The Kigali Commitment of April 21, 2023, was a shot heard around the world. Thirteen hundred Anglican leaders, dominated by bishops and clergy from the Global South, gathered in Kigali, Rwanda, to declare that they no longer recognized the Archbishop of Canterbury as their leader. Representing 85 percent of the Anglican Communion, they pronounced their determination to “reset the Communion on its biblical foundations.”
The boldness of this statement is striking. Not only does it signal the end of English domination of the Communion, but it also demonstrates counter-cultural courage. The leaders of the Global Anglican Fellowship Conference (GAFCON) and the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) have defied Global North elite opinion and financial coercion by denouncing the Church of England’s February 2023 decision to bless same-sex couples. This was, as Kigali puts it, “to bless sin.” It is “pastorally deceptive and blasphemous . . . violates the created order . . . and endangers salvation.” The bishops who signed off on the blessing are betraying their “ordination and consecration vows to banish error and uphold and defend the truth taught in Scripture.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had called on Communion members who disagreed on this crucial issue to “walk together” in “good disagreement.” Kigali refused: “We reject the claim that two contradictory positions can both be valid in matters affecting salvation.”
We applaud our Anglican bishops’ willingness to reject neocolonial demands to accept the hegemony of the sexual revolution. But we are concerned that in an admirable attempt to resist the liberal project, they unwittingly have themselves opened the door to the use of Scripture for liberal ends. The Kigali Commitment repeatedly appeals to the authority of the Bible alone and fails to mention either the authority of the Church or the role of tradition, describing the Bible as “the rule of our lives” and the “final authority in the church” without mentioning that Scripture functions within the context of tradition—in particular, the common liturgy of the Church and the Book of Common Prayer—and the Church’s teaching authority.
The divine Scriptures are indeed the ultimate authority for matters of doctrine. The Church has no authority to define dogma that the Scriptures do not already contain or to admit heretical teachings that contradict them. But a strict sola scriptura hermeneutic, which fails to recognize the Bible’s origin in the ancient Church and its authoritative interpretation by the Church fathers and creeds, opens the way to a liberal method in which every reader serves as his own authority.
To forestall liberal interpretations of Holy Scripture, the Kigali Commitment appeals to the “plain reading” of the text and to the “clarity” of Scripture, and insists that Scripture is “its own interpreter.” But the Church cannot avoid interpreting the Scriptures, and she must do so faithfully, in line with sacred tradition. Without tradition as norm and guide, the canonical context and clarity of Scripture are meaningless.
Kigali’s strict “Bible alone” viewpoint is also a departure from the approach of the English Reformers. Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles were not finalized until 1571, fifteen years after the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer. In that year, the bishops of the Church of England declared in canon law (canon 6) that preachers were not to teach anything contrary to the Bible and “what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this selfsame doctrine.” One’s interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles must “in all respects agree with” the fathers and ancient bishops.
In his Apology of the Church of England (1562), Bishop John Jewell, likewise, insisted that the doctrine of the English Reformation was “consonant to the words of Christ and the writings of the apostles, and the testimonies of the catholic fathers.”
The English Reformation lasted for a century, highlighted by the work of Richard Hooker (1554–1600), whose massive Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity illustrate the Anglican way of reading Scripture and life: to read the Bible while sitting at the feet of the fathers. Hooker turned to the fathers 774 times in his Laws, as often to the Latin as to the Greek and African fathers. Tertullian and Augustine were his favorites.
Hooker appealed ninety-nine times to the great bishop of Hippo, either to justify an Anglican practice or to interpret a controverted passage of Scripture. In one of his arguments against Puritans, for example, Hooker refuted the regulative principle that everything in Church government and worship must have an explicit biblical—preferably New Testament—prooftext. Augustine recognized, according to Hooker, that while the most important Christian doctrines are clear in Scripture to those willing to see, many matters of Church polity and worship are either unclear or not addressed. Therefore, Church leaders are free to use reason and charity to keep traditional practices that do not violate the clear teaching of Scripture. Hooker quotes Augustine, “The custom of the people of God and the decrees of our forefathers are to be kept, touching those things whereof the Scripture hath neither one way or other given us any charge.”
Hooker recognized that there is no such thing as Scripture without tradition, that every person reads Scripture through the lens of some tradition or other, whether he realizes it or not. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, proud proclaimers of sola scriptura, use a hermeneutical tradition—in their case, one that interprets Christological passages in an Arian framework. So, the question is not whether we use tradition to understand Scripture, but which tradition has guided and should guide our interpretation. Hooker used sixteen hundred years of patristic, medieval, and Reformation tradition for his interpretation, privileging the fathers.
Bishop Francis White (1564–1638) was an important Caroline divine who continued the Anglican Reformation hermeneutic of reading Scripture within patristic tradition. As bishop of Ely, one of England’s most influential sees, White wrote that “the Church of England in her public and authorized Doctrine and Religion” looks to Scripture as “her main and prime foundation” but also “relieth upon the consentient testimony and authority of the bishops and pastors of the true and ancient Catholic Church; and it preferreth the sentence thereof before all other curious and profane novelties.” Bishop White was suggesting a method that has been called prima scriptura rather than the oft-misunderstood sola scriptura.
Recent non-Anglican evangelical theologians have also recognized the danger of a doctrine of sola scriptura that devolves into nuda scriptura. In a 2002 statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, they write:
We who are Evangelicals recognize the need to address the widespread misunderstanding in our community that sola scriptura (Scripture alone) means nuda scriptura (literally, Scripture unclothed; i.e., denuded of and abstracted from its churchly context). The phrase sola scriptura refers to the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture as the theological norm—the only infallible rule of faith and practice—over all tradition rather than the mere rejection of tradition itself. The isolation of Scripture study from the believing community of faith (nuda scriptura) disregards the Holy Spirit’s work in guiding the witness of the people of God to scriptural truths, and leaves the interpretation of that truth vulnerable to unfettered subjectivism.
The ECT statement is consonant with the historic Anglican approach to Scripture and ancient Church tradition. Scripture is the manna in the Ark of the ancient Church, which when removed from the protection of the Ark will spoil into poison that false teachers use to manipulate souls.
Anglicans of the English Reformation knew that both the Apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus distinguish between bad and good tradition. Paul tells the Colossians to beware of philosophy and human deceit “according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8). But the apostle also praises the Corinthians for “maintain[ing] the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). He warns the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). He instructs Timothy to pass on the tradition (before there was New Testament teaching in print, as it were): “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Saint Paul even passed on to the Ephesian elders one of Jesus's sayings from oral tradition, never recorded in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Jesus also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church once he had ascended to the Father: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12–13). Reformation Anglicans believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was one of the things that the Spirit taught the ancient Church. Neither the word nor its doctrine is explicitly stated in the Bible. But its formulation in the creeds and councils of the ancient Church convinced the English Reformers that it was a necessary doctrine to preach and teach.
The danger of departure from the hermeneutic of the Anglican Reformers has already become clear. The Kigali Commitment promises to “affirm and encourage . . . leadership roles of GAFCON women in family, Church and society.” This statement implicitly ratifies women’s ordination to the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy. All three are already being practiced in several GAFCON provinces, and the first two in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).
We believe in ministry for women in a large variety of roles that the ancient fathers endorsed, including the order of deaconesses. But the ordination of women to sacramental ministry violates the plain sense of Scripture, which the English Reformers prized.
Disagreements among Anglicans about women’s ordination (as well as homosexuality and other controversial issues) make clear that this plain sense can be arrived at only by reading Scripture through the lens of the tradition of the Church.
Furthermore, women’s ordination breaches the conciliarism that the English Reformers practiced and esteemed. They knew that the rule in the early Church in resolving disputes was to accept only rites that agreed with Scripture as understood by the whole Church. The biblical authors insist not only that Scripture is the Word of God, but also that the Church of the living God [is] a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Their criterion is Scripture as understood by the whole Church.
Rites for women’s ordination have been approved without the consent of the whole Church. They have come primarily from a minority of the world’s churches, those that are heretical and dying. This is a new and (mostly) Western development. The ACNA College of Bishops insisted upon this in 2017 when it concluded that women’s ordination is a “recent innovation” with “insufficient scriptural warrant.” This salutary statement recognizes that the recent departure from the traditional understanding of man and woman within the Bride of Christ deviates from the way the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has understood Holy Order for two millennia.
We are grateful for the brave resolution of the Kigali Commitment. At the same time, however, we must revisit the Scripture-tradition relationship so as to return to the hermeneutic of the English Reformation. Let the reset of the Anglican Communion be truly Anglican!
Hans Boersma is the Order of St. Benedict Servants of Christ Endowed Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
Gerald McDermott teaches at Jerusalem Seminary and Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia.
Greg Peters is professor in the Torrey Honors College at Biola University and Servants of Christ Research Professor of Monastic Studies and Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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