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Inaugural Bp. John H. Rodgers Lecture Series

Inaugural Bp. John H. Rodgers Lecture Series

Reformation Day, 2023

The Reverend Canon Dr. Ashley Null

© John Ashley Null, used with permission for non-profit educational purposes.

At the first Gafcon conference in Jerusalem in 2008, the Rt. Rev. John Hewitt Rodgers, Jr., in whose beloved memory this new, annual lecture series is now held, gave a landmark address entitled Where do we go from here?  In his Zoom Memoirs, recorded with the Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll, who is with us tonight, John commented that he considered this address to be the high point of his ministry in the wider Anglican Communion after retirement.   High praise indeed for its message to which we should pay attention.[1]

John began by noting a need to define what authentic Anglicanism actually is.  Here is his brief description:

Faithful Anglicanism is an expression of reformed Catholicism. The Anglican family has its roots in the Western Catholic Church. From the early days of the Church we existed prior to a relationship of obedience to the Bishop of Rome under whose oversight and care we Anglicans subsequently came. As such we are part of the Catholic Church. At the Reformation of the 16th Century, in obedience to the Apostles’ teaching, we found that we could no longer remain in submission to unreformed papal authority, doctrine and practice in a number of areas and centrally in the application of God’s grace to sinners, as the 39 Articles make clear. Thus we were reformed by the Apostolic Word.  Hence Anglicanism is reformed, apostolic Catholicism seeking in all things to be faithful to the Word of God written.

John then went to define the five marks which had historically characterized this “reformed, apostolic Catholicism” across the Communion: a common faith, a common celebration of the Word and the sacraments of the Gospel, a common ministry, a common mission, and a global family.  He concluded his address with a strong appeal for a new order in Anglicanism:

The days of weak response and delay are past. The issues are far too serious, too serious for the spread of the Apostolic Gospel, and too serious for the preservation and vital work of faithful Anglicanism. No matter the pain or no matter the cost, we are called by the Lord to devote ourselves to the Apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers while living in vigorous apostolic mission. That is what faithful Anglicanism is at its heart.

According to the Zoom Memoirs, John noticed a significant change in the atmosphere in the auditorium when he got to the last point about a new Communion:

I said that “we” at GAFCON need to affirm the commonalities that we have as classic historic Anglicans. We represented probably eighty percent of the actual Anglicans that go to church on Sunday world-wide. We were not the minority. We were the overwhelming majority of Anglicans. Hence, we need to deal with the issue of authority, but that cannot, in my opinion, be exercised within the present Anglican Communion as it is constituted. So, I concluded that we needed to form a new Anglican Communion . . . Well, when I got to that last point, you would have thought that suddenly I had lost my mind, because that was a bridge too far for most of the people in that room. They were cheering up to that point, but when I suggested a new communion, breaking with or reconstituting the present Anglican Communion, that was not a place where most of them wanted to go.

Let’s now fast forward fifteen years, to this year’s Gafcon conference in Kigali, the fourth Gafcon conference, held less than six months after John Rodgers’ death. The Kigali Commitment explicitly endorses John’s call for going beyond half-measures and reordering the Anglican Communion instead.[2] Please permit me to quote the statement at length:

God’s good Word is the rule of our lives as disciples of Jesus and is the final authority in the church.  It grounds, energises and directs our mission in the world. The fellowship we enjoy with our risen and ascended Lord is nourished as we trust God’s Word, obey it and encourage each other to allow it to shape each area of our lives.  This fellowship is broken when we turn aside from God’s Word or attempt to reinterpret it in any way that overturns the plain reading of the text in its canonical context and so deny its truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency, and thereby its authority (Jerusalem Declaration #2).

We rejoice in the united commitment of both [the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches and Gafcon] on three fundamentals: the lordship of Jesus Christ; the authority and clarity of the Word of God; and the priority of the church’s mission to the world. We acknowledge their agreement that ‘communion’ between churches and Christians must be based on doctrine (Jerusalem Declaration #13; GSFA Covenant 2.1.6). Anglican identity is defined by this and not by recognition from the See of Canterbury.

We welcome the GSFA’s Ash Wednesday Statement of 20 February 2023, calling for a resetting and reordering of the Communion. We applaud the invitation of the GSFA Primates to collaborate with Gafcon and other orthodox Anglican groupings to work out the shape and nature of our common life together and how we are to maintain the priority of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations.

Resetting the Communion is an urgent matter.  It needs an adequate and robust foundation that addresses the legal and constitutional complexities in various Provinces. The goal is that orthodox Anglicans worldwide will have a clear identity, a global ‘spiritual home’ of which they can be proud, and a strong leadership structure that gives them stability and direction as Global Anglicans. We therefore commit to pray that God will guide this process of resetting, and that Gafcon and GSFA will keep in step with the Spirit.

That last paragraph which I have read from the Kigali Commitment is an important caveat against triumphalism for those who wish to see Bishop Rodgers’ vision for a way forward implemented.  Historically, the Church of England was initially held together by common doctrine, liturgy and structure, all mandated by the state. Gradually, differences of doctrine began to emerge over what “Reformed Catholicism” should look like. Was the Church of England too Catholic and not enough Reformed, the question for the Elizabethan Church, or was the Church of England too Reformed and not Catholic enough, the question which became especially pressing in the Seventeenth Century, when the Stuarts switch which side the government was supporting. By the Nineteenth Century, the state felt compelled to permit both of these options and a third to flourish, side by side, both in England and throughout the Empire.  Nevertheless, the other two commonalities always continued to give coherence to what was now being called Anglicanism.  For example, the still Cranmerian-inspired seventeenth-century liturgy kept repentance central to Anglican worship, but each major Victorian party was left how to define it. Anglo-Catholics were free to encourage private confession. Evangelicals could emphasize a personal conversion experience born through revivalism.  And Broad Church moralists like Thomas Arnold could stir up his boys at Rugby to embrace the life-long fight for manliness, defined as choosing the hard right against the easy wrong. By the Twentieth Century, the gradual passing of the British Empire permitted local liturgies to replace the 1662 BCP around the world, but the emergent global provincial structure and the instruments of unity still gave Anglicanism a recognizable identity.  With the statements by GSFA and Gafcon that going forward unity must be based primarily on theological agreement, we have come full circle, but without the power of the state to intervene and ultimately decide difficult questions.  Accordingly, it should not be surprising for old doctrinal divisions in historic Anglicanism now to come to the fore.  Whatever new structures for the Communion emerge in the future, they will need to address these theological differences “robustly,” albeit hopefully with accuracy, mutual respect and above all, charity.

Therefore, three distinguished Anglican scholars are to be commended for jump starting this process, less than two months after the release of the Kigali Commitment. In an essay appearing as a “web exclusive” of First Things and dated June 9, 2023, Hans Boersma, Gerald McDermott and Greg Peters pungently ask “Is the Anglican ‘Reset’ Truly Anglican?”[3] Noting the absence of any explicit mention of the fathers, the Creeds, and general councils, they argue that Gafcon’s Kigali Commitment is seeking to foster a false theological methodology for the future of Anglicanism, a method rooted in a bare reading of Scripture without any reference to the church’s historic role in its interpretation.  Let me once again quote at length:

 [W]e are concerned that in an admirable attempt to resist the liberal project, they unwittingly have themselves opened the door to the use of Scripture for liberal ends. The Kigali Commitment repeatedly appeals to the authority of the Bible alone and fails to mention either the authority of the Church or the role of tradition, describing the Bible as “the rule of our lives” and the “final authority in the church” without mentioning that Scripture functions within the context of tradition—in particular, the common liturgy of the Church and the Book of Common Prayer—and the Church’s teaching authority.

[A] strict sola scriptura hermeneutic, which fails to recognize the Bible’s origin in the ancient Church and its authoritative interpretation by the Church fathers and creeds, opens the way to a liberal method in which every reader serves as his own authority.

To forestall liberal interpretations of Holy Scripture, the Kigali Commitment appeals to the “plain reading” of the text and to the “clarity” of Scripture, and insists that Scripture is “its own interpreter.” But the Church cannot avoid interpreting the Scriptures, and she must do so faithfully, in line with sacred tradition. Without tradition as norm and guide, the canonical context and clarity of Scripture are meaningless.

Kigali’s strict “Bible alone” viewpoint is also a departure from the approach of the English Reformers. Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles were not finalized until 1571, fifteen years after the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer. In that year, the bishops of the Church of England declared in canon law (canon 6) that preachers were not to teach anything contrary to the Bible and “what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this selfsame doctrine.” One’s interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles must “in all respects agree with” the fathers and ancient bishops.

There is so much that needs to be unpacked in these three paragraphs.  Let’s begin by putting the Kigali Commitment into its own context, i.e., the Jerusalem Declaration, Gafcon’s foundational doctrinal statement which still remains in force as the definitive statement of their theological foundation.  Only in its light can we answer the question as to whether Gafcon really is top heavy Reformed and Catholic light or even Catholic absent.  Let me read paragraphs 2 through 4 and 6 and 7.[4]

  1. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading. [Due note that this paragraph, with its reference to the importance of the church’s historic interpretation of Scripture, is explicitly cited in the Kigali Commitment]

  2. We uphold the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic Creeds as expressing the rule of faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

  3. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.

  4. We rejoice in our Anglican sacramental and liturgical heritage as an expression of the gospel, and we uphold the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as a true and authoritative standard of worship and prayer, to be translated and locally adapted for each culture.

  5. We recognise that God has called and gifted bishops, priests and deacons in historic succession to equip all the people of God for their ministry in the world. We uphold the classic Anglican Ordinal as an authoritative standard of clerical orders.

Clearly, for Gafcon, Scripture is the unique, authoritative witness to the teachings of the apostles, but it is to be read in community and continuity with the writings of Christians who have gone before, in particular, the Creeds, the first four general councils and the Thirty-Nine Articles.  Thus, it is manifestly plain that the important conversation initiated by our three scholars is not whether previous generations of the church have a significant role in the formation of Anglican theology, but exactly what is that role. There is the rub.

The authors makes three important claims:  1.  Scripture must be understood in accordance with “the authoritative interpretation of the fathers and the creeds”; 2.  The meaning of the Thirty-Nine Articles also “must ‘in all respects agree with’ the fathers and ancient bishops”; and 3. “Kigali’s strict ‘Bible alone’ viewpoint is also a departure from the approach of the English Reformers.”

To assess these claims, let’s begin with accuracy.  Is sola scriptura a departure from the English Reformers?  It all depends on how you define “Reformers.” Clearly not, if you mean the English martyrs like Tyndale, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley.  Deeply influenced by the Continental Reformation, they indisputably held that no matter how much Tradition could help illuminate the Bible’s meaning, ultimately it was its own final interpreter.  However, for the essay writers, “the English Reformation lasted for a century.”  Such a statement makes the Laudian alterations in established Protestant practices the final phase of the English Reformation, and their citation of a Caroline divine as continuing the hermeneutic of the Anglican reformers is in keeping with such an approach. In other words, the authors of the First Things essay believe that the clear Protestant commitments of the Edwardian and Elizabethan Church of England had swung the pendulum too far in the direction of Reformed thought, but the Caroline divines brought things firmly back towards the Catholic side, ending the English Reformation as a truly balanced Reformed Catholicism.

But what of the evidence they produce to show that the reading of Scripture within patristic tradition was the Elizabethan church’s hermeneutic?  Let’s begin where they do, with Canon 6 of 1571 Church of England Canons. Let me quote the canon at length:

But chiefly they shall take heed, that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe, and believe, but that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old Testament, or the New, and that which the catholic fathers, and ancient bishops have gathered out of that doctrine. And because those articles of Christian religion, agreed upon by the bishops, in the lawful, and godly convocation, and by the commandment, and authority of our noble princess Elizabeth assembled and holden, undoubtedly are gathered out of the holy books of the Old, and New Testament, and in all points agree with the heavenly doctrine contained in them: because also the book of common prayers, and the book of the consecration of archbishops, bishops, ministers, and deacons, contain nothing repugnant to the same doctrine, whosoever shall be sent to teach the people, shall not only in their preaching, but also by subscription confirm the authority, and faith of those articles. He that doth otherwise, and troubleth the people with contrary doctrine shall be excommunicated.[5]

Notice that the canon addresses two separate issues: i) what preachers should teach; and ii) why they should subscribe to the 39 Articles. First, they should teach the Bible and what “the catholic fathers, and ancient bishops have gathered out” from it.  What does that last phrase mean in context?  That they should teach the doctrine of the Trinity which is found in the Bible and accurately described in the ancient creeds.  The Edwardian and Elizabethan reformers specifically taught that the doctrine of the Trinity was found by reading the Bible.  Listen to the “Homily on Scripture”:

In those books we shall find the father from whom, the son by whom, and the holy ghost in whom, all things have their being and conservation, and these three persons, to be one God, and one substance.[6]

Hear also the words of Article 8: “The three Creeds . . . ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.”[7]  This approach to the creeds is simply in keeping with the necessary caveat of Article 21.  Since general councils have sometimes erred in matters of faith, “things ordained by them as necessary to salvation, have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”[8]  Thus, in the eyes of the authors of our founding formularies, and in their arguments against their contemporary Roman Catholic opponents, they said they believed in the Trinity because they, too, judged it biblical, not just because the councils had declared the doctrine to be biblical.

In the light of all of this, are the authors of the essay in First things accurate when they write:

Reformation Anglicans believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was one of the things that the Spirit taught the ancient Church. Neither the word nor its doctrine is explicitly stated in the Bible. But its formulation in the creeds and councils of the ancient Church convinced the English Reformers that it was a necessary doctrine to preach and teach.

No doubt the Anglicans of the sixteenth-century Reformation believed that the Holy Spirit guided the councils in their reading of Scripture as they formulated the doctrine of the Trinity.  No doubt their respect for the ancient fathers of the faith made them initially presume that the doctrine of the Trinity was sound biblical teaching.  However, according to their own writings, what “convinced” the authors of Anglicanism’s founding formularies was their own sense that the doctrine of the Trinity is what the Bible teaches, when the various passages are collated together, thus letting the Bible interpret itself.

Secondly, Canon 6 addresses why preachers must subscribe to the 39 Articles:  because they “undoubtedly are gathered out of the holy books of the Old, and New Testament, and in all points agree with the heavenly doctrine contained in them.” Note the language that is used in the Canon, the Articles were “gathered out” of the Bible, this is the very same verb the canon has just before used to describe the work of the ancient church in its creeds.  Just like in the Fourth Century, the sixteenth-century English church had to formulate an authoritative interpretation of currently disputed passages in the Bible, and this new creed was the Thirty-Nine Articles.  Here is the Elizabethan church’s definitive understanding of what the Bible and the early church taught. Publishing with permission of “authority” in 1585, Thomas Rogers made this understanding explicit when he titled his commentary on the 39 Articles as The English Creede, Consenting with the True Auncient Catholique, and apostolique Church in al the points.  It is worth noting, Rogers thought the 39 Articles not only represented authentic ancient Christian teaching but also was in “sweet harmony” with “all the Churches protestant in Europe.”[9]  For it was a truism of the sixteenth-century reformers that the Protestant understanding of Christianity was nothing new-fangled, but simply the true, ad fontes, recovery of ancient Christianity.  Then Canon 6 goes on to declare that the result of this sixteenth-century collection of biblical teaching was that the Articles “in all respects agree with the heavenly doctrine” found in Scripture.  In other words, the 39 Articles pass the ultimate test for theological authority, which the writings of some previous church pronouncements had failed, namely, they “in all respects agree” with Scripture.

In the light our examination of Canon 6, are the authors of the First Things essay accurate when they write: “One’s interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles must ‘in all respects agree with’ the fathers and ancient bishops.”  Absolutely not!  First, their use of “in all respects agree with” is a truly astonishing misappropriation.  As we have seen, Canon 6 uses that phrase to describe the faithfulness of the 39 Articles to Scripture. The sentence in which the phrase is found makes no reference to the fathers at all.  Consequently, on a simply linguist level, the essayists’ use of it is a misquotation.  It is not accurate.  Even worse, however, it completely inverts the theological point the canon is making.  Canon 6 makes the 39 Articles the definitive Church of England interpretation of what are the authentic teachings of the ancient church.  It certainly is not asserting that the meaning of the 39 Articles must be determined in the light of some other “authoritative interpretation” of the Church fathers and creeds. For the sixteenth-century reformers, the Thirty-Nine Articles was the definitive authoritative interpretation of the Church fathers and creeds on topics in dispute. After all, that is in fact what the whole Protestant Reformation was about—establishing what should be the current authoritative understanding of the ancient faith.  Nothing makes this point any clearer than the fact that when the Thirty-Nine Articles were approved in 1571, Article 29 was included.  This article clearly rejects that standard litmus test of the era for an objective presence of Christ in the sacramental elements.  Whatever the sixteenth-century divines meant by being faithful to the Church fathers, it is certainly not what the Caroline divines meant, hence the adoption by some of the notion of a long Reformation lasting into the Seventeenth Century.

The essayists also cite Jewel, Hooker and Scripture in support of their ideas.  Time does not permit me to go into equal detail, setting the quotations in their accurate sixteenth-century context. Let it suffice to say that the sixteenth-century English Reformers took the fathers very seriously, for the first leaders of Christianity had established the infallible early church consensus as to what was apostolic teaching, namely, the canon of Scripture.  But these very leaders, such as Augustine, explicitly stated that their writings were not on the same level of authority as Scripture, for Scripture was its own best interpreter.  Here is a quotation from Augustine found in Cranmer’s private theological notebooks:

Obscure passages should be expounded by those which are more clear, that is, the safest way to interpret Scripture is through Scripture.  For it is far safer to be guided by Holy Scripture when we wish to examine passages whose meanings have been covered over. In this way we may either gain an interpretation which is not controversial, or if it is, we may settle it by applying testimonies found throughout the same Scripture.[10]

Cranmer then inserted a paraphrase of this passage from Augustine in the “Homily on Scripture”:

Although many things in the scripture, be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the selfsame thing, in other places is spoken familiarly and plainly, to the capacity, both of learned and unlearned.[11]

Cranmer summarized his understanding of the proper relationship between Scripture and the fathers in an important passage from his theological notebooks:

Likewise, we first accept bonds, wills, indentures and land charters of estates because of seals and witnesses.  Yet once we have accepted them, we do not look to their seals and witnesses any more, but decide their right understanding and interpretation based on the sense of their written contents. Augustine was of the opinion that the Scriptures which we have ought to be judged as canonical and authentic because of the testimony of the primitive church.  However, he wanted the meaning and interpretation of the accepted Scriptures to be established from their context and collation, not from anyone’s judgment, no matter how great his authority, holiness or learning might be, indeed not even one from an entire council. Neither did he think that the authority of the Scriptures should be subordinated to the decisions of the church, but rather that the church itself ought to be governed and judged by the Scriptures, whose authority is from God as author, and not from man, neither from men . . . When the church interprets the Bible, it does so by other scriptural passages and not by human opinion lacking the testimony of God.[12]

An Elizabethan revision of what became Article 20 of the 39 Articles continued to follow Cranmer’s understanding of Augustine on this point:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one place of scripture, that it be repugnant to another.[13]

The article establishes the right of the sixteenth-century church to decide theological controversies, but only on the base of Scripture interpreting Scripture through collation.

But that was 1571.  Hooker was writing in the 1590s.  Did he abandon Scripture interpreting Scripture on matters of salvation, as the essayists have argued?  Again, time requires me to at least try to be brief.  Let me just offer two quotations from Hooker which clarify the question. First, Hooker explicitly states that nuda Scriptura, as the essayists refer to sola scriptura, is indeed sufficient to establish saving faith in the midst of doctrinal controversies:

let them with whom we have hitherto disputed consider well, how it can stand with reason to make the bare mandate of sacred scripture the only rule of all good and evil in the actions of mortal men.  The testimonies of God are true, the testimonies of God are perfect, the testimonies of God are all sufficient unto that end for which they were given.  Therefore, accordingly we do receive them, we do not think that in them God hath omitted anything needful unto his purpose, and left his intent to be accomplished by our devisings.[14]

Secondly, he defends the use of human reasoning in theological debate, albeit that of the fathers or of his own, as long as the basis for theological reasoning is the product of scriptural collation:

Not meaning thereby mine own reason as now it is reported, but true, sound, divine reason; reason whereby those conclusions might be out of St. Paul demonstrated, and not probably discoursed only, reason proper to that science whereby the things of God are known; theological reason, which out of the principles in Scripture that are plain, soundly deducteth more doubtful inferences, in such sort that being heard they neither can be denied, nor any thing repugnant unto them received, but whatsoever was before otherwise by miscollecting gathered out of darker places, is thereby forced to yield itself, and the true consonant meaning of sentences not understood is brought to light.[15]

 While there may be some degree of truth to the essayists claim that Hooker “illustrates the Anglican way of reading Scripture and life: to read the Bible while sitting at the feet of the fathers.”  It is clear from Hooker’s own self-description of his theological method, he turned to the Fathers on an issue only after he had already long labored to collate Scripture first.

Perhaps the best way to end this discussion of what is the Anglican understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition is to quote Bishop Rodgers at length:

With regard to the authority of Scripture, it is important to explain the sense in which Anglicans embrace the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura that is, “Scripture alone.” This slogan is a statement about the unique authority of Scripture. The phrase “Scripture alone” does not mean that the Scriptures are isolated from subordinate standards in the life of the Church. All churches inevitably have a tradition of what the Scriptures are–discerned by the Church to teach. It is better by far when this official interpretation is written down for all to see. Anglicans have the Three Catholic Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal and The Homilies as subordinate standards. Anglicans have never taught “Scripture alone” in the sense of an isolated Scripture. Rather “Scripture alone” means that Scripture has a unique level of authority of its own. It alone is the supreme authority in the life of the Church and nothing else is on the same level as Scripture. All aspects of tradition are to be tested by what is taught in Scripture. For Anglicans, the Scriptures are the norming norm, i.e. the norma normans, while the subordinate formulae are the normed norms, or norma normata, for they are normed by Scripture and draw their authority from their agreement with Scripture.  This view of the supreme authority of Scripture lies at the heart of Anglicanism. This is evidenced by the fact that all of the subordinate authorities recognized by Anglicans are exegetical in nature and make obvious reference to their dependence upon and deference to the Scriptures.[16]

If John Rodgers insists that Scripture cannot be read apart from other Church writings, and the essayists insist that Scripture cannot be read apart from other Church writings, is the difference between them of any great importance?  Absolutely!  Because at the very heart of the Protestant Reformation was the recovery of the authentic, biblical understanding of how we relate to God.  Their Roman Catholic opponents insisted that justification by faith could not possibly be a correct interpretation of Scripture because the teaching authority of Catholic church had for centuries said it was not.  Protestants responded that if justification by faith was the product of Scriptural collation, it must be correct, and then people like Cranmer, Jewel and Hooker pursued massive patristic research programs to show that this teaching was found, in embryo at least, in the ancient church.  To place a supposed consensus of the fathers, beyond their agreement to the canon, as the lens through which to interpret the canon, we would be putting justification by faith, the essence of the Gospel, at risk.

This trend is clearly seen in the Caroline divines.  The very author which the essayists quote to support their supposed “Reformation Anglican” hermeneutic of reading Scripture in a patristic context made personal righteousness, rather than imputed righteousness, the basis for justification.  Let me quote from Francis White’s contribution to A Replie to Jesuit Fishers Answere:

We deny that every man is justified, by only believing himself to be just; for he must be truly just, before he can, or ought to believe himself to be so.  The promise of remission of sins is conditional . . . and the same becometh not absolute, until the condition be fulfilled, either actually, or in desire and preparation of mind: and the full assurance of remission of sins succeedeth Repentance, Faith, Obedience, and Mortification.[17]

In other words, we can only be assured that we are forgiven by God of a sin, when we have a proven track record of no longer committing that sin.  Bishop White clearly rejected the Reformers’ teaching on justification.  No wonder he also rejected the subsidiary role they assigned to the fathers in determining Anglican teaching.  Whatever White was doing, he certainly wasn’t continuing the hermeneutic of the Reformation Anglican formularies. ****

Again, we must ask, why is such an approach dangerous for the Christian soul? All we need to do is look to Jeremy Taylor, a later Caroline divine, who takes White’s teaching to its logical extreme.  Let me quote from Taylor’s Holy Living:

6 . . . No Man therefore can be in the state of grace and actual favour by resolutions and holy purposes; these are but the gate and portal towards pardon: a holy life is the only perfection of Repentance, and the firm ground upon which we can cast the anchor of hope in the mercies of God through Jesus Christ.[18]

In other words, we don’t change out of gratitude because we are forgiven, we must perfect a new life before we can realistically hope to be forgiven.

  1. No man is to reckon his pardon immediately upon his returns from sin to the beginnings of good life, but is to begin his hopes and degrees of confidence according as sin dies in him, and grace lives . . . For a holy life being the condition of the Covenant on our part, as we return to God, so God returns to us, and our state returns to the probabilities of pardon.[19]

Once again, the burden of reconciliation is on us. We must return to God first, so that he can return to us and we can have the probable hope of pardon.

  1. Every Man is to work out his salvation with fear and trembling; and after the commission of sins his fears must multiply, because every new sin, and every great declining from the ways of God is still a degree of new danger, and hath increased God’s anger, and hath made him more uneasy to grant pardon: and when he does grant it, it is upon harder terms both for doing and suffering; that is, we must do more for pardon, and it may be, suffer much more. For we must know that God pardons our sins by parts; as our duty increases, and our care is more prudent and active, so God’s anger decreases:[20]

If you struggle with habitual sin, watch out.  The more you commit the same sin, the harder it is for God to forgive you. Is it little wonder, then, that Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, the great champion of justification by faith in the Anglican tradition, is deeply uneasy about the great esteem with which Taylor is held today in many Anglican circles?

Why is justification by faith so important?  Because it is the Gospel, that on the cross a glorious exchange occurred.  In love, God took upon himself the sins of a rebellious world, so that at his initiative and as his free gift, humanity could be credited with his righteousness and receive the right to stand in his presence, through all the ups and downs of their struggles to love him in return as much has he loves them.  Once again John Rodgers expressed it best:

Justification is the only true basis of the assurance of salvation. . . If I look to myself, there is nothing which is not tainted by sin, nothing perfect, nothing sufficient; but when I look to [Christ] and His sacrifice, there is nothing lacking . . . Adding anything we might do, anything in addition to the sinless life of Christ and the sufficiency of the Cross as accounted to us by God would rob us of all assurance, for we would never know if we have done enough or have done what we have done with sufficient completeness and integrity. The mixed character of even our best actions and efforts would rightly leave us greatly troubled. Where then would be the joy of our salvation? It would be replaced by an uncertainty, or if we are honest about our sinfulness, by the certainty of our damnation. This is clearly not the note struck in the New Testament, and it is not the proper state of mind for anyone who places his or her faith in Jesus Christ. . . Luther had it right—justification received by faith alone is “the doctrine of a standing or falling Church.” We cannot over-emphasize the importance of justification through faith alone.[21]

I work with Olympic athletes, to whom I always say: “Medals have to be earned, that is right and good.  Love can’t be earned, if it is earned, it’s not love.” Any teaching on justification that is not based on God’s freely given righteous love for us inevitable reduces the Gospel to just another exercise in earning love through our performance.  This is not a message that young people today can bear, and if we listen to God’s Word, they don’t have to.

In conclusion, let me say that I never insist that there is only one Anglican way, only Anglican ways.  Although I do not walk in the Anglicanism of the Seventeenth Century, I do not try to deny their legitimate place in the spectrum of Orthodox Anglicans.  Hence, I am always disappointed when those following the way of seventeenth-century Anglicans misappropriate by a false assimilation sixteenth-century Anglicanism to theirs.  By their very title, the essayists have declared that folks like John Rodgers, Fitz Allison, Thomas Cranmer, and I would need to include myself, are not true Anglicans.  I am happy for the three authors to argue that their understanding of the fathers and Scripture is the bene esseof Anglicanism, while I and others remain free to argue that the authentic sixteenth-century understanding is the best way to be Anglican today.

Nevertheless, for the world around us, for the sins between us, for the sins within us, indeed for the power of the gospel to be revealed in our time, as Anglicanism looks for a new theological consensus for the twenty-first century, it is my fervent prayer that we all may agree that the essence of Anglicanism, in its many forms, is best summed up in John Donne’s famous seventeenth-century appropriation of justification by faith in his poem, A Hymn to God the Father.

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,

Which is my sin, though it were done before?

Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,

And do run still: though still I do deplore?

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

For, I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won

Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But swear by thyself, that at my death thy son

Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

And, having done that, Thou hast done;

I have no more.[22]

For, as Thomas Cranmer knew and bequeathed in our founding sixteenth-century formularies, only the unconditional love of God for sinners can inspire sinners to love God more than sin.

© John Ashley Null, used with permission for non-profit educational purposes.


[1] See Stephen Noll’s website for a copy of the full Gafcon address and a transcription of the bishop’s comments concerning it in the Zoom Memoirs:

[2] For the full statement, see

[3] See

[4] For the full statement, see

[5] A BOOKE of certaine Canons, concerning some parte of the discipline of the Churche of England (London: John Day, 1571), p. 23, all spelling modernized.

[6] Certayne Sermons or Homilies (London: Edward Whitchurch, 1547), verso side of the folio preceding sig. A1, all spelling modernized.

[7] Charles Hardwick, A History of the Articles of Religion (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, 1859), p. 287, all spelling modernized.

[8] Ibid., pp. 303, 305, all spelling modernized.

[9] Thomas Rogers The English Creede, Consenting with the True Auncient Catholique, and apostolique Church in al the points (London: John Windet, 1585), p. [ii], all spelling modernized.

[10] British Library, Royal MS 7.B.XI, fol. 6r, translated from the Latin.

[11] Certayne Sermons or Homilies, sig. A8v, all spelling modernized.

[12] British Library, Royal MS 7.B.XI, fol. 32v, translated from the Latin.

[13] Hardwick, Articles of Religion, p. 303, all spelling modernized.

[14] Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, II.8.5.

[15] Richard Hooker, Answer to Travers, 24.

[16] John H. Rodgers, Jr., Essential Truths for Christians: A Commentary on the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Newport Beach, Calif.: Anglican House Media Ministry, 2015), pp. 419-20.

[17] Francis White, A Replie to Jesuit Fishers Answere to certain questions propounded by his most gracious Majestie King James (London: Adam Islip, 1624), p. 162, all spelling modernized.

[18] Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (London: Francis Ash, 1650), Chapter 4, Section 9, p. 340, all spelling modernized.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., pp. 340-1, all spelling modernized.

[21] Rodgers, Essential Truths, pp. 286-7.

[22] John Booty, ed., John Donne: Selections from Divine Poems, Devotions and Prayers (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 106, all spelling modernized.