Anglican 101: The Sources of Anglican Theology
By Rev. Don Beyers, Assistant Curate
We continued our lenten study series of our Anglican-Christian faith last week with a look at the “sources” of our theology. We also explored what it means to be baptized. Although the two topics may seem unrelated, I suggest otherwise.
Baptism, we learned, is one of the two great sacraments of the Church, the other being Eucharist. It is the sacrament by which we are purified of sin and born into new life, the life of grace.
While many life-long Anglicans understand Baptism as such, there is another dimension of Baptism that is often overlooked. By virtue of Baptism, we are called to a new vocation, to be Christ to all God’s people.
Immediately following our immersion into the baptismal waters, we are anointed with Chrism Oil. That anointing evokes our new vocation to be Christ to others. Jesus, as we know, was the anointed Son of God, thus he is called Christ, from the Greek word meaning “anointed.” By our birth into new life and into the Body of Christ, the Church, we participate in Jesus’ ministry and are anointed as well.
The challenge for Christians, therefore, is to understand how we are to live our new vocation. To learn our new vocation, we need to turn to the “sources” of our faith for deeper understanding. Those sources are Scripture, tradition, and reason.
Scripture, of course, is the ultimate and definitive source of all things necessary for our salvation. Although Anglicans generally do not read the scriptures literally, we understand the writers of the Word of God were inspired by God to write those things which are essential for eternal life. Scripture forms the foundation, the ground of all our belief. We turn first to the Word of God for our discernment and it is the Word of God by which we measure all things.
While the Christian Church recognized much of the Bible as we have it today by the third century, questions remained about the meaning of those scriptural texts. For example, the early Christians struggled to better understand how Jesus was both God and man. As successors to the Apostles, the early bishops recognized their duty to faithfully pass on the teachings they received. Therefore the bishops met in large councils known as ecumenical councils to define the core beliefs of the Christian Church. The result of those councils were the creeds which we continue to pray each Sunday.
The teachings of the councils and the creeds form what we call tradition. When we talk about tradition, we are not talking about customs we pass down from generation to generation, but rather the teachings of the apostolic tradition. To be clear, tradition does not introduce anything new, but articulates more fully and clearly the scriptures.
Although there is a general agreement about what belongs to tradition, there remains a wide-range of opinion on various teachings. Remember, we Anglicans do not have a definitive, magisterial teaching like that of other churches. Rather, we have a spectrum of belief and expression of our teachings.
To help us navigate and discern the sometimes muddled waters of our teaching, our Church also turns to reason as a source of theology. Reason discerns the meaning of the scriptures and tradition within the context of our times. Its purpose is to help us understand more fully and deeply what God is saying to us through the scriptures.
New insights, such as those from biblical studies, often help us to better understand the meaning of a particular passage. We recognize the scriptures were written within a particular historical and cultural context. Therefore we do not rigidly hold to all teachings of the Bible. For example, we do not continue many of the laws found in the Book of Leviticus simply because we acknowledge those laws to be rooted within a particular time. Other biblical teachings, such as those regarding the role of women in the life of the Church, have been understood anew.
Admittedly, all of this can be rather tricky to navigate. However, we have to remember Jesus is the source and author of our faith and salvation. We must turn to him in prayer at all times, even when we are in the fiercest of theological debates. Our discernment of what God is calling us to do within our particular time and place must be done in prayer.
This is why it is so important for us to pray the Word of God daily. A wonderful guide for praying God’s Word is the Book of Common Prayer. When we pray the Daily Office, we allow the scriptures to fill our hearts and minds and guide us each day. (Many of us gather during the week for morning prayer to pray the Daily Office as found in the Book of Common Prayer.)
We can also pray God’s Word by simply reflecting for a period of time each day on a short passage from the Bible. A good example of this is the practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading. That practice encourage us to pray a text several times and note what words and images touch our hearts.
Whatever your chosen practice of reading the Bible may be, it is essential that we pray and study the scriptures daily, study our tradition’s rich heritage, and discern God’s call for us today. When we do, we will learn to live our baptismal vocation.