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‘Quo vadis?’ in the light of reason

27 June 2014

Alec Graham looks at Anglican truth-seeking

In Search of Authority: Anglican theological method from the Reformation to the Enlightenment
Paul Avis
Bloomsbury £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT522 )

IN MANY ways, this is a remarkable and rewarding work. It is the fruit of a massive amount of learning and research in and about not only the principal Anglican authors of the period, but also much more widely, too. Its title and subtitle taken together indicate its contents; this search surely continues.

Nevertheless, it is not without its difficulties. On occasion the author is long-winded, and his use of heavy abstract nouns (e.g. uniformitarianism, instantiation) does not make for easy reading. That said, it deserves to be warmly welcomed by scholars. Other readers of the Church Times, however, may wish to take a chapter at a time. It should certainly be in the library of any university, and of all theological colleges and courses. Its references and bibliography will be found immensely helpful, and will enable anyone to follow up an author whose work he may wish to pursue.

Further, this is no ordinary study of the Church of England in its formative period, which is a very well-worn track. Rather, it includes treatment of Continental thinkers from a wide range of countries. The author does not allow the reader to understand the development of theological thinking in isolation from developments in other fields; for the book contains interesting studies of, among others, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, and Newton.

The author advances several strong convictions: for instance, that Anglican life and thought is continuous from the time of King Henry VIII to the present day. It did not have a fresh start under each new sovereign in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Also, he regards the Enlightenment in England as neither secular nor anti-Christian as, for instance, in France; rather,as a characteristically Christian - and, more particularly, Anglican - development.

The key to the Anglican grasp of truth he holds to be neither the via media nor the threefold cord of scripture, tradition, and reason; rather, an approach marked by moderation, conscience, and reason (God has given us reason, the proper use of which can lead to the elucidation of scripture and to a grasp of probability). Further, the development of Anglicanism from the 18th century onwards has shown an empirical, sober, cautious, and inductive approach to truth,an approach characteristic of the physical sciences that had begun to flourish in the 18th century.

Moreover, each phase in Anglican history draws on elements from past understanding, and hands yet others on to the next, the results being a seamless robe of continuity, in which each phase is marked by moderation.

We all know that nowadays, as often before, the question for Anglicans, and not only for Anglicans, is Quo vadis?

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham is a former Bishop of Newcastle

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