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The Tractarians moved away from the doctrine of justification by faith alone which they considered necessary in the 16th century to curb the works-righteousness of Medieval Catholicism, to a theology of 'holy living'

By Dean Chuck Collins
July 8, 2023

"National Apostasy" was a sermon preached July 14, 1833 by John Keble.

According to John Henry Newman, this signaled the start of the Oxford Movement, the tractarian revival in the Church of England. In this unremarkable sermon based on 1 Samuel 12:23, Keble fussed at the nation for not behaving more like the Old Testament prophet Samuel. "The sermon collected no disciples, raised no party-standard, asserted nothing but what other high churchmen were saying through the country - the importance of the sermon was only in its signal within Newman's mind" (Owen Chadwick).

The Oxford Movement, generally dated from 1833 and lasting about twenty years, sought to return the church to what is often referred to as the Great Tradition - the church's ancient roots as expressed in the church fathers and especially as the fathers were viewed by the seventeenth-century Caroline theologians.

But today when someone pulls the "great tradition" card they almost always mean something like: "I don't buy that Anglicans are Protestant" or "I don't accept the Reformation or the Elizabethan Settlement as determinative for describing Anglican identity" or "I subscribe to a conciliar definition of 'Anglicanism' as opposed to a confessional definition."

The Oxford professors tended to elevate "tradition" to a coequal status with Scripture, so it was natural that the movement would increasingly diverge from the thoughts and practices of the English Reformation and the historic Anglican formularies (the Thirty-nine Articles, the two books of Homilies, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer).

The Oxford dons published 90 well-circulated tracts ("Tracts for the Times") trying to persuade British church and society to restore Christian life to the "Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness" (Newman's words). The Tractarians (although they preferred to be called "Apostolicals") moved away from the doctrine of justification by faith alone which they considered necessary in the 16th century to curb the works-righteousness of Medieval Catholicism, to a theology of 'holy living' (faith-plus-works, or infused righteousness) they thought would curb the Reformation's tendency towards antinomianism.

The Tractarians promoted a High Church understanding of "apostolic succession" that has less to do with the passing-on of apostolic teaching to future generations (2 Timothy 2:2), and more about an automatic tactile transmission of priestly character and office in ordination.

They saw bishops as necessary to church order (esse), rather than simply for the bene esse (for the well being of the church) - tract 10 states: "he that despiseth the Bishops despiseth the Apostles." They also promoted a view of the sacraments in which God's grace is automatically and always delivered, whether or not faith is present (i.e., baptismal regeneration and Holy Communion as a "sacrifice"). This naturally led to an understanding of "real presence" to be Jesus's body materiality present in the bread and wine rather than spiritually present in the hearts and affections of those who receive the grace of the sacrament by faith ("to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same" Article XXVIII).

Some of the Tractarian luminaries eventually found their happy home in Roman Catholicism (Newman). Others stayed in the Church of England trying to steer the church away from its historic confession and formularies (Keble and Pusey) towards a new identity as far from the Reformation as they could get. Out of the Oxford Movement (and the later 19th century Broad Church Movement) came many theological aberrations that diverted Anglican attention away from its historic formularies.

"The Tractarians in the 1840s may have posed the greatest threat to the church's equilibrium by explaining away the Articles [of Religion]," wrote Peter Nockles. Nockles went on to say that "the Tractarians came to challenge, then shatter, the doctrinal consensus of the earlier High Church Anglicanism, seeming to dissolve the Church of England into its constituent parts as never before."

The deleterious impact of the Oxford Movement should be clear to everyone, as it's effects are evident in all the recent Prayer Book revisions. Gerald Bray begins his seminal book on Anglican identity by stating that the Anglicanism we know today is a nineteenth-century invention, and that before the Tractarian revival, "almost all members of the Church of England saw themselves as Protestants and regarded Rome with varying degrees of enmity." In some circles today it's an embarrassment to say, "We are Protestant!"

The choice before us today is between two very different ways of locating Anglican identity. The first harkens back to a non-specified Great Tradition, which is explained as the ancient teaching of the church, but what is really meant is: "as understood by a few Caroline Divines and high churchmen." This is a smorgasbord of church theologies and ideals that, skipping over the 16th century Reformation, leaves us to chose our favorite things to satisfy our individual tastes (raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens). If not a smorgasbord, then what? Anglican's historic anchor is the primacy of Holy Scripture as it is explained by the church fathers, summarized in the creeds, and preserved in the historic formularies of the Edwardian and Elizabethan settlement. Such a church is thoroughly biblical, theologically reformed and confessional, liturgically beautiful, and pastorally generous. Reformation Anglicanism gives us a future; the alternative celebrates innovation without any sense as to where innovation starts and stops.


The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857, Peter B. Nockles
The Spirit of the Oxford Movement: Tractarian Essays, Owen Chadwick
Oxford's Protestant Spy: The Controversial Career of Charles Golightly, Andrew Atherstone
Evangelical Theology 1833-1856: A Response to Tractarianism, Peter Toon
Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition, Gerald Bray

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