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Appealing to the Fathers

28 July 2009

Robin Ward considers the C of E’s idea of its patristic credentials


The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The construction of a confessional identity in the 17th century
Jean-Louis Quantin

THIS book is an erudite account of how the Church of England re­ceived, interpreted, and respected the testimony of Christian antiquity from the archiepiscopate of Thomas Cranmer to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Quantin sets out to demol­ish what he sees as the Anglo-Catholic myth of English religious exceptionalism — of a Church that, in words quoted from Gareth Ben­nett’s Crockford Preface, “sought to avoid mere Erastianism and Popery or sectarianism by finding its author­ity in scripture as this was interpreted in the life and practice of the undivided Church of the first four centuries of the Christian era”.

Despite the recondite material with which he deals, Quantin is quite willing to press hard on sensitive sores like the Crockford affair, and waylay contemporaries who fall into patristic romanticism about Anglicanism. Arthur Middle­ton’s Fathers and Anglicans is rather cruelly called a work of haute vulgarization, and the Bishop of London is taken to task for invent­ing a so-called “patristic mind” from a particular reading of contempor­ary Eastern Orthodoxy.

So does this wild man of the cloister deliver the coup de grâce to the comforting illusion of a Re­forma­tion supervised by the learned from among the massive tomes of the Fathers: what Manning casti­gated in Newman as precisely that “old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone”?

Quantin’s project is a continua­tion of the theme first outlined by Nicholas Tyacke in his Anti-Calvinists: Puritanism was far from an alien intrusion into the English ecclesiastical body politic; it was anti-Calvinist teaching and practice that upset the Reformed Elizabethan consensus in the Church, and so contributed to the trauma of Civil War and the failure of the Church of England as a comprehensive national body.

Calvinism was by no means incompatible with patristic learning, and Quantin takes Owen Chadwick to task for forgetting that Heidel­berg was a more distinguished seat of such study than Oxford. But the Arminian resurgence in the Church of England under Laud and his allies made of patristic authority something novel. No longer was it a mine from which to extract evi­d­ence of discontinuity between past orthodoxy and current popery: now it became a tradition to which appeal was made in the pursuit of an innovative restorationist pro­gramme.

Quantin highlights the crucial educational consequences of James I’s decision in 1617 to replace text­books of Calvinist systematic theology with patristic authorities for ordinands in the Universities. This inevitably provoked a reaction, and Quantin is particularly effective in demonstrating how influential the French Huguenot Jean Daillé’s work The Use of the Fathers was in attacking any notion of an authori­tative consensus present in the patristic corpus.

By the time of the Restoration, however, the exaltation of patristic learning as the key to scripture provided the Church of England clergy with both caste esprit de corps as erudite dispensers of religious truth, and a distinctive polemical position to resist both popery and Dissent.

Quantin laments that this mo­ment of self-definition disastrously isolated the Church of England from the rest of the Protestant world, and doomed it to suffer the internecine disruption of the Nonjuring schism and the Trinitar­ian controversy.

Quantin is surely right to claim that there was a radical disjuncture between the use of the Fathers in the Church of England before and after the Laudian revival. He is also right in showing how the appeal to the consensus of antiquity by both the Arminians and the Tractarians, far from providing ecclesial stability, inevitably led to a plethora of future difficulties.

The appeal to the Fathers is a good way of stirring up a stale theological scene: it worked against the Calvinist systematics of James

I’s Church; it worked against the tepid theology of Hampden and Hawkins in Oxford in the 1830s; and it worked against the Neo-Thomist monolith at Rome in the 1950s. But, as Quantin tells us with fluency and verve: as a privi­leged source of doctrinal authority, “Antiquity proved a Pandora’s box.”

Canon Robin Ward is Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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