The Anglican Sources of Authority

In today’s Gospel reading there is a continuation of the running debate between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day.  In our passage, one of the Pharisees who was also a lawyer attempts to trick Jesus by asking which is the greatest commandment in the law.  Earlier in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests and elders had come to Jesus while he was teaching and asked him the following:

“By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?”  24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.  25 “The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’  26 “But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet.”  27 And answering Jesus, they said, “We do not know.”  He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

The question of authority is an essential one, and this morning I want to reflect with you on it.  What is the source of our authority as Anglicans?  In other words, what or where do we look for guidance and direction regarding what we believe?

Historically, Anglicans/traditional Episcopalians have generally held to three main sources of authority.  The Bible, or Holy Scriptures.  Tradition, or Holy Tradition.  And Reason, or Holy Reason.

The Bible is our first, foremost, and highest source of authority.  We Anglicans believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  The Bible contains God’s Divine Revelation about himself and his plan of salvation for all mankind.  We Anglicans believe, in the words of our 6th Article of Religion, in “the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.  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.”

The second source of authority for us is Holy Tradition.  What is Holy Tradition?  Well, let’s first understand what it is not.  Holy Tradition is not this: “we have always done it that way here.”  Holy Tradition is what has been believed, taught, or practiced in the Church, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, throughout the ages.  The teachings and writings of the Fathers of the Church.  The Seven Great Ecumenical Councils of the Church.  The historical liturgies and prayers of the Church.  The unbroken practices of the Church/the unbroken Holy Tradition of the Church.  Things like baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Or the use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

The best example of Holy Tradition in terms of what we believe are the Creeds.  The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are succinct summaries of our faith that we composed in the early centuries of the Church.  The Nicene Creed was the result of two great Ecumenical Councils: the First Council of Nicaea in 325, and the First Council of Constantinople in 381.

The third source of authority of us Anglicans is reason.  And more specifically, Holy Reason.  What is this?  Reason is that unique human faculty, or ability, to be able to think about things and put together abstract concepts in a meaningful, logical way.  And Holy Reason is the human ability to reason inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit through a life of prayer and sanctification in the Church.  Anglicans have always highly valued reason as a source of authority.

Roman Catholics, and to some extent the Eastern Orthodox, elevate Holy Tradition to a place of equality with the Bible.  Roman Catholics also have something called the Magisterium, which are the teachings and writings of various Popes and Roman Catholic theologians.  And Roman Catholics also have the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.  This is the belief that the Pope, when he is speaking ex cathedra, cannot err; he is infallible.  That dogma only came about in the 19th century, so it is very late in the long history of the Church.

Neither Anglicans nor Eastern Orthodox believe in Papal Infallibility.  And we don’t really have a magisterium per se.  What we do believe are the teachings and writings of the Fathers of the Church, the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, and the unbroken Holy Tradition of the Church.  We test various and sundry claims against Holy Tradition.

Most Protestants from the time of the Reformation in the 16th century have claimed that the Bible and the Bible alone is their source of authority.  There is a slight problem with that belief.  The Bible is not self-interpreting.  It must be read and interpreted.  And different people come up with different interpretations.  So how do you judge who is right and who is wrong when that happens?

As Anglicans, and particularly traditional Anglicans, we follow the teaching of St. Vincent of Lerins on this matter.  He was a 5th-century monk who dealt with this very issue of multiple and different interpretations of Biblical texts.

Listen to what he says:

“Here, it may be, someone will ask: ‘Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church?’  The answer is that because of the profundity itself of Scripture, all men do not place the same interpretation upon it.  The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men.”

St. Vincent’s rule is this: “Let us hold fast to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”  He continues:

“We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent.  We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself, we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, Bishops and Doctors alike.”

The rule of St. Vincent of Lerins is an important and essential guide.  It tells us that what we believe and practice today, in our generation, must be the same true Catholic and Apostolic faith handed down from Christ through the Apostles to us today.

In the New Testament Epistle of Jude, the apostle Jude writes to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). Let us make it our life’s goal to read and learn more about Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, and to use our God-given capacity to reason, inspired by the Holy Spirit through a life of prayer and the sacraments.

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