In honor of Dr. Packer and John Webster
The other day I found an old set of theses on Anglicanism that I wrote over a decade ago; they seem just as true today as when I first wrote them, and if anything even more relevant. So, with a few revisions and the blessing of The Living Church, I republish them here. They are dedicated to the memory of Dr J. I. Packer and Prof John Webster, the greatest Anglican theologians of the last half-century. In essence, the theses are a distillation of Webster’s Word-and-Church ecclesiology; I had the pleasure of sharing them with John before his untimely death, and they encouraged his heart. As for Dr. Packer: you know as well as I the immense good that godly man did for the Church of God. But what you could not know is that without him, and in particular without the last few chapters of Knowing God, I might still be detained in Sheol and unable to share these theses with you. As you read and consider them, may you be startled and provoked by the Spirit, built up and blessed in Jesus Christ, and drawn in grateful love to the Father.
- Anglicans must first become faithless if we are to become faithful.
- Anglicans will only become more catholic if we first become more evangelical.
- If Anglicanism tries to save its soul, it will lose it; but if it loses itself for Christ’s sake, it will find it.
- Neither theology nor politics will save us: only Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.
- Bishops and priests should worry less about becoming wise and powerful and more about becoming foolish and weak, that is, preachers of the Gospel.
1. Anglicans must first become faithless if we are to become faithful. By this I do not mean that we should go on sinning that grace may abound. Perish the thought, and leave the antinomian heresy to the “radical” Lutherans and whatever other spirits there may be who chirp cheap grace like mockingbirds. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, that our old man might be crucified with him and that we—having been set free from sin’s tyranny—might walk in the freedom of the Risen One.
Rather, I mean that we need to acknowledge the hard truth that we all have sinned against God, against one another, against the other churches in the Great Church, and against a watching world—a world perishing without the transforming love of Jesus Christ our God.
If we say we have no sin and go on boasting that we are the faithful or the orthodox or the Reformation or the Catholic or the ecumenical Anglicans, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. For what do we have that we did not receive? And if we received it, why do we boast as if we had not received it? All such boasting is evil, for all such boasting is boasting in the self—our righteous Anglican/Episcopal selves—instead of in Christ and his Cross. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we dare to become sinners together, we will have koinonia with one another and the blood of Jesus will cleanse us from all our sin.
Thanks be to our greathearted God, who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Thanks be to Jesus Christ the Righteous One, whose blood is the wrath-absorbing sacrifice not only for our great Anglican sins but also for the sins of the whole oikumene. Thanks be to the Spirit of adoption and grace, who opens our eyes to see the glory of God radiating from the bloodied face of a crucified Messiah. Because of Him we are in Christ Jesus. Because of his free grace, Christ has become for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Therefore let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. And far be it from Anglicanism to boast except in the saving Cross of Jesus Christ our Lord, by which the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world.
If we become faithless in this faithful way, the word of St Paul will prove true: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2.13).
2. Anglicans will only become more catholic if we first become more evangelical. The communion ecclesiologies of Afanasiev, Tillard, Zizioulas, and modern Anglican ecumenism should be held in high regard. But not the highest regard. Communion ecclesiology cannot stand on its own, for the simple reason that the Church cannot stand on her own. For the Church is the creature of the divine Word—the Gospel. I’m afraid I must be quite clear on this point. I do not mean to imply that, without the Gospel, the Church is weakened. Rather, I mean to say that without the Gospel there is no Church at all. God only calls us poor sinners into communion with his Son (1 Cor 1.9) through the Word of the Cross. This little Word is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1.18). When this Gospel is preached, Christ gives himself to condemned men, women, and children through Word and Sacrament, and calls his Church into being out of nothing.
If we busy ourselves with preaching the Gospel, the Risen One will pour out his Spirit and create his Church where and when he wishes. If, on the other hand, we try to create our own catholicity and lose sight of the primacy of the Gospel in all things, we will lose the Gospel and catholicity alike. In other words, if we try to save our Anglican koinonia, we will lose it. But if we preach the Gospel, Christ may well take up the fragments of our—that is to say, his—Communion, and help restore his whole catholic Church. Whether or not he does this, let there be no mistake: creating catholicity is his work, not ours. We can no more create our own catholicity than we can atone for our own sins or raise ourselves up from the dead. In the strictest sense, we have not even been sent to baptize, let alone save a global Communion. Christ has sent us to preach the Gospel (1 Cor 1.17).
3. If Anglicanism tries to save its soul, it will lose it; but if it loses itself for Christ’s sake, it will find it. This restates what has already been said in the most basic terms of Christian spirituality. The Lord Jesus has made the way of the Cross to be for us the way of life and peace. This is why our life begins in our death, viz., in our baptism, when the old Adam is drowned and the Last Adam raises us up from the dead. This is why our life is nourished in the Eucharist; in the holy Supper, we partake of the most precious Body and Blood of the Lord and proclaim his death till he comes. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians that his one ambition is to preach the Cross and to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is why the Lord told Peter, after his ill-advised attempt at becoming the first church-growth consultant: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” This is why Jesus tells his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt 16.21-27).
The holy cross is in all we are, and do, and suffer. The Church is the body of the Crucified, his very own flesh (Eph 5.29). If the Anglican Communion would partake of this Body, it must share in the crucifixion of Jesus and thus fill up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church (Col 1.24). Here is a grain of wheat that will remain alone unless it falls into the earth and dies. But if Anglicanism dies, it will bear much fruit. Then the Father will be glorified, when by losing our distinguished Anglican lives we soon find, to our astonishment, that we have been raised from the dead. In this painful pruning, this glorious resurrection hidden beneath suffering and the cross, nothing worth keeping will be lost. My friend, in the way of Jesus, nothing worth keeping is ever lost. This is what it means to gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of our own that comes through the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. This is what it means to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by all possible means we may attain the resurrection of the dead.
Suppose you end up losing everything? Your position, your pension plan, your pride? In Christ all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Aquinas or Cranmer or Hooker or Ramsey or Rowan or Duncan or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3.21-23).
4. Neither theology nor politics will save us: only Jesus Christ the Risen Lord. Good theology is immensely important for the life of the Church. For true theology defends the sound doctrine of the Gospel, and without the Gospel the Church perishes. In a similar but derivative way, good church politics is also vital for the well-being of the people of God. Our bishops must seek what makes for peace, not their own interests. In becoming bishops, they have given up their honor, their ambition, their lives for the Gospel, and have become fools for Christ. That is why we call them successors of the Apostles (1 Cor 4.9-13). That is why they wear huge crosses on their chests. The good bishop takes his stand against false teaching and resists the devil, who always seeks to sow division in the flock of Christ. It is hard to imagine a greater gift to the Church than a real church politician, i.e., a bishop, a shepherd, a slave, who seeks not to be served but to serve and to lay down his life for his sheep.
Yet as important as they are, neither theology nor politics can save us. Only the Word, Light, and Truth made flesh for us, who alone is our Teacher; only the Power of God incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary; only the Lamb of God, who alone is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls; only Jesus Christ the Son of God, by his death Redeemer of the whole world, by his resurrection and ascension glorified and enthroned as King of kings and Lord of lords far above all the heavens that he might fill all things: only the Son of Man can save us.
This is quite clear once we consider the fact that the true enemy of Anglicanism is not this heretic over here or that schismatic over there, but the dragon, that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (see Rom 16.17-20, 1 John 4.1-6, Rev 12.7-12). True: when Messiah atoned for sin, conquered Death, and ascended the mountain of God, holy Michael defeated the dragon, barred him from the heavenly throne room, and threw him down to the earth. True: the salvation and the power and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, and the accuser of the brethren has been thrown down. True: we little St Georges conquer the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, for we love not our lives even unto death; the heavens and those who dwell in them, including we who are united to Christ by faith even while we sojourn here below, have all cause to rejoice. But woe to you O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, for he knows that his time is short!
St Peter meant what he said when he warned that our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5.8). So did the apostle to the nations, when he charged the Ephesians to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might and warned that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers over this present darkness and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6.10-12). The battle we are in is far too serious a matter for theologians or politicians to decide, were they the cleverest theologians and savviest politicians the Church had ever known. At any rate, alas, such men are in short supply. Does your bishop even believe in the existence of demons? Do you know any theologians who can cast them out? Perhaps he does, and perhaps you do; and in that happy case, they will acknowledge their powerlessness and confess with a shout of joy that the battle is the LORD’s. He is a Man of war—Yahweh is his Name—and He declares in the total humility of his absolute and unrivaled three-personed Godness: “My glory I give to no other.”
In this fight to the death—won only by dying—it is the simple Christians, weak in themselves yet strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might, who will stand their ground. They may not be theologians or bishops, but they will resist the adversary and they will prevail, for they know they have no power of their own to do so. They have something better than power—a promise: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan beneath your feet” (Rom 16.20). On the basis of this word, each one of them makes bold to declare with David: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin”—viz., Ivy/Oxbridge pedigree, riches and status and power, the good opinion of the world—“but I come to you in the Name of YHWH of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied” (1 Sam 17.45). Thus abandoning all hope in flesh, the simple Anglicans—like Jehoshaphat and Jahaziel and the impossibly outnumbered people of Judah—will do nothing at all. Nothing but stand firm in the Faith, and having done all, to stand firm. Nothing but stand back and watch the salvation of the Lord on their behalf (2 Chron 20.17). Nothing but sling a single stone at the head of the giant, that “one little word” a rogue German monk taught the Church to trust and sing. And while they stand and preach and pray and abase themselves, singing “Give thanks to Yahweh, for his covenant love endures forever” (2 Chron 20.21), the Christians’ Christ will triumph for them. “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exod 14.14). Luther was a powerful theologian and a passable bishop too, but he knew well that it was God alone who—by the light of his Word and the might of his Spirit—reformed holy Church while he, Martin, sat in his garden “drinking Wittenbergisch bier with my Philipp and Amßdorff.” May all our learned theologians and distinguished bishops become such simple Anglicans, that is to say, Christians, Amen.
5. Bishops and priests should worry less about becoming wise and powerful and more about becoming foolish and weak, that is, preachers of the Gospel. So much is clear from what has just been said, but I will add a corollary. There is a certain fashionable despair in many clerical circles today, a despair too pious to befit redeemed sinners such as ourselves. The Church is disintegrating! Canterbury does nothing! The heretics rule! The schismatics divide and conquer! The secularists are coming! Critical Theory will wreak us! We’ve lost our seat at the table! What will our ecumenical partners do now! “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” I am in no position to speak for the righteous about what they can do, but I have now suggested how a simple Christian might answer David’s question. To wit: we ought to become champion repenters (#1) and friends of the Cross (#2) who give up everything (#3) and bet the farm on the saving power of Jesus Christ alone (#4). Do that, and you won’t need to despair anymore, or fret, or fight for control. You will find yourself free to rest, and to rejoice—and to get to work preaching the Gospel. For you will find yourself in the almighty hands of Jesus Christ. Not Canterbury’s, not the Global South’s, not Rome’s, but Christ’s. No one can snatch you out of those nail-pierced hands, or out of the hands of his Father either; for he and the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, are One.
The Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep will do with us what he wishes. He is, after all, our bishop (1 Pet 2.25). Who knows? The Lord may save his little Anglican koinonia. He may even use us to help heal the wounds that divide his catholic Body, or to seek and save the lost, or to preach good news to the poor, or to raise the dead to life. Then again, he may not. The matter is in those nail-pierced hands of his, not ours. It isn’t our business to know the outcome. Ours is the task—as Calvin once put it—to preach the Gospel, “let the chips fall where they may.” To preach the good news about Jesus. To make disciples of all nations. To baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. To bless bread and wine and, with our poor beggars’ hands, give the Lord’s Body and Blood to his people. What an awesome task! Truly, the man who dares do such things should give thanks to God and know that he is a successor to the apostles. And is it not right, as we go about proclaiming the Kingdom, that our hearts be free and glad in Christ? For the mercy of God and the victory of the Lamb and the Spirit of life have redeemed us, too, from Death and Hell.
I don’t hope for it, but suppose the center cannot hold and the Communion falls apart. Is that—the end? It is for the serious, sophisticated sorts who make Anglicanism their god. But not for the friends of the Cross. Not for the Church of the Resurrection. Not for the children of God, who rejoice in the Son of David, play in the brook without a care while he slays Goliath with a stone, then join him in severing the giant’s head with his own sword—that is, the Cross (Col 2.15). For if the Communion dies, they know it will die in koinonia with Christ and his saving Cross. That is just the kind of seed, buried deep in the wounds of Jesus our risen yet still scarred God, that comes to life and bears much fruit.
Take things a step farther; if you’ve read the prophets lately—not the sanitized abridgments in modern lectionaries, but the devastating books of holy Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—you’ll know we have no choice but to take things a step farther. For the prophets of Israel teach an awful truth that most Christians in America cannot bear to know. Things don’t just fall apart, least of all nations or empires or imperial Churches. Though the eye of sinful man its glory may not see, there is a “purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth” and a “hand that is stretched out over all the nations” (Isa 14.26). So, when nations rise and fall, when empires seize a moment’s glory only to crumble into dust, when great Churches fall away and fracture and repent and reconfigure, the people who know their God confess: “The LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Isa 14.27).
Suppose, then, that you are able to see that Anglicanism isn’t unraveling of its own accord. Suppose we are under the active judgment of a living God. Suppose it is the redemptive purpose of this holy and jealous and almighty God of Israel—who poured out his wrath on Zion and did not spare his dear Son the blood and the nails—to destroy us.
Do we not have his promise to give us life again?
“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy.”
Yes, the LORD kills: but then raises the dead to life. By a severe mercy, the God of Mary and Hannah impoverishes the proud in Sheol, not to destroy but to save. He casts down the mighty from their thrones, certainly, but he does so in order to lift them up again as lowly servants of his crucified Son. He sends the rich empty away, but fills the hungry with good things; and some of the poor who delight in God as their portion were once what the world thinks rich. So—what if it is the good purpose of our wise God to reduce Anglicanism to an ash heap? Our God is the sort of God who finds nobility hidden in ash heaps, cherishes what is low and despised in the world, chooses nobodies as his children, and appoints nothings as his servants and exalts them to positions of honor in his Kingdom (1 Cor 1.28, Jas 2.5).
What if it is the good purpose of our wise God to scatter our provinces among the nations? Do we not have his promise to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad?
Did not Michael Ramsey himself hope for the day when Anglicanism would no longer exist? Surely, the dissolution unfolding before us is not what +Michael meant; but what if—sub contrario—he gets what he dreamed of precisely by way of his greatest nightmare? What if the end of Anglicanism is a beginning? What if its death leads to the resurrection of something much bigger than its merry old English self? Is it not a greater thing to be a Kingdom than a Communion? To be recognized by Jesus as his priests than by +Justin as his bishops? To be loved by this King and washed in his blood and liberated for his service than to be loved by the world and vested in its praises and enslaved to its zeitgeist? My friends, my brother priests, my fathers in Christ: is it not high time we jettison the prestige of Anglicanism, strip off every last piece of Saul’s armor, and enter into battle clothed in Christ alone and armed with nothing but the five wounds in his holy flesh? Will we not find that we are surrounded on every side by that great company of Chinese Calvinists, Latino Pentecostals, Kenyan Anglicans, Ethiopian Lutherans, Russian Baptists, and Ukrainian Catholics who fight under the blood-stained banner of the Lamb and are the living Church of God?
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
“To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold: He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so, Amen.”
So watch yourselves, dear Anglican sheep, bishops, priests, deacons, theologians, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
“Fear not! I am the First and the Last and the Living One. I died, and behold: I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”
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