As I emerged out of Southern Baptist evangelicalism in 1980–81 John Stott and J. I. Packer were two of the most influential writers in my journey out of Baptist evangelicalism. Hitherto my theological staples had been things on the order of Navigators Bible study materials and Rosalind Rinker’s book on hearing voices from God. I am not entirely sure how I found Stott’s Basic Christianity and Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Back then we had a Christian bookstore downtown, where I mostly bought contemporary Christian records (e.g., Larry Norman and Barry McGuire). Perhaps the manager directed me to them? Those books were a Godsend. They were thoughtful, intelligent, gracious and thoroughly evangelical in the best sense of the word. They were gospel books. They pointed me away from myself and my experience and toward Christ. In the summer of 1981 Packer’s Knowing God was a major influence in my embrace of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
When I followed Alan Jacobsen across town to St John’s Reformed Church, which met back then across the railroad tracks, in an old Latvian Lutheran Church, in the North Bottoms area of Lincoln, there I found two recent graduates of the Reformed Episcopal Seminary. They explained the Scriptures and the Reformed faith to me warmly and enthusiastically. From them I began to learn the value of Book of Common Prayer.
At another crossroads in my life, in 1994—95, when our little Presbyterian Church plant had to close, we found ourselves at St Ebbes, an ancient Anglican congregation near city center, in Oxford. Vaughn Roberts was curate then and David Fletcher was rector, who did most of the preaching. Like Packer, Stott, et al he was gracious, warm, and yet firmly grounded in Scripture and historic Christianity. From David I learned that Reformed preaching could be firm, gracious, and kind all at the same time.
As a young college professor at Wheaton, struggling to keep up with my course load, a young family, and to finish my DPhil thesis, I turned again to the (1662) Book of Common Prayer, which I had picked up in the UK, mainly out of historical curiosity and found it to be a valuable resource for opening classes in prayer. It was a wonderful alternative to vain repetition in prayer. There I found, in the confession of sin and in the prayer for illumination (in the second Sunday in Advent), a marvel of liturgical writing.
From P. E. Hughes and others I learned to appreciate the Reformation-era Anglicans, whose works I have continued to appreciate throughout my adult Christian life. I have written in appreciation of the Oxford Martyrs, Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley. William Perkins (1558–1602) and Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) are just two of the great conforming Reformed Anglican theologians and pastors who have influenced my own theology, piety, and practice. Sibbes was a model of gracious gospel ministry and Perkins a brilliant exponent of the heart of the Reformation, salvation sola gratia, sola fide, whose theology, piety, and practice inspired many, including the Congregationalist William Ames (1576–1633), who would become one of the fathers of the Dutch Second Reformation.
I say all this to illustrate just some of the reasons why I appreciate historic Anglicanism and why I appreciate those modern evangelical Anglicans who have helped to keep alive that tradition. This is worth bearing in mind since my purpose in writing is to evaluate a new catechism produced by a relatively new Anglican communion, the Anglican Church in North America, the ACNA, but I want to assure the reader that though I am unreservedly presbyterial (note the lower case p) in my polity and Reformed in my confession I have a soft spot in my heart for evangelical Anglicanism.
Important Points Of Tension With Historic Anglicanism
This catechism, To Be A Christian, has just been published by Crossway. In his introduction, J. I. Packer notes, in contrast to the rather brief historic Anglican catechism,
…this present work is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool for adult (or near-adult) inquirers, and for all Christians seeking deeper grounding in the full reality of Christian faith and life (p. 14).
The catechism is extensive and it promises that it is “designed to teach” the catechumen “what it means to be a Christian.” It promises to show “what is essential for Christian faith and life.” It promises to open for the reader “the door to knowing Jesus Christ and experiencing the wonder of God’s love through him.” It promises, “if” one follows “its teaching, it will help” one “to become a citizen of God’s kingdom and fully involved in the life and mission of his Church” (p. 19).
Justification Sola Fide?
It begins with a brief but clear declaration that we are all sinners, “ In Bible language, we are sinners, guilty before God and separated from him” (p. 20). That is the bad news but what is the good news? This language is typical of of what one finds in the catechism:
The good news of the Gospel is that God took loving action in Jesus Christ to save us from this dire situation. The key facts of this divine remedy are these: God the Father sent his eternal Son into this world to reconcile us to himself, to free us to love and serve him, and to prepare us to share his glory in the life to come (p. 20)
This is all true but there is much more to be said and, in the Reformation, the Anglicans did. E.g., in Art. 11 of the Anglican Articles, the church confessed:
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely expressed in the Homily of Justification.
What does that homily say?
Because all men be sinners and offenders against GOD, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works, & deeds (seem they ever so good) be justified, and made righteous before GOD: but every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness or justification, to be received at GOD’S own hands, that is to say, the forgiveness of his sins and trespasses, in such things as he hath offended. And this justification or righteousness, which we so receive of GOD’S mercy and Christ’s merits. embraced by faith, is taken, accepted and allowed of GOD, for our perfect and full justification. For the more full understanding hereof, it is our parts and duties ever to remember the great mercy of GOD, how that (all the world being wrapped in sin by breaking of the Law) GOD sent his only son our Savior Christ into this world, to fulfill the Law for us, and by shedding of his most precious blood, to make a sacrifice and satisfaction, or (as it may be called) amends to his Father for our sins, to assuage his wrath and indignation conceived against us for the same.
Is this the approach taken by the new Anglican catechism? There is talk of the objective truths of Christ’s death, resurrection (e.g., p. 23), and ascension and his present reign but how is Christ’s work applied to us? The new catechism says,
Through faith, repentance, and Baptism we are spiritually united to Jesus and become children of God the Father. Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (p. 20)” ( John 14:6).
This language is unclear and unhelpful at best. Neither the Anglican Articles nor the Homily speak quite this way. This is a subjective judgment but the new catechism never seems to miss an opportunity to tie faith to repentance and to say “through faith, repentance and Baptism we are spiritually united to Christ” is simply untrue. Baptism is not the instrument of justification nor is it the instrument of union with Christ. For that matter neither is repentance. The Reformation confessed justification sola fide for a reason. Faith is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits. It is through faith that the Spirit unites us to Christ. Baptism signifies this but it does not confer it.
The catechism continues, “ As we come to the Father through Jesus Christ, God the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds and hearts to know him…”. This is also unclear and misleading. God the Spirit sovereignly confers new life (regeneration) and in that renewing work by the Spirit we are given the gift of faith. The Spirit does not help those who help themselves by first coming to the Father. There were Anglican delegates at the Synod of Dort but this catechism seems to have missed the Canons of Dort.
The catechism asks, “How does God save you”? It answers:
God forgives my sins and reconciles me to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he has given to the world as an undeserved gift of love. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…” (p.24).
This is all true but how does one benefit from from all that Christ has done? Here is where a thoroughly Protestant catechism would say, with Heidelberg Catechism 61, “Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.”
The closest this catechism comes is this:
6. How does God save you?
God forgives my sins and reconciles me to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he has given to the world as an undeserved gift of love. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…” (p. 24).
What is the ground of our justification before God? This was material question of the Reformation. With one voice all the Protestant catechisms and confessions, including the Anglican Articles of Religion (including the Homily on Salvation, to which it refers the catechumen) affirmed that the only basis of our standing before God is the righteousness of Christ credited, reckoned, or imputed. This was over against the Tridentine Roman dogma of progressive justification through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace. Surely any Anglican catechism that seeks to be genuinely evangelical would be crystal clear on “the article of the standing or falling of the church“? One would think but then one would search in vain for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in this catechism.
This section on faith and repentance is typical:
10. How should you respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
As soon as I receive and believe the Gospel, I should repent of my sins, put faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, and prepare to be baptized. “Now is the day of salvation…”
11. What does it mean for you to repent?
To repent means that I have a change of heart, turning from sinfully serving myself to serving God as I follow Jesus Christ. I need God’s help to make this change…
12. What does it mean for you to have faith?
To have faith means that I believe the Gospel is the truth: that Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead, and rules over my life. Therefore, I entrust myself to him as my Savior, and I obey him as my Lord.
13. How can you repent and put your faith in Jesus Christ?
With God’s help, I can acknowledge and turn from my sins, receive the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and embrace the new life he freely gives me. [One way to do this is by sincerely praying in the way described in the “Turning to Christ” section above, p. 20.] (p. 25).
On the necessity of obedience the catechism is quite clear. On the normative role of the moral law as the measure and guide for the Christian life, the catechism is clear. On the necessity of repentance and progressive sanctification, the catechism is clear but on the ground of the sinner’s standing before a holy God, the catechism seems to be muddy at best. If I have missed this statement I will joyfully amend my critique.
This is not to say that there are no virtues in the catechism. Its doctrine of Scripture (question 25–34) is to be commended as clear and high, i.e., it confesses the inspiration and reliability of Scripture for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Its defense of creeds is clear and worthy and illustrates that the catechism is capable of being precise and nuanced (questions 18–24).
Strangely, for a Western catechism, Q. 38 seems to deny the filioque the doctrine of the double procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son.
Reformed readers will pause and wonder at some of the sections under the heading of the Holy Spirit. E.g.,
88. How do you receive the Holy Spirit?
The Scriptures teach that, by repenting and being baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ, I am forgiven my sins and I receive the Holy Spirit, who gives me new birth in Christ and frees me from the power of sin….
We receive the Holy Spirit in baptism? Surely we are entitled to speak sacramentally, i.e., to associate the work of the Spirit with the sacraments but a Protestant catechism should not speak sacerdotally, i.e., to give the impression that the sacraments work ex opere, “from the working (ex opere) it is worked (operato).” The reader, especially a catechumen would be hard pressed not to draw such a conclusion from the language used by here and elsewhere.
The reader may be aware that there has been a charismatic-Pentecostal movement among some Anglican quarters, a move that would very much surprise the likes of Perkins, Sibbes, and Leigh and Q. 90 reflects this influence:
90. What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Among the many gifts of the Holy Spirit named in the New Testament are faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, other languages (“tongues”), the interpretation of other languages, and words of wisdom and knowledge. The Spirit distributes gifts to individuals as he wills for the sake of the Body of Christ. Other gifts in the New Testament include administration, service, encouragement, evangelism, teaching, giving, leadership, and mercy. Jesus promises that the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask….
This is consistent with the movement of broad evangelicalism and charismatic Anglicanism but it is not historic Anglicanism nor is it historic Protestant theology, piety, and practice. The biblical basis for such a confession is quite weak.
Article 26 of the Anglican Articles (1549) says that Anglicans confess “Our Lord Jesus has knit together a company of new people with sacraments most few in number, most easy to be kept, most excellent in signifcation as in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” The ACNA catechism says something rather different:
123. What sacraments were ordained by Christ?
The two sacraments ordained by Christ that are “generally necessary to salvation” (1662 Catechism) are Baptism and Holy Communion (also called the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist). These are sometimes called “sacraments of the Gospel”…
So far, so good. A Protestant catechism might stop there. Q. 124 asks: “124. Are there other sacraments?”
The Protestant and historic Anglican answer is unequivocal: “no.” The ANCA catechism answers this question rather differently:
124. Other rites and institutions commonly called sacraments include confirmation (2 Timothy 1:6–7; Hebrews 6:1–2), ordination (Numbers 8:9–14; 27:18–23; 1 Timothy 4:14), marriage (Genesis 2:18–24; Matthew 19:4–6; John 2:1–11), absolution (John 20:21–23; Acts 2:37–41), and the anointing of the sick (James 5:14). These are sometimes called “sacraments of the Church.”
125. How do these differ from the sacraments of the Gospel?
They were not ordained by Christ as necessary to salvation, but arose from the practices of the apostles and the Early Church, or were blessed by God in Scripture. God clearly uses them as means
of grace. (Articles of Religion, 25)
The answers given in questions are both misleading and wrong. E.g., Art 25 as published in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, says:
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures: but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Anglican confession is that the five so-called “ecclesiastical sacraments” are not sacraments at all. They were commonly called that from the 13th century forward but were rejected as sacraments by the Reformation Churches, including the Anglican communion because they lack any basis on holy Scripture. They not instituted by the Apostles. There is no warrant for their practice in the history of the church until the they were first given concilliar authority in 1274. As late as the 9th century the five “ecclesiastical sacraments” were unknown as sacraments in the West. They were certainly unknown to the apostles and to the early church. It is beyond surprising to see an ostensibly Protestant catechism claim anything to the contrary. It is remarkable to see the catechism claim that the Anglican Articles say the opposite of what they say.
Not surprisingly, Q. 68 affirms that, in death. Jesus “entered the place of the departed” (p. 42) and cites 1 Peter 3:18–19. This is the teaching of the Anglican Articles. The reader will want to know, however, that this is a dubious reading of 1 Peter 3. For an alternative see this commentary.1. Read in context, Peter is not saying that Christ went to the “place of the departed.” He is talking about the ministry of God the Son, through Spirit, in the days of Noah as a parallel to the work of God the Spirit through his apostles.
The account of Jesus’ ascension, session, and return is edifying (questions 71–80). Q. 80 is particularly encouraging:
80. Should you be afraid of God’s judgment?
The unrepentant should fear God’s judgment, for “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness” (Romans 1:18). But if I am in Christ, I need not fear God’s judgment, for my Judge is my Savior, Jesus Christ, who loves me, died for my sins,
and intercedes for me….
This account of the judgment needs to be heard again.
This catechism is a fascinating window in the nature of contemporary, conservative Anglicanism in North America. Through this window we may see that there is a certain fuzziness on the article of the standing or falling of the church, on the relation of baptism to regeneration, and on the nature of the sacraments. These, in conjunction with Q. 141, which teaches that, in ordination, “God conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit” seem to testify to Anglo-Catholic influence in the ACNA. Yet, at the same time, there is room for Charismatic theology, piety, and practice. One wonders, however, is there room in the ACNA for old-fashioned, one might even say old-school evangelical Protestant Anglicanism represented by Perkins, Sibbes, and Edward Leigh? That would be a big tent indeed.
Those evangelical and Reformed Christians who, out of dissatisfaction or boredom are toying with becoming Anglican should take a beat and consider very carefully what they are about to do. The communion for which you hope may not be the communion you find. Caveat emptor.
1. This is part of a larger commentary on the Petrine epistles.
- Strangers And Aliens (17a): As It Was In The Days Of Noah (1 Peter 3:18–22)
- Strangers And Aliens (17b): As It Was In The Days Of Noah (1 Peter 3:18–22)
- Strangers And Aliens (17c): The Ascended Lord (1 Peter 3:18–22)