Confessionalism is one of the big things that divides Anglicanism from other Reformation traditions. Unlike Lutheran and Reformed churches, Anglicanism has no official confession of faith outside of the creeds. I’ve been wanting to write something about this for a while and I figured that Whit’s question after my last post offered the perfect opportunity. Whit writes:
Why did the Church of England never become confessionally Lutheran?
The question is inspired in part by my mentioning the fact that Queen Elizabeth I had a Lutheran streak in her beliefs. She had been formed by Lutheranism in her younger days and even kept up a correspondence with Philipp Melanchthon. Nevertheless, she did not accept every facet of Lutheranism, nor did she attempt to force any of the Lutheran confessions upon the Church of England. Some of the more radical members of the English clergy at the time of the Elizabethan Settlement would have loved to impose some type of confession upon the church, most likely either a Reformed confession or something more stringent, but their efforts proved fruitless. Anglicanism is not now, and has never been, confessional.
There was a wide range of beliefs amongst the different Protestant groups that emerged on the European continent during the sixteenth century, but what all of these Protestants shared in common was a belief in sola scriptura, the idea that Holy Scripture is not only the highest source of authority for doctrine but the only source. As the early nineteenth century Irish Anglican John Jebb put it, “From the commencement of the Reformation, it has been the common principle of all continental Protestants, that the interpretation of scripture is to be exclusively derived from scripture itself.” Jebb contrasts this with the Anglican approach of reading Scripture through the lens of the early Church. Quoting Saint Vincent, he says:
‘From the very depth of holy scripture, all men cannot receive it in one and the same sense: one person interprets the divine oracles in one manner; another person, in a manner totally different; insomuch that, from the same source, almost as many opinions may be plausibly elicited as there are men. Therefore, amidst so great perplexities, of such various error, it is extremely necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be regulated by the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic judgment.’
The key to having a solid, scriptural faith is to have a faith that is consonant with the mind of the whole Church, which means, among other things, submitting ourselves to the guidance of the early Church councils wherein the whole mind of the Church was guided to godly conclusions by the Holy Spirit. Jebb lauds Anglicanism for its “unqualified deference paid to the first four general councils.” This does not mean that such councils are infallible, as we have discussed here before, but that in the principle of conciliarity there is to be found the highest degree of probability that what is taught is the truth, because of both the comprehensiveness of meeting in council and because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit that comes upon gatherings led by bishops who are open to receive Him. And when the council is ancient and ecumenical, that probability becomes as near to one hundred percent as you can get.
The continental Protestants were happy to turn to the ancient Fathers for support when it would help them prove a point, and they did (and still do) believe in the ancient Christian creeds. Moreover, there is a recognition amongst confessional Protestants that teaching is needed for people to understand the Bible correctly. But because the starting point for interpreting the Bible is sola scriptura, rather than catholicity or conciliarity, confessional Protestants see no problem with creating new statements of faith and insisting on adherence to them even without the council of the Church. Their understanding of the Church eschews bishops, or at the very least minimizes their importance, and so confessional Protestants feel no need to bring together bishops to settle points of doctrine, much less to bring together all of the world’s bishops. The words of Scripture are plain, and so it does not matter who draws up a confession of faith, so long as it is true to what the Bible says.
This is, in fact, how confessional Protestants understand the creeds themselves, not as statements of faith that emerged from a conciliar process guided by the Holy Spirit, but as simple explications of scriptural truth that are inherently authoritative because they are biblical. In terms of authority, the only difference between something like the Augsburg or Westminster Confessions and the Nicene Creed is when they were written, not how.
By contrast, classical Anglicanism seeks to guide us again and again back to the mind of the early Church. And the early Church was conciliar. While there may be a multitude of ways of reading the Scriptures that would produce clear and logical systems of doctrine, there is no guarantee that these systems are trustworthy if the Church, led by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, has not been given the chance to deliberate. Jesus Christ did not come to us to establish a Bible study. He came to establish a Church. Even within the Scriptures themselves, we see the early Church coming together in council, led by the Holy Spirit, to respond to difficult questions about the faith (see, for instance, Acts 15:1-22). This is, in fact, one of the purposes of the episcopate, to be able to bring the Church together in this way, to guard the flock of Christ against error (Acts 20:28). Eliminate the episcopacy and conciliarity goes with it. And once conciliarity is gone, almost any teaching can become viable, no matter how strange or novel.
This is not to say that everything in the Protestant confessions is false or even that there is no place for individual churches to make statements of faith. The 39 Articles are certainly a statement of faith, but they were designed intentionally to be subordinate to the creeds and the prayer book. When you take something like the Augsburg or Westminster Confessions, or even the 39 Articles, and put them on a par with the ancient creeds, insisting that both confessions and creeds are self authenticating, you introduce the notion that the individual holds final authority, not the Scriptures. That may not seem like what confessionalism does, but it is an inevitable evolution from confessionalism’s starting point. If any group of Christians can come together and create an authoritative teaching based on their own reading of Scripture which seems plain to them, who is to tell any individual Christian that he or she must receive one teaching over another? So long as I believe that I am following the Bible, and particularly if I can get two or three other people to agree with me, what I teach must be true.
I do not mean to be flip about this. I have wonderful friends who are confessional Lutherans and Calvinists, and generally speaking their adherence to their confessions has kept them from floating off into the chaos of more radical forms of Protestantism in which even the creeds are dismissed as simply the opinion of some men a long time ago. But that’s just it, if confessions and creeds are equally valid, than the creeds really are just the opinion of some men a long time ago. So why not change them? Why not re-arrange them? Why not write whole new ones? It isn’t hard to see how this sort of thinking has blossomed in our age into Evangelical and Charismatic Protestantism on the one hand and Liberalism on the other.
Even within confessional churches themselves, there is a drift away from the historical teaching of the Councils. I am, generally speaking, a big fan of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, if for no other reason than the fact that I’ve met some phenomenal pastors and teachers in that church body. Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than Worldview Everlasting, Lutheran Satire, and Issues, Etc. These ministries are an oasis in the desert, and the Episcopal Church ought to take a page from them. That being said, I was shocked to discover recently that in the liturgy used by the LCMS, the Nicene Creed has been altered so that it says that we believe in “One, Holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church” instead of “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” I am honestly not sure what the reason is for this change. Certainly, the Church is both Christian and Catholic, but those two words are not the same, and to change something that has been determined by an ecumenical council, without the further assent of a new council, is just unthinkable. If one word can be changed, they all can be. And before we know it, God is not really Father, Jesus did not really die and rise, and the Holy Spirit is just a warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we think about being nice to each other. I don’t actually expect any of that to happen in the LCMS, but then again neither would anyone have expected fifty years ago that there would be Episcopal congregations attempting to write their own creeds (and yes, our problem in TEC is also related to our complete abandonment of conciliarity, but that is perhaps a topic for another time).
In the absence of conciliarity, we lose Christianity entirely. The very canon of Scripture that confessional Protestants claim to base their confessions upon is the product of various local and Ecumenical councils of the early Church. When conciliarity disappears, eventually so does the Bible. Classical Anglicanism maintains conciliarity through a strong appeal to the authority of the early Church Councils and through our continuing of apostolic order, liturgy, and creeds. Yet modern Anglican churches are not immune to the individualism that has plagued all forms of Protestantism from the very beginning. In the Anglican Communion today, we see an abandonment of conciliar principles that has led us to the brink of self destruction. It is only by recovering a truly authentic conciliarity that we may hope to continue to be a truly authentic part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.