A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Bennett W. Rogers
Simplicity can be both a virtue and a vice, especially when it comes to the study of church history. At its best, it distills complex issues and ideas down in ways that are both illuminating and digestible. At its worst, when simplicity becomes simplistic, it obscures rather than clarifies, and conceals as much as it reveals. The story of the early Stuart Church is often presented as a contest between two and only two competing factions – the Puritans and the Laudians – who vied for control of the Church of England. While such a narrative is quite tidy and easy to grasp – i.e., it is simple – it is not the whole story. In Grace and Conformity, Stephen Hampton challenges this narrative by introducing the readers to another group that was neither Puritan nor Laudian – the Reformed Conformist. Hampton offers the following description:
Considered as a theological tradition, Reformed Conformity exhibited a resolute adherence to the soteriological principles of Reformed orthodoxy, combined with a positive estimation of the institutions which distinguished the English Church from most other Reformed churches in Europe. To the Reformed Conformist mind, these distinguishing institutions, above all episcopal government and the liturgical ceremonies enshrined in the Prayer Book, were of positive religious value and consequently instruments of God’s grace. Episcopacy guaranteed that the faithful were guided and taught by legitimate pastors; and that, in turn, ensured the outworking of God’s plan of salvation for the elect through the authorized preaching and faithful reception of the Word. The Prayer Book’s characteristic liturgical provisions, such as the liturgical calendar, the surplice, the cross in baptism, and kneeling at communion, were, when rightly used, conducive to the edification of the elect, and consequently capable of furthering God’s saving will. It is this positive estimation of the Church of England’s distinctive patterns of church order and worship which distinguishes Reformed Conformists from their ‘moderate’ or ‘conformable’ puritan counterparts, for whom those distinctive patterns were tolerable defects that could be accepted for the sake of the Gospel (21).
In short, (1) a love of Reformed soteriology, (2) a conscientious attachment to the Church of England’s Articles, Prayer Book, and government; and (3) a pastoral concern to promote practical godliness and assurance – these are the distinguishing marks of Reformed Conformity. And Hampton explores these themes by examining ten Reformed Conformist clergymen and the contributions they made to the articulation and defense of Reformed Conformity within the Early Stuart Church.
The first two chapters explore how Reformed Conformists articulated their understanding of grace before they faced significant public challenge from within the English Church. Chapter 1 focuses on John Prideaux’s prestigious Act Lectures, which were delivered in Oxford in 1616 and 1624. They exhibit the breadth, interconnectedness, and pastoral orientation of the Reformed Conformist vision of grace. Chapter 2 builds on the breadth and pastoral orientation of their approach to grace by examining the Collegiate Suffrage of the British Delegates at the Synod of Dort, which became the most authoritative statement of English Reformed Orthodoxy since the 1595 Lambeth Articles and explained the British Delegation’s position on the debates of Dort. Readers who are interested in the distinctive British approach to the Synod of Dort, the rapprochement between the 39 Articles of Religion and Reformed orthodoxy, and the doctrine of limited atonement will appreciate these chapters.
The next three chapters extend the study of grace by exploring how Reformed Conformists reacted when their vision of grace came under attack by Richard Montague during the reign of Charles I. Chapter 3 examines the initial response to Montague by a number of Reformed Conformists. They demonstrate a wide range of polemical approaches, but they share a commitment to God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation and an insistence that God’s grace did not undermine free choice (but made it possible). Furthermore, Reformed Conformists were eager to show that their teaching was consistent with the Articles of the Church, especially Article 17, and the teaching of the Church Fathers, especially Augustine, in his debates against the Pelagians and Semi-pelagians. This latter emphasis is a prominent theme of the work and makes an important contribution to our understanding of Reformed Conformity’s self-understanding. In their debates with Laudians, Arminians, and Roman Catholics, the Reformed Conformists were standing on a much more ancient foundation and contending for catholic truth. Chapter 4 establishes the ongoing promotion of a reformed understanding of grace and its compatibility with the Church’s formularies in the face of attempts to stifle such teaching by royal proclamation in 1626. Chapter five develops this theme of resilience during the reign of Charles I and gives particular attention to their defense of the justification by faith alone, which firmly places Reformed Conformity within the Protestant, as well as Catholic, tradition.
The last three chapters of the book focus on Reformed Conformity’s understanding of what it meant to conform. Their conformity was not divorced from but informed by their reading of grace. The Church and its ministry, including its venerated liturgy and Prayer Book, were the God-ordained channels through which God’s predestinating grace normally flowed, and the legitimacy of these means of grace was ensured by the episcopal hierarchy. In short, predestination and polity go hand-in-hand. Chapter 6 charts their hostility to Laudian liturgical innovations that were meant to communicate the unprotestant notions that the communion table was an altar, the supper was a real sacrifice, and the officiant was a sacrificing priest. Chapter 7 analyzes the Reformed Conformist attitude to the Church’s hierarchy and the role of the episcopacy, which distinguished them from their reformed brethren on the continent. Chapter 8 extended the analysis of their conformity and explores their attitude toward the Prayer Book. Reformed Conformists did not defend the Prayer Book merely on the grounds of obedience but found in it positive religious and spiritual value for God’s people. They were firmly convinced that both the Liturgy and the Church Calendar might be profitably used by the faithful, and so become an instrument of divine grace and a vehicle for Christian assurance.
Though Hampton’s work makes a number of important contributions, two stand out above the rest. First, in Grace and Conformity Hampton makes a convincing case for Reformed Conformity as a distinct and coherent theological tradition. The Laudians dismissed them as Puritans for their commitment to reformed soteriology; the Puritans regarded them as Laudians because of their attachment to the Church of England, but in reality, they were neither. Evangelical churchmen, like Bishop J. C. Ryle, found themselves in a similar position in the 19th century. The Ritualists considered them to be dissenters because of their evangelical Protestantism, and the nonconformists considered their evangelical Protestantism to be suspect because of their attachment to the Church of England. Ryle and other 19th-century Reformed Conformists rejected both charges. Reformed evangelical protestants were the “true churchmen,” whose theological forebearers included many of the men featured in this work. Thanks to Hampton’s work, it is no longer possible to dismiss the Reformed Conformists of the Stuart Church as an eccentric collection of half-Laudians or half-Puritans.
Hampton’s work also contributes to and expands our understanding of the larger Reformed tradition. English Reformed Conformists participated in the Synod of Dort, which defined Reformed orthodoxy against Arminianism and whose articles are widely considered to be one of the most important reformed doctrinal statements ever produced. And yet the same delegation that approved and defended the Articles of Dort asserted the superiority of episcopal government and championed the Church of England’s liturgy, ceremonies, and Prayer Book. In short, “proper attention to English Reformed Conformity further undermines an overly narrow conception of the Reformed tradition as a whole.” (308)
Grace and Conformity is a well-researched, well-written, and much-need contribution. Students of English Puritanism, the Stuart Church, and the religious history of 17th century England will welcome Hampton’s important work, as will those interested in Anglican religious identity, more generally.
Bennett W. Rogers