Evangelical or Catholic?

ihsRecently, I was asked the following in an email.

I have been trying to get to the bottom of which “version” of Anglicanism is more accurate to history: the more reformed one or the Anglo-Catholic one. McGrath and Colin Buchanan make Tractarianism out to be wildly innovative and revisionist and the Anglo-Catholics aver that these reformed types pass over many continuities of the English church with its pre-Reformation heritage.  Could you 1) commend some strategies and tip me off to some dangers in pursuit of this question, lest I be too easily sucked into either party’s credo and 2) recommend a course of reading for me which would help me to adjudicate the question of which “wing” of Anglicanism Anglican history best supports?

My response:

Dear XXXX,

Thank you for writing and Merry Christmas. I apologize that it has taken so long to get back to you.  I began an initial response, but it soon became clear that it was becoming much too lengthy for an email.  I have been intending to do a series of posts on my blog about Anglicanism, and I hope this initial response will become  the beginning of a more lengthy series.

Perhaps the best way for me to answer would be to tell you a bit about myself.  I was raised a Southern Baptist, in a denomination that was biblicist in a way that church history simply did not matter.  I grew up in a church where it was just assumed that we could jump straight from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to the late 20th century United States without any stopping points along the way.  To the extent we thought about church history at all, we believed that Baptists had recovered the true gospel that could be found plainly in the Bible; Roman Catholics had messed up Christianity by adding a lot of ritual, works-righteousness, pagan superstition, and an unbiblical hierarchy; the Protestant Reformers had recovered part of the gospel, but had not gone far enough.  They had kept such unbiblical practices as infant baptism, sacraments, and written prayers.  I remember once hearing it explained to me when I was young that the Roman Catholic Church was the “whore of Babylon,” but the Protestant denominations were nothing more than the “daughters of the whore.”  Unlike Roman Catholics, and even other Protestants, we did not mess around with human traditions, whether those of Rome or those of the Protestant Reformation.  We went straight to the source, the Bible.  Although we were Baptists, we simply called ourselves “Christians,” and we tended to think that we were the only ones.

I went to college at an Evangelical liberal arts college that was slightly less provincial.  Still, a lot of the faculty seemed to think that the Holy Spirit had simply disappeared from the church immediately after the death of the last apostle, only to reappear at the time of the Reformation, particularly in the theology of John Calvin and his followers.  However, I was fortunate enough to study under two teachers who introduced me both to Church history and to the pre-Reformation philosophical tradition. (I was a philosophy major.)   I became acquainted with the writings of Plato and Aristotle, but also Augustine and Aquinas.  These teachers also introduced me to what was then called Neo-orthodoxy, but what I would now call “critical orthodoxy”: Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, the twentieth century biblical theology movement of Walther Eichrodt and Oscar Cullmann.  I discovered Wolfhart Pannenberg on my own.  Also, since my senior year in high school, I had been reading the Inklings–C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers,  and G. K. Chesterton.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to study theology.  I knew that I was no longer a Southern Baptist, but I did not know what I was.  I did graduate studies at the local Roman Catholic seminary because I was not interested in the other two local options—one Conservative Baptist (I had had enough of that), the other liberal Methodist (I was interested in Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas, not Rudolf Bultmann or process theology).  I hoped I might learn more about Aquinas in a Roman Catholic seminary.

I did not learn a whole lot about Aquinas there, but I did learn something about post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, which was critically orthodox in its study of Scripture (unlike my undergraduate college), and ecumenical.  I discovered that Vatican II Roman Catholicism was simply not interested in the kind of Reformation-era polemics that still characterized much of Evangelical Protestantism.  I studied under Roman Catholics who accepted historical critical biblical scholarship, who agreed that Paul taught justification by faith, and conceded that Rome had been largely at fault for many of the problems of the Reformation. I learned that there was a radical difference between Tridentine Catholicism, and post-Vatican II Catholicism. I also discovered contemporary Roman Catholic theologians like Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Yves Congar, and Henri de Lubac.  During the time I was at seminary, I tried to engage the crucial theological issues that I thought distinguished me (as an erstwhile Evangelical) from my fellow Catholic students and faculty—justification by faith, the relation between scripture and tradition, sacramentality, church polity.

During my time at seminary, I also was introduced to a newer ecumenical approach to Reformation historiography, as represented by scholars like Heiko Oberman.  Traditional interpretations of the Reformation (both Roman and Protestant) had interpreted it as a movement that was in essential discontinuity with the Medieval Catholic Church, and made no distinctions between the early Medieval theology of a Thomas Aquinas or a Bonaventure, and the later voluntarist Nominalism that characterized much of the theology of the late Medieval church, and against which the Reformers rightly protested.  Thomas Aquinas was not William of Ockham, but neither was Aquinas Cajetan or Suarez.

Tridentine Catholics of the traditional approach thought that the Medieval Church had it right; so Protestantism was not a Reformation, but a Revolt.  In contrast, Protestant historiographers believed that the late Medieval Church was a falling away from biblical faith, and the Reformers were restoring the gospel.  Trent was not a Catholic Reformation, but a Counter-Reformation. 

Scholars like Oberman read the Reformation as what it was, a reforming movement in the late Medieval Roman Catholic Church.  As such, the Reformers corrected a lot of what they thought were abuses in the late Medieval church, but also uncritically accepted as normative many of the self-understandings of late Medieval Catholicism that were simply aberrations of the culture of the time, for example, its individualism, its penitentialism, and the voluntarist theology of Nominalism.  Also, insofar as both Trent and the Protestant Reformation were reactionary movements, both sides rejected positions held by the other side simply because they were held by the other side.  If the Reformers insisted on sola scriptura, scripture and worship in the language of the people, and justification by faith alone, Trent insisted on Scripture and Tradition as two equal sources of revelation, scripture and worship in Latin, and justification by faith plus works.  If Trent insisted on transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, and a magisterium, the Reformers (at least some of them) rejected any notion of a bodily presence in the sacraments, any notion of eucharistic sacrifice, and embraced congregational or presbyterian polity.  The conclusion was that neither Trent nor the Reformers entirely got it right, and both Trent and the Reformers got some things right that the other side missed.

Finally, during my time at seminary, almost by chance I discovered something called The Chicago Call, from a conference pulled together by a Wheaton College professor named Robert Webber.  This document and its accompanying book, The Orthodox Evangelicals, enabled a major breakthrough for me.  The Chicago Call was a call for Evangelicals to recover the historic tradition and worship of the pre-Reformation Church.  Webber later went on to publish books like Common Roots, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, and become the advocate of something called “Ancient Future Worship.”  Webber and The Chicago Call were the beginning of something like an Evangelical Ressourcement movement, a Protestant echo of the similar movement among pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, who helped Roman Catholics rediscover the patristic roots of Catholicism.  The Chicago Call told me that other Evangelicals were doing something that I thought I had been doing entirely on my own. Shortly afterward, I myself became an “Evangelical on the Canterbury Trail.”

At the end of my time at Seminary, I did not become a Roman Catholic. I had learned a lot of what it felt like to be Catholic from the inside, and I had given Roman Catholicism a more than sympathetic hearing.  But at the end of the day, I did not become Roman because of my dissatisfaction with what John Henry Newman called “development of doctrine.”  Specifically, the Roman doctrines of papal primacy and infallibility, the marian dogmas, and transubstantiation, were stumbling blocks for me.  My historical study convinced me that these were not part of the teaching of either Scripture or the early church (Newman conceded this), but were later (primarily Medieval) developments.  Unlike Newman, I saw no way to understand these Roman dogmas as legitimate doctrinal developments; rather I was, and I remain, convinced that they are departures from both Scripture and the historic faith of the patristic church.

However, I had not attended any church regularly since I had left the Baptists after I graduated from college, and,  if I did not become a Roman Catholic, I did need to become a member of some church.  I ended up becoming an Episcopalian on theological grounds.  I did not think that Anglicanism was the “one true church,” but I did conclude that Anglicanism came closest to have gotten the Reformation right.  Anglicanism had recovered the fourfold marks of the church that had distinguished the second century Catholic Church from Gnosticism during the crucial time in which the church established its identity: 1) Canon (expressed in Anglicanism as sufficiency and primacy of Scripture); 2) Rule of Faith (expressed in Anglicanism in Creedal worship and embracing of the Nicene Creed and Chalcedon); 3) apostolic succession (episcopacy but not papacy); 4) worship in word and sacrament (liturgical worship expressed in the Book of Common Prayer). At the same time, Anglicanism embraced the genuine insights of the Protestant Reformation: sola scriptura and justification by faith alone.

My own understanding of Anglicanism was also informed by the new Reformation historiography.  The Reformation was not simply a break from the Medieval Church, and that was not how the Anglican Reformers themselves understood their task.  If one reads the writings of Thomas Cranmer, John Jewel, and Richard Hooker, one finds that they understood the Reformation in a way that was distinct from much of continental Protestantism.  Where Luther’s and Calvin’s anti-Roman polemics often made a point of repudiating much church tradition as a departure from the gospel, the Anglican Reformers consciously chose the different strategy of insisting that the Church of England had returned to the catholic tradition of the patristic church from which the late Medieval church had departed.  The Anglican Reformers affirmed the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture, but as read through the hermeneutic lenses of the church fathers: catholic church tradition as a faithful reading of Scripture, not Scripture over against tradition.  The Anglican Reformers endorsed catholic liturgy, but in the language of the common people and purified of later Medieval errors. The Anglican Reformers preserved episcopal polity, but without the aberration of papal primacy. Reformation Anglicanism thus saw itself as in continuity with the Catholic Church, and a reforming movement in the Catholic Church, but certainly not as rejection of genuine Catholicism.

At the same time, Anglicanism is not a movement whose pristine purity is established in, and ends  with, the Reformation.  If Cranmer and Jewel and Hooker are fundamental to Anglican identity, it is the Caroline Divines who establish regular Anglican  practice and give it its definitive form.  If you want to understand Anglican theology, read Cranmer, Jewel, or Hooker. If you want to see what Anglicanism looks like when people live it out, read George Herbert, John Donne, Thomas Traherne or Lancelot Andrewes.  Finally, Anglicanism is a Reforming movement that continued to reform itself.  There is no Anglicanism without Evangelicals like William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Charles Simeon (but also emphatically John and Charles Wesley), but  neither is there Anglicanism without Anglo-Catholics like John Keble and Edward Pusey.  I would also say that neither Evangelicalism nor Anglo-Catholicism are completed as early nineteenth century movements.  They reach their maturity with the embrace of critical orthodoxy in later figures like B. F. Westcott,  F. J. A. Hort, C. F. D. Moule, Anthony Thiselton, and N.T. Wright (Evangelicals), Charles Gore and the Lux Mundi movement, Edwin Hoskyns, Michael Ramsey, E. L. Mascall and Austin Farrer (Anglo-Catholics).

Again, because Anglicanism is a reforming movement in the Western Catholic church, it also finds itself in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church: the Celtic Church, the early English Church of Bede the Venerable, the Medieval scholasticism of Anselm, the Medieval spirituality of Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Walter Hilton, but also non-English Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism: Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas.

Finally, Anglicanism has been at the forefront of the modern ecumenical movement.  My own theology has been formed as much by figures like Bernard Lonergan, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Hans urs von Balthasar, as it has by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.  I also have been influenced by earlier ecumenical figures like the Reformed leaders of the Mercersburg Theology, Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin, and more contemporary figures like Leslie Newbigin,  T.F. Torrance and George Hunsinger. Anglican bishop Stephen Sykes has written somewhere that Anglicanism has no need to choose between the Reformation and the Catholic tradition. Anglicans can learn from both Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth.

That is, of course, to skip ahead.  After graduating from seminary, I did doctoral work at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied under people like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and David Burrell.  At that time, Notre Dame had an ecumenical faculty of Protestants like Hauerwas (who called himself a “High Church Mennonite”) and Catholics like Burrell (who called himself a “Barthian Thomist”).  Hauerwas and Burrell were proponents of the “Yale School” of theology associated with Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Brevard Childs.  Contemporary advocates of this approach would be the Yale graduates now at Wycliffe College, Toronto (Chrisopher Seitz, Ephraim Radner, George Sumner), non-Anglicans like Lutheran David Yeago, and (now) Roman Catholics Bruce Marshall, and Rusty Reno.  It was this “Yale School,” ecumenical, Protestant-and-Catholic-theology-in-dialogue that helped form my thinking at Notre Dame.  It never occurred to me at that time that, as an Anglican, I had to choose between the Reformation and Catholicism.

A more contemporary example of this ecumenical “reforming catholic” approach would be that associated with the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology founded by Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten (both of whom I also like), and their journal Pro Ecclesia.

I realize that I have covered quite a lot of ground in telling my story, but I am hoping that the above account shows something of those who influence my own theology, and my own understanding of Anglicanism.  I hope that my theology is catholic, evangelical, critical, and orthodox.  To the extent that I am an Anglican, it is because I understand Anglicanism to be a Reformation (that is, reforming) movement in the Western Catholic church.

What then of the movements called “Evangelicalism” and “Anglo-Catholicism” within Anglicanism?  To the extent that  we look back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century movements called by those names, I think we can learn much from those movements.  Willliam Wilberforce and John Newton were voices of social reform in nineteenth century Anglicanism.  The Wesleys introduced hymnody and the demand for conversion,  discipleship, and holiness.  Charles Simeon has much to teach about the importance of preaching and parish ministry.  The modern mission movement largely grew out of this Evangelical movement.  Similarly, Anglo-Catholicism was instrumental in the recovery of the pre-Reformation Catholic identity of the church, particularly the church fathers, and liturgy.  Any contemporary Anglicanism needs to embrace all of this.

But Evangelical Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism can also be understood as partisan movements within Anglicanism that embrace the earlier understanding of Reformation historiography I mentioned that views the Reformation as a clean break with Medieval Catholicism, rather than a movement of reform and continuity within Western Catholicism.  Given this historiography, one must choose.  To be Evangelical means that one is not Catholic, and vice versa.  George Hunsinger has recently referred to this approach as “enclave theology.” (More on this in another post perhaps.)

Historically, I think this reading is just mistaken. It tends to read Cranmer in light of Calvin and the Continental Reformation, to dismiss Jewel’s argument as self-serving Erastianism (from a Catholic perspective) or simply ignore it (from a Protestant perspective), and to miss the continuity between Hooker and his predecessors. (Hooker was a disciple of Jewel who was a protege of Cranmer). In order to read the Anglican Reformation as an anti-Catholic movement, it has to read the Caroline Divines as a very quick falling away from the earlier genuine Anglicanism of the Reformation period rather than its fruition.  It tends to view Calvinism as “real Anglicanism,” and “Arminianism” as an aberration.

Enclave theology of an Evangelical stripe tends to look for a “golden thread” in Anglican history, in which a handful got it right, but most got it wrong. 

The Anglo-Catholic version of enclave theology can tend to read the Anglican Reformation as guilty of all the worst sins of Protestantism—private judgment, subjectivism, sectarianism, the sure path to liberal Protestanism ( This would be Newman’s reading.  Fortunately, later Anglo-catholic theologians like Michael Ramsey and E. L. Mascall do not simply dismiss the Reformation as a mistake).

I would suggest that enclave Evangelicalism and enclave Anglo-Catholicism are actually mirror images of one another, both defining themselves in opposition  to the other, both looking for their identities in movements outside Anglicanism–either continental Protestantism or Tridentine Catholicism–and neither being faithful to the historic Anglican Reformation. 

Both also end up with truncated theologies.

Enclave Evangelicalism often focuses exclusively on justification by faith, which it identifies with conversion.  It looks to Geneva (or perhaps Wittenberg) rather than Canterbury, and finds its sympathies with the Puritans rather than Hooker.  The sacraments are undervalued, and sometimes understood in a Zwinglian manner.  (I have heard Evangelicals express concerns about baptismal regeneration as an Anglo-Catholic reversion to Romanism.  To the contrary, Cranmer, Jewel, and Hooker all clearly teach baptismal regeneration.)  Enclave Evangelicals tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement to the neglect of other atonement models equally evident in Scripture and tradition, on merely forensic models of justification (reducing soteriology to “imputation”) to the neglect of sanctification, to the neglect of the resurrection, union with the risen Christ, eschatology, ecclesiology, and the Trinity.  (Thus the hostility of enclave Evangelicals to the “new perspective on Paul,” which, while not necessarily right about everything, corrects a lot of these Evangelical oversights.) Enclave Evangelicals will use the Prayer Book, but often do not see the point, and seem often to equate sloppiness in liturgy as a badge of their identity.  Anglican Evangelical piety often owes more to “born-again Christianity,” revivalism, pietism, “church growth movements” (“contemporary worship”), and Pentecostalism, than it does to historic Anglican Prayer Book spirituality. Enclave Evangelical theology also behaves as if Vatican II never happened. It continues to identify Roman Catholicism with Trent, and not to acknowledge the extent to which Roman Catholicism has self-corrected.

Conversely, enclave Anglo-Catholics tend to be Tridentine in their ethos.  (When I was at Notre Dame, Catholic liturgy students joked that they visited South Bend’s Anglo-Catholic cathedral to see how it was done before Vatican II).  Enclave Anglo-Catholics conflate ecclesiology with polity. Apostolic succession (and valid orders) are the heart of the gospel in the same way that justification by faith is for Evangelicals (thus the horror in response to women’s ordination), with a corresponding clericalism.   Liturgical innovations (like Marian piety or Anglican missals) are introduced into the liturgy in a way that is contrary to historic Anglican theology or practice, and tends to be modeled on post-Reformation Roman practice.    There is also a kind of “preciousness” that tends to infect Anglo-Catholic piety. (One of my former decidedly Anglo-Catholic bishops had a distinctively British accent. He was a native of Baltimore, MD.) Ironically, enclave Catholicism also pretends that Vatican II never happened, insisting on identifying with Catholicism positions that Roman Catholics no longer hold.

Ironically, where at least some enclave Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics come together is in their mutual opposition to critical biblical scholarship, to liturgical renewal, and to women’s ordination. While they might agree on little else, enclave Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics can join together in their desire to make the 1928 (or 1662) BCP to be exclusively normative, and to reject women clergy.

They also often agree (at least in the USA) in embracing a common “conservative” political position that would not have been recognizable to either the social conscience of Evangelicals like Wilberforce or the Christian Socialism of much nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism.

When I am asked to identify my own theological stance, I usually call myself a “Barthian Thomist.”  If I were asked to identify my churchmanship, I would call myself a “catholic evangelical” or a “Reforming Catholic,” in the tradition of movements like the Mercersburg Theology, Jenson and Braaten’s Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, or figures like Thomas F. Torrance.  If I am an Evangelical, I am an ecumenical Evangelical, who understands the Reformation as a reforming movement in the Western Catholic Church.  If am an Anglo-Catholic, I am a post-Vatican II Anglican catholic, who understands catholicism as ressourcement, not as retrenchment.  If asked to choose between an evangelical and a catholic understanding of the Reformation, I would refuse that choice as a false dilemma.

I hope that helps. Suggested readings will have to come later.

Grace and Peace,
William Witt