Saturday, February 19, 2011

Historic Anglicanism and the Forgiveness of Sin

By Robin G. Jordan

The following articles on absolution, attrition, confession, contrition, and penance were taken from A Protestant Dictionary. A Protestant Dictionary was published in 1904 and contains articles on the history, doctrine, and practices of the Christian Church. The object was to provide a handy work on the Romish controversy for Protestants. A Protestant Dictionary was produced under the auspices of the Protestant Reformation Society and gave special treatment to questions concerning the Book of Common Prayer. Many of these questions were treated from the legal as well as the theological standpoint and contain many details that at that time would have been of particular interest to Evangelical members of the Church of England. A Protestant Dictionary is a useful reference even today because it clearly documents the position of the reformed Church of England and historic Anglicanism on a number of key issues. I urge readers to take the time to read and digest these articles and to compare what is identified as the doctrine of historic Anglicanism in these articles with what is taught in their own church. I believe that they show how far the Anglican Church in Canada and the United States has fallen away from that doctrine. They also point to the weaknesses of the theology that has come to replace that doctrine in a number of churches.

Among the problems that have beset The Episcopal Church is the deep erosion of the biblical authority on a wide range of issues, the noticeable absence of clear-cut doctrine on these issues, and the general lack of faithfulness to the Bible and the Protestant Reformation in matters of doctrine and practice. In order to charge an Episcopal bishop with teaching doctrine contrary to the teaching of the Church the bishops of the Episcopal Church must first be polled to determine if they regard the particular doctrine in question as contrary to what the Church teaches. The likelihood that the bishop accused of teaching doctrine contrary to Church teaching will be charged and tried is very slim. The doctrine of The Episcopal Church is essential the doctrine of whoever are her bishops at a particular time.

Both the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Mission in the Americas manifest similar doctrinal fuzziness to The Episcopal Church. We see different churches taking different positions on essential doctrinal matters. A number of these positions are at odds with the doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the 1661 Ordinal, the recognized doctrinal standard of historic Anglicanism. They raise questions regarding these churches’ understanding of the gospel, the place of the sacraments in the spiritual life of the Christian, and other matters that have a bearing upon salvation.

The theory of Anglican via media in its various interpretations has contributed to the present situation. It has been reinterpreted over and over again to justify ever-widening latitude not only on secondary and tertiary doctrines but also primary ones. While the congregations and clergy of the ACNA and the AMiA have said “no” to a number of the more radical doctrines, they have not relinquished this concept. “Three streams, one river” theology has given new life to this theory, and made room for a greater disparity in opinions in certain areas. At the same time it has shown itself to be far from friendly to the Protestant Reformation and historic Anglicanism.

The via media was contrived to rationalize deviation from the doctrine and practice of the Protestant Reformation and historic Anglicanism. It is a fiction—a falsehood that has been tacitly accepted by a number of Anglicans and Episcopalians in North America. “Three streams, one river” theology is a similar fiction and serves the same purpose. The middle path between two traditions with disparate theologies has been re-imagined as a convergence of three traditions with disparate theologies.

The English Church at the Reformation did not complete break with the pre-1549 Church. The reformed Church of England maintained continuity with that Church where she had retained the primitive and apostolic faith. However, the English Church broke with that Church where she had departed from that faith. She rejected and disavowed the innovations that defaced and overlaid that faith. What the adherents of the via media theory sought to do was to restore those innovations and introduce new innovations that the Romish Church had adopted since the Reformation.

The adherents of the “three streams, one river” theology, on the other hand, are seeking not only to make unreformed Catholic doctrine and practice a part of Anglicanism but also Pentecostal doctrine and practice. They take a minimalist view of Evangelicalism, reducing it to an emphasis on evangelism and Scripture.

In reality a river has one or two strong currents and the remaining current or currents are quite weak and in some cases are just mere eddies. Anyone familiar with rivers and the watersheds that feed them know that the water supplying a river may change with the season. It may come from melting snow or heavy rains. Consequently, one or more the tributary creeks, rivers, and streams feeding it may provide more water at different times of the year. Its currents change and shift. They bring into the river all kinds of impurities— bloated carcasses of dead animals debris from trees growing along their banks, chemical wastes from factories, runoff from fields, sewerage from cities and towns, and silt from where they have undercut their banks. If a river empties into a large body of water like the Mississippi River, “the Big River” as the Native American peoples called it, empties in the Gulf of Mexico, the river may begin its life as spring water bubbling up from the ground, crystal-clear and pure, but at the end of its journey flows into the lake or sea silt-laden and impure.

I lived in New Orleans for a number of years and worked in that city even longer. New Orleans is built on the banks of the Mississippi River near its mouth. The city’s main source of water is the Mississippi River. It must go to great lengths to remove the impurities from the river’s water in order to make it drinkable. Only the poor actually drink the water. Those who can afford bottled water buy that and drink it.

If the Church can be likened to a river, the condition of the river at the time of the Reformation can be likened to the condition of the Mississippi River by the time it reaches New Orleans. It is undrinkable from all the contaminants that it contains. It bears no resemblance to the spring water that it may once have been. The Reformers sought to purify the water from its contaminants. They also sought to remove what was contaminating the river so it would flow pure again.

Since that time others have come along and allowed the water to become contaminated again. Some have deliberately reintroduced contaminants into the water because they like the “flavor” of the contaminated water and out of the mistaken belief that it enhances the quality of the water.

5oo years ago the struggle was over whether the water needed purifying and the extent that it needed purifying. The Church of Rome insisted that it was perfectly safe to drink and even that it was unhealthy not to drink it. One wing of the reforming party, which later became the Puritans, did not believe that despite efforts to purify it and to remove the sources of contaminants, it was pure enough. It still contained too many contaminants and the sources of these contaminants were yet to be removed.

Today we find ourselves involved in the same struggle. The Reformers provided the Church of England and her daughter churches with what may be described as a water-purity standard. If the water meets this standard, it is safe to drink. They based this standard on a description of the water of the river close to its source that they found in the Bible.

One wing of the Anglican Church has discard this standard and is drinking impure water. “We are perfectly healthy,” they insist. “It has not harmed us at all.” They are going as far as claiming that the water is improved by admixture of impurities from various sources. This prompts one to question whether the contaminants in the water may be affecting their judgment and therefore others cannot rely on their judgment as to the safety of water. Their claims that it even has health-giving properties must likewise be viewed with skepticism.

It also suggests a new avenue of inquiry. How much is the contemporary preoccupation in our culture with all natural ingredients, herbal preparations, locally grown and seasonal vegetables and fruit, natural sources of vitamins and minerals, organic foods, raw foods, and unadulterated and un-pasteurized foodstuffs is an expression of the same underlying cultural development that is influencing the thinking of these people? This preoccupation is not just motivated by a desire for better health but also a desire for greater authenticity. The result has not only been faddism but the propagation and spread of many erroneous and even harmful beliefs and practices. I am personally well aware of the particular dangers of this trend having adopted a vegetarian diet for various reasons in the late 1970s-early1980s. I would suggest that both trends are susceptible to the same kind of pitfalls.

Diet and spirituality are two areas of our lives in which we are not apt to closely examine what may be influencing us. Diets and spiritualities have their gurus and their followings. We can be equally as fanatical about a particular spirituality as we can a particular diet.

Another trend in our culture is to take a cafeteria approach to spirituality—a small helping from this steam tray and a larger helping from that steam tray and so on. Churches that embrace a “three streams, one river” theology and usages are not only influenced by that trend but are also catering to it. They are more creatures of contemporary culture than they realize.

I would like to see these churches return to the water purity standard of the Reformation. This does not mean that they must abandon the use of contemporary music, the creative arts, or ceremonial in worship. But it does meant that they must exercise care in what contemporary music they use, how they use the creative arts, and what ceremonial they use. Whatever they sing and whatever they do must be congruent with the doctrine and practice of historic Anglicanism. Most importantly they must be preaching the gospel of grace and must hold an understanding of the sacraments consonant with the message of the gospel.

To encourage their return to this standard and to promote authentic historic Anglicanism and the Protestant and Reformed heritage of the Church of England, The Heritage Anglican Network will be regularly publishing articles from A Protestant Dictionary and other sources. Many of these articles will come from a period in English Church history when a movement was afoot to lower that standard or to dispense with it altogether and to permit a greater quantity and number of impurities, new and old, in the Church of England. They were written by American, Canadian, and English Churchmen who sought to defend that standard and to safeguard the Church of England and her daughter churches from such contamination. These Churchmen saw the real danger that these contaminants presented to the Church.

We live in an age in which parts of the Anglican Church have come to accept a lower standard and consequently we may not appreciate their level of concern or their sense of urgency. We have become accustomed to drinking polluted water even though we harm ourselves in drinking it. We can have purer water—sparkling, clear, and free from most contaminants. But it requires taking the necessary steps to ensure the purity of our water supply. This includes keeping the pollutants out of the river as well as purifying its water. Returning to the doctrinal standard of the historic Anglican formularies and upholding them as the authoritative standard is the first step.

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