Grace and Incarnation
The Oxford Movement’s Shaping of the Character of Modern Anglicanism
By Bruce D. Griffith with Jason R. Radcliff
Pickwick, pp. 216, $26

Review by Chip Prehn

The authors believe the Oxford Movement (1833-45) is important. They believe that not only exemplary lives but permanently important ideas were produced by the Tractarians and their protégés, who handed over a tradition to subsequent generations. This perspective is brave and bold, perhaps especially in Anglican scholarly circles, because the Oxford Movement, the Catholic Revival, and worldwide Anglo-Catholicism have been taking it on the chin for the last 30 and more years.

Just when the movement’s sesquicentenary was being celebrated all over the globe (1983), impressive critiques of the Oxford Movement were being produced by very competent scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. The regnant Anglo-Catholic historiography was checked, first of all, by scholars of the Anglican 18th century who saw far more vitality and power in the Georgian Church than Anglo-Catholic and Methodist historians had allowed.

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Then some students of the English Reformation did not find as much “Catholicism” (as they defined it) in the DNA of the English Church as the Tractarians found. Scholars of the Jacobean and Caroline church tacitly agreed that “Anglicanism” was something unique in the world and had less in common than Anglo-Catholics supposed with either the Patristic Church or the contemporary Roman Church. Hugh Trevor-Roper is a good example of the latter group of scholars. He saw the religion of King James as “Church Calvinism,” a most tantalizing (and I think useful) concept.

Even Anglo-Catholic scholars warned that the bulk of the 16th-century “formularies” of the English Church do not support the “Catholic” interpretation of many Anglo-Catholics. Darwell Stone (1876-1930) of Pusey House and Bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932) are good examples of this caution.

The Anglo-Catholic hegemony was real. Anglo-Catholic parish life was vigorous, and church expansion appeared to see no bounds. For a century and more, most of the prominent theologians and scholars in the Anglican Communion considered themselves Anglo-Catholics in some manner or other, and not a few celebrated novelists, poets, and musicians in our Anglican and Episcopal tradition felt themselves part of the energy and piety stemming from the Tractarians. It was only natural that the Anglo-Catholic view of Anglican history held sway.

All critics of the Oxford Movement and later Anglo-Catholicism have had in common — even if sometimes using Newman’s Anglican Difficulties (1850) as their point of departure — an assumption that Tractarian religion is a “betrayal of the Reformation.” Anglo-Catholicism is aberrant or illegitimate. The bias against the Tractarians is complicated by the fact that a key player in the so-called bastardization of Anglican Christianity, Dr. Edward Pusey (1800-82), assumed that the religion of the English Reformation is, at its best, the Catholic Faith of the historic Church. The Anglo-Catholic Archbishop Michael Ramsey was assuming that the Church of England was Catholic when a Roman Catholic asked him where the Anglican Church was before the Reformation. “Where was your face before you washed it?” asked Ramsey.

All three contestations of “Anglo-Catholic history” appear to assume both that there is a monolithic, well-defined Anglican tradition originating in the 16th century and that this bug in amber is and must always be Anglican orthodoxy. What is undoubted is that there was such a thing as the 19th-century Church Revival. Perhaps tension is released if we see the Oxford Movement and Catholic Revival as one of several contributary streams making the river of the Church Revival.

The authors of Grace and Incarnation understand very well that Anglo-Catholicism is not exactly a chip off the old Anglican block, but they are fully confident that the Oxford Movement contained true religious energy and that much in Tractarian faith, piety, and theology is permanently valuable. How can a well-meaning person read the actual history of the movement, beginning with Dean Church’s Oxford Movement (1891) and not forgetting Bishop Rowell’s Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism (1992) and other important studies, and not discern the movement of God’s Spirit at work in this world?

Even if some of the chaps “Poped,” and the piety of others is not our cup of tea now, it is a willfully ignorant person who denies the power and religious importance of the Oxford Movement and Church Revival. Deconstruct the phenomenon if you must. What you’ll have left is, well, true religion. Note, for example, that the movement produced at least one widely recognized saint (at the least), a leader whose prose writing shaped and will always shape the English language and whose book on the Christian liberal education will never go out of print. Eamon Duffy has recently written that Newman “died a prince of the Church, and somewhat improbably, an English national treasure” (John Henry Newman, 110). That Newman was canonized in any church is an important fact related to the Oxford Movement.

Griffith and Radcliff argue that the central import of Tractarian theology was God’s initiative by Grace in making human beings Christians. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8-9). Thinking it safe to do so at this time, Griffith and Radcliff revisit the doctrine of baptismal regeneration as actually taught by Newman, Pusey, and Robert I. Wilberforce.

Newman was adamant that, beginning with Holy Baptism, the Lord’s righteousness is not only imputed but imparted to the Christian believer, else mortal flesh and blood cannot possibly inherit eternal life. Pusey wrote throughout his career on the deep meaning of baptism as a sign of God’s all-mighty initiative in the world. And no Tractarian wrote more beautifully or more compellingly than Robert Wilberforce about the importance of the continuing, eternal Mediation of Christ. The great Fairweather of Trinity College, Toronto, believed that Wilberforce was the most solid and powerful theologian produced by the Oxford Movement.

The authors’ decision to look more closely into this Tractarian emphasis on God’s graceful initiative was inspired by an unlikely source: T.F. Torrance (1913-2007), the Evangelical and Scots Presbyterian divine. Many of us have limited knowledge of Torrance. We perhaps remember him in connection with discussions of science and religion, as in Space, Time, and Incarnation (1969) and Space, Time, and Resurrection (1976).

Torrance was firmly committed to Reformed divinity, but he had an uncommon love for and knowledge of the Patristic inheritance, especially the doctrine of the Incarnation and the importance of the sacraments. This led him to contemplate the body mystical of Christ in extraordinary ways. His religion was interesting, alive, unique, and resonated with Anglicanism. It was his knowledge of the Fathers that drove him to be a passionate leader in the ecumenical movement. Torrance was an “Evangelical Catholic” if there ever was one.

Torrance’s oeuvre helped Griffith and Radcliff see that Calvin was not the first to stress God’s irresistible action in the life of the world. The dogma is a perennial part of the Christian tradition. The authors of Grace and Incarnation argue that the Tractarians — contrary to accusations against them by Evangelicals — never departed from the principle. Whether it was Pusey’s long tracts on baptism, or Newman’s work on justification and the prophetical office of the Church, or Wilberforce’s brilliant analysis of the eternal mediation of Christ, the Tractarians assumed that redemption is by God’s initiative alone.

Torrance took it for granted that being strongly Evangelical is precisely what makes one a good Catholic. Pusey believed this strongly. We get the same idea again and again in Newman’s voluminous Plain and Parochial Sermons, and in Wilberforce’s Doctrine of the Incarnation in Relation to Mankind and the Church (1848) and The Doctrine of Holy Baptism (1849).

To all of these divines, as if they hoped to flesh out the narrative of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, all eyes must be on Jesus because the Christian revelation is all about Jesus. His mediation is eternal, the cornucopia of everything that is Christian and of the body mystical in this world and eternal life in the next. Christ’s  continuing mediation is how grace happens. Mediation was not finished on the atoning Cross. The historic redemption and the Atonement are just the beginning.

Pusey is the mainstay of this book. After others departed the Anglican Church, retired, or died, Pusey proceeded unflinchingly to reform the Church on solid Patristic principles. He faced the status-quo piety, assumptions, and misunderstandings of the increasingly worldly Victorian Church with real and infectious earnestness (many would say holiness), profound knowledge of the religion of the Fathers, and relentless patience. The authors argue that it was Pusey who actually set the tone for Newman. Pusey, like Keble, gave Newman a good personal example of a robustly parochial faith in action. Pusey’s was a piety firm and common sensical. God’s great initiative inspires our response. We our forever part of the Son.

Christ … is the grace which brought us out of the mass of our natural corruption in Adam. He was the new principle of life, which in Baptism he imparted to us. His is the grace which cherished, nurtured, enlarged that first gift, or if unhappily we wasted it, through repentance, brought us back, converted, renewed, restored us. (Pusey, “Justification” in Nine Sermons Preached Before the University in Oxford)

This book would be worth your while. The authors have a wide knowledge of the Church Revival and of the Oxford Movement. Their appreciation of Pusey is sound and inspiring. Their argument that the Tractarians were as good as any Christian thinkers in the modern Church on grace and the essential interdependence of grace, incarnation, and mediation is compelling. I wish the publisher had insisted on an index, and more detail about the graceful theology of Torrance should have been offered. But this is a good and worthwhile book in Anglican theology, and reveals a faithful approach to the living and true God.

About The Author

Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, independent historical scholar, writer, and poet.  He is a principal of Dudley & Prehn Educational Consultants, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.  Prehn serves on the board of the Living Church Foundation.

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Ben Lima
1 month ago

Wonderful; thank you very much.

Mary Barrett
1 month ago

For me, it was John Keble and his writings that had me wanting to learn more about the Oxford Movement and what it added to the church. Thanks for your review!

David Hein
20 days ago

Excellent review; very helpful.