DoctrineMinistryThe Vault

The Church and the Bible (Part 1) 

On this issue of the relation of the Church to the Bible the declared position of the Church of England is explicit and unmistakable. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are avowedly acknowledged as supreme and sufficient in authority.

They provide the Church as well as every individual Christian with a decisive God-given rule of faith and conduct. Everything which is either believed or done, with the accompanying claim that it possesses proper Christian sanction and authority, must be capable of being tested and vindicated by this standard. For “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” (Article VI).

So even the great historic creeds, the Nicene creed and the Apostles’ creed, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed”, according to Article VIII, not because they are authoritative confessions of the early Church, but because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”

Similarly, on the negative side, certain doctrines, which some hold, are condemned and disowned in the Thirty-Nine Articles, because they contradict the word of God or are “grounded upon no warranty of Scripture”. Clearly, therefore, Bishop A.C. Headlam of Gloucester was right when he declared in 1924 in a Visitation Charge that: “the fundamental doctrine of the Church of England is the supremacy of Scripture”.

This position has been reaffirmed afresh by a recent writer. “Anglicanism”, writes Bishop Stephen Neill, “is a very positive form of Christian belief; it affirms that it teaches the whole of Catholic faith, free from the distortions, the exaggerations, the over-definitions both of the Protestant left wing and of the right wing of Tridentine Catholicism. Its challenge can be summed up in the phrases, ‘Show us anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach, and we will teach it; show us anything in our teaching and practice that is plainly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it’.”

The principle of unity

This attitude of acceptance of the principle of reformation according to the word of God is the distinctive mark of the Reformed churches. For this principle is, as Daniel

T. Jenkins has put it, “the nerve centre of the Reformed doctrine of the Church”. 

“The true Church”, says Karl Barth, “is always undergoing this reformation, this reformation, that is, of her preaching, her sacraments, and her ordinances by the word of God. Faith is necessary that the Church may again and again undergo this reformation by the word of God.”

This principle, if only she would once again be true to it, is the principle by which the Church of England might worthily promote and share in true reconciliation and restored communion with churches from which she is separated. This is the kind of unity and common action which Archbishop Cranmer strove in his day to promote among the severed Reformation churches of Europe.

It is this kind of unity which Archbishop Sancroft of Canterbury had in view when in 1688 he sought to admonish the clergy to persuade “our brethren, the Protestant dissenters”, as he called them, “to join with us in daily, fervent prayer to the God of peace, for an universal blessed union of all reformed churches; that all they that do confess the holy name of our dear Lord, and do agree in the truth of His holy word, may also meet in one holy communion, and live in perfect unity and godly love”.

While the statement about the Bible made by the 1958 Lambeth Conference is disappointingly weak and deficient in any full confession of the unique divine inspiration and consequent supreme authority of the Scriptures, there is at least welcome and significant acknowledgment of their supremacy over the Church. “The Church”, we read, “is not ‘over’ the Holy Scriptures but ‘under’ them, in the sense that the process of canonisation was not one whereby the Church conferred authority on the books, but one whereby the Church acknowledged them to possess authority”.

And why? “The books were recognised as giving the witness of the Apostles to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of the Lord and the interpretation by the Apostles of these events. To that apostolic authority the Church must ever bow.” We are also told later in the same Committee Report that it is from the Bible that every right exposition of Christian belief derives. If, however, we are to appreciate the full significance of the canonisation of the Scriptures by the Church, and thus properly to safeguard an indispensable criterion of all true Christian faith and fellowship, some more decisive awareness and conviction are necessary concerning the special divine inspiration and consequent unique authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures than has been confessed by the 1958 Lambun Conference.

The early Church’s attitude

Forcibly to express what we have in mind, let us quote Oscar Cullmann. First, on “The Uniqueness the Apostolate” he asserts that it was “the faith of the first Christians that the Apostles are not writers like other authors in antiquity, but men set apart by God for the execution of His plan of salvation by their witness, first oral, then written.” 

“The Scriptural principle,” he continues, “is therefore not, as one might believe, a simple application of the scientific principle which the Renaissance stressed: the necessity of resorting to the sources in order to study and understand an historical phenomenon. On the contrary, it is based on faith in this essential fact of the history of salvation—the setting apart, at the moment of the Incarnation, of the Apostles as unique instruments of the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”

Second, on “The Significance of the Fixing of the Canon by the Church of the Second Century”, Dr Cullmann insists “on the fact that the infant Church itself made the distinction between apostolic tradition and ecclesiastical tradition, subordinating the latter clearly to the former. By establishing the principle of a Canon the Church recognized in this very act that from that moment the tradition was no longer a criterion of truth.”

For “to establish a Canon is equivalent to recognising: henceforth our ecclesiastical tradition needs to be controlled; with the help of the Holy Spirit it will be controlled by the apostolic tradition fixed in writing”. Also “to fix a Canon was to say: henceforth we renounce the right to consider as a norm other traditions that are not fixed by the Apostles in writing”.

That this was undoubtedly the attitude of the Church of the early centuries is confirmed by abundant evidence. Whatever the influence of widely established practice and liturgical tradition, “there can be no doubt,” writes Professor G.W.H. Lampe, “that for the church of the fathers Scripture was the criterion by which traditional practices and their doctrinal implications are to be judged—at least as a negative criterion. Tradition cannot be alleged as an authority for anything which is ruled out by Scripture.” 

For instance, Cyril of Jerusalem instructs his candidates for baptism that no teaching may be given on the divine mysteries of the faith except on scriptural authority. The present widespread tendency in the Churches is, while still nominally assenting to the Canon, and professing to acknowledge the great weight of scriptural authority, not properly to treat the Scriptures as uniquely inspired, and so as supreme, sufficient, and all necessary as the God-given rule of faith and conduct. 

The modern Church’s attitude

Under the influence of rational and scientific criticism some no longer ascribe this kind of authority to the Scriptures as a whole. They venture to treat some parts with less reverence and submission than other parts, and they have in practice largely ceased to use, or to be prepared to have their Christian understanding influenced by, large parts of the Old Testament. This means that for them the Scriptures have ceased to be a supreme criterion. They prefer to follow their own powers of judgment, and sometimes even by appeal to certain parts of Scripture to disown the witness of other parts -thus dividing the Bible against itself—as, for instance, Dr J.A.T. Robinson has done in his book on New Testament eschatology entitled Jesus and His Coming.

Such freedom and independence of private judgment is not likely to lead to reconciliation between the Churches, unless it be by the virtual abandonment of certain truths of revelation, by ceasing to confess and preach corresponding essentials of full biblical faith and practice, and by openly welcoming into Christian fellowship some who hold and propagate teaching which is plainly unscriptural.

This danger is increased by the readiness of many to prefer so-called peace to purity, and professed co-operation to full and faithful adherence to biblical testimony. For there is an idea abroad that a true ecumenical “wholeness” must be comprehensive, and include every different so-called “insight” of the various churches. Such insights are in consequence not brought under the judgment of the word of God, but are treated as worthy of reverence in their own right as traditional and sacrosanct in certain churches.

Because devout Christians have long shared in them they are supposed all to have a sanctity and right to survival without being properly subjected to the scriptural test. (To be continued.)

This article was first published in the Australian Church Record in January 1960. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.