Philip Benedict on the Character of Anglicanism

Posted on September 2, 2016


imagesPhilip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press: 2002, xxvi+670 pp, hardcover.

Philip Benedict is an American historian of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, currently holding the title of Professor Emeritus (profeseur honoraire) at the University of Geneva’s Institute for Reformation History (l’Institut de Histoire de la Réformation). His book, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed was awarded the 2003 Philip Schaff Prize from the American Society of Church History, and the 2004 Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Prize from The Renaissance Society of AmericaIts covers the full geographical scope of the Reformed churches from their founding to the end of the seventeenth century. It is essentially a replacement of John McNeill’s classic, The History and Character of Calvinism, bringing the best of new approaches in historiography and recent studies to the task. The introduction, a fine piece of scholarship in itself, sets the outline of the study. It concludes with Benedict’s own relation to the religious tradition under study. Benedict confesses that he is a “total outsider, an agnostic, non-practicing Jew raised in a secular household” (xxv).

He writes in the introduction why he included Anglicanism in his research of the Reformed Church:

The Church of England stood in a particularly complicated and fluid relationship to the majority of Europe’s Reformed churches in this period. Although one still encounters historical atlases with confessional maps of sixteenth-century Europe that tint England a hue of its own, as if a distinctive Anglican tradition was born with the Reformation, Reformed theology dominated the Church of England for at least a generation after it had clearly aligned itself with continental Protestantism. During this time virtually all of the church’s most influential members consider themselves part of the larger Reformed family. Amid the debates that subsequently developed within the church, some English theologians began to depict their church as sui generis, neither Reformed nor Roman Catholic, but instead incorporating the purest traditions of the early church. This view gained ground with the advance of the Laudian party in the 1620’s and 1630’s, was cast out of the established church during the civil war and interregnum, but survived to return stronger than ever at the Restoration. Even at the height of its strength under the later Stuarts, however, it never so dominated the historical self-understanding of the English church that it eliminated the rival position that the Church of England was part of the larger Reformed family. Thus, a comprehensive history of the Reformed tradition must make room for the Church of England because it was the largest national church associated with the Reformed tradition and net exporter of theological ideas from the end of the sixteenth century onward (xxiv).

How did Benedict come to this conclusion on the nature of Anglicanism? “…through the most basic mental processes cultivated by historians: the effort to think one’s way sympathetically into a distant and, to a degree, alien worldview” (xxvi).

As Benedict goes on to show, the rival position that the Church of England was a part of the larger Reformed family is a constitutive part of our church’s DNA. It does give one pause to wonder why it is that some Anglicans in the United States and Canada consider the adjective “reformed” to be so “toxic”? Is the striving over adjectives perhaps more symptomatic of our warrior children ethos in the continuing Anglican movement in North America or perhaps it is the influence of the anxious “Generation Snowflake” culture in which we live? Anger and aggression being used to silence dissenting voices might also speak of intellectual and moral insecurity. Those who are secure in their convictions have no fear of discussing alternative views because they are confident either that their position will prevail or that they will come to a deeper understanding. Could it be that the warrior child is not convinced of the truth of its positions? Or perhaps simply understands the implications of Western society’s commitment to relativism: the idea that truth is ultimately the preserve of the loudest and most aggressive voices.

I am an Anglican, and as “the most basic mental processes cultivated by historians” confirm, it requires no other qualifying adjective.

Benedict’s history should be read.