The Duration of the Primitive Church: An Issue for Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Anglicans

By English, John C. | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Duration of the Primitive Church: An Issue for Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Anglicans


English, John C., Anglican and Episcopal History


The Anglicans to whom this essay refers, along with other Protestants, employed a tripartite model of church history. They divided the history of the Christian faith among three periods, the Golden Age of the primitive church; an age of decline, marked by innovation and superstition; and the age of revival and reform, beginning in the sixteenth century. The persons who employed this model put the primitive church to a variety of uses. It might serve the cause of Christian idealism, the reunion of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, or the practice of piety and the reformation of manners. The primitive church could be used to defend the fundamental doctrines of traditional Christianity against heterodox interpretations of Scripture, or the "middle way" (via media) of Anglicanism against the Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and Protestant Nonconformists, on the other. Both the defenders of the prayer book, and those who wanted to revise it, appealed to the primitive church for support. The canon lawyers made use of it, as did political theorists.

Since the primitive period was authoritative and exemplary, and the age of decline was not, it was important to know where the boundary lay between these two eras. The documents of the Elizabethan Settlement tend to be rather vague as regards this point. For example, the Act of Supremacy (1559) states that heresy is to be determined "by the authority of the canonical Scripture, or by the first four general Councils, or any one of them, or by any other general Council wherein the same was declared heresy by the express and plain words of the said canonical Scriptures."1 The canons of 1571 direct the clergy to preach the doctrines of scripture, as explicated by "the catholic fathers and ancient bishops," without specifying who these persons are. The canons of 1603 (1604) appeal to the "judgment of the ancient fathers, and the practice of the primitive church."2 However, theologians and controversialists soon felt the need to be more specific to provide dates for the primitive church. As this paper will show, Anglicans were not of a single mind on this subject. Under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts, five or six hundred years were the dates which were usually given. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, three hundred years became more and more common. A few persons cited two centuries only. Various reasons can be assigned for these changes in dating. The duration of the primitive church, as understood by Anglicans, depended upon their individual interests; the spiritual condition of English society, as they perceived it; and the political and theological challenges confronting the Church of England at a particular time.

While this essay deals primarily with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is best to begin with the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Shortly after she assumed the throne, John Jewel declared six hundred years as the duration of the primitive church in a sermon which he preached at Paul's Cross, London.3 The same dating was adopted by Thomas Cooper, a younger contemporary of Jewel.4 The question may be asked, why did these Anglicans and others think in terms of six centuries? The creeds and conciliai- decisions which they regarded as authoritative were written during this period. No doubt part of the answer lies here. The fourth through the sixth centuries was a brilliant era in the history of Christian thought. Anglicans wanted to claim for their cause the ideas of the outstanding theologians who lived during that time. I suggest, furthermore, that they wanted to claim for themselves the authority of Gregory the Great, who occupied the papal throne from 590 to 604. Gregory spoke and acted in several ways which were agreeable to Anglicans. For example, he rejected, or appeared to reject, the proposition that Christ had given to Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome, a legislative and judicial authority which extended to all Christians. …

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