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Cranmerism, Calvinism, and The Church of England

Cranmerism, Calvinism, and The Church of England

By Roger Salter
July 3, 2016

It is noticeable that the terms Calvinist and Calvinism are shunned by many subscribers to the essentials of Reformational faith. A probable reason is that certain folk do not wish to be understood as being either excessive or almost exclusive followers of any particular thinker and his or her set of beliefs to the refusal of other influences. Another explanation may be that the aforementioned appellations are so misrepresented on the one hand, or so misunderstood on the other, that they excite strong hostility and bitter controversy with little chance of conciliation.

It is so obviously true that no Christian scholar ought to be followed without thorough interrogation of their ideas and through such utter devotion that virtually elevates them to the academic pinnacle of infallibility. What major theologian has not blundered to some extent here or there? Every Christian authority of whatever excellence and attainment manifests a fair share of inaccurate scholarship and dubious interpretation of Holy Scripture and inspired doctrine. Limitations, biases, and prejudices prevail that are resistant to correction. Every Christian leader is mere man or woman subject to the influences of sin in varying degrees as they craft their theological perspectives. Motives are not wholly pure, hidden insecurities and preferences are operative, and pride sometimes rises up to defend favored positions that have come to define our own precious and familiar identity when it appears to be exposed to attack. There are many reasons as to why we should not attend to any teacher without caution and reserve until we are quite satisfied that their views accord sufficiently with divine revelation insofar as we are able to determine. We also examine, as honestly as possible, our own inclinations that could drive us in a particular course of doctrinal conviction. The oddest pressures apply when we are formulating our own personal confessional stance as we seek coherence and consistency.

Theology in its research and results is no lazy enterprise, and, as it is part of our adoration of and duty to God, it is to be pursued in humility, teachableness, reverence and prayer. So often it is only cerebral, notional, speculative, and competitive in the academic sphere, as if justification before God derived from the number of publications, papers, and original ideas produced ( a thought that occurred humorously to Karl Barth and decidedly dismissed by him). Thomas Aquinas rapidly downgraded the value of his vast literary efforts following one sweet glimpse of the Redeemer. Writers do not compose their own recommendations to God in the slightest way and are not necessarily the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 25: 34-40).

Converting Calvinism to milder terms such as Augustinianism for example, or Tulip to sweeter scented Roses, may have its place in tactful communication, pastoral discretion, and amiable conversation; the tactic may even allay or reduce temperamental outbursts, but ultimately it seems like an unnecessary concession that blunts honest discussion between opposing points of view that need to be broached in an adult and comely manner. The cause of the gospel is wrong-footed, and dancing from one accommodation to another flatters dissenters and seems to suggest that defenders of truth need to blush at the principles they hold. Christians seem to cave in when others demur at their essential vocabulary (which can always be explained rather than abandoned). Eventually the gospel shifts to innocuous vapidity because of reaction to its perceived offense to human nature and prideful objections. Those who limit the sovereignty of God will rejoice at every backward step taken by its earnest advocates.

The term Calvinism is a clarion call to a specific theological position duly adopted as a result of careful reflection and earnest requests made to God for clear comprehension. And in fact it is not limited to the personal conviction of the Genevan Reformer at all, who was not the author of predestinationism but a convert to the views of numerous pre-Reformational worthies, and influenced by his eminent and judicious contemporaries. It is now not uncommon to hear of devotees to divine election referred to as Calvinistic from any generation in general e.g. John Huss was a Calvinist. It is a theological label used for subscription to the Scriptural doctrine of prevenient and distinguishing grace asserted by Christ and his apostles and discernible in the message of the prophets. To those who grasp it (Calvinism), entirely through grace, it is a marvel that all believers do not delight in this truth. In fact opposition elicits the comment, not meant in its entirety of course, made by many whose sentiments agree with C.H. Spurgeon: "I believe the man who is not willing to submit to the electing love and sovereign grace of God has great reason to question whether he is a Christian at all, for the spirit that kicks against that is the spirit of the unhumbled, unrenewed heart." Spurgeon goes on to say, "I question whether we have preached the whole counsel of God, unless predestination with all its solemnity and sureness be continually declared." John "Rabbi" Duncan, a great Scot, opines, "To leave out election [from preaching] is to leave out the key-stone of the arch."

Esteemed church historian John T. McNeill did not hesitate to entitle his review of the Reformation and its repercussions as The History and Character of Calvinism, and in which Cranmer is cited frequently as a respected and trusted ally of the French-born articulator of the faith. The devout and talented Augustus Toplady expended much energy in expounding his epic Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, and in loyalty to the church in which he served his Lord he also produced The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism. When the mouth of the Lord has spoken on any matter clarity and unambiguity are mandatory.

Bishop J.C. Ryle evaluates Toplady's advocacy of Calvinism thus: I do not hesitate to say that Toplady's controversial works display extraordinary ability. For example, his, "Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England" is a treatise that displays a prodigious amount of research and and reading. It is a book that no one could have written who had not studied much, thought much, and thoroughly investigated an enormous mass of theological literature. You see at once that the author has completely digested what he has read and is able to concentrate all his reading on every point which he handles. The best proof of the book's ability is the simple fact that down to the present day it has never been really answered. It has been reviled, sneered at, and held up to scorn. But abuse is not argument. The book remains to this hour unanswered, and that for the simplest of reasons, that it is unanswerable. It proves irrefragably, whether men like it or not, that Calvinism is the doctrine of the Church of England, and that all her leading divines, until Laud's time, were Calvinists. All this is done logically, clearly, and powerfully. No one, I venture to think, could read this book through, and not feel obliged to admit that the author was an able man (The Christian Leaders of England in the Eighteenth Century (various editions).

Cranmer (see Cranmer, Dairmaid MacCulloch, and Thomas Cranmer's Doctrine of Repentance, Ashley Null), Parker, and all the Archbishops down to George Abbott (the predecessor of William Laud) were convinced Calvinists, including Bancroft whom some contend was an exception, as an Arminian, to the Lambeth rule. Bancroft, indeed, was wary of a speculative treatment of the divine purpose and horrified of a proud and presumptuous confidence in the elective decree that concluded, "If I shall be saved I shall be saved" (Daniel Defoe was accused of complacency concerning his greatly pronounced assurance of being among the chosen). Calvinism is not fatalism, and the promises must be believed and holiness pursued - by enabling grace. Bancroft as chaplain to John Whitgift approved of his master's pronounced position on predestination (see The Lambeth Articles), he also licensed in 1598 Calvin's treatise on election, and adopted the pastoral approach of Article 17: "I live in obedience to God in love with my neighbour, I follow my occasion and there I trust God has elected me and predestined me to salvation, not thus, which is the usual course of argument: God has predestined and chosen me to life, though I sin ever so grievously, yet shall I not be damned, for whom he once loveth, he loveth to the end".

How beautifully Bancroft melds with the pastoral wisdom of the Anglican Article on electing love, considered ASCENDENDO not DESCENDENDO, as one commentator has observed: The reverent consideration of our predestination and election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable strength and comfort to godly persons, who feel the working in themselves of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh and their earthly passions and drawing their thoughts upward to to high and heavenly realities. Whenever we consider election we look to Christ for the indiscriminate invitation of the gospel and the assurance of salvation. We do not probe beyond of behind the Lord Jesus for insight into the divine decree. Our Comfort is the Crucified. Our certificate of election is living faith in him. Not one soul need be alarmed at Calvinism. We are exhorted by the Saviour to look to him. His Holy Spirit is the indwelling guide that points and delivers us to heaven. The doctrine of election humbles our pride and engenders humility and gratitude before God. It is the elixir that fosters spiritual health, confidence, and joy, but which keeps us lowly in our own estimation. Bountiful grace comes only to beggars (Prayer of Humble Access).

It is a given that our Articles ought to be interpreted in line with the stated views of the Reformers and their intended meaning for the church they so sacrificially served. In a nation that is always correctly recommending the necessity of political orthodoxy in accord with the Constitution, the binding nature of the constitution of Anglicanism ought equally to be appreciated and agreed by adherents of our Communion - and that Constitution is Calvinistic. So far, the professed resurgence of genuine Anglicanism has not achieved the happy result of full fealty to our foundation.

Our church was nurtured into Augustiniansim (the essence of Calvinism) by the testimony of Bede, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Luther. Cranmer solicited, on English soil, the theological input of Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr whose shared heartbeats with Calvin are registered in our Prayer Books. Calvin corresponded cordially with Cranmer in brotherly theological unity. Elizabeth 1 as a young lady translated the first chapter of Calvin's Institutes for her own development in piety and to express her regard and affection for Catherine Parr. Cranmer's son-in-law was responsible for the publication of Calvin's Institutes in English. By 1600 AD 90 editions of Calvin's writings had been published in England. Of the national church in the 16th century David Starkey could write: The academic young turks of the clergy flocked to embrace the fashionable doctrines of Calvin (Elizabeth: The Struggle For The Throne, p286, Harper Collins, 2001). The lineage of Calvinistic thought was maintained among eminent members of society across the entire spectrum for decades during the era of the Reformers and subsequently e.g. Francis Drake, Francis Walsingham, Cecil, Donne, Spenser, Sidney Lord Brooke (Fulke Greville), George Herbert, Bishops Davenant, Grindal, Hall, Ussher, and the delegates to the Synod of Dort (see the History of the Synod of Dort by Thomas Scott the most popular and respected Bible commentator of the 18th century). Whilst Laud and the Arminians and their successors contested dominance over the Church and its teaching, the faith of the Reformation persisted in varying strength through hearts and minds brave and true down to the present time.

Calvinism, as adhered to by men and announced by its advocates, is by no means an automatic guarantee of the strength and power of the Anglican witness. The remedy for the church's weakness and infidelity is the Word empowered by the Spirit according to the good pleasure of a sovereign God. But there is iron for the blood in the doctrines of the Reformation and the force of Calvinism - candor and conviction with regard to the doctrines of sin and grace derived from Holy Scripture - now rejected by Anglicanism, its leaders, and general membership is a significant cause of the depletion of our influence and effectiveness in the presentation of the gospel.

It is time not to flinch any longer at what some would consider to be hard sayings of the Lord. What appears to be the severity of the word of God is designed to send us hurrying to the sweetness of his mercy. Besides, Spurgeon is quite right in averring, "Rebellion against divine election is often founded on the idea that the sinner has a sort of right to be saved, and this is to deny the full desert of sin". We often conceive for ourselves a sense of entitlement before God, whereas salvation is entirely a matter of sheer grace and undeserved compassion.

Calvin was much more than a proponent of salvific particularism. His theological efforts are vast and beneficial and his views on sin and grace are disciplined within the context of the saving work of Christ which he describes with expertise and attractiveness. He wanted a burial place that would maintain the anonymity of its occupant. Whether we appeal to his authority or not would not bother him. He simply desires our sincere knowledge of the Redeemer and our faithful confession of the Name, the conduit of saving grace to the helpless.

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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