Robert Abbot on the Sign of the Cross

Robert Abbot (1560–1617) was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, bishop of Salisbury, proponent of Reformed theology, and opponent of Laudianism and Arminianism during the reign of James I. In a rather amusing incident, Abbot once preached a sermon in defense of the Puritans. Laud himself was in attendance, and as John Rushworth later recalled Abbot, seeing Laud in the audience, determined to aim his polemical canons directly at him. Laud, according to Rushworth, “was fain to sit patiently at the rehearsal of this sermon, though abused almost an hour together, being pointed at as he sat.”

One of Abbot’s most interesting works is his two volume defense of William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholike. In this work Abbot defends the great Puritan theologian against the polemical attacks of certain Roman Catholic theologians, particularly William Bishop. Though he attacks the “popery” of Bishop, Abbot only does so insofar as he believes that Bishop does not himself maintain the principles of a true Reformed Catholic, that is, the recognition and defense of what is necessary for salvation and the distinction of what is necessary from what is indifferent (adiaphoron). One example of an indifferent practice that Bishop (according to Abbot)elevates to a necessary practice is the ancient rite of the sign of the cross, which the faithful often made upon themselves and priests often performed over the holy instruments of worship.

Abbot argues that the practice is not strictly commanded by scripture, and although it is a longstanding tradition in both Eastern and Western Christianity, the abuses that have been added to the practice render it dangerous, and therefore it should be strongly curtailed for the sake of saving the church from superstition. Since it is an indifferent matter, however, making the sign of the cross should be left up to the churches to determine for themselves, he argues, a determination that he implies should be based on surveying the extent of the error and abuse surrounding the practice among the churches.

Of the signe of the Crosse … we condemne it not being taken as an arbitrarie and indifferent ceremonie, voluntarily vpon occasion accepted by the discretion of the Church, and left free to the like discretion as occasion requireth, either to be wholly relinquished, or the vse thereof to be moderated and abridged without opinion of anie violation or breach of religion towards God. So long as it was kept within compasse of being onely a matter of admonition, a token of profession, and occasion of remembrance of the name of Christ, so long there was no reason for any man to contend concerning the vsing of it. But since it hath growne from being a meere ceremonie, to be accounted as a Sacrament of grace and saluation, an instrument of sanctification and holinesse, containing a spirituall vertue and power of blessing, and ministring inward strength against our spirituall enemies, it hath concerned the godly discretion and wisedome of the Church, to vse due care to redresse those erroneous and superstitious conceipts thereof, which tend to the detriment and wrong of the faith and name of Iesus Christ. We haue receiued no commandement thereof from God, no institution of Iesus Christ, no word or warrant of the Apostles, and therefore being brought in by men, it ought to be subiect to the iudgement of the Church, and not the Church tyed to any bondage of the vse of it. Our Church therefore hath vsed her libertie in this behalfe, and though we denie not but that the signe of the Crosse were in most frequent vse, as M. Bishop saith, in the primitiue Church, yet considering it to be a thing iniurious to the faith and crosse of Christ where it is made a matter of mysticall consecration and blessing, hath discharged vs of it where it was taken in that sence; and yet that we seeme not wholly to explode that which antiquitie hath approoued, hath there retained it where it may carrie no shew of being subiect to that construction. We vse it not to our selues, to our meates and drinkes, to the water of baptisme, to the bread and wine of the Lordes Supper, or any otherwhere where it was vsed with that meaning as in Poperie it was vsed in all these: we vse it in baptisme with the application first intended, and to them which yet know not the vse of it, that that which is done to them may be a remembrance to vs, & to them also when they shall hereafter know and see the same in others, not to be ashamed of Christ crucified, and of the bearing of his crosse, but with courage and constancie to follow him whose in baptisme we haue vowed our selues to be. As touching the testimonies of antiquitie which M. Bishop alledgeth for the approuing thereof, first Tertullian and Ambrose and Cyril do simply note the vulgar vse of it, which in them and in those times we condemne not; they had their reason for the vsing, and so haue we for the leauing of it, (Abbot, The second part of the Defence of the Reformed Catholicke, London: George Bishop, 1607, pp. 1118-1119).

[…]

Ambrose maketh this the vse of the signe of the crosse, that thereby a Christian man euery while writeth vpon his owne forehead the contempt of death, as who knoweth that without the crosse of Christ he cannot be saued. When Iulian obiected to Christians the vse of the Crosse, Cyril maketh no more thereof but this, that they made it in remembrance of all goodnes and all vertue. Whatsoeuer they say of the crosse or of the signe of the crosse, they referre it to the faith of Christ crucified, not to the crosse it selfe, but to the inward cogitation of the benefite of his crosse. The mind marked with the crosse, saith Cyril, is plentifully fed with heauenly food, and grace of the holy Ghost: whosoeuer turneth the eyes of his mind to Christ nailed to the crosse, he shall be forthwith cured from all wound of sinne. They vsed the outward signe onely to turne the minde to the beholding of the crosse of Christ, thereby hoping to receiue comfort and defence. But Poperie hath taught men so to conceiue, as if God had giuen to the signe of the crosse some formal power to do great wonders for vs, & in this sence haue witches & charmers borowed it from them, (ibid., p. 1122).

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Reason and the Authority of Scripture in Richard Hooker and John Calvin

Richard HookerThe typical Reformed understanding of Richard Hooker’s “three-fold chord” of authority states that Hooker created a hierarchy that began with reason, then tradition, and the authority of Scripture is placed at the bottom. I was taught, as many others have been, that this theology was a precursor to Enlightenment philosophy. Once reason is established as the ground of faith, then the articles of the faith become tainted with all manners of erroneous doctrines. Paul Avis explains that Hooker did not believe that reason validates faith, rather the opposite is true:

Except in its fundamental gospel, scripture is not self-explanatory; it requires the application of reason. In defending himself against the charge of Walter Travers at the Temple Church that he had introduced scholastic distinctions and rational subtleties into the exposition of scripture, Hooker explained what he meant by reason. He meant not his own individual reasoning capacity, but ‘true, sound, divine reason . . . reason proper to that science whereby the things of God are known; theological reason, which out of principles in scripture that are plain, soundly deduceth more doubtful inferences’ and brings to light the true meaning of the ‘darker places’ of scripture (III, p. 594f). (Paul Avis, Exploring Issues of Authority in the Spirit of Richard Hooker; available here.)

Thus, it is only out of scriptural principles “that are plain” that reason functions to shed light upon certain doubtful texts. This fact places Hooker within the tradition of “faith seeking understanding,” so conspicuous in Augustine and Anselm. This concept of reason is also perfectly agreeable with the thought of John Calvin, particularly chapter VIII of book I of the Institutes entitled “SO FAR AS HUMAN REASON GOES, SUFFICIENTLY FIRM PROOFS ARE AT HAND TO ESTABLISH THE CREDIBILITY OF SCRIPTURE.” In this chapter Calvin affirms that Scripture is “not sustained by external props” such as reason; yet, we may use reason to prove the authority of Scripture. 

[O]nce we have embraced it [the authority of Scripture] devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments [from reason]  – not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds – become very useful aids. (Institutes, I.8.1.)

Thus, for Calvin and Hooker, reason is not the foundation of revelation. Rather, reason reveals that which is hidden or unclear within revelation. These hidden truths may not be discerned by those who lack faith because the Scriptures “breathe something divine.” (ibid.) In order to have this sort of understanding through reason, one must first believe. Those who place reason over revelation as a higher authority treat the instrument as the foundation. Reason does not establish the truths found within the Scriptures. It reveals those truths that have already been established by divine authority.