Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Church of England and the Reformation

Dr William Witt, PhD Notre Dame, who teaches systematic theology at a conservative Anglican seminary here in the Pittsburgh area, has posted an article that discusses Anglicanism and the Reformation.

Here are a few selections:

While the English Reformation had some relation [other individual movements within the broader Reformation], Anglicanism has its own distinct identity. To understand Anglican theology, it is helpful to notice a number of significant peculiarities of the English Reformation that distinguish Anglicanism from all of these varieties of the continental Reformation.

First, the Reformation in England was as much political as theological. English monarchs (Henry VIII and his children) were as important as ecclesiastical leaders in the way that the English Reformation developed. This does not mean that the continental Reformation was a non-political affair. Martin Luther could not have accomplished what he did without the support of the German princes. John Calvin’s Geneva had its own unique relation between church and magistrate. Ulrich Zwingli died in battle. The Radical Reformation had its own political side, ranging from the theocracy of Thomas Munzer to the pacifism of Meno Simmons. But in no other version of the Reformation did monarchs play such a prominent role as they did in England. As a result, the problem of erastianism has plagued Anglicanism since the sixteenth century. (Even today, the prime minister of England and the British monarch play significant roles in the choosing of the archbishop of Canterbury.)

Second, the theological identity of Anglicanism was worked out at its conclusion, not its beginning. The more Protestant Church of England under Edward VI differed significantly from the “English Catholicism” of Henry VIII. During the reign of Mary, England returned briefly to Roman Catholicism, and it was only under Elizabeth that Anglicanism was finally and permanently established. Until her reign, it was very much an open question whether Anglicanism would even survive, and what form it would finally take. Moreover, although the English Reformation produced several leading theologians, there was no single theological leader of the caliber or significance of a Martin Luther or a John Calvin who singly defined the identity of the Church of England. Anglican Christianity has never been called “Cranmerism” or “Hookerism” in the manner of “Lutheranism” or “Calvinism.”

Third, Anglicanism from its beginnings was marked by debates about the theological identity of and the future of Anglicanism, debates between Anglicans and those who looked for their identity to the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and debates with those who preferred the model of the continental Reformation (particularly in its Reformed or Calvinist versions) on the other. In these debates, the question of historical continuity between the historic Catholic Church (not simply the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, but especially the patristic Church) and the Church of England was as important as the question of the continuity of faith between Scripture and Anglican identity. In contrast to most of the continental Reformation (Lutherans were largely the exception), Anglicans retained many of the practices of historic Catholicism that had been lost or renounced by the mainstream Protestant churches on the European continent. The historic episcopacy and the three-fold orders of bishop, presbyter/priest and deacon continued. Liturgical worship was retained in the Book of Common Prayer, translated into English, but based largely on patristic and Medieval Catholic models. There was a daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer based on the monastic Benedictine Office. The clergy wore vestments, although simplified. The Prayer Book contained translations of Medieval Catholic collects, as well as a lectionary for the reading of Scripture.

The theology that they adopted, though, was very much in line with things that the Magisterial Reformers were saying: Their doctrinal statement included the following:

1) The primacy, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture: sola scriptura (or “by scripture alone”). The canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final source of authority in the church. The Triune God alone is the final authority in the church, but God has made himself known by acting and speaking in the history of redemption, and this revelation has been uniquely witnessed to and recorded by inspired prophetic and apostolic writers in the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testament, which are, accordingly, the single and sufficient normative authority in the church. This is not to disregard or denigrate tradition or church authority, but it is to say that no post-canonical church tradition possesses the authority of inspired Scripture. Bishops, church fathers, and saints are successors of the apostles, but they are not apostles, and church authority is exercised through the interpretation of and application of Scripture.

2) Justification by grace alone through faith alone: sola gratia, sole fide. The person and work of Jesus Christ in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the means by which God has redeemed sinful humanity. One’s right standing before God depends entirely on Jesus Christ’s atoning work, and not on one’s own meritorious works of any kind, not even on the sincerity of one’s appropriation of that work. Justification by faith alone means that one trusts in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

3) The priesthood of all believers. This does not mean what is sometimes either embraced or denigrated as “private judgment,” the notion that individual Christians are capable of deciding all theological questions on their own, or that they are capable of interpreting Scripture entirely without study or heeding the voice of Christian tradition or those who have been trained in theological studies and biblical exegesis. It does mean that every Christian has both the responsibility and the inherent ability to read the Bible profitably, to pray, that conscience must be obeyed, and that even the most respected church authorities are capable of error.

4) One of the corollaries of the “priesthood of all believers” is that all Christians have a responsibility to worship and to read Scripture, and thus, worship should take place in the language used by ordinary people so that they can understand what is being said and done, and that Scripture should be translated so that they can read the Bible responsibly.

By “Catholic,” I do not mean the Roman Catholic Church, and certainly not the post-Reformation church of the Council of Trent, but the patristic Catholic Church that succeeded the apostles.

He goes on to explain the elements which he said “distinguished catholic identity” in the second century:

1. The canon of Scripture (not having resolved the issue of the “deuteron-canonical texts”).

2. The “Rule of Faith” as the proper interpretation of Scripture.

3. Apostolic Succession, “tracing their historical continuity through their bishops back to the apostles who were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ’s ministry”.

4. Worship in word and sacraments.

Of course, we would disagree with some of these characterizations. But such disagreements are minor compared with the blatant and egregious idolatries of Rome. On balance, the Church of England has a long and dignified tradition that shows us what the early church was like, without the abuses and bluster of either Rome or Constantinople.


  1. Hey John, thanks for the post; it's really interesting! Even though I'm definitely a Presbyterian I've always had an affinity with the church of England due to my great grandfather who was low-church Anglican. My mom has his old Anglican book of common prayer. I was wondering if there is an historic 'Anglican view' of the atonement or have they allowed for a multiplicity of views?

    1. Hi David, I honestly don't know that there is an "Anglican view" -- the Anglicans generally are a mess and a mish-mosh. There are relatively few conservative Anglicans.

      You may want to take a look here:

      Fr. Robert Hart makes this statement:

      The idea of Christ's Atonement as placating the anger of God, to a degree that separates (in anyone's mind) the Trinity into three Gods with independent wills, with the Father as the bad cop and the Son as the good cop (and who knows where the Holy Spirit fits in?), would certainly be more in keeping with pagan polytheism than with Christianity. The main point that Fr. Reardon has made is that God the Father is the One who paid the terrible price in the suffering of His beloved Son.

      (From the article "Juridical and Liturgical).

      And these are the "good guys".

      But my thought is that bringing these histories to mind is only going to be good for the church at large.