Monday, September 12, 2022

Is Anglicanism a quadrilateral, a via media, a three-legged stool or a seven point sketch?

Mark Earngey, in the Australian Church Record, has a critical look at what it means to be authentically Anglican in an article entitled, "The Myth of the Via Media, and other Canterbury Tales (1)".

What are the "defining characteristics of Anglicanism"? Mark offers the following list of seven characteristics.

"Let me suggest seven – short! – defining characteristics of Anglicanism. This is, in fact, Jim Packer’s list, with a Mark Earngey twist here and there:

  1. Anglicanism is Biblical (Eph. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16). We believe that the Holy Scriptures are the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice, the norming norm which guides the church, and the magistrate which governs the church. We believe that the church has, and may still err, but that the Word of God has not, and will never. Therefore, our church services are saturated in Scripture, and our blood is, or ought to be, “bibline”, to quote the great Charles Spurgeon.
  2. Anglicanism is Reformed (Rom. 4:5; Lk. 22:19; Matt. 28:19). We believe that God justifies the ungodly though faith alone in Christ alone. What a man-liberating, and God-glorifying reformation truth! And we believe that there are only two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We love to baptise children and adults into the flock of Christ. And we love to see them, partaking of the supper by faith, and strengthened with the body and blood of Christ. We do not have Roman Catholic, nor even Lutheran sacramental theology. The Thirty-nine Articles elaborate on all this, and they place the Church of England rather close to Zürich on the reformed sacramental spectrum.
  3. Anglicanism is Catholic (Heb. 12:22; 1 Cor. 10:32). Not Roman Catholic, nor Reformed-and-Catholic in a via media sense. But Catholic in the best sense. Kata-holos, according to the whole church. Just like the reformers, we believe in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Just like the reformers, we enshrined orthodox Christological and Trinitarian doctrines into our confessional documents.[1] And just like the reformers, we appreciate and appropriate the wisdom of the church from previous ages. We believe that the church exists beyond us, and the church existed before us.
  4. Anglicanism is Episcopal (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22; Tit. 1:5). We are glad to have a three-fold order of ministry: deacon, priest (presbyter), and bishop. This affords us organisational benefits over large geographical areas and, at its best, this enables faithful gospel ministry to flourish through careful licensing of ministers for word and sacrament ministry, and through careful disciplinary action when necessary for the protection of the people of God.
  5. Anglicanism is Liturgical (1 Cor. 14:6-25; Acts 2:42-47). We prize Archbishop Cranmer’s principle of intelligibility and work hard to communicate the Christian faith at every service. This means we use regular rhythms and set forms of words to build up in the gospel, the diverse range of men, women, and children to come to our churches. So, we love to confess sins together, reinforce our catholicity through the creeds, sing, say, speak the Scriptures from both testaments, teach the Bible, pray general intercessions and particular petitions such as the Lord’s Prayer, and so forth. We do not do things in our services which disregard the doctrine of the Thirty-nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer. We need not expect our churches to look and sound all the same for our services to be recognisably and gladly Anglican.
  6. Anglicanism is Pastoral and Evangelistic (Ezek. 34:16; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). We have a big vision for ministry and mission, and our parish system demonstrates our commitment to serve all people – rich and poor, young and old, city and country, indigenous and non-indigenous – with the gospel of Jesus. Our clergy are ordained to be shepherds among those to whom they are sent. We love to seek out the lost sheep, restore the stray sheep, bind up the wounded sheep, strengthen the weak sheep, and feed and guard the healthy and strong sheep. The Good Shepherd is our model for ministry, and we love the lambs for whom the Lamb of God was slain.
  7. Anglicanism is Neighbour-Loving (Mark 12:30-31). Anglican churches care for the society around them. This is partly a function of the historic and confessional connections between the civil and ecclesiastical realms, and partly a function of the parish minister’s responsibility to those who live in a geographical area. The historic and parochial structure of Anglicanism has bequeathed it a culture of concern for the welfare of the society it inhabits. This heritage manifests in myriad ways, from diocesan social issues committees to parish fundraising for the local poor. We do not believe in a social gospel, but we believe that the gospel brings benefit to the society around us. We love our neighbour, because God first loved us."
Fairly obviously we can place alongside this list well-known, well-worn lists or concepts such as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the Five Marks of Mission, Via Media (Anglican church as always middle way between other things), the Three-Legged Stool (Anglican authority resides in Scripture, Tradition and Reason) - each of which draws to itself critique and promotion.

Also, fairly obviously, there is good in everything noted above: three, four, seven main or key characteristics: it is "all good."

We might also talk about Anglicanism as "fudge": Anglicanism is all a bit muddled, blurry, messy and ill-defined. If no one else, I have been accused in times past of promoting such. I like fudge :).

Another way of thinking about what it means to be Anglican came to my mind over the weekend - it is a reflection on all sorts of things voiced or implied throughout my life:

The Anglican is either too much or not enough ... too liturgical/not properly Catholic ...insufficiently Protestant/16th century reform was over the top ... "dead" (should be more open to the Holy Spirit) ... too hierarchical (also stuffy, class ridden) ...too clerical/its orders are "null and void" ... riven by division/places too much emphasis on unity (at the expense of "the truth.").

Of course, the death of Queen Elizabeth 2, which occurred after the initial drafting of this post, highlights strengths of the Anglican church such as our ability through liturgy, choral music and cultural engagement to offer occasions for solemn mourning which fits the needs of the sorrowful moment.

Back to Earngey's list. A challenge is not what it says but what it doesn't say as it critiques "via media" Anglicanism.

It doesn't acknowledge that finding a middle way (whatever that should mean with a view to the 16th century, and what it does mean in practice in the 21st century) is not merely about finding some kind of fudgey compromise: it is about bringing as many people as possible on the (Anglican) journey of faith. 

That in turn is about the importance of unity for Anglicanism: the desire in England itself to be "the Church OF ENGLAND"; the desire in other parts of the world to be a church which includes rather than excludes, to be broad rather than narrow, to understand creedal orthodoxy in as generous a manner as possible (see a recent post here).

There is nothing in the Earngey sevenfold list which acknowledges any possibility that Anglicanism might desire unity on as broad a base as reasonably, creedally possible.

Then, one other thing is missing, even from a list which has a sense of Anglican history: nothing about unity in relation to unity with the See of Canterbury, unity with (so to speak) our past as well as our present and future.

With loads of post Lambeth fervour - obviously - any list I composed about Anglicanism would include a line about being in rather than apart from the Anglican Communion!


Father Ron said...

I watched the archbishop of Sydney this morning in the video of his Address to the Sydney Diocesan Synod. I was impressed - especially with his welcome to the LGBTQI+ people. However, I felt sad that he seemed to think that the Sydney view of the Bible's teaching on Marriage is exclusive of those faithful Christians whose only way to experience the grace of Same-Sex Relationships is by the commitment (likened to marriage) that Christ has with the Church.

I pray for Unity in the Body of Christ.

Mark Murphy said...

I don't find myself, nor the Anglicans I have kept company for the last fifteen years, in the first two of these statements. The description "man-liberating" is particularly partisan!

Mark Murphy said...

Is "the Word of God" in the first of these statements referring to Christ as Logos, or the Bible, or some sort of conflation of the two?

How is the first statement not setting up a Paper Pope, another form of idolatry?

Shouldn't Christ, not the inerrant Holy Scriptures, be the supreme authority for any Christian church?

Anonymous said...

"For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return without watering the earth, making it bud and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My Word that proceeds from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper where I send it." Isaiah lv 11.

"...they place the Church of England rather close to Zürich on the reformed sacramental spectrum."

Reformation sacramentology is a 4 by 5 matrix.


(a) God's creative Word (Isaiah lv 11) makes three material sacraments (baptism, communion, penance) precisely to deliver souls from the traps of anxious introspection with an absolute and external promise: believe God and be saved. (See Article XXVIII, BCP rites for baptism and holy communion).

(b) Grace in the material means is limited to God's purpose in using them. (See Black Rubric)

(c) Because evangelical assurance is applied by the Holy Spirit directly to the soul, it is intrinsically internal and so introspective and non-material. There cannot be sacraments, but there are ordinances. (See Zwingli, compare Article XXIX.)

(d) Because the Son who bears material grace is in heaven, sacraments are heavenly. Either because Christ's divine omnipresence carries his humanity to communicants (Luther) or else because the Holy Spirit conveys communicants to Christ in heaven (Calvin). (“Therefore with angels and archangels...”)

(e) Dogmas that clarify the scriptures and were defined by the undivided church are presumed to be true. With respect to the sacraments, the definitions of Constantinople (381) on the Holy Spirit, and of Chalcedon (451) on the divine and human natures of Christ are true.

Kindly note that none of these five columns is idly curious about the mode of Christ's presence in the eucharist. The idea that each tradition set out to have its very own theory of the presence, and that each can be caught in the wild, stuffed, put under glass, and labeled is taxidermy.

Rather, deeper positions in fundamental theology constrained reformers in all churches. Lutherans deemed Zwinglians to be (x) unable to account for the materiality of the sacraments, (y) unable to offer sinners an assurance that terminates introspective anxiety, and (z) teaching contra Nicaea that the Holy Spirit acts apart from the Son. Zwinglians disagreed, of course.


Romans 0 0 0 1 2

Lutherans 2 1 0 1 1

Zwinglians 0 2 2 0 0

Anglicans etc 1 2 1 1 2

On the other hand, those in mediating positions-- Melancthon, Calvin, Cranmer, Hooker, etc--have a Lutheran understanding of sacramental assurance that sets them apart from the Zwinglian and of course the Roman positions. But as taught by Luther and his colleagues, sacramental assurance is metaphysically daring.

Christ’s humanity touches communicants through his omnipresent divinity. And that brings heaven into the midst of believers gathered on earth. To many beyond Luther's circle, these moves stretched or violated the medieval rules for applying Chalcedon. To avoid that, mediating figures like Calvin and Hooker tried to explain sacramental assurance as a work of the Holy Spirit rather than as an instance of the creative Word.

For a more Reformed view of all of this see--


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman and Mark

Mark: within broad Anglican polity a range of views re the Word/"Word" are found; and even if Christ is our authority, there remains the questions "which Christ?" and "is what we say Christ is saying to us, true?" And written Scripture is somewhat helpful in clarifying the answers to such questions.

John Sandeman said...

Update from the West Island. the diocese of the southern Cross has another minister in a new tab)

Peter Carrell said...

Dear John,
Peter was youth worker in my parish in Blenheim, NZ, when I was vicar there; and after ordination he became our curate (roughly later 1990s).
I guess, in the light of an open letter he wrote to Archbishop Aspinall a couple of months back, this decision is not surprising.

John Sandeman said...

Thanks for reminding me of that open letter, it had slipped my mind.

Anonymous said...

So on to + Peter's witty OP.

One's only possible identity is one's total past. All of it. Even the shameful parts. The present does not count for much because we cannot see it *in medias res*. The future? Time does not flow backward.

Identity is only meaningful when it is as inescapable as a fingerprint or a retina scan. What is beyond selection or negotiation or mere fabrication is the sheer thereness of some things irreversibly done and others not imagined in time.

We can curse these ties that bind us because it is bondage of a sort. Or we can rejoice in the company of others who are likewise supported and constrained. Either way, it is the unchosen ones that matter most.

Anglicans have an ample prehistory and a long past. Can we possibly have an identity problem? If so, it is that we pay too much attention to feckless busybodies who fight over which parts of that common ground they want to exclude from our common identity.

One sort struggles, honestly but not always very hard, with the mere idea of belonging to any tradition at all. They have heard that the past is a poisoned well. Have they investigated that well for themselves? Well, no... they have heard that it is poisoned, so of course not... They are suspicious of whole millennia of unexplored time, but not of their second-hand suspicions.

The other has a narrow ideal, cherry-picks the Anglican past according to it, and then reads out of this bowl of favourite cherries the very ideal that they read into it in the first place. Whom do they think that they are fooling?

Why are the suspicious so suspicious of the past? Because they mainly hear the crazy cherry-pickers talk about it. They know they don't want *that* past.

High on their ladders in the orchard, why are those cherry-pickers so fastidiously picky? Against the indiscriminate suspicion they see everywhere below, they overcompensate to find the one cherry that can rule the orchard.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.


Anonymous said...

"I was impressed... However, I felt sad ..."

Father Ron,

Out is Out, but there seem to be two kinds of that.

There are opponents of SSM who double down on their opposition all the more the less support they have. For them, going out really was mainly motivated by That Topic.

But there are others for whom the Topic was just a *wedge issue* that they used to escape being dragged along by runaway synods. Their churches have not authorised same sex weddings, and will not likely do so soon, but only now do they feel relative freedom and safety to think the matter through from their own first principles. Their own children are unlikely to be all straight, science is unlikely to stop investigating sexual differentiation, etc, the good and bad social effects of civil SSM are becoming apparent, and conservative gay Christians do join churches that will not marry them. So I expect younger leaders in those churches to take a more nuanced and centrist view than either side did in the battles of the past few decades.

My guess-- it is of course only that-- is that they will take the alternate path of first debating a qualified approval of civil SSM. This would allow conservatives their reservations, and would sidestep the need to fabricate some theological rationale, but would also allow pastors to participate more or less in civil ceremonies. (Where I live, that is the social norm anyway.) Meanwhile, hard prohibitions, where they exist, would open to dispensation in a few familiar categories of cases. And there, change would stop. Mist obstructs our view.

In the end, churches that are In will probably never have any distinctive rationale for MWM or SSM. Of course, they will be able to point to plenty of churchly tradition about marriage as a *condition of life* for disciples, and they will still have a body of ethical precepts ultimately from Jesus. But they will not claim and may well disclaim that a Christian-style marriage is different in kind from a Hindu or Navajo or Santeria one. On that ground of universal pairbonding, couples both In and Out will stand together with all the others on the earth.


Mark Murphy said...

“While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the gospel, to the Church and to sound learning, its greater vindication lies in pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the “best type of Christianity”, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”
– Michael Ramsey, later to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, in ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ (1936)

Anonymous said...

"Shouldn't Christ, not the inerrant Holy Scriptures, be the supreme authority for any Christian church?"

Yes, Mark.

"even if Christ is our authority, there remains the questions "which Christ?" and "is what we say Christ is saying to us, true?" And written Scripture is somewhat helpful in clarifying the answers to such questions.

+ Peter has put his finger on what gives (1) its somewhat power-mad quality: J. I. Packer's *modern* set-up gives us seven golden tablets that an angel brought straight from heaven to Thomas Cranmer. In making his Anglicanism ahistorical-- and so unchangeable by later generations-- he has also abstracted it from the actual pilgrim Body through time from Abraham to Jesus to us.

How then is our story-shaped identity as that scriptural people smuggled back into his picture of Anglicanism? The odd phrase "supreme authority" is pulling that whole long train of uninventoried freight down the track. Where we expect an actual people of God who improvise their personal and collective futures from the scriptures that inform them, we instead get this fanfare: Supreme Authority. Not wrong, but in an age of servant leaders, trumpy.

So the paragraph positions us, not to be the scriptures' Jesus-in-New-Israel *organically* (eg by asking + Peter's questions) but to kneel in submission to some earthly autocrat who will be our Supreme Authority because he speaks for the inerrant Bible. Your paper pope?

Fact Check: Neither readers nor authors come empty-headed to a meeting of minds. What we heard in Jim Packer's paragraph says as much about our postmodern preoccupations as it does about his own modern rhetoric and intent. There is, however, no choice to be made between the two. Packer's mind was far better stocked than most, and many here are indebted to it, some deeply so.


Although I definitely do not belong to any of their several tribes, the Reformed have more attractive theories of the relationship between the scriptures and churches than we saw on the golden tablets. Several of + Peter's readers have recommended John Webster's Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch.

The Reformed traditions of the Continent differ from those of England. The works of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Bavinck lie behind N. T. Wright's multivolume Christian Origins and the Question of God. Kevin J. Van Hoozer has engaged several postmodern influences (eg French and American post-structuralism, Wolfgang Iser's reader response, etc) to rethink what it means to read the Bible as scripture today. Both NTW and KJV often speak of the Bible as the first four acts of a play in which we are improvising a fifth that makes sense of the whole narrative.


Mark Murphy said...

Ah, feels like the wrong week and the wrong crowd to be talking about the relationship between Anglicanism and the monarchy in NZ.

I just want to observe that Anglicanism has possibly lost its place as a NZ civic religion to tikanga Māori in *some* central government contexts, though it still functions as that for many others perhaps, especially for older NZers, and exceptionally strongly in the UK right now as a civic religion..

That's not a criticism either. Humans need public rituals.

Anonymous said...

"Anglicanism has possibly lost its place as a NZ civic religion"

The King has had a lifelong fascination with religion generally and the Church of England in particular, will we see innovation on the Grand Topic, subtle or startling, from Buckingham Palace?

"Humans need public rituals."

Publics need *human* rituals. For ritual to work in a multi-cultural civic space, it has to plausibly enact what is common in local human experience.

There is a not unreasonable perception that symbols from nature-based religions do this more directly than those that first offer personal *sin management* (Dallas Willard) or participation in God's regeneration of the cosmos. Christendom at its medieval peak had absorbed many pre-Christian observances (eg weddings) into its ritual system, and you can still see a lot of this in old country Orthodoxy, but Western churches that have aspired to be modern and urban have jettisoned a lot of it.

So this looks less like loss than like intentional retreat. Will postmoderns continue this, reverse it, change course?


Mark Murphy said...

"The odd phrase "supreme authority" is pulling that whole long train of uninventoried freight down the track. Where we expect an actual people of God who improvise their personal and collective futures from the scriptures that inform them, we instead get this fanfare: Supreme Authority."

Beautifully put. Our protestant fascinations with supreme authority, with power.

Christ in the wilderness. Frodo and the Ring.

Packer's "power-mad", infallible Holy Scriptures.

Elizabeth I as the Supreme Governor of the Church and the peaceful settlement (more "heretics" were executed under her reign than so-called Bloody Mary).

Elizabeth II as Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church, whatever that actually means.

The benign monarchy and it's obsecene wealth, built on the profits of empire and slavery, defending a gospel of the poor.

(My apologies to those still grieving).

Lambeth as a Big Stick to keep the Liberals in line with The Book

Father Ron said...

re John Sandeman's article on the Second Parish Minister to join the new Australian church:

"“Sadly, over these 14 years [he has served at St John’s as Associate Minister and later as Rector}, I have witnessed the increasing divergence between received Anglican theology and the theology of the diocese. This culminated in the Archbishop’s Synod address and the changes to Faithfulness in Service.”

A lot, of course, depends on the word 'received'. One might ask 'received by whom; in what circumstances; and at what time in history? Christian Theology - if at all credible - must surely always be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After all, even Jesus had to learn that a Samaritan was acceptable to God. If Jesus' mortal life was open to ongoing revelation from the Holy Spirit, how much more should our 'theology' be open to the same Holy Spirit? The Universal Church has had to change its ideas on human development ever since the death, resurrection, and glorification of the head of The Church. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would LEAD US into ALL The Truth (obviously a dynamic process). Unlike the Apostolic Creeds; the dogma of the 39 Artifacts is not binding, for instance, on all Christians, so how important are they for salvation?

The fact that 'God is the same, yesterday, today and for ever; should not impede our capability for revising our fuller understanding of how God's plan is unfolding in a living world of new revelation. A Church without continuing revelation might just be defunct1

Mark Murphy said...

True story: the Queen actually died a Presbyterian.

Anonymous said...

That’s a fascinating bit of ecclesiology thanks Mark! The Queen’s remarks at her Diamond Jubilee about the Anglican Church are also worth noting…

Anonymous said...

"increasing divergence between received Anglican theology and the theology of the diocese"

"A church without continuing revelation might just be defunct."

Two souls of different currents are honestly trying to square personal believing with a magisterium somewhere. Both use language for that magisterium that tries to square a circle.

Does a diocese have a *theology*? If so, surely it is the common theology of the ecumene? No diocese anywhere is the earthly Body of Thomas Cranmer. And can one imagine that God will still receive souls from a diocese that oh calls a holy table an altar?

Revelation stopped at Pentecost. No further Persons have been revealed since. Every acknowledged revelation has been, as the word suggests, an act of God, not man. And on the ground, there is no Bureau of Revelation someplace that anyone anywhere believes. One fidget with the creed split the West from the East.

A move toward Christ is always to deeper unity. Can we not see that (1) a promethean impulse to make God's self-disclosure a human process leads to strange talk about it, and (2) when others reject the unfitting language, conflict results, so that (3) the pretense behind the words is definitively deflated by the course of events. Sounds painful, like jumping out a window flapping one's arms.

These thoughts will seem pedantic to some. But they are the unhappy ones.

When we deal with the real God without illusions, we are in his deep time, not our own fidgets.



Father Ron said...

"VENI CTREATOR SPIRITUS" a hymn of the Universal Church, assuring us of our continuing need of enlightenment by the same Spirit Who empowered Christ for his eternal ministry of redemption and reconciliation. We never cease from needing this divine inspiration - however much we think we know about God's purpose from the words of Scripture. THE WORD had to become flesh before the Church was able to interpret the will and purpose of God: "Come Holy Spirit, renew within us the fire of you love, thought Christ our Lord. Amen!"

Anonymous said...


"The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people.

"...if churches practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse). A more faithful church is the solution. Maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes."

-- Kenda Creasy Dean


"Lambeth is a Big Stick to keep the Liberals in line with The Book"

Thanks for the metaphor, Mark. But who are these "Liberals" you mention?

I am usually inclined to think that the *liberal* tendency has been extinct since say the '80s. Since the '00s, we have seen *progressives* as different from those old *liberals* as the CoE's "evangelicals" were from the "high church" before them.

What difference do I see? The liberals were churchly; secure in their Protestant identities, they sallied over the hedge into their wider societies to build christianising institutions amid secularity. Progressives and certain cognate evangelicals are anti-churchly; afraid of seeming culturally alien, they seek hedgeless churches that fit intuitions already widespread in society at large. For them, immediacy is legitimacy.

Evangelicals? Many, yes. Progressive arguments for eucharist without baptism are not unlike some evangelical ones for praise music with little theological content or emotional breadth. In neither perspective is worship truly *oblation*. This is consistent with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that Smith & Denton have found in American teenagers.


Mark Murphy said...

Hi Bowman,

You may well be right re liberals and progressives. Down Under I don't really hear progressives being used as much as liberals, the L word often used as an epithet, as I meant it in my post.

I read Wiki on liberal Christianity and progressive Christianity, and found your account of the differences more interesting. Down Under, perhaps liberalism has triumphed in that a number of social justice/service agencies have their origins in the confident liberals you speak of, and also in the across the board acceptance of contemporary knowledge in theological discussions and training (is that a liberal thing?)

....its shortcomings, it seems to me, have been in failing to cultivate a ongoing sense of resonant, spiritually-binding ('religious') tradition, and failing to cultivate an imaginative, magnetic spirituality (perhaps the two are the same, though I don't quite think so). That's created quite a gap, and of course no one loves gaps ("nada") more than contemplative Christianity (as well as Buddhism etc).

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark

Perhaps some of the following will map to terrain down under. Perhaps not!

Liberalism was a Protestant movement (early C19-middle C20) with an origin, ideas, leaders, institutions, and constituencies. All responded to two emergent crises: (1) Immanuel Kant's account of reason discredited the scholasticism that Protestants no less than Catholics had inherited from the C13. (2) Advancing modernity was secularising the mass of citizens from the old *corpus christianum* that we have been calling "Christendom."

Although there were C18 precursors-- eg New England Theology, CoE Latitudinarians-- the textbooks recognise Friedrich Schliermacher as the one who in the early C19 refounded knowledge of God in the ordinary experience of "creature feeling." Bible, fathers, creeds, and confessions are not thereby swept away. To the contrary, they are now all the more important as artifacts of the evolving human experience of knowing God. But who decides which artifacts matter? Toward what are the experiences behind them evolving? Does everyone experience God?

Liberalism began in state churches (which to many evangelicals is already a strike against it) that take whole territorial societies as their respective provinces. As belief thins in a society at large, how do churches like these discharge their responsibility for them? They define an ethic that is, as far as possible, grounded in reason that any citizen might see. And, like the earlier Pietists, they build institutions outside the hedge-- schools, hospitals, orphanages, asylums, universities etc-- that embody humane values in their daily activities. How are these humane values Christian? As Christ had the highest human consciousness, his values are at once the most humane and most quintessentially Christian.

Anonymous said...


In the English-speaking world, it is very salient that Liberalism was (a) a German and sometimes quite Lutheran export at a time when (b) German theological faculties were the best in the world and (c) Germany and the United Kingdom were great power rivals in Europe. Stereotypically, English conservatives did not read German, did not-- still do not-- understand Luther, and took exuberant pleasure in hating Hegel, so some Liberal axioms were theologically alien to churchmen then giving speeches and writing pamphlets to keep "Ritualist" candles off of holy tables.

There were and are persons for whom the simplest response to (1) and (2) is just to say that "modernity cannot happen where I live." Anti-German hysteria before the First World War may not have caused Fundamentalism, but it surely weakened opposition to it. The fact that Liberalism was spread mainly by those affluent enough to get a German PhD gave the movement a class identity unhelpful in churches that are as much the cultural resistance of the common folk as the local Body of Christ.

Most important, edgy things that Liberals said to help cosmopolitans on the Continent salvage at least some faith sounded to provincials elsewhere like an assault on the faith that they still had. "Modern man cannot believe today..." but of course he did believe quite a lot in places that had not changed culturally in centuries. That led some fidgety churchmen who knew only the new theology to go around promoting angst about traditional belief so that they could then sell what they took to be Liberal theology as its remedy. They were more talked about than loved.

These same factors frequently caused Liberals and their profound opponents to be lumped together. Paul Tillich was the last, and some would say the greatest, Liberal systematic theologian. In contrast, Karl Barth would not concede that Tillich had even written theology. He and Rudolph Bultmann were radical critics of the root ideas of Liberal theology-- Tillich's included-- and their own proposals were meant to replace the Liberal tradition as a whole with something better.

Yet when I was young there was a tendency to lump these incompatible positions together. My grandfather kept Barth's Evangelical Theology, Tillich's Dynamics of Faith, and Bultmann's Jesus Christ & Mythology side by side. The Barth fueled omnivorous bible study; the Tillich was a help in counseling; he preached Bultmann at Easter.

Anonymous said...


After almost two centuries, Liberalism ended. Why? Several factors. To my mind, it has shared the postmodern fate of all the movements that arose to adapt religion to the Enlightenment ethos and institutions (eg Reform Judaism). The original Liberals were Protestants so secure in their state churches, so rationalist despite the loss of scholasticism, and so confident in their duty to lead society forward that they were unprepared for the postmodern turn that put their base at risk.

As you more concretely suggest, the mere existence of Christian mysticism and sacramental liturgy so embarrassed the old Liberals that they could not have imagined the society in which my evangelical Episcopalian classmates seriously tried monastic vocations and for a time offered Sarum Rite masses. The need to first learn modern unbelief in order to understand the Liberal cure for it has an obvious flaw.

Meanwhile, Liberals shepherding secular society through its moral confusion were mugged by the reality that churchgoers will necessarily have some different ethic or nothing motivates either their believing or their churchgoing. Those of my classmates who knew only Liberalism tried and failed to draw Christian lines either in their personal lives or on the hotter frontiers of social justice. My Liberal elders could be the most christ-like of souls and yet utterly uncomprehending that generations after them would not get there themselves without a deep and thorough formation in Christ himself. At bottom, Liberals comfortable urging universal modernity to "be its best self" were too embarrassed by the *scandal of particularity* to help Christians to live well in Christ.

More than a century ago, that total identification of church with society led Liberal theologians to join the rest of the German intelligentsia in endorsing Kaiser Wilhelm's disastrous war policy. Only the Christian socialists then had enough churchly identity apart from the state to dissent.

Less than a century ago, the same rationalism had begotten anti-legalism, which begat anti-Judaism, which begat anti-Semitism, which begat the Holocaust. Although Liberal theologians in Germany generally did support the Nazi Party, they did not plan the Final Solution or run death camps. Still-- in their decades of devotion to universal reason, neither had they made public space in it for one YHWH who had called one Abraham to sire one family to sanctify his holy Name and bring salvation to the whole world. Indeed, they offered no effective resistance when so-called German Christians took over their own state churches.

Anonymous said...

In my own country, the Liberal theology achieved more when, refracted through the particular experience of the Black Church, it informed the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, it had said nothing about such modernising obscenities as the treatment of indigenous nations, 1920s eugenics that inspired Hitler, the paranoid homophobia of the 1950s, or the sexism prevalent even among civil rights leaders. Liberals were still holding churches together with the responsible decency of readers of the brothers Niebuhr, but their pragmatism had left the nation without a moral compass.

In the 1960s, a mass revulsion against uncritical modernism, among other things, swept away the society that Liberal theology had existed to reach. A decade later, Liberals had more causes than ever, but they no longer had the old mission because America was no longer seeking a Christian path through high modernity. Behind the hedge, an alliance with feminists promoted the ordination of women and a conversation about SSM, but its arguments were not Liberal.

When I started university in the 1970s, my grandfather's library was useful mainly for understanding my professors, three of whom had studied with Paul Tillich. The center of theological gravity had shifted to the United States, and here Chicago (hermeneutics, spirituality), Yale (canon, narrative, Wittgenstein), Princeton (Barth), and later Duke (neo-anabaptist, narrative, NPP) were each promoting a more timely vision of Protestantism that was more or less irreconcilable with the earlier Liberal tradition.


The end of Liberalism is not the end of the problems that Liberals addressed! Rather, the ideas ran their course, did some good and some evil, then disintegrated, and were swept away. Some still believe and do things that Liberals did, and they might even wear Liberal on a tee-shirt. Without traveling into the past, however, they cannot do them for the reasons that say my great-grandfather and grandfather could do them.


Anonymous said...

I don’t know about Liberals (except that they were frowned on in my evangelical Baptist upbringing) but I am dismayed by the quote, “we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people!” Ouch!! That cuts deep and makes me look at the younger members of my wider family who have drifted away from the faith, and not only my family but many sons and daughters of the faithful Anglicans I know. Where is the deep heart surrender to Christ Jesus and the strong commitment to his Kingdom, wherever it takes me? I wonder too about what I convey in my life and preaching in Christ’s church? If Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is all that young people have gleaned in their lives, we are in big trouble!

Mark Murphy said...

Thanks for the interesting stroll down the long avenues of liberal theology, Bowman.

My great Uncle, who was a Baptist minister, historically evangelical, had more Tillich on his shelves than Barth (though he climbed and named a mountain in NZ 'Mt Barth' - so perhaps he wasn't a liberal at heart). He also had as many books on counseling psychology, sexual ethics, ecumenical dialogue, marital therapy etc. as he did theological titles, which I suppose shows the full significance and influence of the liberal sensibility.

In my 20s and 30s I enjoyed reading John Macquarrie and Hans Kung more than Paul Tillich (Macquarrie was a German scholar, which underlines your point on the Germanic origins and transmission of liberal theology). I was a uni student and my life was quite (self)consciously intellectual: I wanted Christian thinkers who engaged dynamically with contemporary thought, who weren't suffocating. I even eventually found and read John Robinson, who I thought was surprisingly fresh, and better to read than Spong.

But then after a while, or maybe quite quickly, all the liberal theology eventually had a sawdust like consistency, though occasionally could still spark, like MacQuarrie. I realized, strangely, I wanted spirituality - refreshment, transformation, the spark of life, the Presence. I didn't want to think about, I wanted a more direct encounter with God - I never could find that in evangelical thought or forms, but increasingly not in liberal Ideas either.

I also needed bodied vitality and vital community, neither of which, you won't be surprised, I found in liberal theology by then.

Distinct but connected, by the time I studied political philosophy at university, political liberalism was well and truly on the ropes. Communitarianism looked a more durable and promising alternative, though it has its own shortcomings.

Perhaps liberalism and communitarianism improvise and develop different elements of the Christian deposit.

The political tensions of the two in dealing with religion in liberal democracies can he seen in the present case of the Gloriavale cult or closed Christian community in NZ, though this will not be an usual situation for a North American. Is there any place, in a liberal democracy, for cults that bring up their children (and men and women) in some aspects of servitude and abuse? But is it not the liberty of every individual to choose and express their faith; or the authenticity of particular lived communal values? Is there a minimum standard of conduct that liberal democracies require of minority (religious, cultural) communities/traditions, and do we think of and justify that minimum standard through individual rights or a cross-cultural common good (or even, dare I say it, natural law)?

Anonymous said...

In ‘The Abolition of Man’, C.S. Lewis talks about the Tao, the generally accepted values across a number of cultures, of truth, magnanimity, peace etc, and he mourns its passing I think post WW2. His range of cultures was not very wide though he did include some Eastern ones. Do we have, in a liberal democracy, a bottom line now? I think that is what you are asking, Mark? I wonder…

Anonymous said...

Mark, we don't yet have the excellent histories of Liberal Protestantism that we have for its Evangelical twin, so my comments on it do not report a mature consensus on it. They are warmly appreciative but critical, grounded in facts but tentative.


Magisterial Protestant theology saw three divine institutions among humanity-- state, church, and family. None can be properly opposed or reduced to the others. So individuals thrive in three dimensions and are harmed when one simply collapses into another. Which is an offense against divine justice.

Note that this tradition does not sharply distinguish the polity from the economy, bureaus from corporations, NGOs from businesses. Work is work. In the divine perspective, all serve the commonwealth.

Liberal democracy-- states ordered to secure liberties and adjusted to change by voting-- have been well theorised. Without undue triumphalism or neglect of dangers to them, we have been very successful in replicating this model of state, except in extraction economies afflicted with the *resource curse*, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. Everywhere else, the limiting factor is social capital, and Christian missionary work-- ideally both Protestant and Catholic-- has been a mighty force for developing that.

Do we have a similarly robust model for churches? I'll leave that for discussion.

But I would be very surprised to hear a good argument that there is a well-theorised model for the family. Most pathologies of our time-- including fascism-- have a plausible connection to family dysfunction.

Barbara Eberstadt even makes this intriguing quantitative argument about How The West Lost God: products of new family patterns (?) cannot intuitively understand the Father-Son relation intrinsic to Christianity, so regression analysis shows that our faith is much more rare where they spread than chance alone would predict. If only some sorts of families resonate with the core dogma of our religion, that is not insignificant. Which is why the Lambeth Conference directed church statisticians to see whether her finding could be replicated, along with Durkheim's classic work on religion and suicide. ;-)

This may be just what we should expect to see where the church and family dimensions of human life have collapsed into the state. In that case, liberal democracy could indeed be The End Of History And The Last Man as Francis Fukuyama argued, but only where churches and families are much more independent of the commonwealth as sources of meaning and obligation than most that we see today.


Anonymous said...

Moya, liberal democracy solves the several severe problems of autocracy (cf Putin). But it does so by chartering regimes to secure political rights as one agency in society among others. For its chief purpose, it works.

But it counts on those other agencies to supply meaning and obligation. If it were to do this itself, it would no longer be liberal democracy.