The Living Church is pleased to announce the winners of the third annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition. The essayists represent a global scope:
First Place: The Rev. Leonard G. Finn of Trinity School for Ministry explores the theology of British evangelical Charles E. Simeon.
Second Place: The Rev. Jesse A. Zink of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, who served a missionary stint at a garbage dump in South Africa, studies prayer as described in the Gospel of Luke.
Third Place: David Pickersgill of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, evaluates whether diversity is a characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s ministry among Christians.
We thank this year’s judges, who also reflect the Church’s global identity: the Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee; the Rev. Will Brown, rector of Church of the Holy Cross, Dallas; the Rev. Michael Poon, director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore; and the Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, who has returned to London after founding and leading the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
By Leonard G. Finn
“The Bible first, the Prayer Book next, and all other books and doings in subordination to both.” —Charles Simeon
Charles Simeon preached his first sermon from what had been Hugh Latimer’s pulpit at St. Edward King and Martyr at Cambridge.1 There is something rather appropriate about that historical coincidence. Like Latimer in the 16th century, Simeon must be regarded as a champion voice of Protestant thought within the Church of England at a particularly important moment in the 19th — “the Luther of Cambridge,” as one author styles him.2 Similarly, Simeon displayed a fierce adherence to the principle of sola scriptura; however, also like Latimer, Simeon’s theology can possibly be described as ambiguous, uneven, or secondary.3 Consider the following version of his oft-repeated position on the Calvinist-Arminian dispute. Speaking in the third person, Simeon writes:
The Author is no friend to systematizers in Theology. He has endeavoured to derive from the Scriptures alone his views of religion; and to them it is his wish to adhere, with scrupulous fidelity; never wresting any portion of the word of God to favour a particular opinion, but giving to every part of it that sense, which it seems to him to have been designed by its great author to convey.4
Simeon essentially seeks an anti-dogmatic dogmatics, a mode of doing theology, which is “Scriptural, in contradistinction to the systematic,” as one friend wrote after Simeon’s death.5 But is there really no system to Simeon’s approach? Could one even actually have such an approach?
Simeon’s “The Excellency of the Liturgy, Sermon II” (1811) offers an interesting point of entry into considering these questions.6 The sermon is about only a small portion of Deuteronomy 5:28-29: “they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them.” Simeon begins by acknowledging the literal sense of the passage — God’s approval of Israel’s request for Moses’ mediation — and its logical interpretative sense — “that we should all seek deliverance from the curse of the law through the mediation” of Christ (pp. 41-42). However, instead of preaching along those lines — following “that sense, which it seems to him to have been designed by its great author to convey” — he declares that the use he intends to make the passage serve is “only in a way of accommodation,” but that such a use is “abundantly sanctioned by the example of the Apostles” (p. 42). In other words, Simeon departs from his stated scriptural mode of theology and preaching for something else. In what follows, I want to focus on this sermon and consider what that something else is. What does Simeon’s “accommodation” say about what lies at the heart of his overall theological imperatives? At the end of the day, I will suggest that Simeon’s admiration of the 1662 liturgy is rooted in traditional Anglican values of (1) primacy of Scripture and (2) catholicity amidst a context of threat to the Church of England by schism (from evangelicals) and discord (between Calvinists and Arminians). Getting somewhat ahead of ourselves, we might say that if Simeon has a system it is one with an ecclesiological flavor.
To begin, a brief recapitulation of Simeon’s sermon on liturgy is in order. He defends the liturgy — clearly against Non-Conformists and Dissenters — on three grounds: “it is lawful in itself — expedient for us — and acceptable to God” (p. 43). Simeon deals with the first and last points quickly: he cites examples of liturgy from Scripture and tradition in the first instance, concluding that the matter is “pretty generally conceded” anyway (p. 50), and deals with the latter in but a single paragraph (pp. 56-57). The heart of the issue is the second point that liturgy is “expedient for us” and here he centers on Scripture. The “pious and venerable Reformers of our Church,” Simeon argues, in creating a liturgy that addressed “the most lamentable ignorance [of Scripture that] prevailed throughout the land,” left behind in that liturgy a “pillar and ground of truth in this kingdom, [which] has served as fuel to perpetuate the flame, which the Lord himself at the time of the Reformation, kindled upon our altars” (pp. 51-53). Scripture was the heart of the Reformation; likewise, Scripture is the heart of the liturgy, which is therefore “a sacred light” that “irradiated [England] with scriptural knowledge and with saving truth” (pp. 51-52). At least with regard to public worship, Simeon argues that extemporaneous prayer simply cannot compare on those grounds: “few are qualified” for an “extensive knowledge of Scripture must be combined with fervent piety, in order to fit a person for such an undertaking” (p. 53). Extemporaneous prayer may attract many with its “delusive charms of novelty” and enable them to confuse their “fancy [being] gratified, or … animal spirits raised” with actual spiritual edification; however, real edification comes through “solid truths” (p. 55), which the liturgy offers in abundance because it offers Scripture in abundance. Simeon then concludes by considering theological objections to language in the burial and baptismal services (which may be answered, again, with reference to the scripturalism of the liturgical authors) and the criticism of the mere formality of liturgical repetition, a problem Simeon locates properly in the hearts of the congregation rather than the liturgy.
It is certainly an unusual sermon from an evangelical preacher, let alone the “prince of evangelicals.”7 However, Simeon is not an evangelical full-stop; rather, he is an evangelical churchman, which like the sermon was something quite unusual. In the 18th century, those engaged in the Evangelical Revival often cared comparatively little for the Established Church, even if that is where they were ordained.8 John Wesley, while never officially breaking with the Church of England, worked outside normal church circles and left a situation where his followers ultimately did break with it. Likewise, for John Berridge, an itinerant preacher like Wesley, church order took a back seat to a perceived divine imperative to preach the gospel wherever it was not being preached.9 Simeon, perhaps as “a natural Tory,”10 could not countenance an evangelicalism which broke with the Established Church. In the previous generation there may have been just cause for itinerancy and a lack of respect for church order, but, he once remarked, “To do now as [Berridge] did then would do much harm.”11 What follows for Simeon is a properly Anglican theological understanding of evangelicalism which reinscribes the movement within the Established Church, reconnecting evangelicalism with it — its liturgy, its order, etc. — through Scripture and in light of the legacy of the English Reformation. Indeed, Charles Smyth suggests that were it not for Simeon “the Evangelicals would sooner or later have left the Church of England even as the Methodists had done …. It was Simeon who, more than any other single individual, taught the younger Evangelicals to love the Church of England and enabled them to feel that they belong within her body.”12
We began by noting that Simeon was “no friend to systematizers in Theology.” He denied being a Calvinist or an Arminian, instead declaring himself “A Bible Christian,” going so far as to say, “I bring to [my interpretation of Scripture] no predilection whatever.”13 If Simeon’s claim seems naïve — how does one approach the Bible tabula rasa? — he at least seems aware of it, referring to the need to approach Scripture “with the simplicity of a little child.”14 More importantly, however, his disdain for “systems” should be understood strategically, that is, not only negatively in the context of the threat to church unity posed by Calvinist and Arminian debates,15 but also positively with regard to the central statements of faith of the English Reformation. In a footnote to his Preface to Horae Homileticae, Simeon writes, referring to himself:
If in anything he grounded his sentiments upon human authority, it would not be on the dogmas of Calvin or Arminius, but on the Articles and Homilies of the Church of England. He has the happiness to say, that he does ex animo, from his inmost soul, believe the doctrines to which he has subscribed: but the reason of his believing them is not, that they are made the Creed of the Established church, but, that he find them manifestly contained in the Sacred Oracles.16
The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Homilies are therefore Simeon’s “system,” but they are so because they reflect the truths of Scripture. It follows from these documents and their relation to Scripture that the Established Church is a true church, guided by the clear light of Scripture and therefore very much worth remaining within. As Arthur Bennett explains: “In [Simeon’s] opinion the Protestant Reformed Church of England was the truest and finest manifestation of the Christian Faith emanating from scripture and had everything in it to meet his spiritual needs” (p. 131). Liturgy clearly functions for Simeon in the same way as the Articles and Homilies do but in the context of worship. “A congregation uniting fervently in the prayers of our Liturgy,” Simeon once wrote, “would afford as complete a picture of heaven as ever yet was beheld on earth.”17
We can now see that there is a properly Anglican logic to Simeon’s defense of liturgy, rooted in reformed catholicity. First, methodologically, Simeon defends the lawfulness of liturgy by looking to the authority of Scripture thence to the traditions of the early Church in their proper use of Scripture.18 Second, Simeon’s understanding of the excellency of the liturgy rests in its being scriptural and “a standard of piety,” containing “saving truth” (pp. 51-52). Third, that the liturgy is scriptural and therefore edifies and saves is a legacy of the Reformation in the English church: “If then the pious and venerable Reformers of our Church had not provided a suitable form of prayer the people would still in many thousands of parishes have remained in utter darkness” (p. 51). And lastly, for Simeon all of these elements taken together mean that the liturgy is fundamentally evangelical. Indeed, against the previous generation’s focus on preaching as the whole of the Evangelical Revival, Simeon sees an absolutely critical place for the Church of England’s liturgy in a Reformationally-guided Anglican evangelical project. He writes, quite strongly:
We go [to prayer] as sinners, to obtain mercy at the hands of God. And in this respect, the Liturgy of our Church is admirably fitted for our use …. In truth, our churches themselves are, not houses for preaching only, but, in a pre-eminent degree, what our Reformers designed them to be, and what God ordained his Temple of old to be, “houses of prayer.” And those who make light of Prayers, and regard them only as a kind of decent prelude to the Sermon, shew that “they know not what spirit they are of:” since all the preaching in the universe will be of no use without prayer.19
At the end of the day, Simeon’s “unsystematic” mode of theology is a historically Anglican one. An American Lutheran, locating Simeon’s legacy within the larger history of Reformational theology, assesses it as follows: “his great contribution [was] in restoring Reformation theology to a church that had all but forgotten it.”20 This observation captures only half the equation. What Simeon achieved was the formation of an Anglican evangelicalism within the distinctives of the English Reformation — its history, its Articles, and, of course, its liturgy. If Simeon’s great contribution to Anglicanism was the restoration of that Reformation theology, it was accomplished ultimately through his ensuring that Anglican evangelicals could remain both Anglican and evangelical.
A recent graduate of Trinity School for Ministry, the Rev. Leonard Finn is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and is beginning doctoral work in Old Testament studies this fall at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Ontario.
1 Mary Seeley, The Later Evangelical Fathers (London: Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, 1879), p. 244.
2 Ibid., p. 285.
3 As Stephen Neill put it, theologically, Latimer “was never a clear thinker, and there are times at which it seemed that he hardly knew himself what he believed”: Anglicanism, 4th edn. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 66.
4 Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1832), I:xxiii; italics in original.
5 Matthew Morris Preston, Memoranda of the Rev. Charles Simeon, M.A. (London: Richard Watts, 1840), p. 30.
6 Charles Simeon, The Excellency of the Liturgy, in Four Discourses, Preached Before the University of Cambridge in November 1811 (NY: Easburn, Kirk & Co., 1813). Citations of this source follow parenthetically in my text.
7 Arthur Bennett, “Charles Simeon: Prince of Evangelicals,” Churchman, 102/2 (1988), p. 122.
8 Neill, Anglicanism, p. 236.
9 Charles Smyth, Simeon & Church Order: A Study in the Origins of the Evangelical Revival in Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge at the University Press, 1940), pp. 256–57.
10 Ibid., p. 298.
11 Quoted in ibid., p. 256.
12 Ibid., p. 311.
13 Quoted in Robert S. Dell, “Simeon and the Bible,” in Charles Simeon (1759-1836): Essays Written in Commemoration of his Bi-Centenary by Members of the Evangelical Fellowship for Theological Literature, ed. Arthur Pollard and Michael Hennell (London: SPCK, 1959), p. 32; cf. Hugh Evans Hopkins, Charles Simeon: Preacher Extraordinary (Grove Liturgical Study 18; Bramcote, Nottingham: Grove Books, 1979), p. 19.
14 Hopkins, Charles Simeon: Preacher Extraordinary, p. 18; cf. p. 20.
15 Cf. Ibid., pp. 19ff.
16 Simeon, Horae Homileticae, I:xiv; italics in original.
17 Ibid., III:342.
18 See, for example, his discussion of the use of the Lord’s Prayer (pp. 46-47).
19 Simeon, Horae Homileticae, III:341–2.
20 Rudolph W. Heinze, “Charles Simeon Through the Eyes of an American Lutheran,” Churchman, 93/3 (1979), p. 250.