‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’


Updated at 11:20 p.m. [Jan. 9] with a link to a video clip at the end.
Updated at 1 p.m. Jan. 27 with an excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Anglicans often have been defined and identified by their braid of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.

Of course, the use of “Biblical Anglicans” or “Biblical Anglicanism” in the current global environment says less about historical understanding and more about contemporary political rhetoric.

However, the use of “Biblical Anglicans” still raises the question: why not assert all of the whole, instead of one-third? Why not say, “Historical Anglicanism: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition”?

I’m afraid the emphasis on one-third of the whole stems from an underlying belief that Reason and Tradition caused all things that, accurately or inaccurately, are now tagged “un-biblical.”

Let’s clarify a couple of things. “Reason” here doesn’t even mean “narcissistic, arrogant humanism,” as a Biblical Anglican might fear. Religion professor Richard T. Nolan says, in the context of Anglicanism, reason

is misunderstood when understood as theoretical reasoning. Reason was understood in a classical sense, drawing from Plato and Aristotle, as a participatory knowledge. To know something was to experience it, to share or participate in something. Hence, scripture and reason inform each other. Again, there is a mutual, inward hold that scripture makes upon us and we upon it. As such, reason may be best understood as a practical wisdom. It is in this sense that scripture, tradition, and reason inform each other.

But that does not conflate Scripture, Reason, and Tradition as three versions of the same thing. The Biblical Anglicans, or One-Third Anglicans, seem comfortable with Tradition and Reason as handy proofs for the authority of Scripture, rather than being forms of authority themselves. That approach would not be historically accurate. Consider two cases in point.

First, Benjamin Amundgaard says,

Another understanding of the interplay between Scripture, reason, and tradition came in the early 1830s from the Oxford Movement. Led by John Keble, John Henry Newman, Hurrell Froude, and Edward Pusey, the movement sought to restore the place of tradition in the life of the Church. The Oxford men believed that it was wrong to suggest that all doctrines and practices must come directly from Scripture, but that such could be warranted if they were indirectly evidenced in Scripture and clearly practiced in the early Church (i.e., tradition).

Amundgaard goes on to quote a tract on infant baptism, written by the Oxford Movement leaders:

Where is this enjoined in Scripture? No where. Why do we observe it? Because the primitive Church observed it, and because the Apostles in Scripture appear to have sanctioned it, though this is not altogether certain from Scripture.

Notice that clause: Because the primitive Church observed it…

To round out the point, Amundgaard quotes another Oxford Movement tract:

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Episcopacy is in fact not at all mentioned in Scripture: even then it would be our duty to receive it. Why? because the first Christians received it. If we wish to get at the truth, no matter how we get at it, if we get at it. If it be a fact, that the earliest Christian communities were universally episcopal, it is a reason for our maintaining Episcopacy; and in proportion to our conviction, is it incumbent on us to maintain it.

Keep that last quotation in mind.

Now, the second case in point.

Early in his acclaimed book A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, Professor David L. Holmes devotes a section to the Book of Common Prayer. In the below revealing excerpts, Holmes is referring to the second edition (1552) of the Book of Common Prayer, which was Thomas Cranmer’s revision of his original work, and a tweaked 1559 edition released by Queen Elizabeth.

As it did during Edward’s time, the Elizabethan Prayer Book had opponents who felt it did not move far enough…. The Puritan party, which desired biblical warrant for all beliefs, practices, and offices of a Christian church, viewed the Prayer Book as a half-way house to true reform and objected that it retained practices that were unscriptural.

Furthermore, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church said of Puritans,

They demanded express Scriptural warrant for all the details of public worship, believing that all other forms were popish, superstitious, idolatrous, and anti-Christian.

I’m not trying to rebut the Puritan party in its entirety, but notice the reasoning and reasonableness in the above Oxford Movement tract excerpts versus the unattainable and unrealistic goals of the Puritan party, at least as far as Holmes describes them.

The goals were “unattainable and unrealistic” because Christian liturgical worship, and its antecedents in Jewish liturgical worship, both were established prior to the final canonization of the Christian Bible.

In his book Whose Bible Is It? A Short History of the Scriptures, the late Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan explains how and when the Christian Bible was (more or less, as we’ll see) finalized as a specific collection of books.

The writings of Eusebius and of his contemporary, Athanasius of Alexandria, make it evident that agreement on the disputed books was approaching by the middle of the fourth century and that the canon of the New Testament which now appears in the Christian Bible was gaining general, if not quite universal, acceptance. That canon appears for the first time in a letter of Athanasius issued in 367 CE.

After that letter other traditions held their own for a time. Thus the scholars and theologians of Antioch in general accepted only three Catholic Epistles — James, 1 Peter, and 1 John — while one of its most illustrious representatives, Theodore of Mopsuestia, rejected the whole of this section of the canon. The West followed the lead of Athanasius. In 382 a synod was held at Rome under Pope Damasus, at which the influence of Jerome secured the adoption of a list of books answering to that of Athanasius. This was ratified by Pope Gelasius at the end of the fifth century. The same list was confirmed independently for the province of Africa at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419 under the leadership of Augustine of Hippo. The second canon of the Second Trullian Council of 692…may be taken to have formally closed the process of the formation of the New Testament for East and West. This stands in sharp contrast to the status of the Old Testament canon within the church, which was not acted upon by an “ecumenical” church council until the Council of Trent in 1546 and then in a way that has gone on being disputed because of the status of the Apocrypha.

(Notice the finalization of the canon actually “has gone on being disputed” due to differences in opinion regarding the Apocrypha. Christianity, writ large, agrees on the majority of Scripture but not upon the canon.)

So: Reason and Tradition were instrumental in deciding what books would be part of the New Testament. Reason and Tradition made certain books part the package we call The Bible. (Again, that’s “reason” as defined above.)

But wait — an agreed-upon, basic package of Scriptural books did not mean Bibles were immediately published and distributed to local Christian bookstores and downloaded onto Kindles.

So Christian life, worship, and expression (arts, architecture, and rituals in particular), along with a provisional New Testament, were vital elements within various communities of believers before the Bible could be called the Bible. Traditions, practices, and rituals were foundational to architecture and worship spaces. As a small example, see the remnants of a Christian basilica I photographed in Ostia Antica, ancient harbor city of Rome, this past October.

The Puritan party would have had us believe, and the Biblical Anglican neo-Puritans of today would have us believe, that there must be “biblical warrant for all beliefs, practices, and offices of a Christian church.” But that’s to cut off — and degrade — the Christianity that existed prior to canonization, the very Christianity that provided the seedbed in which decisions about the canon were made.

Furthermore, even if we could establish “biblical warrant,” even that isn’t completely precise and certain, according to some Calvinist scholars.

I want to go back to the idea of reason again. The Truth is not the rubber ball that bounces between the believer’s head and the Bible. Reason, as described by Nolan, is a matter of practical and well-practiced wisdom. Reason, in this sense, is also a matter of one’s surrounding cultural and social climates, which inform one’s interpretation of the available translation.

This is where practice and experience and community come into play. As an analogy, reading blueprints is not the same as building a house. Reading blueprints won’t tell you how to build a house, either, just give you the basic structure and measurements. Sure, you need blueprints. But that’s not all, not if you want a place to dwell.

Update: See this brief video clip of Camille Paglia’s interaction with an audience member, regarding the Reformers, the Puritans, and their view of the arts and the Bible.

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One response to “‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’

  1. Pingback: How Tradition defended Scripture & defeated Gnosticism in early Christianity | Public Work