CONFIRMATION: Session 2 — Authority (Scripture, Creeds, Councils, Bishops)

Fr. John A. Roop

Christian Essentials / Anglican Distinctives
Session 2: Authority — Scripture, Creeds, Councils, Bishops

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

For A Province Or Diocese
O God, by your grace you have called us in this Province and Diocese to be a good and godly fellowship of faith. Bless our Archbishop and Bishop Foley, our Assisting Bishop Frank, and other clergy, and all our people. Grant that your Word may be truly preached and truly heard, your Sacraments faithfully administered and faithfully received. By your Spirit, fashion our lives according to the example of your Son, and grant that we may show the power of your love to all among whom we live; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction: The Question of Authority
One of the most notable characteristics of this post-modern culture in which we live is the distrust and rejection of, and even the rebellion against authority. This was clearly manifest on 6 January 2022 in the assault on the Capitol, in recent calls to defund the police, in the suspicion directed toward the Supreme Court, in distrust of news outlets — essentially everywhere we turn. The older structures that used to speak truth to us, that used to rightly order our lives we now suspect of manipulative propaganda — we don’t know where to look for truth — and rampant self-interest at our expense. Educational systems seem to deconstruct truth more than search for it and teach it. Political systems seem more engaged in internal struggles for power than in right governing and public service. Our judiciary and legal systems seem to fail as often as not to impartially administer justice. Our churches seem rife with scandal, false doctrine, and cultural pandering. It may always have been so in every generation, more or less. This is neither the best of times nor the worst of times; it is simply our time, and we see its flaws because they affect us.

Still, the question confronts us as it does those in every generation: what are the reliable sources of truth and authority? How do we know what to believe and how to rightly order our lives, and to whose authority we may/must rightly submit? These question arise not only in regard to civil society but also pertaining to matters of the spirit.

As Anglicans, we have answers for those questions. The Fundamental Declarations of the Province answer them, in part for our Province (ACNA).

ACNA Fundamental Declarations of the Province

We believe and confess Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no one comes to the Father but by Him. Therefore, the Anglican Church in North America identifies the following seven elements as characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership:

1. We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.

2. We confess Baptism and the Supper of the Lord to be Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself in the Gospel, and thus to be ministered with unfailing use of His words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.

3. We confess the godly historic Episcopate as an inherent part of the apostolic faith and practice, and therefore as integral to the fullness and unity of the Body of Christ.

4. We confess as proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture the historic faith of the undivided church as declared in the three Catholic Creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.

5. Concerning the seven Councils of the undivided Church, we affirm the teaching of the first four Councils and the Christological clarifications of the fifth, sixth and seventh Councils, in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.

6. We receive The Book of Common Prayer as set forth by the Church of England in 1662, together with the Ordinal attached to the same, as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline, and, with the Books which preceded it, as the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship.

7. We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1562, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing the fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.

In all these things, the Anglican Church in North America is determined by the help of God to hold and maintain as the Anglican Way has received them the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ.

So, back to our questions. Based on the Fundamental Declarations, what are the reliable sources of truth and authority in the Christian life? How do we know what to believe and how to rightly order our lives, and to whose authority we may/must rightly submit? [Let the class examine the Fundamental Declarations and discuss the answers they provide.]

Holy Scripture
Holy Scripture is the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life. Even as we say that, it must be nuanced in light of Jesus’ own claim:

Matthew 28:18 (ESV): 18 And Jesus came and said to [the disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

So, when we say that Holy Scripture is the final authority we don’t mean that Scripture has an authority independent of or superseding Christ’s authority. Instead we mean that Jesus’ ultimate authority over all things is mediated to the Church in and through the Scriptures. Scripture is one way — orthodox Anglicans go so far as to say it is the primary way — in which Christ exercises his authority in the world.

The ACNA Catechism, To Be A Christian (TBAC), expands on this notion in a series of questions and answers.

[Review To Be A Christian, Questions 25-35, pages 32-35.]

The Reformed Churches are known for their insistence upon five sola statements: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fides, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria. It is the first of these — sola scriptura, Scripture alone, that concerns us here. In its popular connotation, this statement is often misconstrued as a “me and my Bible” attitude. I don’t need anyone else to tell me what to believe; I can sit down by myself — just me and my Bible — and understand everything perfectly well myself. I don’t think that is what sola scriptura actually meant historically because that is not how the Reformers actually dealt with Scripture. And that is certainly not the Anglican approach to Scripture; it is, instead, a recipe for disaster — every man a pope, every man his own infallible spiritual authority. The Bible was not given first to individuals, but to the Church, to the Body of Christ, and it is in and through the Church that the Holy Spirit works to lead all God’s people into right understanding of Scripture. The Church — not the academy and not even the private study — is the “natural habitat” of Scripture. St. Paul codifies this understanding in his first letter to Timothy:

1 Timothy 3:14–15 (ESV): 14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

St. Paul is not pitting the Church against Scripture or Scripture against the Church: far from it! Rather, the Church is the living expression of the deposit of faith found in Scripture, the most reliable interpreter of that faith, the body in which Scriptural faith comes to life.

In centering Scripture in the Church, I am not saying that individuals should not read and study the Bible individually, personally! God forbid: let us be people of the Word. Personal engagement with Scripture is essential for spiritual growth. But, I am saying that our individual understanding of Scripture must be submitted to the Church, to the Great Tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church, that we must exercise some humility and that we must not insist on our own, idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture over the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful for over two millennia. To say, “I know what the Church teaches, but I read the Scripture differently,” to persist in that attitude when corrected, and to encourage others to follow your personal understanding is the definition of heretic.

The authority in all things belongs to Christ. He mediates that authority in and through Scripture which contains all things necessary for salvation and which is the unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life. Scripture is to be read and understood consensually, that is, by the whole Church.

This consensual understanding of Scripture — Scripture read in and by the Church — means that the Church is also an instrument through which Christ mediates his authority. That is also emphasized in the Fundamental Declarations which confess the Creeds, affirm the Councils, and confess the godly, historic Episcopacy. Creeds, Councils, and Bishops speak for the Church and so exercise a delegated authority within the Church.

What are the Creeds and what role do they play in the life and faith of the Church? The ACNA Catechism (TBAC) provides a good, brief answer. See Part II, The Apostles Creed And The Life Of Faith, pages 29-32.

Think of the Creeds as the “Cliff Notes” summary of the Gospel. They do not contain everything that is essential for the life of faith and Christian practice, but everything they do contain is essential for the life of faith and Christian practice. Only those who can affirm them in their entirety have embraced the non-negotiable essentials of the faith delivered once for all to the saints and are ready for baptism and full participation in the life of the Church.

The Creeds serve another function, as well; they provide a lens through which the Church reads and understands Scripture. For example, the Athanasian Creed details the way the Church understands and expresses the reality of the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ (fully God and fully man). The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, discerned that this is the proper and authoritative way to read and understand the Scriptures as they reveal to us the Triune God and the incarnate Logos. In this sense, rejection of the Creeds is a rejection of Scripture as understood consensually by the Church. This notion brings us naturally to the topic of consensual understanding and the Councils of the Church.

Ecumenical Church Councils
From time to time there are issues that arise in the life of the Church that are not explicitly addressed in Scripture, or that are perhaps addressed only obliquely. One group within the Church may read Scripture in a way that conflicts with others in the Church; each group is trying to be faithful to Scripture, but it is not perfectly clear what faithfulness looks like. We have examples of this in Scripture itself, the classic one being the inclusion of the Gentiles, as Gentiles, in the Church. Paul and Barnabas read Scripture and discerned the direction of the Holy Spirit toward inclusion of the Gentiles without their prior conversion to Judaism and without imposing upon them the keeping of the Mosaic Law. Other leaders in the Church read Scripture differently. To them, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel; to follow Jesus required identification first with Israel, i.e., converting to Judaism and faithfully observing the Law. How was the Church to determine which group, which reading of Scripture, was correct?

We find the answer in Acts 15. The apostles and the elders of the Church came together in council in Jerusalem, under the auspices of James, the bishop of the Jerusalem church, to listen to one another, to read Scripture together, to pray together, to listen to the Holy Spirit together, and to decide together the proper way forward for the Church. This was the first of the Church’s councils, and it served as the model for Church-wide discernment for a thousand years. When important decisions had to be made regarding the faith and practice of the Church, leaders of the Church from throughout the world assembled to listen to one another, to search the Scriptures, to pray, to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit, and to decide the issue on behalf of the whole Church. When the council spoke, it spoke with authority for the Church.

There were seven such councils of the whole Church. Anglicans recognize them as a valid source of authority with a certain caveat, according to the Fundamental Declarations:

Concerning the seven Councils of the undivided Church, we affirm the teaching of the first four Councils and the Christological clarifications of the fifth, sixth and seventh Councils, in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.

There are several important features of this affirmation. First, we embrace only the Councils of the undivided Church, when East and West were one, before the Great Schism of 1054. That is the period when the Councils spoke for the universal Church. Second, we affirm fully only the first four of these Councils. These are the ones which defined and clarified the essential dogmas of the Church:

Nicea (325)
Christ is one being with the Father and co-eternal.

Constantinople (381)
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, of one being and co-eternal with the Father and the Son. It was this council that gave the final form to the Nicene Creed, which accordingly is more precisely called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

Ephesus (431)
Mary is rightly called the Theotokos (God bearer) since Jesus is God incarnate from conception. (This has less to do with Mary and more to do with Jesus. It insists that Jesus was fully God from conception as opposed to such heresies as adoptionism which insists that Mary bore only a human person who was later filled with the Spirit of Sonship — adopted — by God. To insist that Jesus was fully God and fully man from conception implies that Mary bore God in her womb, thus rightly bestowing on her the title Theotokos, God bearer.)

Chalcedon (451)
Christ is one person with two natures — fully human and fully divine — and those two natures are neither separated nor confused.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh Councils are different in nature than these first four. They provide detail and clarification of the four, and defend them against some heretical interpretations. We affirm those Christological clarifications. But they also range into political matters and matters of church practice that we have determined is more appropriately left to local discretion. We affirm the first four Councils fully, and the fifth, sixth, and seventh insofar as they shed additional light upon the essential dogmatic statements made previously, and insofar as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.

Tragically, the Church split along an East-West line in 1054, creating the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and fractured again during and after the Reformation. That makes the convening of an Ecumenical Council impossible. So, how do churches make important doctrinal and liturgical decisions today? How do we, as Anglicans, do it? What is the ongoing source of authority in the life of the church, acting under Scripture, Creeds, and Councils? The answer is found in the third of the Fundamental Declarations:

We confess the godly historic Episcopate [Bishops] as an inherent part of the apostolic faith and practice, and therefore as integral to the fullness and unity of the Body of Christ.

Jesus gave the Apostles certain authority in the Church, empowering them, for example, to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness of sins and to bind on earth or to loose on earth (ref Mt 16:19 and John 20:22). Since the mission of the Church extended beyond the life of the Twelve, the role they played in the life of the Church needed to extend, as well. Thus, the Apostles appointed/ordained bishops through prayer and the laying on of hands to succeed them in their apostolic ministry. The bishops are to today’s church as the Apostles were to the first-century church. This doctrine and practice is often referred to as Apostolic Succession. Each bishop in the ACNA is able to trace his spiritual lineage directly and in an unbroken line to one or more of the Apostles. That means, of course, that each priest and deacon can, as well, since priests and deacons are ordained by Bishops. [As an aside, Archbishop Foley’s apostolic lineage, and thus mine since he ordained me to the priesthood, has been traced back to Peter, James, John, and Paul.]

But, Apostolic Succession means more than laying on of hands in ordination. It means fidelity to the Apostolic witness, passing on faithfully and fully that deposit of Apostolic faith received in and through Scriptures, Creeds, Councils, and the Church.

In the ACNA, the College of Bishops, i.e., the Bishops from every diocese meeting together, make decisions pertaining to the entire Province — to all the dioceses and parishes comprising the Province.

For decisions that affect only a particular dioceses, the Ordinary — the bishop of that diocese — convenes a synod, a gathering of all clergy and elected/appointed lay delegates from each parish to reach a decision through prayer, study of Scripture, listening, and voting. Our diocese, the Anglican Diocese of the South, has an annual synod in November.

Conclusion: The Question of Authority
So, what are the reliable sources of truth and authority in the Anglican Church? First, we note that all authority lies in and with Jesus Christ; it was given to him by God the Father. But, Jesus, through the work and indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit, ministers that authority in several ways: Scripture, Creeds, Councils, and Bishops.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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