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 VI. Tractarian Moralism and Its Consequences


I COME back, therefore, to the emphasis on obedience to the moral law as the preliminary condition of justification and an holiness as the aim of the life of him whose sins have been forgiven as the predominant characteristic of the teaching of the Oxford Movement. It remains (i) to discuss the relation of this emphasis to that laid by another school of piety on the free offer to sinners of salvation through the blood of Christ on the sole condition of faith therein; (2) to show that the theory of faith which was worked out by Newman most fully after his secession, in his Grammar of Assent, but which is a real development of his earlier thought and of that implicit in the whole teaching of the Oxford Movement, is an outgrowth of the "moralism" (I use Dr. Brilioth's word, but without the slight touch of disparagement which, I think, attaches to it as he uses it), which is the central feature of Anglo-Catholic theology; (3) to examine the bearing of this theory and of the "moralism" from which it springs on the distinction of the "natural" from the "supernatural" life which is so important in Roman Catholic teaching, and which has recently been persuasively expounded and defended by the late Baron Friedrich von Hügel; (4) to indicate one or two directions in which the ruling idea of the Oxford Movement has worked itself out in ways which would have been highly uncongenial to its original leaders, but which are accordant with the results of quite other tendencies in contemporary thought and sentiment.


I. I begin with discussing the relation of the Tractarian to the Evangelical view of Justification. I am not proposing to go at length into the history of the doctrine of Justification, but rather to attempt to indicate what were the essential elements in the Tractarian view and in that to which it was directly opposed, and to indicate how they may be said to supplement each other, each laying stress on a point which the other tends to overlook.

The doctrine which the Tractarians encountered in the Evangelicalism of their day and against which they reacted was, I suppose, less that of the Reformers (though a recent work by an Irish bishop, O'Brien, had expounded the Lutheran doctrine, and was the object of Tractarian criticism) than that which had been brought into vogue by an earlier Oxford Movement--that of the Methodists. It will perhaps be, therefore, relevant to say something here of Wesley's teaching on the subject--all the more that it presents in some ways a striking resemblance to that of the Tractarians themselves, especially in respect of what Dr. Brilioth calls "moralism"--and to note where it took a different line from theirs, a line in which some of Wesley's followers went far beyond what Wesley himself ever approved.

Unquestionably, Wesley began his career very much as the Tractarians did, urging on a generation suspicious of everything in religion which savoured of what they called (using the word as one of disparagement) "enthusiasm," the Christian duty of aspiring after a holiness beyond any within the reach of human nature unassisted by supernatural grace. "The circumcision of the heart," he told his hearers at St. Mary's in a University sermon preached in 1733, just a hundred years before that Assize Sermon of Keble's, the day of the delivery of which Newman regarded as the "birthday of the Oxford Movement"--"the circumcision of the heart is that habitual disposition of soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed 'holiness'; and which directly implies the being cleansed from sin, from all filthiness of flesh and spirit; and by consequence the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so renewed in the image of our mind as to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect." Here we have (remarks his biographer, Tyerman [Quoted by Tyerman, Life of Wesley, i., p. 88.]) propounded in the plainest terms, as early as the year 1733, Wesley's famous doctrine of Christian perfection. "This sermon," said he, in 1765, "contained all that I now teach concerning salvation from all sin and loving God with an undivided heart."

Not only was Wesley's teaching, like that of the Tractarians, inspired by this passionate desire for holiness, but it also, like theirs, emphasized the acceptableness of moral obedience, even when not accompanied by mature Christian faith. As late as 1780 he wrote: "What is the faith which is properly saving? It is such a divine conviction of God and the things of God as even in its infant state enables everyone that possesses it to fear God and so work righteousness. And whosoever in every nation believes thus far is accepted of Him. He actually is at that very moment in a state of acceptance. But he is at present only a servant of God, not properly a son. Meanwhile be it well observed that the wrath of God no longer abideth on him." [Tyerman, i., p. 167.]

But the religious experience of Wesley differed in an important respect from that of the Tractarians. What he reckoned as his "conversion" took place in 1738 under the influence of the Moravian, Peter Bohler, when he was thirty-five years old and had been ten years in Holy Orders. Nor had he, up to that time, been without serious impressions of religion; he had been, on the contrary, for a long while the leader of a religious movement which had from the first been of a definitely "High Church" character, laying especial stress upon the importance of the sacraments of the Gospel. Newman's conversion had occurred when he was a boy of fifteen; it lay behind him when he came to hold high sacramental doctrine, and it could be interpreted as an arousing within his soul of the grace implanted in baptism, even although its source in the mystical union effected by the sacrament was not realized until long afterwards. In Wesley the conviction that he had suddenly become possessed of a faith which he had hitherto lacked, the assurance of his justification thereby, created the consciousness of being born again and made a new creature. He would seem, indeed, never to have abandoned his belief that infants are regenerated in baptism; for he expressly observes [Tyerman, i., p. 230.] that persons who are baptized when adults are not always simultaneously born again, apparently distinguishing them in this respect from infants; and, as we have already seen in the case of Pusey, there is no necessary inconsistency between faith in baptismal regeneration and a belief that a real conversion of the Evangelical type more often than not is necessary even to the baptized. But unquestionably the practical emphasis is, with Wesley, wholly on conversion, and whatever his theory of its relation to the bestowal of regenerating grace in baptism may have been, in Methodism the latter was completely overshadowed by the former, and the difference between Tractarianism and Evangelicalism of the Wesleyan type consists in the disconnection in the latter of justification from the sacraments and the greatly increased importance attached to the individual's feeling as the test of its reality.

There lies at the bottom of the controversy here involved a difficulty which is familiar in other departments of speculation than that which relates to religious experience. It is the difficulty created by the facts (I) that our ultimate evidence of the reality of anything must in every case be a direct experience or consciousness either of that thing or of something with the existence of which it is necessarily connected, and (2) that no such direct consciousness of an object which may occur to any one of us can be taken at its face value, or is exempt from the possibility of illusion and error. It will be sufficient to illustrate this universally present difficulty from the case of our consciousness of other persons, the case to which our consciousness of God presents the closest analogy. I am convinced that without a direct consciousness of being in rapport, so to say, with another person--without, that is to say, an experience of actual social intercourse--we could not arrive at the conviction of the existence of other persons by an inference from any experience of a different sort in which there is not already presupposed the reality of such experience, though not necessarily the fact, of this experience being such. Yet no independent criterion can be assigned whereby an individual's conviction that he here and now is dealing with another real person can be finally and certainly discriminated from an illusion. The criterion most commonly used is, of course, confirmation by the experience of others; but, even putting aside the consideration that for any particular individual his belief in the existence of these others themselves is in principle equally open to doubt, we have to reckon with the possibility of collective hallucination on the one hand, and with the possibility on the other (no doubt one less readily conceded, but not unthinkable) of personal communication by means or under conditions which one's neighbours could not by the ordinary use of their senses detect.

In the present case, therefore, the strong point of what we may for the moment call the Evangelical view lies in its appeal to direct experience, which must always be the ultimate court of appeal. The belief that I have been forgiven or justified in baptism, or because I am intellectually convinced of the truth of certain doctrines, may be what the Tractarians themselves were in the habit of calling a "merely notional" belief, but one carrying with it that feeling of being immediately in contact with the object, comparable to the experience of sense-perception, which at the moment seems to exclude all doubt. Such a belief might seem to be a "real" belief in contrast with a merely "notional" one. The Evangelical demands this kind of belief, and, where it is found, accepts it without demur. Nor can the follower of the school opposed to his deny that such a direct consciousness, if attainable and when genuine, would--other things being equal--surpass in value any conviction to which such a direct consciousness was lacking. For though there may be a higher moral value in the faith of him who "has not seen but yet has believed" [John xx. 29.] than in that of one who needs sight before he believes at all, yet the beatific vision is commonly regarded as the goal of faith, and this must certainly be held to involve a direct consciousness of the object expressible by the word "vision" borrowed from sense-perception. Yet a very little attention to the history of Evangelical piety shows how peculiarly liable to fluctuation and uncertainty is the test of feeling. We see this in Wesley's own experience. "Many hundreds in London," he says in 1770, "were made partakers of [Christian perfection] within sixteen or eighteen months, but I doubt whether twenty of them are now as holy and as happy as they were." [Tyerman, iii., p. 59.] This being "made partakers of Christian perfection" meant an assurance of sanctification similar to the assurance of justification connected with the conversion which the same persons had experienced at an earlier stage of their spiritual career. Wesley believed that this assurance was granted to some. But he was continually having to contend against the danger of neglecting obedience to the moral law as superfluous. Though he held that a man ought not to believe that he is fully sanctified till he has "the testimony of the Spirit witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification," yet he declares that all ought to wait for this great change, "not in careless indifference or indolent inactivity," but "in vigorous universal obedience, in a zealous keeping of all the Commandments, as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and in close attendance on all the ordinances of God." "If any man," he says, "dreams of attaining it in any other way, yea, or of keeping it when attained, he deceiveth his own soul. It is true we receive it by simple faith; but God does not, will not, give that faith unless we seek it with all diligence in the way which he hath ordained."

Although he owed to the ministry of a Moravian preacher, Peter Böhler, what he reckoned to be his own definite conversion, he was utterly repelled from Moravianism by the doctrine, current among Moravians, of a sanctification instantaneously and simultaneously attained along with justification by faith alone, and completely divorced from obedience and self-denial. When Count Zinzendorf, the founder of modern Moravianism, said to him [Tyerman, i., p. 339.] that "all Christian perfection is wholly imputed, not inherent," that "our whole justification and sanctification are in the same instant--from the moment anyone is justified, the heart is as pure as it ever will be"--Wesley asked: "Do we not, while we deny ourselves, die more and more to the world and live to God?" Zinzendorf's reply was: "We reject all self-denial. We trample upon it. We do, as believers, whatever we will, and nothing more. We laugh at all mortification. No purification precedes perfect love." No wonder Wesley came to warn his followers against Moravianism, "the most refined antinomianism," as he calls it, "that ever was under the sun," [Ibid., iii., p. 467.] "producing the grossest libertinism, the most flagrant breach of every moral precept." But he needed to warn them. His own teaching is often very near to that of the Tractarians; but the point in which he differed from them, his belief in an assurance given by feeling for which we ought to look, was the seed of a tendency in his societies in the direction, if not of antinomianism, at least of under-valuing the importance of moral conduct and of personal humility, a tendency against which he was continually struggling. Those who think they have attained are to speak (he tells them) of their own experience with great wariness, and with the deepest humility and self-abasement before God. Young preachers are not to speak of perfection in public "too minutely or circumstantially, but rather in general and scriptural terms." [Tyerman, ii., p. 307.] It was in contrast with the reliance on the test of feeling, with its obvious dangers, that the Tractarians fell back upon the objective fact of baptism; in contrast with a facile assurance of having attained Christian perfection, on a recommendation of a perpetual penitence, which shrank, above all things, from abandoning itself to the emotional enjoyment of the possession of that real holiness which they, as strongly as the Methodists themselves, held to be the proper consequence of the impartation of Christ's Spirit, not the mere imputation of his merits, to the members of his mystical body.

In truth, the Christian life must continually exhibit--indeed, it may be said to consist in--a tension between the factors mutually opposite, but equally indispensable to the fulness of a religious experience of the Christian type. That there is (as it has been put) no unpardoned penitent, that genuine repentance suffices to call forth the divine forgiveness, apart from anything over and above repentance, required, like a legal formality, to give effect to an act of will already complete--this conviction, which is the inner meaning of the doctrine of Justification by faith alone, and on which it is the peculiar mission of Evangelicalism to insist, is not really inconsistent with the recognition of the absolute obligation of the moral law, which, indeed, is presupposed by the very penitence which secures this immediate pardon. But it may lead to its being forgotten, just as conversely the stern judgment of sin which such recognition may engender may lead us, with the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, to a complacent sense of superiority to the open sinner, which, in fact, implies in him who indulges it an inadequate appreciation of the exactingness of that very demand of the moral law itself upon the conscience, the sense of which supplies a seeming justification to his attitude. So again we find one man who, in his preoccupation with the traditional means and conditions of attaining to holiness (or what the Methodists called Christian perfection), misses that joy and peace in believing which others simply accept when it comes to them as substantial participation in the Holy Spirit; and we find another who, taking a mere feeling of assurance in abstraction from the particular acts in which a holy life expresses itself for such substantial participation, misses the security which no feeling, exposed as it must be to vicissitudes due to physical and psychical changes, can afford. But at the root of the apparently opposite errors of both these lies an inadequate appreciation of what would correspond to the idea of that very holiness, the passion for which is the ruling motive of either.


2. My next remarks will concern the doctrine of faith which, as worked out by Newman, eventually took shape, after his submission to Rome, in the Grammar of Assent, but which is an undoubted product of the Oxford Movement. It is, however, also, as we find it expounded by Newman, stamped with the peculiar seal of his individual genius. So far as it emphasizes religious faith as rooted in the moral consciousness, it is true to the strong ethical bent which is the outstanding characteristic of the whole Movement; and it illustrates the side of Tractarian doctrine which recalls the teaching of Kant, who also associated faith with the practical or moral as distinguished from the theoretical or scientific Reason. So far as it tends to lay stress on the thought implicit in mental processes largely carried on (in more modern language) below the threshold of consciousness and to a great extent determined by individual experiences and associations rather than on the explicit reasoning which offers itself to dispassionate public criticism, it is profoundly characteristic of Newman's idiosyncrasy.

In his Lectures on Romanism, delivered in 1838, seven years before he left the Church of England, we find him telling us that Faith differs from opinion in its considering God's "being, governance, and will as a matter of personal interest and importance to us, not the degree of light or darkness in which it perceives the truth concerning them." In the following year, preaching before the University of Oxford on "Faith and Reason contrasted as Habits of Mind," he constantly contrasts the personal character of religious Faith with the nature of Reason as ignoring or abstracting from personal differences. "As we reprobate," he says, "under the name of Utilitarianism the substitution of Reason for Conscience, so perchance it is a parallel error to teach that a process of Reason is a sine qua non for true religious Faith." On this ground he turns away from the "evidences" which had occupied so much of the attention of English theologians for a century--precisely because their appeal was made equally to all men independently of their diversity in respect of moral character and religious experience. They might be "of great service to persons in particular frames of mind"; they might startle the careless, test honesty of mind, encourage perplexed believers; but, after all, the kind of proof alleged by the evidential writers--e.g., from miracles, "is," he observes, "a sort of proof which a man does not make for himself." There is in it "nothing inward, nothing personal. There is no room for choice." In another University Sermon preached in the same year on "The Nature of Faith in relation Reason," he will not have Faith made to depend and follow on a distinct act of Reason beforehand. "The act of Faith is sole and elementary and complete in itself, depends on no process of mind previous to it." "Faith is the reasoning of a religious mind," which feels the Gospel message to be probable, "because he has a love for it, his love being strong, though the testimony is weak." It is indeed "an act of Reason," "but of what the world would call weak, bad, or insufficient Reason; and that because it rests on presumption more and on evidence less." "The diversity with which men reason" on the same facts, in all departments, and not only on religion shows us that Faith is not the only exercise of Reason which approves itself to some and not to others, or is, in the common sense of the word, irrational. Reason seems sometimes to be identified with explicit reasoning; but often it is extended to cover more than this. Thus, we read, men "may argue badly, but they reason well--that is, their professed grounds are no sufficient measure of their real ones--and in like manner, though the evidence with which Faith is content is apparently inadequate to its purpose, yet this is no proof of real weakness or imperfection in its reasoning." "As Reason with its great conclusions is confessedly a higher instrument than Sense with its secure premises, so Faith rises above Reason in its subject matter more than it falls below it in the obscurity of its process." "Faith is a process of the Reason in which so much of the grounds of inference cannot be exhibited, so much lies in the character of the mind itself" (that is, of course, of the individual mind, not of the mind überhaupt, as Kant would put it), "in its general view of things . . . that it will ever seem to the world irrational and despicable--that is, till the event confirms it." "The act of mind by which an unlearned person savingly believes the Gospel may be analogous to the exercise of sagacity in a great statesman or general, supernatural grace doing for the uncultivated reason what genius does for them." "As far as its being a test of moral character is of the essence of religious Faith, so far its being an antecedent judgment or presumption is of its essence." "Some safeguard of Faith," it is admitted, "is needed which will secure it from becoming superstition or fanaticism." But this safeguard cannot be Reason; the exhortations to cultivate the reason, give education, and the like, which were then the cry of the Liberals, whom Newman regarded as his chief opponents, overlooked the very point on which he, with the Tractarians in general, was most concerned to insist--namely, the moral presuppositions of religious knowledge. "The safeguard of Faith," he declares, "is a right state of heart. It is holiness or dutifulness, or the new creation of the spiritual mind. It is love; or, in scholastic language, justifying Faith, whether in Pagan, Jew, or Christian is fides formata charitate." This last remark, aimed as it doubtless is at the Lutheran doctrine that the faith which justifies is fides informis, shows that in his doctrine of Faith Newman is fighting, so to say, on two fronts as a champion of morality. Religion is for him never a matter of faith alone, or of reason alone. "Ultra Protestants" and Liberals, with all their differences, agree in ignoring the absolute necessity of moral conduct as the primary pre-requisite of true religion.

But we must distinguish from this insistence on the moral elements in religious faith, in which, of course, Newman is on the same side with Kant, another feature, characteristic of Newman's view, and in his own mind closely connected with the moral character of faith, but one in which there is an obvious difference, at any rate, at first sight, between his account and Kant's; I mean his insistence on the personal character of faith, as distinct from the impersonal character of reason. I have elsewhere discussed Kant's view of the relation of personality to reason; and this is not the place to go into it, as not Kant but Newman is our subject at present. [In my Gifford Lectures on God and Personality.] But unquestionably, from Newman's point of view, and using Newman's language, Kant may fairly be said to have laid stress on the impersonal nature of morality, in the sense that he thought of the goodwill as essentially abstracting from individual differences and willing that which was law universal for all rational beings. To Newman, on the other hand, morality and religion with it belonged precisely to that sphere of individual personal experience in which one's whole self was involved, and which could be on that very account contrasted with the purely rational or scientific speculation in which abstraction is made of all individual and personal characteristics, of all the circumstances of one's individual and personal history, and only that is taken into account which is the same for all men capable of recognizing the cogency of logical and mathematical reasoning. Moreover, this personal character of religious faith was connected with the fact that it is only by means of faith that we recognize the personality of God. "Natural religion," he says, [University Sermons, p. 23.] "teaches the infinite power of majesty, the wisdom and goodness, the moral goverance, and in one sense the unity of the Deity; but it gives us little or no information respecting what may be called His Personality." "The philosopher aspires towards a divine principle, the Christian towards a divine Agent." "The marks of design in the creation are beautiful and interesting to the believers in a God; but where men have not already recognized God's voice within them, ineffective, and this, moreover, possibly from some unsoundness in the intellectual basis of the argument." This last remark is especially interesting because it harmonizes so closely with Kant's contention that the purely rational proofs of God's existence are actually fallacious in themselves, and that only a moral proof can, in fact, carry conviction. Newman's language, just quoted, indeed, is not free from ambiguity in so far as it sometimes seems to allow a certain perception of God's moral attributes to reason apart from the experience of conscience. Fie does not seem to have asked himself whether without that experience he could have perceived so much. But as usual he is preoccupied with the contrast between the personal character of religious faith and the impersonal character of the scientific reason; and it is no doubt true that, although without some measure of the experience of conscience, the attribution to anything of moral predicates could have no meaning for us, and the thought of divine goodness could not arise in our minds, yet so small a measure of this experience is sufficient that it seems negligible in comparison of the rich and profound moral experience out of which religious faith takes its rise. But some measure there must be, and it would, I think, now be generally admitted--more generally than in Newman's day--that even the attitude of mind implied in calling the supreme principle of order by the name of God is really justified only by a religious experience. Such an experience lies, in fact, behind the whole development of philosophical thought; Philosophy is the daughter of Religion, even though she sometimes becomes its adversary; but it has only been very gradually that Philosophy has come to realize this and to perceive that it must either claim to have so outgrown that experience that it can express all of reality that was communicated to the mind therein in a non-religious form, or allow that there are aspects of reality which are not apprehended so long as no account is taken of such definitely religious experience as the old rational theology tended to ignore.

Newman's theory of development in theology anticipated in a very real sense the movement of thought which was soon to change the whole face of English philosophy, when, the discoveries of Darwin having suggested a modus operandi, the notion of evolution or development, which had already appeared as a grand philosophical principle in the system of Hegel (then little studied or understood in this country), took its place as a ruling idea in every department of thought. And in the same way his theory, announced in the Grammar of Assent, of the "illative sense," "the personal action of the ratiocinative faculty," puts us in mind of the old notion of a logical inference as a quasi-mechanical process of syllogistic deduction from premises, which could be adequately carried on by such an actual machine as the ingenuity of Jevons devised, and the substitution, therefore, of a view which recognizes in it a living activity of the mind. "The reasoning faculty, as exercised by gifted or by educated or otherwise well-prepared minds, has its function in the beginning, middle, and end of all verbal discussion and inquiry, and in every step of the process. It is a rule to itself, and appeals to no judgment beyond its own." So Newman describes the "illative sense," and modern logicians would agree with him that such was the nature of the faculty whereby we draw conclusions from the facts before us, but would hesitate to follow him when he goes on to say that this "illative sense supplies no common measure between mind and mind," and that it is "nothing else than a personal gift or acquisition."

It is, of course, a question of much interest and great difficulty that Newman's doctrine of the illative sense raises. Every act of inference is the act of some thinker, and forms, as such, part of a whole which is individual and unique. On the other hand, in respect of its logical character as a conclusion from premises, it forms part of another whole, which we call a chain or system of reasoning. There seem, indeed, to be two different and disparate principles which unify our experience. There is, as I have elsewhere said, "one which combines premises with the conclusions which follow from them, the thought of causes with the thought of their effects, the members of series with what comes next to them in mathematical or logical order. It distinguishes logical priority from temporal, mere sequence from necessary connection, one kind of subject or department of knowledge from another, and so forth, though one may, so to say, through greater or less vigour of mind, or more or less abundant opportunity, be able to make more or less use of it than his fellows. . . . The other principle combines and disjoins experiences on quite a different plan. It combines all sensations, perceptions, thoughts which I call mine together as mine, no matter how little logical or generally intelligible connection they have with one another. It divides all sensations, perceptions, thoughts of yours from all of mine, no matter how closely they resemble mine. If by communication through speech or writing or otherwise, my thoughts are conveyed to you or yours to me, they must be reckoned twice over, as yours and as mine, although their content be identical." [God and Personality, p. 114.]

It is not hard in this way to distinguish these two principles, but it is very hard to frame a satisfactory account of their mutual relations. In what we call the exact sciences, the personal or individual factor seems to be least important. The personal equation is treated as something to be discounted or allowed for as a possible source of error; but in what we reckon as the highest regions of thought, in poetry, religion, philosophy, it seems impossible to abstract the thought from the personality of the thinker, as is done in the exact sciences. Hence we cannot study the results reached by the thought of great poets, prophets, or philosophers, apart from their original setting, as we can with those reached by great men of science. [See my paper on "The Personal Element in Philosophy" in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society for 1905. But what concerns us chiefly at present is the fact that Newman's interest was principally in what we may call the personal principle of unity in our thinking; and here, too, his teaching reflected his own experience. Some people do reach their convictions by ways of which a great part is not explicitly in consciousness, while others reach them by processes of reasoning and argument of all the steps of which they are well aware. Newman belonged to the former class; and his phrase "the illative sense" commemorates this fact. We may, indeed, agree with him that "there is no ultimate test of truth besides the testimony borne to truth by the mind itself," [Grammar of Assent, p. 350.] but may yet allow that it belongs to the very essence of the mind itself, though it is always an individual mind--to transcend its own individuality by recognizing in itself something genuinely common to it with all other minds, the apprehension of a common object, the use of a common instrument, nay, more a nature which is truly one in the diversity of the persons whose nature it is.

We shall not, I think, find in Newman a satisfactory treatment of the whole question; but we shall find a striking presentation of the personal factor in the thinking of us all, and we shall note that his main concern in discussing the subject is with its bearing on his fundamental conviction that religious conclusions are determined rather by moral character than by purely theoretical reasoning: and his main interest in it closely bound up with that intense preoccupation with his own inward history which placed him among the great autobiographers. This preoccupation is, of course, all his own; but the conviction I mentioned above is characteristic of the whole Oxford Movement.


3. There are few more interesting or difficult questions in religious ethics than that suggested by the contrast of natural and supernatural in the sphere of conduct. In what I am now going to say, I shall constantly refer to the address of the late Baron von Hügel on Christianity and the Supernatural. [Originally delivered in Oxford in 1920, and printed in his Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Series I., pp. 278 ff.: with which should be taken one or two paragraphs of another paper on pp. 223-4 of the same book.]

The theory defended in this address is that of the legitimacy of recognizing two levels of moral life; both of them required for the full exhibition of the ideal, so that the exclusion of either impoverishes the ideal itself, and in some degree spoils the factor which remains. I have dwelt already in the first chapter of this book on that aspect of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, in which it appeared as a movement for the rejection, in the interest of a genuine Evangelical Christianity, of any dualism in the moral standard, and as thus involving the disappearance of those monastic institutions which had embodied the older recognition of counsels of perfection for a few by the side of precepts addressed to all. I need not, therefore, now repeat what I have said, but will merely ask my readers to bear it now in mind. It was admitted that there was loss as well as gain in this disappearance; that with special temptations to hypocrisy there went also special aids to sanctity, and with an improvement of standard consequent on the cessation of certain practices, by which the support of the organizations intended to facilitate a stricter devotion was made to compensate for laxity in their supporters, a lowering of the aim of devout aspiration and a subordination of religious demands to the exigencies of secular life.

Thus in one aspect the denial of the legitimacy of recognizing two levels of achievement may be criticized as tending to result in a lowering of the general level, through the disappearance of any provision for what was regarded as a higher than that to which the generality of men can be expected to attain. In another, however, it may be criticized as requiring of all, and so as making necessary to goodness in every case such a conscious and deliberate mortification of natural affections as under a "two-level" system was only demanded of those who set out to follow the "counsels of perfection" and renounce the world altogether. Defenders of the "two-level" theory therefore point to the contrast between a theology which, looking in all Christians for something like the religious experience depicted in the epistles of St. Paul, neglects the lesson taught by such passages in the Gospels as those which describe our Lord's welcome of little children as, in their simplicity, what we should call their lack of self-consciousness, the very type of what the citizen of the kingdom of heaven should be; or, again, to the contrast between the insistence on love as the fulfilling of the law and the Kantian suspicion (in which Kant was a true son of the Protestant Reformation) of duties done with liking, as most probably not done from the truly moral motive at all. I do not know that any definite defence of the doctrine of "two levels" is to be found in the writers of the Oxford Movement; though I am by no means prepared to assert that one could not be found; but I feel fairly certain that we cannot call the doctrine as stated--e.g., by von Hügel--a tenet of the Tractarian school. At the same time the sympathy of the school would certainly have been with its defenders in both the points that I have just mentioned. The admiration of the fairer side, at any rate, of monasticism is characteristic of the Tractarians, and although the refusal by them and by the great majority of their successors to demand celibacy from the clergy generally has been, and is to the last degree, important as a security against any real Romanization of the Church of England, the successful restoration under Anglo-Catholic influence of monastic institutions alike for men and women within the Church of England is a significant result of their principles and an immediate consequence of the Oxford men's reluctance to share the current Protestant suspicion of any cultivation of holiness which shall involve a withdrawal from the ordinary activities of the householder and citizen. [I use the word Anglo-Catholic in its wide sense, as including the Tractarians and their more moderate as well as their extremer followers.] So much for the first ground on which a one-level theory is criticized by the champions of a two-level theory. As to the second ground, we have already seen that Tractarian theology was characterized by a frank recognition of the genuine value of obedience to the moral law, apart from the acknowledgment of definitely Christian or even explicitly religious sanctions; also that it inherited from the older High Churchmen the defence of natural piety against a Puritan rigorism in which Hooker had engaged in his controversy with Cartwright; and we may here further note a fact to which Dean Church has rightly called attention in his well-known book on the Oxford Movement, that it was part of its mission to go back from an Evangelicalism which identified the Gospel with the scheme of redemption elaborated in the Pauline Epistles to an emphasis upon the primacy for Christians of the Gospels and the record therein of the teaching of Jesus himself, which could claim the sanction of the Catholic tradition embodied in the ceremonial honours accorded in the ancient Liturgies to the public reading of that portion of the Scriptures above that of any other. The contrast of Nature and Supernature raises a great many questions of the deepest interest and importance. A full discussion of it would lead us to inquire into the relation between the confession that when we have done all that we are commanded we are still but "unprofitable servants" and the view that we cannot do more than our duty, except in the merely legal and external sense in which our duty means that which other men can demand of us under penalty. It would examine the significance of the admiration we feel for what we are inclined to call the moral genius of a Socrates or the religious genius of a Francis, an admiration which may seem quite different from our approval of the moral excellence which we sometimes suppose to be exhibited equally by everyone who does his best, no matter in how humble a sphere; since we no more think it within the capacity of everyone to be a Socrates or a Francis than we think it within the capacity of everyone to be a Shakespeare or a Beethoven. It would investigate the claim of the Church to mediate a higher level of spiritual life than the State can mediate, a claim which philosophers of the Hegelian school, such as the late Mr. Bosanquet would explicitly deny. But as the men of the Oxford Movement do not, as far as I know, advance a formal doctrine of two levels, it is not necessary to follow out that doctrine into its furthest consequences. We may, however, I think, say that they were in sympathy rather with the Catholic type of doctrine, to which the doctrine of the "two levels" belongs, than with the opposite, or Protestant, type; in so far as this means, on the one side, a ready appreciation of such goodness as children may display, into which neither the strenuousness of moral effort nor the religious consciousness of sin has entered; on the other, an aspiration after a kind of holiness which so far transcends the utmost demands of any society primarily designed for the satisfaction of man's natural (including his intellectual) needs that it requires for its cultivation by human beings a distinct society of supernatural origin, a new Jerusalem "descending out of heaven from God."

It is interesting to contrast Tractarianism here, not with the Evangelical Protestantism to which we have hitherto most often opposed it, but with the position of one whose religion was no less predominantly ethical than theirs, yet was, perhaps, of all their opponents the one whose hostility was the most implacable, just because it was based, not so much on prejudice as on a profound difference of outlook, of which he was fully conscious. I mean Thomas Arnold, the famous Headmaster of Rugby, who branded them as "the Oxford Malignants." There is an interesting story in a letter of Newman, describing his last and almost his only meeting with Arnold in 1842, a few months before Arnold's death, when Arnold was dining with Provost Hawkins at an Oriel gaudy, and Newman, as Senior Fellow, was in the chair in Common-room. "Baden Powell made some irreverent remark, and people were amused to see how both Arnold and myself in different ways, as far as manner was concerned, retired from it." [Letters and Correspondence, ii., p. 442.] There was in both Arnold and Newman a profound seriousness to which anything irreverent would have been at once repellent. We have already remarked upon the passage of Ward from discipleship to Arnold to discipleship to Newman, to each of which masters he was drawn by their ethical teaching, but of whom he came to prefer Newman to Arnold, because Arnold seemed to him to have stopped short where Newman went further. This "stopping short," as eventually it seemed to Ward to be, consisted in precisely the absence from Arnold's teaching of the emphasis which Newman and the Tractarians laid upon aspiration after a holiness for which the duties of secular life were inadequate to afford sufficient scope, and which must thus necessarily seek expression in such systematic asceticism and such devotion to prayer and worship of a larger measure of time than is compatible with the duties of secular life as involved the revival of institutions of the kind which had ministered to similar aspirations in the whole Western Church before the Reformation and in the Roman Catholic part of it since. And this absence from Arnold's Churchmanship of an element to be found in Newman's was, as will easily be perceived, closely connected with the former's attachment to an ideal which the older Anglican High Churchmen, from their great master, Hooker, onward, had especially cherished, of the identification in a Christian country of Church and State. Under the circumstances of a later age the realization of this ideal was clearly, to say the least, very much more difficult than the men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could be expected to recognize; and perhaps few theories of the period we are now considering seem to us now more impracticable and fantastic than the deliberate return of Arnold, under Coleridge's inspiration, to the platform of men who lived when the admission of non-Christians to full citizenship, and the toleration of all religious opinions which do not practically outrage public morals, was still unthought of. To the end Arnold wished to exclude Jews from full citizenship, while desiring to expand the national Church so as to include all Christians. Many who would have been reckoned as his allies against the Tractarians did not share his peculiar view on this point--his German friend, the Chevalier Bunsen, for instance, and Archbishop Whately, from whom, indeed, Newman considered that he himself had first learned his conception of the Church as a distinct and independent society. But Arnold's view of the Church was logically connected with precisely that deficiency in his teaching which Ward felt when comparing him with Newman. No doubt Arnold himself would not have allowed that it implied a "stopping short" in ethical aspiration. To him it seemed that the effort to distinguish the Church, as a society, from the Christian State was to lower the standard of the latter below the standard of the Gospel: and this he held to be unworthy of a society consisting of professing Christians. And, in fact, this must be the consequence of a definite abandonment, such as we find any modern European State committed to, even though in different degrees of completeness corresponding to the extent to which in the various nations the Christian tradition has maintained its hold upon the people, of any attempt to enforce upon the whole community the Christian law as such. But Arnold's identification of the Church with the Christian State certainly carried with it, on the other hand, an assumption that certain ways of life which the general tradition of the Church, down to the time of the Reformation at least, had regarded with approval and even reverence, were not characteristic of Christianity at all, but rather opposed to its spirit; for from the nature of the case they implied a certain withdrawal from the ordinary duties of citizenship on the ground of a religious call of higher urgency than the political community's demand that they should be fulfilled. No doubt, as in the case of military service, to which a monastic vocation has often been compared, the State may itself (the remark is, of course, St. Paul's [2 Tim. ii. 4.]) call some of its members to free themselves from entanglement with the affairs of ordinary civil life, for a purpose of its own, but then the purpose is its own; the purpose of the monastic or similar religious vocation is "other-worldly," and could only be adopted by the State if the State committed itself to a general view incompatible with, according to secularists and other non-Christians, equal citizenship with Christians. Although, as we have seen, the Tractarians did not adopt a formal doctrine of two levels, they were unquestionably bound to part company with anyone who, like Arnold, was prepared to identify the Church, as the society whose life is the Christian ideal, with any Christian State which could possibly live in the modern world. Yet they would not have been at all prepared to abandon any claim on the part of Christianity to influence political and secular life, or to treat baptized persons as other than by right full members of the Church. Thus they were certainly more in sympathy with the position of those who definitely recognize "two levels" than with that of men like Arnold, whose opposition to such a recognition determined their whole theory of conduct. But it would probably be an error to attribute to them as a school a uniform and consistent doctrine on the subject, which is, indeed, one of great difficulty, and the thorough-going consideration of which would take beyond the limits, not only of my present subject, but of the sphere within which I am conscious of having reached assured conclusions. I will therefore leave this topic with two observations:

1. I do not think that the Christian conscience can approve the recognition of a double standard for an individual Christian on an individual occasion. If he is really called to exceptional self-denial, it is his duty to respond to the call, and he sins if he fails to respond. This is none the less true because, just for the very reason that the self-denial is exceptional, no one else has the right to treat him as an open sinner or a criminal because he so fails, if he does not fall below the standard of self-denial which is accepted as generally required of members of the community. I say "the community," using this term vaguely. For plainly a man would be rightly regarded with disapproval in a circle of professing Christians who was known to be indulging himself in vices or allowing himself opportunities of pecuniary profit which in a different circle would be so common as not to incur reprobation.

2. The second point which I wish to make is this: The admission of exceptional calls for special sacrifices from individual Christians does not involve the assumption that particular modes of life which happen to imply forbearance from gratifying certain desires which are strong in the generality of human beings are of necessity on that account higher and more meritorious in themselves than modes of life in which the absence of something precious to the majority of human beings is not so patent. The most obvious instance of which is, in my mind, of course, the instance of celibacy. The Gospel recognizes [Matt. xix. 12.] for those who "are able to receive the saying" the value of the self-denial of those who "make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Voluntary celibacy for a religious motive may, no doubt, exist apart from any monastic institutions, but there is no question that the existence of such institutions facilitates such voluntary celibacy, and enables those who feel themselves called thereto to respond to the call at once more easily and more effectively, since it implies the recognition of it as a possible mode of service and the provision of definite tasks for those who undertake it. Where such institutions exist they will be quite justifiably used by persons in \yhom voluntary celibacy involves no particular heroism, and who would have remained single in any case; but it is clear that those who fall under this description have no claim whatever to be regarded as living a higher life than that of the married citizen, many of whose trials and opportunities of service they, as a matter of fact, escape. No one can suppose that the enormously high proportion of celibates among the saints canonized by the Roman Church represents even remotely the actual distribution of heroic self-denial between those who marry and those who do not. This exaltation of celibacy as such is a feature of Catholic tradition, against which Protestantism in general has strongly reacted; for the Oxford Movement it had a certain fascination, and it must, I think, be allowed that the complete disappearance of monastic institutions from the Churches of the Reformation was a real loss, whatever the medieval abuses which precipitated it. The Tractarians and their successors, in restoring to the Anglican Church a real opportunity for those who have a vocation to the celibate life to fulfil it to the best advantage by the foundation, first, of numerous sisterhoods, which have fully justified their existence, and afterwards by that of such brotherhoods as those whose headquarters are at Cowley and at Mirfield, while at the same time there has never been any really serious movement among them to confine the priesthood to celibates, may, perhaps, be said to have shown a rare appreciation in this matter of the true via media between extremes which have both alike been found disastrous to the maintenance of the true balance of that genuine Christian morality which finds room at once for the hallowing of the normal life of the many, and for the world-renouncing enthusiasm of the few.

I should like here to call attention to a paragraph of the essay by the late Baron von Hügel, to which I have already referred, on Christianity and the Supernatural, [Essays and Addresses, pp. 285-7.] in which he doubtless speaks as a Roman Catholic with a certain tenderness for the usages of his own communion, but in which, while claiming a high place for religious celibacy in the life of the Christian Church, he recognizes very candidly "the beneficence of a married clergy" and the "dangers and drawbacks of too large an extension of obligatory celibacy."


4. The last of the four topics on which I proposed to touch was the fact that in certain directions that emphasis on morality which I have attempted to show was the dominant idea of the Oxford Movement worked itself into directions which would not have approved themselves to the leaders of that Movement. In entering upon this subject, I wish to make clear that I do not attribute to the Anglo-Catholic school the initiative in the changes of theological view to which I shall call attention; I only contend that the principles of that school prevented it from effectively resisting the tendency to these changes.

The first change is one of immense importance. I mean the change of attitude towards the Bible which results from the free critical study of it. Of the three historical schools of thought within the Church of England, it was, as one would expect, the so-called Broad Church school which was the pioneer here. Jowett's essay in Essays and Reviews on "The Interpretation of Scripture" was already in advance of Mr. (now Bishop) Gore's celebrated contribution to Lux Mundi on "The Holy Spirit and Inspiration." The influence of the Oxford Movement had no doubt weakened to some extent the emphasis on the "Bible and the Bible only" as "the religion of Protestants," which was characteristic of the Evangelicals by placing beside it as its authorized interpreter the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, and by recognizing the Church as the primary teacher of Christian truth, rather than Scripture, whose special function was to prove what the Church had taught. But the Tractarians had held a doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture in no degree less high than that of the "Evangelicals," and this predilection for the system of "mystical interpretation," which they found recommended to them by patristic and medieval authority, rather encouraged than otherwise in them the conviction that every word of Holy Writ had its own lesson or lessons to teach us, if we can but find it out. It was half a century after the original Oxford Movement that one who afterwards came to be esteemed the most distinguished divine of the school which reckoned itself the successor of the Tractarians, and who already, as head of the Pusey House, held a position which identified him with their tradition, led the younger generation of his party (to the dismay of many in the elder) frankly to recognize the established results of Old Testament criticism and to give up, in consequence, the belief that critical questions could be held as prejudiced by the references of Jesus to David as the author of a psalm or to Daniel as that of the predictions which went under his name, and so to allow that our Lord's knowledge was limited in certain directions.

The strong ethical bent which we have observed to be characteristic of the school was well illustrated in this revolution in its doctrine. It was his strong sense of the duty of intellectual honesty which mainly impelled Charles Gore to break with tradition in this respect, and if in the school of which he is an ornament many have since gone much further than he in this direction, if the whole attitude to the Bible has changed within as without that school from what it was forty years ago in all schools that reckoned themselves orthodox, it is, I think, unquestionable that the traditional Tractarian insistence on the value of common morality as the necessary presupposition of religious experience has assisted in making the change possible and even inevitable for men who felt themselves, notwithstanding, to be faithful to the fundamental principles of the religious movement to which they were attached.

The other change in attitude to which I shall refer is that in respect of the doctrine of eternal punishment. Here again the Tractarians are certainly not to be credited with the initiative. They were entirely in agreement with all the orthodox schools in affirming this doctrine. We find Newman saying in his "Lectures on Romanism" that "there can be no instance among ourselves of sincere Christians being tempted, as Origen was, to question what is meant by the eternal punishment destined for the finally impenitent." The remark illustrates how little the men of that generation anticipated the change which was to come over the temper of the whole Church in this regard--in this country, at any rate--within three-quarters of a century [By 1870 Newman had become aware that the belief in eternal punishment was "dying out in all classes of our own society." Vide Grammar of Assent, Pt. II., c. x., § 2, 9 (ed. 1891, pp. 459, 460).] a change which is by no means to be felt only where the doctrine in question would be in set times denied. We are now only concerned with the part played by the theology of the Oxford Movement in leading to this change. It was, I think, very closely analogous to that which it played in bringing about the change which we have already discussed, in the attitude of theological teachers towards the Bible. Here, too, there was certainly no intention on the part of the Tractarian teachers to innovate on the common doctrine of all schools who professed orthodoxy. But, just as the Tractarians by refusing to isolate the authority of the Bible, as was done by those whom they called "ultra-Protestants," and by reincorporating it, so to say, in the general authority of the Church, whose Book it was and from whom we received it, undoubtedly tended to subordinate that authority in the minds of their adherents and in that way to prepare them for the far greater change which the progress of criticism was to entail; so, too, while not consciously differing from the Evangelicals in their eschatology, yet by refusing to isolate the doctrine of the Atonement as though it were the sole essential content of the Gospel message--and by reincorporating it in the doctrine of the Incarnation and laying the main stress of their teaching upon the mystical union of the Christian with Christ which was effected through the sacraments rather than upon the forensic imputation of his merits consequent upon the mere act of faith, the Tractarians tended to subordinate in the minds of their adherents the aspect of the Gospel message on which what is sometimes called the "hell-fire preaching" of another school had almost exclusively dwelt. But, just as in the case of the authority of the Bible, so, too, here, this alteration of emphasis, while it no doubt prepared the way for the acceptance of a far more drastic change, did so without any intention of the kind on the part of the divines of the Oxford school. The initiative in that change in the Church of England came from quite other quarters, as the names of Frederick Denison Maurice and of Frederick Farrar suggest, but the effects of it are now, of course, apparent in the school which inherits the Tractarian tradition as well. And here again the motive which has brought the men of this school to sympathize with doubts to which their predecessors would not have confessed is their loyalty to the great Tractarian principle that the religious experience is rooted in the moral and that no doctrine which is really felt to be irreconcilable with conscience can be a genuine part of true religion.

In conclusion, I am very conscious of the very imperfect treatment which I have given to a subject of real historical interest and also of the absence of novelty from my main contention that what Dr. Brilioth calls "moralism" is the ruling idea of the religious philosophy of the Oxford Movement. But I think those who will acquaint themselves further with the literature and history of the Movement will find that this is the ruling idea of that philosophy in the light of which the detailed developments of it are best understood. It was the conviction of the Tractarians (a) that the religious experience is rooted in the moral, and (b) that the genuine development of religious experience involves an aspiration after moral perfection or holiness.

In their controversy with the two schools of theology with which they were contemporary and from which they were concerned to dissociate themselves, it was the former aspect of their general emphasis on ethics that determined their opposition to the Evangelicals, the latter that determined their opposition to the Liberals. As against the Evangelicals they may be said to have assisted the immanence of the religious values in the whole ethical development of humanity; as against the Liberals, the transcendence by those values of the national order as represented by secular civilization. They stood for a religion neither merely "revealed" nor merely "natural," but for one in which Revelation carried on to higher issues the work of that indwelling Conscience to which it necessarily first addressed itself and which it could never be interested in gainsaying.

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