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What is Anglican Theology ?

   The discussion in Theology upon the nature of Anglican theology is timely. For there is such a thing as Anglican  theology and it is sorely needed at the present day. But because it is neither a system nor a confession (the idea of an Anglican "confessionalism" suggests some­thing that never has been and never can be) but a method, a use and a direction, it cannot be defined or even perceived as a "thing in 'itself," and it may elude the eyes of those who ask "What is it?" and "Where is it?" It has been proved, and will be proved again, by its fruits and its works.

   The method, use and direction characteristic of Anglican divinity first came into clear light in the writings of Hooker. His theology claimed to do both far less and far more than the theologies of Calvin, of Luther and of Trent. It did less in that it eschewed any attempt to offer a complete scheme of Biblical doctrine, or an experiential assurance of justification or an infallibilist system of dogma. It did more in that it appealed to a larger field of authority and dealt with the whole man rather than with certain parts of him. For it appealed to Scripture, tradition and reason: "the Spirit everywhere in the scripture...laboureth to confirm

us in the things which we believe by things whereof we have sensible knowledge." And it dealt with the whole man, both by its reverence for his reason and his conscience and by its refusal  to  draw a  circle  around the  inward  personal element in religion and to separate it from the world of external things. It was congruous with all this that the Incarnation, with the doctrine of the Two Natures, was central, and that the Church and the Sacraments were closely linked with the Incarnation. The claim of this theology to be "Catholic" rested not only upon its affinity with antiquity but upon the true "wholeness" of its authorities and of its treatment of man and his need. It offered him not only justification in his inward self but the sanctification of his whole being through sharing in the divine life.

   The method, use and direction seen in Hooker persisted. Amid many diversities of emphasis there can be traced in Anglican divinity an appeal to Scripture which refuses to treat Scripture as a self-contained law or to select the doctrine of justification by faith as the essence of the Gospel, and insists instead that Scripture needs interpreting with the aid of the tradition of the Church as the witness and keeper of holy writ. And with the appeal to Scripture on these lines there is linked both the study of the ancient Fathers and a reverence for reason and conscience such as commends authority while eschewing infallibilism. In the centuries between Hooker and to-day the different elements in the Anglican unity have often "gone apart." High-churchmen, valuing tradition but missing the more dynamic aspect of the Word in the Scriptures, have sometimes been led into a "traditionalism."  Evangelicals, holding the Bible in high esteem but divorcing it from the living tradition of the Church, have sometimes been led into a "scripturalism." Broad-churchmen, reverencing reason but missing the significance of certain aspects of Scripture and tradition, have sometimes been led into a sort of "rationalism." In each case there has been a tearing asunder of things which in the Anglican vocation are bound together—the Gospel, the Catholic Church, sound learning. Yet the underlying unity, often strained and never to be defined, has not perished. The special importance of F. D.  Maurice is that while he fell foul of the advocates of the "isms" of his day—"churchism," "evangelicalism," "liberalism"  alike—he is now seen to represent in a remarkable way the unity which they were missing.

   The Anglican use can be studied with profit in many divines of the last three and a half centuries. It is illustrated in the width of Lancelot Andrewes' appeal to "the whole Church, Eastern, Western, our own," in Bishop Butler's use of the inductive method, in the title of the first of the Tracts for the Times, in James Mozley's famous passage upon the limitations of logic (Essay in Development, pp. 41-4), in F. D. Maurice's insistence upon the distinction between the truth of God and the forms wherein it is expressed, in the editing of The Library of the Fathers, in Frederick Temple's plea for the rights of the student ("if you pre­scribe the conclusions you preclude the study"), and in modern works which expound the Incarnation in its relation to the evolution of man and nature while fully conserving its unique, redemptive and transcen­dental character. These illustrations suggest many a tension between diverse elements, yet the underlying unity is there and Hooker may still show us something of its meaning. Unfortunately there has been a false view of this unity which thinks of it as a vague "comprehensive­ness" embracing a!l and sundry opinions for comprehensiveness' sake. But this notion does less than justice to the true unity of Anglican divinity. For it is not a unity between diverse "isms" and parties but a deeper unity in the Gospel of God, in the Catholic Church whereof the Church of England is a part, and in sound learning.

   Now the Anglican use, method and direction discovered themselves in reaction from the pressure of Luther, Calvin and Trent; and it is possible that in the reaction against misleading systems there was a missing of certain valuable elements which those systems contained. Thus, though the Anglican method led to a balanced use of Scripture as interpreted by tradition and to an escape from the lopsidedness of the Reformed scripturalism, there may yet have been loss through the missing of the more "dynamic" use of Scripture known amongst the Reformed. In other words our emphasis (right as it has been) upon the "Word made flesh" may have led us to miss something of the meaning of the "Word spoken" as Reformed Christianity values it. Similarly the reaction against Rome may have led to loss through our neglect of the angelic doctor, from whom Hooker himself had learnt not a little. The day of revenge has come. The catastrophic times through which we have been passing have exposed the contemporary weaknesses of the Anglican use. Can it offer the wholeness of system  which the Thomist offers? Does it sufficiently understand the notes of crisis and judgment which the Confessional Protestant has been making his own? It has seemed that Anglicanism has had less to say and has said it less powerfully than these two theologies upon its flanks. Its members often look to them rather than to their mother, and ask "Has she a theology of her own?" But history may soon repeat itself, and, as in the latter days of the reign of Queen Elizabeth [I], Anglican divinity may soon rediscover itself and, while claiming to say  far  less than the Schoolman and the Confessionalist, may speak both with a wider authority than they and to the whole man rather than to a part of him. For on the one side every sort of infallibilism demands (as James Mozley pointed out in the work already mentioned) an infallible logician, and this means an authority speaking to far less than the whole man.   And  on the other side Neo-Calvinism leads us to regard the use of our reason as a sinful titanism, and so dwells on our justification as to rob us of our sanctification through union with the divine life. If these judgments be true, the Anglican need not be too diffident or apologetic, though he may need to be more modest, in what he claims to say.

   (1) The bona fide Anglican can never suffer the Latin scholastics to dominate the theology of his Church. This refusal need not involve a depreciation of what the scholastics can do in the field of Christian philosophy. But the refusal must be made, because  the scholastic would substitute other categories than those of the Bible at the very heart of theology, where the Anglican believes that only the Biblical categories can rule. "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith”: the appeal to Scripture demands that God's revelation be understood first in these Biblical categories with  the Greek of the New Testament as the theologian's primary apparatus. It is here that the quarrel really lies.  This is not to deny that a far more humble and ready appreciation of the scholastic's work is needed amongst us; but this is to say that he can never be suffered to possess the central shrine.

   (2) Equally the bona fide Anglican is not at home with the divinity broadly and somewhat incorrectly called Barthian. It would be futile to belittle what has been learnt and needs to be learnt from the Barthian school concerning the failure of the "liberal" treatment of the Bible, the realities of God's transcendence, grace and judgment, and the more truly theological perspective in Biblical interpretation.  Yet the Anglican's gratitude for this is no longer leaving him blind to the need for revolt and protest, akin to the revolt and protest of Hooker against the Calvinism of his day. A concentration upon the Word spoken which misses the importance of the Word made flesh, a concentration upon justification which as good as denies the theme of sanctification, a concentration upon certain elements in St. Paul which omits the teaching of St. John (particularly chapters vi and xvii) from its picture of Christianity, betoken a divinity which is less than truly Biblical. Nor can the Anglican fail to notice the loosening of the Neo-Calvinistshold  upon   the  Incarnation as a central principle. Partly this is seen in a failure to make that estimate of Man which the Incarnation demands. Partly this is seen in a readiness (observable in different degrees in some writers) to part with the idea of the Incarnation itself, since if all that is needed is "an irruption into history for man's salvation" there is no special importance in the doctrine of God made Man.

   Now Anglican divinity rediscovers itself by the recognition that it is of a mode and spirit other than these. It could never, for the truth's sake, leave the field to them. But it can do its work only with a careful recognition of its debt to them, even as Hooker owed much to the Rome and the Calvin whom he withstood. There seems to lie before Anglican divinity the immense task which is also an immense oppor­tunity: to appeal once again to the threefold authority of scripture, tradition and reason: not to repeat in archaic fashion the appeal as it was made in the sixteenth century, but to discover its new mode as it is needed today.

   (1) As to Scripture the way is open for a treatment that avoids the errors and the violence of much modern work. The liberal method drew out the human nature of the Bible but misinterpreted it through losing its theological key. In reaction the "new school" has recovered a belief in the divine nature of the Bible but  has often refused a due place to its human nature by ignoring questions of historicity, by trying to settle critical problems by theological affirmations, and by over­simplifying the rough, jagged process wherein the theology was hammered out in the history. Is there not need for a treatment of Biblical questions, an exposition of Biblical themes, an assessment of Biblical authority which holds in view the Two Natures of the Bible? And is this not a task akin to that which Hooker performed in a different though cognate field?

   (2) But the interpreter of Scripture cannot work without presupposi­tions, and the disciple of Hooker approaches the Bible with pre­suppositions learnt from the living tradition of the Church. But the appeal to tradition cannot mean to-day precisely what it meant in the sixteenth century or in the writings of the Tractarians. It needs re­thinking. In place of a static appeal to the undivided Church (for the Holy Ghost has said many things since the great schism) we should perhaps think in terms of the appeal to Christian experience. This appeal will put the utmost emphasis upon the inward experience of Christians and its moral fruits; but it will not, in the manner of Hooker's opponents, draw a closed circle around the inward aspect of the Christian life. It will instead include the form and the sacramental life of the Church in their witness to the historical givenness of the Gospel. Though the form without the Spirit is dead, it is through His use of the form—in creed, sacrament, order, liturgy—that the Spirit preserves the true salt of Christian life in its union with the objectivity of Gospel and Church.

   (3) As to the appeal to reason the writer of this paper would rather that others, with a philosophical equipment which he lacks, took up the tale. But perhaps the nature of the Anglican's appeal to reason 'may be discovered partly from the nature of the appeal to Scripture and tradition, and partly from the distinction (deep in the Anglican's bones) between authority and infallibility. "Two things there are that trouble these latter times: one is that the Church of Rome cannot, another that Geneva will not err." Where is the secret of a theology which does not require the infallible logician and yet "proves all things" as the apostle said, and speaks not to part of a man but to the whole of him, justifying and sanctifying and illuminating body, soul and spirit whole and entire unto the coming of the Lord?

   In these tasks the Anglican will not suppose that he has a system or a confession that can be defined and commended side by side with those of others; indeed, the use of the word  “Anglicanism" can be very misleading. Rather will he claim that his tasks look beyond "isms" to the Gospel of God and to the Catholic Church which he tries to serve with a method, use and direction needed as greatly to-day as in the past.
Loquere filiis Israel ut proficiscantur.

A.M. Ramsey

Originally published in the journal THEOLOGY
January 1945

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