Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Worthy to receive the Lord's Supper?

What does it mean to examine your heart before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup and, in so doing, what do you find? Is it a morbid introspection?  Are we to look for evidences of moral improvement and faithfulness which recommend us to the table?  Do we hope to find some assurance within that we are worthy to receive his food?  John Calvin writes:
By this, as I understand, he means that each individual should descend into himself; and consider, first, whether, with inward confidence of heart, he leans on the salvation obtained by Christ, and with confession of the mouth, acknowledges it; and, secondly, whether with zeal for purity and holiness he aspires to imitate Christ; whether, after his example, he is prepared to give himself to his brethren, and to hold himself in common with those with whom he has Christ in common; whether, as He himself is regarded by Christ, he in his turn regards all his brethren as members of his body, or, like his members, desires to cherish, defend, and assist them, not that the duties of faith and charity can now be perfected in us, but because it behooves us to contend and seek, with all our heart, daily to increase our faith. [Calvin's Institutes, Book 4:17:40]
He continues by reminding us of that bottom line which should never be forgotten, i.e. the good news of this feast:
Let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine to the sick, comfort to the sinner, and bounty to the poor; while to the healthy, the righteous, and the rich, if any such could be found, it would be of no value. For while Christ is therein given us for food, we perceive that without him we fail, pine, and waste away just as hunger destroys the vigor of the body. Next, as he is given for life, we perceive that without him we are certainly dead. Wherefore, the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy; to despond in ourselves, that we may he consoled in him; to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him; to aspire, moreover, to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue. If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed by such considerations as these, how shall we, who are devoid of all good, polluted by the defilements of sin, and half dead, worthily eat the body of the Lord? We shall rather consider that we, who are poor, are coming to a benevolent giver, sick to a physician, sinful to the author of righteousness, in fine, dead to him who gives life... [Calvin's Institutes, Book 4:17:42]

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Gleanings: Puritanism and the Book of Common Prayer, Part 1

The book, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context by Robert Letham, is well worth the time to read.  Among other things, it's helped give me a better understanding of  the social, political, and religious influences in England that led to Puritanism and eventually the Westminster Assembly.  What's interesting to take into account are those particularly oppressive influences that affected the returning Marian exiles in the late 1550s going forward and how those influences and actions of the State/Church authority led to a Puritanism that gradually moved away from an episcopal polity toward presbyterianism and the regulative principle of worship; ultimately rejecting a state enforced liturgy as was the case with the Book of Common Prayer.  Following are some of my thoughts and gleanings from Letham's book:

Soon after Elizabeth took the throne the Protestant church was reestablished.  Yet those religious refugees recently returned from Europe found that what was taking place was far from a continuation of reforms started in Cranmer's church under Edward VI.  New legislation set in law the use of the new prayer book and other prescriptions and requirements.  In fact, "The Act of Settlement (1559) ... laid down savage penalties for departing from the prescribed liturgy."  And though they made efforts to moderate these developments, he returning Marian exiles "failed to secure any concessions to placate them" (Letham, p. 14). Initially, "draconian penalties were prescribed for any who diverged from the Prayer Book although these were rarely, if ever, enforced."  This soon changed.  "Only from around 1564 was rigid uniformity required..." (p. 15).

Letham continues,
"When tighter control was implemented by the establishment, a nascent Presbyterian movement emerged in the 1570s and 1580s... Indeed, it was estimated by some, and reported by Mitchell, that at one point up to one-third of the clergy of England were under suspension, with attendant destitution and penury, while their congregations were as a result deprived of the ministry of the Word and sacraments." (p. 15)
These men were clergy of the Church of England and not some strain of radical Puritanism.
Indeed, as Mitchell observes, '"the points of difference between the Puritans and those who fail to be distinguished from them in the Reformed Church of England seem at first to be few in number, and of minor importance" (p. 16) ... the only expression at variance with the principle of Puritanism in the Articles of the Church was the first clause of the XXth Article, asserting the power of the Church to decree rites and ceremonies.  This clause was not present in the corresponding article as framed in the time of Edward, VI; and the Puritans strenuously contended it had been foisted in, somewhat inconsiderately, in the time of Queen Elizabeth (p.17).
The battle lines had been drawn by Queen Elizabeth's new Settlement and the principle at stake was whether worship and polity were to be under the authority of the State or under the authority of Scripture.
The chief point at issue for the Puritans was whether the church has the right to bind consciences with anything other than the declarations of the Bible.  Mithchell puts the matter well when he says that the Puritans "claimed to restrict the authority of the church within narrower limits than their opponents, and to reclaim for liberty a larger province than they [their opponents] were disposed to allow her."  For the Pritans, worship and church polity--as well as matters of salvation--were to be drawn from the teaching of Scripture, wither expressed or implicit (p. 18).
Despite this contentious issue the doctrines of the church were solidly as what can be described as Calvinism.  This reformed theology held sway in the church through the years up until the time of Charles I and Bishop Laud.
Spinks, in his evaluation of Perkins and Hooker, finds that both "stand firmly within a broad-based Reformed theology."  Hooker "never departs from a Reformed position."  Both Hooker and Perkins are legitimate interpreters of the Thirty-Nine Articles, while "Hooker finds his theology expressed n the 1559 Book of Common Prayer; Perkins gave no hint that his theology was contradicted by it" (p. 53).
Yet under Bishop Laud, Reformed doctrines and preaching were being rooted out while older medieval church practices returned.
It was a sea change in the theological balance of power, effected within three hears of Charles's accession... This change was clearly against the doctrine of the Church of England as expounded expounded by the Thirty-Nine Articles, as presented in Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer(p. 21)... [Archbishop] Laud required absolute submission to the king, extending to acceptance of every detail of church ritual.  He introduced genuflecting, called the communion table an altar, and banned all publications that called the pope the Antichrist (p.23).
From a 21st century American point of view it's difficult to grasp the brutal and oppressive nature of the authoritative hand of the State in the church's worship.  Politics and religion were inexorably intertwined.  
"Not only were the political and the religious so inextricably intertwined that 'secular' was a meaningless category, but the religious issues alone had the strength to generate the passion needed for armed uprising against the king" (p. 26).  The changes brought on by Laud contradicted the clear teaching of the Book of Common Prayer as in the case of the drastic restrictions on the preaching of sermons.
This antipathy to preaching did emerge before the Civil War, under the direction of Laud, and was pursued with vigor in some dioceses...  Yet such policies were contrary to the form for "The ordering of Priests" in the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer: (p. 51).
The following are excerpts from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for the ordination of priests.  The Bishop's words to the prospective priest:
Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church hath received the same, according to the Commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your Cure and Charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?

... And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments...

... TAKE thou Authority to preach the Word of God...
 The Book of Common Prayer became, in a way, the leading edge of a legislative sword used by the English episcopal authority against those who, at one time, had been in the mainstream of the church. I think it and the oppressive Church/State authority were of the same cloth in the minds of Puritans suffering under Laud's regime and thus they wanted to throw them both off. They wanted a church reformed solely according the God's Word and not one imposed by Parliament. One result of this history is a common misunderstanding held today that the Presbyterians/Puritans of that era were therefore against any set liturgies whatsoever. This was not the case at all.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Cranmer: Continental reformer - an addendum...

Question to Anglicans - Who's church is it?

From his book, The Westminster Assembly - Reading Its Theology in Historical Context, Robert Letham (an OPC ordained minister, graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, adjunct professor of systematic theology at WTS, and visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary) lays out the history surrounding the Assembly and, in part, the history connecting the Westminster Standards to the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles. He offers this bit of insight into the much misunderstood Thomas Cranmer:
In his magisterial and widely acclaimed critical biography of the great English reformer, Thomas Cranmer, Diarmaid MacCulloch demonstrates that Cranmer, throughout his career, was much in contact with continental Reformed churches and theologians...  
Thereafter [i.e. his marriage to Osianders’s niece], his career was a tortuous but persistent attempt to bring the Church of England into line with the Reformed churches on the continent, a trajectory that accelerated with the accession of Edward VI in 1547... In MacCulloch’s words, “The thread running through [his career]... is his fierce determination to promote the evangelical reform of the Church.”  Cranmer’s “middle way” was not a midpoint between the Reformation and Rome, but “between Wittenberg and Zurich,” the path trod by Bucer and Calvin.  He was “a Reformed Catholic” who sought to rebuild the Catholic Church on the basis of the Bible, the creeds, and the great councils of the early church. (p. 52)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Credentialed in Mercy

What are your credentials in the world?  What is it that commends you or gives you confidence in the eyes of others?  What accomplishments... awards... recognition of excellence?  For the vast majority of humankind the answer is silence and a shrug of the shoulder.  Nothing really of note. Sometimes just the opposite.  For most of us it's just, more or less, getting up in the morning and facing whatever life presents.  Trying to earn enough to provide food and shelter... taking care of the basics, and often not as well as we would like.  Working the fields, as it were, to bring forth a yield.  Struggling under that ever-present curse of our father Adam:  cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you... (Gen.3:17b-18a).

How about your Christian pedigree?  What can you point to in your Christian life that's left a lasting mark?  I know, not really a question Christians should be asking of ourselves, let alone listing our so-called good works for God!  But, being the fallen creatures we are, too often we do list those things somewhere in the inner inventory of our self-image. Alternatively establishing self-validation or not.  Are you a pastor of a growing church?   A Christian scholar who is not only published but read?  A missionary who has left the comforts of home and brought souls to Christ?  A faithful elder who has helped guide the sheep of Christ through many dangers over the years?  Again, the larger percentage of the people of God have no church ministry or Phd. in theology.  And even those that do still, to a large degree, find more thorns and thistles in their labors than not.

OK then...  Where am I heading?  Simply that accomplishments in this life are ephemeral.  To glory in them, if you have them, is pouring water into broken cisterns.  And to lament the lack of them is just the flip side of that coin.  "If only this... then my Christian life would be worthwhile."  It's these thoughts that came to my mind this morning as I read the familiar verses in Philippians 3.  And what so struck me was the apostle Paul's words at the close of the letter.  He first lists his credentials according to the flesh, he states that he counts them but rubbish for Christ's sake.  Nothing to see here... just move along.  He then states why - that he may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of [his] own (accomplishments to glory in)... but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith... to apprehend that for which Christ apprehended Paul.  Glorious and inspiring words.

But it was Paul's closing admonition that so caught my attention.  After all the high and purposeful words of pressing on to the upward call, etc (and who among us lives up to those words?)... he writes - But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Of great or small accomplishment... of many works or few... a Christian of Christians or just one of the bruised reeds struggling and plodding along.  The only credential under heaven recognized by God is the one that levels mankind, declaring all need saving.  In this life we don't graduate from that status.  Sinners we are, every day, and that alone qualifies us for the Savior.  The very best credential anyone can have is that of God's unmerited grace and mercy toward sinners.  And thus, through faith, we wait with a sure hope for the fullness of our salvation... for our Savior to appear, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cranmer, Continental Reformer?

I think it was Anglican in the wilderness, Hudson Barton (though I may be mistaken), who posed the question of whether Thomas Cranmer would have identified more with the theology and practice of the Marian exiles and Puritans or that of Queen Elizabeth and her Church as constituted and guided under the Settlement during her forty-some year reign.  If the former is true then it lends credible support to the case that upon Elizabeth's accession the reformation of the Church of England came to an unexpected end.  It's the view of many that, though the battle for further biblical reforms continued within and without the official Church, institutionally the Church had become essentially molded as an uncomfortable composite of the Henrician and Edwardian periods.

Ashley Null, arguably the foremost scholar on the theology of Thomas Cranmer, adds some of his insights to the question in a talk given at St Antholin, the text of which can be found at the Church Society:
In such a venerable lecture series, founded to be the wellspring of nonconformity in England, what could be a more unexpected topic than the man Thomas Cranmer. Who, more than he, was the public face of both Edwardian Erastianism and Edwardian Liturgy. Is not Cranmer reported to have said at the coronation of the boy-king Edward, ʻYour majesty is Godʼs vice-gerent and Christʼs vicar within your own dominions, and to see, with your predecessor Josiah, God truly worshippedʼ?  Has not liturgical scholarship proved right that memorable jibe of John Field, the London field marshall of Elizabethan Puritan agitation, that Cranmerʼs prayer books were ʻculled and picked out of that popish dunghill, the mass bookʼ?  Although Foxe did his best to enlist Cranmer as the true ʻSt Thomas of Canterburyʼ because of his death under Mary, the polity and liturgy he bequeathed represented to Puritans all that was not blessed in the Church of England, all that still needed changing. What does he and the founders of our lectureship have to do with one another?
 Much, for they were all adherents of Reformed theology. While this has not been the conventional portrait of Cranmer for over a century, recent studies have confirmed Cranmerʼs basic agreement with that Southern strain of continental Protestantism that became known as Reformed, at least as it was emerging during his lifetime. The theological stream which ran so fast through St Antholinʼs did not spring up in England only upon the return of the Marian exiles, but in Cranmerʼs day and by Cranmerʼs encouragement. The movement grew and adapted—so much so that subsequent generations of Churchman historians have failed to recognise Cranmer as one of their soteriological progenitors. Yet the blessed personal change sought by Puritans for their family, friends and flock Cranmer also desired for the elect of England of his era. Conversion from sin to communion with God was a favourite Puritan theme, and nothing was closer to Cranmerʼs own heart; consequently, he enshrined his Reformed understanding of the process in the formularies he bequeathed to the Church of England. Those wishing to find Anglican legitimacy for the Puritan approach to the cure of the English soul need look no further than the pioneering work of Thomas Cranmer himself.
In his introduction to the Memoir of the Life and Writings of Thomas Cartwright, Rev. B. Brook writes concerning the early stages of the English Reformation and the trajectory of Thomas Cranmer visa-vis the Continental reformers:
By the introduction of printing, the circulation of the Bible in English, and other important occurrences in the reign of King Henry VIII., better principles obtained access to the minds of the people, and the light of the glorious gospel spread in every direction. This, however, was not the time of completing the Reformation. Henry was as much the pope of England, as the pontiff was of Rome; and popery, under another head, still triumphed in its most obnoxious forms. Though Henry's conduct was tragically oppressive and severe, yet, at the suggestion of Archbishop Cranmer, one of his last acts was to reform certain papistical observances.  In the reign of King Edward VI., the Reformation began to shine with additional splendour; and Christianity, which had been so long obscured, was expected to appear in its native brightness, and spread its benign influence over all the land...   
In the reign of King Edward VI., the Reformation began to shine with additional splendour; and Christianity, which had been so long obscured, was expected to appear in its native brightness, and spread its benign influence over all the land...  
Archbishop Cranmer, denominated a "great Scripturist," cherished deep commiseration for the people, maintained that the holy Scriptures constituted the only standard of Reformation, treating the decrees of councils, and the traditions of men, with comparative inattention. "From the word of God," said Cranmer," princes may learn how to govern their subjects, and subjects learn how to obey their princes; and all persons may learn that faith and worship which God requires of them."  The venerable primate, adopting this scriptural policy, was anxious to see the church entirely freed from the remnants of popery; and addressing the convocation, "he exhorted the clergy to give themselves to the study of the Scriptures, and to consider seriously what things were in the church that needed reformation; that so they might throw out all the popish trash that was not yet cast out." 
Cranmer and the Archbishop of York, with other bishops and divines, declared that, in the apostolic churches, the office of bishop and pastor was the same; and that in those times the members of the churches usually elected their own officers. Thirteen bishops and numerous other dignitaries subscribed that, in the New Testament, there was no distinction of degrees, except only those of bishops or pastors and deacons. The English Reformers recognised the foreign churches, though far from being episcopalian, as true churches of Jesus Christ, and invited a number of continental protestants to assist the Reformation in this country; who were instantly employed in ministerial functions, without the least regard to episcopal ordination, or the popish doctrine of apostolical succession. 
The last highlighted part of the quote regarding the equivalency of bishop and pastor in the apostolic churches is the same understanding that can be found in many of the writings of the early church fathers such as Augustine.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Christ as the living food, the gospel in the Supper

John Calvin, from his Institutes of Religion: 4.17.4-5
4. Therefore, it is not the principal part of a sacrament simply to hold forth the body of Christ to us without any higher consideration, but rather to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood drink indeed, nourishing us unto life eternal, and by which he affirms that he is the bread of life, of which, whosoever shall eat, shall live for ever — I say, to seal and confirm that promise, and in order to do so, it sends us to the cross of Christ, where that promise was performed and fulfilled in all its parts. For we do not eat Christ duly and savingly unless as crucified, while with lively apprehension we perceive the efficacy of his death. When he called himself the bread of life, he did not take that appellation from the sacrament, as some perversely interpret; but such as he was given to us by the Father, such he exhibited himself when becoming partaker of our human mortality, he made us partakers of his divine immortality; when offering himself in sacrifice, he took our curse upon himself, that he might cover us with his blessing, when by his death he devoured and swallowed up death, when in his resurrection he raised our corruptible flesh, which he had put on, to glory and incorruption. 
5. It only remains that the whole become ours by application. This is done by means of the gospel, and more clearly by the sacred Supper, where Christ offers himself to us with all his blessings, and we receive him in faith. The sacrament, therefore, does not make Christ become for the first time the bread of life; but, while it calls to remembrance that Christ was made the bread of life that we may constantly eat him, it gives us a taste and relish for that bread, and makes us feel its efficacy. For it assures us, first, that whatever Christ did or suffered was done to give us life; and, secondly, that this quickening is eternal; by it we are ceaselessly nourished, sustained, and preserved in life. For as Christ would not have not been the bread of life to us if he had not been born, if he had not died and risen again; so he could not now be the bread of life, were not the efficacy and fruit of his nativity, death, and resurrection, eternal. All this Christ has elegantly expressed in these words, "The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (John 6:51); doubtless intimating, that his body will be as bread in regard to the spiritual life of the soul, because it was to be delivered to death for our salvation, and that he extends it to us for food when he makes us partakers of it by faith. Wherefore he once gave himself that he might become bread, when he gave himself to he crucified for the redemption of the world; and he gives himself daily, when in the word of the gospel he offers himself to be partaken by us, inasmuch as he was crucified, when he seals that offer by the sacred mystery of the Supper, and when he accomplishes inwardly what he externally designates.