Arthur Middleton on Reformers, Builders and Caroline Divines: necessary strands of the 

Christian life


The seventeenth century was a theological age:


Everybody who thought at all was interested in the subject, and had qualified themselves both by study and by listening to sermons to take their part in the vigorous discussion of religious problems. People of all kinds among the educated classes wrote books about religion, or translated some foreign work which advanced their point of view, or put together their own collection of prayers and pious thoughts, sometimes for private use, sometimes to be handed round in manuscript copies among their friends, sometimes to be published in print. It did not follow by any means that they all lived specially holy lives; some did and some did not; but theology was the fashionable intellectual activity and every­one was engaged in it. (C. J. Stranks, Anglican Devotion SCM Press: 1961; p.64.)


The “great figures” in this century, successors of the Reformers, were builders, their work being the natural outcome and growth of what the Reformers had laid, not merely in the opinions of thinkers but in the foundation documents of Anglicanism. If those foundations had not been there, Anglican theology and devotion in the seventeenth century would have been quite different. These Anglican divines of the seventeenth century continue to hold the early Christian Fathers in special esteem, but as Michael  Ramsey pointed out (A. M. Ramsey, “The Ancient Fathers and Modern Anglican Theology”,  Sobornost, Series 4: No. 6,. 290), the Edwardian and Elizabethan divines were interested in the Fathers chiefly as a means of proving what had or had not been the primitive doctrine and practice, but in going farther the Caroline divines used the thought and piety of the Fathers within the structure of their own theological exposition. 

This use of the Fathers led them away from a preoccupation with the doctrines of justification or predestination into making the Incarnation the central doctrine of the faith, that became a recurring feature of Anglican divinity, with the Incarnation seen as S. Athanasius saw it in its deeply redemptive aspect. Also, it made them conscious that just as the ancient undivided Church embraced both East and West so too the contemporary Catholic Church was incomplete without the little known Orthodox Church of the East as well as the Church in the West, Latin, Anglican and Reformed. Here, in the study of the Fathers, Anglican divinity found a gateway to the knowledge of what was scriptural and primitive, subsequently a living tradition which guided the interpretation of Scripture, and finally a clue to the Catholic Church of the past and the future: in the words of Lancelot Andrewes ‘the whole Church Catholic, Eastern, Western, our own.’

It is not surprising that no period in our Church’s history is richer in writers of high distinction in the field of theology, a feature which did not diminish until the end of the century in an age of general intellectual ferment. These distinguished writers include Hooker and Andrewes, Laud, Hammond, Overall, Field, Ussher, Sanderson, Taylor, Pearson, Barrow and Bull, to name but a few. Frere claims that with Hooker, Andrewes and Overall, there came a revulsion against the dominant Calvinism, and this, 


introduced a more mature conception of the position of the English Church, based upon the appeal to Scripture and the principles of the undivided Church. The earlier theologians had been able to recognise in principle the soundness of this appeal, but they had hitherto been unable to work out in practice its detailed results. (W.H.Frere, A History of the English Church in the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I 1558 -1625; p. 2840.)


If one was to define the ethos of these Caroline divines then it will be found in the holding together of what Baron von Hügel maintained as necessary strands of the Christian life, the mystical, the intellectual and the institutional. Their massive scholarly activity followed the work of Hooker (1554-1600) that initiated a distinctively Anglican theological position, clearly distinguishable from Rome and Calvinist Geneva that was marked by a renewed understanding and practice of the Christian way of common and private prayer. All these things were held together in a single focus. (A. M. Allchin, The Dynamic of Tradition DLT: London, 1981; p. 56).

  In the theology of these divines thinking and praying are indissolubly connected, in an orthodoxy which was not a static repetition of the past but a living, growing pattern of truth.

In the devotional life in the liturgical and sacramental piety of The Book of Common Prayer, faith and repentance are central where in the awareness of the Holy Spirit’s work the fundamental aim is to make us ‘new creatures’ in spite of the sins that do so easily beset us. The life of devotion is a journey in which the individual is responsible for the living of life in co-operation with the Spirit’s grace. Life is oriented Godwards in the service of the neighbour through Christ, the God-Man, lawgiver and Redeemer. It is a devotion which insists that Word and Sacrament are for living ‘in newness of life’, that worship is meant to send us out in the process of being remade, ‘confirmed and strengthened in all goodness’. This devotional literature underlines the Christian life as the recollected life of disciplined prayer in Word and Sacrament that is aware of mystery, and can be practiced by ordinary men and women. Prayer and meditation and affective devotion to Christ are there, as is the following and imitation of Christ. (McAdoo, Anglican Heritage: Theology and Spirituality The Canterbury Press, 1991; p56.)