Topic - Liberalism Lecture 2. The Difficulties of Latitudinarianism

{126} NO one, I think, will seriously maintain, that any other definite religious system is laid down in Scripture at all more clearly than the Church system. It may be maintained, and speciously, that the Church system is not there, or that this or that particular doctrine of some other system seems to be there more plainly than the corresponding Church doctrine; but that Presbyterianism as a whole, or Independency as a whole, or the religion of Lutherans, Baptists, Wesleyans, or Friends, as a whole, is more clearly laid down in Scripture, and with fewer texts looking the other way—that any of these denominations has less difficulties to encounter than the Creed of the Church,—this I do not think can successfully be maintained. The arguments which are used to prove that the Church system is not in Scripture, may as cogently be used to prove that no system is in Scripture. If silence in Scripture, or apparent contrariety, is an argument against the Church system, it is an argument against system altogether. No system is on the surface of Scripture; none, but has at times to account for the silence or the apparent opposition of Scripture as to particular portions of it.


This, then, is the choice of conclusions to which we are brought:—either Christianity contains no definite message, {127} creed, revelation, system, or whatever other name we give it, nothing which can be made the subject of belief at all; or, secondly, though there really is a true creed or system in Scripture, still it is not on the surface of Scripture, but is found latent and implicit within it, and to be maintained only by indirect arguments, by comparison of texts, by inferences from what is said plainly, and by overcoming or resigning oneself to difficulties;—or again, though there is a true creed or system revealed, it is not revealed in Scripture, but must be learned collaterally from other sources. I wish inquirers to consider this statement steadily. I do not see that it can be disputed; and if not, it is very important. I repeat it; we have a choice of three conclusions. Either there is no definite religious information given us by Christianity at all, or it is given in Scripture in an indirect and covert way, or it is indeed given, but not in Scripture. The first is the Latitudinarian view which has gained ground in this day; the second is our own Anglican ground; the third is the ground of the Roman Church. If then we will not content ourselves with merely probable, or (what we may be disposed to call) insufficient proofs of matters of faith and worship, we must become either utter Latitudinarians or Roman Catholics. If we will not submit to the notion of the doctrines of the Gospel being hidden under the text of Scripture from the view of the chance reader, we must submit to believe either that there are no doctrines at all in Christianity, or that the doctrines are not in Scripture, but elsewhere, as in Tradition. I know of no other alternative.

Many men, indeed, will attempt to find a fourth way, thus: they would fain discern one or two doctrines in Scripture clearly, and no more; or some generalized {128} form, yet not so much as a body of doctrine of any character. They consider that a certain message, consisting of one or two great and simple statements, makes up the whole of the Gospel, and that these are plainly in Scripture; accordingly, that he who holds and acts upon these is a Christian, and ought to be acknowledged by all to be such, for in holding these he holds all that is necessary. These statements they sometimes call the essentials, the peculiar doctrines, the vital doctrines, the leading idea, the great truths of the Gospel,—and all this sounds very well; but when we come to realize what is abstractedly so plausible, we are met by this insurmountable difficulty, that no great number of persons agree together what are these great truths, simple views, leading ideas, or peculiar doctrines of the Gospel. Some say that the doctrine of the Atonement is the leading idea; some, the doctrine of spiritual influence; some, that both together are the peculiar doctrines; some, that love is all in all; some, that the acknowledgment that Jesus is the Christ; and some, that the resurrection from the dead; some, that the announcement of the soul's immortality, is after all the essence of the Gospel, and all that need be believed.

Moreover, since, as all parties must confess, the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is not brought out in form upon the surface of Scripture, it follows either that it is not included in the leading idea, or that the leading idea is not on the surface. And if the doctrine of the Trinity is not to be accounted as one of the leading or fundamental truths of Revelation, the keystone of the mysterious system is lost; and, that being lost, mystery will, in matter of fact, be found gradually to fade away from the Creed altogether; that is, the notion of Christianity as being a revelation of new truths, will gradually fade {129} away, and the Gospel in course of time will be considered scarcely more than the republication of the law of nature. This, I think, will be found to be the historical progress and issue of this line of thought. It is but one shape of Latitudinarianism. If we will have it so, that the doctrines of Scripture should be on the surface of Scripture, though I may have my very definite notion what doctrines are on the surface, and you yours, and another his, yet you and he and I, though each of us in appearance competent to judge, though all serious men, earnest, and possessed of due attainments, nevertheless will not agree together what those doctrines are; so that, practically, what I have said will come about in the end,—that (if we are candid) we shall be forced to allow, that there is no system, no creed, no doctrine at all lucidly and explicitly set forth in Scripture; and thus we are brought to the result, which I have already pointed out: if we will not seek for revealed truth under the surface of Scripture, we must either give up seeking for it, or must seek for it in Tradition,—we must become Latitudinarians or Roman Catholics.


Now of these alternatives, the Roman idea or the Latitudinarian, the latter I do really conceive to be quite out of the question with every serious mind. The Latitudinarian doctrine is this: that every man's view of Revealed Religion is acceptable to God, if he acts up to it; that no one view is in itself better than another, or at least that we cannot tell which is the better. All that we have to do then is to act consistently with what we hold, and to value others if they act consistently with what they hold; that to be consistent constitutes sincerity; that where there is this evident sincerity, it is no matter {130} whether we profess to be Romanists or Protestants, Catholics or Heretics, Calvinists or Arminians, Anglicans or Dissenters, High Churchmen or Puritans, Episcopalians or Independents, Wesleyans or Socinians. Such seems to be the doctrine of Latitude. Now, I can conceive such a view of the subject to be maintainable, supposing God had given us no Revelation,—though even then, (by the way,) and were we even left to the light of nature, belief in His existence and moral government would, one should think, at least be necessary to please Him. "He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them which diligently seek Him." [Heb. xi. 6.] But however, not to press this point, one may conceive that, before God had actually spoken to us, He might accept as sufficient a sincere acting on religious opinions of whatever kind; but that, after a Revelation is given, there is nothing to believe, nothing (to use an expressive Scripture word) to "hold," to "hold fast," that a message comes from God, and contains no subject-matter, or that, containing it (as it must do), it is not important to be received, and is not capable of being learned by any one who takes the proper means of learning it, that there is in it nothing such, that we may depend on our impression of it to be the true impression, may feel we have really gained something, and continue in one and one only opinion about it,—all this is so extravagant, that I really cannot enter into the state of mind of a person maintaining it. I think he is not aware what he is saying. Why should God speak, unless He meant to say something? Why should He say it, unless He meant us to hear? Why should we be made to hear if it mattered not whether we accepted it or no? What the doctrine is, is another and distinct question; but {131} that there is some doctrine revealed, and that it is revealed in order that it may be received, and that it really is revealed, (I mean, not so hidden that it is a mere matter of opinion, a mere chance, what is true and what is not, and that there are a number of opposite modes of holding it, one as good as another, but) that it is plain in one and the same substantial sense to all who sincerely and suitably seek for it, and that God is better pleased when we hold it than when we do not,—all this seems a truism. Again, where it is given us, whether entirely in Scripture, or partly elsewhere,—this too is another and secondary question; though, if some doctrine or other is really given, that it must be given somewhere, is a proposition which cannot be denied, without some eccentricity or confusion of mind, or without some defect in seriousness and candour. I say, first, if there be a Revelation, there must be some essential doctrine proposed by it to our faith; and, if so, the question at once follows, what is it, and how much, and where? and we are forthwith involved in researches of some kind or other, somewhere or other; for the doctrine is not written on the sun.

For reasons such as the above, I really cannot conceive a serious man, who realized what he was speaking about, to be a consistent Latitudinarian. He always will reserve from the general proscription his own favourite doctrine, whatever it is; and then holding it, he will be at once forced into the difficulty, which is ours also, but which he would fain make ours only and not his, that of stating clearly what this doctrine of his is, and what are those grounds of it, such, as to enable him to take in just so much of dogmatic teaching as he does take in, and nothing more, to hold so much firmly, and to treat all the rest as comparatively unimportant. {132}

Revelation implies a something revealed, and what is revealed is imperative on our faith, because it is revealed. Revelation implies imperativeness; it limits in its very notion our liberty of thought, because it limits our liberty of error, for error is one kind of thought.

If then I am not allowed to hold that Scripture, however implicit in its teaching, is really dogmatic, I shall be led to be, not a Latitudinarian, but a Roman Catholic. You tell me, that "no creed is to be found in Scripture,—therefore, Christianity has no creed." Indeed! supposing the fact to be as stated (which I do not grant, but supposing it), is this the necessary conclusion? No: there is another. Such an inference indeed as the above is a clever controversial way of settling the matter; it is the sort of answer which in the schools of disputation or the courts of law may find a place, where men are not in earnest; but it is an answer without a heart. It is an excuse for indolence, love of quiet, or worldliness. There is another answer. I do not adopt it, I do not see I am driven to it, because I do not allow the premisses from which the Latitudinarian argument starts. I do not allow that there is no creed at all contained in Scripture, though I grant it is not on the surface. But if there be no divine message, gospel, or creed producible from Scripture, this would not lead me one inch toward deciding that there was none at all anywhere. No; it would make me look out of Scripture for it, that is all. If there is a Revelation, there must be a doctrine; both our reason and our hearts tell us so. If it is not in Scripture, it is somewhere else; it is to be sought elsewhere. Should the fact so turn out, (which I deny,) that Scripture is so obscure that nothing can be made of it, even when the true interpretation is elsewhere given, so obscure that every person will have his own {133} interpretation of it, and no two alike, this would drive me, not into Latitudinarianism, but into Romanism. Yes, and it will drive the multitude of men. It is far more certain that Revelation must contain a message, than that that message must be in Scripture. It is a less violence to one's feelings to say that part of it is revealed elsewhere, than to say that nothing is revealed anywhere. There is an overpowering antecedent improbability in Almighty God's announcing that He has revealed something, and then revealing nothing; there is no antecedent improbability in His revealing it elsewhere than in an inspired volume.

And, I say, the mass of mankind will feel it so. It is very well for educated persons, at their ease, with few cares, or in the joyous time of youth, to argue and speculate about the impalpableness and versatility of the divine message, its chameleon-like changeableness, its adaptation to each fresh mind it meets; but when men are conscious of sin, are sorrowful, are weighed down, are desponding, they ask for something to lean on, something external to themselves. It will not do to tell them that whatever they at present hold as true, is enough. They want to be assured that what seems to them true, is true; they want something to lean on, holier, diviner, more stable than their own minds. They have an instinctive feeling that there is an external, eternal truth which is their only stay; and it mocks them, after being told of a Revelation, to be assured, next, that that Revelation tells us nothing certain, nothing which we do not know without it, nothing distinct from our own impressions concerning it, whatever they may be,—nothing such, as to exist independently of that shape and colour into which our own individual mind happens to throw it. Therefore, practically, those who argue for {134} the vague character of the Scripture informations, and the harmlessness of all sorts of religious opinions, do not tend to advance Latitudinarianism one step among the many,—they advance Romanism. That truth, which men are told they cannot find in Scripture, they will seek out of Scripture. They will never believe, they will never be content with, a religion without doctrines. The common sense of mankind decides against it. Religion cannot but be dogmatic; it ever has been. All religions have had doctrines; all have professed to carry with them benefits which could be enjoyed only on condition of believing the word of a supernatural informant, that is, of embracing some doctrines or other.

And it is a mere idle sophistical theory, to suppose it can be otherwise. Destroy religion, make men give it up, if you can; but while it exists, it will profess an insight into the next world, it will profess important information about the next world, it will have points of faith, it will have dogmatism, it will have anathemas. Christianity, therefore, ever will be looked on, by the multitude, what it really is, as a rule of faith as well as of conduct. Men may be Presbyterians, or Baptists, or Lutherans, or Calvinists, or Wesleyans; but something or other they will be; a creed, a creed necessary to salvation, they will have; a creed either in Scripture or out of it; and if in Scripture, I say, it must be, from the nature of the case, only indirectly gained from Scripture. Latitudinarianism, then, is out of the question; and you have your choice, to be content with inferences from texts in Scripture, or with tradition out of Scripture. You cannot get beyond this; either you must take up with us, (or with some system not at all better off, whether Presbyterianism or Independency, or the like,) or you must go to Rome. Which will you choose? You may not like us; you {135} may be impatient and impetuous; you may go forward but back you cannot go.


But, further, it can scarcely be denied that Scripture, if it does not furnish, at least speaks of, refers to, takes for granted, sanctions, some certain doctrine or message, as is to be believed in order to salvation; and which, accordingly, if not found in Scripture, must be sought for out of it. It says, "He who believeth shall be saved, and he who believeth not shall be damned;" it speaks of "the doctrine of Christ," of "keeping the faith," of "the faith once delivered to the saints," and of "delivering that which has been received," recounting at the same time some of the articles of the Apostles' Creed. And the case is the same as regards discipline; rules of worship and order, whether furnished or not, are at least alluded to again and again, under the title of "traditions." Revelation then will be inconsistent with itself, unless it has provided some Creed somewhere. For it declares in Scripture that it has given us a Creed; therefore some creed exists somewhere, whether in Scripture or out of it.

Nor is this all; from the earliest times, so early that there is no assignable origin to it short of the Apostles, one definite system has in fact existed in the Church both of faith and worship, and that in countries far disjoined from one another, and without any appearance (as far as we can detect) of the existence of any other system anywhere; and (what is very remarkable) a system such, that the portion in it which relates to matters of faith (or its theology), accurately fits in and corresponds to that which relates to matters of worship and order (or its ceremonial); as if they were evidently parts of a whole, and not an accidental assemblage of rites on {136} the one hand, and doctrines on the other;—a system moreover which has existed ever since, and exists at the present day, and in its great features, as in other branches of the Church, so among ourselves;—a system moreover which at least professes to be quite consistent with, and to appeal and defer to, the written word, and thus in all respects accurately answers to that to which Scripture seems to be referring in the notices above cited. Now, is it possible, with this very significant phenomenon standing in the threshold of Christian history, that any sensible man can be of opinion that one creed or worship is as good as another? St. Paul speaks of one faith, one baptism, one body; this in itself is a very intelligible hint of his own view of Christianity; but as if to save his words from misinterpretation, here in history is at once a sort of realization of what he seems to have before his mind.

Under these circumstances, what excuse have we for not recognizing, in this system of doctrine and worship existing in history, that very system to which the Apostles refer in Scripture? They evidently did not in Scripture say out all they had to say; this is evident on the face of Scripture, evident from what they do say. St. Paul says, "The rest will I set in order when I come." St. John, "I had many things to write, but I will not with ink and pen write unto thee; but I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face." This he says in two Epistles. Now supposing, to take the case of profane history, a collection of letters were extant written by the founders or remodellers of the Platonic or Stoic philosophy, and supposing those masters referred in them to their philosophy, and treated of it in some of its parts, yet without drawing it out in an orderly way, and then secondly, supposing there did exist other and more direct historical sources of various kinds, from {137} which a distinct systematic account of their philosophy might be drawn, that is, one account of it and but one from many witnesses, should we not take it for granted that this was their system, that system of which their letters spoke? Should not we accept that system conveyed to us by history with (I will not say merely an antecedent disposition in its favour, but with) a confidence and certainty that it was their system; and if we found discrepancies between it and their letters, should we at once cast it aside as spurious, or should we not rather try to reconcile the two together, and suspect that we were in fault, that we had made some mistake; and even if after all we could not reconcile all parts (supposing it), should we not leave the discrepancies as difficulties, and believe in the system notwithstanding? The Apostles refer to a large existing fact, their system,—"the whole counsel of God"; history informs us of a system, as far as we can tell, contemporaneous with, and claiming to be theirs;—what other claimant is there?

Whether, then, the system of doctrine and worship, referred to but not brought out in Scripture, be really latent there or not, whether our hypothesis be right or the Roman view, at any rate a system there is; we see it, we have it external to Scripture. There it stands, however we may determine the further question, whether it is also in Scripture. Whether we adopt our Sixth Article or not, we cannot obliterate the fact that a system does substantially exist in history; all the proofs you may bring of the obscurities or of the unsystematic character of Scripture cannot touch this independent fact; were Scripture lost to us, that fact, an existing Catholic system, will remain. You have your choice to say that Scripture does or does not agree with it. If you think it actually disagrees with Scripture, then you have your {138} choice between concluding either that you are mistaken in so thinking, or that, although this system comes to us as it does, on the same evidence with Scripture, yet it is not divine, while Scripture is. If, however, you consider that it merely teaches things additional to Scripture, then you have no excuse for not admitting it in addition to Scripture. And if it teaches things but indirectly taught in Scripture, then you must admit it as an interpreter or comment upon Scripture. But, whether you say it is an accordant or a discordant witness, whether the supplement, or complement, or interpreter of Scripture, there it stands, that consistent harmonious system of faith and worship, as in the beginning; and, if history be allowed any weight in the discussion, it is an effectual refutation of Latitudinarianism. It is a fact concurring with the common sense of mankind and with their wants. Men want a dogmatic system; and behold, in the beginning of Christianity, and from the beginning to this day, there it stands. This is so remarkable a coincidence that it will always practically weigh against Latitudinarian views. Infidelity is more intelligible, more honest than they are.

Nor does it avail to say, that there were additions made to it in the course of years, or that the feeling of a want may have given rise to it; for what was added after, whatever it was, could not create that to which it was added; and I say that first of all, before there was a time for the harmonious uniform expansion of a system, for the experience and supply of human wants, for the inroads of innovation, and the growth of corruption, and with all fair allowance for differences of opinions as to how much is primitive, or when and where this or that particular fact is witnessed, or what interpretation is to be given to particular passages in historical {139} documents,—from the first a system exists. And we have no right to refuse it, merely on the plea that we do not see all the parts of it in Scripture, or that we think some parts of it to be inconsistent with Scripture; for even though some parts were not there, this would not disprove its truth; and even though some parts seemed contrary to what is there, this appearance might after all be caused simply by our own incompetency to judge of Scripture.


But perhaps it may here be urged, that I have proved too much; that is, it may be asked "If a system of doctrine is so necessary to Revelation, and appears at once in the writings of the Apostles' disciples, as in the Epistles of St. Ignatius, how is it that it is not in the writings of the Apostles themselves? how does it happen that it does appear in the short Epistles of Ignatius, and does not in the longer Epistles of St. Paul? so that the tendency of the foregoing argument is to disparage the Apostles' teaching, as showing that it is not adapted, and Ignatius's is adapted, to our wants." But the answer to this is simple: for though the Apostles' writings do not on their surface set forth the Catholic system of doctrine, they certainly do contain (as I have said) a recognition of its existence, and of its principle, and of portions of it. If, then, in spite of this, there is no Apostolic system of faith and worship, all we shall have proved by our argument is, that the Apostles are inconsistent with themselves; that they recognize the need of such a system, and do not provide one. How it is they do not draw out a system, while they nevertheless both recognize its principle and witness its existence, has often been discussed, and perhaps I may say something incidentally {140} on the subject hereafter. Here, I do but observe, that on the one side of the question we have the human heart expecting, Scripture sanctioning, history providing,—a coincidence of three witnesses; and on the other side only this, Scripture not actually providing by itself in form and fulness what it sanctions.

Lastly, I would observe, that much as Christians have differed in these latter or in former ages, as to what is the true faith and what the true worship and discipline of Christ, yet one and all have held that Christianity is dogmatic and social, that creeds and forms are not to be dispensed with. There has been an uninterrupted maintenance of this belief from the beginning of Christianity down to this day, with exceptions so partial or so ephemeral as not to deserve notice. I conclude, then, either that the notion of forms and creeds, and of unity by means of them, is so natural to the human mind as to be spontaneously produced and cherished in every age; or that there has been a strong external reason for its having been so cherished, whether in authority, or in argumentative proof, or in the force of tradition. In whatever way we take it, it is a striking evidence in favour of dogmatic religion, and against that unreal form, or rather that mere dream of religion, which pretends that modes of thinking and social conduct are all one and all the same in the eyes of God, supposing each of us to be sincere in his own.

Dismissing, then, Latitudinarianism once for all, as untenable, and taking for granted that there is a system of religion revealed in the Gospel, I come, as I have already stated several times, to one or other of two conclusions: either that it is not all in Scripture, but part in tradition only, as the Romanists say,—or, as the English Church says, that though it is in tradition, yet {141} it can also be gathered from the communications of Scripture. As to the nondescript system of religion now in fashion, viz., that nothing is to be believed but what is clearly stated in Scripture, that all its own doctrines are clearly there and none other, and that, as to history, it is no matter what history says and what it does not say, except so far as it must of course be used to prove the canonicity of Scripture, this will come before us again and again in the following Lectures. Suffice that it has all the external extravagance of Latitudinarianism without any gain in consistency. It is less consistent because it is morally better: Latitudinarianism is less inconsistent because it is intellectually deeper. Both, however, are mere theories in theology, and ought to be discarded by serious men. We must give up our ideal notions, and resign ourselves to facts. We must take things as we find them, as God has given them. We did not make them, we cannot alter them, though we are sometimes tempted to think it very hard that we cannot. We must submit to them, instead of quarrelling with them. We must submit to the indirectness of Scripture [Note], unless we think it wiser and better to become Romanists: and we must employ our minds rather (if so be) in accounting for the fact, than in excepting against it.

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[It may require explanation, why it was that the author, in this argument against Latitudinarianism, should so earnestly insist on the implicit teaching of Scripture, with history for its explicit interpreter, instead of boldly saying that, not Scripture, but history, is our informant in Christian doctrine. But he was hampered by his belief in the Protestant tenet that all revealed doctrine is in Scripture, and, since he could not maintain that it was on the surface of the inspired Word, he was forced upon the (not untrue, but unpractical) theory of the implicit sense, history developing it. Vide infr. p. 149.]
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