The Church of St. Peter
The Anglican Way: Scripture, Tradition and Reason
Anglicans are famous, or infamous depending on who you ask, for “dialoguing”, the term we use for the long process of discussing issues, creating committees, reports and meditating and discussing the issues over again. Dialoguing is done from the smallest parish committees to the highest levels of Primates and Archbishops within the Anglican Communion. Some Anglicans like our way of taking time to talk to one another over issues over time to seek clarity or a common ground. Some Anglicans would prefer a more authoritative approach in the forms of decrees issued from our church hierarchy of bishop’s counsels and synods.
One way Anglicans have approached defining themselves, their beliefs, practices and disciplines, is using the three interconnecting principles of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Scripture, Tradition and Reason not only make up a part of what we believe as Anglican Christians, but also act as a guide to help us discern God’s will.
Appropriately then, I like to think of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as a three-member committee dialoguing amongst each other and asking each other questions with each voice contributing to the ongoing development of Anglican thought, worship and practice.
“All scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy .” (2 Timothy 3:16 )
The Bible is like a small library containing a vast array of material. In the Hebrew Scriptures there are thirty-nine books with the story of creation, the histories, ritual, poetry, songs, wisdom, and prophets of the people of Israel.
The Christian Scriptures contain twenty-seven differing books. The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Gospel is a Greek word meaning “good news” and is central to the life of the Church. The New Testament also contains The Acts of the Apostles, a story of the Church’s early beginnings, the Epistles (Greek for “letters”) written by or attributed to the Apostles, and the Book of Revelations. Another group of writings occasionally read in Church are the books of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha arose out of the Jewish culture a century or two before Christ. They are not part of the Canon of Scripture, but they hold a variety valuable subject matter such as history, poetry and teaching.
We refer to the Hebrew and Christian bible as the Canon of Scripture. Canon comes from a Greek word meaning a ruler or measuring stick. We use scripture as a measuring tool to see if we are on the right track. Do we "measure up" to the demands, biblical standards and the way of life God calls us to live as baptized individuals and as a Church?
Tradition asks of Scripture, “How have Christians interpreted the word of God over the last two thousand years?” Tradition asks, “How have they embodied what they have understood in scripture?” Tradition instructs us to hold onto and value the wisdom learned from the past. Much of this collective wisdom is referred to as the writings of the Church Fathers. Tradition encourages us to listen to this treasury of ancient wisdom, insight and customs and to pass them onto modern-day Christians.
Reason explores the Scriptures using the tools of archeology, history, linguistics, anthropology and other disciplines to give us a deeper understanding of a four to two-thousand-year-old document. Reason often asks some important questions about scripture. Scripture does not fall from heaven nor is it written in a vacuum. Reason asks, “What type of environment, culture and history did a work of scripture evolve from? How might this have affected the scripture’s message? Given a piece of scripture’s historical context, how do we translate that context and meaning in today’s world?” The saying “sola scriptura” (Latin meaning “by scripture alone”), is not part of the Anglican way. The Church reads scripture through the lenses of the Fathers and Mothers of our faith and the gift of reason.
“Stand firm then, brothers and sisters, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (2Thessalonians 2:15)
As Anglican Christians, we are inheritors of the ancient Jewish traditions and are part of a living faith that goes back two-thousand years to the early Church, to the Apostles and to Jesus of Nazareth himself. Tradition is the collective experience of those ancient people of faith that we have received in our day. Tradition comes from the Latin verb meaning "to pass from one hand to another”. We cherish and receive from the hands of past Christians the wisdom and customs that evolved from their experiences of the living God.
There are four things Anglicans believe to be foundational and central to our understanding of Tradition.
We must measure our church traditions with scripture. Scripture asks of tradition, “Do our beliefs, customs, rituals, symbols, etc. convey the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus? Do our traditions carry out the principles of love, justice, peace, and compassion intrinsic to biblical teaching and the Gospels or do they hinder fulfilling the work of the good news of Christ?"
Reason asks of an ancient tradition, “Does tradition express the essence of the Gospel in meaningful and relevant ways to each new Christian generation?” Such a question helps the Church from becoming a museum of irrelevant practices of a bygone era. As George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Traditionalism is when we refuse to move a flowerpot because my Grandmother placed the church flowers in that very place and pot 70 years ago. Tradition is when we keep godly customs alive because they are as real today as they were 70 years ago.”
Anglican tradition can be celebrated in a variety ways. It can be expressed through many different languages and cultures and through many different styles of music, worship, art and architecture. The Anglican way encourages this diversity.
“Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
Reason is the knowledge and wisdom that God gives us to help us better understand his will for us as his people. Reason, guided by the Holy Spirit, should always direct the people of God to what is true, just, fair and sensible. As Lewis Garnesworthy, a former Archbishop of Toronto, used to like to say, “To become an Anglican doesn’t mean you have to leave your brains at the church door.” Reason encourages us to use the brilliant minds God has given us with all their skill in science, research and the exploration of our universe.
Reason encourages open dialogue and exploration of the issues that confront our faith. Reason can push us out of the comfortable and safe places in our lives and make us question our older assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves. God’s gift of reason can often lead us to things we don’t want to face. No matter how hard the truth may be to digest, Jesus tells us, “Learn the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) But human reason, even if guided by God, does have its limits. After all, we are only human and prone to confuse our egos and agendas with God’s will.
Scripture reminds us that we can’t find God with our reasoning minds alone. We can’t figure out God or his ways with clever theories. Mystery and a profound sense of awe are a part of our journey into the heart of the mystery of God.
Tradition reminds reason that we don’t have to explore the issues of our faith all by ourselves or with our own minds alone. We can draw on the rich treasury of experience of the men and women who have shared the same struggles and have found answers that are as relevant to us today as they were in centuries past.
Reason as a gift of God to the Christian community helps us discern how to use and balance both scripture and tradition as we seek to be the people of Christ in a modern and changing world.
St. Paul guided his disciple and friend Timothy with the principles of scripture, tradition, and reason as he writes, “You must keep to what you have been taught and know to be true [reason]; remember who your teachers were [tradition], and how, ever since you were a child, you have known the holy scriptures - from these you can learn wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ [scripture].” (2 Timothy 3:14,15)
As Anglicans dialogue amongst themselves about the challenges confronting our Church and the world, we need to hear the voices of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as part of our conversation and decision-making together. We cannot neglect one and show preference or indifference for one over the others. We do so at our own peril and risk the chance of getting lost in the babble of our own chatter.
By Dean Rose
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.