Tuesday, March 03, 2015

My Take on the Reformation in England: Owen, Packer, Hooker, Puritans, Anglicans, and Worship

J.I. Packer A Quest for Godliness
Over on Facebook, in response to my recent blog article on John Owen, “Political Defeat was the Condition of Cultural Achievement”, an old [conservative Anglican] friend of mine commented:

the reformed Anglican judgment is that Puritanism (especially its more radical expression) constituted a perversion of the English Reformation, not its teleos. There were Calvinists among the supporters of High Church Anglicanism (e.g., Whitgift). They were the heirs of Cranmer et al., not the Puritans, whose radicalism contained the seeds of its own destruction.

I responded:

I don’t know that “seeds of its own destruction” was an entirely fair characterization. I’ve been looking at this period a bit (the theological aspects which were called “Reformed Orthodoxy”). This period was characterized by “precise theological formulations”, among other things.

While it’s true that “Reformed Orthodoxy” seemingly came to an abrupt halt at one point, there were a lot of things that went into it:
* Reformed churches faced political opposition -- they tended to do well in areas where they had political support, and less well where they had opposition. (And true, in some instances they instigated their own opposition).

* The changing grounds of philosophy: the thinking of many of the early “Reformed Orthodox” rested on Aristotelian formulations (logic and methods, but not his actual characterizations of metaphysics, etc.). The Reformed Orthodox did not respond “in unison” to the enlightenment philosophies.

* There were theological challenges from without -- Arminians, Amyraldians, Socinians.

* Even from within, there seems to have been an “antinomianism vs moralism” axis.

* The early rumblings of “critical scholarship”

The American colonies and the US were kind of a “release valve” for the situation in Europe. There is a tendency to blame “revivalism” here in the US. It’s true, there were other things to focus on than “precise theological formulations”.

And I posted this link:

How the Regulative Principle of Worship Affirms, Supports, and Ensures a Meaningful World.

He responded:

Suffice it to say that as an Anglican I don’t follow the RPW, and frankly I don’t know of any advocate of the RPW who follows it consistently. On the question of worship, Anglicans are instead guided by Hooker’s formula: Scripture augmented by tradition and reason.

The only point I wanted to make in my comment above is that, while I am a **huge** devotee of Jim Packer, I don’t share his sanguine assessment of the Puritans. As you probably know, Hooker’s apologetical works were directed to what he believed was the error of Rome on the one hand and those of the Puritans on the other. In his book, Richard Hooker and the Authority of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, Nigel Atkinson demonstrates pretty convincingly that it is Hooker’s divinity, and not that of the Puritans, which constitutes the completion of what the English Reformation began.

I understand the notion of the Anglican form of worship as having very old roots, and of “the Church of England” as having moved through history in parallel to, and not in a derivation of, the church of Rome. (Having said that, I will mention Rome’s formidable influence on the “Western Church”.)

Based on my reading of some of the works on ancient church polity (Roger Beckwith’s “Elders in Every City” for example, and Paul Bradshaw on the development of the liturgy), I’m of the understanding that “the liturgy” (or “liturgies”) that we see coming out of the fourth century (east, west, England) had their origins in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, not the first century. And so, while there is very much that we can learn from them, we cannot say they are “normative”.

On the other hand, at the time of the Reformation, we find “Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609” -- and yes, it it true the RPW is not followed consistently.

On the other hand, it is an attempt at a consistent line of thought -- if Sola Scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation, then the RPW is a consistent application of that principle. My own church doesn’t follow the RPW -- while practicing something of a regular order of worship.

I’ve ordered the Atkinson book on Hooker -- noting that in the Amazon reviews, this work is seen as “contrarian” (and yet it has a good endorsement from [the Anglican] Gerald Bray.)

I don’t know that there is a “teleos” to worship this side of heaven.

My point in the OP was just simply to provide encouragement in the face of political defeat -- that even if good folks don’t win elections, Christians still have opportunities to be salt and light in the world in other ways.


  1. In what sense is the RPW a consistent application of sola scriptura, in a way the normative principle isn't?

    1. My statement was more of a comment on the forms of liturgies that came out of the 4th century (when liturgies tended to become more solidified) -- things like the use of colorful vestments, processions, use of candles, etc. Those things clearly are not biblical, but had pagan origins.

  2. In what way is the RPW a principle, and how does it regulate, if everything from a capella exclusive psalmody through instrument-accompanied hymnody to contemporary worship has been argued to fall under it?

    1. The principle, even stated by Melancthon, "that we sacredly and conscientiously keep ourselves within the bounds which God has prescribed, and that we do not add anything to that worship which has been divinely instituted, or corrupt it in any part, even the most important" (cited by Clark, "Recovering the Reformed Confession, pg 228). He cites another writer, "the real difference between the Lutheran and the Calvinist reforms in worship may be summed up as follows: Luther will have what is not specifically condemned by the Scriptures; while Calvin will have only what is ordained by God in the Scriptures".

      Now I pointed to Calvin and his "company of pastors" -- they were very concerned to work out this principle in real life. That they were not able to do it consistently does not mean that the attempt was not worthwhile, nor that it was not honorable. It was an attempt at a consistent line of thought. It was an attempt to suggest that the principle of sola scriptura ought to be applied to corporate worship.

    2. True enough in theory, but look at the practice today in Reformed churches, all claiming to worship IAW the RPW (ain't abbreviations grand?). If one can sing a metrical Psalm a capella *or* shake one's booty to a praise band banging out inane refrains, ISTM the RPW is but a NoW (nose of wax).

    3. Kirk, I don't get too much into abbreviations -- Someone was talking about "PoE" the other day on Facebook, and I'm not in the philosophy world, I'm in technology, so I see "PoE" and I'm thinking "Power over Ethernet".

      Anyway, I'm not inclined to go all out either for RPW or "high liturgy" (thinking Anglican and Lutheran) -- but I think the RPW folks are to be lauded for their efforts to be Scriptural (which the "high liturgists" are not).

  3. If you restrict your praise ot Calvin et Cie and the Westminster divines, I understand; however, I'm curious as to your opinion of the modern equivocal use of the term RPW by NAPARC types, who have gutted the term of any real meaning.

    1. Hi Kirk -- I agreed that "the RPW is not followed consistently" today.

      I belong to a NAPARC church -- a PCA, which doesn't follow the RPW, but does a really good job of blending "traditional" with "contemporary". It's a church that's situated on a college campus, and it works very well. The pastors are young men (I'm 55) with whom I feel completely at home.

      I think we should try to learn all that we can about the historical period known as "Reformed Orthodoxy" -- they did very many good things well -- without trying to "recover" things by imposing them upon 21st century populations. I've written elsewhere that I think that "church authority" has been very much a disaster -- not only in the early and medieval churches, but it wasn't helpful in the "Reformed Orthodox" churches, and it is not helpful as there are attempts to practice it today.

  4. John: I too am 55, thus one of the younger men in my congregation (doesn't bode well). How do you deal with WCF 21, in which the the RPW is spelled out? Your DPW (those abbreviations again) seems to make a mockery of the principle, and seems less to regulate than to placate booty-shakers, liturgical wannabees, hymn sandwich afficionados, and any other faction in the worship wars. I agree that the whole church authority power trip has done more harm than good, but where and how do you draw a line, or do you believe a line should be drawn at all?

    1. Hi Kirk -- Sorry for the late reply. I wrote a longish reply, didn't save it anywhere, but I decided I wanted to think about it some more. In the interim, it went away. So I'll just say that, except for paragraph 8 in WCF 21, I think its stated intention (1-4) is very clear in what it's trying to avoid, but the prescriptions (5-7) seem far too general to pull out a specific "order of worship" or anything. And so we are left with individual proposals that people try either to "persuade" or to "define authoritatively". And we don't know how that works.

      The bottom line, I guess, is that I see WCF 21 as offering guidelines for things that we should work toward, but we should also do so cognizant of where we are, and where other people are today.

      Let me know if you have other questions about this.

    2. From my reply above: And we don't know how that works should read "and we know how that works".

    3. Thank you for your clarification.