Project Canterbury

Religious Thought in the Oxford Movement

By Clement Charles Julian Webb, M.A., F.B.A.

London: SPCK, 1928.
New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Section I. Introductory.


THE student of the life of modern England will have to recognize that in many ways the Movement which (though neither the first nor the last of movements affecting the religious life of this country with a claim to be so called) has by general consent appropriated to itself the name of the Oxford Movement was one of very considerable importance. While its doctrinal teaching probably affected the religion of the nation as a whole less than is often supposed, it unquestionably created a new ideal of the Church's ministry and a new type of clergyman; and its influence in this respect has spread not only far beyond the boundaries of the party in the Anglican Communion which would recognize itself or be recognized by others as the heir of the Tractarian tradition; it has extended outside the limits of the Anglican Communion itself. It has, moreover, as a consequence of this, transformed the idea in the popular mind of what the externals, at any rate, of worship are and should be; and those who now dislike the changes introduced by those who go by the name--preferred for themselves by the men of the Oxford Movement--of Anglo-Catholics would often be surprised to know to how great an extent the fashions to which they cling are themselves the creation of that Movement in its earlier phases.

Moreover, the influence of the Oxford Movement can be traced in a wider field than any which can be called ecclesiastical. It unquestionably made a contribution by no means negligible to the movement for the emancipation of the women of the middle class from the restrictions imposed upon them by the social customs of a hundred years ago. And very likely there might be found other instances in which the social development of that stratum of society which the Movement chiefly affected owes not a little to the impact of its ideals upon the mind of the generation which grew to manhood or womanhood in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth decades of last century. But it is not with this aspect of the Oxford Movement that I am proposing to deal. Nor do I ask my readers to concentrate their attention upon the greatest figure in the Movement, that of John Henry Newman. The charm of his style, the fascination of his personality, the independence of his ideas, the elusiveness of his point of view, notwithstanding that he is for ever, as it were, inviting his hearers and readers to assist at the drama, so absorbing to himself, of his own feelings and thoughts, an elusiveness which suggests the title of M. Bremond's book, Le Mystère de Newman; all this has naturally created a Newman literature, which is not likely to be even yet complete, and which would afford material for an interesting survey. But Newman, though the greatest figure in the Movement, is not the Movement, nor is he even typical of it; it cannot indeed be understood apart from him, but he is at once more and less than it. There are aspects of it which, though he may sometimes have given them expression in haunting language, were never really congenial to his mood; and his secession to Rome revealed a real diversity between his mind and that of his colleagues who remained in the Church of their baptism. On the other hand, he was unquestionably the man of greatest genius among its leaders; and there is much in him which is essentially his, but is not characteristic of the Movement to which his extraordinary gifts gave so great an impetus, and over which they have cast so enduring a glamour.

Lastly, I do not intend to discuss the influence of the Oxford Movement on ecclesiastical theory. Obviously it was concerned to insist upon the importance of ecclesiastical order in general, and upon a certain conception of what is essential to such order in particular; and the whole interest of the most arresting and dramatic chapters in the history of its leaders centres about their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with this particular conception; it was, moreover, in the main, agreement or disagreement therewith that determinated the attitude of its contemporaries towards it. Moreover, it is clear that much might be said of the positions in dogmatic theology taken up by the teachers of the Movement; and I should certainly not deny that the expression "religious thought" could be rightly applied to these. But my purpose is to discover the contribution, if any, which the Movement we are considering made to what may be called the Philosophy of Religion, a subject which will, however, often trench upon that of dogmatic theology, between which and philosophy of religion no rigid line can, in my opinion, be drawn. The distinction between them is rather one of the angle from which they are respectively approached than in their subject-matter. In the one the starting-point is the teaching of Scripture and of ecclesiastical tradition; in the other the problems raised or suggested by religious experience as to the general nature of reality. But the true significance of dogmatic theology is not to be understood apart from its philosophical implications; nor is the student of the philosophy of religion justified in ignoring the record of religious experience preserved in the dogmatic formulation which has approved itself to the community that has mediated this religious experience to the individuals who are its subjects.


In a series of lectures which I have printed along with others in a book published in 1923, and called, from the subject of those lectures, A Century of Anglican Theology, [By Mr. Basil Blackwell.] I connected the Oxford Movement and the school of thought which created it with the general movement of thought in Europe, illustrated in philosophy and literature by such names as those of Goethe and Hegel, which corresponded in the intellectual realm to the restoration of the political and social edifice after its ruin in the great Revolution begun in France in the last years of the eighteenth century; while as the spiritual analogue of that Revolution itself pointed to the philosophy of Kant, which the poet Heine has, in a striking chapter of his Deutschland, [Buch III.] presented in this very capacity. As I connected the Oxford Movement and its congeners elsewhere--for it was not the only movement of the time, as Newman himself recognized, to press upon the conscience a new emphasis upon the conception of the Church and upon the claims of the historic tradition embodied therein--with the reaction in European philosophy from Kant's attitude of rationalistic criticism and the construction of an idealistic theory of the universe which would justify the revolt of the Romantic Movement against the limitations imposed upon the mind by the prosaic common sense of the preceding period; so I suggested a correspondence between the subjectivism and individualism of Kant's own philosophy and the similar characteristics of such religious movements as that known in Germany by the name of Pietism, and that which in England we designate as Evangelicalism.

But whatever measure of truth there may be--and much there no doubt is--in this alignment, the world of thought is not so neatly mapped out, nor are its compartments cut off so sharply from one another, that one can expect to find the indication of this kind of correspondence yield a sufficient account of the movements in which it may be observed. It will be one of the things to which I desire to call your attention in the present course of lectures that the thought which lay at the heart of the Oxford Movement bears in certain important respects a striking resemblance to the ethical doctrine of Kant, but is distinguished from it by its combination in the minds of its exponents with elements of a quite different kind, closely akin to some which we find in the post-Kantian philosophy, and which form the point of contact between the Oxford Movement and the general European tendency which it is the custom to call Romantic.

I do not suppose--quite the contrary--that this coincidence of the theory underlying the teaching of the Oxford divines with that embodied in Kant's moral philosophy was due to a conscious submission of those divines to Kant's influence. It is nowhere more plain than in Newman's own teaching; but Newman in his Oxford days probably knew little or nothing of Kant and, I believe, never actually read him till 1884, when he was eighty-three and a Cardinal--only three years, as I am amused to recollect, before I myself, as an undergraduate of twenty-two, found in the Kantian treatise on the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals a book which made, I suppose, a greater impression upon me than any other single work that ever fell in my way. It is, of course, not to be forgotten that the influence of such a thinker as Kant on the minds of educated men fifty years later is not confined to those who have actually studied him, or even to those who know that he is the original source of thoughts which they have unconsciously imbibed with the spiritual atmosphere they have breathed; and in this particular case the influence of Kant upon Coleridge, and through him upon Wordsworth, is undoubted, and so, too, is that of both these on the men of the Oxford Movement, Newman among the rest. But while this is to be borne in mind, it would, I am sure, be a mistake to attribute much to direct, or even to indirect, Kantian influence in the matter. The "moral-ism" which, as Dr. Brilioth in his recent very interesting book on the Oxford Movement called The Anglican Revival [Longmans, 1925.] has justly observed, is characteristic of Anglican and, one may say, of English thought, and this, together with a no less characteristically English aversion from abstract thought, affords a sufficiently relevant origin for a view which, in its emphasis upon morality as the root of religion and in its accompanying revulsion from merely rationalistic proofs of divine government, reminds us of Kant's doctrine of the primacy of the practical reason, and of the postulation by this same "practical reason" of God and immortality as the primary and only dependable argument for the existence of either. The parallel is none the less worth calling attention to and none the less worth the trouble of elaborating.


But before I elaborate it, it will, I think, be convenient to indicate certain facts about the intellectual atmosphere of the Oxford Movement which we must bear in mind in our examination of its teaching. It is not yet a century--though it is only five years short of a century--since the day which Newman reckoned as the birthday of the Movement, that on which Keble preached his University Sermon on National Apostasy; yet there are at least two factors in the intellectual environment of the educated theologian to-day which make the position of his predecessor at that time seem strangely remote. One is the principle of Evolution; the other is modern biblical criticism.

The principle of development had been made central in philosophy by Hegel a few years before the time of which we were speaking; but Hegel was scarcely known at all in England, and it was only after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species thirty years later and the ambitious attempt of Herbert Spencer to provide an account of the universe based upon evolution as he understood it--however unphilosophically unsatisfactory that attempt may have been--that this principle became part of the general intellectual outfit of educated Englishmen. That the change of form which as undeniably takes place in the course of time in societies, institutions, creeds, as it does in the passage of an organism from its separation from the parent organism to its production of a similar distinct organism, must be regarded as belonging to the very essence of that which undergoes it, and not merely as the corruption or improvement of something which might have been as it was without change; this thought, so familiar to us, was, as a universal principle, strange even to many philosophers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Newman himself, as is well known, following in the steps of certain foreign Roman Catholic thinkers--de Maistre in France and Mohler in Germany--eventually worked out for himself a theory of Development in doctrine, to justify the acceptance of an institution so manifestly diverse, both in theory and practice, from the primitive Church as the Church of his own day, as being, notwithstanding this diversity, essentially identical with that primitive Church. But, as worked out by him, the theory, although we must give its author credit here as elsewhere for that kind of instinctive perception of the trend of thought which is a note of genius, yet bears all the marks of an opportunist creation. And its working out, we must remember, landed him outside the Anglican Church in the Church of Rome. The movement within the Anglican Church was therefore all the more likely to cling to the static or pre-evolutionary view of the Church with which that generation had started, that desertion of it had led its late leader to desert it also; and, in point of fact, it was only the publication of Lux Mundi half a century later, and within my own recollection, that marked--though, of course, it did not initiate--the decisive adoption of the evolutionary principle as a ruling idea in theology by the party which inherited the tradition of the Tractarians. When we read the Tracts themselves and the other literature of the Oxford Movement, we are, we feel throughout, in an atmosphere profoundly different from our own, in the absence from it of that assumption of development or evolution as a universal fact, at least where there is anything we can call life, however we interpret it--and readers of Mr. Joseph's recent Herbert Spencer Lecture on the Idea of Evolution [Oxford, 1924.] will have learned thence, if they had not previously discovered, how difficult it is to know what precisely we mean by evolution--that assumption of it, I say, as a fact, which is to us as much a matter of course as our assumption of the earth's motion or even of the uniformity of Nature. In all these cases it is easier for most of us to make them than to justify our assumptions: in all we might even reserve the right to doubt or qualify them; but still we make the assumptions and count upon others making them; and, as our fathers did with the other scientific doctrine which I have mentioned, so we now do also with that of evolution, at least in the case of life and of whatever can in any sense be called living.


This assumption, then, is one thing which is part of the very stuff of our thoughts as it was not of that of the Oxford divines; and another change, of far less universal significance, but, where Christian theology is in question, of hardly less importance, is the acceptance of what is called the "higher criticism" of the Bible.

I say the acceptance. For, without in the least desiring to minimize the uncertainty of many results of that criticism, or to ignore the great diversity of opinion among scholars upon some of the most important questions to which it gives rise, I suppose that the recent proceedings in Tennessee have made us here all feel how remote the whole attitude of the most conservative scholar or student among ourselves is from that of the "Fundamentalists," to whom the Bible, just as it stands, is the verbally exact communication by supernatural authority of infallible and absolute knowledge. No doubt the leaders of the Tractarians were scholars, to whom the uncertainty due to the chances of textual transmission was perfectly familiar, and no doubt also they had reflected, as uneducated Fundamentalists have not, on the variety of ways, other than the relation of historic fact, in which the revelation of divine truth is possible. Moreover, as I shall afterwards have occasion in another connection to point out, it was a characteristic part of their message to urge the precedence of certain parts of the Bible over others, of the New Testament over the Old, of the Gospels, as recording the actual words and deeds of God manifest in the flesh, even over the inspired commentary upon these in the Epistles. Nor need we forget that Newman in particular had, as he remarks himself, freer views on Biblical criticism than others of his party, learned from the conversation of Blanco White. But when all is said and done, the whole attitude towards the Bible which it was natural to the Tractarians to adopt was different from that which any scholar of the present generation is expected to adopt. Perhaps I may put the matter thus: Then--and, indeed, much later (we may see this occasionally implied even in the work of so famous a figure in the history of New Testament criticism as Westcott) it was taken for granted that because something was found within the covers of the Bible it must teach some important lesson, if not in its primary or literal sense, then in another, a "mystical" or "allegorical" sense; and, conversely, it was no less felt that, if something was put forward as a religious duty or as the truth about a matter pertaining to religion, there was something lacking to its force until a text could be found which, somehow interpreted, would provide it with the necessary scriptural sanction.

Now, I do not say that the assumptions and the feeling which I have described are not still active in the minds of those who were, like myself, brought up at a time before the Churches had opened their doors as widely as they now have done to critical inquiry, or of those who, though younger themselves, having been educated under the influence of an earlier generation, have not been brought into contact with the critical inquiries which make up so much of the theological training given in a University at the present day. Nevertheless, I think I may affirm that there are scholars, even orthodox and conservative scholars, younger than myself, who scarcely realize what a view of the Bible was which was quite familiar to my own contemporaries and was almost universal among the professedly orthodox at the time of the Oxford Movement. I do not think that, before leaving this topic, it will be irrelevant to dwell a little longer upon it, and to distinguish, if I may, from the purely uncritical reverence for the letter of Scripture which I have been saying has, in scholarly circles, passed away, some (as it seems to me) quite reasonable attitudes which I would not be thought to confuse with this or to condemn as ignorant and obsolete.

I do not think it is possible for us to be content with the picture, which, perhaps, satisfied some of us once, of God as a kind of editor, who, selecting certain narratives, poems, codes, for admission into the body of inspired Scripture, put nothing in but what could yield spiritual profit, left nothing out but what was no necessary part of his message to man. This kind of view was itself, of course, what we may call a mediating view. It no longer regarded God as the immediate Author of every word in the Bible; he was rather, as I have said, its Editor; it was in the selection of material rather than in its origination that the action of the Divine Spirit was to be traced. But, like most such mediating views, it has lost something of the simplicity of the view which it replaced, without really being adequate to meet the demands to which it was conceded. Few younger biblical critics but would, I think, feel that the anthropomorphism involved in the belief in a literal divine authorship is retained only in a less dignified form by the conception of a divine editorship. Nevertheless, while fully recognizing that in this, as in other cases, we "have the treasure" of the divine revelation "in earthen vessels," [2 Cor. iv. 7. 23] and that we need not hesitate to admit the presence in the Bible of passages which came there for reasons quite other than their spiritual value, we may not unreasonably feel that the fact that the Bible, as a whole, has actually been found to be (as it has) the spiritual food of so many generations of Christian people, warrants us in doing two things. In the first place, it warrants us in holding our hand as regards anything which is of the nature of spiritual teaching (prophecy or poetry or reflection or story about God, not, e.g., a catalogue of princes or cities or a sanitary regulation) before we assume that it does not contribute something toward that general drift, that pervading mood, in virtue of which the Bible has been the Word of God to thousands. In the second place, we should be merely pedantic in refusing to avail ourselves of interpretations even of passages which we do not doubt to have been intended for quite other purposes than spiritual edification (such as the catalogues and regulations I instanced before) which the piety of ages that believed every part of Scripture to be inspired may have found in them. Many such interpretations may have become, fanciful as they seem to us as interpretations of those passages, part of our spiritual inheritance. It would be as unreasonable to refuse to refer to these (without pretending that we think that they give the original writer's meaning) as to refuse to draw inspiration from religious pictures and poems, the subjects of which we consider legendary. It is another matter ourselves to invent "mystical" interpretations, or to put up, as if they were representations of facts, representations of what we are assured are merely legends.

That may be very dangerous, playing fast and loose with our sense of truth. But it is otherwise with the interpretations devised of old by men who did it in good faith. The New Testament writers themselves, of course, often in that way turned to good purpose mistaken interpretations of the Old; and so did the imagination of patriotic and medieval times. "They shall look on him whom they pierced." "God reigneth from the tree." Such texts are surely sacred in the sense which has been given them by tradition, though it be not that of the original writers. My Hebraist friends tell me that "Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself" does not mean what Pascal supposed: but the thought of the Deus absconditus, though suggested by a misunderstanding of the text, may, notwithstanding, mean a great deal to us.

This open-eyed use of passages which happen to be in the Bible, and therefore have been turned by others who took their inspiration for granted to purposes of edification which were not in the minds of those who first wrote them, must not, then, be confused with a belief, which a scholar could now scarcely entertain without doing violence to his mentality as a civilized man of the present day, that everything within the covers of the Bible is there because it is inspired. On the other hand, we may say that what we are assured is true and right does not gain a new sanction because we can twist or even legitimately use some biblical text to establish it, without saying that it is no argument at all against a religious view or moral requirement that it is not taught in Scripture. It is certainly not a final argument, nor even an argument at all against some view or requirement clearly seen to be in harmony with the general outlook for which the Bible, as the sacred book of our religion, stands. But there is a prima facie reason for further consideration of any religious novelty in the fact that it is nowhere suggested in this great and various body of literature, embodying the religious experience which we count as central and normative. We are, I think, bound to ask ourselves whether this absence of it from the Bible may not be explained by some real incongruity of the view or precept in question with the spirit of our religion. But I would readily grant that the answer may sometimes be in the negative, as well as sometimes in the affirmative. This subject has, perhaps, led us somewhat far aside from our main subject; but not un-profitably, if it help us to a more definite conception of the theological atmosphere which the men of the Oxford Movement breathed, and which was so unlike our own, since it was the atmosphere of a world in which the idea of evolution was a stranger, and in which the beginnings of biblical criticism, as we understand the expression, were either unperceived or, if perceived, regarded with dread and suspicion, not only by those who were ready to sympathize with the Tractarians, but by those Evangelicals and old-fashioned Protestants with whom they had least in common.

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