Monday, April 25, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media

I was recently asked by a brother in Christ to post a series of fictional letters he's written that explore matters of import within the Reformed and Anglican traditions. His introduction below explains in greater detail the purpose of the letters, as well as why he asked me to publish them on his behalf and why he is choosing to remain anonymous for the time being. I normally don't publish things on behalf of others. But after previewing several of these letters I was sufficiently intrigued to share them. I anticipate publishing one letter per week for the next several weeks.

Since I am not the author of these letters I cannot give definitive responses to comments and questions. However, as the author notes in the introduction below, he hopes that your feedback will help him achieve greater theological clarity. It is to that end that your comments are invited in response to this and upcoming "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George."

Bryan Owen+


In the ‘New Jerusalem Project Report’ column for Volume 1, Issue 4 of the magazine Fermentations, Brad Littlejohn made an interesting observation. “Like adopted children who one day awaken to seek their birth parents,” he wrote, “young Calvinists have subsequent epiphanies. The first epiphany, of course, is to Calvinism itself with all its promise: a comprehensive and glorious worldview that is finally ready and able to engage the ‘cultural mandate!’”

Littlejohn went on to talk about a second epiphany that many experience, one described by an ancestral longing for the fathers of our faith: “Whereas the first epiphany solidifies youthful vision and brings a sense of satisfaction, the latter comes as an ancestral longing. It leaves a gnawing hunger for fathers in the faith to lead us beyond our Plastic Present.”

As a Calvinist myself, it was the call of this second epiphany that brought me to question many of the emphases I had embraced. Like many evangelicals with a background seeped in fundamentalism, individualism and anti-intellectualism, the ecclesiology, covenantalism and intellectual rigor of the reformed tradition had initially come to me as a breath of fresh air. Here, surely, was the tradition that preserved the faith once entrusted to all the saints, even as Athanasius contended for truth against the Arian heretics of the 4th century.

However, as time went by, I found that this very impulse to identify with a high ecclesiology was bringing me to question many of the tenets of Calvinism. It wasn’t so much that I began to doubt the legitimacy of the five points. It was more that I began to wonder: is the reformed tradition, with all its rationalism and anti-Catholicism, really big enough to contain the majesty, mystery and expansiveness of the Christian vision that has been articulated so profoundly by everyone from St. Augustine to Dante to George Herbert? I don’t know, but I believe the question is worth asking.

In order to properly explore this question, I will be writing a series of fictional letters between a Calvinist and an Anglican, which I have called "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." The events in their lives that I refer to are a purely fictional springboard to explore issues of importance within Calvinism and Anglicanism respectively.

Bryan Owen has kindly agreed to publish these letters on his Creedal Christian blog. When I originally asked Bryan if he would consent to publish these letters, he asked why I wasn’t publishing them on my own blog. I will let my readers judge whether it is too my credit that I told Bryan I did not want to publish them on my own blog lest I alienate my Calvinist constituency.

I would ask that readers keep in mind that my ideas are still in development. In fact, I hope that these letters will be more the means for helping me to achieve theological clarity than the result. Towards this end, I hope readers will be generous in offering feedback on the ideas expressed in these letters through the comment button. Moreover, if it is true that the ideas expressed in these letters are not the final expression of my own theological journeying, it is even more true that they should not be taken to be a proper expression of Bryan’s views. I am grateful that Bryan has let me use his blog as a soap box, and I will be equally grateful to my readers if they will keep in mind that these ideas (and especially any theological errors) are entirely my own.

Letter 1

The Via Media

Dear Geneva George,

I enjoyed seeing you at the conference last Saturday and I do hope we can keep in touch. I think your idea of a regular correspondence was a great idea! Hopefully this will give us the opportunity to explore in more detail many of the questions we were discussing.

To start the ball rolling, I’d like to pick up on the comments you made last weekend about the ‘via media.’ I fear that the way I described the “via media” may have inadvertently given a wrong impression. I spoke of it as a middle way represented by Anglicanism (especially High Anglicanism) of being not quite Protestant but neither Catholic. I described it as a sort of halfway house between Rome and Geneva which finds expression in the great Anglican compromise.

Articulated as such, I’m not surprised that you reacted the way you did, as if I had embraced a lukewarm state that is neither one thing nor the other, a type of theological schizophrenia that lacks either the nerve to become Roman Catholic or the guts to be consistent with the logic of Protestantism. It is this wrong impression that I hope to alleviate in the correspondence that follows.

Please also be assured Geneva George, when I spoke of the ‘Anglican compromise’, I did not mean compromise in the sense of a concession to error. (That may certainly apply to some of the more liberal Episcopalian churches in America, but I would argue that that is itself a departure from true Anglicanism.) On the contrary, the middle way I spoke of is more akin to Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’ – a balanced state of equilibrium between two unhealthy extremes.

This middle-of-the-road approach is not limited specifically to Anglicanism, but is a mindset that Protestants of all traditions would do well to adopt. It is, in short, a mentality which continually seeks to emphasize our continuity with Rome without compromising our core Protestant convictions. Such an emphasis is a necessary corrective to many of the dangers inherent within contemporary Protestantism.

Well, that will have to be enough for now.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris


AllEarthsVanities said...

I doubt your major premise. I think it is ahistorical to describe classical Anglicanism, even in its High Church form, as "not quite Protestant".

To take but one testimony from the past, certainly the established Church of England was quite authoritatively described in the coronation oath as "Protestant". The sovereign swore he/she understood the terms of the oath "as they are commonly understood by English Protestants..". Certainly this included Anglicans as well as orthodox dissenters under the generic term "Protestant". Joining with all Protestants, the British sovereign solemnly disavowed certain doctrines of the Church of Rome.

For that very reason, historians quite rightly speak of the "Protestant succession" of sovereigns after James II.

deck said...

In reading this, I think there is an error in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph.

It reads:

Please also be assured Geneva George, when I spoke of the ‘Anglican compromise’, I did mean compromise in the sense of a concession to error.

Shouldn't it read:

Please also be assured Geneva George, when I spoke of the ‘Anglican compromise’, I did not mean compromise in the sense of a concession to error.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for pointing out what is surely an error, deck. I have made the correction.

Reformation said...


1. Engaging and fun.

2. The "either-or" of Canterbury v. Geneva is somewhat misleading.

3. "Via media" was between Geneva and Wittenberg, not Protestantism and Romanism. As to the latter construct, P. v. Rism, is a 19th century construct, not an Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline or Hanoverian construct.

4. It sounds like the interlocutor is addressing ghosts of his past, e.g. fundamentalism. Augustinian, Calvinistic Anglicanism is not full of oxymorons or contradictions.