A Recap of My Theological History
Why am I doing such a self-oriented blog post? I don't generally like such things, but I ran across this thread on Twitter:
At first I considered retweeting this with some thoughts on my own theological journey, since I began normie evangelical and now would very likely find myself joining an Anglican church if I moved into the right area. But I quickly realized that to say anything meaningful, I would need a decent amount of space, in which case it seemed more sensible to write a blog post.
All my life I had at least some interest in theology. I went to a tiny Christian school where, as early as third grade, I remember vigorous lunch table debates on eternal security, the status of Old Testament feast days, speaking in tongues, and more off-the-wall topics. Nonetheless, at that point I was mostly echoing what I heard in sermons or from my parents. I only began my own theological investigations as a teenager, prompted by more interaction with my peers of other denominations and my entrance into the online world. Quickly I took up debating and blogging, until in early 2012 I joined Christian Teen Forums, where I would spend much of my time online for the next few years.
CTF more than anything else (except maybe Michael Patton's writings at what is now just the Credo House blog) exposed me to Christian traditions outside of fundamentalish Baptist or wild Charismatic theology, the only two I really knew anything of growing up. There I met Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Anglicans. I learned quickly that these people, or at least some of them, have real piety and genuine faith. As I debated with them, read my Bible, and began scouring the Internet for useful resources, I found out they couldn't all be heretics on their way to damnation. The Church was bigger than I knew.
During this same time, Desiring God and John Piper became the most influential resources I found online. It did not take long for Piper and Patton to convince me to be a Calvinist, and on CTF I found a perfect outlet for discussing the matter. The friendly community there helped give me a pretty tame cage stage, if it could even be called that. The relationships and discussions I had there helped me navigate troublesome waters and maintain a fairly level head.
Things began to shift after I graduated and got married (in the same week). I moved away from home, and for the next 2 years, even though I spent a quarter of that actually working in a church, I felt largely disconnected from all my traditional moorings. My only regular interlocutors were online, and I found myself often more confused than anything else in attempting to nail down and maintain my views on a variety of topics. I felt simultaneously pulled in different directions, and regularly came back to struggling with the "horrible decree" of the Calvinism I had so happily and readily adopted. Much of the confusion was amplified by the job I started working at an Amazon warehouse, at which I worked a long night shift alone with my thoughts in an realm that felt almost like an alternate reality.
After this had been fermenting a while, in late 2014, I discovered Bobby Grow and The Evangelical Calvinist. He introduced me to T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth, and I was swept off my feet. Alas, this seems to have largely been more by rhetoric than substance. But it was a sigh of relief from my fears about reprobation and definitely gave me some wonderful things to think about. I appreciate a lot of what I learned along the way, but by the end I felt repeatedly unsatisfied with what seemed like cop-outs, avoidances, and mere tricks of language that might not actually mean anything. Also around this time, both because of and contributing to my growing confusion, I began seriously investigating infant baptism (for many reasons, not the least of which was the weight of Church consensus) and debating whether I ought to baptize my newborn son, but I was not able to reach a certain conclusion on how to move forward before further complications.
My affair with EC continued into my years at the Baptist College of Florida (2015-2017), where I was the weird "Evangelical Calvinist" in a sea of people who either didn't care or were recently minted Reformed Baptists. I did, however, find encouragement from some professors, and I got to engage in lots of research and debate. This was healthy, and it kept me thinking in a more productive mode than I did in my time of isolation. The best thing I got out of this combined experience of Bible college and Evangelical Calvinism was an interest in reading the Reformers. It was this, combined with a dissertation I read about (ironically) Barth's doctrine of providence, which set the stage for my transition out of revisionism into a more classically Reformed arena.
To understand the next chapter of this story, we'll have to backtrack a bit. Sometime before I started at BCF, I had begun reading N. T. Wright. Along the way between that time and when I left BCF, I also began reading Peter Leithart, Andrew Perriman, James Jordan, Alastair Roberts, and an assortment of figures associated with The Calvinist International and The Davenant Institute. The first half of these figures all had significant impact on my biblical hermeneutics, pushing me toward (partial) preterism and an approach to interpretation resembling in different ways distinctively modern critical exegesis, classical Reformed redemptive-historical approaches, and patristic typology, while the latter half I primarily become interested in due to social issues. As LGBT issues grew in prominence in cultural conversation, I found myself looking to Christian guides and fell in love with the natural law tradition as a source of clarity and sanity. In particular, I began devouring Roberts, TCI, and Brad Littlejohn on the matter, little aware of their potential status as a gateway drug.
By the time I left BCF and became a youth pastor in a tiny Baptist church, a number of factors had begun to converge. I had long outgrown CTF (and so did the Internet, RIP forums in general), and my remaining online interlocutors on Facebook and Reddit had begun to shrink in influence. My initial flirtation with paedobaptism had solidified into a more definite conviction in broadly Reformed terms, but I had still only ever been a member of Baptist churches at this point, and I was not willing to baptize my children apart from joining a church that would accept this. My studies of classically Reformed sources, together with my persistent belief in comprehensive providence, had persuaded me to make a sort of peace with normal Calvinism, though not uncritically. The more I delved into the early writings and theology of the Magisterial Reformation, the more helpful and reasonable and persuasive it all seemed.
Along the way I also became interested in liturgy, but I feared liturgy as a fad, or liturgy for liturgy's sake. Surely it is worth crafting services with more care, thought, and tradition than I was accustomed to in Baptist circles, but a high church aesthetic as such is still nothing more than an aesthetic. I also found that, despite my increasing fondness for classical Reformed sources, I still felt the need to make certain kinds of qualifications and take certain kinds of exceptions, at least from what is generally understood as the Reformed confessional tradition, and it seemed to me that conservative Anglicanism would provide precisely this kind of latitude. Being the home of C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, Alastair Roberts, and Richard Hooker, it certainly had some weight.
The Davenant Institute did the most to convince me that my Reformed and Anglican interests were in fact not at all at odds, but rather that Anglicanism originated as a self-consciously Reformed movement. Early Anglicanism and the rest of the Magisterial Reformers were largely in agreement and continuity on all kinds of doctrines I had come to know and love, particularly the classical versions of sola fide, sola Scriptura, the two kingdoms, and natural law. Perhaps a conservative, even evangelical, Reformed Anglicanism would be just what I need.
The funny thing about theology, of course, is that its development in your head doesn't always match with your physical conditions. After I left my position at the little Baptist church, I was for the first time seriously seeking a church more specifically in line with my more mature convictions. Alas, where I live options are sparse indeed. Almost all of the churches are vanilla Baptist or some form of Pentecostalism, besides the dying mainline ones. And without knowing what to expect out of Episcopalian churches (probably not that whole "conservative Reformed" kind of Anglicanism I would like to see), the only explicitly Anglican bodies I would be immediately willing to try would be ACNA, of which there are none around me. But I did stumble upon Grace Redeemer PCA, a tiny church plant within a reasonable distance still renting a building of another use. There I have found, not the 100% exact match to every last thing I have come to believe, but a healthy and godly fellowship of broadly like-minded believers who share my faith and basic posture toward life. They love and exhort and admonish, they have given and cared, and here I have joined, and here my children have finally been baptized. Christ is here, reigning and speaking and acting. With this I am far beyond content.
All of this brings me back to the tweet. Of the three reasons given for why evangelicals become Anglican—desire for reverence, desire for authority, connection to the historic Church—none of them are directly and immediately applicable to my own interest in Anglicanism. (And of course, one may doubt the aptness of describing my interest as in "Anglicanism," since I'm very happy in my PCA church and the kind of Anglican thought I most agree with is fairly rare today.) I do want a reverent church, but I've seen forms of low church reverence that I'm persuaded can match up with anything an Anglo-Catholic church could concoct, at least before God. I do believe in authority, but I don't feel that belief like I do others. And while I do believe in staying connected to the historic Church, I agree with the Reformers that the most important continuity is doctrinal, and institutional forms of continuity don't particularly interest me.
So if I were to supply my own three reasons for interest in some form of Anglicanism, they would be something like this:
- Desire for correctness: I think the kind of mere Protestant theology represented in the 39 Articles and the basic ethos of Reformed Anglican thought and practice are simply true. They match Scripture and reason and tradition while providing sufficient flexibility to accommodate necessary adjustments and revisions as modern developments help shed new light on objective truth.
- Desire for liturgical pedagogy: In the writings of the Reformers, they constantly insist that liturgical forms are not properly worship (as in, something we do to fulfill God's commands in rendering the obligatory honors and receive His promised grace) but are better understood as forms of order and training for the unlearned. I agree. I want a decent liturgy because I want my kids to grow up learning the Psalms and the Creeds, large portions of Scripture, and edifying prayers. Aesthetic or no aesthetic (I'll take a booming Charismatic preacher yelling out lines of the Creed for the congregation to clap and repeat if necessary), these are things I written in the hearts and memories of myself and my children. Pedagogy. Evangelicals are great at passion but less good at this, and a lot of liturgical churches these days are bad at both, but if I can have both I'll take them.
- Desire for not being a papist: I mean, come on, if I wanted to pretend I had infallible authorities, string together contradictory doctrines as "development," and make a logical absurdity central to my distinctive doctrine, I could join a cult.