Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections on Scripture, Ecclesiology, and English History

My research project involves me reading Anglican polemic in Restoration era England (1660/62-1688) and it's quite striking how some prelates argued. Now there were some who tried to justify, perhaps against all sense and reason, that the Anglican polity is itself biblically grounded, pre-Roman, and Apostolic. It's almost ridiculous how much back-bending gymnastics they undertake to get Scripture, tradition, even common history, to agree with them. There are people like them, the Continuing Church, Neo-Tractarian, Anglo-Catholics, who still prattle on about the Branch "Fact".

But then there were others, labelled "latitudinarian", who had no will or patience to engage in these bizarre antics. They did not want to wield a high-hand against many non-conformists, especially those who had potential for comprehension, a deal for absorbing these groups back into the Establishment church. And yet, they introduce an acid of skepticism into this whole procedure. They have a very high view of Scripture as Word of God and Divine Law. And yet, they turn to a kind of skepticism and magisterial realism. In short, the Word of God is unclear on pretty much everything related to ecclesiology, but the magistrate's law, dictating a particular form or practice, is not unclear, and, according to natural law, our consciences are constrained by the magistrate, therefore we ought to obey his commands for the state of the church. But, says the non-conformist, this-or-that Anglican practice is not sufficiently biblical. Too bad, says the prelate.

Reading between the lines, one can feel the suffocation of these arguments. The Reformational doctrine of adiaphora, or the idea that there are numerous doctrines that are second-order and thus not worth fighting over, is highly weaponized. Reading these documents, I felt like I was in the chamber of an Inquisitor. How certain can I really know doctrine-x? Do I really stand to contradict the sovereign of the realm? Will I suffer for it? It sounds all too serpentish, "Can we really know God's Word?". Now granted, these clerics did not say the Bible was unreadable, only that numerous doctrines were unclear and thus not binding. But they are not binding from a Scriptural warrant, thus they are up for being bound by natural constraint, namely a social compact of your home nation.

These men were accused of being Erastians, that is they had submitted the church to the state. It's not an unfair charge, but it doesn't get at the root. When the Church is bound-up with the State, per Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy, making the monarch the head of the church, there is bound to be severe problems. But maybe it's more. Interestingly enough, many Restoration era clerics argued for the utility of the Church's form viz. ancient practice. This included, as one would expected, church history practices, but also practices of pagans (e.g. Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, etc.). The point was that religion was a natural phenomenon, and all peoples have an altar and a temple. Thus Christianity, as truest and purest, follows Nature in this regard.

I'm not saying the Kingdom of God is against Nature, defining this as the basic order of Human socialization, but it is certainly more than this. This is a fundamental symptom of failing to realize the Church is not merely a Human institution, but an expansion, or extension, of the God-Man Christ Jesus. In a qualified sense, I agree that the Church is an extension of the Incarnation, that what Christ is by Nature, we are by Grace.

But what does this mean institutionally? The Body of Christ is not an organization in the World, contrary to claims of Rome. But then what is it? This question has been haunting me, and has forced me to cling more to the Scriptures and the authoritative visions outlined. Even if it is not clear, it is certainly not an excuse to ignore the bounding form of God's Word. Ecclesiology, as it's clear from the Bible, is not open to pragmatism, but is a first-order issue for how Christians live and breathe as a People.

These clerics reveal how these gates towards foreign ideas don't take much to open. Most Protestants, as a friend put it, can't give a better explanation or description of Church than Sociology for Human society writ large. Restoration clerics would be proud of this, but it shows how far they've fallen from anything godly. In a lot of ways, they glory in the fact they represent Christianized nationals, a cult still dependent on blood and soil. It's not for nothing that the Church of England has gravitated with the moods of Empire.

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