Is Anglicanism Catholic?

| September 24, 2011 | 18 Comments More

Anglicanism is Catholicism

I said in my last post that the 2-word definition of Anglicanism is “Reformed Catholicism.” (Funny: isn’t there a blog name somewhere in the blogosphere with that name?)

Though often lost in an over-emphasis on Protestantism (the “Reformed” aspect of Anglicanism), Anglicanism has always been a quest for catholicity.  As I said in my previous blog: “Reformed” is the adjective which modifies the noun “Catholicism.”  By this I mean that there is a Catholic substance of the faith that Anglican seeks to maintain and preserve.  When this Catholic faith is distorted, obscured, mixed with additions and errors, then it needs to be reformed.  In this way, the Catholic identity of Anglicanism is always primary, while the Reformed aspect is always a secondary (but still essential) aspect that acts upon the basic Catholic faith which is at the core of Anglicanism.

So what does the word “Catholic” mean?  If I’m going to claim that Anglicanism is essentially Reformed Catholicism, then it would be nice of me to let you know what it is that I mean by “Catholic.”  Unfortunately, in the Western world for many centuries the word “Catholic” has been associated exclusively with one particular church: the Roman Catholic Church.  For most Americans and Westerners to say someone’s a Catholic means that that person is a “Roman Catholic.”

But this isn’t the original meaning of the word “Catholic,” and it’s not what Anglicanism means when it says its “Catholic” by nature.  When Christian recite the historic Creeds and say that they believe in the “Catholic church,” they’re not saying that they believe in the Roman Catholic Church or all that it believes.  Catholic is a word that basically means “universal” or “whole.”  It’s therefore used of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church as practiced by the undivided Church in the early centuries after Christ.  It has taken on a secondary meaning of “universal in scope,” and the Church, the one Body of Christ, is certainly the most universal or widely spread religion in the world.  St. Cyril captured the multiple and related meanings of “Catholic” when he wrote: “The Church, then, is called Catholic because it is spread through the whole world . . . and because it never stops teaching in all its fullness every doctrine that men ought to be brought to know. . . .  It is called Catholic also because it brings into religious obedience every sort of men, rulers and ruled, learned and simple, and because it is a universal treatment and cure for every kind of sin . . . .”

Catholicity in the sense of what was universally believed is often expressed in the words of St. Vincent of Laurens, in what has come to be called “the Vincentian Canon.”  The Vincentian Canon is this: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally.”

Anglicanism exists, therefore, because it is a Catholic faith, truly attempting to hold to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).  This Catholic faith is first and foremost found in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  The New Testament is a record of the apostolic teaching of the first century, primarily preserved in the form of Gospels and letters.  They alone are the Word of God and the inspired, highest authority for what Christians believe, and they contain all things necessary to salvation.

However, the Bible always requires interpretation, and so the question arises, “Who has the authority to interpret?”  The best and true answer is, “The Church,” which, of course, must itself be defined.  Certain authoritative interpretations of the Scriptures are necessarily a part of the Catholic faith.  These include especially the Creeds (especially the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) and the first four (some would say seven) Ecumenical Councils.  While not having the same authority as the Bible, they are authoritative interpretations and summaries of the Bible, and are therefore Catholic, meaning apostolic and universal, in nature.

There are many points about doctrine, discipline, and worship that are not immediately clear from Scripture, even if Scripture speaks of these particular points.  Often, issues arise that lie outside of what is taught in the Bible, the Creeds, or the Councils.  Is there somewhere else we can turn for the best and most authoritative interpreter of the apostolic faith of the Church?

The answer is, “The Church Fathers.”  While not inspired like the Bible and not as authoritative or unified as the Creeds or Councils, the Church Fathers provide a good record of the earliest and most universal beliefs of the early church on matters not entirely clear from Scripture itself.  Anglicans have consistently turned and returned to the Fathers to help guide them in trying to maintain the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the early church, which is to say, the Catholic, apostolic faith of the Church.  If a particular belief or practice was present in the first century and continued until the sixteenth century (when many ancient practices and beliefs were overthrown), then it’s a safe bet that that particular belief or practice is what was handed down by the apostles.  To put things another way: who’s more likely to know what the apostles meant in Scripture and how they expected the churches to live and worship: those who were the immediate and proximate descendants of the apostles – or those who have come 2000 years later?

Another source of catholicity, in which the Catholic and apostolic faith was preserved, is the ancient liturgies.  The early liturgies provide us not only with knowledge about how the early church worshiped, but also about how they interpreted certain things.  Liturgies are not only about worship but also about spirituality and theology.

I’m willing to wager that just about every Christian believes his church is living, believing, and worshiping the way the early Church did.  Well, we know a lot about what the early church believed, how they lived, and how they worshiped: and it looks a whole lot like historic Anglicanism, early Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and to a lesser degree Lutheranism.  This is because these church traditions, in particular, have been built upon the apostolic and Catholic nature of the early church, while many Protestant traditions ignore the testimony of the early church and derive their faith and life from much later traditions that began at the time of the Reformation or even later.

And so this preserving of the apostolic faith in its doctrine, discipline, and worship, as was kept universally by the early Church, represents the Catholic ideal upon which the Reformed Catholic character of Anglicanism rests.  While Anglicanism has some distinctives of its own, its fundamental identity and character is that it is an inheritor and keeper of the one, apostolic, Catholic faith of the early church, as inculturated into diverse time periods and cultures.

Next time: the Reformed character of Anglicanism. (And then a blog or two on how some of us have become Anglican.)


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  1. Danny Erlandson says:

    25 September 2011 [456th anniversary of the Peace of Augsburg]

    TITLE: A Protestant by Any Other Name: Anglicanism as a Form of “Protestant Catholicism” OR Newman’s Revenge

    Dear Charles,

    I enjoyed this article and look forward to your next blog, on the “Reformed” side of “Reformed Anglicanism.” By the way, was it a Freudian Slip (i.e., an unconscious confession that you seek to reform Anglicanism), an innocent tyqo (er, uhm, I mean TYPO), or am I missing something? I refer to what you wrote in the introductory lines of the present blog (September 24):

    “I said in my last post that the 2-word definition of Anglicanism is ‘Reformed ANGLICANISM.’ (Funny: isn’t there a blog name somewhere in the blogosphere with that name?)”

    I assume you meant “Reformed CATHOLICISM.”

    But this little slip of the “pen” raises several key questions: viz. what is “Protestantism”? Why not be content with calling Anglicanism a species of the genus (a subset of the set) Protestantism and reserve “Catholicism” (without any modifier such as “Reformed”) for Roman Catholicism? Of course, Protestantism and Catholicism could be two genre of the family “Christianity.” In this taxonomy and nomenclature, we would say “Anglican Protestant Christianity” much like we would speak of “homo sapien sapien.”

    I, too, want to recapture or recover the word “catholic” to include not just ROMAN (or UNreformed) Catholics but Trinitarian Christians of all stripes. But if one does this, doesn’t the word “catholic” become virtually synonymous with “Christian” (just as the word “orthodox” does, without the modifiers of “Eastern” or “Greek”)? If so, then why not speak of “Reformed Orthodoxy” or even “Reformed Christianity” rather than “Reformed Catholicism” (in the 1500s and 1600s and even in the 1700s Englishman often spoke simply of the “reformed religion” vs. the “old religion”–i.e., Anglicanism vs. Roman Catholicism)?

    As you mention in the present blog, your last blog pointed out that “Reformed” is the adjective that modifies the noun “Catholicism” in the construction “Reformed Catholicism,” making “Catholicism” primary or more foundational. But the word “Protestant” comes from the Latin for “to witness or testify for” (“pro” plus “testari”); thus, a “Protestant” is one who testifies for Christ–which is about as foundational as one can get in characterizing a disciple of Jesus Christ (of course, the Protestant Reformers had a negative goal as well: it sought not only to testify positively of the Gospel of Grace, but it objected to–or “protested” against–the innovations in teaching and corruptions of rituals and practices that Roman Catholic popes, councils, and theologians had introduced in the Renaissance; it thus sought to get back to the “pure” doctrines and practices of the patristic, ancient church). Why then not speak of “Catholic Protestantism,” as distinct from the “Sectarian Protestantism” of various Anabaptist groups? Or, why not speak of Anglicanism as part of “Catholic Evangelicalism” and make the gospel (the evangelium) the more fundamental word, modified by catholicity? Or perhaps speak of “Evangelical Catholicism”–i.e., Bible-based catholicism?

    In other words, I think THE TERM “REFORMED CATHOLICISM” IS PROBLEMATIC IF YOU’RE TRYING TO USE IT AS A SYNONYM FOR “ANGLICANISM.” Why? Because it’s far too broad and inclusive (indeed, it’s almost as broad as the term “Protestantism”)–after all, many Lutherans, Presbyterians, et al., are also “Reformed Catholics.” Thus, as I point out below, one of the main objections to the 1701 Act of Settlement was that it ensured that the LUTHERAN Hanoverians would assume the English throne, bypassing Queen Anne’s Stuart relatives as heirs to the English throne. Why was this a problem for some leaders of the Church of England? Because George I, a devout Lutheran, was TOO “CATHOLIC” and NOT “PROTESTANT” OR “REFORMED” ENOUGH–in particular, he embraced consubstantiation, which contradicted Articles XXVIII and XXIX of the Thirty-nine Articles (i.e., Lutheranism, as does Roman Catholicism, falsely asserts that EVERYone who eats the elements–not just those who partake with faith–partakes of Christ’s body and blood. Also, Lutherans, as do Roman Catholics, falsely assert that Christ is given, taken, and eaten in a PHYSICAL, carnal manner, not exclusively in a HEAVENLY and SPIRITUAL manner). In addition, Lutheranism contradicted Article XXV by affirming that confession was a sacrament “of the gospel,” thus making three sacraments instead of two.

    But there’s perhaps an even more thorny problem with your approach, dear brother (emphasis below is mine):

    “In this way, the CATHOLIC identity of Anglicanism is always PRIMARY, while the REFORMED aspect is always a SECONDARY (but still ESSENTIAL) aspect that acts upon the basic Catholic faith which is at the core of Anglicanism. . . . And so this preserving of the apostolic faith in its doctrine, discipline, and worship, as was kept universally by the early Church, represents the Catholic ideal upon which the REFORMED CATHOLIC character of Anglicanism rests. While ANGLICANISM HAS SOME DISTINCTIVES of its own, its FUNDAMENTAL IDENTITY and character is that it is an inheritor and keeper of the one, apostolic, CATHOLIC faith of the early church, as inculturated into diverse time periods and cultures.”

    Let’s suppose catholicity is indeed the most fundamental aspect of Anglicanism–after all, embracing the Apostles’ Creed, the first four ecumenical councils, etc., the Nicene Creed, the Trinity, the Chalcedonian formula on Christ, etc. (the key elements of Catholicism that you reference) is very foundational indeed. But in a sense this makes catholicity the LEAST important part of Anglican identity. Why? Precisely because catholicity is SO fundamental, it doesn’t distinguish Anglicans from millions upon millions of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, Methodists, etc., and thus does little to IDENTIFY Anglicans or distinguish them from Roman Catholics, Lutherans, etc. This doesn’t mean that the Apostles’ Creed, belief in the Trinity, etc., are unimportant, just that they are too foundational to distinguish Anglicanism from the myriad of other varieties of Christianity. Yes, for many centuries you could’ve made the case that Roman Catholicism wasn’t very “catholic” in its worship–since it rejected use of the vernacular–in contrast to the patristic church’s approach to worship. Likewise, for centuries Roman Catholicism suppressed translation of the Bible into the language of the people, in contrast to the patristic church’s practice (for the first several centuries of its existence, the church enthusiastically translated the Bible into many different languages). But since the 1960s (Vatican II), the Roman Catholic church has begun to return to the practice of the patristic church; likewise, it has begun to “inculturate” the gospel into diverse cultures rather than make everyone into a Roman or Latin. Of course, Roman Catholicism still uses the Apocrypha as part of Scripture, even though the Apocrypha never had a “catholic” consensus supporting its canonicity.

    Furthermore, even the narrower term “REFORMED Catholicism” is too broad, for it is likewise too inclusive:

    “When this Catholic faith is distorted, obscured, mixed with additions and errors, then it needs to be reformed.”

    Thus, Anglicanism is joined by Lutheranism, Reformed churches, etc., in reforming Roman Catholicism’s views on justification, merit, venial sins, the Apocrypha, papal supremacy, the equality of church tradition with Scripture, etc. To be sure, as you point out, Charles, catholicity and being reformed are each NECESSARY for Anglicanism, but neither is SUFFICIENT–and even in tandem they aren’t SUFFICIENT.

    I KNOW, I KNOW–I need to read your dissertation, Charles, to get the full story. In the meantime, however, let me say how genuinely grateful I am that you implicitly admit that ANGLICANISM IS A SPECIES OF “PROTESTANTISM”:

    “Though often lost in an over-emphasis on Protestantism (the ‘Reformed’ aspect of Anglicanism), Anglicanism has always been a quest for catholicity.”

    This implicit, if buried, admission helps mitigate the imbalanced title of your article:

    “Anglicanism is [a species of the genus] Catholicism.”

    One might just as well say:

    “Anglicanism is [a species of the genus] Protestantism.”

    The reality is that it is BOTH Catholic and Protestant. I hope your next blog asks “Is Anglicanism Protestant?” and that you give a resounding “Yes!” Now, perhaps you’re reaction is “Duhhh!–no one disputes THAT!–so why write an article proving that obvious point?”

    Because, dear brother, blinded by the propaganda of Newman and some “Anglo-Catholics,” there are many people who deny that Anglicanism is Protestant. Given the overwhelming HISTORICAL EVIDENCE THAT ANGLICANISM IS A DISTINCTIVE TYPE OF PROTESTANTISM, one might not expect this claim to be controversial, and yet it is fashionable in certain Anglican circles to deny that Anglicanism is a species of the genus (or a subset of the set) Protestantism. But to deny this is to deny history. Consider the following:

    1) In 1588 Englishmen celebrated their victory over the Armada Católica (Catholic Armada) because of the “PROTESTANT Wind” that saved their PROTESTANT land and PROTESTANT queen (Elizabeth I)

    2) In 1688-89 the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights justified forcing Roman Catholic James II off the English throne and inviting DUTCH CALVINIST William of Orange to be England’s king (as William III) because England was a “PROTESTANT kingdom” with a “PROTESTANT religion” and “PROTESTANT” Parliament and thus had to have a “PROTESTANT” monarch. While some Anglican leaders complained about William III’s adherence to Dutch Calvinism, most agreed that he could be the head of the Church of England because both the Church of England and the Reformed Church of the Netherlands were “PROTESTANT” or part of “REFORMED Religion.” Thus, in the 1689 Bill of Rights, Parliament showed no sympathy for the idea that the Church of England was anything other than a PROTESTANT church; and it never hinted at the idea that England’s religion was somehow a “via media” or middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Quite the contrary, it shows that by law, fact, and history the CHURCH OF ENGLAND WAS ESSENTIALLY SIMILAR TO THE DUTCH REFORMED CHURCH, hence England could have a Dutch Calvinist sit on the throne, for he was a fellow PROTESTANT (a fellow member of the “REFORMED religion”); in contrast, a Roman Catholic monarch was out of the question (Lutheranism was likewise embraced as essentially similar to Anglicanism, in a way Roman Catholicism was not–see point 3 below)

    3) In 1701 the Act of Settlement, approved by King William III, echoed the sentiment that “PROTESTANT,” “REFORMED religion,” and “Church of England” were all inseparably connected. It decreed that because England was a “PROTESTANT” land, its throne henceforth had to be filled by a “PROTESTANT,” a member of the Church of England (or some other “PROTESTANT” church, such as the Dutch Reformed Church, to which William of Orange had belonged). Ever since this act passed, every English monarch has been a PROTESTANT and a communicant member of the Church of England (and in a nominal way still the head of the Church of England). It was this 1701 Act of Settlement that led to the LUTHERAN Hanoverian dynasty supplanting the Roman Catholic Stuart relatives of Queen Anne in 1714, when she died. Indeed, King George I and King George II remained LUTHERANS throughout their lives, but they could possess the Royal Supremacy (headship of the Church of England) because the established view was that THERE WAS NO MAJOR DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND AND THE LUTHERAN CHURCH. Indeed, as I pointed out above, the major opposition to George I was that he was too Catholic and NOT PROTESTANT enough, because he affirmed the “popish” doctrine of consubstantiation and thus denied the Thirty-nine Articles, which expressly said that Christ was in the Lord’s Supper only in a spiritual and heavenly manner, not a physical or fleshly manner (see Thomas Lathbury, “A History of the Book of Common Prayer and Other Books of Authority” [Oxford: John Henry and James Parker, 1858], pp. 429-430)

    4) In 1789 American Anglicans named their church the PROTESTANT Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA), the first denomination (or at least denomination of any size) to use the word “PROTESTANT” in its name

    5) IN 1873 the Declaration of Principles of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) strongly reaffirmed the Protestant character of Anglicanism and repudiated Anglo-Catholicism (e.g., see statements II and IV of the Declaration of Principles)

    Perhaps it would be useful, therefore, not to abandon the word “Protestantism” in defining Anglicanism: just as it’s wise to recover the word “catholic,” as you suggest, it’s wise to recover the word “Protestant” too (see below for the potential dangers of losing this word). Thus, one could define the magisterial Reformation (Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Reformed churches, etc.) as “CATHOLIC PROTESTANTISM” and distinguish it from “SECTARIAN PROTESTANTISM” (various Anabaptists, descendants of the radical Reformation). This is not simply a latter-day invention, for Luther and many of the Protestant Reformers insisted that THEY were the “true” CATHOLICS, not Pope Leo X, et al.

    Finally, can’t the desire to call the Church of England (or Anglicanism) a species of Catholicism rather than a species of Protestantism–as your term “Reformed Catholicism” almost seems to connote–be traced back to the revisionist history of John Henry Newman? After all, isn’t he the man who created the fiction that somehow the Church of England was a “via media” between Protestantism and Catholicism, a third thing? Of course, I recognize that in a sense you’re saying the opposite of what Newman said: i.e., rather than saying Anglicanism is NEITHER Catholic nor Protestant, you’re saying it’s BOTH. But then why not say that and call Anglicanism a branch of CATHOLIC PROTESTANTISM rather than a branch of REFORMED CATHOLICISM? In any case, as I point out above, whatever term one wants to use to describe those who are both Catholic and Protestant, Anglicans are most definitely NOT alone here; for many Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, etc., are both Catholic and Protestant. Certainly “historic” Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, etc., would be “Catholic” according to your definition:

    “Certain authoritative interpretations of the Scriptures are necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. These include especially the Creeds (especially the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) and the first four (some would say seven) Ecumenical Councils. While not having the same authority as the Bible, they are authoritative interpretations and summaries of the Bible, and are therefore Catholic, meaning apostolic and universal, in nature.”

    You go on to say how Anglicans have traditionally looked to the church fathers (not just the ancient creeds and councils) for guidance in interpreting Scripture. Well, Luther, Calvin, et al., did the same, as do millions of their ecclesiastical descendants (of course, most Lutherans and Calvinists today do NOT affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary, as Luther and Calvin did, at least for a time; on the other hand, most Anglicans don’t believe this widely-held patristic doctrine either). And I think the “Protestant” and “Reformed” credentials of Lutheranism and Calvinism are impeccable, hence Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, etc., would all seem to be “Reformed Catholics” (or “Protestant Catholics,” “Catholic Protestants,” etc.).

    My concern is that by using the term “Reformed Catholicism,” Charles, you may unwittingly contribute to cutting off Anglicanism from its Protestant roots. Yes, the word “Protestant” has been so debased that it sometimes encompasses all manner of heretics, but just as it’s worthwhile rehabilitating the word “Catholic,” I think it’s worthwhile rehabilitating the word “Protestant” too (as I suggested above). The problem with forgetting the Protestant heritage of Anglicanism is not simply that Anglicanism could be “hijacked” by Roman Catholicism, but it could become unreceptive to the legions of FELLOW PROTESTANTS who’ve joined it over the centuries (e.g., the French Reformed–the Calvinistic Huguenots–were readily absorbed by Anglicanism after Louis XIV expelled them from France in 1685, because both Anglicans and Huguenots recognized that their differences were only minor).

    Of course, the worst danger is that once one denies the irreducibly Protestant character of Anglicanism, Anglicanism is ripe for Latitudinarianism and liberalism (as you yourself first pointed out to me, Charles). As I recall your argument, Newman’s “language games” first undermined the Thirty-nine Articles, and thus Anglican doctrine, from the “right”–e.g., by interpreting them so broadly that they became compatible with Roman Catholic teaching, even with transubstantiation (see especially Tract 90 [1840]). But if the Articles could be so watered down from the “right,” to allow even the most explicitly excluded of Roman Catholic teachings, then they could be watered down from the “left” too–e.g., to include such Latitudinarian (“liberal”) ideas as anti-Trinitarianism. In fact, one of the reasons for the founding of the Reformed Episcopal Church, for its split from the PROTESTANT Episcopal Church in 1873, was concern about just such semantic games, which threatened to undo the PROTESTANT, Evangelical, and Reformed heritage of the Anglican tradition by permitting distinctively Roman Catholic teachings and practices explicitly condemned in the Thirty-nine Articles.

    But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that so many Anglicans effectively throw out ALL of the distinctive norms of Anglicanism. Thus, if one can’t get rid of the clear language of the Thirty-nine Articles, one can use the “nuclear” option and weaken their authority, effectively removing them as doctrinal standards for the church. Today it is common for Anglican opponents of the teachings enshrined in the Thirty-nine Articles to admit candidly that they in fact reject various teachings in the Articles, but so what?: “Since the Articles are not, and never have been, a true confession of faith or doctrinal standard, we aren’t bound by them.” The flimsy argument they use to support this position is that LAYMEN have often not been required to adhere to the Articles to be church members. But this hardly sustains their position, for the same can be said of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith and other normative statements of faith–church MEMBERSHIP has often been based on adherence to the Apostles’ Creed and perhaps Nicene Creed, not every point of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Augsburg Confession, etc. Furthermore, that the Thirty-nine Articles were indeed intended as a binding, normative statement of doctrine is evident from the following:

    1) In 1571, the very year the Thirty-nine Articles received their definitive form, Parliament required ALL CLERGY to take an oath affirming their belief that the Articles were true

    2) A century later, in the Test Act of 1672, Parliament reaffirmed this stance, requiring ALL CIVIL AS WELL AS ECCLESIASTICAL OFFICE HOLDERS to adhere to the Articles

    3) In 1824, however, Parliament repealed subscription to the Articles for civil officials but retained it for CHURCH OFFICIALS; nonetheless, adherence to the Articles was still required for admission into Oxford and Cambridge for another half century, toward the end of the 1800s

    4) Indeed, even today the Church of England still requires EVERYONE BEING ORDAINED to acknowledge that the Articles are ” . . . agreeable to the Word of God”

    Of course, the patristic church didn’t have the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but some form of a prayer book and common prayer seems necessary to Anglicanism, no? But, as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, postmodernism has made an assault on the whole idea of common prayer. After all, we’re witnessing the break up of the nation-state in parts of the globe–and the idea of all-powerful monarchs (or parliaments) who can control all publications and impose uniform worship on everyone in their land (and lands they’ve colonized) is rather quaint today. But before the printing press–and before Rome sought to give Latin a linguistic monopoly–just how “common” or uniform was worship?

    I suppose your blog raises more questions than it answers, Charles, but far from being a defect, that’s the mark of a good blog–thanks for being so thought-provoking!

    For God’s glory,

    –Brother Danny

    • Charles says:

      There’s a lot to reply to here, Danny, but too much for a blog. Hopefully, some of your points will find answers in later blogs. In brief, what makes Anglicanism distinctive is, generally, two things. While other traditions could be considered Reformed Catholics, I don’t believe Roman Catholics or Orthodox Catholics have been reformed in the same way that Anglicanism is. On the other hand, most Protestant traditions have jettisoned several if not many aspects of the catholic faith. The other thing that makes Anglicanism distinct, which I’ll deal with in later blogs, is the fact that the Catholic Christian faith was reformed and inculturated in England in a unique way. This led, for example, to the distinctive Anglican norms of the Prayer Book and Articles.

      • Danny Erlandson says:

        25 September 2011

        Dear Charles,

        I think your answer makes sense–i.e., it comes down to a matter of degree: yes, Lutherans, Presbyterians, post-Vatican II Roman Catholics, et al., can all claim to be “Reformed Catholics” to some extent; but perhaps Anglicanism can still claim to be the “via media” or “Goldie Locks” of Reformed Catholicism, neither too radically reformed (as the Presbyterians might be) nor too unreformed (as Lutherans might be).

        As always, DEFINITIONS are vital here. Thus, Lutherans can claim to have preserved more of the “Catholic” tradition than Anglicans if we mean ROMAN Catholic (e.g., Lutherans agree with Roman Catholics that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper not solely in a heavenly or spiritual way but in a corporeal way; and many Lutherans also agree with Rome, against the Thirty-nine Articles, that there are more than two sacraments “of the gospel”).

        Of course, the battle then shifts to defining what we mean by the “early church” and the “catholic tradition”–and how to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate doctrinal development in the “catholic” tradition. Presbyterians will no doubt cite Bishop Lightfoot to bolster their claim that the primitive church did NOT differentiate elders (presbyters) from bishops (overseers)–see Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5-7; 1 Pet. 5:1-2, 5 (compare 1 Tim. 3:1-2 with 1 Tim. 5:17-19).

        Just to clarify my own schema of Christianity (at least Western Christianity):

        (1) UNreformed (I did NOT say DEformed!) Catholicism = Roman Catholicism; it is ONLY Catholic, not Protestant

        (2) Reformed Catholicism = Catholic Protestantism; it is Catholic AND Protestant (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc., all fit here, but to varying DEGREES. Thus, the Lutherans are more on the Protestant side, the Lutherans more on the Catholic side, with Anglicans in between those two)

        (3) Sectarian Protestantism is ONLY Protestant, not Catholic (Mennonites, Amish, etc.)

        For God’s glory,


        P.S.: Hey–how Orwellian! My initial post pointed out a key “typo,” which has now been corrected. Now people will think I’m crazy. Well, it was such a severe “typo,” prone to create such confusion, I think you did the right thing.

  2. Charles says:

    Dear Danny,
    You define protestantism as, “to witness or testify for” (“pro” plus “testari”); thus, a “Protestant” is one who testifies for Christ–which is about as foundational as one can get in characterizing a disciple of Jesus Christ”. That’s pretty generic.

    You then contrast this with the errors of medieval Roman Catholicism plus the sectarianism of anabaptist groups but with little further explanation.

    If etymology is so important, why not levy a more rigorous definition for the term ‘protestant’, based on the actual Protest? As it stands today, we call all sorts of riff-raff ‘protestant’.

    Also, how do you adequately distinguish between Reformed and Radical? Where does one begin and the other end, confessionally speaking, especially considering the rejection of best of Reformed teachings by Geneva and Zurich after 1564?

  3. Marcus Emmons says:

    Wow! Danny, your reply is like twice as long the post.
    Nice article, Charles.

  4. Danny Erlandson says:

    TITLE: Splitting Hairs? OR The Problem of the Beard

    28 September 2011

    Dear Charles,

    I think that you’re sort of (likely unwittingly) making MY point: viz., that it seems a bit arbitrary to define “Anglicanism” as simply “Catholicism” (cf. your title: “Anglicanism is Catholicism”) or, more precisely, as “Reformed Catholicism.” You see, my point about the terms “Protestantism,” “Protestant,” “Evangelical,” etc., is that ALL of these terms are multivalent (in your reply, you cut off this key point of mine–that “protest” has MULTIPLE senses, not simply the positive act of witnessing or testifying FOR but also proclaiming AGAINST, etc.). In other words, you seem to be making my very point that ETYMOLOGY gets one only so far; for the reality is that, over time, ALL of these words have acquired a myriad of meanings. Thus, as you yourself indicated, to most modern speakers of English, “Catholic” means ROMAN Catholic (Mom agrees with me on this matter: “Danny, I think that with the capital letter, ‘Catholic’ is generally understood to mean ROMAN Catholic, whereas with the small letter, it tends to mean the broader, more ‘universal’ sense of those who follow the tradition of the early church. So why does Charlie keep using the capital ‘C’ for ‘Catholic’–isn’t that likely to create confusion?”). My point here, which I don’t think you’ve addressed yet, Charles, is WHY is “Reformed Catholic” preferable to the several alternatives I listed?

    Just to be clear: in the passage you cited, I was NOT asserting that “Catholic Evangelicalism” and all the other possibilities I enumerated were necessarily better than “Reformed Catholicism.” I was then, and am still now, trying to figure out WHY you insist that “Reformed Catholicism” is superior. Of course, my other key point in that passage was to show that any of these BROAD terms is inadequate for defining Anglicanism. Why? Because, as I indicated, “Reformed Catholicism,” “Reformed Evangelicalism,” “Catholic Protestantism,” etc., would all seem to encompass many Lutherans, Huguenots, and others, not just Anglicans. Thus, one needs to add another modifier to get to the “subspecies” level of distinction–e.g., I said, perhaps one could speak of “Anglican Protestant Christianity”?

    Thus, you’re quite right, brother Charles, that one sense of “Protestant” is VERY generic–at its most generic meaning, it isn’t a whole lot different from “Christian.” But the same is true–nay, even truer–of the term “catholic.” Thus, in the past you’ve often (correctly) used the term “catholic” (OK, OK–“Catholic”–there, happy?) as a virtual synonym for “Christian.” Talk about “generic” (to use your term)! Likewise, “evangelical” has a very “generic” sense too–viz., “one who embraces the gospel.” Thus, it’s precisely because these other terms can be so “generic” (just as the term “catholic” can be) that I asked my question: WHY is “Catholic” preferable as the primary term, the noun which is modified by the secondary term (“Reformed CATHOLIC”)?

    Nonetheless, Charles, I commend you for posing a truly vital question or two: how does one “ . . . adequately distinguish between Reformed and Radical? Where does one begin and the other end, confessionally speaking, especially considering the rejection of [the] best of Reformed teachings by Geneva and Zurich after 1564?” One of the key problems you’ve identified here is that we’re dealing not with DISCRETE boundaries or ON-OFF matters. Instead, there is indeed a GRADUAL SPECTRUM. It’s like the ancient problem of the beard (or baldness, if you prefer). Is one hair sufficient to constitute a beard? No. Are two hairs sufficient? No. Are 3,000 hairs? You bet. OK, but what is the EXACT boundary between the category of “beard” and “not a beard”: 999 and under is not a beard, while 1000 or more is a beard? Well, no, there’s not an exact boundary. But just because there’s not a clear-cut (uhm, excuse the pun!) boundary hair–I mean HERE!–doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a beard.

    Likewise, just because there’s not a precise or discrete boundary between “UNreformed Catholicism” (= Roman Catholics) and “Catholic Protestantism” (= certain Lutherans, Anglicans, Huguenots, German Reformed, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) doesn’t mean the distinction is invalid. The same with the “fuzzy” border between “Catholic Protestantism” and “Sectarian Protestantism” (= Mennonites, Amish, etc.).

    Alas, complicating this whole matter is the fact that each of the “subspecies” identified above are so fragmented. For example, many people call themselves Anglican that I would say are NOT “Catholic” in the full sense of the term, for they go so far as to deny the Trinity, the supreme authority of the Bible, etc. The same is true of people who call themselves “Lutheran,” “Methodist,” “Presbyterian,” etc. Thus, you’re quite right that after 1564 (the year Calvin died–I guess that’s why you chose that year?), there are many people who call themselves “Calvinists” whom I would call “Puritans.” True, they might largely embrace Calvin’s view of predestination, grace, etc., but they reject his view of Communion, baptism (even the age of baptism), etc.

    Double “alas,” the term “Puritan” is itself so muddled–as Catherine (I think that’s the wife’s name of this duo) and George Charles pointed out some half century ago (though the Charleses seemed to fall prey to the error of saying that just because a term undergoes changes in meaning over time, that means the term becomes effectively meaningless . . . man, a LOT of Charleses seem to fall prey to that error–JK!). Thus, some “Puritans” embrace so little of the “catholic” faith that they would fall in the “Sectarian Protestant” camp, while others maintain enough of it that they would fall in the “Catholic Protestant” camp.

    Again, thanks for raising these fundamental issues–and for not throwing your hands up in despair but continuing to strive for greater clarity and precision, and thereby find greater meaning, in what an “Anglican” is.

    For God’s glory,


    P.S.: So, am I right that in light of the events of 1588, 1688-89, 1701, etc., you do agree that “Anglicanism” is indeed a species of “Protestantism”? If so, what place is there for using the term “Protestant” in regard to Anglicans? Or, as you suggest, has the word “Protestant” become so debased today, that we should just quietly drop the term altogether? In other words, as you pointed out, since we “ . . . call all sorts of riff-raff ‘protestant,’” the word has lost all genuine meaning, hence it would be misleading to call the church of Elizabeth I, of William III and Mary II, of George I, et al., “Protestant” (hey, why did you drop the capital letter in “Protestant”?!? Weird! You use it in “Catholic” but not here, whereas I’m the reverse–maybe we’re mirror twins?). The word “Protestant” was perfectly sensible in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, etc., but not today since the word has become irredeemably corrupt. Well, if so, then why not throw up one’s hands in regard to “Catholic” (especially with the capital letter)? Again, I think that our dear mother is right here: i.e., the vast majority of English speakers understand “Catholic” to mean “Roman Catholic.” Thus, using your logic, why not say “That word worked centuries ago but not today”?

    • Charles says:

      Just a short answer to at least one of your questions: “Protestant” is also an adjective that still usefully describes Anglicanism. I think it’s less useful (a matter of degree)than Catholic because I think Catholic is a more fundamental identity, whereas Protestant necessarily means a response to a particular set of abuses and errors of Roman Catholicism.

      • Danny Erlandson says:

        Touche! I think THAT does make a lot of sense–i.e., about “Protestantism” being confined by its reaction to Roman Catholicism. Alas, I can’t get over history quite so quickly (see my first, hyperlong post). Nonetheless, that is a good point indeed. On the other hand, well, I think there’s no other way to read the Thirty-nine Articles, the dissolution of the monasteries, the destruction of pilgrimage sites, veneration of relics, the use of the vernacular in worship, and a host of other things, than–at least in part–as ” . . . a response to a particular set of abuses and errors of Roman Catholicism.” I mean, just go back and read the Thirty-nine Articles: they presuppose all manner of abuses regarding the Lord’s Supper (not just the false belief of transubstantiation but also the veneration of the Host, the raising of the Host, etc.). In a word, Anglicanism IS undeniably “reactionary” and “negative” (yes, it has a “positive” agenda too): indeed, the “via media” of Anglicanism is reacting not simply to the abuses of Roman Catholicism but also of the Anabaptists (what I’m calling “Sectarian Protestants”). Again, go back and read the Articles of Religion: they are “negative” on both sides–clearly staking out a middle ground between two extremes. I don’t see how one can strip Anglicanism of this key part of its identity: i.e., who they are NOT. Indeed, the Thirty-nine Articles are often fuzzy on any POSITIVE statement–just as long as you’re not a papist or an Anabaptist, you’re A-OK.


        P.S.: Hey, how can I change my own annoying typo in my second post? I meant to write “Thus, the PRESBYTERIANS are more on the Protestant side, the Lutherans more on the Catholic side, with Anglicans in between those two”? Alas, I wrote “Lutherans” twice :~( . . .

        P.P.S.: Marcus Emmons was generous to me–I’m afraid that my first post was THREE times longer than the original blog :~( . . . Hey, I wonder if Marcus is related to the “Last Puritan”–Nathanael Emmons (1745-1840)???

  5. Jack Somers says:

    Erlo v. Erlo….I love it!

    • Charles says:

      Hi, Jack. I’ve often thought Erlo and Mr.E. (me) should start a videocast where we discuss theology and random ideas and they see us both talking at once over each other, etc. . . .

  6. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked
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    Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

  7. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly feel this web site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the advice!

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