Luther, authority, and Anglicans
Recent commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation have often highlighted the two central tenets of Luther’s thought: sola fide (salvation is by faith alone, not works) and sola scriptura (scripture is the only source of truth). (For an especially good recapitulation of Luther’s life and work, follow this link to an article in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella, “How Martin Luther Changed the World.”)
The second of those tenets – sola scriptura – represents a key distinction between fundamentalists and other Christians. Historically, Anglicans have stood firmly with the majority and opposed fundamentalism. Notably, the largest block of non-fundamentalists and by far Christianity’s largest Church is the Roman Catholic Church that affirms scripture as a source of truth but complements it with the Church’s teaching magisterium. This latter source of authority is most fully embodied in the Pope, particularly in his capacity to speak ex-cathedra.
Anglicans traditionally affirmed three sources of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. The twentieth century brought growing recognition that the brain indissolubly intertwines reason, emotion, and experience. Consequently, the Anglican source of authority labelled reason is frequently understood to embrace this more robust and complete understanding of how the brain functions.
Rejecting Luther’s sola scriptura has benefitted Anglicanism in at least three ways. First, having three sources of authority best coheres with how human cognition functions. No person ever receives any form of input – verbal or otherwise – without physically processing that input in his/her brain. In other words, reason shapes a person’s understanding of the input. Illustratively, try reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Unless one happens to be fluent in hieroglyphics, the hieroglyphics may be considered an unknown language, decorative artwork, or even gibberish. A person receiving verbal communication, in a language in which one is fluent, will interpret that input using clues from grammar, usage, word meanings, etc. These clues inherently entail individual interpretation because each individual has a unique set of mental images associated with each unit of syntax. For example, words as simple as red (what exact shade?) and run (what stride, what pace?) evoke different images in different people.
Furthermore, the human brain operates on the basis of acquired patterns. Each item in human memory is stored as a separate pattern of synopses firings. Processing new input (e.g., from scripture) is not done in the abstract but on the basis of pre-existing patterns. The Anglican Church similarly processes its current reading of scripture using reason shaped by the patterns of Christian praxis, i.e., tradition.
Second, as a result of this interpretive process rooted in human nature and the interplay of three sources of authority, Anglicanism welcomes theological diversity finding its unity in common prayer rather than common belief. We pray together even if we believe differently.
Third, because of the inescapable dynamic interplay of Anglican’s three sources of authority, Anglicans today do not believe what Anglicans in the nineteenth century believed; nineteenth century Anglicans, in turn, did not believe what seventeenth century Anglicans did. Theology, much to the ire of some, is dynamic and not static.
Sadly, some contemporary Anglicans overemphasize reliance on scripture, thereby distorting any semblance of an equal balance between scripture, tradition, and reason. These Anglicans, many of whom live in the Global South and others of whom are members of groups such as the Anglican Church in North America, are choosing to separate themselves from the mainstream Anglicanism. Many of these bishops, for example, have indicated that they will refuse to attend the next Lambeth Conference to which all Anglican bishops are invited. Some of these Anglicans oppose the ordination of women as contrary to scripture; perhaps all of them oppose same sex marriage for the same reason.