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Anglicans Interpret the Bible

Anglicans Interpret the Bible

By Chuck Collins
September 21, 2021

People say the craziest things. To just repeat something over and over again, or to say it louder, doesn't necessarily make it true. For example, some people say that Jesus is only helpful for teaching us how to live morally upright lives when, in fact, his harshest words were reserved for the moralists of his day. Or, "the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality (or choose your own controversial issue), it's just how you interpret it" -- when the Bible actually speaks very plainly on more matters than we sometimes think. Or, "the church wrote the Bible so it can rewrite it any time it wants to" -- which actually takes away any sense that God had something to do with its inspiration in the first place. And my favorite: "there are so many contradictions in it, how can an intelligent person possibly believe it?" -- which gives no consideration for the fact that more books have been written about the Bible by more intelligent people than any other book in history, and it stands the test of time!

At the risk of over-simplifying, there are really only two positions someone can take in relationship to the Bible: either we stand over it as the final authority of what it says and means, or it stands over us as its own interpreter, and the interpreter of our lives. If the Bible is a wax nose that can be molded to fit whatever we want it to say, then why bother reading it? On the other hand, if it is the inspired Word of God, as Anglicans say in their prayers and in the promises made at ordinations, how can it be read and understood with confidence that it will accurately lead people to know God and his plan for their lives? The Anglican formularies give us an "Anglican way" of reading and interpreting Holy Scripture.

The 16th century reformers had one compelling goal: to get the Bible into the hearts and minds of the English people. They were confident that God would use this to transform individuals and the whole of society. They were true catholics who were returning to the Bible that they saw as the original source for their centuries-old faith. The primacy of Scripture, or sola Scriptura, means that the Bible is the norm for faith and morals by which every other norm is judged (including the creeds, church traditions and councils, confessions, and private revelations). When we speak of the Bible being primary, the specter of fundamentalism often comes up. While we seek clarity about the fundamentals of the faith, Anglicans are not fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists (or biblicists) tend to raise the Bible to the place that only God deserves, creating a world in which the Bible is a proof-text manual, with characters exhibiting behaviors to emulate or to avoid, that neglects the fact that the Bible is God's story and not ours. On the other hand, theological liberals swing to the other extreme, creating a world that removes any sense that God is active in creating and sustaining the world. They tend to explain away the miracles and the fact that God has revealed himself in the sixty-six books of the Bible under the single authorship of the Holy Spirit.

Anglicans hold a balance between these two extremes: they believe that real people wrote the Bible with their personalities in clear view, but they also believe that God inspired them and blessed them in their writing to accurately communicate God's Word. This honoring of dual authorship (God and man) is where Anglicans begin as we consider how to understand and interpret Holy Scripture. For example, what an incredible miracle it is that the Apostle John's personality and his unschooled understanding of the Greek language is evident in the book of Revelation, and yet we still believe that God stands behind this book as its author and inspiration.

"This honoring of dual authorship (God and man) is where Anglicans begin."

There are three sources of authority acknowledged in our Anglican heritage that have a relationship with one another: Scripture, reason and tradition. Some claim that these are like a "three-legged stool," suggesting that each leg is equally important and each is a necessary counter-balance to the other two. This image is helpful in one respect: it shows that Anglicans highly value reason and tradition. But, in fact, the idea is a modern one that distorts what Anglicans have always believed. One will frequently hear the three-legged stool attributed to the seventeenth century theologian Richard Hooker. In fact, Hooker never used the analogy of a stool, and neither did he speak of three equally weighted sources of authority. He consistently spoke of the primacy of Holy Scripture. He wrote, "What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever." (Laws, Book V, 8:2). Ashley Null suggests that a garden, rather than a stool, is an analogy better fitting our Anglican heritage. He writes that "although it is common among Anglicans to speak of the three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason, in which each leg is equal, it is far more accurate to speak of Scripture as a garden bed in which reason and tradition are tools used to tend the soil, unlock its nutrients and bring forth the beauty within it' (Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today's Global Communion, p. 85-86). The Anglican formularies couldn't be clearer in their conviction that there is no higher authority than the Bible. The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura has been at the focal point of disagreements between Roman Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation. Catholics argue for dual, co-equal authorities (Scripture and tradition). Anglicans and other Protestants view the Bible alone ("sola," sola Scriptura) as the primary authority over the church and each individual. Tradition (which simply means how the church has considered and interpreted Scripture over time), and God-given reason help us to understand and apply God's word to our lives.

There are many examples of how Scripture is the lead authority in our Anglican heritage, one being the occasional and necessary revision of our Prayer Book. This is permitted as long as "there be not anything in it [that is, the new Prayer Book] contrary to the Word of God..." (the Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 1789). Cranmer's Preface to the first Prayer Book (1549) states that the main purpose of the Book of Common Prayer is to provide the means whereby the English people and the whole church will be saturated with God's word, and especially so that their ministers will "be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth." Cranmer states in the first Homily that the Bible is the rock on which all of the Church of England stands, not like the "puddles of men's traditions:"

"Unto a Christian man there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of holy Scripture; forasmuch as in it is contained God's true word, setting forth his glory and also man's duty. And there is no truth or doctrine necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation, but that is or may be drawn out of that foundation and well of truth... Let us reverently hear and read the Holy Scriptures, which is the food for the soul. Let us diligently search for the well of life in the books of the New and Old Testaments, and not run to the stinking puddles of men's traditions, devised by men's imagination, for our justification and salvation."

-- Homily on The Reading of Holy Scripture

In addition, every bishop, priest and deacon ordained in Anglican churches promise to hold themselves accountable to the Bible's teaching by declaring verbally and in writing that they "do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation." The Articles of Religion state that nothing takes precedence over the authority of Scripture, specifically noting that the Creeds are to be believed because they "may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture" (Article VIII), that the mark of the church is the preaching of the pure Word of God (Article XIX), that the church has no authority to teach "anything contrary to God's Word written" because "it serves as a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ" (Article XX), and that traditions of the Church are subordinate to the primary authority of Holy Scripture (Article XXXIII).

The church envisioned by these formularies is gracious and generous, with an unwavering commitment to Scripture. When Anglicans approach and interpret the Bible, we affirm at least four things: it is God's word, simple and clear, centrally about Jesus, and properly catholic (addressed to the whole church).


Anglicans approach the Bible humbly and expectantly, as God's inspired Word. The collect for Proper 28 memorably begins: "Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning..." (Collect for Proper 28). In Holy Scripture God reveals himself, and his plan to redeem humanity and all of creation. The Bible is not a collection of helpful life-verses or good advice for better Christian living. In fact, the Bible is not our story at all, but God's story of how he has interacted with his creation in history for the purpose of rescuing sinful humanity. The Bible is the product of men who spoke from God "as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit"; it is "breathed out" by God himself; it is a revelation, "these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit"; and centrally, it is a "received" word, not a human invention (Cf. 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Corinthians 2:10; Galatians 1:9-13).

But, for the reformers, Scripture was more than inspired words waiting around for an interpreter. They are words coupled with the power of God to effect what he says. He speaks, and there is transformation every time! When he said, "Let there be light" and "Lazarus come out" it happened! The Bible speaks of the strength and power of his word: "The word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). "So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11).

"They are words coupled with the power of God to effect what he says. "

"Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:29).

"By the word of the Lord the heavens were made... he spoke and it came to be" (Psalm 33:6, 9).

The same Holy Spirit who inspired its writing also inspires our hearing and understanding, as he enlightens and awakens us. "Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). He teaches the humble: "You have hidden these from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants" (Matthew 11:25). The same Spirit does the work of conversion such that, once we were only able to sin continually even in our "good works" (Article X), but now the Spirit empowers to us "right willing," with restored ability with God's help to choose not to sin (Romans 6:16-18). And so we also affirm that the Holy Spirit instructs those who are willing to obey: "If anyone's will is to do God's will he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own" (John 7:17). Anglicans and Episcopalians approach the Bible in their daily reading and in preparation for Sunday worship with the attitude of the Psalmist who looked to God for help: "Open my eyes that I might behold wondrous things out of your law. I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me!" (Psalm 119:18-19). Cranmer, not surprisingly, reveals this same humble, receptive attitude in the prayer that he wrote for the Feast of Pentecost: "O God, who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort."


The early Protestant Reformer William Tyndale, as he was translating the New Testament into English, famously said: "I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope." The Psalmist speaks about the clarity of Scripture: "The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple" (119:130). Why did God give us the Bible in the first place? Not to confuse us, but as light to our paths so that, as we continue in the prayer cited above, "we may in such wise hear them [the Holy Scriptures], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them." God uses the Bible to lead us out of spiritual darkness and death, that "by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life." Anglicans believe that everything anyone needs to know for salvation, for faith and for living, is revealed to us in the Bible. As Cranmer wrote in the first homily: "For in Holy Scripture is fully contained what we ought to do and what to eschew, what to believe, what to love and what to look for at God's hands at length." And in the Articles of Religion, in a master stroke of brevity, Cranmer states that "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation, so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be thought requisite or necessary to salvation" (Article 6). Cranmer was a "strict constructionist" (originalist) in his approach to Scripture interpretation, to use modern terms (Ashley Null, "Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Way of Reading Scripture," Anglican & Episcopal History, Vol. 75, No. 4, (December 2006), 503). He felt that the basic message of the Bible, its core teachings, are clear for ordinary Christians, and those parts that are harder to understand can be interpreted in the light of clearer passages.

The dangerous idea of the Reformation, at least in the mind of the Medieval church, was the belief that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves in its natural or plain meaning.60 Practically speaking, Anglicans interpret the Bible with consideration for the passage's context, taking into account the surrounding verses, the book itself and the Bible as a whole. We also consider the literary genre of the passage or book - is it a parable, an historical account, or a psalm? These contexts matter, and care is taken so as to not "expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another (Article 20). The natural meaning is the plain meaning, but not necessarily the literal meaning. To communicate its plain meaning, the Bible generously uses metaphors, analogies, and figures of speech. Figuratively speaking, Jesus is sitting on God's right hand, and he is figuratively a wooden door of a sheepfold.


Jesus is so much more than an interesting teacher in history; he is the center and meaning of all of human history. Beginning with creation and the prophecy about the one who "will" crush and "will be" crushed by the serpent (Genesis 3:15), the Old Testament is all about preparing the way for the coming of Christ. The prophets speak about a lamb of God whose character and mission is defined over the centuries: a lamb who will adequately cover sin when our self-righteous attempts fail -- whom God will provide -- whose shed blood will save God's people from death -- who will be a perfect offering without spot or blemish -- the lamb is a person who will be crushed for our sins and numbered with the transgressors -- who is identified once-and-for-all in a thunderous proclamation by John the Baptist who pointed to Jesus and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Genesis 3:21; 22:8; Exodus 12:13; Leviticus 22:19; Isaiah 53:5,10; John 1:29. See also 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:6 and 22:3.63 Luke 24:27, 44, 45). John proclaimed the truth that Jesus is the one who, from the beginning of time, the whole world was waiting for and hoping for. All the Old Testament personalities including Adam Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel are types of Christ who prefigure and point to the coming of the Messiah who will save his people. The four gospels tell the story of Jesus from the days before his birth to his ascension into heaven. And the Apostles, in their letters and writings, plumb the depths and meaning of his coming. Pointing to the remarkable unity and continuity of Holy Scripture around Jesus Christ, Augustine of Hippo famously said: "In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New Testament the Old is revealed."

It was the first resurrection Sunday when Jesus was walking with two disciples heading to the village of Emmaus. At first they didn't recognize him, but "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself...Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them, 'These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand..."63 Not many days later, Philip happened to join the Ethiopian Eunuch on the road to Gaza at the very time the Ethiopian was reading about the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. The Eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?' Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus."64 Since God stands behind the Bible as its author and inspiration, we interpret it as a whole rather than as sixty-six completely separate books without any connection to one another. Both testaments are the Word of God and complement each other, "for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ" (Article 7).

Anglicans believe that Scripture is not only God's word written, but its purpose and power is to lead us to know and love the one who loved us first: "That we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ."65 The Bible is not a rulebook or stories of good people to imitate, but primarily the overarching story of God's saving grace in Jesus. Reformation Anglicans join the English reformers in recognizing that God's word speaks in two ways: law and gospel. Law is that portion of Scripture that commands, prescribes, and exposes our guilt. The law is God's moral measure and his requirement of perfection. It's seen in words like "should," "ought," "you must," and "you shall." But the law has no power in itself to fulfill what it demands (a scale can tell you that you need to lose ten pounds, but it can't lose it for you). The law is wonderful: holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12), but it begs for a solution outside of itself. The gospel is the solution. When we couldn't keep the law in its demand for perfection, Jesus Christ did. Jesus lived the life of perfect obedience that we tried and failed to live, and he died the death that we deserve -- as our substitute. He is the end of the law for righteousness (Romans 10:4). "By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11).

The German reformer Martin Luther was enamored with the law/gospel distinction, finding it not only helpful, but necessary for understanding and interpreting the Bible. "Anyone who can properly distinguish the gospel from the law," Luther said, "may thank God and know that he is a theologian." As the Bible describes it, the problem with being human is our utter inability to do what God requires. But thanks be to God, that is not the end of the story! The gospel announces the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the perfect fulfillment of the law for us, and then it invites us to receive all the benefits of his perfect life and sacrifice by simply believing it to be true. As Luther once put it: The law says "do this" and it is never done; the gospel says "believe this" and it is already done (Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis # 26). Anglicans are not Lutherans, of course, but Luther's influence on the English reformers was profound, fundamentally affecting the way they understood the good news of God's salvation. The Elizabethan historian John Foxe memorably wrote about the English version of the law and gospel distinction:

"There is nothing more comfortable for troubled consciences than to be instructed in the difference between law and the gospel. The law shows us our sin; the gospel shows us the remedy for it. The law shows our condemnation; the gospel shows our redemption. The law is a word of ire; the gospel is a word of grace. The law is a word of despair; the gospel is a word of comfort. The law is a word of unrest; the gospel is a word of peace. The law says pay your debt; the gospel says Christ has paid it. The law says you are a sinner, despair you shall be damned. The gospel says your sins are forgiven, be comforted you shall be saved. The law says where is your righteousness? The gospel says Christ is your righteousness." -- Acts and Monuments of the English Martyrs, quoted by Jonathan Linebaugh in his "Introduction" to God's Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions

Thomas Cranmer was influenced by Luther in many ways, weaving the distinction between law and gospel into his writings. His Holy Communion liturgy, for example, begins with the law (recitation of either the Ten Commandments or the Summary of the Law) which naturally and inevitably leads to: "Lord have mercy upon us!" The sobering awareness of our brokenness before the law's demands then begs for the relief and comfort of the gospel in the sermon and the Creed: a recitation of what God has done for us when we tried and failed to live up to the law's standards. Cranmer's ordering of the Homilies was intentional and indicative of the same distinction. After the first homily on Scripture, in which Cranmer describes the authority of God's law and gospel, the second homily leads the whole church to see its sinfulness and need ("Of the Misery of Man"). This then is quickly followed by the Homily on Salvation, which announces the good news of God's gospel. The law and gospel narrative is then followed by three homilies that describe our lives lived in response to God's gracious gift.

Cranmer heard, read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested the words of Scripture -- as law and gospel. Anglicans today also find this distinction helpful and hopeful as they read and interpret the Bible.


Theologian Thomas Oden describes "the ancient consensual tradition of Spirit-guided discernment of scripture" (The Rebirth of Orthodoxy). What does this mean? It describes how Christians interpret Scripture with an appreciation for how a particular passage has been interpreted over time, most of the time, by the church universal. In this sense, the word catholic refers to the whole, universal church, of which Anglicans are a part--the one holy, catholic and apostolic and Church (Nicene Creed). Without elevating it to the same place as the Bible, Anglican catholicity gives tradition the job of helping to interpret the Bible. Vincent of Lerins, a fifth-century monk, described this as "that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all." The letter of Jude simply says it is "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (v.3).

The English Reformers, who were deeply influenced by the humanistic movement of their day that highly valued original sources, read deeply in both the Bible and the writings of the early church fathers. They believed that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of Scripture also protected the Word of God over time. This does not mean that there are no new truths to be discerned in a passage of Scripture, but that any new understandings will have to answer to the historic, consensual understanding of the passage. Based on this appreciation of catholicity, it would be impossible to conclude, for example that Jesus was merely a man and not the only begotten Son of God, or that the Trinity is an outdated idea, or that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' live-in girlfriend. If our study leads us to an interpretation different from the church's understanding over time, our commitment to the Bible and to catholic Christianity requires that we back up and re-approach the passage with the humility to admit that the wisdom of the ages is probably better than our own.

"The Dead Sea scrolls discovered in eleven caves beside the Dead Sea included copies of every book of the Old Testament (except for Esther, the only book that does not specifically mention God). These gave us manuscripts that were virtually 1,000 years earlier than the manuscripts that were being used to translate the Old Testament prior to 1947. One would think that in those years in the transfer from manuscript to manuscript that much would have been lost or changed. In fact, scholars marvel at the significant continuity there is between the Dead Sea scrolls and the latter manuscripts with only insignificant and minor changes found."


"In sum, for [Reformation] Anglicans Scripture reading was decisive. They believed that through its salvation narrative God's true identity was revealed and his image in human beings truly restored. Its promises shaped their self-understanding as a church. Its proclamation determined their mission in this world. Here was the heart of their daily worship. Here was the source of supernatural strength for daily living. Here was the message of divine gracious love that inspired their grateful human love. Hence, here was the self-interpreting authority they relied on to determine their disputes in matters of faith and morals." -- "Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Way of Reading Scripture"

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