Sermon 1. The Philosophical Temper, First Enjoined by the Gospel

"Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the Light of the world." John viii. 12.

{1} FEW charges have been more frequently urged by unbelievers against Revealed Religion, than that it is hostile to the advance of philosophy and science. That it has discouraged the cultivation of literature can never with any plausibility be maintained, since it is evident that the studies connected with the history and interpretation of the Scriptures have, more than any others, led to inquiries into the languages, writings, and events of ancient times. Christianity has always been a learned religion; it came into the world as the offspring of an elder system, to which it was indebted for much which it contained, and which its professors were obliged continually to consult. The Pagan philosopher, on enrolling himself a member of the Christian Church, was invited, nay, required, to betake himself to a line of study almost unknown to the schools of Greece. The Jewish {2} books were even written in a language which he did not understand, and opened to his view an account of manners and customs very different from those with which he was familiar. The writings of the ancients were to be collected, and their opinions examined; and thus those studies which are peculiarly called learned would form the principal employment of one who wished to be the champion of the Christian faith. The philosopher might speculate, but the theologian must submit to learn.

2. It cannot, then, be maintained that Christianity has proved unfavourable to literary pursuits; yet, from the very encouragement it gives to these, an opposite objection has been drawn, as if on that very account it impeded the advancement of philosophical and scientific knowledge. It has been urged, with considerable plausibility, that the attachment to the writings of the ancients which it has produced has been prejudicial to the discovery of new truths, by creating a jealousy and dislike of whatever was contrary to received opinions. And thus Christianity has been represented as a system which stands in the way of improvement, whether in politics, education, or science; as if it were adapted to the state of knowledge, and conducive to the happiness, of the age in which it was introduced, but a positive evil in more enlightened times; because, from its claim to infallibility, it cannot itself change, and therefore must ever be endeavouring to bend opinion to its own antiquated views. Not to mention the multitude of half-educated men who are avowedly hostile to Revealed {3} Religion, and who watch every new discovery or theory in science, in hope that something to its disadvantage may hence be derived, it is to be lamented that many even of the present respectable advocates of improvements in the condition of society, and patrons of general knowledge, seem to consider the interests of the human race quite irreconcilable with those of the Christian Church; and though they think it indecorous or unfeeling to attack Religion openly, yet appear confidently to expect that the progress of discovery and the general cultivation of the human mind must terminate in the fall of Christianity.

3. It must be confessed that the conduct of Christians has sometimes given countenance to these erroneous views respecting the nature and tendency of Revealed Religion. Too much deference has been paid to ancient literature. Admiration of the genius displayed in its writings, an imagination excited by the consideration of its very antiquity, not unfrequently the pride of knowledge and a desire of appearing to be possessed of a treasure which the many do not enjoy, have led men to exalt the sentiments of former ages to the disparagement of modern ideas. With a view, moreover, to increase (as they have supposed) the value and dignity of the sacred volume, others have been induced to set it forth as a depository of all truth, philosophical as well as religious; although St. Paul seems to limit its utility to profitableness for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. Others, again, have been too diligent and too hasty in answering every frivolous {4} and isolated objection to the words of Scripture, which has been urged,—nay, which they fancied might possibly be urged,—from successive discoveries in science; too diligent, because their minute solicitude has occasioned them to lose sight of the Christian Evidence as a whole, and to magnify the objection, as if (though it were unanswerable) it could really weigh against the mass of argument producible on the other side; and too hasty because, had they been patient, succeeding discoveries would perhaps of themselves have solved for them the objection, without the interference of a controversialist. The ill consequences of such a procedure are obvious: the objection has been recognized as important, while the solution offered has too often been inadequate or unsound. To feel jealous and appear timid, on witnessing the enlargement of scientific knowledge, is almost to acknowledge that there may be some contrariety between it and Revelation.

4. Our Saviour, in the text, calls Himself the Light of the world; as David had already said, in words which especially belong to this place [Note 1] and this day [Note 2], "The Lord is my Light;" and though He so speaks {5} of Himself as bringing religious knowledge to an ignorant and apostate race, yet we have no reason to suppose that He forbids lawful knowledge of any kind, and we cannot imagine that He would promulgate, by His inspired servants, doctrines which contradict previous truths which He has written on the face of nature.

5. The objection to Christianity, to which the foregoing remarks relate, may be variously answered.

First, by referring to the fact that the greatest Philosophers of modern times—the founders of the new school of discovery, and those who have most extended the boundaries of our knowledge—have been forced to submit their reason to the Gospel; a circumstance which, independent of the argument for the strength of the Christian Evidence which the conviction of such men affords, at least shows that Revealed Religion cannot be very unfavourable to scientific inquiries, when those who sincerely acknowledge the former still distinguish themselves above others in the latter.

6. Again, much might be said on the coincidence which exists between the general principles which the evidence for Revelation presupposes, and those on which inquiries into nature proceed. Science and {6} Revelation agree in supposing that nature is governed by uniform and settled laws. Scripture, properly understood, is decisive in removing all those irregular agents which are supposed to interrupt, at their own pleasure, the order of nature. Almost every religion but that of the Bible and those derived from it, has supposed the existence of an indefinite number of beings, to a certain extent independent of each other, able to interfere in the affairs of life, and whose interference (supposing it to exist) being reducible to no law, took away all hope of obtaining any real information concerning the actual system of the universe. On the other hand, the inspired writers are express in tracing all miraculous occurrences to the direct interposition, or at least the permission of the Deity; and since they also imply that miracles are displayed, not at random, but with a purpose, their declarations in this respect entirely agree with the deductions which scientific observation has made concerning the general operation of established laws, and the absence of any arbitrary interference with them on the part of beings exterior to the present course of things. The supposition, then, of a system of established laws, on which all philosophical investigation is conducted, is also the very foundation on which the evidence for Revealed Religion rests. It is the more necessary to insist upon this, because some writers have wished to confuse the Jewish and Christian faiths with those other religions and those popular superstitions which are framed on no principle, and supported by no pretence of reasoning. {7}

7. Without enlarging, however, on arguments of this nature, it is proposed now to direct attention to the moral character which both the Jewish and Christian Religions hold up as the excellence and perfection of human nature; for we shall find that some of those habits of mind which are throughout the Bible represented as alone pleasing in the sight of God, are the very habits which are necessary for success in scientific investigation, and without which it is quite impossible to extend the sphere of our knowledge. If this be so, then the fact is accounted for without difficulty, why the most profound philosophers have acknowledged the claims of Christianity upon them. And further, considering that the character, which Scripture draws of the virtuous man, is as a whole (what may be called) an original character,—only the scattered traces of it being found in authors unacquainted with the Bible,—an argument will almost be established in favour of Christianity, as having conferred an intellectual as well as a spiritual benefit on the world.

8. For instance, it is obvious that to be in earnest in seeking the truth is an indispensable requisite for finding it. Indeed, it would not be necessary to notice so evident a proposition, had it not been for the strange conduct of the ancient philosophers in their theories concerning nature and man. It seems as though only one or two of them were serious and sincere in their inquiries and teaching. Most of them considered speculations on philosophical subjects rather in the light of an amusement than of a grave employment,— {8} as an exercise for ingenuity, or an indulgence of fancy,—to display their powers, to collect followers, or for the sake of gain. Indeed, it seems incredible that any men, who were really in earnest in their search after truth, should have begun with theorizing, or have imagined that a system which they were conscious they had invented almost without data, should happen, when applied to the actual state of things, to harmonize with the numberless and diversified phenomena of the world. Yet, though it seems to be so obvious a position when stated, that in forming any serious theory concerning nature, we must begin with investigation, to the exclusion of fanciful speculation or deference to human authority, it was not generally recognized or received as such, till a Christian philosopher forced it upon the attention of the world. And surely he was supported by the uniform language of the whole Bible, which tells us that truth is too sacred and religious a thing to be sacrificed to the mere gratification of the fancy, or amusement of the mind, or party spirit, or the prejudices of education, or attachment (however amiable) to the opinions of human teachers, or any of those other feelings which the ancient philosophers suffered to influence them in their professedly grave and serious discussions.

9. Again: modesty, patience, and caution, are dispositions of mind quite as requisite in philosophical inquiries as seriousness and earnestness, though not so obviously requisite. Rashness of assertion, hastiness in drawing conclusions, unhesitating reliance on our own acuteness and powers of reasoning, are inconsistent with the {9} homage which nature exacts of those who would know her hidden wonders. She refuses to reveal her mysteries to those who come otherwise than in the humble and reverential spirit of learners and disciples. So, again, that love of paradox which would impose upon her a language different from that which she really speaks, is as unphilosophical as it is unchristian. Again, indulgence of the imagination, though a more specious fault, is equally hostile to the spirit of true philosophy, and has misled the noblest among the ancient theorists, who seemed to think they could not go wrong while following the natural impulses and suggestions of their own minds, and were conscious to themselves of no low and unworthy motive influencing them in their speculations.

10. Here, too, may be mentioned the harm which has been done to the interests of science by excessive attachment to system. The love of order and regularity, and that perception of beauty which is most keen in highly-gifted minds, has too often led men astray in their scientific researches. From seeing but detached parts of the system of nature, they have been carried on, without data, to arrange, supply, and complete. They have been impatient of knowing but in part, and of waiting for future discoveries; they have inferred much from slender premisses, and conjectured when they could not prove. It is by a tedious discipline that the mind is taught to overcome those baser principles which impede it in philosophical investigation, and to moderate those nobler faculties and feelings which are prejudicial when in excess. To be dispassionate and cautious, to {10} be fair in discussion, to give to each phenomenon which nature successively presents its due weight, candidly to admit those which militate against our own theory, to be willing to be ignorant for a time, to submit to difficulties, and patiently and meekly proceed, waiting for farther light, is a temper (whether difficult or not at this day) little known to the heathen world; yet it is the only temper in which we can hope to become interpreters of nature, and it is the very temper which Christianity sets forth as the perfection of our moral character.

11. Still further, we hear much said in praise of the union of scientific men, of that spirit of brotherhood which should join together natives of different countries as labourers in a common cause. But were the philosophers of ancient times influenced by this spirit? In vain shall we look among them for the absence of rivalry; and much less can we hope to find that generosity of mind, which in its desire of promoting the cause of science, considers it a slight thing to be deprived of the credit of a discovery which is really its due. They were notoriously jealous of each other, and anxious for their personal consequence, and treasured up their supposed discoveries with miserable precaution, allowing none but a chosen few to be partakers of their knowledge. On the contrary, it was Christianity which first brought into play on the field of the world the principles of charity, generosity, disregard of self and country, in the prospect of the universal good; and which suggested the idea of a far-spreading combination, peaceful yet secure. {11}

12. It cannot be denied, however, that the true philosophical spirit did not begin to prevail till many ages after the preaching of Christianity, nay, till times comparatively of recent date; and it has, in consequence, been maintained that our own superiority over the ancients in general knowledge, is not owing to the presence of the Christian Religion among us, but to the natural course of improvement in the world. And doubtless it may be true, that though a divine philosophy had never been given us from above, we might still have had a considerable advantage over the ancients in the method and extent of our scientific acquirements. Still, admitting this, it is also true that Scripture was, in matter of fact, the first to describe and inculcate that single-minded, modest, cautious, and generous spirit, which was, after a long time, found so necessary for success in the prosecution of philosophical researches. And though the interval between the propagation of Christianity and the rise of modern science is certainly very long, yet it may be fairly maintained that the philosophy of the Gospel had no opportunity to extend itself in the province of matter till modern times. It is not surprising if the primitive Christians, amid their difficulties and persecutions, and being for the most part private persons in the less educated ranks of life, should have given birth to no new school for investigating nature; and the learned men who from time to time joined them were naturally scholars in the defective philosophies of Greece, and followed their masters in their physical speculations; and having more important matters in hand, took for granted what they had no {12} means of ascertaining. Nor is it wonderful, considering how various is the subject-matter, and how multiform have been the developments of Christianity at successive eras, that the true principles of scientific research were not elicited in the long subsequent period. Perhaps the trials and errors through which the Church has passed in the times which have preceded us, are to be its experience in ages to come.

13. It may be asked how it comes to pass, if a true philosophical temper is so allied to that which the Scriptures inculcate as the temper of a Christian, that any men should be found distinguished for discoveries in science, who yet are ill disposed towards those doctrines which Revelation enjoins upon our belief. The reason may be this: the humility and teachableness which the Scripture precepts inculcate are connected with principles more solemn and doctrines more awful than those which are necessary for the temper of mind in which scientific investigation must be conducted; and though the Christian spirit is admirably fitted to produce the tone of thought and inquiry which leads to the discovery of truth, yet a slighter and less profound humility will do the same. The philosopher has only to confess that he is liable to be deceived by false appearances and reasonings, to be biassed by prejudice, and led astray by a warm fancy; he is humble because sensible he is ignorant, cautious because he knows himself to be fallible, docile because he really desires to learn. But Christianity, in addition to this confession, requires him to acknowledge himself to be a rebel {13} in the sight of God, and a breaker of that fair and goodly order of things which the Creator once established. The philosopher confesses himself to be imperfect; the Christian feels himself to be sinful and corrupt. The infirmity of which the philosopher must be conscious is but a relative infirmity—imperfection as opposed to perfection, of which there are infinite degrees. Thus he believes himself placed in a certain point of the scale of beings, and that there are beings nearer to perfection than he is, others farther removed from it. But the Christian acknowledges that he has fallen away from that rank in creation which he originally held; that he has passed a line, and is in consequence not merely imperfect, but weighed down with positive, actual evil. Now there is little to lower a man in his own opinion, in his believing that he holds a certain definite station in an immense series of creatures, and is in consequence removed, by many steps, from perfection; but there is much very revolting to the minds of many, much that is contrary to their ideas of harmony and order, and the completeness of the system of nature, and much at variance with those feelings of esteem with which they are desirous of regarding themselves, in the doctrine that man is disgraced and degraded from his natural and original rank; that he has, by sinning, introduced a blemish into the work of God; that he is guilty in the court of heaven, and is continually doing things odious in the sight of the Divine holiness. And as the whole system of the Christian faith depends upon this doctrine, since it was to redeem man from deserved punishment that Christ suffered on the cross, and in {14} order to strengthen him in his endeavours to cleanse himself from sin, and prepare for heaven, that the Holy Spirit has come to rule the Church, it is not wonderful that men are found, admirable for their philosophical temper and their success in investigating nature, and yet unworthy disciples in the school of the Gospel.

14. Such men often regard Christianity as a slavish system, which is prejudicial to the freedom of thought, the aspirations of genius, and the speculations of enterprise; an unnatural system, which sets out with supposing that the human mind is out of order, and consequently bends all its efforts to overthrow the constitution of feeling and belief with which man is born, and to make him a being for which nature never intended him; and a pernicious system, which unfits men for this life by fixing their thoughts on another, and which, wherever consistently acted upon, infallibly leads (as it often has led) to the encouragement of the monastic spirit, and the extravagances of fanaticism.

15. Although, then, Christianity seems to have been the first to give to the world the pattern of the true spirit of philosophical investigation, yet, as the principles of science are, in process of time, more fully developed, and become more independent of the religious system, there is much danger lest the philosophical school should be found to separate from the Christian Church, and at length disown the parent to whom it has been so greatly indebted. And this evil has in a measure befallen us; that it does not increase, we must look to that early religious training, to which there can be no doubt all {15} persons—those in the higher as well as in the poorer classes of the community—should be submitted.

16. To conclude. The ignorance of the first preachers of Christianity has been often insisted on, particularly by the celebrated historian of the Roman Empire, as a presumption or proof of their hostility to all enlightened and liberal philosophy. If, however, as has been here contended, from the precepts they delivered the best canons may be drawn up for scientific investigation, the fact will only tend to prove that they could not, unassisted, have originated or selected precepts so enlarged and so profound; and thus will contribute something to the strength of those accumulated probabilities, which on other grounds are so overpowering, that they spoke not of themselves, but as they were moved by the inspiration of God Himself.

(Preached on Act Sunday afternoon, July 2, 1826, by appointment of the Vice-Chancellor.)

Top | Contents | Works | Home


1. [The motto of the University is "Dominus illuminatio mea."]
Return to text

2. [Act Sunday. "The candidate," says Huber on the English Universities, "emancipated from his teacher, makes himself known to the other teachers by taking part in the disputations in the schools. These services afterwards become formal public acts, disputationes, responsiones, lecturę cursorię. A more especially solemn Act formed the actual close of the whole course of study. The licence was then conferred on him by the Chancellor. A custom arose that all the final and solemn exercises should fall in the second term of the year (hence called the Act Term), and be closed on the last Saturday in term by a solemn general Act, the Vesperię, by keeping which the candidates of all degrees in their different Faculties were considered qualified and entitled to begin the exercises connected with their new degree upon the following Monday. This fresh beginning (inceptio) took place with the greatest solemnity, and formed the point of richest brilliancy in the scholastic year. In Oxford it was called emphatically 'the Act,' in Cambridge 'the Commencement.'" {Abridged from F. W. Newman's translation.) The Act Sunday is or was the Sunday next before the Act, which falls in the first week of July.]
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright © 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.