The following was a personal testimony written in January of 2009 regarding my departure from confessional Presbyterianism. At the time, I was in the midst of finishing a letter of transfer with the session at 1st OPC in San Francisco to an Anglican church nearby. Nearly two years later, I can happily say what was once a bitterness has passed into joy. Reconciling the ‘good’ from late-Reformed churches has allowed me to to recover the original Protestantism belonging to classical Anglicanism, and surprisingly this has proven an important part of my growth with Christ. It has permitted me forgive the darker side of the Reformation, thus, not only reconciling myself to Reformed churches in general, but more importantly allowing me to maintain heartfelt ties to many friends I left behind in Presbyterianism. Leaving churches is never easy. Nor is it something I ever want to do again.
In 2009, I wanted my OPC session to know the depth of my troubles with the WCF, and I was probably also aiming for their sympathy. I’ve since discovered a number of other REC Anglicans who’ve also experienced a similar journey, and this gives some comfort that I am probably not alone. Below is an overview describing where I felt alienated from the work of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1648, but it also outlines areas where I continue to be very Protestant. My hope is there is something irenic below:
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” — 1 Thes. 5:19-22.
When evaluating doctrinal disagreements against the Westminster Confession, it often felt my gap with WCF became too great. Not only did I “reject” the narrow sense of solo scriptura (keeping open possibilities of apostolic oral tradition), but I also questioned solo fide, or the church as a means for faith. It was not simply a question of RPW– though iconoclastic RPW was enough. And, while OPC did not require lay subscription to WCF, nonetheless, tithes and offerings indeed financed a ministry that propogted RPW. This not only pricked conscience, but Puritan doctrines of RPW have worked together with solo fide and solo scriptura to ‘tear the robe of Christ’ since Cromwell’s Interregnum. The narrow treatment of these three categories have seem to have frustrated the original protestant goal of using the secular power to establish a confessional unity until a free general council between Evangelicals and Rome might be had. These points were definitive of early Protestantism, and it’s sad to see them displaced by variants of Radicalism today. James Jordan, a Tyler TX high church presbyterian, said of Puritan biblicism:
“The Reformers had realized that God’s ‘commands’ are found in Scripture in ‘precept, principle, and example’. Their heirs tended to exchange this wholistic openness to the Word of God for a quest for ‘explicit commands’. Instead of reading the bible to see the patterns presented there for our imitation, there was an attempt to find the bare minimum of what is actually ‘commanded’ in the New Testament. The book of Revelation, which shows how worship in heaven (Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’), was ignored. Anabaptist minimalism soon overwhelmed the Reformed churches”. (p.28, Sociology of the Church)
The Magisterial Reformation: In my mind, “low church” protestants usually belong to one of two groups. Either they take on a practical, almost instinctual and, consequently, ahistoric outlook with respect to ecclesiology. Or, while they might confessionally identify with a portion of early Protestancy, but waves of revivalism combined with various sociological trends undermine what was otherwise crucial to the Magisterial Reformation. By “magisterial” I mean three things:
1. Catholic Concilarism: First, the early Reformation viewed itself as a concilar movement within rather than a separation from the church. Rome, not Protestantcy, departed from biblical and catholic faith. Keeping a degree of medieval thought, Reformers continued the concilarism known in the 15th century at Constance and Basil where the notorious anti-popes were rejected. Reconciliation with Rome was not beyond the pale of Reformed opinion given the Papacy accepted equal terms to a new general council. Until then, the Princes of various territories were expected to protect reformed churches. Germans hoped the Holy Roman Emperor backed by the Princes would compel the Pope to a free council, yet the unequal terms of Trent hindered reconciliation. Attempts at Protestant unity was elusive, too often dashed by differences in sacrament and, later on, general matters of worship
Whatever division from Rome occurred during the early period, 1526-1581, were only treated as temporary if not practical matters. Unlike Anabaptist radicals, Reformers did not pine for an imagined primitive community with all authority beyond the congregation absent. But, in most cases Reformers were pleased to keep the church of Constantine, expressed by its related Councils and Creeds, as well as certain carry-overs from medieval ritual. Reformers also argued their case with RC’s in the common ecclesiastical language of the day– not only Latin but the terminology borrowed from scholastics. Cranmer’s observed this reformed use of catholic language:
“And I protest and openly confess, that in all my doctrine and preaching, both of the sacrament and of other my doctrine, whatsoever it be, not only I mean and judge those things as the catholic Church and the most holy fathers of old, with one accord, have meant and judged; but also I would gladly use the same words that they used, and not use any other words, but to set my hand to all and singular their speeches, phrases, ways and forms of speech, which they do use in their treatises upon the sacrament, and to keep still their interpretation.”
2. Christian Law: Second, the “magisterial” reformation upheld the role of the Christian state in ecclesiastical affairs. Reformers wanted a “covenanted polity” or established church where the Prince generally managed controversies in both doctrine and worship. While the Luther might have initially envisioned a polity based entirely on laity for Germany, he soon referred to the Byzantine state-church as a better means to preserve the medieval unity of Christendom, not shying to involve the Prince or municipal power true religion’s maintenance. Indeed, by 1526-9 the Lutherans had agreed to enforced aspects of Charles V’s Edict at Worms, for example, punishing sectarian Anabaptists who worshiped privately. Upon the outbreak of Puritan disruption against Anglican liturgy, the English Crown settled controversies in worship. Even Ridley who was favorable to Swiss opinion explained “cuius regio, eius religio” as the answer to Hooper in areas of ceremony and external matters.
3. Monastic Piety: Third, the established church as vision of a ‘sanctified people’, replacing the arch-abbot with the cure of the Sovereign, sought to revitalize the penitential and pious life of the common man. Reformers often criticized the ‘works’ of the monks for making men pay more scruple to rules of fasting rather than heartfelt repentance and faith. Authors like R.H. Tawney observed Reformers, especially the Puritan kind, sought to bring the habit of the Benedictine Rule from the remoteness of the cloister into all areas of social life. The life of continual prayer, holy living, moral purity, and self-denial was a worthy calling for all christen men, not restricted to specialized religious orders. Both Luther and Calvin held to medieval ideas of the Christian-state, believing in a moral perfection. The reformed missals or church-orders of these nations gave the people the lessons of the chapter with frequent communion as a pattern taken from the monastic cloister. Tawney says of reformed morality:
“Where Lutheranism had been socially conservative, deferential to established political authorities, the exponent of a personal, almost a quiestic, peity, Calvinism was an active and radical force. It was a creed which sought, not merely to purify the individual, but to reconstruct the Church and State, and to renew society by penetrating every department of life, public as well as private, by the influence of religion…The essence of the system was not preaching or propaganda, though it was prolific of both, but the attempt to crystallize a moral ideal in the daily life of a visible society, which should be at once a Church and State. Having overthrown monasticism, its aim was to turn the secular world into a gigantic monastery, and at Geneva, for a short time, it almost succeeded…Manners and morals were regulated, because it is through the minutiae of conduct that the enemy of mankind finds his way to the soul” (p. 102, 115, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism)
These elements of early protestantism– e.g., catholic concilarism, christian law, and monastic piety– describe some of the “core” features of the Magisterial Reformation as it related to older catholicism in the 1550’s if not beyond.
Retreat from “Core”: The retreat from this early (magisterial) Protestant ‘core’ involves many things. While the aims of Reformers were likely noble, I’ve often wondered if the rationale behind the purification of medieval errors was too zealous or introduced propositions that were otherwise unstable? Romanists often make charactures sola fide and sola scripture, conflating such things as Anabaptist to Lutheran views. In my own assessment I’ve been more apt to blame Presbyterianism or Puritanism rather than the Protestancy of say Luther or Cranmer. Part of this a belief the English Reformation, steered by the Tudor and Stuart Crowns, was inherently more conservative than what transpired in Switzerland and Germany. What started as early reformation solas were distorted by parties , the leftwing of which mixed anabaptist sentiment with more ‘churchy’ reformed thought, often the case with Puritans. The fruits of this admixture was evident upon the climax of English Puritanism after the Army ejected Presbyterians in 1645. Edmund Calamy lamented this confusion produced by the toleratio that tore England’s fabric of family religion even after Cromwell,
“Would it not be a sad thing to see twelve in a family, and one of them a Presbyterian, another an Independent, another a Brownist, another an Antinomian, another an Anabaptist, another a Familist, another for the Prelatical government, another a Seeker, another a Papist, and the tenth it may be an Atheist, the eleventh a Jew, & the twelfth a Turk?”
Edmund is describing the effects of congregational disestablishment upon England, and we might ask if Congregationalism is nothing more than religious pluralism? Congregationalism, if not Puritanism itself, surely came by a mistaken notion that sola scriptura justified private opinion before the church as keeper of holy writ. Indeed, the plea of sola scriptura is sometimes said to have first debuted at Speyer 1526. But Speyer was a far cry from private opinion and certainly far removed from congregationalism. At Speyer the Lutheran princes asserted their evangelical duty to determine the faith of their people in the territories they ruled. This is very different from the individualistic version that reduces sola scripturato private belief. Ironcially, Presbyterians wanted a national covenant, but by the civil war launched against Anglicans an Anabaptist spirit was released upon England that did not stop with tolerance but further pushed for disestablishment in the colonies and a eventually a ‘free church’ in Scotland and England. The doctrine of civil resistance combined with extreme iconoclasm made Presbyterianism a midwife against the very discipline it hoped to birth. While Presbyterianism sought a nationally-wide religious establishment favorable to itself, the manner by which it approached was later used to justify dissent in general. Neither Knox nor Cartwright could contain such religious fires. The abandonment of national uniformity marked the retreat of magisterialism in Britain under the Crown and the beginning of a ‘free market’ denominationalism regulated by private will. The congregational prototype therefore has its origins in Puritan conventicles and the violent opinions accompanied disputations raging in Parliament against the prayer book.
Visible Church. It’s amazing how old controversies is preserved through institutional memory. It’s sometimes as if all the 16th century conflicts happened yesterday. Confessional Presbyterians remain quick to call the Papacy ‘anti-christ’, equating other worship which lacks scriptural warrant with the same. However, the origin of this memory would begin in Frankfurt, born amidst the division of English refugees on the use of the 1552 prayer book. The Reverend Cox defended it while John Knox wished the English to switch to Geneva order. This little controversy which began amongst exiles would prove a turning point in the English Reformation where chronic troubles constant erupt between Puritan ‘low church’ that favored broad guidelines on worship largely determined by the parish minister vs. Anglican ‘high church’ that felt ‘fixed liturgy’ was necessary to be enforced. It would be a controversy that would not die, and, meanwhile, upon his return to from Geneva, Knox would import the same protest against fixed prayer in Scotland against the 1552 BCP there used. Combining RPW with Knox’s God-ordained right of nobility to resist the Crown in areas of religion resulted in the first Scottish Covenant which later would cause of the civil war and eventually the need for a free church.
Amazingly, these differences over sacrament and ritual have not vanished in the Reformed church. My own experience somewhat forced me to choose sides over this never-ending conflict. Not long ago the elders of a local Presbyterian church explained to their people how communion was open to “all bible believing christians”. I was not sure what “bible believing” meant and therefore inquired, requesting an example. The answer seemed almost arbitrary. Evidently, “bible believing” included baptists (even arminians) yet it oddly excluded Lutherans. When I asked why Lutherans were excluded and not Baptists (who reject, say, infant baptism), the elders explained Lutherans believed in consubstantiation. It alsoturned out certain Restorationist sects were excluded, namely, the Church of Christ, due to convictions on ‘baptismal regeneration’. I found this explanation mind-boggling, and I had to ask myself if Luther was excluded then how about Augustine and many other church fathers?
“Bible believing”, like sola scriptura, is a loaded term unless qualified. It certainly doesn’t guarantee an orthodox Protestant profession. It would indeed exclude a great branch of the Reformation starting with Protestants who might uphold the 39 articles or the Augsburg while, strangely, approving sects that read scripture apart from the historic church– i.e., Baptists and a hoarde of Fundamentalists.
Allowing communion to groups closer to Anabaptism rather than original Protestantcy is seems a stark departure from the magisterial roots of the Reformation. It also dismisses the history of colloquies and conferences where men like Bucer and Calvin actually signed onto modified forms of the Augsburg as well as English Settlement architects like Bishop Parker and Cranmer who comprehended standards to include Lutheran interpretations.
Until Reformed, and especially Presbyterian, ministers can retract theological excesses that led to the SLC, I remain pessimistic regarding the future of wide Protestant unity. Furthermore, I find it difficult to support a system of theology that has repeatedly torn the robe of Christ over senseless opposition to vestments, consubstantiation, biblical saints, Christmas feasts, marriage rings, god parents, burial rites, etc.. Unfortunately, these adiaphora are still equated by the ultra-Reformed as matters of ‘gospel’, and therefore isn’t open to negotiation.
Why am I Protestant. For the last few years I’ve really struggled with the legacy of Protestantism and how to reconcile something that did great harm to Christian society? As I leave the remnant of confessional Presbyterianism, I have to ask, “Do I take the good with me?” Presbyterianism indeed has many excellencies. Perhaps this explains why my departure was slow and hesitated. What do I love about Puritanism? Probably whatever it has in common with larger catholicism, namely, as a penitential and preaching movement.
Though the Swiss Reformed were not the most sterling examples of concilar Protestantcy, Puritanism was single-minded about increasing piety through regular catechism and instruction. A great deal of reformed thought was concerned with preparing people by self-examination/preaching for Holy Communion. The Prone was expanded as a teaching service, and Calvin wanted it used in to instruct necessary faith for communion. Puritans were also famous for public disputation, aka. “prophecizing”, whereupon the certain points of catechism were clarified and problems of exposition were shared. Another advance in teaching was setting the Psalter to meter and notes so that congregational singing might be enjoined. Even the pews, which so often restricted nave-use, existed so laity could read scripture or follow hymns during worship. No longer did the congregation idly wait until the priest elevated the body, but with frequent song, sermon, and prayer the ‘liturgy’ actually became the work of the people.
Nor should we forget the BCP’s proscription for daily prayer. The archetype for Anglican devotional and pious life was perhaps borrowed from the small minster. The family-abbey was the model the Ferrar family emulated at Little Gidding during the 1640’s where children recited 150 psalms per day, the women did frequent alms work with neighbors while men led daily prayer. It saddens me to know that many of the early Protestant churches abandoned the older means of stoking faith, especially with respect to a rule for daily prayer and lessons. Nonetheless, the pious life through scripture reading, catechetical preparation, and regular prayer seems a catholic heritage common to Puritans and Anglicans alike.
In the effort of sanctifying society, Protestantcy wanted a deeper pentitential spirit to descend upon the church. Melachthon spoke of the role of preaching to ‘terrify the heart’ so it might flee to the gospel. The first use of the law– knowing our wretchedness– was prompted by restoring the prominence of the decalogue over the evangelical counsels, and with this emphasis also came simplification of ceremonial. The pentitential spirit sometimes was embodied by Puritan Ministers refusing to vest, wearing their black, academic undergarments instead. However, as time passed, the academic gown was identified as a liturgical vestment. Perhaps the Cossack was like the black chasubles worn on ember or Good Friday services, signifying death or atonement of Christ. Perhaps this greater focus on penance would give protestantism the unusual feature of a year-long requiem mass or Good Friday sermon? At any rate, the penitential focus probably followed the Puritan’s high premium for holy living and modesty, namely, that repentance joined with faith produced good works or obedience to the law.
Magisterial Reformation remnants survive from the mainline church, identified haphazardly by rare confessional treatment of church standards, an openness to morality backed by public law, and making the family the center of holy living. Reviving these rather catholic practices is very important if Protestantism recovers its moorings after successive waves of modernism and revivalism. Nonetheless, I have never felt more ‘protestant’ until I rediscovered these early aspects of reformation and their relation to previous catholicism– hence, protestant to the “core”.