Scripture, Tradition and Erastian heresy

The Savoy Palace in 1650 drawn by Wenceslaus Hollar
The Savoy Palace in 1650 drawn by Wenceslaus Hollar (Public Domain)

The majority of the Anglican articles addressing controversial issues aim their polemics Romeward. There are, however, some which address controversies with the more radical wing of the Reformation. The thirty-fourth is one such.

XXXIV. Of the Traditions of the Church
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times these have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly (that others may fear to do the like) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

The sort of issues at stake in the run up to the 1662 republication of the articles might helpfully illustrate what would have been in people’s minds when reading this article. I take these examples from the Savoy Conference of 1661. (The easiest source is Colin Buchanan’s Grove Booklet) Some of them may be surprising. Among other things, the Puritans objected to:

  • The Litany, because “the Petitions for a great part are uttered only by the People, which we think not to be so consonant to Scripture, which makes the Minister the Mouth of the People to God in Prayer”.
  • The keeping of Lenten fast days, and the observation of Holy Days (especially some of them as days without work)
  • Readings from the Apocrypha
  • Insufficient stress on repentance and both original and specific sins in the words of the confessions in the BCP
  • The use of the sign of the cross in baptism
  • Kneeling to receive Holy Communion

First, this list shows how things have changed. Today’s inheritors of the sola scriptura mantle would never object to the congregation praying themselves as unscriptural. That, in itself, shows what a slippery concept “consonant to Scripture” actually is, and how prone to traditional interpretations. Nor can one easily imagine anyone today thinking that the lengthy confessions in the BCP liturgy are in any way “light” on sin. Contexts shift rapidly. And how surprised would the Puritans and Bishops gathered at the Savoy Palace have been to find that at the start of the 21st century, kneeling to receive communion is as likely to happen in Evangelical churches as standing to receive is in Catholic ones?

At one level, this reinforces the common-sense observation of the article that “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times these have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners”. At another level it suggest that the actual interplay between traditional practices and competing readings of scripture is never as straightforward as any theory suggests.

There are fairly clear competing underlying principles between Puritans and Anglicans here: for the former the principle is “If it isn’t in Scripture, don’t do it”, for the latter, “If it isn’t against Scripture, do what the church teaches”. There is a barely veiled assumption which accompanies that Anglican view: “Whatever our church teaches is not against Scripture.” Hence those who disagree are, according to the article, setting their private judgement against the authority of the Church. No doubt it’s one of those irregular verbs: “I am biblical, you have a private opinion, he is a heretic.”

The article seems to be entirely unaware of its most egregious innovation, to be found neither in tradition or scripture: the idea of a national church. For it moves from noting diverse historical and cultural practices to the assertion that “every particular or national Church” is where the authority in matters of tradition lies. It is this complete blurring of the social and ecclesial orders that has always been the Church of England’s biggest theological weakness. It continues to lie at the root of many of its contemporary problems, whether adjusting to post-Christian society, or creating and responding to bizarre concepts of “provincial autonomy” across the Anglican Communion.

Another fault-line, which continues to run through the present day life of the Anglican world is the assumption that whatever is in Scripture is by divine authority, and whatever isn’t is by “man’s authority.” This black and white characterization does little justice to the actuality of scripture, tradition or lived experience, and their complicated interplay, whether demonstrated in the making of the canon, the development of the catholic creeds, or the ongoing re-reading of scripture.

As noted above, the plain meaning of Scripture to the Puritans of yesterday is the opposite of its plain meaning to their successors today on the question of congregational prayer and liturgy. The difference between the two positions articulated as scriptural can only be understood in the light of tradition and experience. The problem with the stark opposition of the article is its lack of hermeneutical awareness. What is in Scripture may well be by divine authority, but without the human activity of reading and interpreting, divine authority stays silent.

It seems to me almost self-evident that the Anglican principle “provided it’s not against Scripture” is vastly better than the Puritan principle “only if it’s in Scripture”. Not only does it take seriously the partial and fragmentary picture of the life of the church in the New Testament, it allows us to acknowledge the vast gulf between then and now, and the many aspects of contemporary life completely unknown to the authors. That aspect of the article seems fairly fundamental to almost all Anglican theologies and practices since.

But the article remains in other respects unsatisfactory. There are problems with the conception of particular and national churches, and with the simple bifurcation between divine authority and human authority. The article fails to articulate a sufficient doctrine of tradition and how scripture may be read to both resources and critique tradition. The danger is it can end up seeming to support a somewhat arbitrary authority, insufficiently rooted in doctrines of either the Spirit or the Church, or indeed in Scripture.

There is a partial answer implied in the way the Church’s traditional practice, rooted in past and corporate readings of Scripture, and declared scriptural by competent authority, is opposed to private judgement and individual readings of Scripture. But that lacks sufficient explication of how traditional readings may either challenge or be challenged by fresh ones, and precisely what or who the competent authority is. If most today would find the seventeenth century answer (the Crown in Parliament) deeply unsatisfactory as an arbitrator of theological disputes, no-one in their right minds should be in hurry to suggest General Synod as an answer today.

As in previous articles, I think we can again trace some of the roots of present Anglican difficulties to an insufficiently clear articulation or exploration of ecclesiology in the past. The over-identification and merging of secular and religious authority in monarch and magistrate, which allows such easy (and in my view entirely unbiblical and untraditional) talk of a national church is the besetting sin (heresy?) of Anglicanism, from which its best theologians have never entirely managed to purge it, and from which so many of its current problems flow.