The Windsor Report 2004

The authority of scripture

  1. Central among these is scripture. Within Anglicanism, scripture has always been recognised as the Church's supreme authority, and as such ought to be seen as a focus and means of unity. The emphasis on scripture grew not least from the insistence of the early Anglican reformers on the importance of the Bible and the Fathers over against what they saw as illegitimate mediaeval developments; it was part of their appeal to ancient undivided Christian faith and life. The seventeenth and eighteenth century divines hammered out their foundations of “scripture, tradition and reason”; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we have seen the 'Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral', in which scripture takes first place[35]. The Bible has always been at the centre of Anglican belief and life, embodied and exemplified by the fact that the reading and singing of scripture has always been at the centre of Anglican worship.

  2. However, the common phrase “the authority of scripture” can be misleading; the confusions that result may relate to some of the divisions just noted. Scripture itself, after all, regularly speaks of God as the supreme authority. When Jesus speaks of “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28.18), he declares that this authority is given, not to the books that his followers will write, but to himself. Jesus, the living Word, is the one to whom the written Word bears witness as God's ultimate and personal self-expression. The New Testament is full of similar ascriptions of authority to the Father, to Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit. Thus the phrase “the authority of scripture”, if it is to be based on what scripture itself says, must be regarded as a shorthand, and a potentially misleading one at that, for the longer and more complex notion of “the authority of the triune God, exercised through scripture”. The question of how this 'exercised through' works in practice is vital to understanding the kind of authority which scripture possesses and hence to the nature and exercise of actual authority within the Church. It may be, historically, that the phrase 'authority of scripture' has characteristically emerged in contexts of protest (when one part of the Church appeals to scripture against something being done by another part). When we attempt to apply it more widely, to an entire understanding of the Church's mission and common life, it quickly becomes apparent that its implications need to be thought out more fully.

  3. For Jesus and the early Christians, 'authority' was not conceived as a static source of information or the giving of orders (as the word 'authority' has sometimes implied), but in terms of the dynamic inbreaking of God's kingdom, that is, God's sovereign, saving, redeeming and reconciling rule over all creation. This saving rule of God, long promised and awaited in Israel, broke in upon the world in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection, to be then implemented through the work of the Spirit until the final act of grace which will create the promised new heavens and new earth. If the notion of scriptural authority is itself to be rooted in scripture, and to be consonant with the central truths confessed by Christians from the earliest days, it must be seen that the purpose of scripture is not simply to supply true information, nor just to prescribe in matters of belief and conduct, nor merely to act as a court of appeal, but to be part of the dynamic life of the Spirit through which God the Father is making the victory which was won by Jesus' death and resurrection operative within the world and in and through human beings. Scripture is thus part of the means by which God directs the Church in its mission, energises it for that task, and shapes and unites it so that it may be both equipped for this work and itself part of the message.

  4. How then does scripture function in this way? This is not the place for a detailed consideration of the respective authority of the Old and New Testaments, important though that discussion is. The early Christians understood themselves to be both beneficiaries and agents of the saving sovereignty of God, the 'kingdom' which had been accomplished in Jesus Christ. The 'authority' of the apostles - a concept worked out with great pain and paradox by Paul in 2 Corinthians - was their God-given and Spirit-driven vocation as witnesses of the resurrection, through whose announcement of the good news God was powerfully at work to call men and women to salvation (Romans 1.16-17) and thus to create the Church as the sign and foretaste of new creation (Ephesians 1-3). It is within this context of apostolic witness, drawing its 'authority' from the victory of Jesus Christ and the power of the Spirit (Matthew 28.18-20; 2 Corinthians 3.1-4.6, 13.3-4), that the writings we call the New Testament came to be written, precisely to be vehicles of the Spirit's work in energising the Church in its mission and shaping it in the holiness of new creation. Thus, as scholarship has emphasised, the writers of the canonical gospels (despite all the obvious differences between them, and the multiple sources upon which they drew) were conscious of telling the story of Jesus in such a way as to demonstrate its fulfilment of the story of Israel and its foundational character for the mission and life of the Church. From the first, the New Testament was intended as, and perceived to be, not a repository of various suggestions for developing one's private spirituality, but as the collection of books through which the Spirit who was working so powerfully through the apostles would develop and continue that work in the churches. This is why, from very early in the Church, the apostolic writings were read during worship, as part of both the Church's praise to God for his mighty acts and of the Church's drawing fresh strength from God for mission and holiness. This, rather than a quasi-legal process of 'appeal', is the primary and dynamic context within which the shorthand phrase “authority of scripture” finds its deepest meaning.