Page images
PDF
EPUB

of a true Protestant, by what authority are they now enforced ?*

We have dwelt the longer on this subject because of its strong present interest, and because Dr. Stanley has introduced it among the many suggestive applications to modern times, which he has wrought into his account of the Council of Nicæa. We regret that, in some of his conclusions, we find ourselves unable to acquiesce.

“It may be,” he says, “ that the age for creating new forms of the Christian faith is past and gone, that no new ecclesiastical boundaries will henceforth be laid down among men. It is certain that in the use of the old forms is our best chance for the present. Use them to the utmost ; use them threadbare, if you will : long experience, the course of their history, their age and dignity, have made them far more elastic, far more available, than any that we can invent for ourselves.”+

If these words had come from any one but Dr. Stanley, we should have said they showed a want of faith in the living vigour of Christianity. It is not a question of invention, but of growth. We do not believe that Christianity is incapable of passing into new forms. If we did, we could no longer consider it divine; for in all that is divine, there is growth. There is an indestructible life in its fundamental principle, which undergoes a ceaseless transmigration of form from age to age. Generations, as they come and go, can seize for themselves this undying life, and infuse it into their actual circle of ideas, and mould it into an intellectual conception of their own. The consideration in which Dr. Stanley finds a reason for the retention of old creeds, seems to us to furnish the strongest argument for abandoning them as authoritative. It is the artificial pressure

• In some respects we seem to have gone back from the broader views of our ancestors. The following declaration was proposed to be substituted for the present terms of subscription, in an “ Act for the Uniting of their Majesties' Protestant Subjects,'” introduced into the House of Peers, 1689, by Lord Nottingham, a high Churchman and a Tory.

“I, A. B., do submit to the present constitution of the Church of England. I acknowledge that the doctrine of it contains in it all things necessary to salvation, and I will conform myself to the worship and government thereof, as established by law, and I solemnly promise, in the exercise of my ministry, to preach and practise according thereunto.”

This Act is preserved in the Archives of the House of Lords, and is fully described by Lord Macaulay (History of Englund, iv. p. 93), who says, “it has been seen by only two or three persons now living." Its provisions, though far below the rigid demands of logical consistency, by removing one heavy grievance, would probably meet the case of many learned and conscientious men, and be a great step in advance towards true Christian liberty. It is remarkable, considering its authorship, that the terms of this declaration are more general, and therefore more comprehensive and liberal, than those proposed about the same time by Archbishop Tillotson, Bishop Wilkins, and Sir Matthew Hale. See The Church and the Nonconformists of 1662, by the Rev. D. Mountfield, M.A., incumbent of Oxon, Salop, p. 95, note.

+ Eastern Church, p. lxxix.

of this outward form, which keeps down the inner life of religion, and prevents it from bursting forth into new and more fruitful development.

A singular argument has been put forth by a distinguished writer of the present day: that submission to a creed is the necessary condition of spiritual liberty.* The opposite doctrine he pronounces “ a hateful paradox and sophism.” He compares ecclesiastical with civil allegiance; and as man, he argues, does not lose, but gains freedom by coming under the laws of a nation, never, in fact, becomes truly free till he incurs the obligations of a citizen; so he will not admit, that a man abandons any portion of his spiritual liberty by becoming the member of a church, which is governed by a fixed and authoritative creed. It is surprising to us, that he should have overlooked the obvious distinction between civil and spiritual obedience. It is perfectly true, that law is the condition of freedom in all civil society ; that this “is the doctrine of the Bible, and was the doctrine of all the ancient republics, and of our own ancestors." It is also true, that there are fundamental laws of thought and belief, which are the conditions of mental liberty, and apart from which man becomes a madman or a miserable sceptic. But the two cases are not parallel, and there is a sophism in the assumption of their identity. A good civil government determines and controls only those social relations which are indispensable to the pacific and fruitful intercourse of man with man. It is the perfection of its organisation, to leave the widest scope for the free development of individual activity, which is compatible with the enjoyment of equal freedom by others. But whatever a civil government has once enacted as law, it leaves no option to individuals to accept or to reject. The law must be obeyed, whether in itself wise or unwise, just or unjust, if there is to be any peace or even any freedom; for the worst slavery would result from the irresponsible wilfulness of individual action on matters essential to the existence of all society. The rule applies practically to bad governments as well as to good; for it is the basis of all government in any sense. It is better, in the ordinary course of things, to submit to some evil, than incur the peril of upsetting all law. Only in extreme cases is revolution justifiable—where there is a reasonable prospect of ultimate success; and such cases most usually occur, when what men justly feel to be the natural rights of free thought, free speech, and free action, are invaded or withheld. The conditions of spiritual freedom, as affected by an authoritative creed, are very different. All creeds now recognised by Christian Churches, and

* Tracts for Priests and" People, No. 2, “ The Mote and the Beam,” by the Rev. F. D. Maurice. Macmillan: Cambridge and London, 1861 (pp. 34-37).

especially by the Church of England, ignore the fundamental principles of belief and worship, in which alone are found the conditions of true spiritual liberty, as beyond their sphere, -if not at war with revelation, yet belonging to the alien province of natural religion; while they minutely define and anticipate all those points of mere opinion, which should be left to the free working of the individual mind within the limits and upon the foundations that are marked out and fixed by the eternal laws of our being. Creeds legislate for spheres of thought, into which the laws of the best civil commonwealths do not venture to intrude, or only where they have entered into unnatural alliance with the Church. Creeds are silent, where the civil law is imperative. They reverse the order of civil government; they neglect the universal for the particular, the fundamental for the accidental; and the two cases selected for comparison, instead of furnishing a parallel, exhibit only a contrast. That this is so, is evident from the different effects of civil authority exerted through law, and spiritual authority expressed by a creed. Civil law, basing itself on the assumed essentials of social order, enforces universal and unconditional obedience, allows no option whatever, but punishes all resistance with a just severity. If there were real authority in a creed, indispensable to the normal action of the soul on spiritual matters, it would insist on the same conformity to established forms. To be logically consistent, it should prohibit dissent of any kind and degree. Now this notoriously a creed does not do, and cannot do; and for this reason, that it attempts legislation in a field that lies beyond the control of any outward law. All free deference to forms of thought, when spontaneously accepted as a fitting expression of truth, we willingly recognise as legitimate. As we have already allowed this, we need not enlarge on it now. But even among those who acknowledge the same verbal formulary as binding on their consciences, it is perfectly well known, that there are irreconcilable differences of opinion, to meet which they are compelled to force into words a meaning which they do not naturally bear: while the more earnest, who must have an open and undisguised vent for their strongest convictions, break away from the old communion, and either become spiritual outcasts, or are absorbed into some sect. Experience shows the impossibility of making all minds move in the same dogmatic track. With the growth of civilisation, churches and governments are compelled by the force of circumstances to be tolerant. Charles the Fifth, the most imperious of sovereigns, was forced to abandon his cherished idea of universal conformity, and found a late wisdom in the thought, that if it be impossible to make such mechanical structures as clocks and watches go ex

actly alike, it must be still more impossible to reduce the infinitely diversified constitution of human minds to an undeviating rule of orthodoxy. But if this be a law of our mental being, if the more profoundly men believe the more differently they will think, where, we may ask, is the use or even the practicability of creeds which do not record facts, but define opinions, and, if they have any meaning at all, are certainly intended to set opinion in a determinate type. Civil government exerts a compulsory force on the outward life of man; spiritual authority can only influence the reason and the will. This fact seems to us to destroy the analogy that has been adduced between them, and to make all reasoning, for the end proposed, from one to the other fallacious.

We cannot regard the following remarks, from the same quarter, as having any proper bearing on the subject.

“The condition in which I indulge all my own notions and fancies seems to me one of spiritual slavery, very soon it tends to become one of spiritual inanition. I cannot think freely, nobly, hopefully, till I am in fellowship with others—till my mind, heart, conscience, reason, are under a government. But whose government ? By being a member of a Church, I understand being in God's kingdom, under his own government. ... I make innumerable mistakes, and fall into innumerable bewilderments in my attempts to realise the meaning of either region (the world of spirit and the world of sense); but these mistakes and bewilderments assure me that I want a teacher for both, to guide my spirit out of its darkness, to prevent my senses and my understanding from being crushed by the objects about which they are meant to give me information."* With all this, in itself, we sympathise. It is just, and beautifully said. But we are obliged to ask, What has this to do with the authoritative force of an ancient creed? For this is the sole question at issue. Does the writer mean seriously to affirm that with the abandonment of an antique form of words, all spiritual guidance is lost ? Has he so little faith in the irreversible laws of spiritual being, in the natural affections of the heart, and the sheltering culture of home, sweetened and purified by the traditional influences of our common Christianity, in the sayings and examples of the wise and good of every age, in the plain teachings of the Scriptures, in that revelation of true religion which shines through the life and person of Christ himself, -as to suppose, that if these were left to themselves, uninterpreted by the obscure utterances of the symbolic oracle, they would be wholly powerless to guide, and men would be handed over to the spiritual slavery of their own notions and fancies, and sink into spiritual inanition? Are we saved from all this by the

* Tracts for Priests and People, No. 2, pp. 34, 35.

three creeds of the Church ? If this be the writer's meaning, and we can find no other in his words,—we must say, a more sweeping sentence of impotency on the spiritual faculty of man we never met with ; nor can we imagine a statement more calculated, if pursued into its obvious consequences, to strike at the vital root of all natural religion in man. With regard to being in God's kingdom: how do the creeds particularly introduce us into it? How is the authority provable, by which they render us this special service, above and beyond the general influences of nature, providence, Scripture, Christ, through which we are all constituted subjects of his moral government?

Dr. Stanley has observed of the Council of Nicæa* (and his application of this great ecclesiastical phenomenon to the present condition of the Church, is one of the most instructive portions of his work), that its characteristic doctrine of the Homoüsion is properly described by Luther as a propugnaculum fidei, not the faith itself; not the actual citadal, but its outpost in the enemy's country; and that in this light the word was regarded by Athanasius himself.

“Next, after the moral doctrines of the Gospel,” he adds, “ ecclesiastical history teaches us, that the most vital, the most comprehensive, the most fruitful has been, and is still, not the supremacy of the Bible or the authority of its several books, not the power of the Pope or of the Church, not the Sacraments, not Original Sin, not Predestination, not Justification, but the doctrine of the Incarnation. And it is a pregnant fact, that this doctrine, and none of those just named, which have each in their turn been by different sections of the Church regarded as the points of ecclesiastical controversy, was the one which exclusively engaged the attention of the Fathers of Nicæa.”

We believe that a great truth is expressed in these words, with a great fact at its centre; and that a somewhat obscure feeling of this, as a providential stay of faith amidst the license of individual speculation, is the reason of the general clinging to the doctrine of the Incarnation, and to the creed which is supposed most distinctly to record and perpetuate it. Only let us clearly understand what this fact is, and what is the doctrine resulting from it. The double sense in which doctrines may be taken, is one cause of that general mystification of theology, in which timidity and irresolution find so ready a covert, and which makes theological controversy so constantly a mere juggle of words. Is the fact, then, in question, what Mr. Jowett would call a spiritual fact, consisting in the relations of a human soul with God? or is it a corporeal miracle, what we may contradistinguish from the other, as a material, an outward fact? We do not say, that the two facts are without a conceivable

• Eastern Church, p. 214.

« PreviousContinue »