FWS Chairman’s Letter, September 2005
What does Sola Scriptura mean for modern Anglican debates?
Sola Scriptura is one of the 5 rallying cries of the Reformation meaning:
“Scripture alone”. By this, the Reformers meant that Councils, Bishops and
Synods have no authority to overrule the Scriptures, for Scripture is to be
supreme in the Church. For a start, we must say, Sola Scriptura is at the
heart of the Anglican understanding of the Bible:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that
whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be
required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith,
or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation (Article 6)
The concept of Sola Scriptura is particularly associated with Martin Luther who asserted that to hear or read the Scripture is nothing less than to hear
God (Packer „Sola Scriptura‟ in History and Today, p.122). Most famous is
Luther‟s statement in 1521 at Worms:
Unless I am convinced by testimonies of Scripture or evident reason –
for I believe nether the Pope nor Councils alone, since it is established
that they have often erred and contradicted themselves - I am the
prisoner of the Scriptures cited by me, and my conscience has been
taken captive by the Word of God; I neither can nor will recant anything,
since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help
Whilst is it true that Luther did not use the words “inerrant” or “infallible”, RC
Sproul is surely right to articulate Luther‟s view of Scripture in these terms:
For Luther, the Sola of "Sola Scriptura" was inseparably related to the
Scriptures' unique inerrancy. It was because popes could and did err
and because councils could and did err that Luther came to realize the
supremacy of Scripture. Luther did not despise church authority, nor
did he repudiate church councils as having no value. His praise of the
Council of Nicea is noteworthy. Luther and the Reformers did not mean
by "Sola Scriptura" that the Bible is the only authority in the church;
rather, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority in the
thLuther's emphasis was echoed by the 16 Century Anglican Richard Hooker in his teaching that scripture is adequate for its divinely given purpose, namely
to show the way of salvation, but not to prescribe for all aspects of life, as
some of the puritans insisted. (Paul Avis,
0Avis.htm). It is here that modern Anglican debate rages.
The 3-legged stool
This is a phrase that is often associated with Richard Hooker, namely, that the
doctrine of the Church stands upon the three legs of Scripture, Reason and
Tradition. However Hooker did not actually use the phrase, but did use a
more subtle analogy of the 3-fold cord, which sees Scripture, Reason and
Tradition as intertwined and, presumably, inseparable.
Reason, for both Hooker and Luther meant the clarity of Scripture, accessible
through human thought. Revisionist moderns have taken “Reason” to refer to
rational thinking over against the implied obscurity or irrelevancy of Scriptures.
Hooker would agree with the Reformed stance that Scripture is perspicuous in
everything it speaks about and Church decisions should be subject to the
“plain reading” of the text. Reason, after all is a gift of God which enables us
to understand God‟s plan for life through, not separate from, Scripture (see Of
the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2).
The problem with 3-legged stool analogy is that it implies that each leg bears
equal weight and each are equally indispensable. This is not true for the
Protestant and Reformed understanding of the relationships between
Scripture, Reason and Tradition, as the famous Luther quote above illustrates.
Moreover, because our thinking is fallen, and because our human culture is
fallen, and because our human experiences are fallen, neither reason,
tradition nor experience should ever be put over the unfallen and absolute
trustworthiness of Scripture.
This is another phrase, which I think, is read into Hooker by later tractarians.
It is true to say that Hooker saw Anglicanism, not as half way between Rome
and Protestantism, but perhaps more finely distinguished between Puritan
and Reformation thought. The latter would see Scripture as containing all
things necessary for salvation (hence article 6 above), the former as seeing
Scripture as guiding all of life. Hence the Puritan “regulative principle” for
worship, for example.
Nigel Atkinson argues that Hooker‟s reverence for tradition was similar to
Luther and Calvin. For example, the episcopacy can be argued for, not least
because it has existed for 1500 years. If it is not proved contrary to Scripture,
then it should be recognised, not as the esse of the Church, but as the bene
esse of the Church (Richard Hooker and the Authority of Scripture, Tradition
and Reason, p.131). But, for example, because Tradition is the consensus of the universal, historic Church it should put the brakes on moves to consecrate
women to the Episcopacy, not only because Scripture has nothing positive to
say about women in this position of authority, but also because of the weight
Many modern movements, from the standpoint of Scripture, would be, not just
unscriptural, but irrational (contra Reason) and unconventional (contra
Tradition). Experience and Reason may never be used to justify unbiblical or untraditional decisions in the councils of the Church.
It concerns me that decisions - or revisions - made in the Church are often
justified through a misunderstanding of how the supposed “3-legged stool” is
thought to operate. Of particular concern is the idea that fallen human reason
seems to think that it knows better than Scripture. In addition, developments in human thinking and tradition appear to be taken to override the Divine order for human life.
If it is true that we retain the Anglican commitment to Sola Scriptura, I feel
bound to ask:
1) Is it clear from Scripture, Reason and Tradition that women should be ordained to the Episcopacy?
There are many of us who do not believe that it is clear that women should be so consecrated. At the very least, therefore, it requires that we fight for adequate and permanent provision, and I urge you to sign the enclosed petition (more on this in a moment). Wallace Benn has made the distinction between first order and second order issues with respect to the proposals to ordain women to the Episcopacy. I believe he is right to say that, whilst the consecration of women as bishops is a second order issue (in-so-far-as Church polity is not a first order issue), the implications for our view of Scripture and how God continues to guide the Church today, throw up first order issues.
2) Is it plain from Scripture, Reason and Tradition that the House of Bishops recent Pastoral Statement about same-sex partnerships is right?
I think that the recent statement from the House of Bishops responding to changes in legislation concerning homosexual partnerships is ultimately unhelpful and adds to the obfuscation caused by the way the debate is handled. For this reason I signed a letter of support to Archbishop Peter Akinola printed below.
Please take time to read the two items included in this Newslink. First, there is the text of the letter, which we sent to Peter Akinola. Secondly, you will find the wording of a petition, which I hope that you will sign. Please notice that the emphasis of the petition particularly resonates with Article 6 cited above. At the very least, should it not be acknowledged that the debate about women in the episcopacy has not reached clarity from Scripture, Reason and Tradition in favour of women being ordained into the Episcopate? For this reason, I urge you to persuade Synod to make permanent provision for those
who feel that the Denomination is acting contrary to “consciences bound by the word of God”.
Yours in Christ
Chairman Fellowship of Word and Spirit
Text of Letter to Archbishop Peter Akinola
Dear Archbishop Peter
We want to write straight away to thank you for your wise, strong and
courageous statement on the Bishops‟ response to the Civil Partnerships Act.
Your statement expresses clearly the conviction of all those who wish clearly
to uphold biblical standards of morality and states incisively the inconsistency
of the bishops‟ position.
Lawyers, parliamentarians, and senior clergy have all hailed your statement
as “absolutely right”. It has been sent to all bishops of the Church of England.
We did write to all bishops while they were preparing their statement asking
them not to allow clergy to enter civil partnerships for the reasons you have
stated. With you we pray that the bishops might not be so proud as to think
they can never make mistakes and have the grace to rethink what they have
said and see into what a disastrous situation it could lead the Church of
Please know that there are many clergy and congregations in England who
will seek to be faithful to the Word of God in this situation and who appreciate
fellowship with and leadership from you in the worldwide Anglican
With warm greetings in Christ
Prebendary Richard Bewes (former Chair of Church of England Evangelical
Rev Nick Wynne Jones (Secretary of Church of England Evangelical Council)
Rev David Banting (Chairman of Reform)
Gerald O‟Brien (Member of CEEC)
Rev Simon Vibert (Fellowship of Word and Spirit)
Rev Richard Farr (Chair of Anglican Evangelical Assembly)
Very Rev Michael Lawson (Archdeacon of Hampstead)
Canon Dr Chris Sugden (Anglican Mainstream)
The text of Archbishop Akinola‟s statement can be viewed on the Anglican
Text of Petition (also included on a separate piece of paper for you to sign
Many Evangelicals will be concerned by the July 2005 General Synod
decision which will in effect proceed towards the ordination of Women to the
We urge you to sign the following petition to ensure that Permanent Provision
is made for those of use who, in biblical conscience, will be unable to serve
under a women bishop.
Please sign this form and return it to the postal address of Church Society,
FWS or Reform, or alternatively, sign online at www.churchsociety.org, th 2005. www.fows.org, www.reform.org.uk, by September 30
Yours in Christ
The Right Revd Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes
The Revd David Banting, Chairman of Reform and Vicar of St Peter‟s Harold
The Revd David Phillips, Director of Church Society
The Revd Dr Simon Vibert, Chairman of Fellowship of Word and Spirit and
Vicar of St Luke‟s Wimbledon Park.
1. We the undersigned, declare our belief in the faith uniquely revealed in
the Holy Scriptures, set forth in the catholic creeds, and borne witness
to by the historic formularies of the Church of England (Canon C15).
2. We affirm and value the ministry of women within the Church of
England along the lines of complementary gender roles and
partnership in ministry, as set out in Holy Scripture.
3. We believe the decision of the General Synod in July 2005 to proceed
towards the consecration of women bishops is contrary to the will of
God revealed in Scripture and appeal to the Synod not to proceed.
4. We could not in conscience recognise or receive the Episcopal
oversight of a female bishop, nor swear the oath of canonical
obedience to a woman.
5. We regret that adequate time has not been given to theological debate
about the specific issue of gender complementarity in leadership roles
in the Church and appeal to Synod to make time for this.
6. If Synod opts to continue, we urge that specific structural provision be
made for those who cannot in conscience accept the rightness of this
change and that this provision should be contained within a Measure
and be without time limit.