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The Relation of the Protestant Episcopal Church to Freedom of Religious Thought
by James De Koven

Authorized Report of the Third Church Congress in the United States
Boston, November 14, 15, 16 and 17, 1876.

Edited by the General Secretary
[George D. Wildes]

New York: T. Whittaker, 1876
pp 84-95.

The Relation of Freedom to Religious Thought
By the Rev. James DeKoven, D.D.,
Warden of Racine College, Wisconsin

No thought is wholly free. The limitations are due to the conditions of the thinker, and to the subject-matter of the thought. There may be individual incapacity or ignorance, or such a moral condition as may render right thinking on a given subject impossible. There may be also circumstances of the age, or even of race, which limit the powers of the thinker. The human mind itself, beyond a certain point, baffles investigation. Nature, in some of her operations, is wrapped in impenetrable gloom; and though, from the progress of discovery, the hope is ever present that this land of darkness may be further penetrated, yet at last, beyond all possible discovery, there will be something, whatever thought may call it, which will mock man's searching gaze.

These difficulties are increased in the case of religious thought. If religion, natural or revealed, is especially addressed to the moral nature of man, how great an obstacle to freedom of religious thought must be any imperfection of the moral nature, be it individual or general; and how much greater will the limitation seem when one remembers, that the objects of such thought are the voices that have spoken from heaven, "the powers of the world to come;" the Incarnation, Death, and risen Life of the Son of God, the power, majesty, the glory of the Triune God. The greatest enemies to freedom of religious thought are surely those so-called Agnostics, who assert that the objects of such thought are in a sphere not open or possible to human knowledge, either absolute or practical. That which is commonly regarded as the greatest freedom of thought attains that eminence only by a process of self-destruction, and liberates itself from the supposed trammels of natural and revealed religion only by narrowing the region of thought to the things which are seen and temporal. Its freedom is like that of the imprisoned bird, which is content with its perch and sugar and canary-shadows, and the wing that breasts the storm and the eye that grazes on the sun; or of that upward flight that, as it rises, carols forth its praise to heaven; or of that song of which the poet tells, which is at once the sweetest and the last.

But whether the human mind can form a notion of the absolute, the infinite, the unconditioned; or whether it can grasp only imperfect images, condescensions to our frail powers, ideals of justice, purity, personality, which correspond to the conceptions in the human mind; or whether there be some law which binds the created to the Creator, whereby the Father speaks to His children, the Eternal God to the works of His hands--there comes at last a point, somewhere, beyond which human thought cannot go; and as it seeks to pierce the gloom hears a voice proclaiming, "Thus far thou shalt go, and no farther."

But by freedom of religious thought is ordinarily meant, the accepting the conclusions of the individual reason in opposition to authority.

Authority in the realm of thought and belief, is of two kinds, human and divine: (1) of the human teacher, great in influence, or of the conclusions which many men have accepted; and (2) of some voice which cries, "Thus saith the Lord."

It is by a necessary resistance to human authority in the realm of thought, that the victories of truth have in every age been won. In nature, in art, in philosophy, even in morals, some soul, gifted with divine insight, has caught a glimpse of the eternal truth. It is a gift entrusted to him. It is a mission from on high for him to fulfil. He has stood alone and unfriended. He has had to bear the burden of rebellion against accepted ideas. His sole comfort has been the truth which has mastered him; and whether he has seen its victory, or has laid down to rest with the conquest still to come, resistance to human authority in the realm of thought, has been his God-given mission.

There is indeed a spirit in the world which resists authority because it is authority; which holds that the only judge of what it true is the individual reason; and which regards the accepting of what most men have accepted without controversy, or after controversy, as a sign of intellectual weakness.

Surely it is a sign of intellectual strength to believe the corporate reason to be truer to its conclusions than are the conclusions of this or that thinker; that there is a vox populi which is also a vox Dei; that for one man who is called to bring forth the truth against the decisions of the many, there are hundreds who are only playing with error; that life is too short and its duties too practical for it not to be meant that most men should take much for granted; and that even human authority is a merciful provision to save us from mental and spiritual anarchy. It is a rest to the tired heart, a strength for the searching intellect, a stay in the midst of many questionings, a light in the darkness, a guide for the journey, an echo of the voices beyond the veil.

It is too obvious, also, to require more than an allusion to it, that many men rebel against one authority, to accept another which differs from the former only in having less claim to their allegiance. Thus he who rejects the authority of the Church, will often pin his faith to this or that lecturer, this or that popular preacher, this or that thinker. He is just as much a slave to authority, if it be slavery, as he who submits to a heathen oracle or to an infallible pope.

Nay, in searching into the history of men's minds and opinions, will it not sometimes be found that even the most independent of thinkers is the sport of an authority he has unconsciously adopted, so that total independence of thought may be--I say it doubtingly--an impossibility?

But freedom of religious thought must mean more than this. It must mean resistance to an authority which claims to be divine. But here one must carefully distinguish. A great deal of what is commonly called resistance to divine authority may really fall far short of that. It may be that the reason is simply testing whether it is, what it claims to be, a voice from heaven; or it may be the eager straining of ear and eye and heart, that the supposed rebel may know exactly what the divine voice utters.

I ask, then, as the most momentous question a man can ask, what are the divine voices which we must accept? Mere Protestantism says, "The Bible, and the Bible alone." Ultramontane Romanism answers, "The living voice of the Church, ever speaking by the infallible Pope." The scientific professor cries, "Nature, and nature alone." The calm philosopher relies, "The mind, with all its mysteries and all its wonders."

It seems to me that the voice of God to man is one, and yet fourfold. He speaks by the constitution and course of nature; He speaks by the intellectual and moral nature of man; He speaks by the Holy Scriptures, which are the word of God; He speaks by the Holy Catholic Church. He speaks by them, be it noted, because He has first spoken to them. They are His voice, because He made them by His Word; and within the range of their powers, and up to the measure of that which He has given them, they are authoritative. They are like the four gospels, telling in varied ways the self-same story. They are like the City of God, "which lieth foursquare." They are like the living creatures which the prophet saw, "every one having four faces and four wings." They are like the four-fold river, "which compasseth round about the Paradise of God."

These four voices divide naturally into pairs; nature and man, the Bible and the Church. There is a certain precedence in them also. Marvellous as are the wonders of nature, they would move on still in darkness, except there were the mind to investigate and to discover. The calm investigator, the patient thinker, the courageous proclaimer of the results of thought and investigation, is a more wonderful spectacle than the discovery he proclaims!

How marvelous, too, is the power of man over nature! There are no laws of nature more clamorous for obedience than some of our bodily wants, as hunger and thirst, or than the instinct of self-preservation. Yet he is the noblest man who curbs his appetites or subdues them, or lays down his life for any cause good and noble. Nay, man is forever directing the laws of nature; and indeed the final end of most of his discoveries is, that he may direct them.

Time and space, matter, force and energy have their own laws, and accomplish the end for which they are designed; and yet man, up to the measure of his knowledge, directs them all, and could direct them more certainly were he only wiser. And what is prayer but the bringing of man's higher spiritual powers to bear upon the world and his fellow-beings? And what is the miracle, but the act of a human worker inspired by the deeper wisdom and knowledge of Almighty God; or the divine will and power, without a mediating human agent, directing and controlling, but in no sense suspending or altering, the laws of nature? Nature, though a domineering and often a cruel mistress, bows down before man "made in the image of God."

Thus, when we speak of the constitution and nature of man's intellectual and moral nature as authoritative voices, we hold in all its fullness, that man is greater than nature, and mind than matter. I know that these voices of God by nature and man, though ever one and ever true, come through imperfect media. How far this is true of nature may be worthy of scientific thought and statement; but apart from revelation, history and experience prove it to be true of the intellectual and moral nature of man.

But, while this is true, no human words can declare as authoritatively as holy Scripture does, that the course of nature, and the intellect and conscience of man are the voices of Almighty God. Of the course of nature the Hebrew Psalmist sang, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork;" and the great apostle declared to the Romans, as he had done before at Lystra, "that the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead." Of the intellectual and moral nature of man the same apostle declares, "When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, not having the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the works of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another." And with this his speech at Athens agrees.

Now, let it be noticed, that if there is a voice of God by man and nature, it is a voice addressed, not to faith, not to supernatural powers, but to reason and conscience, imperfect though they may be.

But there are two other voices by which God speaks. The first is the written Word of God; the second is the holy Catholic Church. The limits of this paper will not permit me to say what I would, concerning the Bible and its power. Happy is he who can say of it, "Thy word is a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my paths." Living and powerful, and "sharper than any two-edged sword, it pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Inspired by the Spirit of God, testifying of Christ, every word of it is "good and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." Like nature, the Bible is full of wonders. It will repay investigation, and produce as marvelous results, surely, as geological strata. Nay, I accept that pregnant saying of the great Bishop Butler, "Nor is it at all wonderful that a book which has been so long in the possession of mankind should contain many truths as yet undiscovered." (Anal., P. II. c. iii.)

While all this is true, and more, the Bible bears somewhat the same relationship to the Church that nature does to the mind of man. It is the office of the Church to keep and guard the written Word; to bear witness to what it is; to interpret it where it is doubtful; to read it and to preach it. The Church, as "the pillar and ground of the truth," as the duly-organized "body of Christ," is invested with authority in all matters of faith. For it is to faith that both the Bible and the Church address themselves; and the Church is the Bible's interpreter, just as mind is nature's interpreter.

But here I must pause to answer the obvious inquiry as to what part the reason acts in the reception of things addressed to faith. The province of the reason in divine things is threefold:

1. It is the province of the reason to state, in terms which the understanding can grasp, what the mysteries of religion are. But for the fact that so many careless thinkers confound the two things, it would hardly be necessary to say, that this is a very different thing from an attempt to explain mysteries. To state the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Incarnation, or of the holy Eucharist, with all the careful distinctions which the authority of the Church and the wisdom of the faithful have determined, is perfectly consistent with the acknowledgement that not one of these mysteries admits of explanation. And yet when one begins to state logically what he believes, he is instantly opposed by a whirlwind of talk as to the use of logic in religion and the danger of speculation; all which is merely another way of gratifying intellectual laziness or theological mistiness.

2. It is the province of the reason to state what divine mysteries cannot be; because, while they may be above and beyond reason, they can never be contrary to it. A statement like this, I am aware, must require certain limitations; but in a broad, general way it is an immutable truth.

3. It is the province of the reason to weigh, in all respects, the testimony on which authority rests. If the authority is to be accepted, it must be upon testimony. To sift this testimony--to call up the witnesses, to interrogate them, to test their claims, to weight their evidence, and to accept or reject it--this is the fearful responsibility of conscience and private judgment, of the power of man's free will. Thus even the man who accepts papal infallibility, and thus most surrenders himself to an authority, must previously have decided, on testimony and evidence, that the Pope is infallible.

Thus do these four voices stand face to face in pairs; nature with all its wonders governed by the intellectual and moral nature of man, and the Bible with all its glories and beauties, its patience and comfort, guarded and kept by the holy Catholic Church.

But what if the voices contradict one another?

Let it be noticed that the possibility of such contradiction is largely diminished by the consideration, that the voice of God by nature and man, speaks in the sphere to which nature and man belong, and is addressed to reason and conscience; while the voice of God, by the Bible and the Church, is concerned with truths of the supernatural order, and is addressed to faith. But if they all are the voice of the one true God, they cannot contradict one another. If they seem to do so, the apparent contradictions are only like the same difficulty in nature--are the finger that points to some undiscovered truth. Either nature, or Scripture, or the mind of man, or the teaching of the Church, is not rightly interpreted. All that is needed, is patience and further research, or a larger induction of facts; or the casting away of what is plainly false reasoning, or hasty conjecture, or mere hypothesis, or purely human interpretation, and the contradiction must disappear.

It is within these limits--namely, the right use of the reason, and the serious listening to whatever the voices of God say or seem to say--that freedom of thought has its appointed bounds; within these limits to be patient of all honest investigation; to give it not only toleration, but warm and ardent sympathy; to be so firm in our belief in the eternal truth, that we can gladly invite every kind of manly research; nay, to be willing to bear with those who search for the truth, even of envy and strife; being sure that in the end, whether in pretence or in truth, the eternal verities will be proclaimed--this should be the attitude of every Christian. The truth is so strong that it can afford to be patient. It is gentle, and sympathizing, and tolerant of immaturity. It has a fatherly compassion for those who seek it. It is not fussy, or boisterous, or loud-talking, or wire-pulling. It may indeed sometimes, like the beloved apostle, against convicted error be compelled to utter its anathema; but even though it have apostolic authority, it will take good heed how it does so, lest it should incur the condemnation which even St. John once did not escape when, desiring to call down fire from heaven, "as Elias did," the lips divine proclaimed, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of."

No doubt the very eagerness of scientific research, at which so many humble souls are trembling, has its appointed purpose. Who of modern intellectual philosophers have surpassed Plato and Aristotle? They are masters still in the realm of mental philosophy. Living before the dawn of Christianity, they were permitted to show how far human reason, unassisted by revelation, could go; and how helpless human reason is in the presence of the terrible problems it is compelled to meet. So, too, in the realm of nature, men have yet to go far beyond what the greatest natural philosophers have attained to. They will trace law beyond law, force beyond force, energy beyond energy. They may yet penetrate to the most distant star, and to the hidden recesses of this earth of ours; and when it is done, what then? Why, still to stand face to face with sorrow and pain, and limited powers, and truths that baffle investigation, and sin and death and eternity and the Great First Cause; and on the furthest confines of knowledge to stand and proclaim, whether they will or no, that the Eternal God is still our refuge, and the Everlasting Arms our stay, and the Incarnate God crucified, our sole salvation! Oh, let us beware of any lack of toleration! It enlists, even on the side of error, generosity, kindness of heart, largeness of thinking, and the love of truth. It stops freedom of utterance, the ready proclamation of belief, the due investigation of subjects. It drives away generous hearts, youthful enthusiasm, loving self-surrender. It narrows and belittles; and whensoever the Church of God surrenders herself to it, be it in never so small a degree, she forgets that she is the Bride of Him who made man in His own image, and the world and all things therein, no less than His Written Word, and herself whom He purchased with his own blood.

But though these four voices cannot contradict one another, it is evident enough that, in the realm of the supernatural, the Bible and the Church proclaim authoritatively, what the constitution of nature and the nature of man cannot proclaim. I pass over the authority of the Bible as distinguished from that of the Church. I deny, without entering into an argument to prove it, that either can contradict the other; and I propose, finally, to answer the questions as to how far the Protestant Episcopal Church can limit freedom of thought, and pronounce authoritatively in the realm of the supernatural.

Surely she can do this, only so far as she speaks the mind of the Catholic Church, of which body she claims to be and is a member. The Catholic Church, though not inspired in the same sense as the Apostles were, has the sure promise that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." Whensoever it speaks--I do not mean its Bishops only, though they take the initiative; I do not mean any part of it, be it never so large; I do not mean a general council, though it has spoken by such--but whensoever the whole Catholic Church has undoubtedly spoken or shall speak, it speaks the truth of God. It must be His voice in and by the Church--a divine word in the realm wherein it has sway.

But has it over so spoken? Yes: in the Creeds of the Church and the decisions of the undisputed General Councils.

And here I am met by the usual sneer, Of what use is a Divine Voice which has kept silence for a thousand years or more? The weary world has been tossing to and fro; war and bloodshed, sorrow and misery, heresy and schism, have all risen from the discussion, now of grace and free-will, now of the power and authority of the Church, now of its relation to the civil power, now of the grace of the sacraments; and yet, like a fettered captive, blind and dumb, or in the calm silence of waiting majesty, the Church has paused. As it was on Mount Cannel, there has been "no voice, nor any that answered." And lo! another claim is pressed upon the conscience of Christendom, of an Infallibility over ready, over compassionate, which has a voice, and dates its decisions--as the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, 1854, and the Infallibility of the Pope in the year 1870--and may at any time mount its cathedra, and relieve discussion and thought and controversy by a needed utterance. And yet surely the argument from analogy is in favor of no such easy way of settling difficult questions. Man had been created, according to the received chronology, 2500 years before "the law was given to Moses;" it was 1500 years later before "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." The Divine Voice has ever waited for human means and powers to be exhausted before it has spoken. There is something lofty in the way in which Truth wins her victories, and in the long probation by which she tries, proves, and educates those who would be her freemen. It might have been to the injury of the truth, had there been a possibility of the voice of the universal Church being heard since the period of the General Councils. A thousand years is not too long for some questions to remain unsettled. The time may yet come when the Church shall speak, though it be not until it is, as it was on Mount Carmel, the hour of the evening sacrifice. Meanwhile it is the duty of that Church of which we are members, to demand, as necessary to eternal salvation, or as a term of communion, in the words of the Lambeth Conference, only what is "taught in the Holy Scriptures, held by the primitive Church, summed up in the Creeds, and affirmed by the undisputed General Councils." Let me add that every such truth must have, not one alone, but each and all of these four marks.

But here one is met by a question of the gravest moment. Before the Council of Nice, these four tests of truth could not have been applied. The Scriptures and the voice of the Church alone existed. There had been no General Council, and at least no Niceno-Constantinopolitan formula. Thus one is led to ask, "cannot a provincial Church impose upon the conscience of her people truths which, though not affirmed by a General Council, may be believed to be rightly inferred from the Creeds, and to have been undoubtedly held by the primitive Church?" Nay, may not the loyal heart inquire, "if the Protestant Episcopal Church be a member of the living Body of the Catholic Church, must she not share in that presence of the Holy Ghost, whose blessed work it is to guide the Church into all truth? Upon all matters which the undivided Church implicitly held, must not her voice be the same as its voice, and have the same authority? Being of Jerusalem, could she talk in the speech of Ashdod?" To answer these questions, one must make some careful distinctions.

I. Between belief and practice. It is one thing to accept the apostolical succession us a historical fact, and to require all who would be ministers of the Church to receive holy orders; and another to insist on any particular view of that succession. It is one thing to require all to be baptized for the remission of sins, and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist; and another to define exactly the doctrine of regeneration, or that of the Real Presence. It is one thing to forbid the invocation of saints, or solitary masses, or obedience to the See of Rome, or the elevation of the Host, or the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament; and another thing to impose on the minds of men the view, say, that the Pope is Antichrist, or that the saints cannot hear us, or that there is no celebration without two or three at the least to receive, or that Christ cannot be adored in the Eucharist, or that the Presence of our Lord is confined to the faithful receiver. I do not for a moment mean to say, that there is not a right and a wrong about these things, a truth or an error; but simply that it is one thing to command or forbid an action, and another to enforce upon the intellect and conscience, certain theories as to the practice or the prohibition. Arguments from the fact that the formularies of the Church forbid certain things, must not be pressed to prove that she requires this or that view with regard to them. It is obvious, also, that in these commands and prohibitions she might, to some degree, be in error, yet in no sense her catholicity be impaired thereby.

2. But has not the Protestant Episcopal Church upon some of these points, and other similar ones, spoken clearly and distinctly? In acknowledging that she has done so, one must except from the acknowledgment every utterance which is not found in her authorized formularies--the uncertain authority of pastoral letters, the ambiguous declarations of bishops; episcopal charges which deliver private opinion for catholic truth; such canons of discipline as have been so framed as to seem to do the work of articles of religion, when they cannot do so; the general tone and view of a particular time in the Church; much more, the political action resulting from such tone; in short, every thing except her Liturgy and Articles.

One must remember, also, that in some of these things, there is much dispute as to what the voice of the Church is; both parties in many controversies expressing their willingness to submit to the voice of the Church, but each asserting that the Church has said what the other denies. This does not mean that controversy necessarily proves that the voice of the Church is ambiguous. The history of the controversy as to baptismal regeneration is a proof of this. One side began by affirming that it was contrary to the Prayer Book to teach this doctrine, and ended by endeavoring to have the Prayer Book altered because it does not teach it. But when there is real ambiguity, and a fair case for both sides, and an evident compromise, it must be acknowledged that the Church has not clearly spoken. These considerations somewhat narrow the range of the positive declarations of the Church; but the question still remains, What is the exact authority of such declarations?

No doubt, to the members of the Church and her ministry, they must be of the gravest weight--must be matters of belief, not of opinion--because they are her testimony borne to what she believes the undivided Church would have said. Being testimony, however, they have to be tried, like all other testimony, by the reason; and hence the eager appeal to antiquity, which all controversy on such utterances of the Church necessarily demands. Since, too, they are testimony, not to a fact, but to a probability, the authority of such utterances, great as it is, can never be such as would make their acceptance a term of communion, or necessary to salvation. The Protestant Episcopal Church has never made them so; nor in the sight of God, or of history, or of the hope of the conversion of the world, or of restored unity, would' she have the right to do so.

And these thoughts may serve to turn our hearts in the direction in which true unity may be found. "If any man will do His will," says our Lord, "he shall know of the doctrine." If one must choose between them, which indeed is not necessary, it is better to bring wanderers to holy baptism, than to be exactly accurate as to the nature of regeneration. It is better to plead, before God in the Holy Eucharist, the Passion of Jesus, and to feed His people with His Body and Blood, than even to be clear and distinct on the doctrine of the Real Presence. All men are akin in sorrow, suffering, and sin, and in wandering from God. Minds far apart, will be drawn together by mutual work, by united sacraments, by the loving rivalry to be foremost in self-surrender, and in work for God. Men who will uplift the Cross of Christ together--men who will tell the same great story, which the Creeds proclaim, of an incarnate God dying for the sins of the world, and of the kingdom He has set up on the earth--will not be found far apart, by and by, as to the ministry and the sacraments.

It was in building the walls of Jerusalem that "with one hand they wrought in the work, and with the other they wielded a weapon." But when, in happier times, they reared the temple itself, there was no clash of spears, no trumpet-call, nor even sound of the workman's hammer.

O day of peace, dawn once again! O temple of the living God, once more arise! O Everlasting Presence, fill Thy earthly courts, that in Thy light, Thy children may behold the glory of the eternal day!

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