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February 13, 2024

The following is an interview with the Rev. Cn. Dr. Ashley Null. He is a friend of the American Anglican Council, and we are grateful to him for his time. The interview comes on the heels of a recent controversy surfacing online through various articles (see our own article on this subject here) https://americananglican.org/can-the-cairo-covenant-unite-both-global-south-anglicans-and-gafcon-and-resolve-theological-differences-and-strategies-at-the-same-time-part-1/ regarding the place of sola scriptura in Anglican theology and in the upcoming Global South Assembly. How do both sides come together to create a structure that will preserve biblical-faithfulness in the midst of theological controversies that continue today? Dr. Null helps explain the foundations of Anglican thought and the place of sola scriptura in Cranmer's thinking.

Canon Phil: Dr. Ashley Null, we are immensely grateful for your taking time. Your scholarship on Thomas Cranmer is well known, and we know that you've been working extensively on the theological research notes that Cranmer wrote on Scripture and the Church Fathers. And there's been a bit of a question arising among biblically-faithful Anglicans within the Communion about the 16th century English reformers and to what degree they relied upon the church fathers and what we might call today the Great Tradition. And so I'm wondering if you'd like to comment on that based on your studies in these theological research notes that Thomas Cranmer wrote, say a little bit about them and what you observe from Cranmer and other 16th century Anglican reformers. What did the 16th century English reformers like Cranmer mean when they use the terms sola scriptura? What do they think about the church fathers and why is it important for us to understand this?

Dr. Null: I think you've given me ten questions. To start off, what does sola scriptura mean in the 16th century?

One of the problems is those that are objecting to sola scriptura have a modern, evangelical understanding of sola scriptura. They do not have an accurate Lutheran or Anglican understanding of what sola scriptura means. It often functions this way in current evangelicalism. When you say sola scriptura, what you mean is nothing the church does is permissible unless we find a warrant in Scripture alone. Yes. We can't have any doctrines that are not found in Scripture. We can't have any church practices that are not found in Scripture. What they really think sola scriptura means is what you hear in a lot of non-denominational churches. We want to be a New Testament church, right? And anything that isn't grounded in the New Testament, you shouldn't do, right? That's not what the 16th century Anglicans thought.

Canon Phil: So what did they think sola scriptura meant as far as your studies have shown?

Dr.Null: First of all, let's remember how the Bible is used in Lutheran and Anglican circles. There is a difference between what's called the regulative principle and the normative principle. The regulative principle says you can't do it unless the Bible specifically says you can. The normative principle is that if it doesn't contradict the Bible you can do it. So you can't do anything against the Bible.
For example, amazing grace. Those aren't biblical words, are they? You can't use hymns that weren't psalms. In a regulative principle you can't use human songs. You have to use God's words, so you have to use metrical psalms. You couldn't use Amazing Grace, because it's not in the Bible and its verses aren't scriptures.

Canon Phil: Okay, so then with the normative principle you could use it, because it aligns with the Bible, even though the words are not in the Bible.

Dr.Null: Exactly. Now let's take a look at the Roman Catholic Church. They believe that Mary, after living her life here, was bodily assumed into heaven, like Enoch. Does scripture say that?

Canon Phil: Nowhere does it say that.

Dr. Null: But does it ever say that Mary died?

Canon Phil: I can't recollect any place where it says that in the Bible.

Dr. Null: So, it's not contrary to Scripture. Roman Catholics use the Bible in a way that is normative on doctrine, not regulatory. The key with the normative principle is that it can't be contrary to Scripture.

A difference between Rome and Luther and the Anglicans, however, is that the Reformers were normative on worship, not on doctrine. If a doctrine is not in the Bible, like the Assumption of Mary, then you really can't or shouldn't teach it.

So I know some folks who are afraid that if you embrace sola scriptura it means you can't do liturgy. Now that's true if you're a non-denominational, evangelical, regulative-for-everything New Testament kind of church person, that is true. But that's not the Anglican Church, ever, and certainly not in the 16th century. They're regulative on doctrine, but normative on worship.

Canon Phil: How else is this reflected in Reformational thought?

Dr. Null: Well, the division between Bishop Richard Cox and John Knox serves as an example. Cox wanted to use the Edwardian Cranmer's liturgy. Knox said that Cranmer's prayer book was half reformed, and if they didn't get rid of the imperfections in Cranmer's liturgy, God's wrath would come on them, and they would be sent in exile beyond Frankfurt.

Canon Phil: So why was that? What was the sticking point for Knox?

Dr. Null: The fact that the minister should be the only one speaking for God in the churches, because God alone speaks in church worship. That's why in some reformed circles to this day they don't say amen as the congregation after the minister prays. The people listen. They don't participate. It's all about God and what He is saying, not the people. But the point is the idea that you can only do something in worship because it's seen in the Bible. That's not what Anglicans mean by sola scriptura.

Canon Phil: In your studying of these theological research notes, did you find Cranmer resorting to the Church Fathers and others from the Great Tradition as he was looking at the scriptures?

Dr. Null: One has to understand that the Protestant reformers thought they were rescuing the Great Tradition in their day. Now you have to be careful when you use the words "Great Tradition", because different people mean different things by it. For C.S. Lewis, Great Tradition is just the Common Core teachings of beliefs. For others, it's philosophy and religion, going together, recovering a transcendent worldview. For others, it's recovering patristic and medieval liturgical traditions, the fullness of Catholic expression and ceremony.

Canon Phil: Okay, so if there are different ways to view what the Great Tradition is, then what is the patristic consensus of tradition and was Cranmer able to find it?

Dr. Null: Well, it's based on the canon of Scripture. It's the central part of "the tradition" because the canon of Scripture was formulated by the Church in the late part of the fourth century, where they agreed this was the apostolic teaching.

So, Cranmer followed Augustine's way of looking at the Scripture. They want to read it like a church father, with the mind of the fathers wherever possible. And, according to Augustine, you interpret difficult passages in light of those more clear ones. Augustine said that his writings do not have the authority of Scripture but they shed light on how you can approach them. After all, he did publish a book called Retractions.

That reality, that the church fathers' words were not Scripture and could be retracted, plus the medieval worldliness and sexual immorality that Reformers saw in the hierarchy of the Roman Church at the time, convinced them that the Church was a human institution, not a divine one. The Reformers decided that the Bible, not the Church, expressed the voice of God. The Church was a human institution that God will work through but still has its issues.

Therefore, when Augustine says, "I am a human being and I am wise, but I am not inspired by God", you see he was making a distinction between the Scriptures and the writings of the fathers.

Canon Phil: So how did Augustine encourage people to read the Scriptures?

Dr. Null: The first place you begin is what I mentioned earlier, you let God's Word interpret itself. There's a caveat to that, though. The interpreter is a fallen human being, right? So how do we make sure that the interpreter is getting it right?

Now again, if you have a non-denominational Protestant modern view of sola scriptura, each individual gets to make up their own mind. But in the 16th century church, living in a hierarchical society, you have a group of people deciding the right interpretation, not individuals. I mean, what do you think the 39 articles are? It's the 39 articles that the church leadership (made up of bishops, scholars, clergy, etc.) decided were necessary to interpreting the Scripture and living out the Faith. So the question isn't what do individuals decide? The question is, what do the people God has raised up in authority decide?

Canon Phil: So on what basis do they decide? If it can't be individuals but councils in authority, but if councils can err, then how do they approach it?

Dr. Null: The first thing they do is, together and with much prayer, try to listen to the voice of God within the Scripture. Then they show humility. They're not the only leaders of the church in the history of the church. You go back and you see, are there others who have agreed with you on this interpretation? And the purpose of Cranmer's notebooks are to say, okay, this is how we understand Scripture, now let's test that to see if we're the only ones who have ever thought of it. We don't start with the fathers and try to have them tell us what Scripture says. You start with the voice of God to us today, but then, in humility, acknowledge you could get it wrong and need to see if it lines up with how others have seen it. So you sit in council with other Christians and in the whole history of the Faith.

Canon Phil: So Cranmer was looking to the fathers to confirm the biblical interpretation that he had done, even though he was very much a proponent of sola scriptura?

Dr. Null: Yes, because he wants to be sure that they're in the great stream of Christian thought and that they're recovering the wisdom of the early church, that the medieval church lost. And yes, other people of good faith will reject that and say, no, these reformers actually destroyed the Great Tradition. They ruined that stream. And there are certainly Anglicans in our past who certainly believed that was the case. But it's important to understand what our Reformers thought they were doing at first, which was actually recovering the Great Tradition in light of the Scriptures, in council with each other and with those who came before them.

Canon Phil: And that is, I think, a wonderful clarification of a question that has arisen lately with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, who, at Lambeth Conference 2022, said on the one hand that Lambeth Resolution 1.10 remains the historic teaching of the Anglican Communion on matters of human sexuality, because, of course, it does agree with the scriptures and it does agree with the teaching of the Church Fathers; but on the other hand says, we have other people who read the scriptures in a different way and their interpretations are just as worthy as any others. Therefore we can live with both interpretations. Pluriform truth. But what we're hearing from you, Ashley, is that Thomas Cranmer and the 16th century Reformers were conspicuously conscientious in their use of interpretation. They didn't say all interpretations were equal but only those in line with the scriptures and with the Christian thought that came before them.

Dr. Null: Yes, because of the sexual scandals of their day they were hesitant about human nature and didn't want to put any human authority on the same level of God's revelation. They were skeptical about the capacity of human nature to deceive itself and even use scripture to justify whatever it wanted, so the interpretations they were talking about had narrow parameters. Just because you say, this is what Scripture says, you need to test it by the current community and the historic community.

Canon Phil: So how does that reflect on our own Anglican situation today?

Dr. Null: Well, in many ways and with many current hot topics and debates. You see, you can interpret the scriptures in ways that they're not contradicting themselves but you still have to check the historical community of God's people. You can't bring out a novel idea you found in scripture and ignore the stuff that contradicts your interpretation explicitly.

I mean, do you realize that the Anglican Church as a whole was founded on these principles? It presents debates that are very controversial and brings up equally controversial things today.

Canon Phil: That's right. So how do you navigate the controversy in the midst of interpretation?

Dr. Null: Humility. The truth is, with all of our best intentions, we can get it wrong. So we must, in council, discuss our interpretations of Scripture and ask whether they are right in light of the past.

Canon Phil: Doctor Null, thank you. It's a great pleasure to be a friend and co-laborer in the in the field with you. I know this conversation was just an overview of the issues from a historically Anglican perspective, and there are many more details that haven't been tackled yet. I know we're going to have more conversations about this over the years, especially as we approach the Global South covenantal structures and their first Assembly in June. But this has been a very helpful beginning to understanding Cranmer and his approach to Scripture and tradition, and we thank you for giving us that today.

About the Rev. Cn. Dr. Ashley Null. Dr. Null is an internationally respected scholar on the grace and gratitude theology of the English Reformation. Holding research degrees from Yale and the University of Cambridge, Ashley has received numerous awards for his work, including Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim fellowships as well as being elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries in London. He currently holds a research post funded by the German Research Council at Humboldt University of Berlin and is a visiting fellow at the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and St. John's College, Durham University. His project is editing the private theological notebooks of Thomas Cranmer, the author of the independent Church of England's founding formularies, for Oxford University Press. In addition to his scholarly activities, Ashley is an ordained Episcopal priest, Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, Theological Advisor to the ACNA Diocese of the Carolinas and Senior Fellow of the Ridley Institute of St. Andrew's, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. He travels widely throughout the Anglican Communion sharing the godly biblical heritage of Anglicanism.

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