In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle proposed that happiness is through habitually choosing between two extremes. This is the middle way, or via media. Since Aristotle, the term via media has expanded beyond ethics and is used to describe the theology of the Anglican church. Like many of you, I have heard three different understandings of via media, so I will briefly explain each one and let you be the judge since I am still learning. Also note that because I am new to this topic, it’s possible that I got some things wrong, though I have tried to read and assess the information carefully. I might revisit this topic in a year or two after I’ve had more time to study it.
Roman Catholicism and Protestantism
According to The Episcopal Church’s website, “the via media came into religious usage when Anglicans began to refer to the Church of England as a middle way between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Puritanism.” According to this understanding, the Roman Catholic traditions were maintained while rejecting submission to papal authority.
This idea comes from John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. They proposed that via media is the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as a result of their interpretations of the Elizabethan Settlement and writings of the Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker. Hooker’s work repudiated extreme versions of Puritanism while upholding the episcopal form of government as being biblical.
This the view of via media is the most accepted one in modern parlance. Yet, for via media to mean the middle way between Rome and Protestantism or to say that Roman Catholic traditions were maintained while rejecting submission to papal authority, as TEC website says, then what does one make of the 5 Solae and soteriology? Well, Hooker extolled Anglicanism for retaining the best of Roman Catholic liturgy and tradition with the authority of Scripture and justification of Protestantism. But is via media a marriage of traditions and polity with the 5 Solae, or is it a true middle way in terms of doctrine? There’s a reason this position has been debunked by historians like Anthony Milton and Diarmaid MacCulloch as being a 19th century invention.
Wittenberg and Geneva
The second position is the middle way between Wittenberg and Geneva. It is as it sounds, which is that the doctrines of the Church of England developed as a middle way between Lutheranism and Calvinism. This seems to make sense as there were many Calvinists in the British Isles during the Reformation and post-Reformation.
This is also bolstered by the fact that Melanchthon and Calvin worked to develop their doctrines on law and grace. Also, Cranmer was a Calvinist while his baptismal liturgies taught baptismal regeneration. But were the official doctrines and formularies of the Church of England formed by Wittenberg and Geneva? It would seem so in part since Cranmer played a significant role in reforming the theology of the Church of England.
Wittenberg and Zurich
That brings us to the third position of via media—Wittenberg and Zurich. I admit I balked a little when I heard this one. The middle way between physical presence in the Eucharist and memorialism? Hmmm… not quite. According to my spiritual father, a priest in the UECNA, the formularies are based off Bullinger’s writings. There was a lot of excitement in the 16th century among the burgeoning Protestant reformers. Debates and collaboration worked together to hone and spread the Protestant doctrines. The first Helvetic Confession was a consensus of Lutheran and Zwinglian theology, though there was an eventual break between Bullinger and Bucer.
Zurich took in Protestant refuges from England during the rule of Mary I. When the English fugitives returned, they took Bullinger’s writings with them. Bullinger was read widely in England, and as said above, the formularies were based off Bullinger’s writings. It is from these returned fugitives that we see the influence of both Zurich and Wittenberg. Additionally, Reformed Anglicans today hold more to the Three Forms of Unity than they do to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Their understanding of the sacraments is similar to Calvin but couched in terms that show both the influence of Lutheran theologians and Bullinger. Evidence of this is seen in my ancestor’s words:
“Thus in the Lord’s Supper, the outward thing, which we see with our eyes, is bread and wine; the inward thing, which we apprehend by faith, is the body and blood of Christ. In the outward part of this mystical action, which reacheth to that which is sacramentum only, we receive this body and blood but sacramentally; in the inward, which containeth rem, the thing itself in it, we receive them really: and consequently the presence of these in the one is relative and symbolical, in the other, real and substantial.” -James Ussher
Return to Pre-Reform Roots
While I have not done enough study to know which meaning of the term is accurate, I can see valid arguments for both Geneva and for Zurich. However, it’s important to note that Anglicanism predates the Reformation.
The Church of England did not, as some think, begin with a degenerate king. The Church of England began when St. Augustine of Canterbury landed in Kent with a party of monks in the year 597 A.D. where he set up his headquarters at Canterbury. Since then, there has been no essential break between the church overseen by Augustine and the church under the current Archbishop of Canterbury. However, the roots of the Church of England go back even further to St. Alban in 250 A.D.
I have seen this in the writings of Archbishop Ussher in his discussion of apostolic succession as well as in writings of other less notable but no less faithful Anglican priests. Fr. Roger Grist, a rector in the Fort Worth diocese of ACNA, wrote, “It has been shown that the early church appealed to the teachings of the apostles passed down to them as their source of authority for determining correct doctrine and proper interpretations of Scripture.”
Anglicanism was anti-Rome from before the Synod of Whitby (633) on penance and the Eucharist. We see evidences of hostility to Roman primacy through the Pope’s deposition of King John (13th century) and Wycliffe’s denial of papal authority and transubstantiation in the 14th century. The Church of England’s apostolic succession and many of its doctrines developed apart from Rome.
When the Church of England reformed after finally throwing off the shackles of Rome, it sought to return to its own roots and traditions while at the same time reading seriously the theologies of the continental reformers who sought to return to their doctrinal roots, which is one reason to reject the first understanding of via media and give more consideration to the other two.
Next week I return to my comfort zone of philosophy.