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Formulary Friday: Speaking Plainly

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Posted by The Rev'd Robert Evans, 8 Apr 2016

Robert Evans explores the teaching of Article VI on the meaning of Scripture.

Article VI reads:

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. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Few of the 39 Articles proclaim the Reformation DNA of the Church of England as loudly Article VI. In it, the English reformers proclaimed the doctrine of sola Scriptura, that Scripture – and Scripture alone – is sufficient to answer humanity’s constant question: what must I do to be saved?

It was a controversial doctrine then and remains so now: human beings have a habit of being unable to leave anything alone and our attitude to Scripture is no different – we love to supplement and complement what is on the page in front of us.

Article VI warns us against this inherent tendency. The Holy Scripture that was to be read in England’s church ‘containeth all things necessary to salvation’. Anything ‘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 Faith and thought to be requisite or necessary to salvation’. We cannot add anything to Scripture because Scripture already contains all we will ever need. For the reformers, this excluded making certain traditional practices a necessary part of the Christian life if Scripture did not support them. But in many ways, as soon as we add to Scripture, we devalue what is already on the page (c.f. Rev. 22.18-19).

The preferred supplement of many modern churches is not so-called catholic tradition but historical context. How many times have you heard a preacher or commentary say that if you really want to know what’s going on in a passage, you need to understand the society in which it was written? Perhaps they told you that ‘you can’t understand Paul unless you understand Greco-Roman society’? Maybe they said, ‘Ah, but the prophets were products of a very different world’? Or even, ‘but Jesus was speaking into that particular Jewish context’. It is an argument that appears again and again in many recent debates in the Church of England. Only if we understand the context, we will finally understand what the Bible really means.

Don’t get me wrong – I love learning about the historical context of the Bible. I would not be very good at my day job as medieval historian if I ignored the context of my sources. There is, however, a major difference between using historical context to get behind the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Magna Carta and using it to get behind the Bible. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can only give me a single human perspective on Anglo-Saxon history. Even though it is a very useful perspective, I will never begin to get a full picture unless I look at other sources: law-codes, charters, art-work and so on. The Bible is in some respects similar to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (it does, for example, contain some chronicles). The Bible had human authors. They wrote in particular contexts and offered specific views on what they saw.

However, as Paul puts it, ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (2 Tim. 3.17). If I go to the Bible to learn about how humans can be put right with God, I am not relying on a single and incomplete perspective. I am relying on God’s own testimony. These are God’s word and we read them with the help of His Spirit. There is nothing that could possibly supplement or complement God’s perspective. All that context can do – and it has its uses – is to help us understand what Scripture has already said. Understanding the context of the Bible does not change its meaning but helps bring that meaning out more vividly.

Let’s take Philippians as an example. Philippi was a Roman colony originally settled with military veterans. The Philippians’ context was one which prized its Roman citizenship and military history. When Paul tells the Philippians to ‘stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel’ (Phil. 1.27), they may well have called to mind Roman battle formations. When Paul says that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3.20), they may well have compared this to the value of being a Roman citizen (for which see Acts 16.37). This may help us imagine what Paul says (that is, it intensifies his message) but it adds nothing to what has not already written. You do not need to know Philippi’s history (or have read Shakespeare) to know that Paul would have us fight together for Christ as those who belong to heaven. It would go against the meaning of Article VI, (hypothetically) to ignore Paul’s words because they are somehow complicit in the language of Roman militarism. This is not a controversial point, but it is questions of historical context which drive so much controversy in the Church of England.

Article VI, however, limits what is required of us as Christian and confines it to the words on the page which, by God’s grace, we have in front of us. We must remember that we live in an educationally privileged environment in Christian history. The last two centuries have seen the explosion of professional historical and archaeological study, which means we know (or think we know) far more about the past than our predecessors. We cannot make this increased knowledge a criterion for truth. If so, then it is a criterion that has been denied to the majority of the Church throughout its history and in many parts of the world. We cannot make a historical education the means by which we deem an interpretation right or not. If we do, we risk making human knowledge the key to unlocking Scripture and human experts its gatekeepers. It is only one small step to asking if God really spoke the words on the page (cf. Gen. 3.1).

I’m all for understanding the world in which the Bible was written. But the Bible spoke against the world then and continues to do so now. Let us not be seduced by so much knowledge that we neglect the sufficiency of the words God has put on the pages in front of us.

The Rev'd Robert Evans is a doctoral student at Cambridge University, and a Curate at Christ Church, Cambridge.

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