When did the Church of England and her progeny first depart from understanding biblical doctrine as the critical foundation of the community of faith?
Many answers could be given, but most of the salient ones would lead back to the radical assault on biblical authority that emerged in the nineteenth century. Gradually that assault made its way into every corner of the academy, and by the 1940s some teachers in the theological world of the Anglican Family were subtly, if not overtly, undermining the authority of Holy Scripture. Though the classic language of the Book of Common Prayer went on shaping the popular faith of most of the members of the Anglican Communion, and the majority of its ordained leaders, many leaders were increasingly swayed by the arguments of German Rationalism. By the 1960s few ordinands emerged from Anglican theological training in the West with a firm and confident trust in the Holy Scriptures as the authoritative basis of all right teaching.
The inevitable outcome of this change was to make the household of God vulnerable to serious error. Without clear biblical presuppositions, all subjects became subject to a variety of interpretations, and the classic authority and clarity of reformed Anglican Doctrine was lost. Though the historic formularies were still printed and occasionally mentioned, they were less and less upheld as binding on the clergy. It was only a matter of time until that led to serious error and outright heresy being tolerated in the church. It was not so at the beginning.
On the day after Pentecost, the apostles dedicated themselves to teaching the new Jerusalem community the things that Jesus had taught. The new believers “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship…” (Acts 2:42), Luke tells us. Here foundational doctrine for the Christian church is defined. The apostles did not teach what they liked, or agreed with, they taught what their Risen Lord had taught them. When in the providence of God the canon of the New Testament was closed, the church universally affirmed that here alone was the substance of what the apostles themselves taught. To rightly handle these writings was the essential teaching task of the church.
Every doctrinal struggle for the next thousand years was resolved by an appeal to the clear teaching of the New Testament. Nothing was to be taught that was not proved by the Scriptures. This was the universal source of all right Christian Doctrine. When in subsequent centuries this doctrine was undermined, the reformers sought to put things right. The leaders of the English Reformation all took their stand on the truth of the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God written, and some paid for that faith with their lives.
No hope of a new reformation can begin any other place than in restoring the primacy and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture to the life of the Anglican Family. No matter requiring reform will be truly reformable without this foundation. Right doctrine always matters, and the central authority of the Word of God is the preeminent one.
Next Week: Words and Their Meaning.