The Bible Or Tradition?

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"General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture."

That is Article 21 of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England entitled, "Of the Authority of General Councils." But why still study these Articles in 2018? Answer: The Articles help define the fundamental doctrine of the Church of England. And that doctrine is spelt out in Canon A5 of the Church of England's canons which says:

"The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal."

And those words are the law of the land because they are contained in a relatively recent Measure of Parliament. So much by way of introduction. Our subject this morning is The Bible or Tradition and I have three headings. First, Why Involve Princes?; Secondly, Councils May Err; and, thirdly, Application for Today. So, first:

1. Why Involve Princes?

Our Article begins with these words:

"General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes."

But why involve Princes? To answer that question, you first of all need to know about the difference between what are called the 'Magisterial' Reformers and the 'Radical' Reformers. This Article, of course, was written during the 16th century Reformation; and comes from someone who was clearly a Magisterial Reformer, namely Archbishop Cranmer. For a key difference between the two, the Magisterial and Radical Reformers, lies in their attitude to the State or Government. So the phrase 'Magisterial Reformer' refers to those Reformers like Luther, Cranmer and Calvin, who wanted to work with, and so influence, their respective Governments.

By contrast, the Radical Reformers were groups of Christians who opposed in various ways both the Roman Church and the Magisterial Reformers. Many of them thought the Church should be quite separate from the State. Also some put above the Bible, not the tradition of the Church, as Rome seemed to be doing, but personal spiritual experiences.

The point for us, however, is that Cranmer and the mainstream Reformers thought that, if you could, you should work with the State. The State was not entirely evil. And separation should be spiritual not social or political. And such is the Anglican position today. But how right is that? Well, what does the Bible teach us about the church and state? Very simply, Jesus is reported in all three synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - as saying (Mark 12.17):

"Render to Caesar [the State] the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

And normally or often there is no problem. But when Caesar orders what God forbids or forbids what God orders, you have to disobey. An instance of that is recorded in Acts 5. The Apostle Peter had been preaching against the orders of the Jewish leaders. And when he was arrested, his defence was (Acts 5.29):

"we must obey God rather than men."

Then, interestingly, without taking a breath, he immediately took the opportunity of a 20 second sermon, saying (Acts 5.30-32):

"The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."

And then Paul also teaches about Church and State in Romans 13. For now, we just need to listen to chapter 13 verse 1:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."

Those are important words! Not only were those words written, most probably, in the early years of Nero's brutal reign as Emperor, but also the agent in that institution of Nero was Jesus Christ. For Christ had made it quite clear in his last words to his disciples in Matthew's Gospel, that (Matt 28.18-19):

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations"

Note, it is "all authority in heaven and on earth". So that includes Nero and his government (and Mrs Thatcher, Donald Trump and all the people you read or hear about in the News). But that authority of Christ has a time-limit. For when he returns, he will give back that authority to God the Father. Listen to 1 Corinthians 15.24-26:

"Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power."

So Jesus Christ is working his purposes out in the political world as in the Church and in individual lives. And so how confident we should be when we seek to get involved, through, say, the Christian Institute or being a school governor or local councillor! And Cranmer knew that. He knew that divine purposes were being worked out. And he would have been very conscious that the very first ecumenical (meaning world-wide) council was convened by the Emperor Constantine, at that stage not a baptised believer. And Cranmer registered no problem.

Now the rights and wrongs of Constantine don't concern us. But common sense says that it is good for you when the Government is on your side. For in the ancient world you are not likely to get a good outcome to an international gathering of Christian leaders, if the Prince or Emperor and their Government is opposed to scores of bishops from all over invading their capital city – nor in the modern world. It is common sense. Jonathan Pryke, my wife, Joy, and I experienced that not so long ago, when we were at the last GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures' Conference) in Nairobi. It was just a week or two after the dreadful Al-Shabaab attack at the Westgate shopping mall in central Nairobi, and when at least 67 died and more than 175 were injured. We were thankful that the Conference was with "the commandment and will of the Government". For necessary security arrangements were in place.

So this opening sentence is a witness to the Magisterial Reformers' teaching – namely the teaching of Luther, Cranmer, Calvin and their associates. For the Magisterial Reformers, because they saw that Government was under the control and concern of Jesus Christ, wanted to use it and influence it, for the good of the Church and people. Yes, being human, sometimes their alliances were wrong. But surely they were right in being involved and not opting out. Of course, where the Government ordered what God forbade, they needed to resist. Well, so much for, "Why involve Princes?" That brings us to our second heading and the second sentence of our Article.

2. Councils May Err

"And when they [Councils] be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God."

So here is a warning. For you must not say that the decisions of any major Church Council is necessarily what God would want decided. For "Councils may err, and sometimes have erred". It is a fact. For not all church leaders and bishops attending the Councils or Synods are "governed with the Spirit and Word of God." But that doesn't allow you to say that always such Councils or Synods or large representative Christian Conferences or Congresses are always wrong. For we do have to heed where and when Councils are right. One healthy Council is reported in Acts chapter 15. It was a Jerusalem Council. But that was not a 'General' Council from all over the world or a large part of it. It was a local Church Council but significant because of the Jerusalem Church being then the Mother of all the churches. It was held for the missionaries, Paul and Barnabas and some others, who had travelled up to Jerusalem to seek advice and guidance over how non-Jews related to Jews. And, most importantly, Paul and Barnabas went there because a number of 'the Apostles', who Jesus commissioned, were still based at Jerusalem.

But no Church Council, to which our Article 21 is referring, ever had present any of Jesus' Apostles. They were long dead. And that is why the Bible after that, and for today, is so, so important. For that is where you have the teaching and principles of the Apostles to help you make decisions, and check on Council decisions already made. So the final words of our Article are vital, which are:

"Wherefore things ordained by them [Councils] as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture."

And the teaching of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church that is "agreeable to the said Scriptures" is very important for us to heed. For we need the wisdom of the body of Christ. Paul prays for the Ephesians (3.18-19) that you…

"…may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

You see, the body of Christ (the saints) is not just 20th and 21st century believers. For the Church Universal – the truly Catholic Church ('Catholic' is Greek for Latin 'universal') – contains the wisdom of those early centuries when basic error, or 'bad tradition', was corrected. And that was corrected to be in line with the Apostles' teaching or 'good tradition' from the Bible. Yes, tradition (or what is handed down) can be good or bad. So Paul commends the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11.2) …

"because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you."

Yet he warns the Colossians of being taken (Colossians 2.8) …

"captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition."

By sifting the good from the bad tradition, you do not have to reinvent the wheel theologically. So we must learn from those early Fathers of the Church and from their decisions in those early Councils of the Church which were good (but, sometimes, not so good or not applicable). But the good decisions were, by the Holy Spirit's leading, recognized as such almost universally. These were what one Father of the Church, Vincent of Lerins described as…

"That which is believed always, everywhere and by all."

However, that was only what was self-evidently, when properly understood, seen to be biblical to honest believers who were "governed with the Spirit and Word of God." For Vincent of Lerins maintained that the final ground of Christian truth was Scripture, not the tradition of the Church. However, he believed that the Church's authority was needed when the Bible was genuinely unclear. And that is what one of the greatest ancient theologians, Augustine, also said:

"in matters whereupon the Scripture has not spoken clearly, the custom of the people of God, or the institutions of our predecessors, are to be held as law."

And that was another difference between the Magisterial and Radical reformers.

So let me list the first four General Councils that the Church of England (and mainstream Protestant Churches) recognize and those 'traditions' from those Councils we should follow. First, there was the Council of Nicea in 325 (AD). This affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity (God is one and God is three) by repudiating Arianism to reflect the Bible. For Arius denied the divinity of Christ. The Council said, "No!" Rather Jesus is of one "substance" or "being" with the Father. But not all was settled at that Council. Athanasius was the great champion of that orthodoxy, often on his own; but he still had work to do. Thank God that, finally, the Nicene Creed, that unequivocally affirms the deity of Jesus Christ, came, in its final form, from the next and second of the four Councils. That was the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Thirdly, came the Council of Ephesus in 431. That council debated Nestorianism. Nestorius said that the man Jesus was not identical with the Son of God but somehow united with him. But the Council said, "No!": the incarnate Lord was a single person, at once God and man. Then the Fourth Council was the Council of Chalcedon in 451. That said "No!" to Eutychianism, the almost opposite heresy. Eutyches said that Jesus Christ was not really a man, but a mixture – a demi-God. But if so, could Jesus Christ bear our sin in our place at Calvary, if he was not a man like us; and how could he save in other ways?

Those, then, are the first four Councils. And their teaching is summed up in our Athanasian Creed. This Creed affirms the Trinity and counters both the heresy of Nestorius and that of Eutyches. For the Athanasian Creed says, among other things:

"our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man … Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether, not by confusion of Substance; but by unity of Person."

Of course, it is a mystery. The nature of Jesus Christ, as the Divine Son, is "unsearchable", as we heard in Psalm 145.3. So you have to live with paradoxes and not resolve them in the wrong way. The Athanasian Creed states those paradoxes and excludes the heresies like this:

"our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world; Perfect God, and Perfect Man; of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to his Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood."

And that is simply seeking to be true to the biblical account of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully man and fully God. And the biblical account comes from Apostles who were eyewitnesses of the man, Jesus Christ, who they came to know as God come in the flesh.

So much for those four Councils out of which great good has come. Of course, between the Council of Chalcedon and the Reformation there were many councils and not convened by a Prince but by a Pope. But they have not been endorsed like the first four Councils were. And many of these were what Cranmer had in mind when he wrote this Article. Indeed, there was one going on at the time Cranmer had his pen in his hand. It was the Council of Trent, where the Roman church wanted genuinely to try to reform some of the abuses the Reformers had revealed. But also they tried to contradict some of the Reformers' teaching. And that brings us thirdly, and finally, to the…

3. Application for Today

The Article surely challenges us all in two ways. First, is the challenge to learn from history. Ancient history and my modern experience (from spending fifteen years on the General Synod of the Church of England and being present at national Evangelical Anglican congresses and international such conferences) have confirmed for me the truth of this Article 21 and three things in particular.

  • First is the folly of thinking that Councils or Synods or Congresses will necessarily bring revival to the Church of Christ.
  • Secondly, the problem is that "all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God." You, then, have interminable politics, with people pulling in the opposite direction to the way they should go, if they were biblically faithful.
  • So, thirdly, how important to realize that the Bible (having the tradition of Jesus himself, through his Apostles) is to be your final authority and not the human tradition of Councils and Synods. But do not ignore the wisdom of the ages. For, remember, you need to …

"…comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and … know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge."

So, yes, Councils and Synods help when they ordain what may "be taken out of holy Scripture". But, No! They do not help, and are to be rejected, when in defiance of holy Scripture. Then, this Article challenges you in your personal life with this question: Are you 'governed with the Spirit and the Word of God' yourself when there are problems to be solved or difficult decisions to be made; or do you follow the secular crowd? How following the crowd is always a great temptation! So let us pray that God, by his Holy Spirit, helps us all to follow "the Spirit and the Word of God" in this confused and confusing world.

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