Project Canterbury

Turning Points in My Life.

By William Porcher Du Bose, M.A., S.T.D.

New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912.

Chapter VII. Liberty and Authority in Christian Truth

DISCIPLINE versus freedom; repression versus persuasion, education, and patience; exclusion versus the most generous and widest inclusion; these are all alternative ways and means to a common end in Christianity, the end of agreement in truth and unity in life. And they are contrasts that are in the air, that are finding reflection and expression in the highest places of the religious thought and life of the day. We have heard recently from a prominent English high-churchman such a declaration as the following on one side of the alternatives stated: "The principle of force or coercion is wrong. What we really care about in England is liberty. The glory of the Church of England is that she unites historic catholicity with liberty and progress. She has stretched the utmost limit of toleration in leaving her children to say what they would, and to write what they would, and to do what they would. She has no Index and no Inquisition. One extreme after another has worked itself out in her midst, and lost its sting, and left its contribution."

There is everything in the situation of the Church today to set us thinking seriously along this line. If there is wisdom and reason in religious toleration in general, there is the same for that toleration within, as well as without, the Church. The Church should stretch her toleration to its utmost limit. The writer quoted above means that the Church of England ought to include within itself the extremes of Catholic and of Protestant Christianity. The Church of Jesus Christ ought to bear in her bosom all who call themselves Christians.

It is not that Christian truth and Christian life are not definite and determined things. It is not that unity is not an essential note in Christianity. It is that unity is so essential and so necessary a thing in Christianity that it must not be sacrificed to the demands of an impossible uniformity; that the limits of uniformity must be stretched to their utmost in the interest of even the lowest practicable unity. Why, so far as my own willingness goes, shall I not be visibly as well as invisibly in the one body of Christ with every devout Catholic and every devout Protestant; and with not only every devout Christian, but every one who calls himself Christian? The point is that the unity and the devoutness so much to be desired will much more certainly be attained by inclusion in the Church as the divine way and means to them than by exclusion from the Church until they have been otherwise acquired. Extremes will reconcile themselves, or will work themselves out, lose their sting, and leave their contribution if recognized and recognizing their common right within the Church; while if driven out, or if each claims only its own exclusive right within the Church, the thing emphasized and developed will be only their difference and not their unity. It might be alleged that often differences are more bitter in union than in separation. That is only because, in the theory or kind of the union, only one side has the right of existence within it, and each thinks the other ought to be excluded. Change the theory or kind of union, and the two sides will not only be more at peace in their difference, but will lose their difference in a nearer approach to unity.


Agreement in truth and unity in life, at-one-ment with God and with one another, are the end and the task of Christianity. The only question about them is, How are they best and soonest to be attained? As an historical fact, the day of coercion in all its forms is past. Civil coercion in matters of religion has ceased--except, perhaps, as where a national Church is still bound by law to established terms of a too narrow conformity. Ecclesiastical coercion exists only in the form of a too rigid or sectarian binding of faith, under penalty of exclusion; and this is giving way except under the most conservative and reactionary conditions. Whither are we tending, and what substitute for coercion has the future to offer us? In the paramount interest of religious unity, what have we to hope from freedom versus discipline, patience and persuasion versus repression, inclusion versus exclusion? Is it a true conclusion of experience that to the unity of the spirit, force or compulsion in any form is a false way? Have we made the discovery that only through freedom, with all its doubts and dangers, can men be really or truly brought to that whose sole worth or value consists in its being voluntary and personal? What seems to confront us as a new guide to the unity of the future is this principle, at once theoretical and practical, that the only spiritual unity or agreement is that of free consent; and that in spiritual matters men will the sooner and the better agree just in proportion as they are not forced, as they are free to agree.

I attach the very first importance to the question and to the cause of Christian unity. I believe it to be of the essence of Christianity. And I believe not only in its necessity but in its practicability. It is folly to assume that in this highest sphere of the spirit, and here alone, there is no such thing possible as a real, practical agreement of truth and unity of life. The only question is the right way to it. We have it, or are more and more getting it, in all other spheres. With all our diversities, we are members of one community or social system, one state, one nation. We have together common sense, common science, common morality, common patriotism, common humanity. And we all have them, with an only comparative more or less, better or worse. So far as we have them more and better, we are practically in agreement and at one in them. So it might be and should be in the matter of religion; in proportion as we have it more and better, there is no reason why we shall not approximate a deeper agreement and a truer unity in it if only we feel the necessity and eliminate the obstacles of unity.

The lines that beckon us in the future are new and confessedly more difficult than those we have followed in the past, just as the dangers and pains of manhood and self-direction are greater than those of childhood and the direction of others. The perils of freedom and the risks and insecurities of a unity or agreement by consent may well appall us, but they have to be faced and can be wisely reckoned with only as a necessary part of the hard, because high, problem of human life and progress. Let us draw the matter nearer home to ourselves and ponder some of the growing-pains of our own present spiritual life as individuals and as a Church.


As individually and collectively we progress further and rise higher, it becomes more and more imperative and apparent that our agreement with the truth shall be our own agreement with the truth and our unity with life our own unity with life. The truth and the life come to us as not our own, but they must become our own. That which in the beginning, at our baptism, our confirmation, even our ordination, we accepted and bound ourselves to by solemn vows was never as yet wholly our own, but, in even greater part, only the Church's truth and life. We took with them, however, the obligation to make them ever more and more and wholly our own. A truth and life which are only the Church's and are not in actual and active process of becoming our own and wholly our own, are much worse than nothing to us; a salvation which does not save becomes our condemnation. How are we to go about making these things, the truth and the life of Christianity, our individual and personal own? How otherwise than by the very process by which the Church itself, as a whole, formulated its truth and shaped its life in the beginning--namely, by such a breadth and freedom of Christian experience and experiment as, while it gave occasion and gave rise to every possible error or mistake, at the same time, as over against these, enabled Christianity to come to a knowledge and understanding of itself. If you say that one shall make no mistakes, shall fall into no errors, then you say that he shall not know the truth for himself nor live a life that is his own. If you say that he must go out of the Church to make his mistakes or exploit his errors, then you have legislated that within the Church one must live a life that is not his own; for we cannot make even the Church's life our own unless we are free in doing so. If there is no freedom of error within the Church, then there is no freedom of truth.


Let us see what is meant on both sides when we say that it is the glory of the Church that she unites historic catholicity with liberty and progress. We mean, on the one hand, of course, that there has been from the beginning a life of the Church as a whole which may be distinguished from that of any individual member of the Church. The collective or organic life of the Church is properly manifested in a continuity and catholicity of truth, of order, of worship, and of mission. It is absurd to say that Christian truth and Christian life as a whole are not sufficiently definite and determined things to constitute a basis of practical unity and concord if only our conception of unity be broad enough, like that of the family or the State or many other social institutions, to include as wide a diversity as is necessary to the healthy vitality of human life. If we say that the widest toleration and the most perfect freedom are necessary conditions of ultimate truth and complete life, can we possibly turn around and assert that these cannot exist within the Church which is the most catholic of institutions, the divine institution of universal truth and life? The Church must have its own definite body or system of catholic truth and its own clear principle and rule of catholic life, and it must believe that these are impossible of attainment only as it is attempting what ought not to be attained. There is a catholic truth and a catholic life of Christianity. Nearly two thousand years of Christian experience have not passed without settling, determining, and establishing anything, without accumulating and consolidating a body of verified fact, of common sense and general consent, in the world of the spiritual any more than in the world of the natural. I make no more, and no less, claim for spiritual than for natural or scientific dogma, that which has passed into common consent and become a part of our common sense. The Church would stultify itself if down to the present it claimed nothing as essential, necessary, and determined in Christianity.

To the realization and preservation of the ideal of a practical unity of historic catholicity with real liberty and progress of truth and life let us see then what is necessary. "We shall have, in one way, to make a wide and recognized distinction between the historic organic faith and life of the Church as a whole and the faith and life demanded of its individual members--and even more especially of those who do its original thinking and living. The Church represents an organic product, a universal resultant, the consent of the climes and the ages, the spiritual common sense of Christendom. You deny Christianity as a department of human life if you deny it a body of catholic dogma in faith and morals. The Church must stand for the accumulation and organization of that which is common, that which has passed into consent and agreement, has become res adjudicata, as over against the infinite diversities and vagaries of individual Christians.

On the other hand, we must remember that catholic truth or consent itself was, and could have been, the outcome or resultant of only the very utmost diversity, which means freedom of thought and experience at the first. It is a recognized fact that catholic truth was formulated only over against and in conflict with every possible kindred error. If its life consists still in its being the truth, its continued living depends upon its continuous power to affirm and maintain itself against every form of opposing error. The moment catholicity becomes only a victory of the past, no longer needing, and therefore by consequence losing its power, to defend and maintain itself in the present, in that moment it begins to become a mere fossil or fetich--a dead form, resting for acceptance upon an authority external to itself and quite distinct from the exercise of its own vitality and activity. There is no real rest but in continuously accomplished labor; there is no peace but in ever newly won victory; there is no living truth but in the perpetually renewed conquest of opposing error. Dogma must not only have approved itself and won consent; it must continue to approve itself and be able to retain consent.


Therefore, while the Church must ever maintain and represent the unity and continuity of truth and life, must resist change until it can win her own catholic consent, and must stand for the highest tribunal and authority possible for us, it must for its own life do this alongside, and in a real tolerance of, the utmost liberty and diversity, the always possible and often actual mistakes and contradictions of her individual members--and most so, I repeat, of her most originally and energetically thinking and living members. Our baptism, our confirmation, our ordination successively and progressively bind us in a growing loyalty to the faith and life of the Church. They do not bind us to a mechanical and necessary making these our own; for they can never in that way really be made our own; they can become so only in the free use and exercise of our own reason and will. As a matter of fact, there is nothing distinctively human in life, nothing rational, free, or personal, that we do not receive and accept as not our own but the general, long before we are capable of making it personally our own. The Church is no exception; we accept or receive it at first as the actually existent accredited mind and voice and authority of organized Christianity. We accept it as we accept the family, the State, as we accept the common sense, the common culture, the common life, of which we are products and parts. Not one individual in a thousand is competent to set up himself against the common--the common experience, the combined wisdom, which mostly shapes and determines us all.

But nothing in this world, not even the Church, is in an absolute sense infallible and irreformable. The Whole World, the quod semper, quod ubique, et quod ab omnibus, the Church, is only relatively or practically infallible, irreformable because there is nothing higher to reform it except its own higher self convinced and consenting. It is not impossible, however, that the world or the Church shall out of itself produce one at some one point greater than itself and capable of correcting and amending it, or of raising it higher than itself. There is nothing theoretically or actually impossible in an Athanasius in the right, contra mundum or contra ecclesiam. Indeed it is just in this that consists the fact of the Church's life and the possibility of the Church's freedom and progress. The Church that does not hold itself and keep itself open to conviction and correction from within itself is not a living Church. And it can do so only by keeping up the freedom and persistence of thought and knowledge within itself. If one should arise who is in fact raised up and qualified to amend or correct the common sense, the common truth, or the common life of the Church or of the whole world, he ought to find a Church or a world ready to be convinced and to give consent. Alas! he never does. One who would change the common, the general, or universal, ought, we might say, to possess the transcendent qualification and call to do so. But the transcendent one will never arise in the Church in which the aspiration and the effort to transcend is not permitted, in which the thousand failures that lay the foundation for a single success are not allowed to make themselves.


The principle which needs first of all to be established, as the condition of anything further, is this: That as the holiness of the Church is not compromised or contradicted by the weaknesses, the shortcomings, the sins of its members--any more than the efficiency of a hospital by the illness of its patients; so the truth and life of the Church itself is not compromised by the mistakes and errors and falsities of its individual teachers and doctors. To say that all these must believe and teach with the practical certitude and infallibility of the Church itself is to say that they must do so mechanically or by necessity. The power to be free cannot be separated from the right to err. Put the right of error outside the Church, and you put with it the possibility of real freedom or of real truth.

I am aware that fearless thought and fearless action along the line of freedom is no plain or easy solution of the problem before us. But let us remember that civil society before us has never lost anything in the way of social unity, harmony, or peace by extending the limits even to the utmost of freedom of individual thought, speech, and action. Extremes always work themselves off best by freedom to work themselves out. The best expulsion of error is through the freedom permitted to it of self-exposure. Our end in view is not the licensing of error, but the ultimate best, if not only, method of eliminating error by suffering it to meet and be overcome by truth. By all means let the Church guard and preserve her faith, order, and discipline, her creeds, her ministry, and her worship. But let her neither indulge the weak fear that these are really endangered or compromised by the fullest freedom conceded to and exercised by her members, nor imagine that danger or harm can be averted by the suppression or by the expulsion of that freedom. If our desire is to propagate error, there is no surer way than to prosecute, suppress, and exclude liberty. Let the Church not be afraid to keep herself in perpetual question by her own children. If their questionings be true, let her have all the benefit of them. If they be false, let her meet them, and be able to meet and answer them, with the truth.

Is there to be no limit to this toleration? Of course there must be, but the limit will very largely, and just in proportion as it is allowed to do so, fix itself. In the Church, at least as we have it, there is no uncertainty in the voice or in the expression of catholic Christianity. And that voice has to express itself with no uncertain sound through the lips of every accredited representative of the Church. If he utters it falsely or deceitfully, the harm or the danger is to him, not to the Church. All the world knows what the Church's truth is, which he has accepted the commission and made a solemn promise to teach. He has perfect freedom to resign that commission and to withdraw that promise at any time, and it is a libel to assume or assert that there is any body of men who will continue to exercise the Church's ministry with conscious falsity or deceit. If they do, their conviction and penalty will not need to be imposed by the Church. But if the truth of the Church is living and free truth, then there will of necessity arise men from time to time who, with all possible sincerity of loyalty and devotion to the Church, will find themselves unable to make their own some one or other part of even catholic truth. This may stop short at the point of only personal inability to comprehend and appropriate the truth in question, or it may go further in all sincerity and love and devotion to the Church to wish and even to attempt its correction in the particular in question. To rule this impossible in the Church, to exact of every one of her members or thinkers or teachers her own complete standard and attainment of catholicity, is to impose a law of mechanical necessity fatal to either freedom or life. If the life of freedom is impossible without the liability of error, then I say that the liability to error is not only to be tolerated, but to be desiderated and expected within the Church.


The present practicability of acting upon so fearless a principle of freedom depends upon the present life of truth in the Church, or the present life of the Church to the truth. If we have the truth wrapped up in a napkin as a sacred deposit handed down from the past, if we hold it now as the decision of a council or the letter of a creed and not by the continuous self-demonstration of its truth in itself and its meaning and necessity to us, then indeed may our dead or dormant catholicity be afraid of the much alive and wide-awake heresies that confront it as in the earliest ages. Then may we indeed not know what to do with them, but rule them out of existence in the Church by the letter of a law or a statute. But that will not do nowadays. Nothing but the life and the living thought that shaped the decisions and wrought the creeds can maintain the decisions or defend the creeds now. And for one, I think I begin to see that the impossibility of extinguishing error by legislation or banishing it by exclusion or of getting rid of it in any other way than by meeting and overcoming it with the truth, the necessity therefore of holding the truth always for its truth and not for its enactment--in a word, the principle of the freedom of truth, with a fair field and no favor--as it is the condition of the Church's own ever-present life, so is it the only hope of its ultimate unity and peace.

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