Not too long ago I reviewed a book entitled Was Jesus an Evangelical? by the Rev. Thomas Reeves, an ACNA priest in Roanoke, VA. He’s come back with some interesting points (most of which are in his book, in more detail) and he’s given me the opportunity to post then and comment. We’ll start here:
While it may sound reductionistic, this is one reason that I am convinced that an honest look a the Nicene Fathers and what they believed (in a shared, core way) about the church, the sacraments, conversion, etc. could help us to cut through the divisions that have occurred in Anglicanism since the Reformation.
One way of looking at Anglicanism is that it is an attempt to restore a Patristically based Christianity. There are those who would object to this characterisation but I think there’s enough evidence that at least some important people in the early years of the Church of England desired to do just that. The retention of the episcopacy and the liturgy make that desire evident.
The problem with this was pointed out by Bossuet in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches: where do you stop? The Roman Catholic Church claims continuity both in its institution and in its carrying forth of tradition. Protestants say that somewhere in there the church excessively erred from the Scriptures. Bossuet’s question is valid: where do you draw the line?
Let’s take the example of Vigilantius, a priest in fourth-century Gaul. The main thrust of his writings (as best as we can tell) was as follows:
- Devotions to the relics of martyrs is superstitious. Also, offering prayers to saints and martyrs, was unnecessary since they were with God, and pagan.
- The observance of all-night vigils was unacceptable.
- The ascetic ideals of fasting, monastic withdrawal and virginity were not necessary for Christianity, and that included a celibate clergy.
- He proposed ending sending alms to Jerusalem and the monks who lived there.
Vigilantius was savaged for these ideas by Jerome in a fashion that anticipated the online abuse we see today. For its part the Church of England pretty much went along with Vigilantius on all of these. But Jerome was not only a Father of the Church but a Doctor. So where do we stop? We also have the case of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which commended the veneration of icons and relics, and is held to be on par with the other six (including Nicaea.)
If the Reformation was truly only a response to the abuses of the Medieval Church (in ethics, practice, and theology), then the unity of the Patristic theology behind the creeds should be a reasonable starting place for discussions among Anglican thinkers. However, I believe that the Reformation in the end became the wholesale rejection of Western Catholicity. The Creeds just became historic documents that Protestants reinterpreted out of their original contexts.
I think you’re basically right about this. One enduring problem in the Anglican/Episcopal world is that the creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) are recited but many of the ministers–and laity too–who recite them don’t believe them!
Of course, my belief is that the Reformation had much more to do with societal and cultural changes desired by the populous who wanted more say and freedom and the Reformation was swallowed up very quickly by Pietism which then became rampant sectarianism. Thus, the Reformation quickly devolved into an over-reaction which essentially cherry-picked the theology of the creeds according to “whatever groups” Reformational, limited, and desired theological assumptions.
The largest movement to come out of Pietism (with apologies to the Continentals) is Wesleyan Methodism and its progeny, and I don’t think that this has “swallowed up” the Reformation or Reformed Christianity. In fact, one of the major challenges of Wesleyans (and that includes modern Pentecost) is to keep Reformed theology from making inroads. The Baptists have the same problem for different reasons.
Some of the problem here is that the creeds don’t cover the issues that resulted in the fracturing you describe. That includes the nature of the Eucharist, election and perseverance. The creeds crystallised fairly early before these issues came to the forefront. In the case of Eucharistic theology, problems came with the Reformation. For the other two, Augustine’s theology (which anticipated but is not identical to Calvin’s) was accepted (after a fight) in the West but not the East. The only creedal difference between the two is the filioque clause, which is far less important than Augustinian theology!
I submit Anglo-Catholicism, while important, is still caught up in propping up their own particular sectarianism as the ONLY WAY…
If one looks at the Oxford Movement at the start, one sees an admirable attempt to bring unity between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. That ran into two large obstacles: the unwillingness of the Church of England to move in that direction, and the unwillingness of Roman Catholicism to move at all. The latter ultimately inspired people like Newman and Manning to “swim the Tiber.” Those two immovable objects have bedevilled Anglo-Catholicism ever since.
One the one side, the Anglo-Catholics have had more success outside of England than within. Part of that may be because they weren’t saddled with “unEnglish and unManly” like they were in the old country, but that’s another post…the 1928 BCP was, in many ways, an Anglo-Catholic triumph. And it’s not an accident that the first group to bolt the TEC and set up institutional alternatives were the Continuing (Anglo-Catholic) Episcopalians; their boldness inspired the Dennis Canon. Other provinces (notably the West Indies) were deeply affected by this movement.
On the other hand, frankly I am surprised that the Ordinariate has gotten as far as it has. I didn’t see that happening. What I think happened is that the conservative Ordinariate served the purpose of Traditionalist Catholics (like Benedict XVI) in their struggle with the more liberal wing of the church.
That brings us to the greatest fault of Anglo-Catholicism, one they share with the Orthodox, St. Pius X and #straightouttairondale types: the idea that tight liturgical precision is the key to great churches and great church life. On the Anglican side, we have the church Robin Jordan joined, with the 1928 BCP as the ne plus ultra of Anglican life. On the Catholic side, the broadest-based liturgy, incorporation elements of Eastern and Western worship alike, is the Novus Ordo Missae, but don’t tell that to the trads, some of whom don’t believe the Mass it celebrates is sacramentally valid.
Anglo-Catholics’ ultimate goal is reunion with Rome, with Rome making concessions. That’s about as realistic as the unrequited (and declining) desire of many in the ACNA for full communion with Canterbury. Since both Rome and Canterbury are under shaky leadership these days, the best course for Anglo-Catholics would be to clean up the careerism in their ranks, unite institutionally, and act as a witness to the Gospel as they see it. Who knows, they just might pick up a #straightouttairondale Catholic or two on the way.
I submit that a future for Anglicanism is not MY theology getting adhered to (or any other sectarian groups particular theology), but a return to OUR theology with clarity regarding what is essential to an Anglican definition or what is not. However, very few seemed interested this discussion.
I think getting agreement to the creeds is the easy part. But the issues beyond the creeds is where things get tricky. There are too many people involved whose agendas are driven by purism, nostalgia or both. They’re justified in being wary of “innovations” (the TEC is enough to cure anyone of that) but they don’t have the theological framework to work through the problems.
This is what so few seem to understand: We don’t have the right to cherry pick the creeds, and it is a reason that the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (with all of their own problems) in part has had fewer problems being shaped by the cultures around them in their core theological (and ethical) beliefs. The Patristics gave us a unified set of scriptures and the Creeds. Why do we think we don’t need their grounding as a starting place?
I think that Patristic theology is the best place to start, but you need to be aware of the issues that block that other than ignorance.
The first is the “stopping point” issue I mentioned above.
The second is that the Patristic method of allegorising Biblical interpretation is going to be a hard sell in seminaries, which are too centred on the German methods. (Modern philosophies and theologies, I think, are an obstacle to progress in many ways.) The ancients had good reason to go that route, and our butting heads with the atheists (who routinely shove back a literalistic interpretation) should tell us something.
The third is that the differences between Patristic and Charismatic views on the church and the move of the Spirit are different. I don’t think this problem is insoluble; it’s one that has occupied my thoughts (and much space on this blog) for many years. Frankly modern Pentecost’s greatest enemy is cessational Reformed theology, and Patristic thought goes a long way to address that.
I would love to hear another option to true Christian Unity than getting back to a generally unified theology of those attending Nicea. With these “gogles” then, we could more clearly start evaluating our numerous mind-numbing amount of ever developing, sectarian, and individualistic streams. It isn’t that there is no place for such streams, but without a clarifying unity regarding core beliefs and practices,
One thing that would mitigate this is an understanding that differences in fundamental belief are more important than mode of worship. But it’s simply too easy to turn lex orandi, lex credendi into a reductio ad absurdum. Anglicanism is supposed to be “comprehensive,” but the divisions over the fundamentals has shattered that broad nature. Putting it back together again–or at least the part which wants to stick with the basics–is a daunting task.
Anglicanism will just continue to be an every fragmenting, self-supporting, sectarian Protestantism. A Christianity that I submit that has little lasting future beyond this century.
And that would be a tragedy of the first magnitude.
2 Replies to “My Dialogue with an ACNA Priest re the Reformation and Anglicanism”
Don, thanks for posting. Stimulating and helpful thoughts.
I am certainly NOT talking about starting with one church father, or one priest, etc. “less central areas”.
Nor am I talking about later theological starting places before establishing a grounded theological tradition that comes from the assumed theology of those central in forming the creed in Nicea (4th Century) (and those who later insisted on its continuing importance).
Most Protestants can’t look at the Patristics without their Pietism already dictating multiple emotional and theological over-reactions. The reasoning seems to be “If some of our past tradition is false or contradictory, than non of it can ever be relied on as indespensible”. Of course, this means our collection of Holy Scripture is well-nigh worthless, and that we must also pretend that the ecumenical councils aren’t our theological heritage (which, most evangelicals already pretend is the case). If we do this, how are we any different from the Theological Progressive revisionists who find what they want to find in their research with their modernistic lenses?
I would submit that those at the Council of Nicea 325 (and the later confirming Council of Constantinople of 387) actually had agreement on multiple CORE AREAS that had little to nothing to do with the later scholastic theologies or developments argued or thrown to the side by most following the Reformers.
I submit that you will find a largely unified set of beliefs behind the Patristic theology of those bishops who shaped the Nicean Creed in both 325 and 381. I would also insist that these unifying CORE beliefs are still EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO WHAT WE BELIEVE FOR A LASTING CHURCH ECCLESIOLOGY TODAY:
1. i submit that they believed in a unified, centralized Christianity which they thought mattered to the effectiveness of their worship, their theological foundations, and their witness to the world (one Holy, catholic and apostolic Church). Nor would they have understood the word “catholic” as “everyone across space and time” and/or “everyone across the world” who has asked Jesus into their heart and/or who has made up their own definition of what church and salvation is.
2. They also believed that salvation/conversion through Christ was Covenental, Sacramental, AND personal. These realities can NEVER be cleanly separated in Holy Scripture or in any of the early church fathers. Whatever mysteries and complexities there are in understanding these theologies, they most certainly inform the statement of the bishops for: “a baptism for the forgiveness of sins”.
Pietism (and, thus, the Wesley brothers) walks away from these central Christian doctrines, negates the realities of us all having informing traditions, and turns salvation into a personal decision removed from a grounding and communal salvation…and thus, a coherence with the Historic Church of Christ. Historically and Scripturally, the church of Christ is the “BRIDE OF CHRIST” redeemed together, not the BRIDES OF CHRIST individually saved due to our wonderful decision making. Personal faith is essential, but is is not the only matter involved in the the mystery of God’s saving work amongst his called out covenant people.
John Wesley’s “warmed heart” is his own version of his salvation, but there will never be a way to confirm if this was of God, was a converting event, or was just his own limited and blinded viewpoint. However, because of our default setting is enlightenment individualism and subjectivisim (in concert with Wesley’s latter numeric success)…well…that is all we need to say…He must be right!!! The Nicean Fathers would have a bone to pick with us.
I am not saying that Wesley was not a faithful minister of the Gospel, nor am I trying to negate the oppressive situation that he found himself with the inculturated Church of his day. WHAT I AM SAYING is that no one…even Wesley…get’s to decide how and when he was converted outside of the Covenant Community. The waters of Baptism is the sign and seal of the New Covenant, as established by Jesus. That people have abused his sacraments does not mean we have the right to make up sacraments of our own (like a sinners prayer not used in Holy Scripture or in the History of the Church until after the Enlightenment).
3. They believed that a belief of Supra-scriptura (NEVER sola-scriptura) in tandem with clearly understood and approved CORE tradition should help guide the church in truly being the Church of Jesus Christ (I am garnering some of this from Eastern Orthodox Biblical Theologians I have engaged and in tandem with my reading of Irenaeus, Ignatias of Antioch, Gregory of Nanzianzas, John Chrysostum, and Augustine of Hippo. The Patristics were bathed in scripture” (as Christopher Hall proclaims in his book “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers”), but never saw themselves as the “starting place” for true or PURE Christianity. We Western Modern Christians act as if we believe that because we have thoughts, experiences, and new ideas, that God should be so lucky we came along so now we can get the church right. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be funny.
4. They believed that we have a physical as well as spiritual salvation; thus, the importance of the Incarnation. We are not just saved internally, individually, and communally, but we are saved as the pinnacle of God’s creation (made in his image). Also, that the redemption of Christ redeems ALL of creation and the created universe so that in addition to new resurrected bodies, there will also be “New Heavens and a New Earth” in which we experience the presence of God the way we should have in Eden. THUS, the physical, cultural, human, and environmental world around us matters to God, and is a way we should reveal our redemption to the world. Being light and salt is not just evangelism, missions, and church ministry business!!!!!!!
Fr. Thomas Reeves