Is Anglicanism a Variant of Lutheranism?

“Variant” may not be quite the right word. But in this very engaging episode of “Anglicans Unscripted,” Peter Ould, a CofE priest (and blogger and Twitterer), offers his take on Anglican identity, that shape-shifting wonder of the Christian world.

Even though Henry VIII was just a selfish Roman Catholic, basically, men like Cranmer and Ridley and Latimer were deeply imbibing of the Lutheran theology. … Anglicanism is inherently Lutheran.

Watch the vid. I offer my two cents afterward.

As I’ve written here and over at FIRST THINGS, I have great affection for Anglicanism in general and the CofE in particular, primarily because so many of my heroes were of that tradition. And the via media, quixotic enterprise that it is, leaves thinking Christians room to acknowledge that some things are sufficiently opaque in Scripture, and of ongoing debate within the history of the church, that there can be more than one acceptable, and non-heterodox, opinion: the freedom of the will and genuine moral responsibility relative to God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge; what hell is, and whether it necessarily entails eternal punitive suffering; the state of those who never hear the Gospel—if original sin is enough to condemn, then what role does Christ as Second Adam play in the lives of such people, etc. (Yes, there’s Article XVIII, which doesn’t offer much hope on that account, but how many even orthodox Anglicans would die on that hill? C.S. Lewis, apparently, wasn’t willing to. Can one affirm Christ as the Savior of all who are in fact saved, even those who may be saved by an extraordinary work of the Spirit without an external witness? The immediate objection is that this kills missionary work. But to leave the question open does not dictate that we are no longer under Christ’s mandate to baptize all nations, otherwise the eternal destiny of millions, even billions, is dependent on our initiative and programs and not on the objective work of the Cross. No, the two are obviously not mutually exclusive, but again—shall the Enemy’s victory be greater than Christ’s because the Church is barred from proselytizing in dictatorial non-Christian nations?)

But back to the video: It’s interesting that in the discussion of doctrinal incoherency, no one mentioned the Thirty-Nine Articles, perhaps because they’ve proved so inadequate a doctrinal foundation. Or perhaps the problem is that, as a 16th-century confessional statement, they no longer speak to the issues that are really shaking the Anglican Communion to its core today. (Although Reformed and Lutheran Christians would argue that their confessions are more than adequate in the 21st century, despite new and improved denominations popping up on a regular basis, not to mention disputes over how to interpret the confessions themselves: third use of the law, anyone? How about 2K theology?)

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways out of this mess, which undoubtedly have been tried and failed. But this is Anglicanism, so why let that stop us:

1. I don’t know what is demanded precisely of a prospective clergyman/woman in the CofE in regard to the Three Ecumenical Creeds. I doubt they are required to affirm them on all points in their literal sense, such that there is no hedging on the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Ascension, and coming Judgment. “Born of the Virgin Mary”–yes or no? “On the Third Day, He rose again from the dead, He ascended into Heaven”–yes or no?

Here’s one way forward: If the response begins with  “It all depends on what you mean by—” deny them ordination. I certainly would expect this to be the case in “continuing” Anglican churches.

2. Begin at the beginning: with Christology. The via media as a middle way between Reformed and Lutheran theology does not work well because those two Reformation traditions differ significantly in this respect. Study how each regards the human and divine nature of Christ–and their interrelation–and you will understand how the Reformed and Lutherans had to part ways on the meaning of the sacraments. (And it is the sacraments—number and meaning—that will also inform your understanding of predestination and election, whether Christ died for all or merely the Elect.)

Now of course the problem is that even if some brave soul did the heavy theological lifting—who has the authority to say that this is binding on all “continuing” or “classical” Anglicans? If you’re looking to the Archbishop of Canterbury, look again. And doesn’t a definitive Christology and theology of the sacraments then force Anglicans to get off the fence and choose: Geneva or Wittenberg? And isn’t that, well, un-Anglican?

I think you’re probably going to have more success with #1, which will leave the low church/High Church distinction intact and for individual prelates and parishes to work out for themselves. And Ould may be correct: different generations may have need to battle on different grounds, and come even to difference conclusions, or at least emphases.

You can hear some exasperated readers now: This sounds like the same thin doctrinal gruel that is starving Anglicans today! You’ll wind up right back where you started from!

And you can hear other critics demanding: What of justification? If Anglicanism is “inherently Lutheran,” you can’t escape coming to some authoritative conclusion regarding this core doctrine. But that will demand a thick sacramental theology: Is justification received in baptism? If so, that is, if you believe in baptismal regeneration, you must also accept the fact that justification can be lost—another Reformed/Lutheran divide.

And what of women’s ordination? A nonstarter for the signers of the Affirmation of St. Louis, but not so for, say, N.T. Wright and these folks. (A similar controversy exists among confessional Lutherans: the LCMS and WELS do not ordain women, but the former does have lay deaconesses; while NALC and those associated with Lutheran CORE do ordain women.)

Many an Anglican is already rolling his or her eyes. For such, it is more than enough to say, along with Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, “The Prayer Book and the King James Bible are our religion,” and leave the rest for the quarterly journals.

Biretta tip to @wyclif


18 thoughts on “Is Anglicanism a Variant of Lutheranism?

  1. My vague perception has always been that the chief difference between Anglicanism and Lutheranism is the issue of the apostolic succession (now called, for some reason, “the historic episcopate”). But as far as the ELCA is concerned, they surrendered unconditionally on that some years back.


    1. Yes, and the threefold order of ministry — bishop/priest/deacon — is nonnegotiable for Anglicans, while ecclesiology is a little more flexible on the Lutheran side. (Even low-churchers will put themselves under a bishop somewhere, although will eschew the use of the word “priest” so as not to confuse people as to whether they are, in fact, offering a sacrifice at the altar, given that that is the common understanding of what a priest does.)


    2. Historically Cramner and the original Anglican Reformers were followers of the Reformed Movement, not Luther. Cramner even sent a copy of the first Book of Common Prayer for comments and produced the 2nd version following Calvin’s recommendations. That is why it is so much more Protestant than the first ediction. The exiles under Bloody Mary were considered heretics by the Lutherans because of their Zwinglian or Calvinist view of the Eucharist and found refuge in the Calvinist lands. . In fact, there is a strong and apparently growing Calvinist movement within continuing Anglicanism.


  2. It is important to hear what Peter was saying in the context of his larger theological vision. He is and has been a staunch defender of the 39 Articles. His statement about Anglicanism as Lutheranism is meant in part to stir things up. He acknowledges elsewhere the continuum between Lutheranism and Calvinism that much of Anglican theology rests on. But as the other commenters have noted, apostolic succession and the historic episcopate are non-negotiables for Anglicans. While there is debate about how to understand non-episcopal churches, there has been near unanimity that a church without bishops is not Anglican. And in the best of our tradition, Anglicanism has defended and asserted the divine origin of the episcopate as part of the deposit of faith.

    Your two points are interesting. Anglican clergy are already required to affirm the creeds and C of E clergy in particular are required to affirm the 39 Articles. What we need is not more affirmations but more clarity about what these affirmations mean historically. At its core, the Anglican project is the recovery of a primitive understanding of the Church, reading the Scriptures through the Fathers and with reason in its older sense (that faculty by which we see and understand patterns and logic, given by God though marred in the Fall). These are not three sources of revelation but one source of revelation seen through two different lenses. Scripture is always at the top of the pyramid.

    Looking to Jesus first is also helpful advice. And we get nowhere if we just try to position ourselves as a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism or Lutheranism and Calvinism. Starting with Christ and the cross is the right move. But what I would contest is that this is exactly what classical Anglicanism did. It’s what the formularies–prayer book, articles, catechism, homilies–are designed to do. Anglicanism is a via media not because it was designed to be a via media but because the via media is true, because it brings us back to Christ and away from our worst impulses.

    Finally, you ask who can speak for Anglicanism. This is a good question. Certainly, modern Anglican churches have become fractured and divorced from their roots, making it very difficult to know who is in charge at any given moment and who really gets to define what Anglicanism means. But in some ways, this is not much different from, for instance, Lutheranism. Who speaks for Lutheranism? Matt Harrison? Mark Hansen? The mega-church Warrenites who have become a staple of the LCMS? The NIV wielding folks in WELS? And that’s just America. Go overseas and it gets even more complicated. So who can really say what Lutheranism is? Well, many Lutherans would point back to the Book of Conford and to seminal figures like Luther and Chemnitz. And that is precisely what Anglicans ought to do, point back to the Elizabethan Settlement, to our formularies, and to folks like Richard Hooker, Richard Field, Lancelot Andrewes, John Jewel, Jeremy Taylor, and on and on. The post modern, post industrial, post post everything world has made all of our traditions a little bit of a muddle. So who should speak for them? Those of the past, not because they were perfect, but because they lived in a different time and they’re not likely to be drawn into our categories.


  3. What about Oriental Orthodoxy, hmm? The similarities there are more coincidental than anything else. However, the OO family has as much diversity within its own ranks as Anglicanism does (the differences between Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopian churches are not just liturgical; there are some doctrinal differences between them and even the use of different Biblical canons, and yet they all remain in full communion with one another in true broad-church fashion). Both place a strong emphasis on the historic episcopate. And then there is the belief among many that early Celtic Christianity (which many Anglicans look to as an ancestral tradition) was Eastern rather than Western in origin.

    I’m actually surprised there haven’t been any breakaway “continuing” Anglican groups that have joined the OO family. Of course you’d have to chuck a few of the 39 articles (specifically, the ones that claim the Oriental churches are in error ;-P). However, the high degree of “wiggle room” within Oriental Orthodoxy on both liturgy and non-essential doctrines is something many Anglicans might find appealing. An “Anglican Orthodox Church” could still use the BCP with minimal alterations, the 66-book canon, etc., many but not all of the Articles, etc., while being in a state of full communion with the Coptic and other Oriental churches.


    1. Arianism is in essence, the denial of The Filioque, the fact that because there Is only One Word of God, Jesus The Christ, there Is only One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son in the ordered, complementary communion of Perfect Love that is The Holy and undivided Blessed Trinity. Although at the end of the day, it is still a Great Mystery, it is no mystery that there can be no division in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Within the seamless Garment, there is this common thread.


    2. That being said, there can only be a Great Apostasy from The True Church, Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; those who have left His Church spiritually, have been allowed to remain within His Church physically, causing chaos and confusion while leading many astray. The Charitable anathema exists for the sake of Christ, His Church, all who will come to believe, and those prodigal sons and daughters, who, hopefully, will return to The Fold.


  4. “Even though Henry VII was just a selfish Roman Catholic, basically, men like Cranmer and Ridley and Latimer were deeply imbibing of the Lutheran theology. … Anglicanism is inherently Lutheran.”

    *Henry VIII.
    Henry VII had absolutely nothing to do with Anglicanism.


  5. As an ELCA Lutheran Serving as Rector of an Episcopal Church which worships in a shared sanctuary with a Roman Catholic Parish, I serve under three Bishops and seek to be sensitive to all traditions. (serious via media) The Benedictine piety, Prayer Book devotion, attention to form and using liturgy as a theological starting point are not Lutheran. That said, there is a dialectic perspective, Lutheran theology built around the commandments, confession, the articles of the apostles creed, the Lords Prayer, the sacraments of Baptism and Communion and the office of ministry, is inherently liturgical in its structure. The differences are nuanced and actually create a healthy tension. I would say that the tension is around how we see the “three legged stool”. Our faith sits on the stool of reason, experience and tradition. The Lutheran question would be what is the nature of the floor upon which the stool sits. Lutherans would say our only understanding of the floor is a gift of grace through the Word, Jesus Christ. My experience of Episcopal tradition is that the floor is definitely God, but we are leaving a description of the floor a bit more undefined. This has ramifications as we seek to define the issues of our day and the approach of our response.


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