Arthur Middleton on the Anglican Tradition


The tradition of Anglicanism is of more than historical significance. In both Reformation and Caroline divines what is made present in England is the spiritual substance of that catholic vision of the mystery of Christ which characterises the primitive Church in both East and West. Despite the discontinuities of their time, those divines were aware of the continuity and wholeness of the Church’s tradition in which they lived. Their purpose was to be representatives of the Christian tradition in all its fullness, organic wholeness, and unbroken unity. Their understanding of continuity is no mere mechanical concept; but continuity as a dynamic and living transmission of certain living qualities of faith and order.

The principle upon which the Reformers proceeded was by appealing against Rome to Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Primitive Church: so it was neither Lutheran nor Calvinist, but a return to primitive and ancient Catholic Christianity. The Book of Common Prayer was an embodiment of the desire of the English Church to restore ancient and primitive doctrine and worship. Hooker, in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Laud, in his Conference with Fisher the Jesuit, had the same fundamental aim: to make plain the position of the Church of England as contrasted with Papists on the one hand and the Continental Reformers on the other. Their theory of the position of the English Church was a restatement of the doctrine of the original Reformers, and the idea that there had been no break in the continuity of the Church so that she was still the same ancient, catholic – but reformed – Church of these islands.

The Fathers were held in esteem not only as witnesses to the content of the primitive faith, but as a guide to the right interpretation of Holy Scripture. In both Reformation and Caroline divine the same fundamental principle is present: that while Scripture is the supreme standard of faith, the Fathers represented the tradition of the Church by which Scripture was rightly interpreted. The Reformers used the Fathers as a means of proving what was and what was not primitive doctrine and practice; while the Caroline divines built on this principle and developed this use of the Fathers by making patristic thought and piety a vehicle in which to structure their own theological vision. In neither is there any transformation of the Fathers into a formal and infallible authority, nor the degeneration of their theology into a patristic scholasticism. For their concern is not merely to return to texts, abstract tradition, formulas and propositions; but rather to recover the true spirit of the Fathers, the secret inspiration that made them true witnesses of the Church. Their appeal to the Fathers is much more than a historical reference to the past. It is an appeal to the mind of the Fathers, and to follow them means to acquire their mind. This is what saved their use of the Fathers from a mere appeal to authority as such – rigid masters from whom no appeal is possible – and produced an approach that is critical and reasonable. It saved them from becoming preoccupied with the controversies of their time in the doctrines of justification and predestination, as they set out to restore the grandeur of Christian truth by following the Nicene Fathers in making the Incarnation the central doctrine of the faith. It placed them beyond their Age and culture and enabled them to transcend the limitations of nationalism as well as enabling them to avoid the temptation of building a scientific theology on the plan of Calvin. This patristic basis is what makes their theology something quite different from Tridentinism or Continental Protestantism. Furthermore, it was an ideal of theology that was not divorced from prayer and liturgy – for it provided a way of life and worship informed and structured by theological vision. George Bull’s thorough grasp of ante-Nicene faith, like Hooker before him, enabled him to discern in the attacks on traditional apostolic and catholic doctrine the resurgence of a type of Arianism, which in no way could be justified by an appeal to the Fathers.

In this way Anglican theology rediscovered its roots, built and maintained its foundation in the study of the Fathers, and – through that redemptive understanding of the centrality of the Incarnation – learned to see the Christian Faith as an integral whole. It also found the gateway to what was scriptural and primitive, and a living tradition which guided the interpretation of Holy Scripture. This is what gave to Anglicanism that clue to the Catholic Church of the past and future, Eastern and Western, and its own identity within it. This influence of the Fathers continued with the Tractarians, whose concern was for a Catholic interpretation of the Church of England amidst Evangelical, liberal, and Erastian interpretations. This influence continued decades later with the centrality of the Incarnation in theologians like Westcott, Gore and the Lux Mundi school, and William Temple.

Michael Ramsey enumerated three ways in which, in that later phase, patristic influence had been apparent. First, in the frequent use of the doctrine of the Logos – reflecting Irenaeus or Clement of Alexandria – and demonstrating the unique revelation of God in Christ as the central tower of a continuous divine activity in creation, nature, history, culture, and civilisation. Secondly, the constant influence of the Chalcedonian doctrine of the One Person and Two Natures of Christ. Thirdly, an emphasis placed on the negative and protective aspects of the ancient Christological definitions. In this way, said Ramsey, Anglicanism has preferred the Fathers – who used dogma as a pointer to the scriptural facts – to the Schoolmen, who seemed to use dogma as a starting point for deductive doctrinal formulations. The Fathers have left their mark on other matters of doctrine: not least in Eucharistic sacrifice, the Real Presence, and teaching about the Communion of Saints encouraging the belief that the living and departed are one in a fellowship of common prayer and praise rather than necessarily in terms of mediation.

These same Fathers – who spoke to Cranmer and Jewel, to the Reformers, to Hooker, Andrewes, Laud, and to the Caroline Divines – can speak to us today with that same sharpness and contemporaneity, for their writings are timeless, dynamic and always contemporary. Henry McAdoo rightly stated that

Having listened to these voices from our past I venture to think that it is a fair assessment to judge that seventeenth century Anglican theologians did not use the threefold appeal like the Stamp Act of 1765 to guarantee by a cursory reference to origins the authenticity of this or that article of belief or doctrinal formulation. Rather, within the given limitations of the scholarship and the knowledge of their times, did they apply the criteria with sensitivity, honesty, and freedom, and in some cases, with a surprising modernity. No review of how they went about it could fairly describe their procedure as simplistic. Is it possible for us in our situation to do the same, given a changed perspective in society and in scholarship?

[T]he times call urgently for the Anglican witness to Scripture, tradition and reason […] for serving the re-integration of the Church, and for presenting the faith as at once supernatural and related to contemporary man.