"It would be wrong to say that Protestants universally do not turn to the Fathers, since many of them do, particularly those schooled in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, but most Protestants do not see the Fathers as an authority, certainly not as one that trumps what the Holy Spirit might be saying to the individual believer or even what the Spirit might be saying to an individual church. . . . Still fewer would believe that the Church should have the last word in matters of controversy regarding the scripture."
"Roman Catholics see scripture as having a sort of parallel authority with tradition and with the teaching office of the Church, but not as being above those other sources of authority and certainly not as being over the Church herself. Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, view scripture as a part of the tradition rather than above it or parallel to it, effectively making scripture subordinate to the Fathers and the Church. Anglicanism uniquely asserts the authority of all three sources of authority while maintaining that scripture holds the highest place, leaving open the possibility for error in the teaching of the Church or even errors in the interpretation of the Fathers, but not in the Bible."
--From "The Anglican Way: Scripture First But Not Alone," by Father Jonathan
AN: The Anglican Church is nothing other than the continuation of the historic Christian Church, the Church founded by Christ, the Church of the Fathers of the patristic era. We find ourselves in the middle of two extremes. Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy have added their own opinions to the faith, while Protestants have subtracted from the patristic faith. We've kept it pure, without deviating to the right or to the left. We also keep the middle way, the via media, in another way: Rome and Orthodoxy have exalted Tradition above Scripture or at least made it equal to Scripture, while Protestants have ignored the Tradition of the Church and have subjected everything to their own individual, private interpretations of the Bible (Sola Scriptura). We keep the middle way, insisting that Scripture is the highest and only infallible authority, while at the same time insisting that Scripture must not be read in isolation from but in the context of the patristic Tradition of the Church. We're also, by the way, less arrogant, since we do not claim ourselves to be the entirety of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, as Rome and the Eastern Orthodox do; we merely claim to be one branch of that Church, and we recognize that Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy are two other branches of the one true Church.
RC: So how do you know that you've got all this right, and that you've kept the faith pure while others have distorted it in some ways?
AN: We know that because we can see from examining Scripture and the Fathers of the Church that the Anglican way is the way that conforms to what they taught, while Rome, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism have deviated from it. For example, the Bible teaches that Scripture is the highest authority, and that only it is infallible. We can see this from Acts 17:11, where the Bereans are praised because they checked out what Paul was teaching them from the Scriptures, not just trusting him as if he were infallible. They only regarded the Scriptures as infallible. We can also see this from Jesus's conversation with the Pharisees in Mark 7:1-13, where Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for putting their own traditions above the Scriptures instead of checking their traditions by the Scriptures. So Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy have deviated from pure faith by putting Tradition on the same level as Scripture. Another example with regard to Roman Catholicism is the Immaculate Conception. Nowhere is that doctrine taught in Scripture, nor was it taught by the Fathers. Rome added it, and therefore has deviated from the purity of the faith. On the other hand, the Protestants have deviated from the purity of the faith by, among other things, subjecting everything to their own private interpretations of Scripture instead of listening and deferring to the Tradition of the Church, as 2 Thessalonians 2:15 teaches us to do, and as the Fathers taught us (see, for example, St. Vincent of Lerins's Commonitory, Chapter 2). Only we Anglicans have kept from deviating to the right hand or to the left in these and other matters.
RC: But your arguments here are question-begging, because you are assuming that your methods of interpreting Scripture and the Fathers is correct, and that your particular interpretations of them are correct. But Scripture and the Fathers are not so clear as prove your positions on the points you mentioned or on other points without further critical interpretation. Consider the example of the Bereans and Jesus's conversation with the Pharisees. Is there anything in these passages of Scripture that clearly puts forth the idea that Scripture is the only infallible authority? The Bereans checked what Paul was saying with Scripture (that is, the Old Testament), because they needed to see whether he was truly a preacher from God, whether the Christian religion was truly from God. So, naturally, they checked it against what they already knew was God's revelation. But they nowhere claimed that written Scripture alone is infallible. Once they established that Paul was a true preacher and that Christianity was true, they would then go on to trust the Apostles' teachings, whether oral or written, as St. Paul instructed the churches to do in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, as you just pointed out: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." The same kind of thing can be said regarding Mark 7. Jesus does tell the Pharisees not to add their own human traditions to God's Word, but where in the passage does he clearly teach that only written Scripture is the Word of God, or that Scripture is not meant to be interpreted in light of the infallible Tradition of the Church? Those points simply aren't addressed in that conversation. Or take the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. You say that the early Church did not know this doctrine. But the early Church knew of the sinlessness of Mary, and her purity from all stains is acknowledged today in both the Catholic and the Orthodox liturgies. It is true that it wasn't until the later Middle Ages that the Catholic Church as a whole came to the definitive conclusion that Mary's sinlessness implies her Immaculate Conception, but how does that prove that the Catholic Church was wrong in eventually drawing explicitly that conclusion? You neglect the fact that the early Church knew of the idea that the Church's understanding and application of doctrine is subject to development over time through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. St. Vincent of Lerins discusses this in his Commonitory, Chapter 23. Catholics and Orthodox (and even Protestants) have always understood this and understand it to this day. This is why you don't find a clearly articulated, formal definition of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son in the early centuries before the First Council of Nicaea, though the ingredients that will produce that formal definition are there. The same is true of the Immaculate Conception.
So here's the key issue: None of your distinctive ideas, in which you disagree with Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants, are so clearly taught in Scripture or the Fathers that you can appeal to them for proof of your positions without further interpretation. But your method of interpretation--to trust your own private interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers over against the Catholic Church's or the Orthodox Church's interpretations--is in conflict with the method of interpretation of both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, both of which teach that Scripture and the Fathers are to be interpreted, not by private individuals, but by the infallible, authoritative interpretations of the Catholic Church. Therefore, by assuming your own methods and interpretations without argument, you are fundamentally begging the question. You give us nothing but circular reasoning: "Trust our interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers over your own. Why? Because Scripture and the Fathers, when interpreted by us, tell you to do so." Well, of course they do--but this is hardly an objective argument.
AN: OK, I see your point. My argument does seem a little question-begging, doesn't it? But there's one thing you've definitely got wrong: You keep saying that we Anglicans use our own "private interpretations" of Scripture and the Fathers as our ultimate authority. But you are confusing us with the Protestant point of view--the point of view advocated by Lutherans and Calvinists, etc. We Anglicans disagree with this, and insist that Scripture, while the only infallible source of doctrine, must be interpreted in light of the Tradition of the Catholic Church through the ages, and particularly with reference to the Church Fathers. We do not believe that private interpretation is the ultimate authority, but rather hold that it is the Church which should have the final say in interpretation.
RC: You say that "the Church," rather than private individuals, has the final say in matters of Scriptural interpretation. What "Church" would that be?
AN: The Catholic Church of the ages, of which the Anglicans are a branch.
RC: But Anglicanism came into existence by breaking from the established and previously-acknowledged Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. And when they broke from Rome, they didn't join the Eastern Orthodox. Instead, they simply went off in their own distinctive direction. So "trusting the Church's interpretations" really means "trusting the Anglican Church's interpretations." Anglicans feel quite free to disagree with everyone else, including the other supposed "branches" of the true Catholic Church. So, really, you just trust your own private interpretations, just like all other Protestants.
AN: I see what you mean. But even if we trust as final only Anglican Tradition, still we don't trust as final private, individual interpretations like the Protestants do.
RC: As I mentioned, the Anglicans broke off from the Roman Catholics. Before the unfortunate events involving Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, there were no Anglicans. The English Church was a loyal province of the Roman Catholic Church. So, in order to form the Anglican Church, a number of English people had to stop trusting the established Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and instead trust their own private interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers as their ultimate authority. If they hadn't done that, they could not have justified their break with Rome. Before Anglicanism could be a separate church, some people had to decide it was right to make it one by trusting their own theological judgment. Did they claim themselves to be infallible, or did they simply claim that they were right based on their own personal examination of the evidence from Scripture and the Fathers? It was the latter, of course. On what basis could a group of Englishmen breaking from the Roman Catholic Church and forming a new church claim to be infallible? And even after the Anglican Church came into existence, Anglicans never claimed to be the one true Church but only a branch of it, as you have acknowledged. So does the Anglican Church consider itself, by itself, to be infallible? No, she doesn't. So why trust the Scriptural and patristic interpretations of the Anglican Church? After all, if the whole Church previous to Anglicanism's arrival could go off the rails, creating the need to form a new separate church in the first place, surely it is not a stretch to think that the Anglican branch of the Church might go off the rails too. So why trust her? The only answer is that individuals have to decide that she's got the pure faith by making that judgment based on their own personal interpretation of the evidence arising from Scripture and the Fathers. Private, individual judgment. This is no different at all from, say, the Lutherans, who don't claim the Lutheran Church to be infallible but say that people should agree with Lutherans simply because their own private interpretations of the evidence from Scripture lead them to agree with Lutheranism. Neither Lutherans nor Anglicans claim their respective churches to be infallible, or worthy of implicit, uncritical trust. Neither Lutherans nor Anglicans believe the Church Fathers to be infallible. (They couldn't hold the historic Church to be infallible even if they wanted to, because the historic Church turned into the modern Catholic--or possibly Orthodox--Church, and both of them have broken from this Church and have come to conclusions in disagreement with it. If they acknowledged the historic Church to be infallible, they would have to acknowledge themselves as schismatics and heretics.) Both Lutherans and Anglicans believe that much respect and deference should be paid to the traditions of the Church and the Church Fathers, and that Scripture should be considered in light of what they have to say, but not to the extent that they should be trusted implicitly and therefore put on the same level as Scripture which is to be trusted implicitly. So I really don't see any difference between the Lutheran--that is, what you call the Protestant--and the Anglican position on this point. You are both adherents of the same doctrine of Sola Scriptura--the idea that Scripture alone is infallible and that only it is to be implicitly trusted.
AN: But Protestants don't respect the Fathers and traditions of the historic Church, while we do!
RC: Do they not? They say they do, just as much as you do. John Calvin, for example, had great reverence for the Fathers, and quotes them extensively. So have all the other mainstream Lutheran, Calvinist, and other Protestant theologians through the centuries. They trust the Fathers very much; they just don't trust them implicitly and they say they have to be tested by Scripture--which really means they have to be tested by one's own personal interpretation of Scripture. Let me ask you a question: What if you're trying to interpret the Scriptures, and you've done all your research? You've read the Fathers, the early councils, the traditions, etc., you've paid great attention to them and given them lots of consideration, but in the end, it seems to you that the Bible disagrees with them, or that what they teach cannot be found to be taught in the Bible. What do you do? What is the Anglican thing to do?
AN: Well, we would have to go with the Bible, because it alone is infallible, which means that all others could err.
RC: Yes, and that's just what the "Protestants" say as well. In the end, after considering all the merits of all the interpretations of the Fathers, councils, etc., if those interpretations conflict with what you yourself have found in Scripture--that is, with your own personal interpretation of Scripture, informed by everyone else but ultimately your own interpretation, the interpretation you personally find to be right and best whether others agree with you or not--you go with your own interpretation of Scripture. Private, personal interpretation of Scripture is supreme. Sola Scriptura. What else can you, or any other Protestant, do? Should you trust the consensus of the Fathers implicitly? Well, they aren't infallible, so they could be wrong, right? So how do you know they aren't wrong? You have to test them by the Scriptural evidence as you see it; otherwise you'd be believing blindly. Large groups of people can be wrong. (One example comes to mind, just off the top of my head: Just about everyone in the seventeenth century thought that the Bible taught that the earth doesn't move through space, so that Robert Bellarmine could call that view the "common consensus of the Holy Fathers"--and yet it turned out they were all wrong.) Anglicans clearly believe that the whole Church could go wrong, for that is what they claim actually happened in order to justify their own coming into existence as a new, separate tradition with distinctive doctrines in the sixteenth century. Even if you decided that you would trust implicitly--without checking it independently against Scripture--the opinions agreed upon by all "true" Christians, this wouldn't take you as far as you need to go, for "true" Christians disagree about all sorts of important things, including the question of which professing Christians are "true" Christians and which aren't. Do we include Nestorians and Oriental Orthodox, or just Chacedonians? Do we include Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants? How do we know, then, what doctrines we should hold when there is disagreement? How do we know whether or not we should baptize infants? How do we know whether we should ask the Saints to intercede for us? How do we know if adoration of the host is idolatrous or not? And so on. Most importantly for this conversation, how will we know why we should go with Anglicanism over against Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, etc.? There will be no way to know, other than relying on our private, personal interpretations of Scripture.
AN: I don't know how to respond at this point. But I do have one more thing to say: At least we Anglicans do not claim to be the whole Church. We only claim to be a branch of it, and we respect equally the other branches--the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. We do not act on our own authority alone, but do things only in agreement with them.
RC: Really? But your entire existence belies that, as do all your distinctive Anglican doctrines! The other two "branches" of the Church (as you describe them) do not agree that the Anglican Church should even exist! They do not agree that they are mere "branches." This way of looking at things is uniquely Anglican, disagreed with by the other churches. And all the distinctive Anglican doctrines by which Anglicans differ from Catholics, Orthodox, and other Protestants have been arrived at by Anglicans, obviously, not in agreement and in communion with other churches, but solely by their own judgment, on their own authority, and in opposition to the contrary positions of all other churches. Nor do you agree with the patristic Church in your distinctives. Your "branch theory" of the Church was taught by no Church Father. The idea that the true Church is made up of a number of independent churches that disagree in important matters of faith and practice is an idea absolutely unheard of in the patristic Church. It is a pure Protestant distinctive which the patristic Church would have unanimously and vigorously opposed as heretical and schismatic.
In short, the problem with your claim that Anglicanism is uniquely the pure faith, the via media that preserves orthodoxy intact, boils down to this: Your entire basis for this claim is built on nothing but question-begging and circular reasoning. You make your claim based on your interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers, using your methods of interpreting, without giving any proof that your methods and your interpretations, over against those of other churches', have any validity. Also, your position is really identical to the Protestant Sola Scriptura position, which has been discussed elsewhere. You make out that your position is different, but only by distorting what other Protestants teach (trying to make them look less sophisticated in their methods of biblical interpretation than they actually are) and by trying to have your cake and eat it too. You say you rely on "the Church" as the final arbiter of Scriptural interpretation, but you equivocate on what "the Church" is, saying you consider yourself just a branch of the Church but relying on your own authority as if you were the whole of it. You neglect the fact that you are a break-off denomination that did not exist before the sixteenth century but which came into existence by reversing the English Church's previously held position and declaring independence from the Roman Catholic Church. You say you trust "the Church" as final arbiter, but you were quite willing to depart from the established Tradition of the Church as it existed at the beginning of the sixteenth century based on your own admittedly fallible attempts to interpret Scripture and the Fathers for yourselves, nor do you claim to be infallible today, therefore sending everyone back to their own personal interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers in an attempt to check to see whether what you say is really true. In the end, then, I think we have no choice but to come to the conclusion that Anglicanism, by breaking from the historic Church with no substantial justification, is a schismatic movement that should be abandoned for the Church that Christ founded, the Catholic Church.
For more, see here, here, and here.
Published on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul