Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Book Review: Essential Truths for Christians

I originally posted this book review back in May 2011. I am reposting it as a companion article to the preceding article.

By Robin G. Jordan

I have made only a cursory examination of AMiA Bishop John Rodger’s new book, Essential Truths for Christians: A Commentary on the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Blue Bell PA: Classical Anglican Press, 2011). I had hoped to find a straightforward exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles. However, I was disappointed.

Bishop Rodgers’s scholarship is spotty—quite sound in some places but not in others. He shows a tendency to depart from his exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles to make broad, sweeping statements about what he asserts Anglicans have historically believed and valued. These generalizations, however, do not represent an accurate depiction of historic Anglicanism and should not have been included in a commentary on the Articles. Due to their inclusion in Rodgers’ exposition of the Articles the reader is misled into believing that they are consonant with the doctrine of the Articles where in fact they cannot be, in the words of Article 6, “read therein, nor may they be proved thereby.”

For example, in his exposition of Article 25 Rodgers makes the generalization that Anglicans have regarded “Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction” as “sacramental actions.” This is a far from accurate statement. The sixteenth century English Reformers do not take this view as is evidenced in their writings. The author of the Homily on Common Prayer and Alexander Nowell in his Catechism do not take such a view. Neither does Thomas Rogers in The Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England, the first commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles. While the seventeenth century Caroline High Churchman Jeremy Taylor may have come close to this view in his understanding of Confirmation, Archbishop James Ussher, a contemporary of Jeremy Taylor, in A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion describes as “superfluous” what Rodgers describes as treasured “sacramental actions.” The nineteenth century Evangelicals also would not have agreed with Rodgers’ statement.

In his article “The Sacraments,” published in A Protestant Dictionary in 1904, Frederick Meyrick states:
In the twelfth century Peter Lombard added five other rites to these two Confirmation, Ordination, Matrimony, Penitence, and Extreme Unction. But of these none have the qualification of a divine appointment, and only two of them approach in themselves to the character of sacramental rites.
Meyrick was a Fellow and Tutor of Trinity College, Oxford, Rector of Blickling, Norwich, and Non-Resident Canon of Lincoln. He is the author of The Doctrine of the Church of England in the Holy Communion re-statedScriptural and Catholic Faith and Worship; Old AnglicanismSunday Observance; and other works.

We find no hint in A Protestant Dictionary, which was written chiefly by Anglicans for Anglicans, that its writers who stand in the tradition of classical Anglican evangelicalism, viewed these five actions as sacramental. We find no support for Rodgers’ assertion, “Anglicans treasure them.” Some Anglicans may indeed “treasure” these actions but claiming that all do, as Rodgers infers, clearly stretches the truth.

J. I Packer who wrote the Forward to Rodgers’ commentary in his own Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs states: 
It is a medieval mistake to classify as sacraments five more rites (confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction). In addition to their not being seals of a covenant relationship with God, they “have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God” (Thirty-Nine Articles XXV).
These are only a few of the examples that may be cited to show the inaccuracy of Rodgers’ statements.

Rodgers takes the pre-Reformation view that these five actions are sacramental, a view over which Anglicans historically have been divided. At this point Rodgers goes beyond interpreting the Articles in their plain and intended sense. He disconnects this part of Article 25 from its historical context and interprets in an ahistorical manner like John Henry Newman. He makes a series of assertions about these rites that a wider study of the rites and their place in the reformed Church of England and the Continental Reformed Churches does not support. He hazards:
There sees to be no essential reason why they may not be referred to as the lesser sacraments today, if one so prefers, provided one understands that they lack all of the marks of a sacrament of the Gospel….
On the other hand, T. P. Boultbee in An Introduction to the Theology of the Church of England In an Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles, (London: Longmans, Green, 1871) gives the following reason why the reformed Church of England avoided giving the name of sacrament to any ordinance excepting the two instituted by Christ:
The Homily [e.g. The Homily on Common Prayer] moderately says of other things that “no man ought to take them for sacraments, in such signification and meaning as the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are.” The danger of confusing ideas in the popular mind by using the same name for religious ceremonies of different origin and degrees of obligation is obvious.
Boultbee was the Principal of the London School of Divinity. Among his other works are A History of the Church of England: Pre-Reformation Period and Church Association Tract 16, “Is there Popery in the Prayer Book, historically considered?”

Boultbee further notes that the effect of the Prayer Book Catechism’s definition of the term sacrament is negative and exclusive as well as positive: 
… for by necessary consequence it denies the name of sacrament to every rite excepting the two. This is obviously the safer course, as tending to perspicuity, and excluding the confusion of ideas which follows on the confusion of terms.
Rodgers’ view is reminiscent of that of the 1979 Book of Prayer’s An Outline of the Faith, which refers to what Rodgers calls “sacramental actions” as “sacramental rites” and describes them as means of grace.

To regard “Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction” as “sacramental acts,” “sacramental rites,” or, to use the language of the canons of the Anglican Church of Rwanda, “sacraments of the Church,” may be a popular view of these actions today in North America but it is highly debatable that this is how they were viewed at the time of the adoption of the Articles in 1571 or how they have been viewed in every quarter of the Anglican Church since then. Rodgers seems too eager to glaze over the differences of opinion among Anglicans on these actions and to convince his readers that all Anglicans embrace the view that he is espousing.

Later in his exposition of Article 25 Rodgers states:
To be precise and fair, the Article does not expressly forbid the extra-Eucharistic practices of procession and the “Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament”; it simply states that these were not the purposes for which the Eucharist was instituted. On the other hand, the phrase “that we should duly use them” does seem to discourage such practices.
Note the difference between how Rodgers interprets this paragraph and how Boultbee interprets it. 
There was undoubtedly a reason for this form of expression. Carelessness of diction finds no place in the Articles. That reason seems to be an intention more emphatically to deny the superstitious practices in question. The two sacraments are treated in this Article precisely on the same footing. They are spoken of, not in respect of their essential differences, but in respect of their essential similarities, by virtue of which they are properly sacraments, and by virtue of which grace is received “by or with” both of them on precisely the same terms. Hence if the water in baptism is not to be carried about and elevated, neither are the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. The only purpose of the elements in either sacrament is “that we should duly use them.” Thus the use of the plural word “sacraments” illustrates and enforces, more strongly than the singular number would, the denial of a practice which in fact has only been carried out with regard to the Eucharistic elements.
When Article 25 is read with careful attention to historical context and authorial intention as well as phrasing, its repudiation of these practices is undebatable.

Space does not permit me to examine all the dubious generalizations about what Anglicans believe and value that pepper Essential Truths for Christians. A more objective and scholarly work would have, where Anglicans have divergent opinions on an issue, identified the different schools of thought and summarized their views on the issue. It would have refrained from presenting the views of one school of thought in the Anglican Church as if its views represented the views of all Anglicans.

Unfortunately Rodgers uses his exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles as a platform from which he voice his opinion on a number of key issues affecting contemporary Anglicans without identifying it as opinion and recognizing the existence of other views on these issues. In taking this approach Rodgers undoes what good he might have done where his exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles is sound. 

If Essential Truths for Christians. becomes a standard textbook used in training a new generation of clergy for the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Mission in Americas, it will produce another generation of North American Anglican clergy with a distorted view of historic Anglicanism. 

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