• Anglican Chaplain ETF

Truth Over Experience: My Journey to the Anglican Church, by the Rev. Dr. Matthew Miller, PhD.


When one reads books such as Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail or Evangelical Is Not Enough, one can get the impression that those drawn to the traditional, liturgical Church are drawn largely through experience: whether being overawed when experiencing the liturgy or feeling a gnawing lack in the tradition of which they are a part. These experiences are valid; and to the right person, they are sufficient proof of the truth of the traditional expressions of the Christian faith.


I am not one of these people. By training and temperament, I could not rely on experience. I wanted Truth. Therefore, if I were to become an Anglican, I had to know that Anglicanism was true.

This testimonial and article will focus on an academic journey into Anglicanism. By focusing on the academics, I do not wish or intend to deny powerful experiences along the way. However, we live in a society stuck between pragmatism (do what works) and romanticism (do what makes you feel right). As Christians, we need to be stuck on truth. And a moving liturgy that makes my life easier, if false, is a terrible thing.


So I set out to study this thing called Anglicanism. Or, as I later learned, I set out to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Truth.


My intellectual journey started when I was a Ph.D. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was solid Reformed Baptist. I strove to be a consistent Reformed Baptist. I chose the Old Testament and, specifically, the Septuagint as my Ph.D. field because I did not know of very many Baptist Old Testament scholars, and I wanted the best possible chance of becoming a seminary professor. My Doktorvater (Doctoral Supervisor) was great. He pushed me to think hard, learn Greek and Hebrew well, and always subordinate my systematic theology to the text of Scripture. I do not doubt that I am an Anglican because of his influence.


Additionally, I had an excellent Church History professor. He taught that the early Church fought over any deviation from received doctrine, and such fights or their lack demonstrated consensus. He extolled the glories of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. As someone who struggled with daily devotions, I decided that I needed to pick up my own copy of it.


At this same time, God was moving people and circumstances into my life to challenge me. At the Army Chaplain school, I went to the Anglican service. I was overawed by the beauty and majesty of the service, and I had what would turn out to be a fruitful conversation with then Archdeacon, now Bishop Mark Nordstrom. Shortly afterward, my wife and I attended St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Kentucky and loved it. There was something in the Anglican tradition that I was missing in the Baptist tradition, and I wanted it.


But what did the text say? The question was ingrained into me. What I wanted was irrelevant if Scripture did not support it. But I needed to settle the matter. So, while finishing my M.Div. and starting a Ph.D., I set aside time to read and study everything I could.


I already held some non-negotiables. I was not against set liturgy. In fact, I found it quite helpful for four reasons. First, it corrected my own devotional imbalances. Second, it gave me something steady to which I could cling. Third, I had grown tired of rambling extemporaneous prayer. Fourth, I had read and studied enough to know that non-liturgical worship was an aberration. The liturgical element was already a given for me, and I was trying to push my Baptist church in that direction.


Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was also a given for me at this point. My views have matured, and the details of them are not important right now. But the same Church History professor who directed me to the Book of Common Prayer also stated, “We do not celebrate an absent Christ.” Somehow, in some way beyond our comprehension, Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist. I had the exegesis to back it up as well (1 Cor 10-11). Nobody needed to convince me on that point.


Two sticking points remained. The first sticking point was ecclesiology. Specifically, I was uncertain about the office of Bishop. I could see the pragmatic arguments for having Bishops, and I could see that functionally even Baptists had bishop-like figures, but if I could not see it in the text, then pragmatism did not matter. The second sticking point was infant baptism. I understood the arguments for infant baptism. I defended paedobaptism when I sensed that fellow students were dismissive toward it. But I had been taught that the New Covenant was a clean break from previous covenants.[1] The locus of this discussion was Jeremiah 31:31-34. No matter how logical the paedobaptist position, I could not see exegetical justification for it.


Around this time, I needed to expand my Greek reading corpus. I picked up the Letters of St. Ignatius, and the first dominoes started to fall. St. Ignatius frequently mentions the office and work of the Bishop, distinct from that of the Presbyter (Priest). St. Ignatius does not argue for the office and work of the Bishop: he simply assumes it. If St. John wrote Revelation around A.D. 90 and St. Ignatius wrote around A.D. 110-120, then a 20-30-year gap exists between the last New Testament writing and the Letters of Ignatius.[2] In nascent church history there was little time to promulgate a new ecclesiastical office. That led to the obvious point that St. Ignatius was not promulgating a new office: it was a given.


I was faced with some concerns requiring resolution. Perhaps the Church had already fallen into error one generation after the Apostles but were orthodox yet wrong on ecclesiology, or I was wrong and had misread the New Testament. I rejected this notion out of hand. It is assumed that the Apostles and their proteges trained the next generation. If the Apostles taught poorly, then New Testament scripture becomes problematic. An orthodox church can get some things wrong. More likely, I can be wrong. Either way, I needed to know what the text says.


Providentially, I was due to read Titus. When I read Titus 1:5, everything changed. Paul sent Titus to Crete to order the things that remain and to appoint presbyters in each city. The word used for appointing (καθίστημι) does not include any element of congregational vote. My Old Testament professor taught me that one does not need the term for the concept to be present. I made a few notes. Secondly, Paul did not send a presbytery to appoint presbyters. Thirdly, Paul commissioned one man with apostolic authority to appoint presbyters. Congregational and presbyterial polity were excluded. Titus performed an apostolic role for the Cretan church although he was not an apostle. He conducted himself as a bishop. That fact was staring at me in the New Testament itself. Therefore, I accepted the validity of the episcopacy.


By accepting the episcopacy, I conceded two crucial points: the early Church fought over deviations from received doctrine, and the specific term does not need to be present for the concept to be present. These points would eventually prove decisive. But I remained unconvinced of the paedobaptist position until I read The Christ of the Covenants. The fatal passage is found on p. 40: “The grace of God in salvation is not against creation’s order; it is against sin.”[3] This point altered my whole outlook. Grace, in my understanding, overturned the normal way of things. I understood grace as contrary to nature, not sin. My view of sin and sanctification was based on a radical inbreaking of grace that resulted in sure and sustained victory over sin instead of sustained warfare against sin and slow, organic growth in holiness (hence some serious struggles with assurance of salvation). I had operated with the assumption that the real story began in Genesis 3. I would never have expressed it exactly this way, but it was true. But the Bible begins with Genesis 1: the story of God creating and ordering the universe. Robertson continues, “Redemption has the effect of restoring the order of creation, and the solidarity of the family is one of the greatest of creation’s ordinances [emphasis mine]. The genealogical character of redemption’s activity underscores the intention of God to work in accord rather than in discord with this creational ordering.”[4] God created certain institutions before the Fall: the family, the worshiping community, and human government. If grace does not overturn these institutions, then at the very least God intended the family to remain intact in the plan of redemption. If God intended the family to remain intact in the plan of redemption, then one would expect the sacrament of covenant initiation to reflect this reality. Infant baptism, I realized, fit this reality better because it did not pit creation and redemption against each other.


I had to work out other details, and I addressed each detail in turn as I worked through the implications. I compiled a long document to flesh out my thinking. But it was a mop-up operation. There were serious flaws in the exegesis of Jer. 31:31-34 that I had been taught. I came to realize that Robertson spoke better than he knew about the centrality of creation in Christian theology, especially as it pertains to the sacraments. But the last exegetical barrier to becoming an Anglican was removed.


I have much to be thankful for from my background. Some of my earliest memories are from Mass. I remember the stark contrast between the dignity and majesty of Mass and the regular life we lived in the country. I remember the awe and mystery of the liturgy. And I remember the reverence that was native to traditional worship. I am not Roman Catholic, because Rome has some serious faults. But I could never shake the notion that worship was meant to be majestic and otherworldly. This notion kept me from ever fully embracing the evangelical worship ethos.


While my aesthetics were formed by Rome, the Baptists accomplished my theological education, with plenty of help from Presbyterians and Sydney Anglicans. They taught me to pay attention to the text. They taught me Greek and Hebrew. I had great professors who instilled and inspired a love for learning. They taught me to go back to the sources. And, most importantly, they taught me to love the Lord.


When I became an Anglican, I lost none of this, but I gained the fullness of what each tradition taught. In short, I became more biblical and more traditional. I also connected what had been previously rent asunder.


As an Anglican, I have been able to come into fuller contact with the Christian tradition. I confess the same creeds as the early Christians. I pray prayers that Christians have prayed from the very beginning of the Church. I draw on the received wisdom of the whole Church when I study the Scriptures, provide pastoral counsel, or engage in debates. I have conversation partners from many times and places. I study text criticism with Origen, the extent of the canon with Saints Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, theology with Saints Athanasius, Basil, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, as well as Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Hooker, and Stott. As an Anglican, I accept natural law and a form of natural theology, as many Christians have done in the past. I have access to the full classical Christian education tradition (a point that has put me at odds with much of the Reformed classical Christian school movement). I participate in a liturgy that delights the senses and instructs the mind and heart. I observe a liturgical calendar that orders my time around salvation history.


By encountering the great tradition, I now realize what every Christian must ultimately understand: our faith is founded, first and foremost, on the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As an Anglican, I ground my faith in the entirety of Scripture. I found that the systematic theologies of Baptists and Presbyterians tended to assume and/or produce a system of thought and then squeeze passages into it. While I am not against systematics, nor am I against interpreting Scripture with Scripture (for this is what produces godly tradition), I am against muting the force of some passages because they do not fit a system. In other words, as a Baptist I held to sola scriptura, properly defined.[5] As an Anglican, I can add tota scriptura: all of Scripture bears on my theology and life.


So, what is Anglicanism? What is the Anglican ethos? Anglicanism is Reformed Catholicism. By Reformed, I mean that Anglicanism has been examined by the supreme judge of Holy Scripture. Traditions found contrary to the express testimony of Scripture and its good and necessary inferences have been, or ought to be, rejected. By Catholic, I mean that Anglicans hold to Catholic faith and practice: that which has been taught, believed, confessed, and lived semper, ubique, et ab omnibus (always, everywhere, and by all). This means that some interpretations of Holy Scripture have been judged, by the whole Church, to be correct; and other interpretations of Scripture to be not correct.


Because Anglicanism is Reformed Catholicism, fully formed Anglican Christians will occasionally confuse people. It appears that we are Protestant when the discussion centers around justification, the human will, and the final authority of Scripture. It appears we are Roman when the discussion centers around matters of ecclesiology. Within Western Christendom, our sacramental theology does not fit comfortably in either the Roman or Protestant camps. This apparent eclecticism is not the result of picking and choosing what we wish to believe, teach, and confess. Rather, it is the outgrowth of seeking Apostolic Christianity by the primary authority of the Holy Scriptures. We have the audacity to believe that our faith should be grounded in the Scriptures and should be recognizable to the early Church.


I have heard some describe Anglicanism as “mere Christianity,” playing on C.S. Lewis’s book by the same title. I disagree. I have come to believe that Anglicanism, in its purest form, is Christ’s holy Catholic Church as He intended it to be. It is the church that preserves the fullness of Apostolic teaching and practice.


The Reverend Doctor Matthew R. Miller is a Priest in the Anglican Church in North America. He holds an M.Div., Th.M., and Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is married to Karli and together they have three daughters. Fr. Matthew currently serves as an AGR Chaplain at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

[1] For this view, see Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 502–516. [2] I hold to Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, which was the consensus view of the Church until the dawn of critical scholarship.

[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 40. [4] Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 40.

[5] See Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015). Sola scriptura in historical context meant what we mean when we say prima scriptura.