“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” Ephesians 4:14
Two questions: what should shape our faith? What does shape our faith?
The word “straps” provides us with an acronym to help us think about the questions. S for Scripture, T for Tradition, R for Reason, A for Ancestors, P for Paganism, and S for Superstition.
In the Church of Ireland, we have followed the Anglican and have traditionally seen our faith as being shaped by three strands: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Depending on the theological tradition that has been followed, there has tended to be emphasis on one strand over the other two, so, in rather simplistic terms, evangelicals have tended to favour Scripture, catholics have tended to favour tradition, and liberals have tended to favour reason. All three have claims upon our thinking.
Scripture is believed by Anglicans to contain all that we need to believe. Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion says,
“Holy Scriptures 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.”
When we think about what shapes our faith, Article 6 tells us that anything that we do not find in the Bible, or that can be proved by the Bible, is not essential; that anything that does not accord with what the Bible says should not be considered part of our faith.
When we attend church meetings, how often do we ask ourselves what does the Bible say about this? How often do look at what churches say or do and ask ourselves, does the Bible require this?
Tradition is part of the faith of every church, to a greater or lesser extent. The New Testament came out of the early church and the early church decided what would be included in the New Testament. Most churches, of whatever tradition, accept Christian doctrine as set out in the Creeds, because the Creeds have been shaped by the smae experiences as shaped Scripture, so in Article 8 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, we read,
“The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”
Anglicans accept the authority of tradition, but that tradition must always be measured against what the Bible says, Article 20 sets it out in these terms,
“The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
Scripture and tradition are interwoven with a third strand, that of human reason. As the centuries have passed, the days of the New Testament and the early church have become more and more distant, we live now in a world very different from those times and we have to interpret what our faith says about the questions facing us today. It is not an easy task and Christians may disagree deeply about the Christian response to issues. We pray at such times that the Holy Spirit will guide our reason, in Saint John Chapter 16 Verse 13, Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Saint Paul expects us to use the faculty of reason we have been given in a mature way, writing in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 13 Verse 11, he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” We need reason as the third strand in what shapes our faith in order to understand the meaning of Scripture and tradition for our own time.
Scripture, tradition and reason, these are what should shape our faith. Our acronym begins “STR”, but it concludes, “APS” and I wonder how much our ancestors, how much paganism and how much superstition shape what we believe?
We are all products of our past, Church of Ireland parishes can sometimes be a prisoner of the past. Things are done because that is the way they have always been done. Not so long ago a Church of Ireland bishop responded to a challenge to the Irish church by quoting lines from the ballad “Galway Bay”, he wrote a letter to the Church of Ireland Gazette saying, “The strangers came to try and teach us their ways, and blame us just for being what we are.” Is that how we see the church? Is the church something we have inherited which must be passed on exactly as we have received it? Do we tend to reject any suggestion that the church in the future should be different from the church that has been passed down to us? Do we tend to be people who say, someone is “one of us” and that someone else is “not one of ours”? How much of church life is about trying to preserve the church of our ancestors?
Shaped by our past, we are also shaped by our culture. We would recoil at the suggestion that “paganism” might influence our faith, but do we ever look closely at our local traditions. Look at the “holy wells” and the ceremonies centred around the wells. Taking part in ceremonies, which included a walk from a holy well to a rag bush (a tree believed to be holy where people tied items and offered prayers), I observed to a Catholic bishop that the tradition seemed pre-Christian. “Pre-Christian?” he replied, “it’s pagan.” Much of “Celtic spirituality” is the old religion that was here before the arrival of the first evangelists with a thin Christian veneer. The so called “New Age”, spirituality has nothing new about it, it is the old pagan spirituality revived in a way that makes it seem more mystical and, sometimes, more exciting than anything the church has to offer. When people talk about things like “cures”, would we ever ask how these things fit with our understanding of the Bible, how they fit with our understanding of church teaching, and how we can explain them in terms of human reason?
Our ancestors shape our faith through the ways of doing things that have been passed down to us; paganism shapes our faith through the culture in which we live; and our own superstition can influence us. Most of us are probably not worried by cats or owls or ladders or the number thirteen, but superstition can be much more subtle. We can think that certain things come as rewards for what we have done, or that illness or misfortune must be penalties for our wrongdoings, when we read the Bible, we know that God is not like that, but in our minds we sometimes make God into a malevolent spirit. Superstition can make us do certain things, behave in certain ways, think certain thoughts. Next time we think about “luck”, perhaps we should ask ourselves a question, “if I believe this, what does it say about God?”
Scripture, tradition, and reason or ancestors, paganism and superstition? Which shape our faith?