Scripture and Tradition: a balancing act

In this series on the Anglican articles we’ve just looked at six on the canon, and seven on the place of the Old Testament. These two articles about scripture are followed by a short one on the creeds.

VIII. Of the Three Creeds
The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

This article contains, strictly speaking, two misnomers. The Nicene Creed is in fact the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, being the Council of Constantinople’s revision (381 AD) of the creed of Nicaea (325 AD). And the so-called Athanasian Creed, or Quicunque vult, is not really a creed at all, though it deals with fundamental credal material.

In choosing these three statements of faith, the article looks back to a relatively primitive rule of faith (the Apostles’ Creed is probably based on the old Roman baptismal creed of the early third century), to the major formulation of the church’s Trinitarian faith in the face of the Arian controversy in the fourth century (the Nicene Creed), and to a major Western statement that reflects the fifth century Chalcedonian definition on the incarnation (the Athanasian Creed).

The Anglican Reformers place themselves fairly firmly in the tradition of what some have liked to call the Undivided Church (a statement of doctrine rather than simple history). In fact, both the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed are fundamentally Western, and Anglicanism like the rest of the churches of the Reformation, belongs in the western Christian tradition. Until recent decades it existed largely in ignorance of the eastern tradition.

The articles are unusual among the Reformation statements in saying something specific about the creeds, and in their accompanying liturgy, mandating their use. The Apostles’ Creed was to be used daily (twice a day) in the Daily Office, and the Nicene Creed at every Eucharist. The rootedness of Anglicanism not only in the Scriptures, but also in the fundamental credal tradition of the Church cannot be avoided by anyone who pays attention to its classical liturgy.

There is, though, in these first eight articles a certain circularity. The overt and clear statement is that Scripture is sufficient and the basis of doctrine. Indeed, the creeds are to be accepted because they can be proved to fit the scriptural pattern. The tradition hangs on scripture. Yet the implicit statement in the ordering of the articles is that the Church’s traditional Trinitarian doctrine is the rule of faith and framework of belief through which the Scriptures are to be approached, and the Creeds act as an authoritative statement of what the Church has read in Scripture. Without this tradition, one will not read Scripture rightly, and if one reads Scripture in a way that departs from the traditional creeds, one has read Scripture wrongly.

While the articles will go on to more mixed use – both affirmation and denial – of varying traditions, these first eight, while formally according Scripture the place of primacy, actually practice a sort of symbiosis of Scripture and Tradition. Tradition becomes the work of, and guide to, reading Scripture rightly. Scripture stands as the guardian and judge of the Tradition’s readings. The articles’ position may be prima scriptura (Scripture first), but it isn’t, by any means, sola scriptura (Scripture alone).

Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

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