I’ve spent a lot of time reading English theology from the 16th century over the past year or so, and I admit that much of it can be tedious. The best theology to come out of the Church of England during the century is in two major contributions to the Anglican theological tradition — the liturgical forms of the Book of Common Prayer and the systematic work of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
The Prayer Book is one of the greatest works of the English language. The liturgical project that Thomas Cranmer and his associates began in 1549, and which has been revised a number of times since, contains some of the most beautiful utterances of prayer and liturgy ever composed in our tongue. Some believe that it is second only to the King James Bible in its influence on the development of modern English.
Hooker’s work is understudied, but it is also beautiful in its own way. It can be a tough read, as Hooker’s Elizabethan language is just foreign enough to make getting through large passages a real chore. But once you get used to certain spellings and Hooker’s prose style, you start to pick up on the real spiritual and scholarly depth of his writing.
Beyond these two, much of the theological work of the century by the English is second-rate. But every once in awhile, it’s possible to run across something that surprises. I felt that way about a section of the Short Catechisme of John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester. His 1553 catechism is the first true Protestant catechism in English and, while it was never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer, it did have an influence on the catechetical tradition in Protestant English theology. (The first catechism in the Prayer Book was inserted in 1604 early in James I’s reign.)
The section I’m talking about is an explanation by Bishop Ponet of how Jesus Christ is still present to the church after Here are his words from the Short Catechisme of 1553:
Christ is not so altogether absent from the world, as many do suppose. For albeit the substance of his body be taken up from us, yet is his Godhead perpetually present with us, although not subject to the sight of our eyes … Spiritual things are not to be seen, but with the eye of the spirit. Therefore he that in earth will see the Godhead of Christ, let him open the eyes, not of his body, but of his mind, but of his faith; and he shall see him present, whom eye hath not seen; he shall see him present, and in the midst of them, wheresoever be two or three gathered together in his name; he shall see him present with us, even unto the end of the world.”
I would argue that those words attain – if not the level of the sublime – at least that of the beautiful. The passage illuminates the understanding about a particular aspect of lived faith — fitting, given that the passage itself is about spiritual sight. The repeated and varied treatment of the idea of spiritual sight, together with the cadences of the second half of the selection (“he shall see him present … he shall see him present) make this an arresting passage.
I think that what Bishop Ponet’s meditation on the continuing presence of Christ after the ascension does here is a good example what theology has the ability to do for us generally in the church. By the use of language, it helps us to better understand the God who is revealed to us in the language of Holy Scripture. In that sense all theology ought rightly to be catechetical in an implicit way, just as Bishop Ponet’s catechism is so explicitly.
[I am sure the Short Catechisme is available online for free if you look hard enough. But if you want to find it in print as a part of a series of primary source readings from early English Protestant theologians and churchmen, the volume to get is T.H.L. Parker,ed., English Reformers, Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1966, 2006).]