frgavin on November 6th, 2017

(Rudiments of the Reformation)

By Roger Salter
The Reformation was not new, but rather a resurgence, restoration, clarification and explosion of a near dormant Augustinianism that had kept the church on track through times of uncertainty and even through the descent of darkness when the faith of the gospel was in peril of extinction. The Reformers were enterprisers of a steadfast return to Sacred Scripture as the divinely given fount of Christian truth and they found common cause with the best and most Biblical statements of the church fathers and a succession of orthodox and evangelical voices that sounded the message of grace through the centuries until the 16th century revolution of Christian thought promoted by a widespread rediscovery of divine revelation. It was a colossal occurrence, a radical shift in European religion, that Providence created for the correction of long term deviation from the rudiments of God’s Word, and a launching pad for ongoing purification of the people of God in their understanding and undertakings for the rest of time.

The Church is in perpetual reforming mode complying with the will of God more completely and furthering the comprehension of his infinitely deep disclosures through creation, Christ, the inspired Canon, and the inspiring Spirit. The Reformation is a deep well from which to draw and its sources, the Sacred Word, the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and sanctified human wisdom, are our perpetual resources for familiarity with truth and faithfulness to God. We build on an immoveable foundation and raise successive storeys (levels) of sound truth and piety. The architect and activator of our ongoing development is the Lord.

The deposit of truth is located in Holy Scripture. It is there to be mined, studied, interpreted, explained, expounded, taught by humble scholarship (at all levels of ability) and proclaimed by its appointed messengers in personal meekness and supreme confidence in its ultimate Author and only efficient and interior Instructor.

The ideas and sayings of the early fathers are variously interpreted. There are many inconsistencies and some aberrations in their statements of faith. Being close to the Apostolic era, and preoccupied with many concerns, they neither had sufficient time nor leisure for thorough and comprehensive reflection and the arrival at mature conclusions on all aspects of the gospel. Bravely and with great expertise they battled for the basics of Christian faith, the construction of apologetics in defense of the faith in an alien environment, and they formulated answers in response to rival points of view from adherents to other religions, and to the skepticism of philosophical pagans. Their minds and hands were overwhelmingly too full to permit necessary precision in many areas of belief. They were compelled to guard against those who might wittingly distort or unwittingly misconstrue their teachings. “The teachings of the fathers are useful only to lead us to the Scriptures, as they were led, and then we must hold to the Scriptures alone” (Martin Luther). The fathers were not closer to the truth on the basis of chronology. Chronology is no advantage in spiritual matters (1 John 1:1-4. Through the Spirit the truth is current and close in every generation and by grace its comprehension may expand with time and perusal. Too much is made of the Patristic period and it should not be elevated above subsequent times. Antiquity is no guarantee of truth. So often the fathers are interpreted through the lens of later Catholicism rather than through a more objective appreciation of their own milieu.

Yet the Reformers studied the fathers of the first several centuries in the history of the Christian Church assiduously, understood them well, excelled in scholarship, and gained useful accord with them in establishing true catholicity as opposed to the errors of Rome accumulated over many years of false theology and practice that led to contradiction of the simple truth of the Bible. The Grace of God was trusted and advocated by the orthodox fathers but until the emergence of Pelagius on the scene its nature and dimensions were neither sufficiently grasped nor presented until Augustine rose to counter both auto-soterism (self-salvation) and synergism (human contribution to salvation). Augustine contended for monergism – the biblical assertion of salvation by grace alone. His writings resound with the clear affirmation of human impotence through enslavement to evil, the hostility of man toward God, and the omnipotence of redeeming compassion. As someone has noted, Augustine’s saturation with the theology of St. Paul validated the memorable quip, “Paul said it and Augustine read it!”.

The career and convictions of Aurelius Augustine are well-known or easily accessible to those interested. Perhaps he is the most influential of all Christian thinkers through God-given intellectual prowess, spiritual discernment, and pastoral wisdom in uniting the soul of a believer to the Spirit of God in heartfelt communion and adoration. Augustine’s attainments in commending and nurturing the knowledge of God, intelligent, affective, and authentic, are marvelously comprehensive. He is the ideal companion of all earnest seekers, sincere saints, and humble scholars. His beating heart and rhythmic breath can be felt in the lives and ministries of a succession of eminent servants of the Lord down the through the centuries, and the Liturgy, Ordinal, and Articles of the Church of England pulsate with the sweet song and sublime sentiments of the Berber’s great soul. Anglicanism is called and historically/potentially equipped to join the Augustinian chorus and sound out the grace of God to guilty and confused sinners.

Nick (N.R.) Needham in his indispensable work of compilation in The Triumph of Grace: Augustine’s Writings on Salvation (Grace Publications Trust, London, 2000*) comments, “. . . most of the great Western theologians throughout the Middle Ages were to be Augustinians in their fundamental outlook on sin and grace. I can remember the surprise and pleasure I felt when I took up the weighty tomes of Thomas Aquinas, the ultimate medieval theologian, the architect of the foul doctrine of transubstantiation, and saw the shining clarity with which Aquinas taught the doctrine of election and the absolute sovereignty of God’s grace in regeneration. Who said the Middle Ages were all dark?” (Page 23).

In spite of the correctness and cogency of Augustine’s theological position not everyone agreed with him. Pelagius remained intractable and Semi-Pelagians were only halfway with him, holding out for the human ability to make the first move in seeking salvation by calling on the Lord for donation of grace. Whichever way you look at Semi-Pelagianism it is a serious falsehood, a weighty and arrogant opinion in the sense that it suspends the success of God’s great act of redemption upon the puny will of man, or trivial in essence because it affords as little as a notional 1% contribution of man to the mighty work of God in granting in some degree or other of cheap assent. Only God can pay the price of our salvation out of his infinite riches of grace. Only divine omnipotence through gracious influence can incline the human will toward desire for God and his mercy (Ephesians 1:15-20, 2:4-10). We are not saved from anything so much as our wicked selves by the gift of a new heart through the differentiating grace of disposition. Our contribution to redemption is nil.

Nick Needham sums up the aftermath of the controversies that involved Augustine in this way: The controversy continued after Augustine died in 430 as his city of Hippo was under siege from an invading Vandal army. His disciples, notably Prosper of Aquitaine, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Avitus of Vienne, and Caesarius of Arles, defended the bondage of the will, the sovereignty of grace, predestination and perseverance of the saints against “Semi-Pelagian” criticisms. An important document known as Indiculus(‘catalogue”) appeared sometime between 435 and 442; probably edited by Prosper of Aquitaine, it summarised the Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace on the basis of papal decrees, the doctrine of the North African councils, and statements in the Church’s liturgy. The Indiculus attained a high authority in the West. Still, the controversy rumbled on in various ways, until Augustinianism triumphed at the French synod of Orange in 529. The canons of Orange were given the seal of approval by Pope Boniface II in 531. Unfortunately, the documents that enshrined the canons of Orange became lost in the mists of medieval history, and played no enduring part in shaping the Augustinian tradition until their rediscovery in the 16th century (page 23).

Augustinianism is neither novelty nor minor opinion in the history of our faith. In spite of its oversight in much popular acceptance, and its disapproval in the formal teachings of the Church of Rome (and some Protestant denominations) Augustinianism possesses de facto legitimacy as a Catholic doctrine and is essential to the phenomenon of the Reformed movement. Augustinianism is the most beneficial force in Christendom. It supplies stability and certainty in orthodoxy and it is always a source of power for much needed reform in a wayward church, renewal in an ailing church, and refreshment in a battle-worn church. Only Augustinianism is muscular enough, robust enough, to arm and equip the church against the hostility of the world and the wiles and assaults of Satan, aimed sneakily or advanced directly with enormous thrust.

In some areas of Romanism, a full-blooded Augustinianism still survives, principally, perhaps, among Thomists and Dominicans. From recollection, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology edited by Johannes Bauer scarcely differed from Reformed understanding in soteriological matters and cited, in its bibliography, many titles authored by strong representatives of Reformed Protestantism. FR. Reginald Garrigou- Lagrange has produced an exciting and most helpful volume (1939) entitled Predestination: The Meaning of Predestination in Scripture and the Church, Tan 1998. In writings of this stamp (see Bauer, Lagrange, and Jansenist works) it is easy to detect misunderstandings of Calvin and his colleagues in reform).

Latterly, a quartet** of amazingly interesting books examining the doctrine of predestination in the Catholic Church has come to us from the eloquent voice (or pen) of Dr. Guido Stucco. In his books we encounter an impressive catalogue of historically significant figures who championed the cause of Augustine – some mentioned above, and the list may be amplified to include Pope Gregory I, Isidore of Seville, Ratramnus, Gottschalk, Florus, Anselm, Peter Lombard, and Herveus. To these stalwarts could be added the names of Gregory of Rimini, Thomas Bradwardine, John Wycliffe, Strabo, Prudentius, and Lupus, Richard Rolle, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Saint Thierry, Ailred of Rievaulx, Walter Hilton – all men of worth and influence in their time and in the annals of Christian thought.

By way of brief comment, Ratramnus (d. c.868) greatly influenced the English Reformation in its comprehension of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper through Cranmer’s ally Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London. Gottschalk (805-869 – another Saxon of iron resolve and indomitable will (cf Luther), was cruelly persecuted and pilloried (excommunicated, incarcerated, and tortured) for his misconstrued teaching of “double predestination” but he never suggested the alleged notion that the non-elect were created for destruction, but were passed by for their foreseen stubbornness in sin and unbelief. Gregory of Rimini (d. 1358) was highly regarded and studied by Peter Martyr Vermigli whose role in England as Cranmer’s friend and adviser was determinative in the character of 16th century “Anglicanism”.

Peter Martyr was close in faith and friendship with the Spaniard Juan de Valdes, who, whilst remaining Catholic embraced the doctrines of grace as firmly as the Italian Reformer, and together they pastored and instructed the aristocratic evangelical group of Catholics known as the “Spirituali”, including such persons as soon-to-be, pro-reform Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, Contessa Vittoria Colonna, eventual Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Mary Tudor. Reginald Pole, and Michelangelo Buonarotti. It is clear and thrilling that the artistic genius (painter, sculptor, poet) became an advocate of salvation by faith in the Reformational sense (the change is evident in his later work on projects previously commenced). It is enchanting, also, to think of the warm acceptance of the gospel in this privileged and talented group but their wider influence was prevented by their remoteness from the people. Then there is the Venetian grandee and Catholic statesman/theologian Paoli Sarpi who befriended French Protestants and preferred the doctrines of Dort to those of the Council of Trent.

It is the case that Catholics who favored the doctrine of the Reformation in their heads and hearts remained in the church at the dictate of reverence for the established and ancient institution. They could not emotionally separate from the historic and familiar. The desire to cleave forbad any inclination to leave.

It is salutary to remember that the Reformers did not suddenly emerge from a vacuum. They were nurtured in various traditions comprehended within Catholicism and they retained the better influences to which they were exposed in their subsequent belief and piety. Both Luther and Calvin held St. Bernard in admiration and high esteem and referred to him confidently for his clasp upon the hand of Christ as constant companion and for his grasp of the reality of effective grace. If there is the slightest impediment in the understanding of the English leadership it is perhaps in their impression in some cases, vaguely conveyed, of the necessity of baptism to regeneration. Main attention in Sacramentology was directed toward the Lord’s Supper and a residue of Catholic thinking concerning baptism may have, unfortunately, lingered, to be retained by Anglo- Catholicism. It will be interesting to see how interwoven are the thoughts of Pre-Reformational and Reformational theologians in a proposed examination of three key Anglican Articles, namely ten, eleven, and seventeen.

To be continued…

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