A Better Intentionalism: Toward A more Transparent Tractarian Historiography

Seeking to interpret the meaning of a text by sourcing it in the perceived intentions of the author(s) is the hermeneutical strategy called ‘Intentionalism.’ Pace, some of the overstatements of 20th century hermeneutical theorists, seeking to understand the intentions of an author remains a noble endeavor in the quest for understanding. Certainly, to enter the fray of competing Anglican narratives about our Anglican past, it is a necessary tool in the battle, and lies behind the many inter-Anglican differences, such as those that recently surfaced on this journal between Fr. Wilgus and Mr. Ramsey

It is the case that many Anglicans today (of both low-church and 1662-only varieties) substantiate their version of Anglicanism following a sequence that looks something like this: 

Step 1: We know that the founding authors and editors of the Anglican formularies — Thomas Cranmer in the case of the Book of Common prayer, and Matthew Parker in the case of the 39 Articles of 1571 — were whole-hearted converts to the theological convictions of the continent, holding views that centered on Calvinist teaching, but engaging at times with Lutheran thought, at times even with Zwinglian. I grant this as a fact of history, borne out in their various other writings, outside of the received formularies. Here I am speaking chiefly about the theological issues over which Anglicans are internally divided, which center around the sacraments, and necessarily but tangentially affect ecclesiology and soteriology. To give one particular case: There is no doubt in my mind that Cranmer’s view of the Eucharist is at most receptionist, albeit of a reverent variety. 

Step 2: The exact verbiage of the formularies is, as a matter of fact, less precise than some of the confessions that came out of the continent around the same time. Compare for instance, the detail and precision of statement of the Consensus Tigurinus (1549) or the Belgic Confession (1561), and there can be no two ways of stating it: The English formularies are more vague. 

Step 3 (Synthesis): Since we have some idea of what was in the great English Reformer’s hearts, when we encounter something vague in the formularies, we should interpret it in as reformed a way as possible, since we know that was what the English reformers were intending to put forward. Ergo, the “true” Anglican position is a high reformed one.

This way of thinking leads many Anglicans to reject the claims of the leaders of the Oxford movement as unreal to Anglicanism’s actual past. For instance, when Dr. Pusey asserts that the Real Objective Presence of Christ is the eucharistic doctrine of the English Church, this is dismissed out of hand because we know it is certainly not the intended teaching of the 16th century Anglican divines. 

But here’s where I have a bone to pick with today’s Anglicans, in defense of dear Pusey (and, by derivation, of much of what Fr. Wilgus was presenting from Dart’s Old Religion).

The fathers and monarchs of the English Reformation intended diverse things. Not only when we compare person to person: Elizabeth I certainly had a different set of priorities than Archbishop Cranmer had. But even within an individual reformer. Let’s take for instance the good archbishop Matthew Parker. He is by conviction a part of the continental reformation, and so we know that he intends to put forward reformation teaching. But we also know (and I think this is what Mr. Ramsey was getting at) that he also intended to return the Church of England to its patristic roots, sitting as they do on the other side of the medieval corruptions that the Church of England inherited. To give just two famous examples: The Convocation of 1571, over which Matthew Parker presided, and which gave us forever the 39 Articles; that same convocation issued this statement: the 39 Articles, the Convocation of 1571 wrote also, “They [preachers] shall in the first place be careful never to teach any thing from the pulpit to be religiously held and believed by the people, but what is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testament, and collected out of that very doctrine by the Catholic fathers and ancient Bishops.” And the Second Book of Homilies which was there approved, speaks in many and glowing phrases about the dignity and purity and authority of the teaching of the first five centuries of the Church. 

Now, I believe that Matthew Parker believed that the precise convictions that he held, he also believed to be none other than the doctrine of the primitive church of the first centuries. Ditto, Thomas Cranmer. 

And I’ll happily grant that, in the face of the swampy, superstitious religious miasma that the previous century had blown into the air, our Anglican fathers were certainly headed in the right direction, as were the Reformers on the continent. The Faith and Religion of Calvin and Luther would have been much more recognizable to Augustine and Chrysostom, than what passed for Christianity a generation prior to the reformers. Thus are these two fathers cited by all the reformers almost continually, and rightly so. 

But now that the dust of the initial reformation has settled, and patristic study has deepened, and hot controversies have cooled, we are in a position today to see that there are some areas in which the doctrine of a Parker or Cranmer actually does differ from that of the early centuries of the Church. To pick up again a previous instance, as J.N.D. Kelly wrote in his seminal Early Christian Doctrines, in the Early Church “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood”

And so we have an impasse. To use the one figure as an emblem of the English Reformation as a whole: Matthew Parker did not believe in a Real Eucharistic presence of Christ, but he DID want to return to the teaching of the early church, which, problematically DID believe in a Real presence. (As Dr. Pusey’s 722 page collection of his sermon footnotes on the topic, published as The Doctrine of The Real Presence, as contained in the Fathers, from the death of S. John the Evangelist to the Fourth General Council has definitively demonstrated). We see that Parker’s intentions clash. It would seem that both intentions cannot be satisfied, but I think that they can, and this is why I would like to propose a better intentionalism, that can be comprehensive of this apparent dissonance within the English Reformation: We should understand the intention of the English Divines as existing in two different species: Their ultimate intention (their goal), and their practical intention (the practical means they thought would get to that goal.)

The English Reformers’ ultimate intention was to return the church in England to primitive catholicity. Their practical intention, as the means to accomplishing this goal, was to put forward the Reformed teaching received from the continent. 

This division is not as artificial as it might seem, in fact, I think the very fabric of our formularies requires it. For whatever reason (and one can point to several: theologically conservative bishops, pious sensibilities, english toryism, the guidance of the Holy Spirit), the exact verbage of the formularies does not line up with the exact beliefs found on the continent. One can read the Belgic Confession and gain a near perfect understanding of the content and logic of Reformed thought. One cannot do this with the 39 Articles. It lacks completion, and rigorous systematizing. Whatever may have been the cause of this vagueness, it has this effect: Nothing that the patristic church held is denied. This is not true of the Belgic confession (or others like it). For instance, the Belgic confession specifically refutes that in Communion Christ is received by the mouth. But a plain reading of Chysostom or Cyril of Jerusalem plainly shows they believed precisely this. The 39 Articles do not disavow it. 

True it is, that the animating spirit of the Articles, tends in the direction of Reformed teaching. No doubt. But at the level of the letter, there is room within them to believe the catholic faith as the early fathers held it. And there are little clues hidden here and there, that such a belief is not just possible but warranted, such as the crucial word, “given” in Article 28: “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.” If the presence of Christ were not somehow affixed to the elements of bread and wine, there could be no way of defending that it is given. In strict receptionism, it is not given by the priest at all, but only received by the faithful communicant; the unfaithful receiving nothing of Christ.

I believe that the best and by that I mean the most accurate and honest reading of the articles is NOT reading the vagueness in the direction of Reformed thought, but actually sees within them a careful framing of language that still allows Anglicans ever thereafter to hold on to patristic, catholic views, even when they are at odds with the Reformation ideals.

This is actually nothing more nor less than Newman’s conclusion to his infamous tract 90. The trouble is, a couple outlandish stretches here and there and an incendiary tone early in the book has meant that very few readers actually make it all the way to the end of the tract before dismissing it whole-hog. Indeed, even the latter disciples of the Oxford movement have missed Newman’s careful reasoning. Indeed, it seems like Dart himself could do with some moderating statements here and there. That is: It is inaccurate for Puseyites to declare that Anglo-Catholicism IS the true identity of Anglicanism qua a post-Reformation entity. Newman is much more judicious. These are his words from the conclusion of Tract 90:

Lastly, their [the 39 Articles] framers constructed them in such a way as best to comprehend those who did not go so far in Protestantism as themselves. Anglo-Catholics then are but the successors and representatives of those moderate reformers; and heir case has been directly anticipated in the wording of the Articles. It follows that they are not perverting, they are using them, for an express purpose for which among others their authors framed them. The interpretation they take was intended to be admissible; though not that which their authors took themselves. Had it not been provided for, possible the Articles never would have been accepted by our Church at all. If, then, their framers have gained their side of the compact in effecting the reception of the Articles, the Catholics have theirs too in retaining their own Catholic interpretation of them….

and these are his closing words:

The Protestant Confession was drawn up with the purpose of including Catholics; and Catholics now will not be excluded. What was an economy in the reformers, now a protection to us. What would have been a perplexity to us then, is a perplexity to Protestants now. We could not then have found fault with their words; they cannot now repudiate our meaning.

Newman plainly acknowledges that the 39 Articles, in keeping with the convictions of the English Reformers, was certainly a Protestant confession, and would-be tractarians (of whom I am one) do well to remember this, and yet, manifestly the 39 Articles do not exclude catholicism qua patristic theology and practice, which the low-church/reformed/1662-onliers would also do well to pay attention to.

In fact, and this is where I think, with the advantage of hindsight we can see where Newman and Pusey and Keble could have been more transparent than they initially were in their framing of Anglican history: Not that patristic-catholicism is prima facie the Anglican position, but that seeking out and re-habilitating patristic catholicism WAS the ultimate intention of the 16th century divines, even if they saw it necessary to emphasize or demote things which today we might arbitrate otherwise. The Tractarians were just doubling down on the ultimate intention of Anglicanism’s founders.

This is also expressed in Newman’s conclusion to Tract 90, as his summarizing answer:

In the first place, it is a duty which we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed confessions in the most Catholic sense they will admit; we have no duties toward their framers. Nor do we receive the Articles from their original framers, but from several successive convocations after their time; in the last instance, from that of 1662.

In giving the Articles a Catholic interpretation, we bring them in to harmony with the Book of Common Prayers, an object of the most serious moment in those who have given their assent to both formularies.

Whatever be the authority of the Declaration prefixed to the Articles, so far as it has any weight at all, it sanctions the mode of interpreting them above given. For its enjoining the “literal and grammatical sense,” relieves us from the necessity of making the known opinions of their framers, a comment upon their text; and its forbidding any person to “affix any new sense to any Article,” was promulgated at a time when the leading men of our Church were especially noted for those Catholic views which have been here advocated.

The appeal to literal and grammatical sense is not, as some Reformed Anglicans wrongly infer, a defense of the Cranmerite or Parkerite reading, but is actually a safeguard to defend the views of a Pusey, or a Dart, or a Wilgus. 

And I believe that to understand it thus is actually to have a more comprehensive intentionalist reading of our Anglican forefathers of the 16th century, taking into view their ultimate intention of returning the English church to the via of the Ancient Church. If they emphasized definitions that were necessary in the face of 16th century controversy that today we recognize do not take us to the faith of the early church, then I think we do honor and not dishonor by latching on to what they passed down that is good, and not fixating on what they thought they needed to accomplish their intentions, such as shunning the elevation of the host, etc etc.

To put all of this more simply: The 16th century English reformers wanted to reassert the Old Religion. The exact literal sense of our formularies denies nothing of the Old Religion. The form of our liturgies keeps the essential forms of the Old Religion.

Therefore, when the Tractarians, from Pusey to Dart to Wilgus, assert the strong claims of the Old Religion, they are being thoroughly Anglican, even if Cranmer himself would blanch at some of what is presented.

The Rev. Ben Jefferies

The Rev. Ben Jefferies is a sinner, grateful to the Lord for his mercy. He grew up in England, and emigrated to the United States in 1999. He went to Wheaton College, and several years later discerned a call to ministry and went to seminary at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Duncan in 2014. He currently serves The Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Liturgy Task Force of the ACNA from 2015-2019, and was the lead designer for the production of the printed prayer book. He continues as the Assistant to the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer (2019), and serves on the board of directors of Anglican House Media Ministries. He is married with three daughters.

'A Better Intentionalism: Toward A more Transparent Tractarian Historiography' have 6 comments

  1. Brandon LeTourneau

    September 10, 2019 @ 1:21 pm Brandon LeTourneau

    I found this to be an excellent essay. I do have a couple of reservations, however. I definitely agree that the Reformation’s “ad fontes” was an attempted return to the simplicity and purity of the Primitive Church. Where I am apprehensive is in assuming that the Reformers did not actually reach the Catholicity they longer for. Your methodology seems to be a way of simply patting the Reformers on the back and then writing them off. Granted I don’t believe everything that any given Reformer held to, I do think that, generally speaking, the Reformation was a Catholic event, in which case I take no issue with using the Reformed view of the Articles or any other aspect of our tradition. I’d rather assert that the classical Anglican perspective (whatever that may be) *is* in fact a Catholic Perspective.

    My second hesitation is due to the estate of Anglo-Catholicism today. As someone who identifies as at least a soft Tractarian, I cannot help to notice how radically different from the Tracts any given “High Church” or “Anglo-Catholic” Parish seems to be. Rather, there is more often than not, not a Patristic expression of the Anglican Formularies, but a Roman one. How do we safe-guard that which is Patristic from that which is Roman? Our Reformation is predicated on the assumption that the Romans deviated from the Catholic Faith, so we cannot consistently hold them in tandem, but it seems to be precisely what Anglo-Catholicism is today. In this regard it would seem on the surface that the Anti-Ritualists were right. How do we remedy this?

    How do we deal with this embarrassing estate of Anglo-Catholicism, and what place is afforded to the Reformers in our Theology if begin by assuming that they missed the mark?


    • September 11, 2019 @ 2:57 pm Ben Jefferies

      Dear Brandon —

      Thanks for the hearty engagement. Good questions all. In reply:

      1. “Your methodology seems to be a way of simply patting the Reformers on the back and then writing them off.”
      So, on the one hand, the thing the Reformers did that was so excellent was re-order things so that people (like me) DON’T spend a whole of time reading them (the reformers), but instead: the Scriptures. I am DEEPLY grateful for the Reformer’s catholic re-prioritization of Scripture and the source and sum of what is true and needful for salvation. That this is enshrined in our Anglican Ordinal and Articles is an incalculable gift to the church, uniquely given by the Reformation. On the other hand, the total re-ordering of our perception of the Salvation we have in Jesus — which the Reformers insisted was to orbit around “justification by faith”, is plainly out of sync with patristic soteriology, despite a few tiny mentions in one or two fathers here and there, etc. This is part of the larger issue: So much of the reformation project was bound up in the controversies of their times. And thus, so many of the writings are hide-bound by the terms set by their inherited controversial partners, etc. I value the best of them (Melancthon, Bucer) for their carefulness, and I love the vim of early Luther (before he went ascerbic). But these writings do not nourish my soul and lead me back to the feet of the Risen Lord the way that Chrysostom or Augustine does. And this is not just a matter of taste — it is connected to the differing soteriologies. Augustine was a holier man than Luther or Cranmer, because he was not allergic to the Biblical idea that our life in Christ is necessarily full of ascetic effort. Subsequently, because the mind’s capacity for illumination is contingent on this growth in the Lord, effected by the Spirit, mediatorally caused by self-denial, Augustine saw and knew more about God directly, that he could then write about, than many of the 16th century reformation. Hence his writings remain more perennially edifying. I would happily leave behind volumes of Cranmer for a single work of Augustine or Irenaeus or Athanasius, etc..

      2. “the Reformation was a Catholic event, in which case I take no issue with using the Reformed view of the Articles or any other aspect of our tradition. I’d rather assert that the classical Anglican perspective (whatever that may be) *is* in fact a Catholic Perspective.”
      In the several lynch-pin areas, I am simply not persuaded that this is the case. None of the English reformation divines until the time of King Charles I believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is unarguably the patristic view. Writers who have tried to prove otherwise fail to account for the contextual semantic range of patristic verbiage as well as the general tenor. I think one can claim catholicity, or one can claim the faith of Cranmer and Hooper et al — but you can’t have both with integrity. I am fully convinced of this. Given the choice, I want the former.

      3. “How do we deal with this embarrassing estate of Anglo-Catholicism, and what place is afforded to the Reformers in our Theology if begin by assuming that they missed the mark?”
      I am totally with you here. I never publicly self-identify as “anglo-catholic” for this reason, for the successors of the Tractarians are in many cases a cause of shame and not of pride. And I agree – far far far far too Romish.
      The answer is: The Bible.
      Pusey and Keble were first and foremost Bible-Men. We need to be as well. This is the patristic standard: The Bible IS the Apostolic Deposit for us today. If it’s not in the Bible, it must not be taught. If it goes against the Bible, it must be attacked. For this reason I stand with Pusey in vehemently rejecting all the Romish invocation of saints, especially the BVM etc. As well as their papalism. Because none of this is in the Bible, as interpreted by the early church from the time of the Apostles on.
      We would-be Tractrians need to be Bible men. Reading the Bible. In quiet times of meditation. In the Offices. For Study. I want to know the Bible better than any southern Baptist. THEN — from a place of deep familiarity with the Holy Word of God, and simple trust in its content, to defend the catholic way against its Puritan subtractions and Romish additions. The latter being more odious. I would honestly rather pray with my friend who is a pastor in the Primitive Baptist Church, because I know we both love and submit to the Bible (even if we differ in received interpretations), than with a pseudo-Roman “anglo-catholic” who doesn’t personally love the Lord.
      Part of this too, is to realize that what we celebrate in our catholic tradition, we do so BECAUSE its biblical. I don’t believe in the Real Presence because of Lateran IV, but because of John 6 and 1 Cor 11! Etc. Grounding our catholic doctrines and practice always squarely in the Bible, simply received in its “plain sense” (Jerusalem Declaration) THIS is the safe-guard we so desperately need. It’s why I’m keen on NAAJ — Because an old High Churchmanship that is Bible-based is a MUST.
      Now, lastly, I will say, that some of the NAAJ-HighChurcmanship seems to major on the minors. E.g. Something like the elevation of the host in Communion – while frowned on (but not banned) by the 39 articles, and certainly a development of Piety in the Roman church, is not the enemy. It is a natural ritual extension of the Faith claim of the Real Presence. Honoring Christ present, is in no wise against Scripture, it is in fact harmonious with it. As long as seeing doesn’t replace eating, which is no real danger today, as it was in the days before the Reformation.


      • September 12, 2019 @ 5:23 am Lambert

        ” I think one can claim catholicity, or one can claim the faith of Cranmer and Hooper et al — but you can’t have both with integrity. I am fully convinced of this. Given the choice, I want the former.”

        Why would someone who thinks this be taken at all seriously as a guide to any question about Anglicanism?


        • September 12, 2019 @ 9:29 am Ben Jefferies

          Dear Lambert —

          In answer to your question, because Cranmer (unlike Calvin in Geneva) DIDN’T insist that members of the Church over which he was archbishop MUST have his Cranmerite theology. As I tried to take pains to show in the essay above: The language of the Prayerbook AND the Articles leaves plenty of room for patristic/catholic theology, and this was the “product” Cranmer et al produced, as the actual constituting documents of Anglicanism, which, I believe can be read according to a better intentionalism, as I was trying to make the case for. Therefore, it seems like your denunciation of my perhaps being a guide to a question about Anglicanism is an assertion without argument. Could you make the case: Of why only those whose theology lines up with what is in Cranmer’s mind can be bona fide Anglicans? And if so — how do you account for Bishops Bull, Bramhall, Overall, Laud and Ken? Were they disingenuous guides in the leading of their own church, because none of them could be called Cranmerites? This would be a tall claim.


          • September 12, 2019 @ 9:56 am Lambert

            It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Anglican gentleman who earnestly declares that he cannot with integrity hold “the faith of Cranmer and Hooper et al,” must be in want of a pair of swimming trunks.

          • September 12, 2019 @ 10:26 am Ben Jefferies

            Hehe, that’s actually pretty funny. & I admit, it has often been the case; too many of my Nashotah classmates have very regrettably gone to Rome or the East. But in the presence of this digital congregation, I attest that I shall never do so, because I could never stomach her idolatries and her additions to Scripture. For 10 years Rome and Orthodoxy have dangled their bait in front of me, and I have many times refused them, sometimes at cost. I am an Anglican of the Pusey school, not the Newman school, and like the former, am most content and most desirous to remain an Anglican, until my dying breath. As to the earnestness of my claim, only time will prove me true. Hier stehe ich. Ich will keine swimming-trunks 🙂

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