God’s Word Written: An Anglican Understanding of the Bible
Mark Earngey, D.Phil (Oxford), Lecturer in Christian Thought, Head of Church History Department, Moore Theological College, Sydney
The following article was first published in the Australian Church Record Journal, number 1922, which can be freely accessed through www.australianchurchrecord.net.au. It is republished with permission of the ACR.
“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” In a loud voice and fervent prayer, mere moments before his death at the stake in 1536, William Tyndale uttered these words. Regarded by John Foxe as “the apostle of England”, the great Gloucestershire translator heartily desired that all people should have unfettered access to God’s written Word, the Bible. He hoped that the ploughboy would grasp as much of the Scriptures as would the priest. He knew that the Word of God spoke to the many misguided traditions and misunderstood decisions of his day, and believed that that Holy Scripture was the touchstone which tries all doctrine.
We can – and should! – give thanks to God that Tyndale’s dying prayer for Scriptural supremacy was answered in abundance. King Henry VIII authorised the Great Bible, which was first published in 1539. The significance of this development should not be lost on us. Every parish in the realm was ordered not only to purchase the new Bible, but to chain it to some convenient place within the church such as the lectern. It was so popular that a royal injunction was soon required to prevent people reading from it out loud during sermons! Evidently, this Bible was “Great” not only by virtue of its size, and its accessibility, but most of all, it’s authority. This point was made plain through the woodcut image printed upon its title page. On the frontispiece, the Lord Jesus sits at the top of the picture and declares “… so shall my word be that which goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me void” (Is. 55:11). Underneath Christ sits King Henry himself, who hands the “Verbum Dei” to Archbishop Cranmer and Vicegerent Cromwell, who then distribute it to others, and in response to all this, the people cry out “Vivat Rex!” So important were the Scriptures, that Thomas Cranmer would write in the Preface to this Great Bible that, “this book … is the Word of God, the most precious jewel, the most holy relic that remain on earth.”
Since those early days of the English Reformation, Anglicans throughout the world remain convinced that the Bible is “the most precious jewel” on the earth. This is the reason why Cranmer coupled the liturgy for morning and evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer with a lectionary which entailed the reading of most of the Old Testament once a year, most of the New Testament three times per year, and the Psalter once a month! This is the reason why the King James Version of the Bible has gripped Christian men and women throughout the centuries. And this is the reason why millions of Anglicans around the world today respond on a weekly basis to the hearing of the Bible with, “Thanks be to God”. What drives this central feature of Anglicanism is the important fact that the Bible, according to our Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, is “God’s Word written.”
The classic Anglican appreciation of the Scriptures as “the most precious jewel” is a fair distance away from Bishop Peter Stuart of Newcastle’s recent description of the Bible as “an authoritative text for Anglicans.” We may dismiss much of Bishop Stuart’s article as a mixture of historical and theological error. But the ambiguity within the phrase “an authoritative text for Anglicans” does raise an important question for us: how is the Bible authoritative for Anglicans?
An admirable attempt to engage with this question was recently penned by Bishop Murray Harvey of Grafton. Most commendably, he writes that the “ultimate purpose” of carefully interpreting the ancient Scriptures in our modern day “is that we might meet and know Jesus.” Practical advice for reading Scripture is provided, and devotional reading of the Bible is enthusiastically encouraged. Furthermore, the article displays some awareness of our Anglican foundations with reference to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, but most importantly of all Bishop Harvey engages with Scripture itself. Nevertheless, within his well-intended piece, there are some infelicitous remarks related to the nature, the authority, and the interpretation of the Holy Scripture. Since these matters carry significant consequences, the present article aims to clear away some confusion and provide some clarity concerning “the most precious jewel” of our Anglican heritage, the Bible. This clarity is vitally important in light of current debates within the Anglican Church of Australia.
How do Anglicans understand the Nature of the Bible?
Let us start with the nature of Holy Scripture. Bishop Harvey helpfully grounds the doctrine of Scripture in our doctrine of God: we have a God who communicates with human beings. Moreover, the church is the creature of the Word (and not vice-versa) and is thus a witness to the Word, not its judge. Therefore, he rightly states that “Anglicanism has always cherished scripture and given it a central place in its life and worship.” In fact, with reference to Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles, Bishop Harvey explains that the reason for this ecclesiastical importance is that the Bible is sufficient for our salvation. The importance of these commitments cannot be overstated: Anglicans believe in the God who is there, the God who is not silent, and the God who saves. When we next consider our well-loved and well-read Bibles, we should pause and rejoice in wonder! For the God of this universe has deigned to lisp precious words to us, his beloved children.
So far, so good. However, it is where Bishop Harvey attempts to explain the relationship between the Word of God and the words of Holy Scripture, that we encounter some problems. Apparently, it is difficult to determine what the English reformers believed about the inspiration of the Bible. Harvey asserts that whatever they believed was in stark contrast to the continental reformers who used phrases like “God breathed”. This is untenable, not simply because the continental reformers did not write (nor often speak) in English, but because it is a false dichotomy. The key verse in question is 2 Timothy 3:16, which uses the Greek θεόπνευστος and is rendered “scriptura divinitus” in the Latin Vulgate. This is translated by various editions of the Bible as “inspired by God” (e.g., the Tyndale’s NT, the Geneva Bible, KJV, ASV, RSV, etc) or “God-breathed” (e.g., NIV, ESV). Either translation is legitimate, since it reflects Paul’s use of the Greek word in this verse – a use which Bishop Harvey has not understood rightly. He writes that “Anglicans do believe that the Scripture writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their work”. But this verse does not speak of the writers being inspired (though they certainly were, as 2 Pet. 1:21 indicates). Rather it says that the writings were inspired, viz. “All Scripture is θεόπνευστος”. The emphasis is on the writings, not the writers. Therefore, he incorrectly concludes, “so we should take seriously their original context.” Because of the inspiration of the Scriptures, the Apostle Paul teaches that we should take seriously the original text and not merely the original context.
The early English reformers understood this vitally important point. The Preface to the first Book of Homilies in 1547 (contra 1542 as per Bishop Harvey) speaks of the “very Word of God … according to the mind of the Holy Ghost, expressed in the scriptures”. Archbishop Cranmer, in his first homily (A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture) attributes “the most infallible certainty, truth, and perpetual assurance” of the Scriptures which are given By God who is “the only author of these heavenly meditations.” An illustrious group of Marian prisoners, including martyr and theologian, John Bradford, declared the Scriptures “to be the very true Word of God, and to be written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost”. The Church of England’s great defender, Bishop John Jewel, wrote, “All that is written in the Word of God is not written for angels and archangels or heavenly spirits, but for the sons of men and for us … It is the Word of God: God opens His mouth and speaks to us, to guide us into all truth”. Thomas Lever spoke concisely of “Gods Word written in the Holy Scriptures by inspiration of God”. Bishop James Pilkington of Durham writes that “Scripture comes not first from man, but from God, and therefore God is to be taken for the author of it and not man.” And the Elizabethan Archbishop of York, Edwin Sandys, set forth the same opinion: “The foundation of our religion is the written Word, the Scriptures of God, the undoubted records of the Holy Ghost.”
Furthermore, the inspired nature of the text of Scripture was enshrined into the Anglican formularies authored by our Reformers. Archbishop Cranmer’s famous collect for the second Sunday of Advent captures the close connection between the words of Scripture and the Word of God: “Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning … that by patience, and comfort of your holy Word…” This God-breathed nature of the Scriptures is implicit in the Ordinal’s form of service for the ordering of priests, wherein immediately after the ordinand is charged to be a “faithful dispenser of the word of God” he is given a Bible by the bishop. But the most succinct account of the God-breathed nature of the Scriptures is found is Article XX of the Thirty-nine Articles, which simply speaks of “God’s Word written”.
Therefore, while our Anglican forebears did not claim to exhaustively know the precise details of how the original authors came to write the inspired Scriptures, they knew enough to say that these authors were inspired by God, and this resulted in the inspired Scriptures. Moreover, despite attempts to marginalise the doctrine of inspiration, this foundational position of the English reformers has remained in place for subsequent Anglican theologians. “The Holy Ghost,” wrote nineteenth century Bishop J.C. Ryle of Liverpool, “put into their minds thoughts and ideas, and then guided their pens in writing them.” And more recently, Anglican theologian John Webster, wrote that “Inspiration is the Spirit’s work of illuminating the prophetic and apostolic writers, and providing both the impulse to write the matter and verbal form of their writings.”
How do Anglicans understand the Authority of the Bible?
The English reformers’ understanding of inspiration has necessary implications for the authority of the Bible. But an important warning needs to be sounded at this juncture. Anglicans ought to be wary of conflating God’s inspiration of the Bible into God’s inspiration of believers. Bishop Harvey veers dangerously close to such a problem when he writes that our decision to live and serve in response to God’s call “is part of God’s ongoing revelation and inspiration”. It is true that God inspires Christians by his Holy Spirit insofar as we are transformed more into the image of Christ (“cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit”). But the inspiration of God in our lives does not produce perfect and infallible persons. However, in the case of the prophets and apostles, the inspiration of God produced perfect and infallible Scripture – they spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). Due to this perfection, Article XX states that one place of Scripture cannot be repugnant to another. On this basis – that Scripture cannot err – the same Article XX declares that the teaching of the Church cannot be contrary to Scripture. Indeed, Article XXI states that even General Councils of the Church “may err, and sometimes have erred.” And therefore, Article XXII declares that erroneous doctrines (like purgatory) and practices (like the adoration of the host) are “repugnant to Word of God.” The Edwardian Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum rightly and summarily states that “The authority of divine Scripture is to be believed to be so great, that no excellence of any creature may be set above or equated to it.” Thus, our human decisions and theological opinions must submit to the authority of Scripture, and they may even be granted ecclesiastical authority, but they cannot ever claim the same authority of “God’s Word written”.
This is germane to the discussion of the canonicity of the Scriptures. Bishop Harvey rightly states that Anglicans “have always been conscious and respectful of the historical process of compiling what we now know as the Bible (forming the Canon).” But it is difficult to know what his subsequent citation from Dean Martyn Percy contributes to the conversation. Of course, the Bible has not “come from heaven to earth like a fax.” Is there any Christian who would make such a claim? The compiling of the Canon was not a matter of investing a certain set of extant books with divinely inspired status, but a matter of recognising those books which were divinely inspired and preserved by God. If the caricature from the controversial Dean is intended to refute the possibility of perfectly and infallibly inspired Scripture, then the English reformers would simply and sharply disagree. Anglicans have long recognised (not “authorised”!) the perfect quality of the writings of the prophets and apostles, and the separation of the canonical writings from the apocryphal writings in Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion bears out this truth.
All this has a bearing upon what Bishop Harvey calls the “distinctive Anglican Tripartite of Scripture, Tradition and Reason”. But what is precisely distinctive about this? When compared to the rest of the magisterial reformers of the Protestant reformation, there is nothing especially distinctive about how the English reformers co-ordinate Scripture, tradition, and reason together in their theological method. The soteriological sufficiency of the Scriptures implies the insufficiency of tradition and reason, and thus we have the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Actually, the view that Anglicans have a novel stance on the interplay between Scripture, reason, and tradition, is itself distinctive. Indeed, it is a distinctive of a certain historiographical mythology which not only misunderstands that the English reformers were in fact Protestants (indeed as continental as the continental reformers – contra the peculiar “Englishness” stressed by Victorian historians!), but also habitually distorts the doctrine of the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker.
It was once fashionable to set forth the judicious Mr Hooker as the father of the three-legged stool approach to Christian authority: Scripture, reason, and tradition, and all in equal measure. This anachronistic appeal to Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical History was then regularly used as a wax nose to support all manner of things which the English reformers, and Hooker himself (!), would have vigorously disagreed with. Traditional Anglo-Catholic authors have positioned him as a champion of the via media between Rome and the Reformed, and more liberal Anglicans have used the reasonable and traditional legs of their imagined three-legged stool to relativise Hooker’s biblical bottom-line. Fortunately, recent scholarship has put a bomb under these hagiographical distortions of Hooker. Certainly, Richard Hooker was opposed to the extreme end of non-conforming Puritanism (just as Archbishops Cranmer and Parker were opposed to mavericks in their own day). But modern scholars have unpicked John Keble’s selective publication of Hooker’s Laws, and through careful re-examination are now unanimous in their view that Richard Hooker’s ideas were consistent with Reformed theological thought. For Hooker, episcopacy is not conceived to be of the essence of the church, predestination stands in continuity with Calvinian orthodoxy, and Scripture is the supreme authority which rules over reason and tradition. To be sure, Hooker’s Laws remains an important piece of Anglican theology and is distinctive in its own right, but it is a piece of conforming Reformed theology nonetheless.
How should Anglicans therefore read the Bible?
Bishop Harvey rightly commends “dialoguing with Scripture in the light of reason.” An Anglican approach to the Scriptures does not preclude, but rather requires a reasoned reading in communion with the saints throughout the ages. Hooker is a fine example of this. Yet another good example of this can be found in Archbishop Cranmer’s theology of Holy Communion. Cranmer’s great eucharistic project involved years of research into the theological opinions and traditions found in patristic and medieval theology. He sifted through swathes of his summaries of these opinions to see which Church fathers best agreed with Scripture. And Cranmer used reason devastatingly in his debates with Bishop Stephen Gardiner to demonstrate the absurdity of holding to a substantial presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The reason for the Anglican insistence on “these your creatures of bread and wine” was Cranmer’s dogged determination to exclude a substantial presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table because, on the one hand, it was unreasonable to posit a substance without its proper accidents, and on the other hand, it was biblical to believe that Christ was physically present in heaven and would only physically return in order to judge the living and the dead. Anyone familiar with Cranmer’s writings on the Lord’s Supper may easily perceive that his arguments from tradition and reason are regulated by his arguments based upon Scripture. The same could be said about the method for the rest of the English reformers. Therefore, we might say that Anglicans are not “no Creed but the Bible” people who shun the use of reason and tradition. Though we believe in Sola Scriptura we do not believe in Nuda Scriptura.
Bishop Harvey also provides us with the wonderful example of how William Wilberforce interpreted the Scriptures to abolish the slave-trade. This points us to another vital hermeneutical point concerning the Bible. Harvey writes that “interpretive wisdom is required when using it to contribute to contemporary debates. Because the Bible is a lengthy document composed over a long period in diverse contexts, it does not always present a single position on any given issue.” Australian Anglicans have some wisdom to offer here through our own answer to this interpretive challenge. The contribution to the discipline of Biblical Theology by Archbishop Donald Robinson (1922-2018) and theologian Graeme Goldsworthy (1934-) has enabled generations of Anglican clergy to understand the relationship between the diversity and unity of the Bible. Through an understanding of the unfolding story of salvation in the Bible which centres upon Jesus Christ, we may quite easily understand why some moral commandments in the Old Covenant have been abrogated (e.g., eating shellfish), whereas others remain in force (e.g., stealing), and others have been transformed (e.g., Sabbath observance) under the New Covenant. We are only scratching the surface of the brilliance of this ecumenical contribution, but further reading of Robinson’s Faith’s Framework and Goldworthy’s According to Plan is strongly suggested.
Therefore, how do we mind the hermeneutical gap between the ancient authors then and modern readership now? This is Bishop Harvey’s central concern, and we are well placed to make an answer. Part of the answer lies in properly co-ordinating the authority of Scripture, with the other authorities of reason and tradition. Part of the answer lies in properly understanding the unity and diversity of the Bible in order to read Scripture sensitivity. But the most vital part of the answer lies in the nature of Scripture itself. That is, the answer to the hermeneutical question (how do I read the Bible?) relies upon the answer to the ontological question (what is the Bible?). After all, if we do not believe that the Bible really is God’s Word written to us, then it may be a mere tool in our ministerial kit, but it will never be “living and active” to us. If we do not believe that the Bible is the very Word of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, then it may never be “sharper than a double-edged sword” to us. We may miss – to our great shame – the spiritual fact that Holy Scripture “penetrates even to dividing joints and marrow” as it “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12). John Webster puts it well:
“What, then, is it to interpret Scripture? An answer to that which envisages interpretation as negotiating the distance between a text from the past and an interpreter in a self-contained present is too thin an account of the hermeneutical situation, and fails to grasp what is metaphysically fundamental in biblical hermeneutics: Christ is God, and he is speaking.”
This does not make the interpretation of Scripture easy for all people. Archbishop Cranmer knew this and provided pastoral advice in Bible reading in his Homily on Scripture. Some parts of Scripture are easier to understand than others. The Scriptures are full of low valleys and plain ways which are easy for all to enjoy, but also high hills and mountains which few can ascend into. So, those who are not able to “brook strong meat” should “suck the sweet and tender milk, and differ the rest until he waxes stronger, and comes to more knowledge.” But all who delight in the Scripture should know that the Lord will provide help to understand what is necessary for us to know. In one of his most beautiful turns of phrase, Cranmer encourages us in our reading of the Bible: “Let us night and day muse, and have meditation, and contemplation in them. Let us ruminate, and (as it were) chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort, and consolation of them.”
Nor does a proper Anglican understanding of the Bible make the interpretation of Scripture comfortable at all times. Let us consider the pastorally important matter of welcoming LGBTI+ persons into our churches. Does this require the affirmation of same-sex sexual practice? The Scriptures clearly condemn “those who practice homosexuality” in the same list as the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Some have unsuccessfully attempted to interpret this passage such that sex within the context of faithful land loving homosexual relationships is permissible, but most scholars agree that the Bible is abundantly clear on the matter. Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch rightly comments: “This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity.” Therefore, the basic interpretive challenge to many modern Anglican readers of Scripture is that of biblical authority. Are we willing to allow the vivifying voice of God’s Word written to shape our thoughts and attitudes – even with unpopular matters? Are we willing to submit our reason and traditions under the majestic authority of Scripture? Are we willing to hear the Word of God and respond – however awkwardly – with ‘Thanks be to God’? Contemporary Anglican ethicist, Oliver O’Donovan, helpfully writes:
“Faith in Scripture is a readiness to risk living by it and placing our hope in it. It is not a posture of knowing everything or of having the answer to every question. It is a willingness to accept Scripture on its own terms, without presuppositions or conditions that we have imposed upon it.”
Our English reformers wisely enshrined the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures into our Anglican formularies, and our Australian forebears did likewise with the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles set out in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. But modern Australian Anglicans need fresh courage to stand upon the Scriptures. We are often at odds with our world over subjects like the creation ex nihilo, the Virgin birth, human sexuality, and sacraments. Therefore, we need courage to believe God’s Word written. We are often at odds with our own flesh, as we are slowly but surely transformed into the full measure of the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13). Therefore, we need courage to regularly read Holy Scripture and risk our own spiritual lives on it. And we are always at odds with the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1. Pet. 5:8). Therefore, we need courage to stand firm in the faith deposited in the Scriptures, knowing that one little word from God’s Word can fell our greatest spiritual foe. We can live with forgiven hearts and clear consciences because our Lord Jesus Christ made that “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world.” But our hearts and consciences must remain captive to the Word of God. This is why Tyndale prayed for the King of England’s eyes to be opened, and this is why faithful Anglicans have always clung to Holy Scripture as the “most precious jewel” on earth. Therefore, let us pray, as in the Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer: “From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil: God Lord deliver us.”
 William Tyndale, “The Exposition of the first epistle of S. Iohn” in John Foxe (ed.), The VVhole works of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith, Doct. Barnes … (London: John Day, 1573), RSTC 24436, p. 414.
 Thomas Cranmer, “The Prologue to the reader” in The Byble in Engylshe that is to saye the content of al the holy scrypture … (London: Grafton, 1540), RSTC 2071, *.iiv. This, and subsequent early modern quotations have been modernised.
 https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/6473441/why-the-archbishop-should-reconsider/ accessed 14 November 2019.
 https://www.graftondiocese.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/North-Coast-Anglican-October-November-2019.pdf accessed 14 November 2019.
 Thomas Cranmer (ed.), “A Fruitefull exhortation, to the readyng of holye scriptrure” in Certayne sermons, or homelies appoynted by the kynges Maiestie, to be declared and redde, by all persones, vicars, or curates, euery Sondaye in their churches, where they haue cure (London: Grafton, 1547), RSTC 13640, A.iir (Preface), B.ivv.
 John Bradford et al., “A copie of a certayne declaration drawne and sent out of prison by Mayster Bradford, Mayster Sanders, and dyvers other godly Preachers” in John Foxe, Acts and Monuments … (London: John Day, 1583), RSTC 11225, p. 1470.
 John Jewel, A view of a sedicious bul sent into Englande … (London: Newberie & Bynneman, 1582), RSTC 14614, p. 133.
 Thomas Lever, A treatise of the right way … (London: Bynneman, 1575), RSTC 15552, A.iiir.
 James Pilkington, A godlie exposition vpon certeine chapters of Nehemiah … (Cambridge: Thomas, 1585), RSTC 19929, A.iiv.
 Edwin Sandys, Sermons made by the most reuerend Father in God, Edwin, Archbishop of Yorke (London: Midleton, 1585), RSTC 21713, p. 6.
 J.C. Ryle, Old Paths: Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (London: James Clark & Co, 1972), 18.
 ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι: On the Inspiration of Holy Scripture, in J. Gordon McConville & Lloyd K. Pieterson (eds.), Conception, Reception, and the Spirit: Essays in Honour of Andrew T. Lincoln (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015) p. 238.
 Gerald Bray (ed.), Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (Woodbridge Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005), 179.
 W.J. Torrance Kirby, Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Richard Hooker’s Reputation” in All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation (London: Allen Lane, 2016); Nigel Voak, Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology: A Study of Reason, Will, and Grace (Oxford: OUP, 2003); W. Bradford Littlejohn and Scott N. Kindred-Barnes (eds.), Richard Hooker and Reformed Orthodoxy (Göttingen, V&R, 2017); W. Bradford Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015); Nigel Atkinson, Richard Hooker and the Authority of Scripture, Tradition and Reason: Reformed Theologian of the Church of England? (Carlisle, Paternoster, 1997).
 John B. Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 49.
 Cranmer, “A Fruitefull exhortation”, B.iiir, B.ivv.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 705.
 Oliver O’Donovan, “Scripture and Christian Ethics”, Anvil 24/1 (2007): 24.