Apocrypha is Apocry-fun!

Why do some Bibles only have 66 books while others have over 70? What are these funny “extra” books of the Bible sometimes called “apocrypha” and what does Anglicanism teach about them? Find out the answers to these questions and more in the latest episode of the Conciliar Anglican video podcast.

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Evolving Words and the Word of God

words-1Among the many podcasts I listen to is the Slate program Lexicon Valley which is kind of a pop exploration of all things language related, think Radio Lab but with words instead of science. A recent episode discussed the way in which words evolve and the impulse that many of us have to criticize new and novel uses of language. One of the show’s hosts, Bob Garfield, mentioned his great loathing for the way that many people today use the word “literally” when they mean “figuratively” (e.g., “when people misuse language, my head literally explodes”). This is also one of my pet peeves, but as the program progressed, I was stunned to learn that this shift in the way that “literally” is used goes back at least as far as 1903!

Words Change

There are a million words like “literally” that have shifted in meaning over the centuries, to the point that they now mean almost the opposite of what they once meant. A great example from our Anglican formularies is found in Article X, which says in part, “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us…” To the modern reader, it sounds like the article is telling us that we cannot do good works unless Jesus stops us from doing good works, which makes no sense. In fact, “prevent” originally meant to come before or to precede, so that the article’s meaning is that we cannot do good works unless we have been previously enabled to do them by God’s grace.

Regardless of what you think about biological evolution, it is one hundred percent certain that language evolves. Language is not like math. It is not static and tidy, nor is it predictable. Words change over time, as do the ways in which we use them. What seems utterly wrong in one generation might be completely fine in another. Language is an art more than it is a science. And in many ways, it is like a living organism. It adapts to its surroundings. It grows. It makes it own rules, then breaks them, then makes another set and starts the process all over again.

The Way We Read Matters

Given this evolution of language, what are we to make of the words that God has given us in Scripture? Surely, this poses a challenge to the kind of sola scriptura teaching that insists upon a “plain reading” without the influence of exterior factors. In this much, postmodernism, for all its foibles, is absolutely correct. There is no such thing as a reading of a text that is unaffected by a thousand exterior factors. If you take a Bible off by yourself and simply try to live by it, assuming even that you could somehow have the original text, in the original language, with no alterations, you would still not achieve a “plain reading” because there is no way for you to get out of your own head and receive the meaning of the words objectively. Everyone reads a text slightly differently, based on their own experiences and influences, as the comment thread on this post will no doubt reveal about how you all receive even what I am writing right now.

Richard Hooker was no postmodernist, but he understood this principle. In articulating the Anglican position on Scripture as opposed to the Puritan position, he says in Book I of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:

In like sort, albeit scripture do profess to contain in it all things which are necessary unto salvation; yet the meaning cannot be simply of all things that are necessary, but all things that are necessary in some certain kind or form; as all things that necessary, and either could not at all, or could not easily be known by the light of natural discourse; all things which are necessary to be known that we may be saved, but known with pre supposal of knowledge concerning certain principals whereof it receiveth us already persuaded, and then instructeth us in all the residue that are necesary.

Of course, in this statement alone we see the principle of language’s evolution at work, since Hooker uses many words here differently than we would use them today (and that’s after I cleaned up the spelling). But Hooker’s point in regards to Scripture is that we have to come to it with a certain amount of knowledge already intact if we are going to get anything out of it. He will go on to use the example of a person learning to read so that he may read what the Bible says. A person needs to be taught to read in order to read the Bible, which means that a person needs to have this skill in order to receive the gifts of salvation which the Bible has to offer, but the Bible cannot teach us to read. That has to come from somewhere else.

The Church as Living Interpreter

Hooker is by no means trying to undermine the authority of Scripture. Rather, he is trying to help us see just what this authority is and how it should function in the life of the Church. Hooker’s work describes what many other Anglican divines also tried to articulate, the necessity of applying reason and tradition to Scripture in order to properly understand it, something which Hooker believed could only be done effectively in the life of the Church, not off on one’s own. This is why the things that the Church of England fought to preserve through the Reformation–things like the historic episcopate and the practice of liturgical worship–are so important as to be considered essential to the the Church’s well being. The radical notion of Puritanism that still infects much of Protestantism today was that the Christian Church could be rebooted from scratch in every generation through an objective reading of God’s Word. The Puritans rightly believed that the Gospel does not change, but they mistook the words of the Bible themselves for the actual thing, rather than understanding those words as sign posts pointing towards the grace of God. Ironically, this is exactly what many Protestants both then and now accuse Catholic Christians of in our approach to the Sacraments. In point of fact, as Luther argued and Hooker echoed, both the administration of the Sacraments and the preaching of the Scriptures are places where God’s eternal Word transforms ordinary things into channels of His grace.

As Article XX reminds us, the Church is the “keeper of holy writ.” This means not only preserving the text but also passing on the rule of faith which allows the text to be properly understood. Part of Anglicanism’s vocation has been to be a witness for the Scripture’s proper place in the life of the Church. The Church does not exist over Scripture, as if Scripture is nothing but a collection of our thoughts about God, but neither should the Church attempt to empty herself of all other wisdom and receive only Scripture because attempting to do that leads inevitably to radical and grotesque departures from the Gospel. Rather, the Church must patiently apply the tools at her disposal, learning about the culture that produced the texts of Scripture and the evolution of language that has happened since, always coming back to the rule of faith that has been applied throughout the centuries to biblical interpretation, the rule that grounds everything that we receive in the good news of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Tongue Twisters

This kind of interpretation can be a slippery business, as we have seen in contemporary Anglicanism’s near collapse. It is easy to misstep in one direction or the other, either falling into the trap of postmodern liberalism and suggesting that there is no real meaning to the text besides what we give it, or falling into the trap of reacting against such nonsense by developing a neo-puritanism that pretends to give us the Bible alone and unadulterated, all the while piling on its own set of cultural baggage behind the scenes. Both of these are heresies. The Bible can be properly interpreted by the faithful Church, but only if the Church does not receive the Scripture in a vacuum, as if nothing has happened since the apostolic era. Rather, the Scriptures must be set within a stream of teaching that has continued unabated since the apostolic era, a teaching that spread around the globe, adapting to new cultures not by accommodating their idiosyncrasies but by speaking their language. The Word never changes, but words do. This is why Jesus established a Church and not a library. A library’s job is to preserve words as museum pieces. The Church’s job is to use them for the healing of the world by the cure of souls.

The Play is the Thing

This means for Christians that we are not to try to live under the authority of the naked Bible, as if the book could jump up and start telling us what to do, but instead to live under the authority of the biblically centered Church. A play comes to life when a director, actors, and others all do their part to bring about a faithful rendition of a script. Far too many Christians seem to think that the play can go on with the script alone.

I remember the first time I read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when I was in the tenth grade. I was a nerdy kid who liked reading, but Shakespeare still did not make any sense to me. The cultural and linguistic distance between the Bard and mid-nineties me was just too much to bridge through my simple reading. But when we watched a recording of a production of Twelfth Night in class, suddenly the whole thing made sense. In that performance, what Shakespeare was trying to communicate came through by means of the faithful witness of the company. The Scriptures can be so much more than mere words, but not on their own. They need the Church’s faithful witness to bring them to life.

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The Living Church Lives!

In this episode, Fr. Jonathan talks with Dr. Christopher Wells, the Editor of The Living Church, about how the magazine continues to tackle big ideas and speak to both the Church and the culture.

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Ask an Anglican: Why Enter (or Remain in) the Episcopal Church (USA)?

William writes:

Might you have some encouraging words for someone who is recently converted to Anglicanism / Episcopalianism—who does not want to join ACNA, AMiA, or, for example, the Reformed Episcopal Church—who wants to enter TEC but is frightened because of its current, tragic state?

This is an incredibly distressing time to enter TEC. If I don’t get some encouragement soon, I just may pass altogether. I could merely hold my beliefs but worship elsewhere.

Christ came to save sinners (see Mark 2:17 and 1 Tim. 1:15).

Christ came to save sinners (see Mark 2:17 and 1 Tim. 1:15).

I rarely respond to questions by beginning with my own personal experience. My reason for this is simple: theology should consist of deduction from first principles—and autobiography is not and cannot be a first principle. I don’t wish to deny the importance of subjective hopes, fears, desires, etc. In truth, these have a very important place in human life and thus in Christian life. Most importantly, Christ came not to save the principles of logic, but to save sinners in all their messy, tangled subjectivity. But in Christ, God interrupts our subjectivity—and although our experience of this interruption is intensely personal, it far too big and far too important to be confined to the narrow borders of our own subjective experiences. God interrupts me, but the grace in question extends far beyond the boundaries of my own life.

Two points should therefore be made. First, our life in Christ is a life oriented toward and by the divine Logos, which orders all things (see John 1:1 – 18, where the Greek ‘Logos’ is translated as ‘Word’). In Christ, our subjectivity is called and enabled to look beyond itself. Second, theology is for the wider community of the Church. If we have a question concerning the Christian life-in-community—if we are concerned with being in and remaining part of the Church—we must ultimately turn to those catholic truths—those catholic first principles—which have been shared by all Christians, in all times and in all places. In what follows, I begin with my own story. I then turn, however, to wider, shared points of Christian belief and practice. (Readers should note my assumption that William, like myself, holds to the orthodox nature of the Creeds, the effectual nature of the Sacraments, the inspired nature of the Scriptures, and the normative nature of the historic threefold ministry.)

A Very Brief Spiritual Autobiography

I was not raised Episcopalian, but come from a non-denominational, charismatic background. When I was 16, my parents began attending a Reformed church, and I left that decisively not long after turning 21. I spent a little over a year attending a ‘continuing’ Anglican parish of the EMC (Episcopal Missionary Church), where I grew to have both an appreciation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and a sense that it was somewhat outdated and in need of revision. I later moved on from that parish and drifted for some months between various liturgical churches, but shortly before I finished my undergraduate degrees, I was invited by a friend to visit the Episcopal student center, affectionately known as ‘Chapel House’. I did so, and when I first walked through the doors of the chapel I felt like I was home for the first time in my life. It is an experience which I had never had before and which I have never had since. It is an experience that profoundly shaped me; I do not exaggerate when I write that it is an experience and a memory that I still carry and feel in my bones.

St. Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961 - 74). His books should be read by all serious Anglicans.

St. Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961 – 74). His books should be read by all serious Anglicans.

I was confirmed about a year and a half later—on May 22, 2005, to be exact (my confirmation certificate hangs on the wall of my room)—after reading a good bit of Rowan Williams, Michael Ramsey, William Reed Huntington, Lancelot Andrewes and the Greek Fathers. Andrewes was the most moving of these authors; Ramsey, more than anyone else, gave me a sense of the Anglican ethos. His closing words in From Gore to Temple: An Era in Anglican Theology made a tremendous impact on me shortly after my confirmation: ‘the theological coherence which a Gore or a Temple exhibited came, not from a quest for tidiness, but from a vigorous wrestling with truth for truth’s own sake’ (p. 170). These words move me even now. And yet, as intellectually compelling as I find such a view, at the end of the day my movement into Anglicanism was an event of the heart, which was then followed and confirmed by my head. Put somewhat differently, my move into the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion was not just the result of study, but the result of an unexpected, charismatic experience. My conversion to the Anglican way was the joint action of both Parakletos and Logos; the former inspired unexpectedly, and the latter enjoined communicable discourse on the matter. (One without the other, or one set against the other, lacks the fullness of orthodoxy.)

Why be Anglican/Episcopalian—and, why be Christian?

Does one convert to a church because of its current state or because of the integrity found in the depths of its tradition? As the above shows, my own conversion was not inspired by the current state of Anglicanism! Without question, now is a distressing time to enter the Episcopal Church (USA), and I recognize that not all readers can appeal to a charismatic experience or the deep movements of the heart. But at the same time, as noted above, I sought to test my experience by turning to the study of church history and theology. In studying the roots, I found not just traces but effectual signs of life. I converted because of these; I embraced these, I learned from these, and I sought and seek to live faithfully according to these. Grounding these are the universal theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity—and charity is nothing if not patient and longsuffering, rejoicing in the truth. Ultimately, love fails to fail because it never fails (see 1 Cor. 13). If I may be so bold: if one’s current frustrations cause one to lose sight of the simple fact that the greatest of Christian virtues is charity, then one’s problems with church membership are located less in a particular church than in oneself.

None of this is to deny the binding nature of Christian duty. Sadly, it may be difficult to observe one’s Christian duties in a particular church. Some churches, whether ‘left’ or ‘right’, are genuinely destructive of one’s wellbeing—for example, they may undermine one’s marriage, or inhibit one’s ability to be a faithful Christian parent, or even be abusive in any number of ways. If this is the case, then yes, by all means leave that church and go elsewhere! Other churches call ministers who are not fit for their position because they do not adhere to the duties of the Christian ministry. Perhaps their sermons are heterodox, or perhaps they lack Christian character, or perhaps they are impious and/or irreverent toward the sacraments. If this is the case, I fully sympathize with the desire to go elsewhere. In truth, it is important for churches to be reminded that they cannot do whatever they wish; bad decisions can and should have negative consequences, and there is nothing remotely Christian about allowing oneself to be bullied into ‘unity’ by a negligent church hierarchy.

However, we must be careful; it is tempting to say that you should seek a church where you can be fed (note the passive voice of this statement)—but this borders on two falsehoods. The first error is the heresy of Donatism and Puritanism: the assumption that the means of grace are invalidated by erring clergy and/or erring laity. On the contrary, Christian faith—both the orthodox faith that I believe (fides quae), and the personal faith by which I believe (fides qua)—is stronger than the errors of anyone in any given time or place. No less importantly, the gifts of God remain pure and undefiled gifts even if misused by laity (which Puritanism cannot accept), or by a particular church and/or its particular ministers (which Donatism cannot accept).

The second error is that of making one’s own subjective experience the measure of objective truth. I suspect that this is the real problem today, not Donatism and Puritanism. People too often think that the answer to their discomfort is to find a place where they feel fed right where they are, but this is false. Insofar as you pray in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you sing hymns in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you profess the Creed in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you hear the Scriptures in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you participate in the Eucharist in church (any church), you are fed (and this literally!).

The bulk of the Christian life is lived outside of church, and thus the bulk of Christian discipline and Christian maturity must be pursued and attained outside of church. However, church membership and the Christian life are identical in this: neither is about us; both are about faithfulness to the promises given and the way of life enunciated in Word and Sacrament. Such faithfulness may make us uncomfortable at times, even in our own church, but discomfort and struggle are part of becoming a mature human, not to mention a mature Christian (and I fail to see how you can attain the latter if you neglect the former). When it comes to both motivation and action, the weight of my pleasures should always be outweighed by the weight of my duties. Maturity recognizes this and lives accordingly, while immaturity does not.

Discomfort and struggle are not, in and of themselves, a free pass to go off in search of more comfortable surroundings. One is certainly not free to leave a church because it is supposedly ‘dead’; this excuse is usually used by people who do not wish to accept their duty to be Christian toward other Christians within the Church. Rather, they simply want to be fed (and again, note the passive voice of this statement). Sometimes it is our job to feed others (now note the active voice of this statement), and it is always our job to crucify our own egos and judgments through service and the love of our neighbors. A church with just one member is a living church; a church is not dead until it ceases to exist—and until that happens, we are all bound to our Christian duty, which calls us to be the ‘living stones’ (1 Pet. 2:5) which help enliven and sustain all that happen within the four walls of a church.

Discipline your own appetites and then you will see the rest clearly. And thus we are left with two catholic truths. On the one hand, we are bound by our Christian duty. If a given church fundamentally undermines our ability to be faithful to our Christian duty, then we must leave and go elsewhere. This is not a mere hypothetical; this can and does happen, and no guilt should haunt those who, in obedience to the dictates of faith, hope, and love, must leave one church for another. On the other hand, we are bound by orthodoxy and must repudiate any Donatist or Puritan heresy which claims that the good gifts of God might be fundamentally vitiated by human sin or error. If you leave a church, leave in love to the best of your ability. If the direction of the will is not toward charity in such a situation, flee from resentment and keep from slander, insult, and the like when you discuss your former church. Wherever you are, be faithful by recognizing the objective goods in the objective gifts of prayer, hymnody, creed, and Word and Sacrament.

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How to Stand for Classical Anglicanism in the Midst of Anglican Pluralism

1014362_695786157102673_1405505395_nIt is very difficult to speak of Anglicanism these days without a modifier. There is no longer Anglicanism but rather Anglicanisms. Catholic Anglicanism, Evangelical Anglicanism, Liberal Anglicanism, Charismatic Anglicanism, Calvinist Anglicanism, even Lutheran Anglicanism. And within each of those groups, there are probably forty or fifty more branches that we could tease out. Even in what has of late been called classical Anglicanism–perhaps the strangest modifier of all–there are further gradations when we investigate closely. Most everyone in the classical Anglican movement holds to the necessity of the formularies as standards for both doctrine and worship, but interpretations can vary widely as we continue to try to fit our favorite theological ideas into the words we have inherited.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Some people argue that this endless division is Anglicanism’s fatal flaw, but in reality it is the fatal flaw of the postmodern waters that we swim in. There is no form of Christianity that has been immune to this kind of endless subdivision. Rome has its happy clappy post sixties aging radicals, its Latin Mass enthusiasts, its Thomists and its Molinists, etc. Orthodoxy is divided largely along ethnic lines, though there are also pockets of theological division between old calendarists and new, western converts and more liberalized native born, the Russians pushing towards erastianism and the fathers in the Phanar who argue for the centrality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And within Protestantism, where do the divisions end? Gather any five people who call themselves “Lutheran” or “Calvinist” or “Baptist” and you are likely to find at least three qualifiers attached to each term per person. Not all of this is directly the result of western culture, but all of it has some connection to the fact that most of the world has now been influenced by post Enlightenment values. It took a couple of centuries to accomplish, but individualism has finally planted its seed just about everywhere. We construct our own identities now, starting with what we feel and what we want to believe and working our way outward. Even those who seek to be “traditional” today are working from that basis, picking and choosing which “traditional” ideas or attitudes they want to adopt. Tradition is by definition not a taste preference but an inherited wisdom that we receive. At the point when you are choosing to be traditional, you have to admit that tradition has already largely been lost.

It was inevitable that Christianity would be affected by this kind of identity deconstruction. But Anglicanism has had more than its fair share. While there may be many different kinds of Roman Catholicism that are in some ways at odds with one another, there are at least a few basic principles that continue to make sense of why the disparate pieces stay together, a general belief in the authority or at least the honored place of the pope, a high view of the Eucharist and of Mary, etc. In Anglicanism, the things at the center have become rather thin, despite more than a century of Anglicans discussing just what those things might be. The varied Anglicanisms that exist today stay connected with one another more from inertia than from anything else. In some ways, the Puritans and Anglicans who fought each other bitterly in the English Civil War had more in common than differing factions of Anglicans do today.

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

In order to reconcile this, since the mid twentieth century Anglicans have attempted to make a virtue out of vice, arguing that the incompatibility of our various theological streams is all part of some master plan called Anglican Comprehensiveness. The Elizabethan Settlement even gets invoked in this regard, not as the articulation of Anglican principles that it actually was but as a kind of agreement to disagree, as if the idea all along had been that we will just be together as one Church and ignore our obvious divisions. We hear the language of “Anglican streams” and the idea that all of these competing theologies ought to be left alone because we are really all headed in the same direction anyway. Anglican pluralism mimics the pluralism of the post-enlightenment western world in which all religious claims have to be treated as being of equal value and the only idea that is out of bounds is the claim that a particular religion is true to the exclusion of the others.

Poor Us

Those who attempt to stand against the tide of Anglican pluralism are pilloried for it. People laugh at the poor souls who try to argue for the ongoing place of the 39 Articles in Anglicanism or who make use of one of the classic forms of the Book of Common Prayer instead of always reverting to one of the newer, jazzier rites. The very notion that Anglicanism is more than a placeholder, that it actually is something, is seen by many Anglicans today as kooky, on the level with the person who wears a placard and hands out Chick tracts at the mall. Once, during a conversation with an English Evangelical, I told him that I believed that Anglicanism was a genuine theological tradition and he looked at me as if I had sprouted a pair of wings and simply said, “Well, that’s extraordinary!”

The madness of all this is frustrating, but we do not do ourselves any favors when we retreat into our cozy ideological enclaves instead of engaging with the people around us. Prayer Book Anglicans, Classical Anglicans, whatever modifier you want to use–we have been incredibly bad at articulating our theological position and explaining why anybody not living in the seventeenth century should care about it. Our strategy has been defeatist, running off to try to found purer and purer churches or parachurch organizations, talking only to ourselves, complaining about our fate. We have to break free from the victim mindset. We have to stop complaining and start evangelizing. We have to stop fetishizing the past and start joyously proclaiming in the present that the Kingdom of God has come near.

What Classical Anglicans Need to Do

How do we do that? I think the first step must be to formulate a positive theological position that is not based on reaction against that which dismays us. For sure, we must be able to be critical of harmful things in the Church, but today it often sounds to many like our whole argument is simply based on tearing down rather than building up. We need to think like evangelists. People outside of the Church may or may not be won to the faith by a clear exposition of the Gospel, but they certainly will not be won to the faith by a critique of modern liturgies or a conversation about all of the awful things that this or that particular Anglican leader has done. Those things have their place, but what is our central message? What do we believe? What do we teach? What is our message to the culture that we live in? What hope do we have to share with the world?

Second, instead of trying to fight head on against Anglican pluralism, which is a bit like trying to beat up the ocean while swimming in it, we need to make use of Anglican pluralism to share the truth of the Gospel that is found in our formularies and our rich heritage. Rather than saying to Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Liberals, and all the rest, that their Anglicanism is illegitimate and that we want nothing to do with them, what we ought to be doing is endeavoring to show how our “stream” of Anglicanism is the source and font of many of the things they hold dear in their own. We need to fight for our legitimate place at the table, alongside our brothers and sisters. Instead of evading them or constantly critiquing them, we ought to be seeking out ways to engage with them. After all, most of the parties within modern Anglicanism started out as reform movements aimed at returning the Anglican churches to some aspect of our theological synthesis that had become lost or obscured. By building relationships across party lines, we can slowly start to show how a return to classical Anglicanism benefits everybody, how it provides a strong anchor for our tradition as a whole and a basis upon which to wrestle with tough questions.

Finally, we need to recover for ourselves a sense of humility in the face of the truth that we proclaim, a truth that is bigger than us and that can be applied critically to our own thought and practice as much as to anyone else’s. If the prayer book truly is a magisterial authority, than we cannot be content simply to use it to bolster the theological positions we already hold. We have to allow it to mold and change us, to challenge us to go back to the Scriptures and the Fathers and really discern how to live in the light of truth. We have to allow the prayer book to be an authority over us, while at the same time acknowledging that the prayer book and the other formularies are not perfect but that they reliably teach us the truth because they are built upon a powerful first principle, that of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture and the reliability of the early Church as interpreters of Holy Scripture. The reformers and divines knew that nothing outside of the Scripture itself was perfect and so they allowed for the possibility of revision of the formularies, slowly, over time, to make course correctives. But they also knew that the general course which the formularies set is steady and true, and that if we follow it we will find ourselves traveling deeper and deeper into the heart of Christ. For classically minded Anglicans today, our task is to share this abiding truth, not with the world that was or with the world that should have been, but with the world that is.

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Ask an Anglican: Creationism Redux

800px-Creationist_carMichael writes:

I watched your video Creationism and Talking Cats with great interest. I consider myself to be a creationist and have some questions about the Scriptural implications of belief in evolution.

Romans 8:19-22 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 make it clear that death is the result of Adam’s sin and that his sin resulted in the fall of all creation. If evolution is to be believed, then that would mean that there would be death before Adam’s sin and that death (through natural selection) brought man into the world. How can you reconcile this view to the modern “scientific” view that human beings evolved from apes and that there was death throughout the whole process? Also, Jesus said that “from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female,” (Mark 10:6), so how does that fit with the modern scientific view that man has only been around for the last million or so years out of billions of years of history?

If there is no literal Adam and Eve, then that would mean that there was no Fall, and if there was no Fall, then there is no sin to be redeemed from, so there would be no need for a Saviour. If evolution is true and there is no sin, doesn’t that completely destroy the Christian religion?…

As I tried to say in the video, I am agnostic on the question of whether or not human beings evolved from apes. I do not have the kind of scientific background that would allow me to adequately evaluate the evidence and come to some sort of conclusion. I am inclined to believe there is some merit to evolution because so many scientists seem to be convinced of it, but I am not willing to make any ironclad assertions. My point in the video was not to make the case for evolution but merely to show how it is that we use Scripture to test our theories about the world. Evangelicals, particularly in America, have vested a lot of time and energy in proclaiming as absolute that Genesis proves there could be no evolution and that to say otherwise is to deny the validity of Scripture entirely. But in fact, Genesis says nothing at all about evolution, or about geology, or astronomy, or physics, because Genesis is not a modern scientific textbook and it is a mistake to treat it that way. The Fathers were not all in consensus about how to understand the seven days of creation. It would be a great act of hubris in our own day if we acted as if we knew better than they did.

Reading is Fundamental

Again, the issue here is how we read and understand Scripture. For Catholic Christians,  Scripture is never read on its own, in isolation, but always through the lens of the teaching of the Church. In understanding how Scripture speaks to us, we follow the rule of Saint Vincent of Lerins, believing only that which has been taught everywhere, always, and by all. In practical terms, this means that we require belief in what is absolutely plain in Scripture (for instance, the fact that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead), what is found in the ancient creeds which explain the Scripture, what the ecumenical councils of the Church agreed about the Scripture, and what the Fathers of the early Church were unanimous or nearly unanimous about in their interpretation of the Scripture. Creationism fails all of those tests, which does not mean that it is necessarily false or that a good Christian cannot hold it. It means simply that it cannot be required.

Figure it Out

The problem with the modern Evangelical hermeneutic is twofold. It assumes that there is only one level of meaning in any given scriptural text while ignoring the interpretive biases that we bring as individuals to the text. Take, for instance, the question that Michael poses about how Paul’s writing about death might affect how we should interpret Genesis. I am not sure quite how Romans 8 is being roped into this since it says nothing about Adam, but the appeal to 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 has become quite common. Let’s review for a moment what Paul says there:

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Paul is setting up a contrast here for rhetorical purposes, trying to show how death afflicts mankind and how Jesus is the answer to that affliction. Adam was the first man. Through his sin, all die. Jesus is the new Adam. Through Him, all live. From a creationist standpoint, the implications are clear. There was no death of any kind before Adam, so how could there be the millions of years of dying creatures that evolution postulates as necessary for Adam to have arisen from amongst the apes by natural selection?

Except, that is not what Paul has said. He has not addressed the question of whether or not there was death amongst the creatures who lived before Adam. What he has said is that death comes to all mankind and that it comes from Adam as a stand in for all mankind. Paul is speaking figuratively here, which is how the Fathers understood this passage. Consider, for instance, this from a homily by Saint John Chrysostom:

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

What then? Tell me; did all die in Adam the death of sin ? How then was Noah righteous in his generation? And how Abraham? And how Job? And how all the rest? And what, I pray? Shall all be made alive in Christ? Where then are those who are led away into hell fire? Thus, if this be said of the body, the doctrine stands: but if of righteousness and sin, it does so no longer.

According to Chrysostom, Paul is talking about death but not about righteousness. There is no implication regarding sin, even though elsewhere Paul will link the two. Here, at least in Chrysostom’s view, Paul is arguing that the bodily death which all must go through, both the righteous and the wicked, is defeated by Christ in the resurrection. The death that exists in other creatures, outside of humanity, is not in Paul’s mind here at all.

Just because this is Chrysostom’s view does not make it so. But Chrysostom’s unpacking of this verse and those that follow shows the complexity of what Paul is doing, a complexity that is lost in a straight, literal reading that lacks the figural sense. In fact, according to Chrysostom, a non-figural reading makes a mockery of the text because it assumes not only that all die in Adam but that all are given the new life of the resurrection, even the wicked and unbelievers, something which Chrysostom thinks is absurd given what Paul has to say on this topic elsewhere. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of reading that creationists want to give to this verse, though few if any creationists follow out their own logic and argue for universalism.

Death Before Death

So how then, if evolution is true, could it be that death existed in the world prior to Adam? There are myriad explanations. One possibility would be that the death of non-human creatures prior to the evolution of humanity is not the result of Adam’s sin but of some other mechanism entirely. Another perhaps more plausible explanation is to point to the fall of Satan and the demons that precedes the founding of the world. This prior fall may have affected the creation in myriad ways that are unknowable to us, including introducing death to lesser creatures. Finally, it is possible to postulate that the fall of Adam could have introduced death into the whole of creation even before the events of the fall took place. We are bound by time now, but it is not clear that this was always God’s intention. God Himself exists outside of time and what He does affects all time. Jesus’ death on the cross for sinners is just as salvific for the long list of people who died before it happened as it is for all of us who have come along since. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, not just the whole world from now on.

Are any of those theories correct? I have no idea. There are places in Scripture that seem to support one or the other of them, but Scripture does not definitively reveal the answer, just as it does not definitively reveal whether or not we evolved from apes or how old the earth is. These are not the questions that the Bible was written to address, and when we try to force the Bible to say something about them, we end up undermining the true value of Scripture to speak to us about who God is and who we are in relation to Him.

When You Assume…

Creationism relies on underlying assumptions about the biblical text that cannot withstand scrutiny. Michael points out that in Mark 10 Jesus says, “From the beginning, God made them male and female.” Is Jesus saying something here about the timeline involved in creation? Not at all. He is saying, simply and plainly, that God created human beings to be male and female and that it has always been so. It does not follow, however, that “in the beginning” in this sentence indicates that God created human beings out of a puff of smoke, making no use of natural processes, fallen or otherwise.

Bottom line, when attempting to apply the teaching of Scripture to answering modern questions, it is best to approach the topic with caution, being as skeptical as we can of our own assumptions while trying as best we can to see the text through first century eyes rather than twenty-first century eyes. Catholic, historic Christianity is able to do this, which is why Catholics and Orthodox and Anglicans tend to be far less bothered about the “creation versus evolution” question than Evangelicals are. It is possible that creationism is essentially correct and the world was created in six twenty-four hour days, but if that is the truth it will not be because Scripture somehow settled the matter in an unequivocal manner that anyone reading without prejudice ought to be able to see. As an Anglican, I am quite happy to believe that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, but as Hooker and many of the other great divines pointed out, containing all things necessary for salvation is not the same as containing all things. Whether evolution is true or false, we have nothing as Christians to fear from it.

Image by Flickr user Amy Watts. Used under Creative Commons license.

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Praying Twice: Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

IMG_0151Those of you who have seen some of the most recent YouTube videos know that there is a giant mural on the wall above the altar in my parish depicting the Communion of the Saints. It is nothing like any church artwork that I have seen anywhere else. It was painted by a parishioner in the 1950s. It is epic in its size and scope, depicting the Church militant, Church expectant, and Church triumphant. At the bottom of the painting, the rector at the time, the Rev. Mr. Hodder, is being ordained. Above the ordination are rings of saints, ascending up to a depiction of the Holy Trinity. Surrounding the whole scene are angels, including one carrying a chalice and another carrying a paten. Acolytes carry prayer books with type so large you can actually read it if you are standing directly below.

Not everyone likes the mural. In fact, there are some people who downright hate it. Others love it solely because it has been there for a long time. Few people have moderate opinions. Its artistic sensibility is very much a product of its time and place. It is a bit overwhelming to newcomers, and there are times when I must confess that I wish I could turn it on and off. But what I love about it is that it reminds me each week, in a visible, palpable way, that divine worship is the place where the whole Church is united as one. All of the redeemed creation comes together in the Holy Eucharist, saints and angels, the living and the dead. “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord,” we sing in the Benedicte at Morning Prayer. “Praise him and magnify him for ever.” The whole created order magnifies the Lord in divine worship. During the rest of our lives, it is easy to live a bifurcated existence, to go about with blinders on, ignoring the way that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world renewing the whole of creation, making every truck and every tree branch testify to the glory of God. But when we come into the presence of God to worship Him, in any service of prayer but most especially in the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, there is no escaping the beauty of God’s redemptive work to unite all He has made in a song of loving praise to Him.

Singing with Saints and Angels

Few hymns celebrate this truth more fully than Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. It is a relatively young hymn, having been written in 1906, though the German tune usually associated with it comes from the seventeenth century. But the words are so magnificent, so full of joy at the reality of God bursting forth, that they make my whole body move when I sing them. In each verse, we call upon the saints to join us in praise. The first verse calls to the angels, with their various names and titles. The second calls to the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary, echoing the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in addressing her as “higher than the cherubim” and “more glorious than the seraphim.” Mary is to be venerated and adored far above even the angels and archangels because she is the “bearer of the eternal Word” and so, as she herself says in the Gospel of Luke, she “magnifies the Lord.” Then, in verse three, we invite the patriarchs, prophets, and all the other saints who have gone on to glory to add their voice to the song. Finally, in the last verse, all of that building praise is delivered to the Lord. Just as our mural reaches up to the Holy Trinity, so too does this hymn reach its climax in an invocation and dedication to the Father, Son, and Spirit, “three in one.”

Enjoying the Image of God

I have talked before about the classical Anglican distinction between the advocation of the saints and their invocation as some kind of deities unto themselves. Anglicanism allows for the former while condemning the latter. Of course, many Protestants become nervous whenever anyone or anything but God is brought to the center of the stage. But what this hymn illustrates so well is that the saints and angels cannot be properly loved and adored without properly loving and adoring God because that which is holy and worth praising within them is God’s image, once marred by sin but now restored by the blood of the cross.

Saint Augustine wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana that there are some things which we use and some which we enjoy. “For to enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake,” he said. “To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires.” According to Augustine, we use all good things, even those whom we love, as means by which to enjoy God. “The true objects of enjoyment, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are at the same time the Trinity, one Being, supreme above all, and common to all who enjoy Him.” To modern ears, this sentiment sounds a little strange, since using someone is what we do when we do not actually value them and simply want to get what we want from them before leaving them behind. But Augustine makes a careful distinction between use and abuse. To use someone in our modern parlance is to abuse them, to approach them only in a selfish and sinful manner. But to use in Augustine’s terms is to properly interact with them, to receive from someone or something exactly what that particular creature was created for. When we approach our fellow human beings, we ought to be seeking to see God’s image in them, to celebrate it, sometimes to apply the word of faith that restores it. But when we approach the saints and the angels, those who have already been sanctified by being in the glory of God, we are able to receive from them a much clearer, much richer share of God’s light reflected. They worship God night and day without ceasing. We enter into worship with them and lean on their prayer and praises to make our own prayers holy and acceptable, so that we may worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

The Purpose of Worship

Worship is not about making us feel one way or the other, nor is it about teaching us useful information. Ideally, both our minds and our emotions will be engaged by worship, but that is not what it is about. Ultimately, it is about coming into the presence of God, acknowledging the glory of God, and receiving from God the light that transforms us, heals us, and makes us whole. There is nothing individualistic about it. None of us is saved alone. Jesus Christ died and rose to make all things new. When we sing praises to God along with all the saints, living and in repose, the love of God ripples through us as a single current, and we are forever changed for the better.

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Ask an Anglican: What is Anglican Monasticism?

15_DECADES_Constance_and_her_CompanionsMatt writes:

I’ve heard you mention monasticism on your blog several times, and I was wondering if you knew of any traditionalist/conservative Anglican monasteries either in the US or in the Church of England?  I’m really interested in Anglican monasticism and I’m trying to learn all about it that I can.

Technically, I could answer this question by just giving an internet link (such as this one, to the official Anglican Religious Communities website) or two (such as this one, to the forthcoming Anglican Religious Life directory) or even three (and finally this one, which links to the traditionalist religious communities affiliated with Forward in Faith). However, I am guessing that this question might also benefit from a slight historical overview, complete with some recommended reading.

A Very Brief History of Anglican Religious Communities

The history of Anglican monasticism is both long and rich. In some ways, it is also rather complex—not because of anything unique to monasticism, but because of the historical complexities of the medieval west. Most simply stated, by the fifteenth century there were a large number of unofficial monastic movements. The most famous of these is the Devotio Moderna (literally ‘the Modern Devotion’, but also translatable as ‘the Modern-Day Devout’). The Devotio Moderna was primarily expressed in the Brethren of the Common Life. This group produced Thomas à Kempis, whose great work The Imitation of Christ was the most popular devotional in Europe for two hundred years, from the early-fifteenth through the early-seventeenth centuries. The Brethren also educated Erasmus of Rotterdam, the greatest humanist of the sixteenth century; Erasmus was a Catholic reformer who, despite his sympathies with Luther, remained within the Catholic church. He taught in England when Henry VIII was a young king, and Erasmus’s New Testament Paraphrases were among the official texts of the English reformations (right alongside the Book of Common Prayer, the English translation of the Bible, and the Homilies). The Devotio Moderna is thus important not just as a reform movement which inspired other reform movements, but as a reform movement which directly influenced Anglicanism.

For reasons that I know little about, the Roman Catholic church formally banned the Brethren of the Common Life at the Council of Trent. They lived on, however, in Lutheran lands until the nineteenth century. Martin Luther had a soft spot for them—no doubt because so much of their work consisted in educating the young, which Luther was a strong proponent of. Contrary to what is popularly assumed, the Lutherans did not formally ban monasticism; several Benedictine houses joined the Lutheran movement in the sixteenth century and still today there are Lutheran monasteries and convents. Although the Lutheran confessions were sharply critical of sixteenth-century monastic practice, they never formally rejected monasticism. I do not write this to argue that Lutheranism was somehow ‘more Catholic’ than later Protestant groups. Rather, I write this as a matter of fact: the Brethren of the Common Life were, together with the Lutheran Benedictines, part of the Lutheran tradition from pretty much the beginning.

All of this is relevant to Anglicanism for two reasons. First, no Anglican confessional document—whether it was written under Henry VIII, Edward VI, or Elizabeth I—ever formally rejected monasticism. Although the monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII (and their land oftentimes seized, even if only to be sold off to the highest bidder), the fact remains that Henry’s approach to monasticism in the 1530s was deeply influenced by early Lutheranism—and, as I just noted, the Lutherans had monks and nuns. Henry’s attack on monasticism was largely due to the fact that monasticism was deeply tied to the papacy. During the medieval period, the pope became the protector of monastic orders across western Europe. Monks thus answered directly to the pope and not to the local bishop (which occasionally became a point of tension between the pope and the bishops). Because the king desired to bring the church into line with English law—according to the papacy, clerics and religious could only be tried in the Church’s courts, even for civil offenses—he dissolved the monasteries. This might seem extreme and in some cases it no doubt was. Sadly, one extreme (in this case, papal plenitude of power) often produces another extreme (in this case, royal plenitude of power). Henry’s fundamental quarrel was with the papacy and papal power, and he did whatever he felt he needed to do in order to maintain his own supremacy.

From this comes the second key point: under Charles I, a quasi-monastic community was created at Little Gidding. I write ‘quasi-monastic’ because it was not a formal religious order, but consisted of the Ferrar family, who applied the Book of Common Prayer to the traditional monastic observances of mattins and vespers. (This point is especially interesting as the Anglican services of mattins and vespers were originally developed out of the monastic hours.) Nonetheless, Little Gidding was indeed a religious community. Like the Brethren of the Common Life, they spent time educating children, in additional to more traditional forms of monastic expression and devotion. Puritans hated Little Gidding and derisively called it ‘the Arminian nunnery’ (despite the fact that it had nothing at all to do with Arminianism). It was sacked during the civil wars and dissolved by the late 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell was in charge. This put a serious damper on Anglican religious communities of any sort, but the eighteenth century saw a religious community form around William Law (sadly no one has ever researched this topic!). Although the earliest Methodists were not a monastic community, the Methodists were quite intent on maintaining what they called both a ‘method’ and a ‘rule’ of life. As with earlier, medieval expressions of intense lay devotion, the early Methodists were a voluntary community, even if their community was not something formal like a monastic house. (The later history of Methodism is clearly not the same as modern day Methodism, yet the two are not wholly divorced either.)

The nineteenth century saw the great revival of monasticism within Anglicanism through the development of formal religious orders. This growth continued both in England and elsewhere in the world until the mid-late twentieth century, which saw great cultural upheavals such as the sexual revolution. Among the more prolific orders which developed during this century were the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Community of the Resurrection, and the Society of the Sacred Mission. The Society of St. John the Evangelist gave us Fr. Richard Meux Benson of Cowley, one of the great spiritual directors of the Anglican tradition; the Community of the Resurrection gave us both Charles Gore, one of the great theologian bishops of the early twentieth century, and Trevor Huddleston, who worked tirelessly for the ending of apartheid in South Africa (which he lived to see, happily); the Society of the Sacred Mission gave us Fr. Gabriel Hebert, one of our great liturgical scholars of the twentieth century and a leading light of the Parish Communion movement (if you like receiving the Eucharist every Sunday, thank Fr. Hebert, SSM, among others). Today, Anglican religious orders exist all over the world (see the above link on Anglican Religious Communities for loads of websites).

Lastly, if you are interested in a really marvelous portrayal of Anglican monasticism, I cannot highly enough recommend the BBC series ‘Call the Midwife’. It is about a fictional (but historically-based) convent called Nonnatus House, which contains midwives and sisters who work during the late 1950s in the east end of London, and thus among the poorest of the poor. My wife and I get a bit misty-eyed during practically every episode. It is oftentimes quite beautiful in its portrayals of childbirth and parenthood, and just as moving in its portrayals of sorrow, loss, and death. The show does not flinch from showing the religious basis for much of their work, but it also avoids being preachy. Again, I highly recommend it.

Recommended Reading:

For the Devotio Moderna, see John van Engen’s two volumes Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings (Paulist Press, 1988) and Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). Erasmus’s influence on England (albeit without reference to the Devotio Moderna) is discussed in Gregory D. Dodds, Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England (University of Toronto Press, 2009).

The classic history of the revival of Anglican monasticism is A. M. Allchin, The Silent Rebellion: Anglican Religious Communities 1845 – 1900 (SCM Press, 1958). A. L. Maycock also wrote several volumes on Little Gidding in the early twentieth century. The writings of both Allchin and Maycock are out of print, although used copies may be found. There is some recent research on Ferrar that I have not yet read: Joyce Ransome, The Web of Friendship: Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding (James Clarke & Co., 2011), and Kate E. Riley’s doctoral dissertation (available in full at the following link), The Good Old Way Revisited: The Ferrar Family of Little Gidding 1625 – 1637.

The most famous and influential Anglican monk in the twentieth century is no doubt Dom Gregory Dix, OSB; a very good sampling of his writings may be found in Simon Jones (ed.), The Sacramental life: Gregory Dix and His Writings (Canterbury Press, 2007). Canterbury Press has published several histories of various Anglican monastic orders, including Petà Dunstan, The Labour of Obedience: The Benecitines of Peshore, Nashdom and Elmore: A History (Canterbury Press, 2009). A large amount of Anglican monastic writing is included in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (eds.), Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Last but far from least, the largest Anglican monastic order today is the Melanesian Brotherhood. The story of its seven martyrs is retold wonderfully in Richard Anthony Carter, In Search of the Lost: The death and life of seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood (Canterbury Press, 2006). I recommend this book highly and you may read my review of it here. (Fwiw, I originally posted this review many years ago on Amazon.com and Br. Carter sent me a message saying that he felt it communicated the substance of the book more than any other review that he had read!)

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The Three As of Apostolic Succession

What is apostolic succession? Why does it matter who laid hands on your pastor so long as he teaches the true faith? Fr. Jonathan shows why apostolic succession is necessary in the Church and explains why Rome is wrong to say that Anglicans don’t have it.

Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull calling Anglican orders “null and void” – Apostolicae Curae

The response from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York – Saepius Officio

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Where We Start and Where We Finish

090815-N-7280V-339Whether systematic or not, all theologies rely on a set of underlying philosophical principles. Sometimes these principles are openly acknowledged, sometimes not, but either way the end point of a given theology is largely determined by where you start. This became somewhat apparent to me in the recent conversation about satisfaction in which a number of Eastern Orthodox commenters said that the scriptural passages that refer to God’s wrath must be metaphorical because wrath simply does not fit into the picture of a loving God. In other words, a particular understanding of the doctrine of God drives the interpretive model of Orthodox theology. There is a rich and diverse theological landscape that one finds in Orthodoxy, but it is all rooted in a common beginning point that sets the stage for how the rest is to be received and processed.

This is not dissimilar to what happens in other theological traditions. Like Orthodoxy, Calvinism also begins with the doctrine of God, particularly emphasizing God’s sovereignty, which leads to a whole host of conclusions about how salvation works, what the purpose of the Christian life is, etc. Lutherans start with justification and the cross. Baptists start with personal conversion and transformation. Roman Catholics begin from the doctrine of the Church and particularly the petrine ministry. None of that is to say that these traditions only care about those things. That would be overly simplistic. Nor is it to suggest that they do not examine all the evidence. A good deal of energy is wasted in our disagreements among ourselves as Christians when we shout verses of Scripture or passages from the Fathers at one another, as if the other side is unfamiliar with them and had never considered them before. For the most part, the difference between varying Christian traditions is not in the evidence. It is in the way the evidence is processed. It is a divergence of first principles that separates us and makes it difficult for us to understand one another.

Wherefore Art Thou, Anglicanism?

In light of this, I have been puzzling over the question of what the starting point is for classical Anglicanism. It is a difficult question to answer for several reasons. Since modern Anglicanism is so drastically divorced from its classical sources, in most enclaves of Anglicanism today the starting point for our theology is being provided by some other tradition. But even where there is consistency with our historical theology, there remain several viable candidates for an Anglican first principle. Classical Anglicanism takes very seriously the notion of common worship, for instance, and so a compelling case can be made for worship as the starting point of our theology. Likewise, there is a good case to be made that the starting point for classical Anglicanism, like Roman Catholicism, is the doctrine of the Church. The Anglican reformers and divines certainly placed a great deal of importance upon both common worship and the doctrine of the Church, but the more time I spend considering this question, the less I think that either of these  are the starting point for our theology rather than the natural fruit that comes from having a theology built upon our actual first principle.

Grounded in Revelation

In the nineteenth century, as the Anglican Communion began to take shape, a great question hung in the minds of Anglicans about how to build bridges with the wider Christian world without losing our own distinctiveness. This question fueled the writing of William Reed Huntington’s classic The Church Idea and eventually led to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which remains a hallmark of Anglican theology to this day. The original purpose of the Quadrilateral was simply to lay out the terms upon which the reunion of the Christian Church might be established, paring down to the bare minimum of what is necessary for a body of Christians to be properly called a church. However, over the years, as the Anglican Communion has drifted further and further away from her own foundations, the Quadrilateral has become something of a homing beacon, guiding us back to our roots and to our core convictions. I have written here before about what the Quadrilateral has to say about the sacraments and about the ministry. However, there is an inherent order to the four points of the Quadrilateral, and what we believe about Baptism, the Eucharist, and the episcopate, comes directly out of the first two points of the Quadrilateral:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

The Anglican Reformation was not about creating something new but about recovering something old. What the Anglican reformers discovered when they read the Fathers of the earliest era of the Church was that they held a particular care for Scripture and they exercised a way of reading Scripture that animates all of the Church’s life with the Holy Spirit. It became immensely important to the renewal of the Church of England that Scripture form the foundation of every doctrine, not in an individualistic fashion in which each man reads and makes up his own mind, but in a communal and traditional fashion, in which the Scriptures are read as the Church has received them. Responding to Rome, John Jewel wrote in his 1562 Apology for the Church of England, “Wherefore, if we be heretics, and they (as they would fain be called) be Catholics, why do they not, as they see the fathers, which were Catholic men, have always done? Why do they not convince and master us by the Divine Scriptures?”

Scripture, Tradition, and Reason Redux

The starting place of Anglicanism is the doctrine of revelation. That is the doctrine that colors how we see all else. Our tradition is founded upon Scripture, tradition, and reason, not as three co-equal categories, and certainly not as three legs of a stool, but as three interconnected parts of a whole fabric of divine revelation that cannot be separated if we wish to see the complete picture of the Gospel. Holy Scripture provides the foundation and it is the final authority. But Holy Scripture cannot be properly understood outside of a conciliar framework. The ancient creeds are affirmed along with the Scriptures because they truly teach what the Scriptures reveal and because they represent the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit within the Church to speak God’s Word to us, not a new Word for each generation but the same Word truly explicated. When we read Scripture in conjunction with the creeds and the teaching of the Church, we can apply reason to our reading to see the patterns and the order that exists in the Scripture. Reason and tradition do not prove anything about God for us apart from their consistent grounding in the Scripture. Scripture needs tradition and reason to be properly understood, but Scripture steers the ship. Even though reason would lead us to expect logical patterns in what Scripture reveals, we correct our faulty, fallen reason with the Scripture and allow God’s revelation to lead the way, even when it seems to lead us into seeming contradiction, even when it seems to lead us away from what we held before. We accept the correction of Scripture, read through the conciliar and patristic tradition, and when we do so we assume that new light will emerge for our reason to ascertain.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

This starting point in the doctrine of revelation differentiates Anglicanism from Rome and the east because classical Anglicanism requires an unswerving fidelity to the Scriptures as the fullness of revelation and the final authority. The Fathers are held in the utmost respect in Anglicanism, but they are not a means unto themselves. By their own writings, they bound themselves to the Scriptures and they bid us to do the same.

On the other hand, Anglicanism’s rock solid insistence upon reading the Scriptures within the life of the Church and through the lens of the Fathers prevents Anglicanism from collapsing into fundamentalism and the rampant individualism of modern Evangelicals and Liberals (excepting, of course, our own Evangelicals and Liberals who eschew Anglican principles in favor of their own). Nor does classical Anglicanism fall into the trap of confessionalism, writing in stone that which the Church has not yet received in a catholic, conciliar fashion. Our formularies are of paramount importance to us, but they are not absolutes. The Book of Common Prayer can be revised. The Catechism can be expanded. The Articles express the Catholic faith, and yet there is freedom for evolution of thought in how we understand and apply them, so long as we do not traverse their plain, grammatical sense.

Where Do We Want to Go?

How does this work in practice? Well, for starters, it means that there is nothing in our theology that we need to protect from Scripture. Returning to the conversation about satisfaction, for instance, Scripture paints for us a picture of a God who is loving and who exercises wrath against sinners. The tradition confirms this picture and puts it in context along with the full range of imagery that Scripture employs. And reason tells us that, while we might see a contradiction between God’s love and His wrath, the problem must not be with what Scripture reveals but with our perception. The starting point determines the outcome. We start with God’s revelation and therefore that is also where we end up, standing in awe, gratefully receiving the mystery of God.

Of course, as with everything else, the degree to which Anglicanism produces this kind of theological fruit is in direct proportion to how faithfully Anglican churches adhere to authentically Anglican principles. It is considerably easier, especially today, to adopt a different theology under the banner of Anglicanism and follow it out to its natural conclusion than it is to rely on the musty, overlooked Anglicanism of the past. But if our starting point becomes something other than God’s revelation, our ending point will be equally divorced from the truth that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. If God’s truth is where we want to end up, then it makes little sense to start anywhere else than in what God has actually said.

Photo is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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