Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason in Anglican Theology

So, how do Anglicans interpret all the Scripture we read? Anglicans are first and foremost a "Bible church", and that means that we cannot, and do not, deviate from the data we find in Scripture. Scripture is divinely given by God and is the constitutional document upon which all other tradition and meditation on God must be done. You cannot get to God without going through Jesus Christ (John 14.6 ff). And you cannot get to Christ without going through Scripture. We cannot go "over" Scripture by using forms of higher criticism, or "under" Scripture by removing its foundation in history and claiming it to be a mythical document, or by simply going "around" Scripture and saying that the content of Scripture s hopelessly tied to its time and place of composition, and can offer no enduring principals for 21st century humans. It is the only reliable data we have about who God is and how to live for Him. Yet, data does not interpret itself. Kind of like data on a computer disk. You could have the plans for a revolutionary invention on the disk, but if you do not have a computer to interpret it, it is useless. In the same way, the Bible is only useful when interpreted by God's family, the Church. We Anglicans believe that there are two or three tools God has given the Church to do this.

The first tool is Tradition, meaning the interpretations, decisions, and teachings that the Church has agreed on always and everywhere. The main traditions that Anglicans use are the seven worldwide Church councils that met before the Church split in two in 1054 AD. These councils were meetings of the entire Church to figure out solutions to tough problems, such as: Is Jesus fully God? Is Jesus fully man? Is God a Trinity? Can we save ourselves by human effort, without God's grace? (The answers the councils came up with were: Yes, Yes, Yes, and No). These councils produced the statement of faith, which summarizes the main teaching of Scripture, that all true Churches agree on today: The Nicene Creed.

Along with the Councils, we accept the writings of great Church fathers, teachers, thinkers, preachers, and mystics to help us understand Scripture. Often we call these writers "divines", because they help us attain knowledge of THE Divine. We particularly value the early Church fathers, because they lived in the same culture as the Apostles, spoke the same language, and had access to early documents and traditions that we no longer have. This inherited Tradition gives us great insight on what Scripture really means.

As Christians, we are supposed to do things "by the Book", which means that we must base everything on Scripture. We use the Bible as the standard by which we judge all other things. And yet, we also grow up in a "church tradition" that helps us (or even tells us) how to understand what the Bible is saying. Our tradition also goes beyond this, because it tells us by word and example what "being a good Christian" means. We may grow up in a very "contemporary" Church tradition, or a very "traditional" Church tradition. We may love our tradition, hate our tradition, or not even care about our tradition. But however we feel about it, it shapes us for good, or for bad.

The Bible even tells us about good traditions and bad traditions. Tradition comes from the Latin word "Tradere", meaning "to hand over". This is what the Bible means by tradition. It is something that is "handed over" from generation to generation in the Church. It is kind of like habits. We get good habits, and bad habits, handed down to us from our parents. These habits shape us. This is how tradition works in the Church too.

The Bible tells us to listen to good tradition and follow it. It says to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2Th 2:15). These good traditions come from written or spoken teachings (2Ti 2:2; 1Co 11:23, 15:3), or by the personal example of other Christians (1Co 4:16-17, 11:1-2; 2Th 3:6-10; Phi 4:9).

On the other hand, Jesus warns us not to follow just any tradition. We must make sure that we are following traditions that glorify God and bring us closer to Christ. Jesus tells the ultra-traditional group called the Pharisees "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions" (Mark 7:9; Mat 15:3-9, 23:1-39). St. Paul later warns us: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Col 2:8; Rom 12:2).

So how do we tell the difference between good and bad tradition? Well, first, we must distinguish between "Tradition" (big T) and "traditions" (little t). Tradition is the great teachings that the Church has agreed on through all times, all places, and all generations. Tradition will never contradict the Bible, but it may build on the foundation of what the Bible teaches. A great example of "Tradition" is the handed down teaching we find in the Nicene Creed. This Creed summarizes what the Church has always and everywhere believed about the main points of Scripture.

On the other hand, there are "traditions" which are held by minority groups in the Christian Church. These traditions may contradict the Bible (in which case they are in harmful), or they may be new understandings of what the Bible says. They may just be habits that have been handed down without question from one generation from another. A great example of new "traditions" is found in contemporary Christian music, or in the newest "End Times" books. When these traditions contradict Scripture or Tradition, we must reject them. Yet, if they do not, we must test them by Scripture and see if they are worthy to keep.

All of this discussion about Tradition and traditions have led some Christians in history to say "Enough discussion! I just want to follow the Bible! I am going to leave the Church and be a 'Bible only' Christian!". This is where we get so many denominations and "non-denominational" churches. But, if you attend one of these places long enough, you find out that they have simply started their own traditions (often while rejecting really good, beneficial Tradition in the process!). You will see that they have their own ways of worship, ways of praying, expected behaviors, and even styles of dress that are not found in Scripture. In reality, there is no "Bible only" Church. If there were, they would all have to speak Greek, wear togas, and not use electricity, modern medicine, or anything else not mentioned in the "original text" of Scripture!

Every Church is "traditional" because every Church must take the teachings of Scripture and apply them to their situations. Where the Bible speaks directly to our situations, we must obey and follow, but where the Bible is silent or does not speak directly, we must use Tradition to help us. Every time we try to get away from tradition, we wind up trying to "re-invent the wheel", and often what we invent is not as well thought out and not as Biblical as the great Tradition of the Church. Our rule is this: Where Scripture speaks, we obey. Where Scripture is silent, we are free to create, according to the Spirit of Scripture, guided by Tradition.

Here are a few analogies to look at Tradition and the Bible. The Bible is like the seed, giving the basic DNA of what the Church is supposed to be. Tradition is like the growing plant that comes from the seed. The plant will eventually look very different from the seed, but it is grown from the same DNA. The plant also develops over time (a mature tree is very different from a sapling), but its growth is always in line with the DNA of the seed and cannot contradict it. If it does grow in a contrary way, these new "traditions" become like cancer. They must be cut out before they endanger the entire tree.

Another analogy is that the Bible is the Constitution of the Church and Tradition is like the laws and court decisions that surround the Constitution. Just like the government cannot make any laws that are against the Constitution, so also the Church cannot make new traditions that are against the Bible. Yet, in our government's history, new situations and needs have arisen which the founding fathers never thought of in the Constitution. Therefore, the government has had to make new laws, in the spirit of the Constitution, to deal with these situations. In the same way, the Church must come up with new methods and traditions that are in the Spirit of the Bible, to deal with changing situations.

The Bible and Tradition is like a horse and rider. The horse needs a rider to get to its destination, but without the horse, the rider would never get anywhere. The Bible needs Tradition to apply it to the life of everyday people, but without the Bible, Tradition would have nothing to apply. In fact, without Church Tradition being led by the Spirit to discover which books were truly inspired by God, we would have no Bible at all. The books included in our Bible are a product of Church Tradition, because there is no book in the Bible that tells us which books to include in the Bible. It is our ancient Tradition that defines what the Bible is. Furthermore, our modern traditions shape how we translate the Bible into our own language from the original languages. We use tradition and culture to select which words and phrases we use to translate Scripture.

Therefore, as Anglicans see it, Scripture and Tradition are inseparably intertwined together. Scripture is our only reliable source of data to tell us how to know God and live for Him (2Ti 3:16-17; 2Pe 1:20-21). But it is the Tradition of the Church that is the "pillar and foundation of truth" which tells us how to understand what this data is saying (see 1Ti 3:14-15). We must evaluate the traditions of our Church, and ask the following: 1. Does it follow Scripture? 2. Has the Church always and everywhere believed it? 3. Does it help me and help others know Christ better, love Him more, and follow Him more faithfully? If our tradition does not pass these tests, we should change it or chunk it altogether.

The reason why I am an Anglican is because I believe our traditions, and our use of Scripture, best meets these three criteria above. First, I believe our tradition, as a whole, makes the best use of Scripture out of all the church bodies I have been involved with. Second, as I read the Church Fathers of the first five centuries, it seems to me that Anglicanism fits best with what they taught. Third, it has helped me "know Christ more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly" (from a prayer of the English bishop, St. Richard of Chichester).

After Tradition, Anglicans value human reason as an invaluable tool to understand Scripture. After all, the Bible says that God guides us through reason, meaning our common sense or simple logic (Luke 12.57; John 7.24; 1Co 2.15-16; Isa 1.18). With our common sense we take what we have learned from Scripture and Tradition and organize it. We compare one to another and order it in a way that makes sense, without contradiction (because God doesn't contradict Himself!). Human reason, used properly, never contradicts Scripture, but it does help us organize the data it gives us.

Scripture, Tradition, and Reason form what Anglicans call the "Three Legged Stool". This is the stool we sit on to follow God, and it holds us securely in place as we seek God's will. The stool helps us stay balanced. But, in the 1700's John Wesley, an Anglican revivalist and theologian, added another leg to the stool. He reminded us that our experience is a key to understanding Scripture.

Our personal and communal experience of Christ as we follow Him is crucial to comprehending Scripture. For instance, the experience of having a child profoundly changes how you understand Scripture when it calls God our "Father" and us His children. It also puts a new light on those passages that deal with parents and children. In addition, the experience of the Holy Spirit as He opens our minds to grasp Scripture is essential to understanding it. We cannot know God's will apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit (1Co 2.12-14; Acts 2.17, 11.5, 12.9; Heb 2.4). God also says that He "works all things for the good" of those who Love Him (Rom 8:28; Pro 16:33). Presumably this means that our experience of "all things" is crucial to understanding God, just as our understanding of Scripture is.

So, now our "three-legged" stool becomes a "four-legged" stool, which keeps us balanced as we follow God. Scripture gives us the data to interpret. Tradition guides us in interpretation. Reason helps us organize and systematize all we have learned. Experience helps us apply Scripture to our lives today. Each of the four legs are emphasized by different movements within Anglicanism, and together, we all keep each other in balance.


Matt Tapie said...

Nate this is such a great summary. This one is going to be printed!

Please share with me some of your reading lists on these topics.

God bless,


Peter Zefo said...

Nate, I stumbled across your blog because of Mclaren, Yaconelli, and Campolo in your profile. I miss Yac...my wife and I had the opportunity to be in attendance for his last message at a Youth Specialties conference in Charlotte.

My particular tradition would describe what you discussed above as the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral." I know that Wesley was an Anglican priest. However, how does the Anglican church view Wesley in light of the quadrilateral. Do they only credit him with adding personal experience or with the other "three legs of the stool"?

Anonymous said...

Is there such a thing as Anglican consensus on anything? :)

Oh, I wish there was!

But, most Anglicans I know believe that Wesley made explicit what other Anglicans spoke of implicitly. Everyone uses Scripture, Tradition, Reason, AND Experience... but Wesley really brings Experience to the forefront because of His pietistic and revivalist emphasis.

However, it is not even Wesley himself that coined the term "quadrilateral". It was a methodist theologian in the middle of last century.

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.