Reformation is not Innovation

IN A LETTER to King Charles II while he was in exile in Paris in 1651, and with the approval of the French court, the layman Theophile Brachet de la Milletière, invited Charles to become a Roman Catholic. Entitled ‘The Victory of Truth’, the letter was negative towards the English Church and called the English Reformation ‘Calvinistical’. Bramhall replies: And why do you call our Reformation Calvinistical ? Contrary to your own conscience; contrary to your own confession, that in our Reformation we retained the ancient Order of Episcopacy, as instituted by Divine authority, and a liturgy, and ceremonies, whereby we preserved the face or image of the Catholic Church.’ (Works, I.35.)

As for Reformation, said Bramhall, ‘sometimes nothing is more necessary.’ On the other side, ‘ it cannot be denied that Reformation, when it is unseasonable, or inordinate, or excessive, may do more hurt than good.’ ‘Needless alteration doth diminish the venerable esteem of religion and lessen the credit of ancient truth.’ ‘ There is a right mean between these two extremes, if men could light on it.’ And that right mean is ‘ neither to destroy ancient institutions out of a zealous hatred to some new abuses, nor yet to doat so upon ancient institutions, as for their sakes to cherish new abuses.’ (Bramhall’s Works i. 36, 40, 41.)

De la Milletière also accused the English Reformation of being based upon the principle of private judgement as the interpreter of Scripture in excluding Tradition and the public judgement of the Church. He claimed that Episcopacy cannot be proved from Scripture without the help of Tradition; and that, if Tradition is admitted, the Papacy must be acknowledged.

Bramhall’s Response

He contends that this French layman had misconceived the principles of the English Reformation. Richard Field (1561-1616), in his treatise Of the Church, had discussed the problem of Scriptural interpretation. Bramhall adopted the same distinctions laid down by Dr. Field, that the interpretation of Holy Scripture involves three kinds of judgement. Some men possess a judgement of discretion, others a judgement of direction, and others a judgement of jurisdiction. Every Christian for one’s private instruction possesses a judgement of discretion. The Church’s Pastors have a judgement of direction over God’s people as guides to drive away all erroneous and false doctrine. The Bishops have the judgement of jurisdiction, to prescribe and constitute judicially and authoritatively. Above the individual Chief Pastor is the collective authority of his superior, the General Council, which, under Christ, is the highest judge of controversies upon earth. (Works, 1.50)


But many qualifications are necessary for the right interpretation of Holy Scripture and without such necessary qualifications no-one can be an interpreter of it. ‘He that wants but some of them, or wants the perfection of them, by how much the greater is his defect, by so much the less valuable is his exposition’ (p. 51). And the same holds true for interpreters of Scripture. ‘ He that presumes above that degree and proportion which he hath in these means, and above the talent which God bath given him (as he that hath a little language, yet wants logic; or having both language and logic, knows not, or regards not, either the judgement of former expositors, or the practice and tradition of the purest primitive ages, or the Symbolical Faith of the Catholic Church), is not a likely workman to build a Temple to the Lord, but ruin and destruction to himself and his seduced followers. “A new physician,” we say, “requires a new church-yard ” (pp. 51-52) but such bold ignorant empirics in theology are ten times more dangerous to the soul, than an ungrounded inexperienced quack-salver to the body.’ (.p. 52) ‘This hath always been the doctrine and practice of our English Church.’


Bishop Bramhall contends that the Church of England acknowledges all world-wide apostolic Traditions. ‘We admit genuine, universal, Apostolical traditions, as the Apostles’ Creed, the perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God. . . We believe Episcopacy, to an ingenuous person, may be proved out of Scripture without the help of Tradition; but to such as are froward, the perpetual practice and tradition of the Church renders the interpretation of the text more authentic, and the proof more convincing. What is this to us, who admit the practice and tradition of the Church, as an excellent help of exposition? Use is the best interpreter of laws; and we are so far from believing that we cannot admit Tradition without allowing the Papacy, that one of the principal motives why we rejected the Papacy, as it is now established with universality of jurisdiction by the institution of Christ, and superiority above Ecumenical Councils, and infallibility of judgement, was the constant tradition of the Primitive Church.’ (p. 53)

Non-Papal Catholicism

For Bramhall, therefore, catholicity means the keeping together of this authoritative foundation and continuity, which implies the acceptance of the authority of the universal Church and its representative a General Council, the maintenance of communion and avoiding change without lawful authority on sufficient grounds. Continuity in an uninterrupted line of apostolic succession is integral to it, as are the acceptance of Scripture and the unanimous and universal practice of the Church. Such 17th century Anglicans believed themselves to be catholic but not papal and that a non-papal catholicism was consistent with ancient patristic tradition. They would own the dying words of Bishop Thomas Ken: ‘I die in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West…’

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham.