Book Information: Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today’s Global Communion, vol. I in The Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library, eds. Ashley Null and John Yates III (Crossway, 2017, 224 pages, $35.00).
Reformation Anglicanism is the first volume of The Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library, a series that seeks to cast a renewed vision for Anglicanism, one anchored in the classical reformational thinking of Cranmer and in what the authors call the “evangelical” tradition within Anglicanism.
The tone of this first volume is both introductory and polemical, beginning a presentation of a vision for Anglicanism that they believe is “capable of providing clarity in the midst of mass confusion over our shared identity” (12).
The book proceeds in three parts, spread over seven chapters:
- Chapters 1 and 2 (by the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, and the Rev. Canon Ashley Null, respectively) deal with the history of the Anglican Communion.
- Chapters 3-6 “examine Anglicanism’s bedrock theological principles: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, and soli Deo gloria” (12).
- The last chapter, called “A Manifesto for Reformation Anglicanism,” presents this kind of Anglicanism as “the way forward for the global communion” (12).
The book brings together five gifted scholars and leaders from various parts of the Anglican Communion:
- Rev. Canon Dr. John Ashley Null,
- the Rev. Dr. Michael P. Jensen,
- the Most Rev. Dr. Benjamin Kwashi,
- the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, and
- the Rev. Dr. John Yates III.
It is a book like the Rt. Rev. Thadd Barnum’s Never Silent or Fr. Gerald McDermott’s The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (see the Anglican Compass review of that work here) or (from a very different and frankly heterodox perspective) Martyn Percy’s The Future Shapes of Anglicanism. That is, a book whose usefulness lies in how it helps folks who are new to Anglicanism get an idea of the currents within contemporary Anglicanism. If Martyn Percy represents a view “from within” the establishment party of the Church of England, this volume edited by Null and Yates gives a view “from within” GAFCON Anglicanism.
A Vision for a Global Communion
First, this volume does an excellent job at capturing, in one place and one voice, the theological outlook of the Reformed Evangelical tradition (a la thinkers like J.I. Packer, John Stott, and Alister McGrath) which, because of programs like the Langham Scholars Partnership, is increasingly the theological outlook of Anglicanism in the Global South.
This growing theological disposition is not unidirectional (merely towards global outreach) but reflexive (towards global participation), as the Rev. Dr. John Yates III writes in his chapter on sola Scriptura, “One of the great strengths of the Anglican Communion […] is the unity with which we speak about the authority of Scripture amidst the diversity of cultural contexts where we seek to teach and apply it” (103). He adds that “we will give a priceless gift to the worldwide body of Christ” if we “continue to read Scripture in a posture of humility before the text and before one another” (103). This will “guard against cultural hegemonies in biblical hermeneutics” (103).
Thus, as Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali writes in his chapter, “the hope and prayer of this book is that a fresh movement of reformation in Anglicanism will inspire a new generation to give itself fully to this, God’s mission among us in the twenty-first century” (44).
A High Regard for Scripture
In doing this, the authors not merely argue-for but actively demonstrate love and high regard for Scripture. As a member of Robert Webber’s “younger evangelicals,” I carry in me a tacit suspicion of the kind of “biblicism” that smacks of fundamentalism, for which things such as the Liturgy, the Books of the Homilies, the tradition of the Fathers, and the plenary reading of scripture, are all good medicine. However, this book reminds young “post-evangelicals” like myself of the beauty of Scripture, the plainness of its central message, its centrality to our faith, and its evidential power to transform. Null and Yates quote Cranmer’s introduction to the Prayer Book, in which he argues that “the people [by the daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the Church] should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion” (199).
A Small Critique
Here I will aim to be both clear and charitable, as well as brief and respectful: I am writing about disagreements I have with mentors, elders, and superiors with whom I agree in more places than I disagree. My disagreement however, even though it is the lesser share of my feeling for this book, remains. It can be summarized thus: Apart from the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali’s historical introduction in Chapter 1, the book suffered, in my opinion, from some anachronistic and oversimplifying tendencies. These tendencies seem to stem from a kind of double-blindness:
- a blindness to some of the really unhealthy parts of the reformations, and
- an equal blindness to some of the healthy parts of medieval Christendom.
Now, other people far smarter and more capable than myself have written far better than I can on the subject and at greater length than I am afforded so I’ll leave the bulk of that conversation to them (I recommend this lecture by John Milbank on Bishop Josip Strossmayer, this book by Brad Gregory, any one of several books by James Simpson, or the more nuanced book by Peter Leithart).
I merely want to note that it seems a bit of an overstatement to suggest that the “whole medieval understanding of salvation was un-biblical” and that “the writings of Augustine […] supported such a conclusion” (63). Likewise it seems to me historically strange to refer to an “underground evangelical movement in the 1520s and early 1530s” (45) and to regard Bilney’s awakening to the reality of God’s forgiveness “in modern parlance” as a “classic ‘born-again’ Christian experience” (57).
And yet, while these statements prove problematic, they do not ultimately impact the vision proclaimed by the authors. One can disagree with Dr. Null or Dr. Jensen about medieval theology and still be moved and inspired by their vision for a global communion that is robustly reformed, anchored in a love for Scripture, and thoroughly Anglican.
The Love of Christ
The way Dr. Null speaks about the love of Christ is as simple as it is moving. While reading the two chapters that he devoted to this theme (chapter 2 and chapter 4), I kept thinking that there was more that lay behind his work in this volume. I was not surprised to find that he has dedicated an entire book to the subject… two in fact: Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance and Divine Allurement: Cranmer’s Doctrine Comfortable Words. I have not read them, but I have heard Dr. Null speak at our Diocesan Synod on these themes and, what’s more, I have heard him pray from a heart overflowing with them. If these larger volumes are the offspring of that study and those prayers, I whole-heartedly commend them.
Take, as an example of the above, the following passage in which Null reflects on the strange fact that Cranmer’s heart did not burn at the stake with the rest of his body:
“[…] perhaps Cranmer had preached his final and best sermon —that as this life comes to an end, the only thing that will endure is the love in a heart transformed by the good news of the gospel” (74).
Or, for another example, take Null’s final analysis on Cranmer’s liturgical placement of the Comfortable Words:
“Here is the hallmark of Reformation Anglicanism’s gospel of transforming grace. The divine unconditional love made known in these four Scripture verses is intended to inspire our hearts and minds to long for communion with the living God so that he can gradually restore his image in us” (123).
Mission, Joy, and “Soli Deo Gloria”
The global perspective brought by both the Most Rev. Kwashi and Michael Nazir-Ali is profoundly encouraging and much needed. It represents the shifting face of Anglican leadership in the world and brings a mighty perspective marked, in both of their respective chapters, by joy and mission. Theirs is not a false joy, born of naivete. But a real joy, the fruit of trial and the faithful love of God.
Here, the Most Rev. Kwashi works to set the concept of mission and global communion within the context of the glory of God. In his chapter on soli Deo gloria, he envisions the role that the global Anglicanism has to play in the vision of St. John from Revelation 21, profoundly connecting global mission, beautiful worship, and divine splendor.
Deeply Human Portrayal of Reformational Figures
Lastly, and maybe most moving, was the deeply human portrayal of key reformational leaders, notably Thomas Bilney and Katherine Parr.
The way that the authors, namely Null and Jensen, manage to portray Katherine Parr, and to reveal the central role her own piety played in the early English Reformation, is both delicate and honest. One forgets in these moments that the book is polemical, that it ends with a “manifesto.” All of my worries about their hasty treatments of medieval Christianity, all of my hesitancies about things that fly under the banner of contemporary evangelicalism, are for a moment forgotten when Dr. Jensen begins to tell me of the queen who “earnestly laments the state of her soul before she came to understand the true nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (126). And my heart is itself renewed when Dr. Null paints the picture of divine allurement in the life of Katherine Parr, quoting her as she realized that God uses “such pleasant and sweet words to allure his enemies to come to him” (110).
Perhaps one among this list of capable authors might take-up the work of giving our communion a good biography on the life of Katherine Parr. It would be of great profit to our entire communion. It would be alluring. “Divine allurement” is, after all, the fire that burns at the heart of the vision for Anglicanism posited by this flagship volume: to see a communion and a world allured and transformed by the Love of Jesus Christ.
Note: While this review of the first volume in the Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library is hitting the Compass late by about three years, it will hopefully serve to anticipate the release of the next volume, Reformation Anglican Worship, slated for release in May 2021 (of which I just received a reviewer’s galley).