Icon (Close Menu)

Anti-sacramentalism and history’s verdict

This is the final part of a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16. Part one is here and part two is here.

Those studying the history of the Anglo-Catholic movement often describe differences between Anglo-papalism and a prayer book-oriented Catholicism. It is important also to see the significance of the division between those for whom a sacramental reading of the Bible is part of the Catholic faith and those who see this as a pious naïveté that must be left behind. With some sense of regret, I will offer Charles Gore as an example of this rejection of a sacramental reading and a contributor to a significant split in Anglo-Catholic scholarship and devotion. In the ground-breaking collection Lux Mundi (1889), Gore argued that he and his colleagues wished to “put the Catholic faith in its right relation to modern intellectual and moral problems.” For Gore, this meant a rejection of the typological or sacramental approach to the Bible that was fundamental to the approach of the first generation of the Oxford Movement.

Before becoming principal of Pusey House, Gore was vice principal of Cuddesdon Theological College. He kept a picture of Edward King, the saintly Bishop of Lincoln, on one wall of his study to remind him of Catholic sanctity. On the opposite wall, “to pull him up if he stressed an argument too far,” he had a picture of the liberal Benjamin Jowett, who argued that the Bible needed to be studied like any other book, “without an overlay of forced meanings.”[37] Holding these two together proved to be a difficult challenge for Gore.

Gore’s view of the Old Testament seemed to have been shaped by the neo-Hegelianism of his teacher T.H. Green. Green had studied under Benjamin Jowett at Balliol College in the late 1850s. Green downplayed the historical, miraculous, and dogmatic elements of the Christian faith to emphasize the moral and spiritual.[38] This meant, for Gore, that the Old Testament had “a most unspiritual appearance,” as it abounded in “worldliness,” “material sacrifices,” and a “low standard of morals.”[39] In earlier times, the people of Israel “probably felt very little essential difference between Chemosh and Jahweh … or between one Baal and another.”[40] For Gore, “it is [only the teaching of the later prophets] which gives its special value and meaning to the Old Testament.”[41] This approach also meant for Gore a rejection of the typological or sacramental interpretation of the Bible, the “arbitrary” and unreliable practice of Origen and his successors.[42]

Gore’s approach introduced a kind of spiritual schizophrenia into the Anglo-Catholic world, a split between exegesis and theology, between spirituality and history. Gore, on the one hand, described “famous books by ancient spiritual masters, such as St. Gregory the Great’s Morals on the Book of Job, or St. Bernard’s Homilies on the Canticles, as ‘most valuable guides to the spiritual life.’” On the other hand, he said that these works “appear to us to have very little real connexion with the texts upon which they profess to be commenting.”[43] He does not address how these great works by Bernard or Gregory could be valuable if they were founded on artifice rather than reality. This division between what is spiritually useful and what is exegetically sound relegates traditional interpretation to what is mystical, not in the classic sense of a revelation or sacrament, but the mystical in the impoverished sense of the impractical, subjective, private, or just flaky.[44]

To bring this back to the discussion of Keble Chapel, one might ask: what type of scheme Gore would have suggested? It is unlikely that the stories of the patriarchs, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph would feature so prominently. It is precisely in these stories that 19th-century commentators found the examples of immorality and spiritual confusion that alarmed Gore. Or, some of these stories may have been there, but only as showing a history of the education of the childhood of humanity, not as sacraments of the revelation of Christ in the Church and in the soul. To put this another way, the sacramental approach is stereoscopic — the great realities and truths of Christ and the Church shine in the weak and all too human histories of the patriarchs. In both the Old and New dispensations, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. Gore’s approach exemplifies the desire to have the spiritual apart from the sacrament, to grasp the truth apart from the history that manifests it.

Gore may have believed that his view of the Old Testament was shaped by a values-neutral science in the form of the new tools of historical criticism. Looking back from more than a century on, it is easier to see the way in which his approach owed a debt to a form of theological Darwinism or Hegelianism. The new historical-critical tools were not neutral, but they assumed a view of history in which the spiritual and the historical, the vertical and the horizontal, could be sharply divided and kept apart.


Where does this leave us? I have argued that the leaders of the Oxford Movement put forward a radical and all-embracing view of the Incarnation. According to this view, belief in the Incarnation was tied up with an understanding of the way in which the Son of God takes flesh in the Church, a way of understanding the sacraments, and a way of reading the created world. This sacramental or incarnational worldview was also, for them, tied up with a sacramental approach to reading the Bible. One of the founding principles of Anglo-Catholicism is not just a high view of the sacraments or the Church, but a particular way of reading the Bible.

One of the positive developments in contemporary theology is that it is now more possible to see how this sacramental approach to reading the Bible and the life of the Church that the leaders of the Oxford Movement worked to recover and develop is not a discredited relic of a naïve piety, but has a theological integrity that theologians on both sides of the Atlantic are seeking to recover. Ephraim Radner, Richard Hayes, Matthew Levering, Lewis Ayres, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Hans Boersma are asking how the scriptural exegesis of the Fathers and the insights of modern approaches can be thought together.[45] In Benedict XVI’s words:

historical events [in which “God himself has acted”] … carry within themselves a surplus meaning that is beyond mere historical facticity and comes from somewhere else. …The surplus cannot be separated from the facts; it is not a meaning subsequently imposed upon them from without; rather, it is itself present in the event, even though it transcends mere facticity.[46]

The approach that would attempt to sever the historical from this surplus, or the symbol from the reality, appears for many theologians to have less to do with an objective or value-neutral approach to history, and more to do with the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology.”[47] In this sense, looking to the principles that animated and guided the leaders of the Oxford Movement is not simply a curiosity for Anglo-Catholics, but a gift for the ressourcement and renewal of Church universal.


[37] See Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) entries on Jowett and Gore.

[38] ODNB: “The individual cannot rely on miracles or historical events: God becomes immanent in everyday duties .… Christ the dogma” must become “Christ the idea of morality.”

[39] Gore, The Reconstruction of Belief, London: John Murray, 1930, p 866 For Gore, “it is of the essence of the NT, as the religion of the Incarnation, to be final and Catholic; on the other hand, it is of the essence of the OT to be imperfect.” Lux Mundi, p. 329.

[40] Gore, The Reconstruction of Belief, London: John Murray, 1930, p 86-87

[41] Only in the later prophets do we encounter in a reliable way “the record of a real self-disclosure made by the living God to the people of Israel,”  “from Amos to Malachi.” Describing the distinction between Deuteronomic and Priestly Code history, Gore remarked: “What we are asked to admit is not conscious perversion, but unconscious idealizing of history, the reading back into past records of a ritual development which was really later.”

[42]  Gore, The Reconstruction of Belief, P 885  “And though Origen’s successors would not commonly have been ready to admit that the literal meaning could be untrue, in fact, they used the key of the mystical meaning in a way that we should regard as totally arbitrary, [to emancipate the Church from ‘the letter’ of the Old Testament].” Gore never answers why, if the religion of the Incarnation is Catholic and perfect, the views expressed there about how to read earlier and more primitive dispensation should count for little alongside the latest theories of 19th-century theological historians. Gore expressed tremendous confidence that use of these tools would not question straightforward reliability, accuracy, unity, and early dating of the New Testament. When methodological principles he allowed for the Old Testament were applied to the New Testament, he was genuinely shocked. For him, the creeds are true, and the rejection of New Testament miracles is basically a rejection of Christianity. He will accept a general principle, viz. that the Old Testament as a whole anticipates and demands a climax or fulfilment in the future, and that this climax or fulfilment is really found in Christ, but their “method of argument from particular texts belongs to their time and is quite superseded.”

[43] Gore, “The Bible in the Church” in A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, eds. C. Gore, H.L. Goudge, A. Guillaume (SPCK, 1929) p 10.  “No argument on behalf of the faith is to be based on any allegorical interpretation of Scripture.” Gore then quotes Aquinas in a misleading manner to back this assertion. It is misleading because in the very paragraph to which Gore refers, Aquinas quotes Gregory the Great to show how the fourfold sense fits with the divine purpose.

[44] It is perhaps significant that at the Anglo-Catholic Congresses in the 1920s, there were often addresses on meditation. It is in the world of meditation and private devotion that the interpretations of the tradition were allowed to have a place and a role in making Christ present to the believer and in the Church. On the one hand, emphasizing the importance of mediation emphasized the sacramental character of the Bible. On the other hand, the approach exemplified by Gore makes this to be a building without secure foundations, a pious myth.

[46] Benedict XVI, in Matthew Levering, Participatory Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation, (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), p 6. Cf. Henri Crouzel on de Lubac: “This verdict arises from too narrow a conception of Christian time, reducing it to the single horizontal line, when the vertical is the expression of sacramentalism, of the anticipated presence of the eschatological blessings in the temporal Gospel. Christian time has both dimensions, the vertical as well as the horizontal: it can only be expressed in antitheses, like that of the Kingdom of God, which the Gospel declares to be at once present and future.” “The Interpretation of Scripture” in Origen by Henri Crouzel, (T&T Clark Ltd., 1989), p 81.

In de Lubac’s words, the Incarnation is real, “But precisely its reality is of an infinitely deeper nature than that of a simple historical fact, observable from the outside.” The humble or historical sense cannot fully exhaust the meaning of anything which points to Christ.

Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, ii, trans. E.M. Macierowski (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), p. 97.

[47] Through which the sensible and intelligible realms, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and [both the created order and] creaturely forms [of] language, action, institutions [are] denied any capacity to indicate [or embody] the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Webster, pp. 19-20.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Sean Rowe: ‘I See Significant Changes’

The Presiding Bishop-Elect brings a deep reservoir of Episcopal experience to his coming role.

Covenant Hires Calvin Lane as 3rd Editor

“I think that Covenant has got a major foothold in the Anglican world, and I do mean beyond the Episcopal Church, and we need to continue to grow that. But at the same time, I want to hear more ecumenical voices.”

Conversation Across Difference

Kelli Joyce, Jordan Hylden, and Matthew S.C. Olver discuss Communion Across Difference, a task force of the Episcopal Church.

Bishops Respond to Former President’s Shooting

Episcopal Church leaders responded to news of a bullet grazing former President Donald Trump's ear at a Pennsylvania campaign rally July 13 with calls to prayer and calming words for a troubled nation.