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Scripture or the Three-Legged Stool? by Mark Pickles

The question of ultimate authority is crucial for any church or denomination but is of particular significance within Anglicanism.

The Thirty-nine Articles are unequivocal the Scripture is to be the Church’s final and ultimate authority.  

Article VI states that “Holy Scripture  all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein nor may be proved thereby, is not the be require of any man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”.

This article reveals the nuanced Anglican understanding of Scripture that wee will look at more fully shortly, however for now we note that it points us to Scripture as that which reveals the gospel to us.

Article XX addresses the question of the authority of the Church, “The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies and authority in Controversies of the Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that be repugnant to another.  Wherefore although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same …”

Article XXI speaking of General Councils, “… and when they be gathered together … 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”.

The Articles are clear that Scripture has authority over Church Tradition and Councils, and that no church council or synod should ever ordain anything contrary to Scripture.  Church Councils can and do err but Scripture is inerrant and the bar against which everything must be checked.

The question of ultimate authority in many ways brings us to the heart of the battle for the soul of Anglicanism.  My point here is simply that historic Anglicanism has always been clear that Scripture and Scripture alone is our ultimate authority.  

The so-called “Three-legged stool” has come to be spoken of as depicting authentic Anglicanism’s approach to this question of authority.  The three-fold sources of authority:  Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are to be held in balance in coming to a common mind on matters of faith and conduct.  This has never been the position of historic Anglicanism and it is certainly not that understanding of authority revealed in the Articles.  Rather, historic Anglicanism greatly prizes both tradition and reason not least because they are invaluable tools in helping us interpret Scripture correctly.  We want to mine the vast resources and treasures of the Christian Church to help us understand God’s Word correctly and we want to be rigorous in applying our minds, the God-given faculty of reason again to help us understand and interpret God’s Word in the right way.

However, what the Articles make abundantly clear is that if there is ever a dispute between tradition and Scripture, Scripture alone is inerrant, infallible, and authoritative.  Church Councils can and do err but Scripture does not.

Excerpted from The Revd Dr Mark Pickles’ book, Gospel-Driven Anglicanism, pages 28-30.