IT IS often assumed that the Oxford Movement’s primary contribution to the Church of England in the 19th century was to bring a new emphasis, the sacraments, and the importance of ministry among the poor. It is, perhaps, under-appreciated that these developments, important as they were, grew out of the attention that many of the movement’s seminal figures, drawing on the New Testament and early Christian writers, paid to Christian doctrine, supremely that of the incarnation.
In the central sections of this illuminating book, Bruce D. Griffith and Jason R. Radcliff chart this contribution through three of the Oxford Movement’s central figures: Edward Bouverie Pusey, John Henry Newman, and Robert Isaac Wilberforce.
All three reacted against what they saw as an excessively forensic understanding of justification current in contemporary Evangelical circles: that, through his sacrifice on the cross, Christ’s own righteousness is simply “imputed” to believers. Rather, through baptism, we participate in the whole life of Christ, and are, thereafter, not just judged externally to be righteous: rather, Christ becomes present in us, working within us through the Spirit. As Pusey wrote, Christ “does not declare us to be that which he does not make us. He makes us that which we were not, but which now, if we are in him . . . we by his gift are: holy”.
Similarly, Newman would challenge the Evangelicals’ strictly sequential understanding of justification and sanctification. He emphasises that God’s declaration of righteousness performs what it effects: “the garment of salvation put on us is such as to cleave to us, and to tend to become part of us: what was at first a covering merely, becomes our very flesh.”
Wilberforce, the least known of the three, systematically emphasises the importance of what more modern writers have called the “Christ event”, over and above the narrow Evangelical focus on the atoning death of Jesus. The union of Christ’s humanity with his divinity is, he argues, the primary basis on which the image of God can be restored and human nature can be recreated: since, in Christ, God had united himself with us, so our humanity can also be united with his divinity.
The book’s subtitle invites reflection on the extent to which these writers have shaped the character of modern Anglicanism, but this is not fully explored. How significant is it, for example, that both Newman and Wilberforce were to become Roman Catholics? And how deeply has the teaching of these figures been assimilated? While being “incarnational” remains important in a Church (and clergy) that seeks to provide a “Christian presence in every community”, the term is often now used in a way that Pusey and co. might not even have recognised: as a sort of rubber stamp on existing arrangements.
Most of all, the preoccupations of modern Anglicanism, whether in the UK or the authors’ native United States, now, sadly, seem to have moved away from the questions so central to both Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals of the 19th century: who Christ is and how he saves us.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.
Grace and Incarnation: The Oxford Movement’s shaping of the character of modern Anglicanism
Bruce D. Griffith and Jason R. Radcliff
James Clarke & Co £19.50