Defining Anglican Theology
Our purpose [here] is to study and appreciate Anglican theology—to take the measure of it, that is, as theology, not as anything else. The word theology in that phrase signifies what, in its criteria, theology always does: it explores what can and should be affirmed about God. This is something that can be done effectively only in fellowship, a two-sided alternating activity that, on the one hand, is God-centered, Christ-centered, church-centered in its very nature and, on the other, is life-centered in all its implications and applications.
By prefixing the word Anglican to theology, we immediately raise longstanding questions. Within Anglican circles it is often stated—even officially—that there is really no such thing as Anglican theology; what goes by that name is just catholic, biblical, churchly, Christian theology of a mainstream sort, a theology seeking to be as God-honoring and practical as can be. And, when you have said that, so it is declared, you have said everything. That is the ideal, of course, not just for Anglican theology but for everybody’s theology. Roman Catholic theology, Presbyterian theology, Baptist theology, and every sort of theology with a distinctive denominational label attached to it are aspiring not to be distinctive from all the others but simply to be accurate mainstream.
Christian theology, according to God’s own mind, embodying that which all Christians eventually, in glory, will identify with and come to appreciate.
Although this is the official line for Anglicans as well, Anglican theology is actually a jungle of lush growths of all sorts with a number of tangled cross-purposes, like ivy strands encircling a massive tree trunk. The only way to study it is by trying painstakingly to extract and relate those strands, taking apart the component elements and energies that make them up.
Holding to the Mainstream
But do not get the idea that Anglican theology, to anybody who engages in it, embraces the idea of an ultimate theological pluralism. All who attempt to practice Anglican theology see themselves—and ask others to see them—as seeking to hold to the mainstream of pure truth. The problem, however, is that different people have different ideas as to what constitutes the mainstream of pure truth. There are, in fact, three quite distinct types of perception.
There are those who think that the Anglican mainstream—the truly Christian mainstream—flows clearly within the world of Protestant and Reformed evangelical thought. (I am one who inclines to think so.) The constant and controlling reference point of Anglican thought is thus: the true gospel as set forth in the Bible.
Others view the mainstream as centered in the kingdom of Christ, embodied in the church of Christ as an ongoing network of spiritual life; they see church-centeredness as the mainstream’s characteristic feature. These Anglicans often describe themselves as High Church or Anglo-Catholic.
And then there are those who have been described as Broad Church or liberal in the past, and who usually today call themselves radical or modern churchmen. They believe Christianity’s mainstream is always a dialectical stream, that is, one in which opposed operations of mind, intellectual tensions, and debate are ongoing. They say that every generation, having inherited their forefathers’ way of understanding the faith, is placed in a particular cultural frame in the world where the church does its work, and that within this cultural situation are found true insights that must interact with the inherited tradition of the faith.
These insights are certain, one way or another, to require and bring about some adjusting of certain elements in that tradition, so that the outward shape of confessional faith is always changing. They will say, in effect: “In the twenty-first century, when confessing our faith, we will not talk the language of the fathers in the church’s early centuries, or of the medievals in the age of Thomas Aquinas, or of the Reformers in the sixteenth century, or of the venerable Platonistic Victorian church leaders a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago. No, the outward form of our verbalized faith must change in order to interact with the culture, and it must do this in order to stay substantially the same.”
As I said, people who take that line have been called Broad Church, but they now often call themselves progressives. Those outside their circle regularly call them liberals, as they will from time to time call themselves.
There we have the three types of understanding of the mainstream. The three cannot easily live under the same roof. There will always be tension between them. Such indeed has been the Anglican story ever since the Reformation, especially since the post-Reformation century— the seventeenth century—when these three ways of understanding Anglican theology clearly separated out, each essentially distinct from then on.
As representatives of these three points of view converse and interact, that inevitably creates a jungle of alternative options at point after point in the spelling out of the faith and the discipling of the faithful. Which means that Christians in the pew are taught different things by different people. How are we to deal with this?
First, we are to recognize that this situation is inescapable. If you identify wholeheartedly (as, again, I do) with one of those three traditions, you cannot hermetically seal yourself off against the other two so that you do not have to take notice of them. They are there in the Anglican fellowship, and one has to take account of them, interact with them, and distinguish one’s own position from the other two. We have to appreciate the whole sweep of Anglican history, and, without in any way weakening our own convictions, we need to know what is going on around us and where people who differ from us are coming from. Otherwise we shall not be of much use in the church of God, let alone in the bonding of Anglican fellowship. Why not? Because we shall generate confusion.
Second, we must recognize something that is shared in all three sorts of Anglican theology. Anglicanism works with a shared liturgy that specifies how God shall be worshiped. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer gives a set of statutory services and forms for worship that has found a place at some point virtually everywhere in the Anglican world. In recent years, Anglicans have worked with alternative service books alongside it, but in every part of the Anglican Communion there is an authorized Prayer Book as a shared standard of worship, with whatever variant forms may be allowed in various places.
Because it contains declarations and prayers that embody doctrine, this authorized Prayer Book, passed along from generation to generation, inevitably becomes a doctrinal standard in all branches of Anglican theology. And the continued use of the same services prescribed in the authorized Prayer Book generates a certain attitude: this is what we do, and it is right that we do it. That is the conservative mindset which such a liturgy always produces; and there need not be anything wrong with that. Nevertheless, there is always a counter-tension. You may be familiar with a Latin motto dating from the Reformation era Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, which can be translated, “The church that has been reformed needs always to be reformed.”
Why? Because the church is never perfect. This is basic Christian doctrine—that nothing in this life is ever quite perfect. And as the church moves into culturally new situations, as understanding of the Scriptures deepens, as liturgical wisdom increases—yes, things need to be improved, which means changed. So there are always debates going on within all three schools of thought, as well as across the borders between them, debates that range, and sometimes rage, between two attitudes: we are concerned to preserve the true wisdom of our heritage yet also concerned to be up-to-date and fully in touch with our times in order to bring the word of God effectively to bear on them.
These crosscurrents operate in Anglicanism all the time. It is a great deal more complicated than the theological process occurring in, shall I say, the Southern Baptist world or the Plymouth Brethren world or the Salvation Army. Those worlds simply do not have this array of theological crosscurrents constantly flowing.
Whenever we have Anglicans from various places meeting together, we shall gain by having all these different views making their presence felt, and the discussion will be the less significant if we do not. There should also be a constant endeavor on the part of leaders to achieve consensus statements that address all the concerns of all the parties in the discussions. The interaction of all parties involved in Anglican discussions is often near to unique among Christian churches today.
Evangelical Catholicity, Catholic Evangelicalism
In this world of ongoing and sometimes confusing debate—which is not likely ever to be less confusing than it is at the moment—what should Anglicans be aiming at? My answer is that our aim should be something that hardly exists at the moment because so few people seek after it. This goal can be captured in two comprehensive phrases that belong together: evangelical catholicity and catholic evangelicalism. What do I mean by this pairing?
Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.
One of the good things that has happened in these last fifty years is that the words evangelical and catholic have both been reviewed and redefined in a relatively authoritative way. What is an evangelical? The British historian David W. Bebbington has produced a four-point descriptive account of what evangelicalism is, a definition that has rung a bell among both historians and theologians, with his analysis being accepted as accurate by just about all of them. The essence of evangelicalism, Bebbington affirms, is reflected in these four terms:
To elaborate on Bebbington’s points 3 and 4: It is the way of evangelicals to insist that since we are all sinners, everyone needs to be converted. This does not require the same conversion experience for everybody, but it does mean that everybody must show the signs of conversion or regeneration. Evangelicals likewise will always insist that we are redeemed and made Christians not only to glorify God and to have the worship of him become ever more central in our lives, but also to share the gospel and take it to the ends of the earth as we disciple others—loving our neighbors by sharing with them the good thing we have received.
If you call yourself an evangelical, do you recognize your evangelicalism in that fourfold description? I accept it with just one major addition, which I think many others would also accept if it were put to them. The descriptive term I would add is this:
Evangelicals know and never forget that Christ loved the church and gave himself for it that he might sanctify and cleanse it and present to himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph. 5:25–27).
It is true that in evangelical history, Anglican and otherwise, we meet sad stories of leakage after leakage whereby individuals felt bound, for the sake of evangelical faithfulness as they understood it, to abandon their church body, however professedly evangelical it might have been. To stay faithful, they have split—gone separate ways. That sad fact reflects the sensitivity of their evangelical consciences to what they have believed to be taught in the written word of God. They have found a kind of a virtue in being faithful enough to it to be willing to leave a church in order to stay with their conviction (even if, by general consent, what they have thought to find in Scripture prompting that action was not in fact there—but that, of course, is a different issue.)
There has been so much of that in evangelical history that we often fail to fully recognize the characteristic church-centeredness of evangelicals—of men such as Luther and Calvin and John Wesley, and of Anglicans over the centuries such as Thomas Cranmer, Charles Simeon, J. C. Ryle, and John Stott. All of them were in fact church-focused, community-centered, and fellowship building in purpose in their preaching, teaching, thinking, praying, worshiping, organizing, and celebrating. Granted, some evangelists have stood apart from the churches in the belief that thus they can be of more use to God, but by authentic evangelical standards they are eccentrics, as by ordinary human standards they are egoists.
Yes, we evangelicals must not be misunderstood here. We are pietists in what is surely the good sense of that word. We do believe that one’s relationship with God is the most important thing in any person’s life and ought always to have priority. And so we are against any version of church life that puts loyalty to the church before the quest for the fullness of personal knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. Thus, the forms of fellowship with God that ordinarily we most value are those in which we draw closest to each other as we approach him—free utterance in Bible study and free speech in prayer meetings. We even have rude names for misguided loyalty to the church; we speak of “nominal Christianity” and “churchianity.” At the same time, evangelicals who prioritize true piety are as centered and focused on the church as they are on anything—because we know that the church is Christ’s focus. Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. We seek to serve the Lord of the church in the church, through the church, for the church. We yield to no one in our enthusiasm and zeal for the glory of God in the church.
- David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989), chap. 1.
This article is adapted from The Heritage of Anglican Theology by J. I. Packer.
As we remember the life of J. I. Packer, join us in thanking God for his profound writing ministry and the legacy of his faithful service to the church.
As we look back on the life of J. I. Packer, join us in thanking God for his humble writing ministry and the legacy of his service to the church.
Over the course of his life, J. I. Packer became one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of his time.
Sam Storms reflects on Packer's remarkable life and ministry, including how Packer came to faith and the impact that his many books have had on generations of Christians.