That it may please thee to give to all thy people increase of grace to hear meekly thy Word, and to receive it with pure affection, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit;
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

 

A few months ago, a colleague of mine who is an Old Testament scholar new to Anglicanism asked me what I thought a distinctively Anglican approach to the study and interpretation of Scripture might look like. I considered how I have seen biblical studies taught at both the Anglican and non-Anglican institutions with which I am intimately familiar. And, based on my casual observation of courses offered elsewhere, I was hard-pressed to describe how Anglicans are currently teaching Scripture and hermeneutics in a way that differs significantly from the mainstream of biblical studies generally.

This is purely an anecdotal observation, and not my academic field; no doubt the biblical scholars who write for Covenant might correct or nuance this picture. For instance, Wesley Hill has said on this blog that “To teach the New Testament in an Anglican way is … to teach in order that the New Testament’s coherence is shown to depend on the catholic faith.” He quotes Oliver O’Donovan, who said that it has never been “the genius of the Church of England to grow its own theological nourishment, but only to prepare what was provided from elsewhere and to set it decently upon the table.”

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Garwood Anderson, Michael Cover, Esau McCaulley, and others here might provide their own glosses.

But as a historical theologian, I have a couple of observations to offer on how certain figures central to the Anglican tradition have treated Scripture in the past, and I am willing to offer them up as worthy of consideration.


 

For the earliest “Anglicans,” the question was less one of understanding the text than of knowing what it is rightly to take up the text. The search for attaining a faithful understanding of Scripture begins by assenting to its authority.

As Archbishop William Laud explained, in a subtle and sophisticated argument on the authority of Scripture, “The credit of the Scripture … depends … upon the author himself, and the opinion we have of his sufficiency, which here is the Holy Spirit of God.”[1] As God is invisible and the hope of salvation is not realized in this life, assent to scriptural propositions is properly characterized as faith, not knowledge. For Archbishop Laud, the authority of Scripture lies in the individual Christian’s opinion of the sufficiency of God himself.[2] The sacred text has no life or meaning apart from its divine author, and our disposition toward that author is of paramount importance.

Above and beyond his insistence on the enduring, living connection between the text and its divine author, the interesting thing here is the volitional grounds upon which Laud believes Scripture establishes its authority within the individual human being. For him, reason is useful as a proof for apologetic purposes, not as a privileged interpretive method for the faithful. Christians may appropriately use reason to counter rationalist accusations thrown against Scripture, but they ought not believe the use of reason alone will give them access to its full effect: “the scale [of reason] is not large enough to contain, nor the weights to measure out, the true virtue and full force of [the Word of God].”[3]

If forced to choose, Laud would have rather seen us focus our efforts not on finding a perfect understanding of the text, but in learning to love and therefore submit to the text, as best we can understand it. This is not anti-intellectualism, but a thoughtful recognition of the limits of reason, and of our hopes for the effects brought by understanding. Laud’s emphasis is a pastoral and Augustinian concern for the firmness of our assent to the authority of the Word of God, which he sees as an act of the will, in faith by grace. “By the operation of God’s Spirit, the will confers as much or more strength than the understanding [confers] clearness.”[4] Indeed, in

the light of the Text itself, in conversing wherewith, we meet with the Spirit of God inwardly inclining our hearts, and sealing the full assurance of the sufficiency of all three [tradition, nature, Scripture] unto us. And then, and not before, we are certain that the Scripture is the Word of God, both by Divine and infallible proof. But our certainty is by faith, and so voluntary; not by knowledge of such principles as in the light of nature can enforce assent, whether we will or no ….[5]

For Laud, the grace-enabled human heart/will is able to discern and cling to the truth in a way in which, by nature, human reason cannot.[6]

While this is not, strictly speaking, an argument for Scripture’s authority per se, it is a cogent argument on how we come to discern and appreciate its authority. The distinction is subtle, and pastorally powerful. As I will show in tomorrow’s post, Laud was not alone in his emphasis on faith over natural knowledge; Cranmer himself emphasized the role of the will and prayer as the center of his own approach to Scripture. It seems that his influence made the proto-Anglicans distinct from their Scholastic Roman (and Reformed/Lutheran?) counterparts. Perhaps this is a genuine revival of Augustinian thought within the English Church, agreeing with Augustine’s famous use of Isaiah 7:9b (LXX) in relation to the understanding of Scripture: “If you do not believe, you will not understand.”[7] Later this was most famously expressed in shorthand as “Faith seeking understanding” by Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury.

Laud is, arguably, representative of the best divines of the Post-Reformation Church of England. What we see in him, as we see most especially in the prayer book, is that the very means by which one discerns and appreciates the divine authority of the Scriptures is simultaneously the means by which one comes to understand their true meaning.

In other words, faith is both the grounds of accepting the authority of Scripture and for correctly understanding it. At its foundation, faith is an act of the will. To quote Laud again:

Faith is a mixed act of the will and the understanding; and the will inclines the understanding to yield full approbation to that whereof it sees not full proof.[8]

Mr. Hooker would have agreed.

The manner of God’s operation through grace is, by making heavenly mysteries plain to the dark understanding of man, and by adding motive efficacy unto that which there presenteth itself as the object of man’s will.[9]

This historically Anglican emphasis on faith and the will over knowledge has a marked effect on the nature of the task at the center of interpretation, namely, attaining understanding of the text and, through that, its author. And it certainly has no less a claim to the label Anglican than the other options popular in our Communion today. The frequently cited “three-legged stool” of Scripture, tradition, and reason seems most often abused to privilege a certain form of “reason” over all else.

As I have shown, Laud and other early Anglicans would underline instead the efficacy of faith and obedience for obtaining a right understanding of Scripture.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Jeremy W. Bergstrom is canon for vocations in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, and priest-in-charge of St. Christopher’s, Dallas. His other posts are here.

The featured image is Van Dyck’s portrait of Laud (ca. 1636). It is in the public domain.

[1] Paul E. More and Malcom Cross, Anglicanism: The Thought and Practice of the Church of England, Illustrated from the Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (SPCK, 1935), p. 98.

[2] Hooker also calls it a matter of “persuasion,” not immediate knowledge. Ibid., p. 90; Laws I.14.1-4.

[3] More and Cross, Anglicanism, p. 103.

[4] Ibid., p. 102.

[5] Ibid., emphasis added.

[6] See especially Laud in Ibid., p. 102: “after he once believes, his faith grows stronger than either his reason or his knowledge. And great reason for this, because it goes higher, and so upon a safer principle, than either of the other can in this life.”

[7] This connection may not seem immediately relevant to our purposes here. But I think it is. The obvious places to observe Augustine on these issues are De doctrina Christiana and De catechizandis rudibus. Look especially for his understanding of the role of the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) in approaching and interpreting sacred Scripture.

[8] More and Cross, Anglicanism, p. 98.

[9] Laws V, App 1 in the Everyman edition, p. 494.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Bergstrom is canon for vocations in the Diocese of Dallas and priest-in-charge of St. Christopher’s, Dallas. He has been called a “Patristic fundamentalist,” and is content with the label.

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