The Solemn Declaration and the Place of Holy Scripture

The Solemn Declaration
and the Place of Holy Scripture

by Professor David Lyle Jeffrey, FRSC

I.

The Solemn Declaration of 1893 expresses a commitment to unity of the Canadian with the English Church, of Toronto with Canterbury. Expression of that unity is to be use of the Book of Common Prayer in all its liturgies and ordinances, and, preeminently, a theological orthodoxy as defined by the classic tenets of the Anglican tradition which are expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The paragraph which most pertains to our reflection here, however, is the second:

We declare this Church to be, and desire that it shall continue, in full communion with the Church of England throughout the world, as an integral portion of the One Body of Christ, composed of Churches; which, united under the One Divine Head and in the fellowship of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, hold the one faith revealed in Holy Writ, and defined in the Creeds as maintained by the undivided primitive Church in the undisputed Ecumenical Councils, receive the same Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as containing all things necessary to Salvation, teach the same Word of God; partake of the same Divinely ordained Sacraments, through the ministry o f the same Apostolic Orders; and worship One God and Father through the same Lord Jesus Christ, by the same Holy and Divine Spirit who is given to them that believe to guide them into all truth. (1962, viii)

What is the value of this fin de siecle nineteenth-century statement for our own close-of-the-millennium discussions about the place of Scripture in the Anglican Church?

First, it reminds us that Christian unity as classically defined is based not upon the lowest common denominator of plausibly Christian identity, but upon a substantial accrued deposit of faith-a weighty structure or edifice, one extensively articulated, and “universal” (not merely local) in its character.
 
Secondly, the foundation of this edifice is to be Holy Scripture, Christ himself implicitly being the cornerstone.

Third, the building up of this edifice is to be observed in the Councils (e.g., especially Nicea, 325 A.D., and Chalcedon, 451 A.D.).

Fourth, the use of this edifice is to be worship of the God to whose glory it has been established, a worship conducted according to the Sacraments and ordinances established by Jesus Christ, the chief architect, and his faithful workers after him, liturgically as formulated in that user-friendly manual we know as the Book of Common Prayer. [1]

Our National Director, or so I suspect, had something like this architectural view of Anglican faith and worship in mind when he assigned me tonight’s topic-desiring that “the place of Holy Scripture” be contextualized in the larger scheme of things, so to speak. I hope I shall not entirely disappoint him – or the rest of you either. But to accomplish this rather full agenda in less than an hour is a challenge more flattering to your servant than manageable. I shall have to take shortcuts through the brambles, at the risk of a few abrasions.

II

Article VI

Let us begin by looking at Article VI, the chief article in question for our subject:

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. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

The intent of this article is abundantly clear, I think, but in case it should not be, the venerable commentary of Evan Daniel describes the object of the Article as:

1. To assert the sufficiently of Holy Scripture for the establishment of whatever doctrines are necessary to salvation, as against the teaching of Rome, which asserts the co-ordinate authority of tradition.

2. To determine the limits of the Holy Scriptures, and to distinguish between the Canonical and non-Canonical Scriptures.

3. To condemn those fanatics who disparaged all ‘book religion,’ and relied on the immediate illumination of the Holy Spirit. [2]

For myself, I take Article VI to have been indispensable to the faithfulness and spiritual authority of the Anglican Church, and to reflect opinion about the order and procession of reference to Christian truth more or less standard since the time of St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana in the late fourth century A.D. At the same time, I recognize that the critical principle it embodies-that all of the essential matters of faith are provided by Revelation, by what the Church has understood as Scripture-to be capable of misunderstanding and indeed abuse. Moreover, it is easy to show how this misunderstanding and abuse has weakened the faithfulness and spiritual authority of the Church-and not only in our own communion, needless perhaps to add.

I was visiting an RCMP detachment in the province of British Columbia recently, just as a major “grow operation” of marijuana was being brought to a conclusion by the apprehension of the owner and two employees. The owner, a most pleasant chap actually, summoned his lawyer to read a prepared statement, the first sentence of which was “I am a born-again Christian.” The statement of this remarkable (if criminal) entrepreneur went on to say that he took the Bible as his rule of faith and conduct, and that he had fond warrant for his marijuana “farm” (a fluorescent-lit warehouse) in Genesis 1:29: “And God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed…”

But we can find many examples of as blatant contradiction among more conventional folk who also claim to take the Scripture as their sole rule of faith and life. As the Angus Reid and other polls have shown us, millions of North Americans claim a faith that could be imagined as expressed in Article VI, but they have little remorse of conscience over a life which bears little relationship on many points to their supposed ethical authority. Who can but weep at the “God, I want it all,” success gospel religion of those who wish to rationalize an extravagant lifestyle as somehow God’s cash-on-the barrel, all the while claiming the Bible as their sole authority?

I wish I thought that such people were the most serious threat to Anglican orthodoxy. I don’t. Although Pharisaism is an endlessly permutating virus, one constant among its innumerable forms is incongruity of a gross order between lived life and the actual content of Scripture. As our Lord reminded the Pharisees, keeping the surfaces clean does not substitute for a consistently clean heart and an inner life of obedience (Matthew 23:25-26). At its least damaging, it stunts or kills altogether the spiritual life of the one who behaves in this image-conscious but inwardly corrupt way. At its worst, it adds to this miscreance self-justifying misdirection of the whole Church: gross implausible rationalization of such discrepancies through subjective, unbalanced, and eisegetical (reading into) reading of Sacred Scripture. Even the uncatechized, or the cheerful pagans of our time, can usually recognize this sort of horse feathers when piled up in front of them by the bushel.

What is far more subversive of real faith among Anglicans is the posturing “authority” of pseudo-intellectual churchmen telling us (in their silences as much as by their words) that the very foundation of the Church-the life and discourse of Jesus Christ and other accounts and precepts of Holy Scripture-are in fact ephemera, projections of the insecure subjectivity or mythologizing politics of the biblical writers, and that they have greatly diminished relevance to the “needs” of Christians today. And these are a still more numerous brood. Perhaps we might usefully think of them as somewhat like the Sadducees, “not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Unfortunately when it comes to the governance of today’s Chuch and revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, the modern Sadducees are a far more considerable force in shaping the development of doctrine than the Pharisees.

But I want to go deeper. The Anglican Church has historically been ambivalent about the development of doctrine. It was, after all, against an excess of doctriral development beyond what Scripture would seem to support that got us started; the assertion by the medieval Church of doctrinal development apparently disconnected from Scripture (or an apprehension that this was happening) such as was proclaimed at the Council of Trent. English reaction to the formal recognition of certain extra-biblical doctrine lies behind the conservative framing of many of The Thirty-Nine Articles, not just Article VI.

Among Anglicans, return to a strong notion of doctrinal “development’ has since then tended to produce either Catholicism or gradual apostasy. For example, the Catholicism of J.H. Cardinal Newman, was intimately connected to his great multi-volume study of the developmet of Christian doctrine. At the other extreme, perhaps, we might locate the preface to the first American Book of Common Prayer (1789), where it is stated that “rites may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people.” In recent years in the U.S. Episcopal Church this had been a sentence much appealed to, and with various notions of “edification of the people” not supported by Scripture in mind. (One wonders how many supporters of the Book of Common Prayer have reflected on the problematic origins of the American revision of 1789. It was accomplished largely by the profligate Lord Francis Dashwood of eighteenth-centry England’s notorious Hell Fire Clubs and the deist Benjamin Franklin, neither of whom showed any visible susceptibility to the ultimate authority of Scripture for matters either of doctrine or, in Dashwood’s flamboyant case, of conduct.) Anglicans have many times been pompted to suspect that not all “doctrinal development” is reliable, and hence to retain their ecclesiastical conservatism.

In 1996 the issue before us in respect of Article VI is still, accordingly, its relation to Articles VIII, XIX, XX, and XXI. [3]. I do not think that the Book of Common Prayer can be accused of maintaining an unresolved opposition between Luther’s independent Bible reader, sola scriptura, and that more Catholic view of Scripture which sees its Christian reading as forever being mediated by the traditional understanding of the Church as reflected in its Creeds and councils. It was certainly evident to Cranmer that if Scripture was to be followed, it could not be only as a matter of individual interpretation (cf. 2 Peter 1:20), and advocates of the Book of Common Prayer have realized that only in the most naive of conceptions is the understanding of Scripture ever tradition-free. We all have a past, and we all read in relation to other readings, tacitly if not explicitly expressed, of those who have gone before. Thanks be to God! There is not enough objectivity in any one of us to make a faithful personal understanding really possible without recourse to such support. What we all need is for our personal reading of Sacred Scripture to be anchored in a valid shared memory, our common Christian recollection of God’s redemptive action in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world to himself once and for all, and, as a consequence, continually and generationally, in every tribe and nation, in our families, in ourselves and in the Church as weekly we enter into the paschal mystery in Holy Communion.

The issue is more precisely (today as ever): how do we know which “traditioners” to trust? As we observe and struggle with the opposing claims of contradictory (often self-contradictory) “developmentalists,” by what base-line criteria may we distinguish between the authentic architecture of our common home and the vulgar renovations that have too often masked its truth as well as trivialized its beauty? By what criteria may we distinguish Christian truth from falsehood, authentic from inauthentic interpretation, shepherds from wolves? By what standard may be separate out individualistic subjectivist and self-justifying interpretation from Catholic, intentionally objective and self-critical interpretation which seeks the common and eternal good of the Body of Christ?

Let me put these rhetorical questions about Article VI itself in a truncated but summary and on-interrogative way. Article VI effectively proclaims the foundational authority of Sacred Scripture for all other authority in the Church and in the life of the believer. For an orthodox Christian, by a definition consensual and near timeless, Holy Scripture is our ultimate authority, our base-line of critical resort. Those who judge Holy Scripture not to be sufficiently authoritative, not to be the foundation of faith which may not without transgression be contradicted, are, by definition equally venerable and universal, not orthodox Christian believers.

Since this is largely a gathering of orthodox believers, Article VI itself should not then be a stumbling block for us. But what the Solemn Declaration of 1893 obliges us to recognize, among other things, is that Article VI cannot adequately, faithfully be observed without the generous, truth-seeking facilitation and teaching of faithful shepherds, pastoral and lay-persons, past and present, such as together make up the great cloud of witnesses to our common life in Christ Jesus. Accordingly, for those of us who believe, the question about how to use Scripture will always be crucial. That is, those of us who seek obedience to the Word of God must try to decide how much our understanding of Scripture can be a purely private matter, and to what degree in fact our reading depends for its reliability upon a common, shared understanding to which, as members of Christ’s Church, we apprentice ourselves. If the debate between believer and apostate is typically about whether the Bible should have authority at all, the debate among believers is about what sort of authority we have granted, thinkingly or unthinkingly, to the individual reader. The question of authority remains central in either case.

But for the Christian who seeks both understanding and obedience, the questions about authority ir, the reader can too easily become confused with the question of the authority of the Scriptures themselves. They are not at all the same question, and it is necessary that we should see how conflating the two can quickly put us in danger.

To minimize offence, let me illustrate more with historical than contemporary examples. I begin with a famous Christian who celebrated Article VI, but whose way of doing so (excluding Articles VIII, XIX-XXI) put him at odds with the Church in a way indicative of one of the two dangers we have been considering. I refer to John Bunyan, who wrote:

Having [the Bible] still with me, I count myself far better furnished than if I had [without it] all the Libraries of the two Universities: Besides, I am for drinking water out of my own cistern: what GOD makes mine by the evidence of his Word and Spirit, that dare I make bold with. (Preface to The HoIy City [1665])

For Bunyan, the Bible is the one book needful; all other human learning is beside the point, more likely to confuse than to clarify the Bible’s, precepts. To be able to say that he relied upon the Bible alone gave him, he believed, much greater personal authority. The authority of the Church ow became increasingly extraneous, an inauthentic authority. As Bunyan develops his argument in Grace Abounding (1666), his spiritual autobiography, it is only to the degree that his life and words stand in unique relationship to the Bible that they have spiritual authenticity and, by implication, authority for his readers. And there’s the rub. Bunyan was a Christian of monumental spiritual integrity. But the implication that his unshakable confidence in his own reading of the Bible could, without the mediating witness of other’s readings of the Bible, grant him authority to direct the spiritual lives of others, laid hin open to confusing his own originality and his personal teaching authority with the truth and authority of the Scriptures themselves, even in his own life. Perhaps it is needless to add that this error has certainly confused others of more modest gifts and lesser integrity.

The greatest Puritan theological writer of the seventeenth century, Richard Baxter, was often preoccupied with much specious conflation, in his own community, of the Word of Scripture with the “inward word” of the individual’s private interpretation. In his book The Life of Faith, Baxter warns his fellow Puritans that it is possible to abuse the central authority of scripture by “looking for that in Scripture which God never intended it for,” a practice, he said, which “cloth tempt the unskillful into unbelief.” How right he was. Among the worst abuses he identifies is Bible-roulette, the practice of letting the Bible flop open at random, and taking the first verse one’s eyes fall upon as a divine directive – really a borrowed pagan practice (cf. Sortes Virgilianae).

More insidious was a rationalizing use of general biblical promises concerning God’s rewarding of faithfulness to justify the maximization of personal profit and of personal pleasures as after all God’s will for the believer. The seventeenth century-no less than the second century or the twentieth century-abounds in examples of would-be faithful Christians who, lacking the sound hermeneutical basis which comes from apprenticeship to the historic understanding of the faith, combine a very high view of the Bible with extremely naive views of language, text, and (consciously or unconsciously) self-justifying motivations in the individual reader. The results in any time of this kid of epistemological cocktail include a free-wheeling entrepreneurial reading of the Bible-perilous at best, self-serving and, often enough, finally tyrannous at worst. In our own era it has certainly led to widespread confusion of Christianity with “the American way of life.” [4] The incommensurability of attested scriptural faith and actual life practice among contemporary Christians, a felt inconsistency which leads at last to self-justifying, appetite-justifying triumphs of ego over the text, is not, we can see, a novelty in our time. It is, however, perhaps unprecedentedly rampant in the contemporary western Church, and, as various polls confirm, not notably less so among professing Christians who claim the Bible alone, sola scriptura, as their sufficient authority.

The persistence of both ignorance and disingenuousness makes the collective wisdom of the Church, time-tested and time-honored for its consistent, coherent application of Scripture to shared life in the Body of Christ, all the more pertinent to our needs today. We need more vigilantly than ever to guard against that least fortunate impulse of the logic of the Reformation by which, in the search for a personal (individual) experience of authenticity or “empowerment,” we find ourselves at last in a “church of one.”

This is the counter-epistemic path that has led from Puritanism and some experiential biblicism to the Romantics, from the life authenticated by Scripture (Bunyan, Baxter, Newton) to the idea that Scripture is rather to be authenticated by life (Coleridge, F.D. Maurice, Bishop Spong). That is, when authority in the reader becomes individualized, and is not in humility subject to the collective reading-in-common of the Universal Church, the slippery slope from a well-intentioned subjectivity can quickly accelerate the ego through Pharisaism to that other form of resistance to “the gospel of Christ the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Roman 1:16). I refer again to the apostasy which Jesus identified with the Sadducees. The Sadducees, you remember, “Say there is no resurrection” (Matthew 22:23)-notably, Jesus tells them, because they have chosen to forget what the Bible teaches, and know neither “the Scripture nor the power of God” (v. 29; cf. Mark 12:24).

The Church in its catholic wisdom teaches us in Article VI to trust the Scriptures fully, and to regard them as sufficient for knowledge of our salvation. The Bible is our base-line criterion for judging all else, the standard which may not be contradicted. But in Articles VIII, XIX, XX, XXI, it also teaches us to be exceedingly wary of relying on ourselves in all matters of interpretation and doctrine. We ought not to imagine, as Louis Weil puts it, that faith is merely “a private matter between God and the believer.” Rather, “faith is corporate: it is the common faith of the Church into which new members are baptized and come to participate in the power of the paschal mystery.” [5] It is together in the Body of Christ that we come most reliably to know “the Scriptures and the power of God,” and to depend for our life-and for our death-upon the power of the resurrection which the Bible proclaims, that power without which, as the Apostle Paul says, our faith would be in vain.

How ought we who would be accountable to the faith once delivered to the saints, and to the spirit as well as the letter of the Book of Common Prayer, use our Bibles? Well, by implementing in our practice two biblical injunctions. The first is what Jesus recommended to the religious folk of his day-the acquisition and encouragement of deep biblical literacy such as can protect our understanding of Scripture from fragmented or individualistic interpretation which wold rob us of knowing the power of God (Matthew 22:21ff.).

Second, and corollary to this, is what is recommended in the catholic epistle of 2 Peter, that we remember that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation,” that just as we must depend upon the fact that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (v.21), so too must we seek the authenticated biblical teaching of godly persons today. This has been a cardinal principle for the interpretation and application of Scripture and the faithful development of Christian doctrine down through the ages, for, as the very next verse of the epistle warns us, “there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them” (2:1). The writer of 2 Peter predicts further that “many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed,” and that “by covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words” (2:2-3). Yes, we too can attest to the accuracy of these warnings.

How might the Solemn Declaration of 1893 suggest to faithful Anglicans today that they should regard the place of Holy Scripture in the life of the Church? Well, I think by encouraging them to see it in terms modelled in both of these biblical injuctions. What is commended by our Lord Jesus to us is a thorough-going biblical knowledge such as can transform our lives through articulate revelation of the power of God. What is commended to us by the apostolic Church is a reading of the Scriptures in common in the household of faith, a reading which is attentive to the authenticating presence of the Holy Spirit, and guided by “holy men of God” of all ages. What will protect s from specious and illegitimate use of Scripture, either ignorant or subversive of Scripture’s truth? The collective wisdom of obedient readers in the life and teaching witness of the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15). What protects, us from false teachers and “doctrinal development” extraneous or even corrosive of Scripture? The totum integrum of Scripture itself, and its confirmation of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in the interpretation of faithful Christ-like readers down through the ages and, indeed, still in our own time.

To be faithful, biblical Christians, we need both Scripture and the Church. But for the Church to be faithful is first to seek obedience to Sacred Scripture, to proclaim its foundation in the Scriptures and to build up sound doctrine candidly accountable to this foundation in every time and parish.

Our Church at some times and in some places seems to have forgotten this. That its memory might be restored and our connectedness to our apostolic foundation be made full, we all ought fervently to pray. Tonight, we night begin, I think, by praying together the Collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, that both we and our leadership shall earnestly seek obedience to the undivided Word of God:

O God, who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


END NOTES

  1. Two important articles reflecting on The Solemn Declaration appear in the Machray Review 5 (1994). The first of these is by Rev. David Curry, “The Solemn Declaration: The Net of Memory” (pp. 26-40), and the second is by Dr. Robert Crouse,”Anglican Spirituality and the Book of Common Prayer” (pp. 61-67), one of the most encouraging brief defences of the BCP to appear anywhere.
  2. Evan Daniel, A Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, 26 ed. (London: SPCK, 1948), p. 572.
  3. Helpful here is Henry Chadwick, “Tradition, Fathers, and Councils,” in Stephen Sykes and John Booty, The Study of Anglicanism (London: SPCK; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988),91-104.
  4. An extended discussion, is to be found in David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), esp. chs. 8-9.
  5. “The Gospel in Anglicanism” in Sykes and Booty, p. 54. I am not in concurrence, however, with Weil’s apparent sense that a sufficient cause for liturgical revision is to be found merely in the press of fashion in worship (p. 58). Weil candidly acknowledges, as his endorsement of the American Prayer Book preface suggests he ought, prayer-book revision as “expressive of theological change.” In the end, his argument for corporate faith is thus merely synchronic and not, unfortunately, diachronic and catholic.

An address given at Ashbury College, Ottawa, on. 9 September 1996 as part of the Ottawa Branch’s “Prayer Book Basic Training” Series.