A statement cited by Alister McGrath may serve as an entrée to our study. While not a puritan, the great Anglican Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626; a chief translator of the AV Bible) is said to have “declared that orthodox Christianity was based upon two testaments, three creeds, four gospels, and the first five centuries of Christian history!” (Christian Theology, 7). This sentiment was undoubtedly shared by many in his day.
Richard Baxter was so taken up with the Apostle’s Creed that he viewed it as inspired and of better attestation than Scripture itself. Puritanism was not divorced from its own time—that was its matrix. Because of the potential historical problems of the day, it was important for these men to know and wrestle with the past. The puritans understood the pressure of everywhere, always, by all. The Fathers could not be ignored or neglected.
A. Historical Continuity. We need to think in terms of historical continuity. How did the puritans (as English representatives of reformed orthodoxy) refute arguments like that presented by Sadoleto based on Vincent’s canon? It seems to me that generally speaking, they acknowledged in some sense the validity of the idea, while rejecting its application by the Romanists.
Consider the question of historical continuity. Different possibilities present themselves: (1) one might argue, as did Roman apologists, that its church is catholic because it is virtually defined by this principle. This was Sadoleto’s point: for him it could be verified for 1300 years—back to the third century.
Puritan era approaches were more diverse: (2) One might argue that, based on the perceived theological fall of Rome, continuity was lost, and awaited a new beginning. This was reflected by the views of an amorphous group known to us now as Seekers (e.g. William Erbury, John Saltmarsh, William Walwyn). These were men who believed in the necessity of historical continuity—a kind of apostolic succession—and who were convinced that the apostasy of Rome was so thorough that true succession was lost. While they believed in the principle of the church and its ministry (sacraments), they believed that these things had been utterly lost during Rome’s ascendancy, and could not be restored without a new day of Pentecost and new apostles. They were seeking the re-establishment of the church and its ministry, hence they were seekers. BTW, many of them became Quakers, attracted to the Quaker denial of outward forms. (3) One could argue, from a Protestant perspective, for some type of continuity through Rome. Some authors felt the sting of the Seeker argument, replying that while the church was indeed corrupt, the continuation of its practices—ministerial acts—provided validity to their continuation. (4) Another approach was to argue based on the idea that the principle of always, everywhere, and by all, if applied to the Roman church, would invalidate its claims. While I know of no one who uses these exact terms, it seems to me that this was the majority approach. One might say that the Roman church had wandered into a by-path meadow, and itself failed Vincent’s test. This made study of the Fathers and the medieval theologians so important. If polemics could demonstrate that Reformed Christianity (in this case in its English incarnation) adhered to the historical position of the church, the argument of Rome was turned on its head. As we shall see, this was why there was so much appreciation for the Fathers and the great creeds, and less appreciation for the later theologians. These later theologians had deviated—the reformation was a recovery of historical continuity. When the great puritan theologians defended the Trinity or orthodox Christology against skeptics, they were quick to rely on any previous work supporting their view. This shows their sensitivity to the complex circumstances. If an author was correct—use him.
There are still other approaches that might be mentioned. (5) The early 16th century Continental Anabaptists often expressed a naïve brand of primitivism mixed with a variant view of continuity. For these, suffering was central to both New Testament Christianity and the church through the ages. Rome was considered (after Constantine) to have become anti-Christ as persecutor of the true followers of the lamb. The fact that so many of their early leaders faced martyrdom helped them with this identification. But it must be stated that there was some recognition of historical consciousness in them. It was just an alternative stream to that of Rome. (6) Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, two 19th century American Revivalists began the ‘Restoration’ movement—an attempt to return to New Testament Christianity—as defined by the “restorers”. Of course this makes those doing the restoration the definers of orthodoxy and orthopraxy! This is an interesting means of circumventing church history in favor of one’s own ideas.