Reactionary -- in times and seasons
In a recent post I mentioned "reactionary elements" in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. One commenter, a fellow blogger in fact, asked if I was attributing heresies to the early Anglican thinkers who wrote those Articles. I responded to the effect that I meant no such thing. I want to be expand that idea further.
One of the great intellectual challenges in Anglicanism is finding the complementary nature of truth. It is easy to become very partisan within our own heritage, and to side quickly and easily with one circle of Anglicans in opposition to others. I speak strictly of those orthodox enough to agree with the Affirmation of St. Louis, not of everyone who uses the label "Anglican". It is easy, if not lazy, to lump people into groups "for and against" various expressions of doctrine that, at the end of the day, fit comfortably under one big roof.
The more difficult, more challenging, and therefore more rewarding approach requires a certain endeavor we call learning, and also the endeavor we call thinking. The fact is, we have been handed a heritage that places us in, what C.S. Lewis once called, "the largest room of all." Part of this is because of history, and that history has created a large theological inheritance, once which requires the space of so large a room.
Anglicans (excepting the modern redesigned model or version, outside the pale) have been very conservative by inclination, to much so that we have conserved a printer's error from 1549 in subsequent editions of the Book of Common Prayer that, quite by accident, left the word "holy" out of the Creed called Nicene, speaking about the Church--certainly not a doctrinal issue, as the word "holy" is still there in the Apostle's Creed. We have been given a library of theology all our own, that is, written by Anglicans, and the chief documents have been conserved intact. If we read carefully we begin to see the large extent to which the most influential writers were subject to the prevailing historical forces of their times, so that their work was directly relevant to the age in which they wrote, whether voicing private opinions or establishing formularies.
If we accept the fact that our fathers acted, thought and wrote in good faith, and that they all sought to be faithful to the received Tradition of the Church as set forth by the ancient Catholic Doctors and Bishops, we are then able to appreciate the work of each generation in its historical context. This requires us, therefore, to be favorably disposed to the "reactionary elements" of truth as it clashed with error. To risk coming across as simplistic, this means that we may begin to see that the sixteenth century English Reformers were forced to react against Medieval errors, and to cleanse the Church from that influence. It means also, that nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglicans were right to react to errors which reduced the sacramental system of the Church to mere symbolism, and robbed the Church of many riches that can be included in the worship of God. The choice of one generation's necessary and wholesome reactions to error, over that of another, is a false choice.
The sixteenth century Reformers restored the faith we need to have in the Gospel itself, the Caroline Divines restored the faith as we need to practice it in the Church, and the Oxford movement reminded us of our place in the Universal Church and of the charismatic efficacy of the sacraments. This summary is, I admit, simplistic (it is Monday morning after all, and I am distracted by the happy sounds of children in the Vacation Bible School just under my office at this moment). However, with years and years of reading under my belt, I see that we have inherited the big picture that ties these truths together, and we cannot do without them; furthermore, they really are complementary rather than contradictory. This is not something I imagine, but something I live.
It makes me wonder, also, how some Christians in a future generation might notice the good, wholesome and necessary reactions in our emphasis, and whether they will mistake our current emphasis as unbalanced, or see it for what it is.