Monday, June 24, 2013

The Old Evangelicalism

One of the things that strikes me when I read the sermons and addresses of the old school Evangelical Anglicans is the degree to which they place emphasis on three things - the need for conversion, sanctification, and faithfulness to the (Anglican) Church and her teaching. When one is talking to American Anglicans one often gets the feeling that Evangelicalism is an alien growth so far as they are concerned, and not something that by rights belongs in the Church. However, I have long since learnt that what most Americans mean by 'Evangelicalism' is what those of us born on the other side of the Atlantic would call revivalism.

The major problem with Revivalism is its doctrinal content - or rather the lack of it. The old Evangelicals started from the doctrinal standpoint of the Thirty-nine Articles, and they preached the need for faith, for conversion of heart and conversion of life. This appeal was made on the basis of the Doctrines of Grace contained in Articles IX to XVIII which set out certain the key doctrines.

The first of these Articles deals with the doctrine of Original Sin. The story of Adam and Eve should be reasonably familiar to the all Christians, but I think a lot of the time we forget that it explains the basic tragedy of man's situation. Man, due to the rebellion of Adam and Eve, lives in his natural condition in a state of rebellion against God. As you will recall, humanity is tempted by the serpent's appeal that 'ye shall be like God's knowing the difference between good and evil' and the desire for greater knowledge and power, which we can see as a manifestation of the sin of Pride, leads Adam and Eve to rebel. Genesis then goes o to explain how Man, because of this rebellion becomes astranged from God (i.e. is thrown out of the Graden of Eden) and is punished for his sin by toil and death. Humanity's fall also robbed him of any natural or inherent ability to "get right" or justify himself with God.

However, as Genesis moves swift along, it soon becomes pretty clear than God is not finished with humanity, and much of the rest of the Old Testament deals with the struggle of man to find peace with God, which is the subtext of the story of God's ancient people the Jews. The solution to Man's predicament is, in the fullness of time, resolved by God Himself. God sens His Son, born of a woman, to reconcile man to God. This is a really big deal because at the culmination of the Gospel narrative we have two earth shattering events. Firstly, the God-Man is crucified for the sins of humanity, that all through Him have the potential to be forgiven their sins and be reconciled to God. Secondly, that same God-Man, Jesus Christ, rises from the dead 'the first fruits of those that sleep' so that man does not only receive a means of escape from God's wrath through the crucifixion, but also has the potential for eternal life. So how does man access these gifts of Grace? How does humanity "get right" with God?

The solution to that problem is found in Article 11. St Paul in Romans and elsewhere speaks of man as being justified (made right with God) by Grace through Faith. Our Lord, when he speaks to those who have been brought to him 'tied and bound by the chain of their sins' often says 'your faith has made you well.' It is quite clear that God offers us the chance of being made right with Him by Faith. Faith is an active consent to the God's promises. We often talk about this 'belief' as being a passive intellectual assent, but it goes deeper than this. In Old English 'belief' involved doing or living something, and so not only does our aceptence of God's promises involve a change of mind, but also a change in our lives. Christianity is not a series of intellectual propositions but a life(style.) This idea of Christianity as a lifestyle as well as a faith system brings us neatly to the next major tenant of the old Evangelical theology.

If we are justified by Faith, then where do Good Works fit in. Well, if faith justifies, then God Works are the fruit of that faith. They represent a part of that process of sanctification (becoming holy) which is the response of a converted person to the gift of God's grace. Unfortunately, far too many people even today see Good Works not as evidence of a converted heart, but as a means of building up the balance in their spiritual bank account. This is salvation by works, and that was condemned as a heresy about 1600 years ago, and neither God nor His Church have changed their minds in the interim. Instead, Cranmer echos Our Lord's words about discerning between good and bad trees to underline the fact that good works are works of faith by which a Christian man's faith may be discerned, and are, because of our faith, acceptable to God.

The last plank of the old Evangelical position was the doctrine of Predestination. Now folks really don't like the doctrine of Predestination today because it really cuts away at Man's pride. However, I think this is one way in which we can see that it is indeed a true and godly doctrine. Humanity's pride is what got him into trouble in the first place - remember Adam, Eve, that cunning serpent, and how he got them to partake of forbidden fruit? The basic premise of predestination is that God has called a certain number of people, known to Him alone, to respond to Him in faith and accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour. The major advantage of the doctrine is that it is an antidote to any form of spiritual pride, as they most we can say (along with St Paul) is that 'by the grace of God, I am what I am,' and it also makes it very clear that salvation is a gift of God, not a work of man. Classical Arminians, and Calvinists agree that salvation is the gift of God, but disagree on the ability of man's ability to resist or reject God's call. The overwhelming majority of Anglican Evangelicals have held fully to the reformed position, with a minority embracng the Wesleyan variation on Arminianism.

Historically, the mainstream of Anglican Evangelicalism has been a moderate form of Reformed teaching as represented by J C Ryle in the 19th century, and Packer and Stott in modern times. The priorities of Evangelicalism very much derive from the theology of the English Reformation, and are part and parcel of the theology of the Book of Common Prayer, which give liturgical form to the Reformed Faith.

In part 2 of this series of blogposts we are going to look at the Prayer Book and Evangelicalism.


  1. Thank you Bishop Peter. I'll be sharing this essay.

  2. What is a hindrance; is living in the shadows of the Roman Catholic for legitimacy, even though God calls them illegitimate. Also, due to the Reformation was God's rejection of the Eastern (and Oriental) Orthodox, but man insisted on pretending relations even after and during the Reformation. We should find that we Protestants are on our own in Christendom, and we need to be more active in the Mid-East.