Recently on the blog, we examined the roles Scripture and tradition play in Anglican belief and practice. As I’ve said, these are two of the three main sources for Anglican theology, which I’ve referred to as the “three-legged stool.” Anglicans attempt to keep all three of these legs in balance so that the stool does not tip. The third leg of this stool is reason. As with tradition, reason does not trump Scripture; Scripture remains the first among equals.
The trickiest leg in the Anglican stool
Reason is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of Anglican theology to talk about (which is why I left it for last!). “Reason” means different things for different people. Many people affirm that reason includes experience. Others would like to add a fourth leg to the stool for experience. There is also the question of how much weight reason should carry in relationship to both Scripture and tradition.
There is also the question of what reason means. When we say we need to let Scripture trump reason, what do we mean? Clearly we use reason when we come to the text, even if we hold the highest view of Scripture. What are the limits of reason? How do we apply reason to tradition?
The place of reason in Anglicanism
Not surprisingly, Anglicans have not fleshed out a definitive answer for this question, leaving a lot of room for disagreement and diversity.
Liberal Anglicans tend to affirm that reason is the main arbiter when attempting to understand Scripture. If one comes across something in Scripture that is contrary to reason, liberal Anglicans are more willing to drop what seems to be the plain reading in favor of an reading that takes modern methods of interpretation into account. The same goes for tradition. Many liberal Anglicans will keep the forms of tradition while interpreting in light of current knowledge.
Anglo Catholics tend to affirm that reason, tested by tradition, is authoritative. For example, many believe that the Nicene Creed is the border that guards biblical interpretation. Scholars should feel free to explore and challenge Scripture within that border. However, when scholarship comes up against the central doctrines of the faith (Trinity, Incarnation, etc.), it should yield to the reason of the church fathers embodied in the creed.
Evangelical Anglicans, much like Anglo-Catholics, affirm the importance of reason, but are wary when people stray too far from historical orthodox Christianity. They would affirm that reason, rightly applied, will lead to a right reading of Scripture. However, human reason is subject to sin like the rest of human nature. Moreover, they would affirm that the prevailing culture has a significant impact on one’s reason. As such, one needs to be cautious in using reason to interpret Scripture.
As with tradition, these categories are generalizations. There are myriad combinations of these three groups within the Anglican church, each with its own unique emphasis.
A library built for Anglicans
Whichever camp you fall in, the Anglican Portfolio base package gives you the tools you need for a reasoned approach to Scripture and tradition. These resources are carefully chosen by an expert in the field. The set contains books that are relevant to all stripes of Anglicans:
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- Science and Theology Collection (9 vols.)
- Christian Approaches to Contemporary Thinking Collection (6 vols.)
- James D.G. Dunn Collection (5 vols.)
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