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Religious Thought in the Oxford Movement

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

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

Section IV. Tractarian Doctrine of Justification


THE doctrine of Justification associated with the Oxford Movement is worked out in Newman's lectures on the subject, to which Dr. Brilioth rightly directs his readers' attention as the chief contribution of the Tractarian school to systematic theology. The student of the subject must read these discourses for himself--it is impossible here to give an adequate account of them. But the teaching contained in them is memorably summarized by the author himself in the following words: "Whether we say we are justified by faith or by works or by Sacraments, all these but mean this one doctrine, that we are justified by grace, given through Sacraments, impetrated by faith, manifested in works," and in a very learned Appendix he explains the relation of his view to others which had obtained currency in various theological schools: (1) "It has been said that we are justified directly upon our holiness and works wrought in us through Christ's merits by the Spirit; or (2) upon our holiness and works under the covenant of Christ's merits; or (3) that our faith is mercifully appointed as the substitute for perfect holiness, and thus is the interposing and acceptable principle between us and God; or (4) that Christ's merits and righteousness are imputed as ours, and become the immediate cause of our justification, superseding everything else in the eye of our Judge. Of these the first is the high Roman view, the last the high Protestant, and the two intermediate are different forms of what is commonly considered the High Church view among ourselves, and very nearly resemble Bucer's among the Protestants and that of Pighius, Mussus, and many others among Romanists."

At first sight the second and third of these views might not seem to be so nearly the same as Newman appears to wish us to regard them as being. But his objection to what he here calls the "high Roman" view was that he understood it, although affirming that the Atonement wrought on our behalf by Christ was the sole ground of our good works, yet to deny the need of a continual imputation of Christ's merits to supply the defects of our actual obedience; and hence he is indifferent whether we think of ourselves as justified by our holiness and good works, but of these as only effective because all through we lay hold by faith upon the grace of Christ, whose merits continually supply in God's sight the defects of our own obedience; or of ourselves as justified by this very faith operating in the way described to make good, so far as it lies in our power to do, those same defects of our obedience. What he desires to oppose is, on the one hand, any reliance on the merit of our own good works as such; on the other, any such mere reliance as he found in what he calls the "high Protestant" view on the imputation of the merits of Christ in substitution for our obedience, that subsequent effort on our part, after the greatest holiness attainable by us, becomes unnecessary, and even suspect, as suggesting some doubt of the sufficiency of Christ's atonement.


Now, here we come again in view of a feature of Tractarian piety which I have already mentioned, but did not then dwell upon--viz., its aspiration after such an unearthly holiness as the Christian's union with his divine Master, his incorporation in the mystical body indwelt by the divine Spirit, seemed to promise as possible to the heirs of such transcendent privileges. This characteristic aspiration is, of course, congruous with, but yet to be distinguished from, its insistence on the necessity of obedience as a preliminary to justification. Now, Luther's doctrine of justification was rooted in Luther's own religious experience of his failure to find spiritual peace in a life of aspiration after just such an unearthly holiness presented as the ideal of the monastic vocation which had been his own. Modern historical criticism has, indeed, thrown doubt upon the accuracy of Luther's later memories of his earlier religious life; but this does not affect the fact that his doctrine of Justification reflected an experience which he at least believed to have been his own.

According to what he, at any rate, came to consider was the monastic ideal--an ideal which he held to be, in principle, the same with that of the Stoics--a Christian was at every moment striving to render himself a specimen, so to say, as perfect as possible in every detail, of the character of holiness which is acceptable in the sight of God. His own continual failure to succeed in this uphill work deprived him of the peace of conscience, which he eventually found, by the help of his study of St. Paul, in the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, whose perfect obedience is imputed to those who thus believe in him. Such imputation is "forensic," as it is called; it is an accounting righteous, apart from any question whether or how far the person thus accounted righteous is actually righteous or no.

No good works of ours, whether done before justification or after, can contribute to the forgiveness of sins, which is offered freely by Christ to all who believe; a forgiveness which is one with what is called justification, for by the same act God takes away our sins and accounts us righteous for Christ's sake. Accounts us righteous, not (we must note) necessarily makes us righteous. In interpreting St. Paul's dikaioun as meaning to account or declare righteous not, as the Latin justificare by its formation suggested to the Latin schoolmen, to make righteous, Luther would be supported by the majority of scholars. The thought that God, for Christ's sake, forgave us, not (at least in the initial stage) by imparting or infusing his righteousness into us, but by imputing it to us, so that it is in no sense ours but only his, was the thought which alone corresponded to the type of religious experience which was exemplified by Luther, and of which he recognized the record in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. It finds familiar and noble expression in Toplady's great hymn:

"Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy Cross I cling:"

In contrast to this insistence on imputation, Newman and the Tractarians, as Dr. Brilioth notes in his valuable chapter, laid a grater stress on gratia infusa. [Ch. xiv. of his Anglican Revival, on the Doctrine of Justification.] Although Newman had himself experienced a conversion, of the reality of which he was still, when he wrote the Apologia, "more certain than that he had hands and feet," an experience undergone at so youthful an age--he was only fifteen--necessarily differed from those which underlay the Lutheran theology in that it had not been preceded, as with St. Paul and Luther, by the prolonged efforts of a mature person to reach peace of mind by means of an endeavour to perform all the demands of an exacting law. Newman's own conversion, moreover, which, of course, occurred while he was under the influence of a quite different school of piety from that the traditions of which the Tractarians were concerned to revive, was by no means typical of his school. He is the only one of the three great leaders of whom such an experience is recorded. Pusey, indeed (says Dr. Brilioth), "brought with him from the Evangelical sphere an intense and tender theology of the cross"; and we find him in a remarkable sermon on Conversion, [Parochial and Cathedral Sermons, pp, 16 ff.] while affirming that a man may have never lost the grace of baptism, or that if he has he may turn again to God without being able to name the date, yet adding emphatically: "In whatever way a change may be wrought, a change there must be"--(in all, that is, who have fallen from baptismal grace, and these constitute, of course, the vast majority). "We may not have turned to God," he goes on, "in the same way, but whoever has turned from God and is now turned to Him must know if he once neglected God and now he seeks Him. . . . This is a marked change which the soul cannot but know." I do not know exactly in what sense Dr. Brilioth speaks of Pusey bringing his theology of the cross "from the Evangelical sphere"; he was not an Evangelical by family tradition, although his travels in Germany and intercourse in student days with German divines familiarized him with the literature of German Pietism. But, from whatever source he himself derived it, there can be no doubt that from Pusey, rather than any other of the Oxford leaders, came a certain strain which may conveniently be called "Evangelical in the religion of the party which they led, and which has been more prominent in the later than in the earlier generations of the Movement. Those affected thereby have not shared the shrinking from the word "conversion," which some of us can remember in households with Tractarian traditions, where its use, except of the passage from infidelity to Christianity and from a life of open sin to one of moral respectability, was felt to involve some disparagement of the reality of baptismal grace. In such circles there was but scant sympathy for such a "High Church Methodist" (I remember the nickname being applied to him) as George Wilkinson, Vicar of St. Peter's, Eaton Square, and afterwards Bishop, first of Truro and then of St. Andrews. Thus it was not altogether without surprise that I myself, coming from such surroundings to Oxford forty years ago, found a quite different attitude in such a younger representative of the Tractarian tradition as the distinguished person who was then newly established as first Principal of Pusey House, and is now Bishop Gore. For here was none of that instinctive distrust of Evangelical language about individual conversion occurring in the case of persons already professing and practising Christians which characterized the school of thought in which I had been brought up. This attitude of Mr. Gore's, however, was, as I now recognize, less novel among Anglican High Churchmen than it then seemed to me; it could appeal, as Dr. Brilioth well brings out, to the authority of Pusey himself. But it was, I still think, not typical of that High Church Movement, as it had by then established itself far and wide in the parsonages of the country, creating an atmosphere of piety, profoundly serious and dutiful, and at the same time cultured and reticent, restrained in the expression of emotion, but uncompromising in its acceptance of the Church's system as of divine authority; an atmosphere which reminds us rather of the personality of the senior of the three Tractarian leaders, the author of the Christian Year, than of that of either Newman or Pusey.

It was a feature of the whole Movement, and one which was closely bound up with the dissatisfaction of its scholars with the Lutheran doctrine of Justification, that the Incarnation rather than the Atonement was the centre of Ls theology. As I have throughout attempted to show the analogies of the tendencies of thought implied in the Oxford Movement to contemporary tendencies in wider spheres, I will here take occasion to point out an analogy in the difference between Tractarian and Evangelical theology in this respect with the difference between the Hegelian and the Kantian positions. At first sight the Kantian philosophy of morality and religion seems un-Evangelical and un-Lutheran in its stress on the all-importance of a man's moral conduct and its aversion to any doctrine of relying on divine aid in substitution therefor; nor is this difference between the two doctrines by any means unimportant. But between Luther's emphasis on fides informis in contrast with fides formata caritate as the sole justifying principle, and Kant's doctrine of the goodwill, which wills no particular act, but merely its own universality, as the sole principle of morality in human actions, there is a striking and significant correspondence. And the Hegelian recognition of the world of social institutions as the progressive self-realization of the principle presented by Kant as merely an obligation which may for ever remain unfulfilled, is echoed, as regards religion, by the Tractarian insistence on the system of Church and Sacraments as the body and expression of the divine life, the extension and elaboration, as it were, of its primary and personal incarnation in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Again, Kant stops short at the hope, suggested by the very urgency of the "ought" of the moral law which implies the "can" on the part of its subject, that the ideal of a perfect humanity apprehended by us as our ideal and taken as the model of our conduct will be in God's sight reckoned as fulfilled by that unceasing approximation to perfection beyond which the nature of time forbids us, as members of the phenomenal world, to aspire. Similarly, Evangelicalism tended to stop short with the acceptance of Christ as our Saviour, who has died for us. On the other hand, Hegel bids us see in society, as it has actually come to be, the real embodiment of the ideal, which apart from it is but an ineffectual dream. Similarly, the Tractarians offer us the divine-human life of Christ, imparted to us through the Church and its sacraments, and expressing itself in us, apart from which impartation and indwelling the mere acceptance of him by faith as our substitute leaves us still unrighteous. No doubt it is only through such substitution of his righteousness for ours that the forgiveness of our sins which enables us to start afresh is possible, and only through the faith which apprehends him as our Saviour can we open a. free course to the grace which we received, before we could individually make an act of faith, in the sacrament of Baptism. But there is, notwithstanding, here a real analogy between Kant and the Evangelicals on the one hand, between Hegel and the Tractarians on the other.

To Kant the rites of common worship were no means of grace, but, at the best, means of mutually encouraging moral and religious sentiments in those who took part in them; and any doctrine of sacraments which would raise them above the rank of suggestive ceremonies and allow to them any objective efficacy in the spiritual life was, in his view, inconsistent with that maintenance of individual independence and freedom from any law but that of conscience, which was to him the essential presupposition of genuine morality. We owe him unquestionably a great debt for his uncompromising insistence on this heritage of freedom; but we observe that he was a true son of the individualistic and rationalistic Enlightenment, the reign of which he himself, by his destructive criticism of its assumptions, brought to a close, and showed that he was so in the slight attention which he paid to that unconscious or subconscious factor in our personality upon which much recent psychology has laid an at least equally one-sided stress, sometimes sacrificing, indeed, in its interest that very claim to rational freedom which Kant so impressively defended. That the individual life is rooted in the social, and is only by degrees appropriated by the individual, he did not fully recognize, and tended to treat association as something, in the first instance, perilous to individual morality, so that the origin of the Church or Kingdom of God is traced by him to the need of counteracting this peril of evil communications by the deliberate formation of a society aiming at mutual encouragement in goodness. Now, the action of sacraments is essentially social; it is distinguished in this way from magic, which is conceived of as affecting individuals physically as things and not as persons. An inadequate attention to those factors in personality which are at any time "below the threshold of consciousness" (as the modern phrase goes) will always go with an inadequate recognition of the place of sacraments in the spiritual life and a tendency to confuse them with merely magical operations, a tendency which, of course, appears, not only among disparagers, but among partisans of sacramental religion, and which in both cases depends upon an exaggerated individualism, an insufficient realization of the social nature of personality.

The identification of what are really mutually complementary factors in moral and religious experience, with schools, parties, or Churches devoted to their respective exposition, has often obscured, in the course of the history of ideas, the fact that religion lives in and by the tension between them, the disappearance of which through the suppression of one or the other must bring with it the impoverishment and ultimate mortification of that life itself. We are now becoming more ready to admit this truth, and the consequence of this is a wider prevalence of mutual study and understanding between the exponents of various points of view, which gives promise of a more genuine reunion than was possible while loyalty to one point of view was so often thought to demand hostility to that which is its complement.

Thus in the present case we have to recognize that it will not do to dwell, as Luther sometimes seems to do, on the "justifying" fides informis as though, without its expression of itself in love, it could be the faith that justifies at all; or, as Kant sometimes seems to do, on the goodwill that alone is without qualification good, as though, if it willed nothing in particular, it could be truly good at all.

But we have also to recognize that the power of faith to give a new start to the penitent convinced of sin is independent of any estimation of merit in the works wherein that faith finds expression; and that, however the institutions of society mediate to the individual the acquisition of the good disposition, it is the disposition alone that has moral value, not conformity to the habits created by the institutions, without the disposition or in addition to the disposition, as though the disposition were imperfect apart from such conformity as an empirical fact.

We must acknowledge the emergence of personality from social solidarity, and its essentially social nature from first to last; but we must not in so doing forget--what is in no sense contradictory of these truths--that the very meaning of its emergence and of its place in the life of society lies in that freedom of which Luther and Kant, though using different kinds of language, alike stood forth as the apostles, and which is the inalienable privilege of personality.

"Luther," says Newman, "found Christians in bondage to their works and observances; he released them by his doctrine of faith; and he left them in bondage to their feelings." [Lectures on Justification, p. 389.] Reformers are apt rather to see in the teachers to whom those appeal whose ways they hold themselves sent to reform the source of the evils which they are combating than to form an unbiassed judgment of them as they were. As Bacon saw in Aristotle chiefly the idol of a degenerate scholasticism, so Newman sees in Luther the patriarch of the tendency which, in much of the Methodist and Evangelical preaching of his day, seemed to him to identify justifying faith with an emotional crisis, compared with which both obedience to the moral law and aspiration after the holiness of life to which the Christian is called fell, as it were, into the background. The Tractarians revolted from the confident "assurance" of personal salvation in which Evangelicals seemed sometimes content to rest, and in contrast with this they encouraged and cultivated a constant sense of their own unworthiness, under which they might "work out their own salvation with fear and trembling." On the other hand, if here they might be accused by their opponents of not claiming the peace of mind which might have been theirs, had they been willing to think less of their own works and accept the salvation freely offered by Christ to faith without works, they did not by any means acknowledge that their critics rather than they had learned the secret of Christian joy. Was not the belief in a mere imputation of Christ's merits a "joyless shadow" in comparison with the joy that came from the consciousness that there was actually imparted to them, infused into their souls, through the sacraments, the new life of the risen Christ himself?

Of the risen Christ; for it is true, as Dr. Brilioth has observed, that it is a feature of Tractarian piety that in it (I quote Dr. Brilioth) "the thought of sharing in the glory of the risen Lord preponderates over confidence in the atoning work of the Cross," that "Easter overshadows Good Friday and makes its message only a part of its own"; and, moreover, that this "undoubtedly is a revival, not merely a mechanical reproduction, of the primitive feeling." He cites, along with other passages from Keble and Pusey, the words of Newman in his Lectures on Justification: "If the Resurrection be the means by which the Atonement is applied to each of us, if it be our justification" (he is, of course, thinking of what we read in the Epistle to the Romans, that Christ "was delivered for our offences and was raised again for our justification"), "if in it are conveyed all the gifts of grace and glory which Christ has purchased for us, if it be the commencement of His giving Himself to us for a spiritual sustenance of His feeding us with that Bread which has already been perfected on the Cross and is now a medicine of immortality" (the famous phrase, (farmakon aqanasiaV is taken from one of the earliest of Christian writers, Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Ephesians), "it is that very doctrine"--i.e., the doctrine of the Resurrection--"which is most immediate to us, in which Christ most closely approaches us, from which we gain life, and out of which issue our hopes and duties."

This theory of Justification, then, favoured by Newman and the Tractarians, understands by the word less the imputation to us of the righteousness exhibited by Christ in his death than the impartation to the soul and infusion into it of the righteousness of Christ, processes which depend directly on the exaltation at the Resurrection of his humanity from the state of mortal weakness which, during his life on earth, he shared with all other individual men, to the state of immortal power, in which it is able to become the principle of spiritual life within those who are mystically united to him. The opponents of the Oxford Movement have often tended to see in it chiefly a reaction to medievalism, and that certain aspects and stages of it may be so described is not to be denied. But more characteristic is its return to a primitive consciousness of organic participation in the risen life of Christ, with which the concentration of Western medieval piety on the Passion has less in common than it has with Evangelical devotion to the Precious Blood. Even in the emphasis laid by the Tractarians on the Eucharist, in which it is at one with medieval theology, the Sacrament is envisaged by them, perhaps, on the whole, more predominantly as the food of the new life than as so often in the imagination of the medieval Latin Church as the mysterious reiteration of the sacrificial death, wherein at any moment a celebrant might (as in such miracles as that of Bolsena, immortalized by Raphael) have his faith confirmed by finding in his hands, instead of the species of bread which was but a mere appearance, a bleeding human body. We must, of course, be on our guard against overlooking in any of the variations of sentiment and teaching respecting the Christian mysteries the presence of elements with which we are more familiar in other contexts, and so doing injustice to the actual fulness of religious experience, whether in the primitive Church or in the Latin Church of the Middle Ages, among the spiritual children of the Reformation or in the Anglo-Catholic school which we are now studying. But it is none the less instructive to note what is most characteristic of each form of devotion; and though, no doubt, among Anglo-Catholics some have been more, some less, attracted by the religion of the Western Church in the Middle Ages, I think it is true to say that the theological orientation of the Oxford Movement was, in accordance with the older tradition of the Anglican High Church party, rather toward that of the Fathers of the primitive Eastern Church, and that the attitude of its individual representatives toward the existing Roman Church was largely determined according as they were more impressed--as Newman came to be--with its faithfulness, in contrast to the Churches of the Reformation, although amid much unlikeness, to the type of the early Church, or, on the other hand, with its departure from the same type in contrast with the Church of England, as it presented itself in the writings and traditions of its High Churchmen, from Hooker, Andrewes, and Laud onwards to the time of the Tractarian movement itself.


It is easy to see why, if this is true, the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration became of such central importance for the theology of the Tractarians. No doubt from the first a greatly increased reverence for, and use of, the other sacrament was an important feature of their religious life, but it was round Baptism rather than round the Eucharist that controversy raged at first. The significance of Baptism and its relation to justification are ever to the fore in the discussions between the Tractarian divines and their critics; the constant emphasis, for example, in Keble's poetry on baptismal purity and the insistence on the peculiar gravity of post-baptismal sin are at once characteristic of the Movement and reminiscent of the preoccupations of the theologians of the primitive Church. It will be desirable for us to attend for a while to the meaning and importance of the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration as affirmed by the Tractarians, and its relation to their view of justification.

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