Church of England

Justin Welby is not a heretic, he’s a very faithful Anglican

In the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Westminster there is a list of Archbishops of Canterbury which chronicles the centuries of communion between the popes of Rome and the chief pastors of England, beginning with St Augustine and ending with Reginald Pole, the last Roman Catholic to hold the office. It is a sometime murky and muddled chronology of ecclesial history (who appointed whom; who received the Pallium from whom; who excommunicated whom; which pope maintained communion during the ‘antipope’ eras in the 11th century and the Western Schism of the 14th-15th centuries), but the name of Thomas Cranmer, who is last but one on the list, is dealt with emphatically and tersely: “deprived for heresy”, it reads.

Whether you consider his theology heretical and his ecclesiology void or believe both to be truthful and valid largely determines whether you believe he was lawfully executed for error or unjustly martyred for truth. What is undeniable, however, is that he was validly consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury according to the Roman rite, and subsequently departed from that religion through tortuous recantation and re-recantation believing he was doing God’s work and obeying His will. Roman Catholics today may honour his courage, but there is no veneration because he is no saint: Thomas Cranmer died a heretic, steeped in (if not damned by) the theological and soteriological errors of the Reformation.

Justin Welby is heir to Thomas Cranmer’s legacy. The present Archbishop of Canterbury may believe the Reformation to have been a great tragedy for the Church, but his reverence for his predecessor’s courage and sacrifice for truth is beyond question. Justin Welby’s archiepiscopal ministry was inaugurated on 21st March 2013, the day the Church of England remembers Thomas Cranmer, whose name prefaced the new Archbishop’s sermon in Canterbury Cathedral on that day. It included this observation:

The more the Church is authentically heeding Jesus’ call, leaving its securities, speaking and acting clearly and taking risks, the more the Church suffers. Thomas Cranmer faced death with Christ-given courage, leaving a legacy of worship, of holding to the truth of the gospel, on which we still draw.

On which we still draw… Justin Welby evidently holds to the truths for which Thomas Cranmer died, and so remains, according to the doctrine and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, a heretic.

Curious word, ‘heretic’ (Gr. αἱρετικός [hairetikos]). It came to mean factious, divisive or sectarian; a purveyor of half-truths and misimpressions to win people over to their misguided zeal, which is the sense it which it is used in Scripture:

But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick (Gr. αἱρετικὸν) after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself (Titus 3:9-11).

This is the only time αἱρετικός appears in Scripture, and the KJV renders it ‘heretick’ (most other versions opt for ‘divisive man/person’). Yet the word stems from αἱρήσομαι (hairéomai), from the verb αἱρέω (haireó), meaning to choose or prefer; to lay hold of by personal choice; to hold a distinctive individual opinion. Heresy is therefore that which chooses to distort theology or exaggerate doctrine. A heretic may be one who fanatically stresses individual experience, or one who zealously emphasises rigid revelation, scripture or tradition. The former may lean too far in the direction of accommodating theology to the mood of the culture; the latter ends up in the obscurantism and antiquarianism of ultra-conservatism. Both are heresies of spiritual modernism and dogmatic rationalism because both are emptied of any distinctive religious truth.

But it isn’t only the Church of Rome which views Justin Welby as a heretic; schismatic conservative Anglicans have also identified him as being so (and not only a heretic, but “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”). So Justin Welby is a false prophet or false teacher propagating a false gospel, they aver (cf Mt 7:15). His nature is revealed by his actions, and the fruit he yields is rotten. But it is interesting to discern here precisely who has the sheepish skin and who the wolfish mind; who desires to graze safely, and who plots to kill and devour.

Bishop Martin Morrison of the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa (who presided over the irregular consecration of Jonathan Pryke as bishop in Jesmond on 2nd May), accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of the ancient heresy of Arianism: “It is quite obvious that the establishment of the Church of England is at the very least heretical,” he said. “They are wolves, they are false teachers, they are hired hands. We get pretty much common agreement on that.”

Sexuality is a primary issue of salvation, he says; a matter of heaven and hell. Justin Welby is in no position to discern sexual morality because he chooses (/prefers) to put man’s culture above God’s word, and Bishop Martin cites the Archbishop’s much-trumpeted (though hitherto unexpounded and unrealised) need for a “radical new Christian inclusion” following the General Synod vote to reject the Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships. “In my opinion, what we have here is a form of Arianism,” he said. “I don’t think it’s intentional, I don’t think it’s by stealth. I think it’s by default and by drift,” he added, because Justin Welby “is saying, in effect, that Jesus was wrong” about the nature of marriage (Mt 19 cf Gen 1:27, 2:24).

So the Archbishops of Canterbury has drifted into a heretical doctrine of God, and he zealously expounds the error, and that error is Arianism, which is quite a serious allegation to make, and so it merits some unpacking.

Scripture teaches that there is only one God (Deut 6:4), yet it also assert that Christ is God (Jn 1:1, 20:28; Rom 10:9,13; Joel 2:32). The attempts to reconcile this apparent contradiction reached a climax during the fourth century, in what became known as the Arian controversy. This was a new era of imperial patronage for the Church, when there was freedom, even encouragement, for Christian leaders from a wide area to meet from time to time, and gatherings of bishops therefore met to resolve conflicts and bestow their ecumenical ecclesiastical authority upon ensuing credal statements.

Arius asserted a strict monotheism, believing that God’s substance is indivisible and cannot be shared, thus denying the deity of Christ. But Arius did not develop his theology in a vacuum: it is important to understand the historical process from which his doctrine originated, its view of Christ, the action at Nicaea against the heresy, and reaction to the eventual Nicene formula.

The Monarchian heresies were the result of attempts to reconcile the divinity of Christ to the unity of God by insisting that all three were simply different names for the same God. Modalistic Monarchianism, or ‘Sabellianism’ (after one of its leaders, Sabellius, in Rome c198-200), gave full divinity to the Son, but denied his personality, blurring the distinction between him and the Father. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit became simply designations of three different phases under which the one divine essence reveals itself three names of the one and the same being. To attack this heresy, it was necessary to stress the differences between the Father and the Son, which could be interpreted as Arian. Dynamic Monarchianism reduced Christ’s divinity to a mere power bestowed on him by God. The Λόγος (‘Word’) was called an attribute of God, and therefore, could never become a person. Jesus, begotten by the Holy Spirit, was not energised by the Λόγος until his baptism. After this, due to the unswerving union of his will with God’s will, the divine power increased, throughout his life until he reached ‘divinity’. Paul of Samosata, Bishop Of Antioch, was deposed for holding this view, in 268. His teachings contributed to the development of Arianism in that area.

The Arian heresy came to surface in c320 when Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, attempted to explain the unity of the Holy Trinity to a group of clergy. Arius accused him of holding Sabellian views, and expressed his own view: “If… the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his subsistence from nothing.” Although the general consensus was that Arius was wrong, and that he was merely raising issues about which the Church was clearly divided, he was excommunicated. This fate also befell three other bishops, including Eusebius of Caesarea, who refused to subscribe to the anti-Arian credal statement drawn up in Antioch. This had the effect of increasing the influence of Arius, giving notoriety to his name and tenets.

Arius made selective use of existing and developing tradition, and imposed more strict interpretations upon terms which had hitherto been applied loosely. One such term is the view of Christ as a ‘creature’. Orthodox Christianity states that Christ is the Son of God by nature; Christians are sons of God by adoption. To the Arians, ‘sonship’ implied the existence of God the Father prior to when the Son was ‘begotten’. It follows that the Son’s ‘begotten’ nature is not the same as the Father’s ‘unbegotten’ nature, so that the Son is of a different ‘essence’ than the Father. Thus, for Arius, the Son is a creature directly created by God (‘only begotten’), before time began. Having been created, he is ‘Son’ only in the secondary sense of adoption; when he is called Λόγος, it is only in a secondary sense, not being the true Λόγος or God, but rather as being ‘adopted’ to that position. Concerning his ‘humanity’, the Λόγος or Son was united to a human body, taking the place of the soul, so that Scripture verses referring to his human development (eg Lk 2:52) refer not to a ‘human nature’, but to his own imperfect nature as the created Son of God.

To resolve the controversy, a council was called at Nicaea in 325. Almost all of the bishops meeting (about 300 in number) were against the Arian doctrine. Such a large gathering gave the council considerably more authority than previous gatherings, augmenting the ecumenicity of the Church. But it cannot be overlooked that Constantine himself added his own imperial authority. The council attempted to write a creed, using only words and phrases found in scripture, in order to exclude the heresy, but their attempt ended in failure. Scripture alone was insufficient: every time a term was introduced, the Arians found a way to evade its full force, so the bishops were forced to use non-scriptural terminology to protect and preserve the scriptural meaning an idea new to most of the bishops. The Creed of Nicaea was drawn up specifically with the Arian controversy in mind, including the important phrase:

And we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father…

Which was suffixed by the all-embracing anathemas:

But those who say, ‘There was a time when he was not’, and ‘He was not before he was made’, and ‘He was made out of nothing’, or ‘He is of another substance’, or ‘essence’, or ‘The Son of God is created’, or ‘changeable’, or ‘alterable’, – they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

With anathemas directed specifically against the basic Arian tenets, the nexus of the creed was ‘one essence’ a term which the Arians denied. This designated the unity of the Godhead. Jesus was ‘begotten, not made’, dispensing with the idea of a created Son, and he ‘was made man’, to show that the Λόγος did not, as the Arians said, merely replace a human soul. This, with ‘of the essence of the Father’ and ‘of another substance or essence’ (in the anathema) were not adopted without hesitation, nor would they have been adopted had any other barrier against the heresy, which all but very few wished to exclude, appeared effective. The Western bishops had introduced the main term ‘one essence’, and had no problem with the whole explanation; but the majority of the Eastern bishops (partly due to the influence of Origen’s subordinationism) had uncertainty, as shown by Eusebius in his letters:

On their dictating this formula, we did not let it pass without inquiry in what sense they introduced ‘of the essence of Father’, and ‘one in essence (coessential) with the Father’. Accordingly questions and explanations took place, and the meaning of the words underwent the scrutiny of reason. And they professed, that the phrase ‘of the essence’ was indicative of the Son’s being indeed from the Father, yet without being as if a part of Him. And with this understanding we thought good to assent to the sense of such religious doctrine, teaching, as it did, that the Son was from the Father, not however part of his essence. On this account we assented to the sense ourselves, without declining even the term ‘One in essence’, peace being the object which we set before us, and steadfastness in the orthodox view.

Peace was the objective as well as orthodoxy. Extra-scriptural terminology (which some sola-scripturists might consider heretical) was adduced (and subsists) in a Christian creed in order to clarify orthodoxy and sustain peace. For Constantine, the formulation of an agreed creed permitted him to continue with his peace-making role, preserving the unity of the church. When he first learned about the controversy between Arius and Alexander, he wrote to them and accused them of contending about “these small and very insignificant questions”, but when the matter could not be resolved, the council became his means of uniting Christendom against Arianism. He was influential in getting wavering bishops to sign the creed containing the controversial ‘co-essential’, but politics could be seen to determine his actions, to produce as broad a harmony as possible.

At Nicaea, Constantine seemed to be a champion of orthodoxy, but he later became a champion of Arianism (due to the Arian influence of his sister), and brought all of the Arians back from exile, helping create the problems of the next 55 years. The restoration of Arius enabled him to offer his own counter-creed, which was obscure and evasive on all those points on which Nicaea had spoken clearly and decisively.

The Eusebian Coalition Arians and Semi-Arians gained political control of Constantine and his court, and began banishing the most influential Nicene leaders on various pretexts. They adopted, in succession, five different creeds at various councils at Antioch, which were Semi-Arian in character. Most of the leaders were men of high regard.  Athanasius spoke well of them and wrote:

…those, however, who accept everything else that was defined at Nicaea, and doubt only about the Coessential, must not be treated as enemies… but we discuss the matter with them as brothers with brothers, who mean what we mean, and dispute only about the word. For, confessing that the Son is from the essence of the Father, and not from another subsistence, and that He is not a creature nor work, but His genuine and natural offspring, and that He is eternally with the Father as being His Word and Wisdom, they are not far from accepting even the phrase ‘Coessential’.

Eventually most of the Semi-Arians were reconciled with the Nicenes, while the Arians re-grouped as ‘Acacians’ (after Acacius, who succeeded Arius as leader in 336). They developed a strategy of strict adherence to scriptural phraseology, the distinguishing tenet being the vague confession that the Son is generally ‘like’ or at most ‘in all things like’ the Father. Their reason was that ‘like’ implies difference instead of the Semi-Arian ‘of like essence’. This was Arian in its intent. The Acacians were in the minority, but eventually gained control of Christendom, re-instituting a persecution during which many Nicene champions were banished, even martyred.

In 357, the Creed of Sirmium was issued which maintained the inferiority of the Son to the Father, and also outlawed the use of certain extra-scriptural terms relating to substance or essence. This helped to move the Origenists from their opposition to Nicaea to conciliation, but it raised such an outcry that it was soon called “the Blasphemy of Sirmium”. An ecumenical gathering in 360, under Constantius II, included the phrase: “The Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach”, which was sufficiently all-embracing to once again permit the preaching of Arianism from the pulpit. This council actually went further and outlawed the formulation of new creeds altogether.

When Julian became emperor (361), he tried to destroy Christianity, not by persecution, but by internal strife by recalling all those who had been previously banished. But the result was the opposite: the Christians united, and the Nicaean formula was increasingly viewed as the only antidote to the powerful and durable Arian problem. Athanasius, at the Council of Alexandria (362), dealt with the problem of admitting Semi-Arians back into the Nicene group, and also with the confusion of terms. He proposed a formula of three three hypostases in one essence, which was the doctrine affirmed by the Cappadocian Fathers in c375.  It is their work that is reflected in the synthesis of the modern trinitarian doctrine.

The Nicene Creed was finally upheld at the Council of Constantinople (381-383), where around 150 bishops forever set Arianism as a sect outside the church. This creed conspicuously omits two clauses of its predecessor. It is not a revision, but a completely different creed, probably incorporated into the Acts of the Council of Constantinople. Creeds were described as ‘Nicene’ if they contained the key elements of the Nicene Creed: they did not need to reproduce it ipsissima verba. This council is where the first definitive, orthodox, universal credal statement was made which discussed the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Nicaea’s primary concern was the relationship of Jesus to the Father, but Constantinople added to its creed the full, coequal, coeternal, consubstantial deity of the Holy Spirit. For this reason it is regarded as the first truly trinitarian creed.

The two creeds were ‘fused’ at the Council of Chalcedon (451), where the assembled bishops affirmed:

We decree that the exposition of the right and blameless faith of the 318 holy and blessed fathers, assembled at Nicaea in the time of the Emperor Constantine of pious memory, should be pre-eminent, while the decisions of the 150 holy fathers… should also hold good.

The key addition was: “True God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father”, establishing finally that each hypostasis of the Trinity comprises a common essence of deity – of equal dignity and equal majesty.  While the Nicene Creed unified all parties around the divinity of the Spirit, it was also a cause for division. The Western Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, following Augustine, maintains that each part of the Godhead is a source of divinity; the Eastern Orthodox position, following the Cappadocians and Origen, maintains that the Father alone is the source of deity. This difference contributed largely to the Great Schism of 1054. The Western Orthodox Trinity doctrine is expounded in its simplest form in the Athanasian Creed (composed early 6th century), so named because of Athanasius’ defence of the doctrine. It affirms three fundamental truths: there is one God, not three (tritheism); the Son and the Spirit are God, not creatures (Arianism); Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct, not confused (Sabellianism).

This lengthy tour of credal development has been necessary to prove irrefutably that Justin Welby is not an Arian heretic, nor even a kind of Semi-Arian heretic. By holding to a theological balance or tension between formative theological factors, he actually avoids heresy in a typically via-media Anglican way. He exercises his theological freedom within canonical limits: he has neither deviated from Anglican orthodoxy nor changed church doctrine or liturgy. Indeed, he cannot, for he is no pope; he has not the authority to do so. He asserts nothing of his individual experience above Scripture or tradition, but rather exhorts his flock in the pursuit of understanding the nature of God in the era and culture in which we live.

If, as observed, the development in the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity was in stages, and those who advanced the doctrine, in council or creed, could but see a poor reflection as in a mirror, how much more do we see dimly those matters relating to our understanding of humanity? Western orthodoxy did not descend from God in a fax, to paraphrase Professor Martyn Percy; it was discerned and developed incrementally. The Nicene creed distilled complex theological concepts into brief statements, permitting the dimmest of minds to grasp them, and the poorest of memories to recite them.

Creeds do not supplant Scripture, and nor do Archbishops. Their authority depends on their measure of agreement with the Bible. Creeds and Archbishops are valuable insofar as they summarise the doctrines of the Bible, aid its sound understanding, forge bonds of union among their professors, and guard against false doctrine and practice.

Justin Welby has never said what Bishop Martin Morrison accuses him of, nor has he implied that Jesus is not one substance or one essence with the Father. And to over-emphasise a single phrase from a single press release in order to make a schismatic point might itself be a heresy, for by choosing a rigid emphasis on one document, ignoring everything else the Archbishop has said or written; and by fanatically focusing on one aspect of private moral behaviour at the expense of peace-making, loving and serving, would seem to constitute a half-truth, a misimpression, a zealous self-justification for furtive episcopal consecration. Sheepish skin does indeed conceal a wolfish mind. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.