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Herbert Thorndike, 1598-1672
by T.A. Lacey

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter IX. Post Mortem

THORNDIKE died in July, 1672. His work was done. But he left a legacy, both for immediate use and for remote contingencies. Here I come to ground on which I shall lose the invaluable guidance of Arthur West Haddan, and indeed shall have to correct some of his mistakes.

The first part of this legacy, as I call it, consists of the tractate in forty-four brief chapters entitled The Reformation of the Church of England better than that of the Council of Trent, or A Short Resolution of the Controversies between the Churches of England and Rome. This was first published by Haddan from a manuscript copy in the Chapter Library of Westminster. His main point is that "there may be a schism in the Church upon such terms that salvation may be had on both sides." Such is the historic schism of East and West; such also the schism in the Western Church due to the Reformation. On the side of the Reformed he is quite sure that the Church of England stands best of all, and better than the Tridentine Church of Rome, but is by no means perfect. He then has to prove that the Pope is not Antichrist, nor are Papists idolaters. It is, he says, "the only point of consequence in which exception hath been taken to my writings"--an unjustifiable complacency--"and I count myself so much the more engaged to speak to it before I die, that no man may think I have changed my opinion because I keep silence." It seems hard that public utterance was denied him for a hundred and eighty years.

Then follows a balanced judgment between the Tridentines and the extreme Reformers on the subject of Justification by Faith and the whole doctrine of Grace. Here the Church of England appears to take the middle and the safer way, which will be the way of unity. On these topics the Faith has been sufficiently, though indirectly, defined by the first six General Councils. Baptism is not much in dispute, except so far as Socinians on the one side and Fanatics on the other make it unmeaning. The Eucharist, on the other hand, is a chief subject of contention, and he briefly sets out his conclusions upon it, with which we have become familiar, as sufficiently irenic. I have already quoted his judgment on the Reservation of the Sacrament for the dying, the publication of which might have led to the adoption of the practice when some years later the frequent celebrations which he made the only requisite condition were for a time achieved. The effective restoration of Penance in the Church of England he once more demands, but sets in balance against the loss of it the worse corruptions tolerated by the Council of Trent. Of Ordination, of the Sacrament of Matrimony, of the State of Continence, and of the Monastic Institution, he recapitulates what he has previously taught. "But the great question is of the marriage of the clergy," and on this he stiffly holds his ground; continence should be the rule for those of Cathedral and Collegiate Churches, liberty for Curates of parishes. On the Invocation of Saints he is summary: "I doubt not that, when it was grown the fashion to pray at the memories of martyrs, it was hoped that the martyrs would know what was prayed for, and would intercede for it. But I am yet to seek for any testimony under five hundred years after Christ of prayers made to them. For the ejaculations which the fathers make to them in their panegyrics, I take to be no more than letters sent without promise of being delivered; for human wishes, not for offices of God's service."

In the last chapter he considers "the temporal right usurped by the Pope, and how much it hath contributed to the corruption of Christianity." It is a singularly rapid survey of the historic strife of papacy and empire, in which he declines to take a side, since either power encroached on the province of the other. It brings him to the Council of Constance, which missed its opportunity through not insisting first on the internal reform of the Church of Rome. That which was so called "was no more the Church of Rome than any other Church of Christendom; consisting of members that were heads or members of other Churches, that they may be sure to betray the canonical rights of their own country Churches to the greatness of it." The solution of the papal question, he would urge, is to restore the Church of Rome to its pristine and proper condition, one Church among others, though the chief. "In vain it is to talk of holding a general council," he says, "till the Canon of the Church be restored, and one person everywhere confessed to be head or member but of one Church."

He had said it all, or almost all, before; but he had said it in the manner of ponderous scholarship; he now wrote it briefly, and in something like a popular style. Had this tract been published after his death, his counsels of moderation would not indeed have been heard in the tumult of the Popish Plot, but might have hastened a return to sanity in the years that followed. His friends would not have it so; they published instead, as Mr. Herbert Thorndike's Judgment of the Church of Rome, some trivial and one-sided notes said to have been written by him for an unnamed lady as a dissuasive from popery.

The second part of the legacy is a much greater thing. It is the Latin treatise De Ratione ac Iure Finiendi Controversias Ecclesiae Disputatio. I call this also a legacy, though it was printed in the year 1670, because it is doubtful to what extent it was published before his death. It is a fine volume in folio, nobly printed in strange contrast with the poverty-stricken appearance of the Epilogue. It bears the imprint of Thomas Roycroft, "Orientalium Typographus Regius," but no bookseller's name is added. Thorndike bequeathed to Bancroft and another "The remainder of the Edition of my latine books which my servant John Gee shall deliver them at my death," with instructions to sell the copies and devote the proceeds to certain uses. It appears from some action afterwards taken that they fetched about three hundred pounds. [Haddan, vi. 150.] A large part of the impression was therefore in his own hands within two years of the printing. This fact, taken with the absence of a bookseller's name from the title-page, suggests that the book was not put on the market. The remainder bequeathed to Bancroft was issued by a bookseller in 1674 with the new title, Origines Ecclesiastici, sive De Iure et Potestate Ecclesiae Christianae Exercitationes.

I do not know how Haddan came to call this great work "part of a revised and rewritten translation of the Epilogue," and as such, apparently, to banish it from his collection of Thorndike's writings. It does cover pretty closely the ground of the first book of the Epilogue, and there are passages which may stand for translations, but the materials are better arranged, and the conduct of the argument is greatly improved. A critical reader will soon observe that Thorndike wrote Latin more neatly than English; there are the same inversions and involutions, the same distracting punctuation, but not the same tendency to obscurity; the precision of the language leads a sufficiently close reader through complicated periods to a clear end. I think the same discipline clarifies also the author's own thought. There is another improvement. He had formerly written with abounding hope in almost desperate circumstances; he now nurses the same hope, still unfulfilled, in a condition of present security; a touch of petulance, which occasionally marred his genuine attempt to find room for tolerance of unreasonable people, has consequently disappeared. He had been irritated by the Independents, and not least by the inconsistency of their behaviour in New England; neatly described as "coetus absoluti," they are now almost negligible, and are perhaps too lightly dismissed. He has recovered from the disappointments of the Restoration, and is content to work for the future on the basis of the present settlement. There is a conspicuous change in his treatment of Hobbes. The Leviathan is no longer a nightmare to which he fretfully recurs, and not until near the end of the book does he brush it aside as amounting to a fantastic sort of atheism. But indeed he seems to have been influenced by what is weakest in Hobbes, speculating on the origin of human society in the words: "Omnes respublicas ab initio consensu quodam constare penes quern vel quos potestas sit gladii," and comparing with this the acknowledgment of apostolic potestas by the faithful.

The unity of the Church is shown to have been secured until the Council of Ephesus by the exclusion of heretics; thenceforward there have been obstinate schisms in which parties cannot be satisfactorily distinguished from the Catholic Church. It follows "non omne schisma haeresin esse." Interpretation of Scripture and judgments de fide must be "intra fines traditionis Catholicae," but nevertheless it is sometimes necessary to define, for the maintenance of unity, even things not necessary for salvation. The faithful are thus bound "non fide sed caritate." Even apostolic rules, such as St. Paul's injunction about the veiling of women, may thus be varied, for it is more important to maintain the unity of the Church than to uphold apostolic institutions. To follow Tradition and to know the content of Tradition are not the same thing. The distinction is illustrated by teaching about Purgatory and by disputes about the superiority of Pope or Council. There is some ingenious pleading to show that Luther's appeal to a Council judging "secundum solas Scripturas" did not exclude the use of tradition for interpreting the Scriptures. All this leads up to the difficulty of determining the guilt of schism: he seems to have thought that the guilt must in all cases be on one side only, but the incidence of it cannot always be ascertained. He tartly remarks that the use of the word Catholic is no test, this being the very thing in dispute.

Peter is truly "princeps apostolorum," but there is no Petrine monarchy; the Apostles had "individuum ius." The Roman primacy is due partly to the dignity of Peter, but also to the imperial dignity of the city, and in either case only canonico iure. The development of the papal potestas, "quomodo ex canonica in infinitam evasit," is carefully traced, and compared with the aggrandizement of Constantinople; the submission of the Spanish and British Churches to the Roman Pontiff is treated as the culminating point; but even so "non est eius auctoritas reformidanda cuius fines communis Christianismus determinat."

After much discussion in detail of the authority of Scripture and of the Christian Fathers, he comes to the power of Heads of States in ecclesiastical affairs, carefully distinguished from ius ecclesiae. Their action in regard to the assembling of Councils cannot be disowned; the legislation of Justinian is critically approved; French and English precedents are brought into line. It is all a matter of convenience. Civil and spiritual jurisdiction, each in its own place, are both concerned with spiritual persons and sacred things: "nimirum supponit statum publicum ecclesia cuius hospitio utitur." Indeed, the Church has no right to judge matters anterior to its own constitution, and of such is the temporal order of the State. The clergy therefore must not be withdrawn by any privilege from the jurisdiction of the State in civil or criminal causes, and in like manner the State has no right to interfere with the jurisdiction of the Church in spiritual causes.

In spite of urging this, Thorndike defends his old proposition that the State may inaugurate reforms in the Church, when the Church has departed from its own true form. If schism ensue, the guilt lies on those who oppose the reforms. The Elizabethan Settlement still weighed upon him, and drove him to something like prevarication. But since the Law of Unity is superior to all else except the Law of Faith, he now argues that reform should never be pressed to a point where a breach of unity will ensue. And no authority of State can ever define the Faith.

In Western Christendom are now discerned various "Summae Potestates." It is not quite clear whether he regards the Pope as one of these, or as standing over against them in a position of privilege. In any case the possibilities of Christian union lie with him and them. Nothing could more clearly show how far we have now travelled from his standpoint. Henceforward he has little counsel for us in detail, but we can still follow him or criticize him in principle, and few men have seen more clearly what are the fundamental postulates of Christian union. Foremost among these is the recognition of facts, and foremost among facts is the special position of the Roman See. Using this its proper style, Thorndike insists that nothing can be done until the Roman See and the "Summae Potestates" agree in the recognition of certain limits which must not be overstepped. The Roman See must learn to let well alone, not meddling in matters indifferent, where variety is desirable. The other Powers must acknowledge what has been said of the Roman See since the fifth century, "maiores causas ad eam omnes redire." It is idle to talk of general consent if the principal Church of Christendom is not consulted: "Quae controversiam habent ad totam Ecclesiam pertinentem, sine R. sede legitime definiri non possunt."

Turning back to the Preface, which contains of course the author's last word on the subject, we find that he is taking no short views, and expecting no speedy settlement. "Reformandae Ecclesiae tantum opus est quantum uno momento perfectum non esse mirum videri non debet." But one step can be taken at once. The Roman See can abandon all thought of subjugating the Protestant Powers by force of arms, and the Protestant Powers can abandon the dream--attributed in particular to the late Tyrannus of Britain, who could not believe that he would be allowed to die before achieving it--of "stripping bare the Whore of Babylon." We may perhaps assume that these two preliminaries have now been settled.

The book is evidently incomplete. Anyone who has read Thorndike's earlier works in English knows that he had much more to say, and the Preface intimates that it will be said. What preparations had he made?

By his will, executed not many days before his death, he bequeathed to Peter Gunning, then Bishop of Chichester and afterwards of Ely, certain manuscript materials for carrying the work forward "above that which is now printed." Haddan sought these materials and could not find them, concluding rather hastily that Gunning had destroyed them, and noting in particular that none of them remained among Thorndike's manuscripts in the Chapter Library at Westminster. I am again at a loss to know how it came to pass that so painstaking and accurate a worker made such a mistake. For indeed some of the very materials bequeathed to Gunning appear to be here preserved, and there are in addition complete transcripts of two volumes continuing the treatise De Ratione finiendi Controversias. [Works, ed. 1846, vol. iii, pp. 213, 319 seqq.] I venture to suggest that the Cambridge University Press might be worse employed than in publishing these. Not otherwise can full justice be done to the memory of so distinguished an alumnus of the University.

The publication of the first part of the treatise, however restricted its circulation may have been, brought on Thorndike, or on his memory, a flood of criticism. I will mention only two of the critics. The first is the brilliant young Master of Trinity, who had been for some years one of his junior colleagues. Among the voluminous writings which Isaac Barrow in the year 1677 bequeathed to Tillotson for publication at his discretion were the notes for a "Discourse concerning the Unity of the Church." Agreeing closely with Thorndike up to a point, he parted sharply from him on the question "Whether the Church is also necessarily, by the design and appointment of God, to be in way of external policy under one singular government or jurisdiction of any kind." He set out "the reasons alleged in proof of such an unity ... by a late divine of great repute," and answered them one by one." All are drawn from the Epilogue or the Ratio Finiendi. Some of the answers are very searching, but the main gist of the argument, apart from the alleged silence of Scripture, is that unity in "this manner of political regiment" would require "an ecclesiastical monarch," precisely such as the Roman Pontiff is declared to be in his most extravagant assertion of supremacy. Monarchy, "being less subject to abuse than other ways of government," it would have to be. He adds that such a government "must be engaged in wars, to defend itself and make good its interests." These assumptions are in accord with the political theory of the time, but Thorndike might have replied that he at least did not subscribe to them, and that he expressly denied to the Church the power of the sword. We can now add that some of them have been falsified by subsequent history. Barrow's reference to the Swiss Guards of the Vatican as justifying them we should dismiss with a smile. He could not foresee the developments which have so damaged his case, but he was aware that his doctrine might seem to favour "the conceits of the Independents concerning ecclesiastical discipline." Indeed, the national or regional Church of his scheme was left by him with exactly the same independence on a large scale as was claimed by the "gathered Church" of the Brownists, and his answer to the supposed objection was an assertion of moral obligations which every Brownist would as emphatically uphold. It was precisely because he had encountered the hard logic of the Independents that Thorndike found his conception of an ordered Catholic Church indispensable.

The other notable critic is Richard Baxter, who is constantly appearing in our survey as foil or as opponent, He repeatedly assailed what he called the "French Popery" of Thorndike. It was an apt phrase at the time when the Gallican Liberties were being asserted by the French episcopate and by the Court of Lewis, for indeed the position assigned to the Roman See in the Ratio Finiendi exactly anticipates the Four Articles drafted by Bossuet for the Assembly of the French Clergy in the year 1682, and imposed by royal edict on all professors of theology. But Gallican and Ultramontane were all one to English Protestants, for whom "popery" meant something which had little to do with the specific powers of the Papacy, and much to do with national prejudice, directed immediately against the nearest foreigner. In the last year of his life Baxter convinced himself that there was a conspiracy afoot to bring in "a foreign jurisdiction," and made Thorndike, now twenty years dead, one of the promoters. [Against the Revolt to a Foreign Jurisdiction (1691), Pref. and ch. vi.] It was a dangerous attack on his memory, for it could not be denied that he was opposed to the characteristic insularity of English religion, and the notion of a conspiracy was not too fantastic for the credulous.

Whatever the cause may have been, it seems clear that Thorndike's teaching had not the vogue in succeeding generations which it deserved. There are echoes of it in Beveridge's Convocation Sermon of 1689, which stopped a movement for drastic revision of the Prayer-book, but they are not heard later. [Concio ad Synodum, published "Iussu Episcoporum," p. 16: "Si quaolim controversia de ritu quovis ecclesiastico a singulari aliqua ecclesia recepto exorta est, in Ecclesias Universalis praxim et constantem ea de re consuetudinem inquirere, et sententiam exinde ferre, semper solemne fuit."] In Wake's frigid correspondence with Gallican divines there is little that recalls Thorndike. The Usagers among the Nonjurors, who needed his support for their ritual experiments, were almost alone in making him an authority, and perhaps they did further injury to his reputation. He himself would certainly have warned those triflers not to concern themselves with their anise and cummin at the cost of unity and other weighty matters of the law. We may almost say that he was forgotten.

And yet not altogether. It is recorded that Thomas Sikes, Vicar of Guilsborough in Northamptonshire, reckoned him chief among the divines of the English Church. All that is known of this most retired of men indicates a mind harmonious with Thorndike's, if not formed by his teaching. He complained that the article of the Creed most neglected by his contemporaries was the declaration of belief in the Holy Catholic Church. This being put in the background, the Proportion of Faith was lost, and he showed remarkable prescience of what would be the result of bringing it once more to the front. "Our confusion nowadays," he said, "is chiefly owing to the want of asserting this one Article of the Creed; and there will be yet more confusion attending its revival, when it is thrust on minds unprepared, and on an uncatechized Church." This insistence on the need of catechizing is redolent of Thorndike. Thomas Sikes was of little account in his own day, but through his well-known son-in-law Joshua Watson he exercised an unseen influence on a small group of prominent Churchmen, lay and clerical, who upheld a stiff orthodoxy in a period of general decadence. [Churton, Life of Joshua Watson, i. 52-3; Cornish, The English Church in the Nineteenth Century, i. 66-76.] There is not found in them, however, any trace of Thorndike's passionate desire for a better reformation.

The Tractarians rediscovered him. Thrice he appears in the "Catena Patrum," which held an important place in the Oxford Tracts. [In Tracts 76, 78, and 81.] In the year 1841 Mr. Brewer of King's College brought out an edition, slightly annotated, of the Discourse of the Right of the Church in a Christian State, remarking in his preface that many things of great interest at the moment, "which are deemed strange and novel, as if now for the first time agitated by the pious and learned writers of the University of Oxford, will be found to have been thoroughly sifted and discussed in the pages of this author, one of the greatest luminaries of the sister University." In 1844 began the publication of Thorndike's collected works in the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology. The unnamed editor supplied a copious apparatus of quotations from books which the author avowedly or presumably had in mind, ransacking the stores of Puritan controversy which he had rather perversely refrained from indicating, a valuable enrichment which Arthur West Haddan continued, completing the work in 1856. This edition is indispensable for any serious study of Thorndike's contribution to theology; its only grave fault is the omission of the Ratio Finiendi Controversias, the result of which is that the student watches a great scholar labouring towards a conclusion that is not reached.

In 1855 Mr. J. D. Chambers, the Recorder of New Sarum, gathered into a pamphlet The Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, as expounded by Herbert Thorndike ... with notes, forming a digested series of authorities as to the points in question in Archdeacon Denison's Case. It was a collection of isolated sentences and paragraphs, chosen for an obvious polemical purpose, and therefore necessarily giving a one-sided account of what it purported to contain. It was effective for its immediate object, making it impossible to condemn the archdeacon's specific teaching as unwarranted innovation, but it did some disservice to Thorndike. He was not at his best in treating the Eucharist, impatiently dismissing opinions which he contested without having thoroughly mastered them, and subordinating the whole subject to that which was his supreme interest. He must stand or fall by his Doctrine of the Church.

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