8 December 2023

Commitment to the whole Scripture is necessary to heal the wounds of the Australian Anglican Church 

The ultimate rule and standard of faith. Picture: iStock

By Peter Adam

9 November 2022

I hope that The Melbourne Anglican continues to allow respectful discussion and debate, as I hope that all Melbourne Anglicans themselves engage in respectful discussion and debate! 

I am responding to articles by Dorothy Lee, We all accept the authority of Scripture, where we differ is its interpretationand Bob Derrenbacker, Matthew 19 speaks into divorce, not same-sex marriage. My reply should be read in the context of articles by Fiona McLean, What we should and shouldn’t tolerate must be determined by God, and Andrew Judd, Our differences of interpretation reveal a deeper gulf

My claim is that the Holy Scriptures are not only one authority among many, but that they are the ultimate rule and standard of our faith, and that they must be taken as a whole entity, with each part read in context of the whole Scriptures. 

The Scriptures are the ‘ultimate rule and authority’ of the Anglican Church of Australia

Both Dorothy Lee and Bob Derrenbacker quote the Anglican viewpoint that Holy Scripture contains “all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ”, words from the Thirty-Nine Articles used in our Ordinal. I agree!  

However in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, Australian Anglicans also assert: 

This Church receives all the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation. 

Read more: We all accept the authority of Scripture, where we differ is its interpretation 

I take it that “ultimate rule and standard of faith” means an authoritative status superior to creeds, bishops, doctrinal statements, synods, tradition, experience, reason, theologians, scholars, contemporary thinking, contemporary feeling, contemporary social attitudes, personal opinions, tribal beliefs, and constitutions! 

Dorothy Lee claims “As Anglicans we accept the authority of Scripture”. But we also accept the authority of governments, general synod, diocesan synods, creeds, bishops, theologians and scholars. The issue of the interpretation of Scripture is important, but so is the question of levels of authority.  

To assert that Scripture is the “ultimate rule and standard of faith” is to claim more than that it is an authority we all accept. I believe that it is not only the interpretation of Scripture that we disagree on in many matters, but also the role of Scripture as “the ultimate rule and standard of faith”, as asserted in our constitution. 

Everyone who is ordained commits to the constitution, as we do also every time we are licensed for a particular ministry. The constitution is not a dead letter, but a constant and public commitment before God for all who are ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia. 

Read more: Matthew 19 speaks into divorce, not same-sex marriage

Furthermore, I am not convinced that: “We [Anglicans] all accept the authority of Scripture”. In his Presidential Address to Synod in June 2022, the Archbishop of Brisbane, Philip Aspinall, supported the following statement: 

The biblical presuppositions no longer stand therefore the moral rules based on those presuppositions and rationale no longer must be regarded as prescriptive …  

Anglican theological methodology 

Bob Derrenbacker’s article on Matthew 19, is full of useful information on that text, its context and background. However there is a distinction between strict exegesis of a Bible text in its context, and the task of theological and ethical reflection, which sees that text in the broader context of the whole of Scripture. The Christ of the gospels sees himself as the fulfilment of what we call the Old Testament, and his theological presuppositions are those of the Old Testament. He also clarifies the ways in which his later revelation should transform our reading and use of the Old Testament. He also promises more fulfilling revelation through his apostles. So we should recognise the Bible’s cumulative evidence, as Bible themes are developed and clarified. 

Read more: What we should and shouldn’t tolerate must be determined by God 

This process, called “collection” by the quintessential Anglican Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Authority. As he explains, it is the means by which we deduce the doctrine of the Trinity, the co-eternity of the Son of God with his Father, and the duty of baptizing infants! This biblical theological accumulation is fundamental to Anglican theological method, and to Credal Christianity. Focussed exegesis has its place, but is insufficient for theological development. The wider context of the whole Bible is also relevant. 

A classic contemporary example of this theological method is the use of “that they may be one”, from John 17:21, commonly used to promote ecumenical unity. In context (17:20), this unity is between the disciples and those who believe in Christ through their message. It is unity between subsequent believers and the New Testament apostolic teaching. It is now used to promote contemporary unity, rather than a particular historical unity. But no great harm is done, as it fits into a wider Biblical narrative of the historical and contemporary unity of God’s people. 

Read more: Our differences of interpretation reveal a deeper gulf

Furthermore, in response to Derrenbacker, the context of Matthew 19 also includes Jesus’ teaching on eunuchs [vv. 10-12], which includes celibacy chosen “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. Surely this context is relevant to the discussion of sexual identity and practice? 

We are created and judged by the Scriptures 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote of the constant need for the Anglican Church to relearn the gospel and test itself by Bible as the standard of the Reformation, and of Catholicism, that is universal and historical Credal Christianity. 

The full recovery of the doctrine of the Church is bound up with the return of the Gospel of God. Catholicism, created by the Gospel, finds its power in terms of the Gospel alone…And if Catholicism is thus closely related to the Gospel, the Catholic is again and again driven back to the Scriptures‘The Word of God’, ‘sola fide’, ‘sola gratia’, ‘soli Deo gloria’ … are Catholicism’s own themes, and out of them it was born. But they are themes learnt and re-learnt in humiliation, and Catholicism always stands before the Church door at Wittenberg to read the truth by which she is created and by which also she is judged [A. M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, London, Longmans, Green, 1956, 179,180]. 

Jesus himself announced that he himself, as one of God’s people, lived “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). 

A whole-hearted commitment to the whole Scripture as our “ultimate rule and standard of faith”, as outlined in our Constitution, is necessary to heal the wounds and divisions of the Anglican Church of Australia. 

The Reverend Dr Peter Adam is Vicar Emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton and former principal of Ridley Theological College.

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