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(Rudiments of the Reformation)

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
October 11, 2017

The era of the Reformation was not a period of innovation or human invention in theology but an uncovering and consolidation of sound Christian thought derived from apostolic doctrine and held with varying degrees of accuracy, emphasis and consistency within the western Church for over fourteen centuries. Nothing novel was introduced by our mainline Reformers. With the Word of God open before them they rediscovered and reasserted key truths obscured by the accretion of many errors and superstitions that had permeated the life of the people of God, and with Scripture as their divinely donated standard they drew upon whatever orthodoxy they could find in their faithful and holy predecessors. The Spirit of God was surely operative in his Church before the Reformation for all of the impurities that obtained within it.

The Reformation was not a break with the historic Church of Christ (catholic as in universal) but rather a cleansing and healing process within the ailing body of believers who were denied the clarity of the gospel and ready access to the teaching of the Bible as the ultimate authority for faith and comfort in the salvation wrought through Jesus Christ. The intent of the Reformation was benign, magnanimous, and pastoral. The character of the Reformation was Augustinian, the classic theology of grace defined by the Bishop of Hippo and endorsed by several important church councils.

The cause of truth will always excite conflict. Our world, our race, natural religion in all its forms, is at implacable enmity with God. The word of God is militant toward evil and arouses an angry backlash. The meddling and mischief of the archenemy of the Lord, whose malice and violence, physical, mental, and spiritual is great, unrelenting, and furious, rendered the 16th and 17th centuries a time of turmoil and tempest. The emergence of the pure truth of God cannot be blamed for the disruption and damage that ensued as a result of the fresh disclosure of divine revelation. The church underestimates the wrath of Satan, the intensity of the struggle between two kingdoms, and the antipathy of human kind against the authority of the Lord.

The guilt and atrocities of that period of religious unrest are not to be attributed to the heirs of the Reformation, as has been anachronistically insinuated in a recent primatial* exhortation to Anglicans, and Christians in general, "to repent" of the Spirit-driven revolution in the 16th century Church of God (*namely Justin Welby, a man remarkably and notoriously unsuited to his office. Thought had been given to the withdrawal of this comment but each succeeding day seems to prove its correctness). Indeed, a strong signal is being given from many quarters that on the whole the Reformation was not, to use a phrase from Sellar and Yeatman - 1066 And All That, " - "a good thing".

There are indeed sufficient indications in Anglicanism that a drift from the Reformation is far advanced and proceeding with haste. Even within Anglican Evangelicalism there is an increasing leaning towards a softening of Augustinian conviction, an air of nervous caution preventing robust explication of truth, fostered partly by a sense of unwise courtesy (a debt to dissenters) and a tweaking of Reformed principles under the influence of Karl Barth, whose rewriting of key Christian concepts is gaining ground on conservative turf. Barth has his merits, but they are primarily those that echo and reflect already established Reformed dogma before he commenced his distinctive cogitation on matters theological. His approaches, considered innovative and insightful, seem to blur the meaning of Scripture in a subtle, seemingly plausible ways and insinuate departures from clear Biblical teaching (e.g. his notions on apologetics, Christology, predestination and apokatastasis - possible universal restoration to God) that allow "nervous nellies" to avoid crucial but unpopular issues. Barth imparts license to some theologians and Christian leaders obsessed with reputation to appear admirably intellectual and sophisticated. They are enabled to avoid the "crudity" of plain speaking (where is the "holy bombast" of Luther?).

It is a matter of wonderment as to how the bold Saxon author of "The Bondage of the Will" would regard the celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in an atmosphere of reduced courage and the obvious erosion of Reformational conviction and ardor.

In our time Anglicanism has very little to commend it and much of it has abandoned its Confessional moorings. Anglicanism is a rudderless ship, without competent pilot and accurate compass, adrift and tempest-tossed amidst a flotilla of equally frail ideological vessels, humanistic and faith-based, lost and dangerously listing upon the perilous sea of errant religion and godless secularism.

A remembrance of the Reformers ought to concentrate on the rudiments of the faith which they keenly embraced and by which they were guided. It is not up to us, nor fair to their testimony, to dilute their message and deplete the legacy they bequeathed to us at enormous cost to themselves. Our boldness of affirmation should be the equal of theirs, at equal risk of adverse opinion and harsh condemnation. Our loyalty to the Reformers is to be regarded as a holy trust and we are called to maintain the potency of their convictions manfully.

If the heritage created for us by the Reformers is found by any to be uncongenial, unacceptable, unpopular, the doctrine of our founders deemed to be too strong, we ought frankly to admit it, quit any pretense of allegiance to authentic Anglicanism, and celebrate its replacement elsewhere on the "Christian spectrum" (broad enough) rather than falsely honor Anglican fathers in the faith whom we effectively repudiate by modern moderation, diluted doctrinal confession, and abandonment of traditional foundations.

The determined critics of Cranmer, and the content and shape of our communion for which he and his colleagues are responsible, ought, for integrity's sake, to realign under another banner that clearly advertises their essential principles and theological persuasion. Genuine Christians may differ according to conscience and conviction and they need to align with communities of faith that best match and advocate their preferred religious sentiments rather than struggle to adjust or undermine the norms of a fellowship which they find uncongenial. Cranmer's admirers readily concede that no human leader is infallible and to be followed uncritically. They readily acknowledge that ongoing development is necessary and inevitable, however, not away from, but in line with the principles of Holy Scripture enshrined in our Reformational gains, together with any elements of catholic orthodoxy accurately discerned in historic creeds, declarations of sound doctrine, expressions of worthy devotion, and good example).

Much is at stake as we embark upon an appreciation and assessment of the Reformation. Was it a good thing? Was it a bad thing? Does anything about it deserve permanency? Does it proffer any benefit to the generation in which we live? If so, how do we maximize the good it may achieve, should the Lord be pleased?

The rudiments of the Reformation are solidly Scriptural. The passage of time has not diminished their correctness or relevance. That which should be updated, surely, is our loyalty to and love for both the event and enlightenment of the Reformation that strengthened the ceaseless witness of the church to the grace and justice of God perennially at work in the welfare of the world and the destinies of men.

Our English Reformers concurred with the eminent biblical thinkers of the European Continent. The general outline of Christian belief demarcated by Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Vermigli, Calvin, Bullinger, was warmly accepted and adhered to in England and permeated the preaching and piety of the national Church for over seventy years without intermission or serious dissent after the demise of Mary Tudor and Reginald Pole (controversy, of course, did arise at university level at the instigation of Peter Baro, William Barrett and their like).

Now forgotten or soft-pedaled are the fundamental teachings of our Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion that offend our contemporary and softened sensibilities and embarrass our standing among disapproving fellows. The Articles from which we are liable to shy away or understate are as follows: Article 10, Of Free-will, Article 11, Of the Justification of Man, Article 17, Of Predestination and Election. We are afraid to be controversial or in contradiction of popular sentiment.

We are afraid to declare that by nature fallen man cannot turn himself toward God. He possesses no such disposition, no scintilla of desire, and that without the sovereign intervention of God man is at the point of absolute enmity with God, hopelessly ruined and lost. We demur at telling man that no quality or effort of his, actual or potential, can place him in favor with God or improve his relationship with the Holy One. We recoil from stating the clear fact that before we choose God he chooses us (It is interesting that Arminianism rarely refers spontaneously to the topic of election except when in controversy with Reformational thought. Apart from that, there is no necessity to allude to electing love, as in the Arminian view man elects himself, a development that God merely foresees and endorses - a real divine election does not instinctively enter the Arminian consciousness or vocabulary. Arminianism is blighted by the inherent philosophy of the natural human ego - e.g. "My will is ultimately supreme". Hence the notion of divine election becomes redundant). Furthermore, Calvinists are usually held to be in the wrong for broaching the subject and are often afraid of censure and rebuke. Thoroughly examined, Arminianism is a negation of the gospel, and yet many of the Reformed apologize for their Biblical stand.

The bondage of the will, the spiritual bankruptcy of man, the necessity of divine election to salvation are virtually ruled out in our time by our modern Anglican theologians and preachers, evasive of the doctrines of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer. A church in denial of the incapacitating corruption of human nature with regard to desiring God, the impossibility of winning the commendation of God by any means other than the imputed righteousness of Christ, or lacking honest subscription to absolute predestination is an enfeebled church disqualified from asserting the full gospel in any compelling way.

Article 10 alerts us to our plight, Article 11 relieves us of our anxiety and fear, Article 17 comforts us with the knowledge of Christ's eternal love that found us in our utter wretchedness and unworthiness, and having taken hold of us will never forsake us. "Calvinism", the usual term now for describing the Biblical message that salvation is entirely of the Lord - the Father's choice, the Son's redemptive accomplishment, the Spirit's effectual activity within the individual soul - "Calvinism" is the legitimate foundational creed of Anglicanism; it stems from Augustinianism and clear adherence to the principle of sovereign grace. It has become customary to refer to all predestinarians in every age as Calvinistic, a convenient appellation, even though the Genevan Reformer is not the author of this conception of the plan of salvation.

As familiarity with church history recognizes, a noble succession of our eminent forbears upheld electing love with the clarity and consistency of Jean Calvin (e.g. Prosper, Fulgentius, Gregory of Rimini, Ratramnus, Gottschalk, Bradwardine, Wycliffe and Anselm). It is to the testimony of pre-Reformational and Reformational Augustinians that we shall turn to establish the legitimate Anglican testimony to the human plight and divine mercy. The Reformation was the ultimate breakthrough of Scriptural doctrine that had been surging forth within the Church for centuries. The "bridge" needs to be appreciated by Protestant Christians and crossed by old-style Catholics, Anglo and Roman.

To be continued...

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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