“The Church hath observed this Paschal fast as from the Apostles”

Peter Gunning (1614-1684) was a Caroline Divine, a bishop and theologian in the Church of England of the seventeenth century, the era of “classical Anglicanism.” A royalist who lived through the civil war and the Protectorate, he flourished during the Restoration, ending up as the bishop of Ely. He is little known today, although in his day he was a prominent churchman, closely associated with men such as Jeremy Taylor. He argued for episcopacy against the presbyterian Baxter at the Savoy conference of 1661 and played a role in the revision of the prayer book that resulted in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. (In fact, those who now look again to the 1662 Book as a theological standard for Anglicanism might want to consider the published views of Gunning, at once representative of his age and yet a classic expression of the Anglican reliance on Scripture and Tradition.)

A major work by Gunning was The Paschal or Lent Fast, based on a sermon (enlarged to 300 pages!). The book displays a massive learning (as would befit someone who was both Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Oxford and Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge), and can still be used over three centuries later as a repository of patristic information on the development of fasting and lenten discipline. I have, for the sake of brevity and clarity, removed the extended quotations in Greek and Latin, which have the unfortunate effect of making the work seem forbidding to those not at ease with classical languages. The two portions quoted here, from an earlier and a later part of the book, do not show Gunning’s extensive learning, but they give a good sense of his method, which is that of classical Anglican divinity.

Reason; and experience; and the direction of all wise men in the Church of God ancient and modern, the house of wisdom: councils; reverend Fathers and writers; and our Church in particular; have directed and commanded us not to interpret Scripture in things of public concernment to the Church’s rule of believing and doing, but as we find it interpreted by the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as they had received it from those before them. For that the leaving of every man to make any thing of any text, upon any device out of his own head, to the founding any new and strange doctrine or practice, as necessary therefrom, or to the opposing of any constantly received doctrine or practice of the Church universal, (for in other matters they may happily with leave quietly abound in their own sense,) leaves all bold innovators which can but draw away disciples after them, to be as much lawgivers to the Church by their uncontrollable law-interpreting, as any pope or enthusiast can or need pretend to be; and hath been, and ever will be to the end of the world, the ground of most heresies and schisms brought into the Church by men who, departing from the teaching and stable interpretation of the Church, in their own instability and science falsely so called, pervert the Scriptures to their own and others’ (their obstinate followers) destruction.

Here therefore I first join issue, that the Church hath observed these days of the Paschal fast, (as it was called in the ancient Church,) or Lent fast, (that is, from the Saxon dialect, “Spring fast,”) ever since the times of these children of the bride-chamber, the Apostles of the Lord, and ever since the taking away of the Lord, the Bridegroom.

That the Church hath done this, hath observed this Paschal fast, as from the Apostles, grounding their practice upon instruction evangelical; and particularly also upon this text now before us, “The time shall come when, ” &c. “And then in those days they shall fast.”

For the Church’s visible practice from the Apostles’ times, if our brethren shall say, Shew us express example written in the following Scriptures, which may interpret this text so, or we are at liberty for the sense and practice; they must be told, what they cannot but freshly remember, that so said the brethren the Anabaptists: one express example of baptizing infants after that sanction and commission, whereby to interpret such sanction and commission. An express command, as the Church thinks, to “baptize all nations, ” would not hold them. So said the Socinians for their no-necessity of baptizing at all “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. ” Shew us one example in all the following Scriptures, acts, and letters of the Apostles of that form observed. A direct command as we would think it, could not bind up their liberty of interpreting it otherwise. The history of all the following ages of the Church after the Apostles is little to them, compared with the word of God in their own sense. All those following were but men, and these, in their giving out the sense of the Scripture, are more!

For our parts, we finding the Bridegroom, the Lord Himself, thus referring us to the practice of His known disciples, the children of the bride-chamber, “In those days they will fast, ” (not only they will teach on what days men should fast,) and the bride herself, whose cause is most concerned in it, declaring to us her practice, and assuring us she had received that her practice from those friends of her Bridegroom, and children of His marriage-chamber, the Apostles; that bride also being, as we know, the Queen standing at His right hand, the mother of us all; whose authority is above all mothers, (and yet each mother’s is from God over her children;) we, I say, joining in obedience with all those who have this Church for their mother, are assured that we obey and have God for our Father, and His Spirit not to leave her in her leading us, without certain conduct into all truth of necessary faith, or bounden practice, that is, certainly to secure her from every of the gates of hell never to prevail against her.

We have the Church our mother to hear; and as to the point we would hear of, Nos habemus talem consuetudinem, et Ecclesiae Dei, “We have such a custom, and so have and had the Churches of God. ” If any man against all this list to be contentious, we still have learnt not to let fall our appeal to the customs of the Churches of God; as St. Paul hath shewn us by his example (1 Cor 11: 15-16) that against contradictors it is best to do. Let our brethren, therefore, either shew some Church or age before their own of yesterday, where this was not the custom of Christian people, or else devise some other sense also of that text of St. Paul concerning the Church’s customs: or let them acknowledge it an apostolical note of contentious persons, (to whom he elsewhere saith belongs “tribulation and wrath, ” Rom 2:8-9) to oppose their interpretations and exceptions against such custom of the Churches of God, as this Paschal fast, or fast of Lent, in remembrance of the taking away of the Bridegroom of the Church, can manifest itself to be.

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Having thus cleared the consent of the generality of the Fathers, and the great number of undeniable witnesses by me produced in the first seven ages after the decease of the last of the Apostles, so uniformly witnessing that the Paschal fast of Lent was ever observed in the Church as from the Apostles and from evangelical instruction; I desire to know what is sufficient, if this be not, to prove a tradition apostolical ? If any shall hope to render the use of the Fathers useless, as to make any evidence herein, because forsooth they can allege that some one Father or other hath sometime called somewhat tradition apostolical, which indeed was not: I answer, It was the generality of the consent of other Fathers to the contrary, — at least the silence of all other Fathers therein, and many of those primitive ages of the Church knowing nothing thereof, — that lets us then know such not to have been tradition apostolical. Which in our cause is all otherwise; where, beside the uniform custom and solemn practice of the Church of all ages and places for some Paschal fast close upon the vernal equinox, which we therefore call the fast of Lent or Spring, the positive testimony of those Fathers hath been shewed so general and consenting, that perhaps themselves who oppose this will discern that they do full ill service to Christianity . . .

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