoritative Scriptures

The Scriptures have authority, not only for high controversies of Church and Society, but also to give joy to our daily lives. Here the word “authority” can sometimes give the wrong impression, as if the Scriptures are nothing but a stony obelisk, a legal code, or a dead letter. This mode the Apostle Paul expressly denies, teaching that the “letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Rather, in daily life the Scriptures are a constant source of joy and peace, for they give us the gospel of Christ by which we may rest in him. It is as John Jewel writes:

The Holy Scriptures…are the bright sun of God, which bring light unto our ways, and comfort to all parts of our life, and salvation to our souls: in which is made known unto us our estate, and the mercy of God in Christ our Savior. (Treatise on the Holy Scriptures, 5).

This is why Anglicanism has always emphasized, not only the right doctrine of scripture, but also the right use of the scriptures. Even if we accept the authority of the Scriptures, what use is it to us if we leave our Bible on the shelf collecting dust?

And so all Anglicans, clergy and laity alike, are encouraged to read the scriptures daily. One reason Thomas Cranmer published an English Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer, was to bring the richness of daily Bible reading to the whole church. At Anglican Compass, we’ve created a Daily Office Booklet as an easy starting place for those new to daily prayer.

In his preface to the Great Bible, Cranmer called the scriptures “the fat pastures of the soul.” Picking up on the culinary metaphor, John Jewel called the scriptures:

The true manna…the bread which came down from heaven…the key of the kingdom of heaven…the savor of life unto life (Treatise on Holy Scriptures, 7).

Therefore, let us not only trust and believe the Scriptures, but also enjoy them. Let us come to them with hunger and thirst, believing that there we will find the righteousness of God, even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Appendix: Anglican Documentary Foundations on Scripture

39 Articles of Religion, #6

Holy Scripture contains 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 is should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation…

39 Articles of Religion, #20

…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…

Jerusalem Declaration, #2

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.

ACNA Fundamental Declaration, #1

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 the Christian faith and life.

Published on

February 1, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

9 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments