Reformed catholic? (Part one)

I think I might be Reformed?

The labels we give ourselves are not always that important — what matters in, say, a religious/spiritual “label” is that a person is seeking to know and live according to the truth. Sometimes getting the words just right can be a bit of an unhealthy obsession, though — either because you are trying to overdefine yourself, or because you are trying to watch out for every possible misinterpretation someone else could have. Beyond religion (or, rather, in the false religions of fandom):

“Not a mere Trekkie — a Trekker.” This, when I liked Star Wars more than Star Trek, led to, “What do you call a Star Wars fan?”

Anyway, why might I cautiously say I might be Reformed? What do I mean by this? Why the hesitation? Why do I couple Reformed with catholic? Am I a Calvinist papist?

For most of my life, like so many in the pre-schismatic Anglican church, I was happily and proudly Anglican, embracing the 39 Articles and BCP (and Solemn Declaration of 1893) as doctrinal norms, but fighting with the article about predestination. So, by no means a Calvinist. In fact, the common view for many of us in the Anglican Church of Canada, at least, whether liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, was that we are our own thing, our own branch of Protestantism, growing in our own crooked path beside Lutherans and the Reformed, but perhaps twisting our path on some patterns clser to Rome than either, especially the Reformed.

As a teenager, the whole “Calvinism” vs “Arminianism” debate was a Thing. I remember a friend’s dad — a Baptist fellow and big fan of John Piper — asking me whether the Anglican Church was Calvinist or Arminian. And I happily said neither. I mean, when pressed, the 39 Articles skew closer to Dordt than to Arminius, but to slap the word “Calvinist” on a doctrinal standard that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the Augustinianism of the western church — well, that seems misguided. Not that my answer at age 17 was anything like that!

But I recall asking an Anglican ordinand about this sort of thing, and he said he preferred calling himself Reformed to Calvinist. The Reformed tradition is bigger than John Calvin and is not simply his church, although he is one of its early founders. This makes sense.

But when I was asking that ordinand about such things, I was also meeting a variety of people within Anglican circles (we’re still pre-schism here, folks) who were probably New Calvinists, some of whom read more Presbyterians than Anglicans, who said things like, “Luther started the Reformation, and Calvin ended it,” who were laying claim to Anglicanism for themselves in a way that seemed to say to me, “Any vision of Anglican theology that is not New Calvinist is not real Anglicanism.”

I wasn’t interested.

As we entered the age of social media, I had my chance to play with my religious descriptors. “East-leaning, Franciscan Anglican” was one that I recall using on Facebook. I knew “Anglican” would never be enough. Anglican could mean almost anything doctrinally. And after some of the liturgical free-for-alls I’ve met, it may sometimes mean nothing liturgically, to boot!

But then I spent six/seven years in Edinburgh (9 months of this time I was going back and forth between Edinburgh and Rome). My regular Sunday church of which I eventually became a member was the Free Church of Scotland, a Reformed denomination if ever there was one. Reformed and evangelical. And, when we started, super-old school with naught but a cappella Psalms. I also frequently attended Greek Orthodox Vespers and had the local Orthodox priest as a spiritual mentor.

By the time we went to England in 2017, I was still not Reformed, but I was no longer allergic to them.

However, the church we attended with greatest frequency in Durham led to some problems in terms of self-identification. People said some crazy stuff up at the front, such as how grace does not make us holy, it only justifies us (in a narrow, forensic sense), and we stay otherwise the same. That was whack. At the same time, I was reading a lot of mediaeval canon law and Eastern Orthodox stuff, not to mention a deep dive into St Benedict. Was I even Protestant anymore? A friend of mine wondered if these labels were that helpful these days, and to help guide me pastorally, gave me his edition and translation of Alexander de Hales’ commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, specifically the sections on grace. Well, Alexander helped with the question of grace, but not the question of Protestantism!

And my brother unhelpfully said that I sounded like a catholic Anglican. That’s probably still my go-to.

Fast forward, please, to my year of unemployment, 2019-2020. During this year, I sent out tendrils everywhere seeking academic work. One place was Davenant Hall — Brad Littlejohn, the President of the Davenant Institute, did his PhD at Edinburgh a few years ahead of me, so I knew him from the time we overlapped. I was also nudged by a friend to consider doing a Cascade Companion on my favourite monastic author; these two things dovetailed in reading Brad’s Cascade Companion to Richard Hooker, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.

Brad Littlejohn’s work on Richard Hooker opened my eyes to what my ordinand friend had said so many years previously, about the bigness of the Reformed tradition. It also helpfully laid to rest some notions about early Anglicanism and Richard Hooker you’ve probably heard, most notably that he consciously pursued a “middle way” (via media) between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed. In fact, Richard Hooker was very much part of a large, Reformed world on both sides of the Channel. In essence, Hooker believes that those “Catholic” of Anglicanism as simply part of healthy, Reformed Christianity. I’ve no doubt misrepresented both Brad and Hooker; read the book for yourself.

Well, that made me more comfortable with the idea of being Reformed and Anglican — I didn’t have to become a New Calvinist or move to Sydney or agree with the style of preaching at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London. *whew*

In January 2021, I started teaching for Davenant Hall, and engaging with a lot of the wonderful people associated with the Davenant Institute. My first course was “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”, and my second was “Augustine: The Major Works.” And now, although I’d read huge quantities of Augustine before, I read Augustine on predestination at great length for the first time (I’d read On Grace and Free Will ages ago [2006?], actually), and I really couldn’t see a way around Augustinian predestinarianism. I’d rather it were otherwise, for I have a soft spot for St John Cassian, and ever will. I will always take note of what Cassian is attempting to do in Conference 13 and why that pursuit of balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is important. But I simply think that Augustine is right. [Enter trolls in the comments, I assume?]

And so, over the past year, as a guy who thinks he believes in predestination, I’ve been interacting with these really great people, a lot of whom are Reformed, and I’ve even read some Bavinck, and then also, at a quicker pace, James K A Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, and I’ve been seeing the breadth and diversity of the Reformed tradition, how these great thinkers old and new engage with the patristic and medieval heritage in a thoughtful way, seeking retrieval where possible, but always letting Scripture win while also pressing our forebears in the faith in terms of logic and reason.

And so I’ve learned about people like Franciscus Junius and Peter Martyr Vermigli and their relationship with Scholasticism, besides seeing living Reformed thinkers engaging with Thomas Aquinas and Maximus the Confessor and Hilary of Poitiers and all the rest — all of this in a time when I’ve also been revising my book about medieval manuscripts of a patristic pope, teaching the Fathers, teaching the medieval church, and maintaining my usual round of Orthodox thinkers.

And one of the terms I’ve seen a few times is Reformed catholic. And I’m starting to like it.

One thought on “Reformed catholic? (Part one)

  1. Reminds me of my result on the What Kind of Anglican Are You? online quiz.

    “High Church Evangelical/Evangelical Catholic
    You’re virtually liturgically indistinguishable from a Ritualist or Tractarian, but you’re always quick to remind people that “High Church does NOT equal Anglo-Catholic.” You have no problems with being called a Protestant, but you would prefer being called a reformed catholic. You can list all the ways Luther was still pretty conservative liturgically and know about High Church movements in Lutheranism and the Reformed Tradition. You make a distinction between dominical sacraments and the five other traditional ones, and you also think we need to be doing a LOT more to evangelize by telling people about Jesus. If you’re online, you’re almost certainly either Michael Curry or have a relationship with Chris Corbin. You have downloaded every work by William Augustus Muhlenberg from Google Books and lament the fact that there is no more recent scholarship on him.”

    https://uquiz.com/quiz/HAHqMm/what-kind-of-anglican-are-you

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