Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Via Media? A Paradigm Shift

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Via Media? A Paradigm Shift

Article excerpt

During the last generation of scholarship there has been a paradigm shift in the interpretation of the Church of England from the Reformation to the civil wars of the 164Os. This paradigm shift has been from understanding the Elizabethan and early Stuart Church of England as a via media between Rome and Geneva, as it was often put, to regarding it as one of the Reformed or Calvinist churches. "Reformed" in this context refers to that family of Protestants who derived primarily from Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin and carried ecclesiastical change beyond that of the Lutheran Reformation. This paradigm shift has been accompanied by a reluctance to use the term "Anglican," there being suspicion of some essentialist reification lurking beneath it.1 (Some have suggested jettisoning the term "Puritan" too, but insofar as it was contemporary usage, it seems to have survived).2 It should be emphasized that in discussing this paradigm shift away from the interpretation of the Church of England as a via media, that it is its early history that is being discussed, not its later developments, for which the terms "Anglican" and via media might be appropriate. What follows is a historiographical and bibliographical essay describing and assessing this paradigm shift.

An account of my own pilgrimage in scholarship, for which I ask the readers' indulgence, will help launch the argument of this essay. When I began a dissertation on a Puritan theologian in 1962, I encountered in the via media an interpretation of the Reformation of the Church of England that seemed secure. According to this view, the English Reformation had created a Church of England poised between Rome and Geneva (just how close to either was a matter of dispute, but it was widely thought by many modern Anglicans to be closer to Rome). This middle way was putatively based on Henry VIII's rejection of Protestant doctrine and papal authority (it was, after all, a kind of via media to behead papalist deniers of royal supremacy and to burn at the stake Protestant deniers of transubstantiation) and on Elizabeth I's restraint on Protestant advance within the English church, as canonically described by Sir John Neale. Claimed as representative of this via media were such bishops as Matthew Parker and John Jewel, and supremely such writers as the judicious Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, as well as a corps of Caroline divines. Calvinism and Puritanism, closely identified with each other, were seen as having hijacked the Church of England, deflecting it from its essential nature, until it was rescued by Archbishops Bancroft and Laud and King Charles the Martyr. Then, after the Cromwellian interlude discredited a narrow and bigoted Puritanism, the Restoration church returned to the Anglican essence, a via media.3 In this paradigm, a Platonic Anglicanism floats through history, manifested from time to time in more or less its fullness.

Beginning with the validity of this paradigm, study of the Arminian controversy in England as the defining context for the Calvinist theology of John Owen led me to question it, recognizing the Reformed, if not always specifically Calvinist character of the Church of England. (After all, Calvin was only one, and not the first, among those theologians dubbed Reformed who wanted to take reform further than the Lutherans had; however, the term "Calvinism" has become a kind of convenient shorthand to designate this group.) Intimations of this Reformed ambience of the Church of England were sometimes surprising: for example, the Elizabethan Bishop Edward Cheyney in trouble for holding a Lutheran rather than Reformed view of the eucharistie presence, Richard Hooker commenting that Lutherans might be saved in spite of their believing so grave an error as the elect falling from grace, Archbishop Whitgift criticizing the Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright's tolerance of the Greek Fathers' acceptance of free will, and John Donne describing Calvin as one of the greatest of biblical expositors. …

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