Pace-Setters of Anglican Protestantism: Part One
By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
January 31, 2015
There will always be controversy as to the essential character of Anglicanism - Catholic, comprehensive, Calvinistic. One is aware that many folk of Reformational persuasion demur at the term "Calvinism", but anyone remotely aware of historical theology will know that Calvin was not the inventor of the doctrines he espoused, and especially predestination. Calvin was the pupil of Luther, Bucer, Zwingli and so many proponents of the doctrine prior to the Reformation. It is also to be noted that damaging calumny is often directed toward Calvin rather than credit inasmuch as the first biographies of some of the Reformers, including Calvin, were written by those who opposed them and slanted their views. As the saying goes, "Error is half way around the world before truth has its shoes on". The caustic censures cling to this day.
To ease offensiveness some would advocate the appellation "Augustinianism", but whatever brand is adopted the fact of unconditional election will always elicit opprobrium even if Calvinist monergistic convictions were to be designated "Calathumpian". It is the doctrine itself that is so strenuously opposed by "free-willers", and whatever the label it will soon become a slur. It is better to be open than opaque concerning vital Christian truths. Believers ought to be strong enough to admit and affirm their differences candidly, manfully, and live with their heartfelt convictions confidently. It is possible to relate charitably toward opponents without conceding to their principles. It can happen in an air of maturity and a climate of free speech. Differences in doctrine do not have to dictate a situation of "daggers drawn".
However, representatives of Anglicanism are notorious for blurring issues and consequently the movement generally is confused by resorting to an abundance of qualifications in order to minimize the sense of displeasure aroused in those likely to disagree. The thrusts of honest debate do not have to thwart mutual respect and robust expression.
By a stretched-out process Anglicanism has arrived at a position of beautifully balanced Augustinianism (pro-gospel and pre-destinarian) enshrined in the formularies of the 16th century. From a modern perspective this fascinating development defines Anglicanism as essentially Calvinistic, inherently pastoral, and staunchly Protestant. Bible, Confession, and liturgy combine to convey the wisest possible counsel for the believer's course through this world to the heavenly city. The summons to salvation, the security afforded by divine choices, and the certainty of everlasting life are reiterated over and over again to the mind and heart of the diligent Anglican disciple as he/she pores over Scripture and prays with the assistance of our devotional heritage.
Anglicanism equips the mind and cares for the soul in the harmonizing of truth and spiritual improvement. These trends travel in tandem. Head does not outpace heart and heart does not take leave of head. Edification and emotion are unified so that the life of faith is neither excessively academic nor dangerously idiosyncratic: not simply the accumulation of facts and ideas, or the weirdness produced of flights of fancy from eccentric impulse. Anglicanism teaches from the "mind of the church", and Anglicans are trained to pray with the church. Excessive individualism and rash opinion are curtailed by the daily cultivation of the communion of saints in conscious observance (common prayer). This is churchmanship in the best and most beneficial way. Such ecclesiology is a gap in much evangelical thought and practice where believers largely think in terms of being lone and independent entities.
The early centuries of the Christian Church in England do not evince a strong or consistent pattern of soteriological conviction concerning the nature and operation of grace. In this sphere perhaps the most notable voice from the Celtic Church was that of the "perverse" Pelagius (c383-409/10). It was not until the Latinization of Christianity in England that his influence was roundly refuted in a consistent, thorough, and successful way. It seems it was the renowned scholar Bede (c673-735) who first raised a banner for the doctrines of grace in Britain through his grasp of Scripture with the aid of Augustine of Hippo. Perhaps the Celtic era of Christian faith and witness in England is best summarized in the verdict of Merle d'Aubigne who stated, "Generally speaking we meet with nothing but the gospel in the earlier days of the British church. . . . They do not appear to have held the strict doctrine of St. Augustine: they believed indeed that man has need of an inward change, and that this the divine power alone can effect; but they seem to have conceded something to our natural strength in the work of conversion" (The Reformation in England, Volume One, page 29). It is probably fair to conclude that Celtic Christian leaders would be happy to concur with a position akin to semi-Pelagianism.
The great mind of Anselm of Canterbury championed the Pauline/Augustinian construction of the plan of salvation. He carefully distinguished between the voluntary faculty in man and the lack of liberty to choose against the ingrained bias of sin, quoting the Saviour himself as to the bondage of the fallen will: I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). A successor to Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine (c1290-1349), was won to the Augustinian position through his close attention to Romans 9 and particularly the words, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy . . . . It does not therefore depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy" (verses 15-16). Bradwardine avers, "I came to see that the grace of God far preceded all good works both in time and in nature - by grace I mean the will of God" (De causa dei contra Pelagium). The good but short-lived Archbishop, dying within months of his enthronement, was certainly twinned with Augustine in the mind of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400):
But whatever God foreknows must be,
According to the opinion of certain clerks.
Call to witness any perfect clerk
That in the schools there is great altercation
About this matter, and great disputing,
And has been among a hundred thousand men.
But I cannot sift it to the kernel,
As can the holy doctor Augustine,
Or Boetheus, or bishop Bradwardine,
Whether God's exalted foreknowledge
Compels me necessarily to do a thing
(By 'necessarily' I mean absolute necessity)
Or whether free choice is granted me
To do that same thing, or not do it,
Though God foreknew it before it was done;
Or if his knowing constrains not a bit
Except by way of conditional necessity.
The Nun's Priest's Tale (modern English) Canterbury Tales, Vincent F. Hopper,
Barron's Educational Series, Inc, New York, 1970.
Bradwardine set in train a mode of theological thought that came to full flower at the English Reformation. His great and earnest disciple was John Wycliffe (c1329 -1384) whose Augustinianism was preserved among many of the Lollards, Wycliffe's followers whose loyalty to his theological heritage was greater than often appreciated. It is well known that Wycliffe defined the church as the totality of the predestined, the invisible company of the elect.
The influence of medieval mysticism should not be underestimated as a force in the retention of Augustinianism in the English church. Mark Ellingsen notes, "Late medieval mysticism clearly made a significant positive contribution to the Reformation. Besides indirectly undermining the authority of catholic ecclesiology, mysticism aided in the recovery of Pauline- Augustinian emphases on sin, unconditional forgiveness, and the character of Christian life as a struggle" (Reclaiming our Roots, Vol. 2, Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, T&T Clark, Bloomsbury 1999, page 15). Two English mystics of a strong Augustinian type were Richard Rolle (c1295-1349) and Walter Hilton (d1396). Hilton demonstrates an affinity with Bernard of Clairvaux in his description of a will set free by divine love to embrace the Redeemer of God's chosen: "We do nothing at all but submit to him, and assent to him, for that is the most that we do: that we willingly assent to his gracious working in us. And yet that will is not from ourselves, but of his making, so that in my opinion he does in us all that is well done." (Book Two: 34). As with Aquinas, Bernard, and Rolle, Hilton speaks not of the free will of our nature in spiritual matters, but of the freed will of grace. This is the efficacious grace of Augustine, the Calvinists, and the admirable Jansenists. If there is any objection to the term "irresistible grace" one should ask oneself "Is the beauty of Christ to the believer, once it is displayed to the soul, resistible?" As a bee is freely but of necessity attracted to honey, so too, is the elect sinner drawn (Gk "dragged") to the loveliness of the Lord Jesus (John 6:44-45, 65).
Efficacious grace is misunderstood if it is perceived as duress brutally exerted upon the soul. Grace is irresistible in the sense that it operates with the compulsion of overwhelming love. It so inclines the enslaved will that it abandons base affections and desires the good and holy that is supremely manifested in Christ. Grace woos the sinner until it gains the assent of the sinner. It is the magic of divine virtue and power that subdues the natural resistance and enmity of the sinful self. It is the force of good overcoming the fatal dominion of evil within us. Grace restores our true liberty and elicits our positive response to the allurements of divine beauty. From the thrall of sin we find ourselves enthralled by God, the Three-in-One. John Donne extols the grace that batters its way into the obdurate and unyielding heart. John Newton revels in the divine affection that forced its sweet way into his life. The assent of the will in salvation could never be denied by Calvinists. It is the mark of God's conquest of the rebel heart consistent with the insight of St. Paul, "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:13). God bends, as it were, the warped will back into shape and without that work of renovation the fallen will would never elect to return to God (Romans 8:5-8). The question of free will in theology principally concerns the spiritual incapacity of fallen man to make right choices as Martin Luther acknowledges, "I speak only of that which is good in divine things, and according to the Holy Scripture" (Table Talk CCLXI).
These comments catapult us to the career of John Colet (c1465 1519), humanist scholar, theologian, and Dean of St. Paul's, London. Colet delivered a series of lectures on Paul's Letter to the Romans with the intent of discovering what it was that Paul actually said. Author Frederic Seebohm in his study entitled The Oxford Reformers: John Colet, Erasmus, and Thomas More, alleges that Colet was not an Augustinian but, rather, a mystic. As is already apparent either category need not exclude the other, and with a proper understanding of the nature of the effectual call of divine grace it is not necessary to view Colet as anti-Augustinian. Whichever interpretation of Colet is ultimately correct, he can be seen as taking a precaution against an errant variety of crude determinism without the interaction of the divine will and the regenerate human will empowered to make choices that coincide with the will of God. In short, here is some of what Colet actually said when expounding Romans 9: "And when we speak of men as drawn, called, justified, and glorified by grace we mean nothing else than that men love in return God who loves them", and previous to this: "But here it is to be noted that this grace is nothing else than the love of God towards men - towards those i.e. whom he wills to love, and in loving, to inspire with his Holy Spirit; which itself is love and the love of God; which (as the Saviour said, according to St. John's gospel) "blows where it lists". . . Thus you see that things are brought about by a providing and directing God,and that they happen as He wills in the affairs of men, not from any force from without (illata) - since nothing is more remote from force than the Divine action - but by the natural desire and will of men, the Divine will and providence secretly and silently, and as it were, naturally accompanying (comitante) it, and go along with it so wonderfully, that whatever you do, and choose was known by God, and what God knew and decreed to be, of necessity comes to pass' (MS Gg fols 16 &18). All of this is in accord with a carefully crafted Augustinianism. The point is that Colet cleared the way to a rational reading of Scripture that facilitated Reformational understanding of the Bible.