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The Church and the Bible (Part 2)

In the August 1959 issue of The Expository Times, Dr C.K. Barrett refers to what he calls “the erroneous assumption which underlies much ecumenical conversation, that reunion will come by a sharing of treasures”.

His significant comment is: “It will not. It will come, if God wills that it shall, not by pooling of an ‘impaired succession’, a bowdlerised version of Wesley’s hymns, and a twentieth century substitute for the Westminster Confession, but by revival and reformation under the Word of God.”

What particularly threatens us as members of the Church of England is the very serious danger of the official acceptance by our Church of doctrines and practices which are additional and contrary to the Scriptural witness—and all in the supposed interest of larger and truer unity among Christians. As each Lambeth Conference makes more obvious, there is the growing pressure of the Anglican Communion, and of a striving after a comprehensive “wholeness”, whose governing principle is not uncompromising loyalty to the Scriptures, as the one supreme rule of faith and conduct, but the holding together in one family of churches which have come to believe and worship differently, and some of whom scarcely wish any longer to be known as Protestant and Reformed.

Bishop, liturgy

Finally, there is for us as biblical Anglicans a much more serious source of danger and division; more serious, on the one hand, because found alongside us in every diocese in our own land; and most serious of all, on the other hand, because its doctrinal position involves a radical departure from true Anglican submission to the Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and conduct. This departure is also the more easily unnoticed because it is made not by rejecting the Scriptures or ceasing to reverence them, but by introducing alongside of them other authorities, which are given equal or even greater weight. 

This departure is latent in the so-called “Catholic wholeness”, which wishes to include first, a pattern of worship or liturgy of the eucharist, and second, the form of the Church, particularly monarchical episcopacy and so called apostolic succession, as products of the apostolic age and early Church similar to the Scriptures, and possessing alongside of them, and apart from them, an independent primitive authority of their own. The claim is that both a sacramental liturgy and bishops, to take the place locally of the apostles, were established even before the canonisation of the Scriptures, and that, therefore, far from being subject to any necessary scriptural test, they have almost a prior authority to that of the Scriptures, or certainly an equal authority with them in determining the faith and practice of the Church, and particularly in providing necessary means of grace.

So in his lecture on ‘The Theology of Confirmation’ in relation to baptism, Dom Gregory Dix claimed that in the liturgical evidence, or so-called “paradosis” of practice, “which actually antedates the writing of the New Testament documents themselves”, and which, so he claimed, “continued to develop in complete freedom from any control of those documents for a century after they were written, before they were collected into a New Testament ‘Canon’ and recognised for the first time as authoritative ‘Scripture’, there is available another source of information on the original and authentic interpretation of Christianity which the Scriptures presuppose, and which must be used in the interpretation of the Scriptures

Apostolic succession

Similarly, with regard to episcopacy, Dr Michael Ramsey, now Archbishop of York, has written, “Both the Canon of Scripture and the Episcopate are ‘developments’, and it would seem highly arbitrary to select one of these and to call it essential, while rejecting or ignoring the other. It would be more reasonable to seek in both of them, through their close inner connection and their place in the life of the one Body, the utterance of the Gospel of God.” (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 63.)

Commenting on the complete lack of Scriptural support for such arguments, Dr C.K. Barrett has recently written about a learned article on “Apostolic Succession” by Dr J.G. Davies: “I observe that Scriptural argument ends with the first page of Dr Davies’ article, where he writes of the doctrine of the Church. As soon as he turns to the specific subject of apostolic succession the Bible disappears. This is perhaps inevitable, but it is worth noting as a tacit admission that the succession theory is in fact independent of the biblical doctrine of the Church and ministry. There is no space here,” he adds, “to discuss the relation between Scripture and tradition, but those for whom sola Scriptura defines the ultimate authority in faith and practice cannot fail to be disturbed, not by the emergence of terms not used in Scripture—this is not necessarily significant—but by the central and essential place given to these terms.” (Expository Times, Aug. 1959, p. 330.)

Similarly, Daniel T. Jenkins has outspokenly tried to remind us that “the possession of the ‘structure of catholicism’ in the traditional sense does not in itself guarantee catholicity according to the apostolic teaching.” “For a Church,” he writes, “to feel sure of its catholicity because of certain historical characteristics its ministry possesses, or because of its liturgy, or because it is in communion with other Churches which call themselves Catholic — all of them external criteria within human control—is to lull itself into a sense of security the true Church does not know or desire to know on this earth, and to excuse itself from undergoing that discipline and crisis through the Word of God which alone will give it catholicity.” (The Nature of Catholicity, pp. 82, 83.)

Independent authority

In this current Anglo-Catholic emphasis, therefore, what we find is two other authorities put alongside the Scriptures as of equal weight, and as not themselves needing Scriptural endorsement.

This particular position, and the general tendency of which it is a significant expression—the tendency, that is, to ascribe to certain “developments” which become established and traditional in the Church a sanctity and authority independent of, and virtually equal to, those possessed by the Scriptures—were condemned in principle by our Lord when he quoted Isaiah’s words, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men”; and when he himself added in comment, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition”; and “So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God” (Mark 7:7, 9; 15:6 R.S.V.) This is also a practice fundamentally different from the reformed position of the Church of England, and one which, far from promoting reconciliation by its professed “wholeness”, has created within the Church of England radical division in faith and worship. With such views there can he for those who are still unashamedly biblical churchmen and biblical Anglicans no reconciliation. To such claims for ecclesiastical tradition we cannot submit, no, not for an hour; not least that the truth of the gospel may be preserved in the younger churches overseas; and also in order that the hope of intercommunion and closer fellowship with the Presbyterian and other Reformed churches may not be fatally frustrated by unscriptural doctrine and practice concerning valid ministry and proper sacramental usage. We still prefer with Archbishop Sancroft, and in the words of our own Prayer Book, to ask our Free Church brethren in Christ to pray with us for that agreement in the truth of God’s holy word, both with them and with all who confess God’s name in Christ, which will enable us, with God’s manifest blessing upon us, to live in unity and godly love. 

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.