Lecture 5. On the Use of Private Judgment

{128} BY the right of Private Judgment in matters of religious belief and practice, is ordinarily meant the prerogative, considered to belong to each individual Christian, of ascertaining and deciding for himself from Scripture what is Gospel truth, and what is not. This is the principle maintained in theory, as a sort of sacred possession or palladium, by the Protestantism of this day. Rome, as is equally clear, takes the opposite extreme, and maintains that nothing is absolutely left to individual judgment; that is, that there is no subject in religious faith and conduct on which the Church may not pronounce a decision, such as to supersede the private judgment, and compel the assent, of every one of her members. The English Church takes a middle course between these two. It considers that on certain definite subjects private judgment upon the text of Scripture has been superseded, but not by the mere authoritative sentence of the Church, but by its historical testimony delivered down from the Apostles. To these definite subjects nothing more can be added [Note 1], unless, indeed, new records of primitive Christianity, or new uninterrupted traditions of its teaching were discoverable.

The Catholic doctrines, therefore, of the Trinity, Incarnation, {129} and others similar to these, as contained in Antiquity, are, as we maintain, the true interpretations of the notices contained in Scripture concerning those doctrines. But the mere Protestant considers that on these as well as on other subjects, the sacred text is left to the good pleasure or the diligence of private men; while the Roman Catholic, on the contrary, views it as in no degree subjected to individual judgment, except from the accident of the Church having not yet pronounced on this or that point an authoritative and final decision.


Now these extreme theories and their practical results are quite intelligible; whatever be their faults, want of simplicity is not one of them. We see what they mean, how they work, what they result in. But the middle path adopted by the English Church cannot be so easily mastered by the mind, first because it is a mean, and has in consequence a complex nature, involving a combination of principles, and depending on multiplied conditions; next, because it partakes of that indeterminateness which, as has been already observed, is to a certain extent a characteristic of English theology; lastly, because it has never been realized in visible fulness in any religious community, and thereby brought home to the mind through the senses. What has never been fairly brought into operation, lies open to various objections. It is open to the suspicion of not admitting of being so brought, that is, of being what is commonly understood by a mere theory or fancy. And besides, a mean system really is often nothing better than an assemblage of words; and always looks such, before it is proved to be something more. For instance, if we knew only of the colours white and black, and heard a description of brown or grey, and were told that these were neither white nor black, but something like both, yet between them, {130} we should be tempted to conceive our informant's words either self-contradictory or altogether unmeaning; as if it were plain that what was not white must be black, and what was not black must be white. This is daily instanced in the view taken by society at large of those persons, now, alas! a comparatively small remnant, who follow the ancient doctrines and customs of our Church, who hold to the Creeds and Sacraments, keep from novelties, are regular in their devotions, and are, what is sometimes called almost in reproach, "orthodox." Worldly men seeing them only at a distance, will class them with the religionists of the day; the religionists of the day, with a like superficial glance at them, call them worldly and carnal. Why is this? because neither party can fancy any medium between itself and its opposite, and connects them with the other, because they are not its own.

Feeling, then, the disadvantages under which the Anglican doctrine of Private Judgment lies, and desirous to give it something more of meaning and reality than it popularly possesses, I shall attempt to describe it, first, in theory, and then as if reduced to practice.


1. Now, if man is in a state of trial, and if his trial lies in the general exercise of the will, and if the choice of religion is an exercise of will, and always implies an act of individual judgment, it follows that such acts are in the number of those by which he is tried, and for which he is to give an account hereafter. So far, all parties must be agreed, that without private judgment there is no responsibility; and that in matter of fact, a man's own mind, and nothing else, is the cause of his believing or not believing, and of his acting or not acting upon his belief. Even though an infallible guidance be accorded, a man must have a choice of resisting it or not; he may resist it if he pleases, as {131} Judas was traitor to his Master. Roman Catholic, I consider, agrees with Protestant so far; the question in dispute being, what are the means which are to direct our choice, and what is the due manner of using them. This is the point to which I shall direct my attention.


The means which are given us to form our judgment by, exclusively of such as are supernatural, which do not enter into consideration here, are various, partly internal, partly external. The internal means of judging are common sense, natural perception of right and wrong, the sympathy of the affections, exercises of the imagination, reason, and the like. The external are such as Scripture, the existing Church, Tradition, Catholicity, Learning, Antiquity, and the National Faith. Popular Protestantism would deprive us of all these external means, except the text of Holy Scripture; as if, I suppose, upon the antecedent notion that, when God speaks by inspiration, all other external means are superseded. But this is an arbitrary decision, contrary to facts; for unless inspiration made use of an universal language, learning at least must be necessary to ascertain the meaning of the particular language selected; and if one external aid be adopted, of course all antecedent objection to any other vanishes. This notion, then, though commonly taken for granted, must be pronounced untenable, nay, inconsistent with itself; yet upon it the prevailing neglect of external assistances, and the exaltation of Private Judgment, mainly rest. Discarding this narrow view of the subject, let us rather accept all the means which are put within our reach, as intended for use, and as talents which must not be neglected; and, as so considering them, let us trace the order in which they address themselves to the minds of individuals. {132}


Our parents and teachers are our first informants concerning the next world; and they elicit and cherish the innate sense of right and wrong which acts as a guide co-ordinately with them. By degrees they resign their place to the religious communion, or Church, in which we find ourselves, while the inward habits of truth and holiness which the moral sense has begun to form, react upon that inward monitor, enlarge its range, and make its dictates articulate, decisive, and various. Meantime the Scriptures have been added as fresh informants, bearing witness to the Church and to the moral sense, and interpreted by them both. Last of all, where there is time and opportunity for research into times past and present, Christian Antiquity, and Christendom, as it at present exists, become additional informants, giving substance and shape to much that before existed in our minds only in outline and shadow.


Such are the means by which God conveys to Christians the knowledge of His will and Providence; but not all of them to all men. To some He vouchsafes all, to all some; but, according to the gifts given them, does He make it their duty to use their gifts religiously. He employs these gifts as His instruments in teaching, trying, converting, advancing the mind, as the Sacraments are His imperceptible means of changing the soul. To the greater part of the world He has given but three of them, Conscience, Reason, and National Religion; to a great part of Christendom He gives no external guidance but through the Church; to others only the Scriptures; to others both Church and Scriptures. Few are able to add the knowledge of Christian Antiquity; the first centuries of Christianity enjoyed the light of Catholicity, an informant which is now partially withdrawn from us. The least {133} portion of these separate means of knowledge is sufficient for a man's living religiously; but the more of them he has, the more of course he has to answer for; nor can he escape his responsibility, as most men attempt in one way or other, by hiding his talent in a napkin.

Most men, I say, try to dispense with one or other of these divine informants; and for this reason,—because it is difficult to combine them. The lights they furnish, coming from various quarters, cast separate shadows, and partially intercept each other; and it is pleasanter to walk without doubt and without shade, than to have to choose what is best and safest. The Roman Catholic would simplify matters by removing Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity, and depending mainly upon Church authority; the Calvinist relies on Reason, Scripture, and Criticism, to the disparagement of the Moral Sense, the Church, Tradition, and Antiquity; the Latitudinarian relies on Reason, with Scripture in subordination; the Mystic on the imagination and affections, or what is commonly called the heart; the Politician takes the National Faith as sufficient, and cares for little else; the man of the world acts by common sense, which is the oracle of the indifferent; the popular Religionist considers the authorized version of Scripture to be all in all. But the true Catholic Christian is he who takes what God has given him, be it greater or less, does not despise the lesser because he has received the greater, yet puts it not before the greater, but uses all duly and to God's glory.


I just now said that it was difficult to combine these several means of gaining Divine Truth, and that their respective informations do not altogether agree. I mean that at first sight they do not agree, or in particular cases: for abstractedly, of course, what comes from God must be {134} one and the same in whatever way it comes: if it seems to differ from itself, this arises from our infirmity. Even our senses seem at first to contradict each other, and an infant may have difficulty in knowing how to avail himself of them, yet in time he learns to do so, and unconsciously makes allowance for their apparent discordance; and it would be utter folly on account of their differences, whatever they are, to discard the use of them. In like manner, Conscience and Reason sometimes seem at variance, and then we either call what appears to be reason sophistry, or what appears to be conscience weakness or superstition. Or, the moral sense and Scripture seem to speak a distinct language, as in their respective judgments concerning Jacob or David; or Scripture and Antiquity, as regards Christ's command to us to wash each other's feet; or Scripture and Reason as regards miracles, or the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation; or Antiquity and the existing Church, as regards immersion in Baptism; or the National Religion and Antiquity, as regards the Church's power of jurisdiction; or Antiquity, and the Law of Nature, as regards the usage of celibacy; or Antiquity and Scholarship, as at times perhaps in the interpretation of Scripture.


This being the state of the case, I make the following remarks; which, being for the sake of illustration, are to be taken but as general ones, without dwelling on extreme cases or exceptions.

(1.) That Scripture, Antiquity, and Catholicity cannot really contradict one another:

(2.) That when the Moral Sense or the Reason of the individual seems to be on one side, and Scripture on the other, we must follow Scripture, except Scripture anywhere contained contradictions in terms, or prescribed undeniable crimes, which it never does: {135}

(3.) That when the sense of Scripture, as interpreted by the Reason of the individual, is contrary to the sense given to it by Catholic Antiquity, we ought to side with the latter:

(4.) That when Antiquity runs counter to the present Church in important matters, we must follow Antiquity; when in unimportant matters, we must follow the present Church:

(5.) That when the present Church speaks contrary to our private notions, and Antiquity is silent, or its decisions unknown to us, it is pious to sacrifice our own opinion to that of the Church:

(6.) That if, in spite of our efforts to agree with the Church, we still differ from it, Antiquity being silent, we must avoid causing any disturbance, recollecting that the Church, and not individuals, "has authority in controversies of faith."

I am not now concerned to prove all this, but am illustrating the theory of Private Judgment, as I conceive the English Church maintains it. And now let us consider it in practice.


2. It is popularly conceived that to maintain the right of Private Judgment, is to hold that no one has an enlightened faith who has not, as a point of duty, discussed the grounds of it and made up his mind for himself. But to put forward such doctrine as this, rightly pertains to infidels and sceptics only; and if great names may be quoted in its favour, and it is often assumed to be the true Protestant doctrine, this is surely because its advocates have not always weighed the force of their own words. Every one must begin religion by faith, not by controversy; he must take for granted what he is taught and what he cannot prove; and it is better for himself that he should do so, even if the teaching he receives contains a mixture of {136} error. If he would possess a reverent mind, he must begin by obeying; if he would cherish a generous and devoted temper, he must begin by venturing something on uncertain information; if he would deserve the praise of modesty and humility, he must repress his busy intellect, and forbear to scrutinize. This is a sufficient explanation, were there no other, of the subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles, which is in this place exacted of the youth who come hither for education. Were there any serious objections lying against those Articles, the case would be different; were there immorality or infidelity inculcated in them, or even imputed to them, our younger members would have a warrant for drawing back; but even those who do not agree with the Articles, will not say this of them. Putting aside, then, the consideration that they contain in them chief portions of the ancient Creeds, and are the form in which so many pious men in times past have expressed their own faith, even the circumstance of their constituting the religion under which we all are born is a reason for our implicitly submitting ourselves to them in the first instance. As the mind expands, whether by education or years, a number of additional informants will meet it, and it will naturally, or rather it ought, according to its opportunities, to exercise itself upon all of these, by way of finding out God's perfect truth. The Christian will study Scripture and Antiquity, as well as the doctrine of his own Church; and may perhaps, in some points of detail, differ from its teaching; but, even if eventually he differs, he will not therefore put himself forward, wrangle, protest, or separate from it. Further, he may go on to examine the basis of the authority of Scripture or of the Church; and if so, he will do it, not, as is sometimes irreverently said, "impartially" and "candidly," which means sceptically and arrogantly, as if he were the centre of the universe, and all things might be summoned before him and put to {137} task at his pleasure, but with a generous confidence in what he has been taught; nay, not recognizing, as will often happen, the process of inquiry which is going on within him.

Too many men suppose that their investigation ought to be attended with a consciousness of their making it; as if it was scarcely pleasing to God unless they all along reflect upon it, tell the world of it, boast of it as a right, and sanctify it as a principle. They say to themselves and others, "I am examining, I am scrutinizing, I am judging, I am free to choose or reject, I am exercising the right of Private Judgment." What a strange satisfaction! Does it increase the worth of our affections to reflect upon them as we exercise them? Would our mourning for a friend become more valuable by our saying, "I am weeping; I am overcome and agonized for the second or third time; I am resolved to weep"? What a strange infatuation, to boast of our having to make up our minds! What! is it a great thing to be without an opinion? is it a satisfaction to have the truth to find? Who would boast that he was without worldly means, and had to get them as he could? Is heavenly treasure less precious than earthly? Is it anything inspiring or consolatory to consider, as such persons do, that Almighty God has left them entirely to their own efforts, has failed to anticipate their wants, has let them lose in ignorance at least a considerable part of their short life and their tenderest and most malleable years? is it a hardship or a yoke, on the contrary, to be told that what, in the order of Providence, is put before them to believe, whether absolutely true or not, is in such sense from Him, that it will improve their hearts to obey it, and will convey to them many truths which they otherwise would not know, and prepare them perhaps for the communication of higher and clearer views? Yet such is a commonly received doctrine of this day; against which, I would plainly {138} maintain,—not the Roman doctrine of Infallibility, which even if true, would be of application only to a portion of mankind, for few comparatively hear of Rome,—but generally that, under whatever system a man finds himself, he is bound to accept it as if infallible, and to act upon it in a confiding spirit, till he finds a better, or in course of time has cause to suspect it.


To this it may be replied by the controversialist of Rome, that, granting we succeed in persuading men in the first instance to exercise this unsuspicious faith in what is set before them in the course of Providence, yet, if the right of free judgment upon the text of Scripture is allowed to them at last, it will be sure, whenever it is allowed, to carry them off into various discordant opinions; that they will fancy they have found out a more Scriptural system even than that of the Church Catholic itself, should they happen to have been born and educated in her pale. But I am not willing to grant this of the Holy Scriptures, though our opponents are accustomed to assume it. There have been writers of their communion, indeed, who have used the most disparaging terms of the inspired volume, as if it were so mere a letter that it might be moulded into any meaning which the reader chose to put upon it. Some of these expressions and statements have been noticed by our divines; such as, that "the Scriptures are worth no more than Esop's fables without the Church's authority;" or that "they are like a nose of wax which admits of being pulled and moulded one way and another." [Note 2]

In contradiction to these it surely may be maintained, not only that the Scriptures have but one direct and unchangeable sense, but that it is such as in all greater matters to make a forcible appeal to the mind, when fairly put {139} before it, and to impress it with a conviction of its being the true one. Little of systematic knowledge as Scripture may impart to ordinary readers, still what it does convey may surely tend in one direction and not in another. What it imparts may look towards the system of the Church and of Antiquity, not oppose it. Whether it does so or not, is a question of fact which must be determined as facts are determined; but here let us dwell for a moment on the mere idea which I have suggested. There is no reason why the Romanist should be startled at the notion. Why is it more incongruous to suppose that our minds are so constituted as to be sure to a certain point of the true meaning of words, than that they can appreciate an argument? yet Romanists do argue. If it is possible to be sure of the soundness of an argument, there is perhaps no antecedent reason to hinder our being as sure that a text has a certain sense. Men, it is granted, continually misinterpret Scripture; so are they as continually using bad arguments; and, as the latter circumstance does not destroy the mind's innate power of reasoning, so neither does the former show it is destitute of its innate power of interpreting. Nay, our adversaries themselves continually argue with individuals from Scripture, even in proof of this very doctrine of the Church's Infallibility, which would be out of place unless the passages appealed to bore their own meaning with them. What I would urge upon them is this; they of course confess that the real sense of Scripture is not adverse to any doctrine taught by the Church; let me maintain in addition, that it is also the natural sense, as separable from false interpretations by the sound-judging, as a good argument is from a bad one. And as believing this, we think no harm can come from putting the Scripture into the hands of the laity, allowing them, if they will, to verify by it, as far as it extends, the doctrines they have been taught already. {140}


They will answer that all this is negatived by experience, even though it be abstractedly possible; since, in fact, the general reading of the Bible has brought into our country and Church all kinds of heresies and extravagances. Certainly it has; but it has not been introduced under those limitations and provisions, which I have mentioned as necessary attendants on it, according to the scheme designed by Providence. If Scripture reading has been the cause of schism, this has been because individuals have given themselves to it to the disparagement of God's other gifts; because they have refused to throw themselves into the external system which has been provided for them, because they have attempted to reason before they acted, and to prove before they would consent to be taught. If it has been the cause of schism in our country, it is because the Anglican Church has never had the opportunity of supplying her aid which is the divinely provided complement of Scripture reading; because her voice has been feeble, her motions impeded, and the means withheld from her of impressing upon the population her own doctrine; because the Reformation was set up in disunion, and theories more Protestant than hers have, from the first, spoken with her, and blended with, and sometimes drowned her voice. If Scripture reading has, in England, been the cause of schism, it is because we are deprived of the power of excommunicating, which, in the revealed scheme, is the formal antagonist and curb of Private Judgment. But take a Church, nurtured and trained on the model I have been proposing, claiming the obedience of its members in the first instance, though laying itself open afterwards to their judgment, according to their respective capabilities for judging, claiming for itself that they make a generous and unsuspicious trial of it before objecting to it, and able to appeal confidently for its doctrines to the writings of {141} Antiquity; a Church which taught the Truth boldly and in system, and which separated from itself or silenced those who opposed it, and I believe individual members would be very little perplexed; and, if men were still found to resist its doctrine, they would not be, as now, misguided persons, with some good feelings, and right views, but such as one should be glad to be rid of.

One chief cause of sects among us is, that the Church's voice is not heard clearly and forcibly; she does not exercise her own right of interpreting Scripture; she does not arbitrate, decide, condemn; she does not answer the call which human nature makes upon her. That all her members would in that case perfectly agree with each other, or with herself, I am far from supposing; but they would differ chiefly in such matters as would not forfeit their membership, nor lead them to protest against the received doctrine. If, even as it is, the great body of Dissenters from the Church remained during the last centuries more or less constant to the Creeds, except in the article which was compromised in their Dissent, surely much more fully and firmly would her members then abide in the fundamentals of faith, though Scripture was ever so freely put into their hands. We see it so at this day. For on which side is the most lack at this moment? in the laity in believing? or the Church in teaching? Are not the laity everywhere willing to treat their pastors with becoming respect; nay so to follow their guidance as to take up their particular views, according as they may be of a Catholic or private character, in this or that place? Is there any doubt at all that the laity would think alike, if the Clergy did? and is there any doubt that the Clergy would think alike, as far as the formal expression of their faith went, if they had their views cleared by a theological education, and moulded on a knowledge of Antiquity? We have no need to grudge our people the religious use {142} of Private Judgment; we need not distrust their affection, we have but to blame our own waverings and differences.


The free reading of Scripture, I say, when the other parts of the Divine System are duly fulfilled, would lead, at most, to diversities of opinion only in the adjuncts and details of faith, not in fundamentals. Men differ from each other at present, first from the influence of the false theories of Private Judgment which are among us, and which mislead them; next from the want of external guidance. They are enjoined as a matter of duty, nay of necessity, to examine and decide for themselves, and the Church but faintly protests against this proceeding, or supersedes the need of it. Truth has a force which error cannot counterfeit; and the Church, speaking out that Truth, as committed to her, would cause a corresponding vibration in Holy Scripture, such as no other notes, however loudly sounded, can draw from it. If, after all, persons arose, as they would arise, disputing against the fundamentals, or separating on minor points, let them go their way; "they went out from us, because they were not of us." They would commonly be "men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith;" [2 Tim. iii. 8.] I do not say there never could be any other, but for such extraordinary cases no system can provide. If there were among them better men, who, though educated in the Truth, ultimately opposed it openly, they, as well as others, would be put out of the Church for their error's sake, and for their contumacy; and God, who alone sees the hearts of men, and how mysteriously good and evil are mingled together in this world, would provide in His own inscrutable way for anomalies which His revealed system did not meet.

I consider then, on the whole, that however difficult it {143} may be in theory to determine when it is that we must go by our own view of Scripture, and when by the decision of the Church, yet in practice there would be little or no difficulty at all. Without claiming infallibility, the Church may claim the confidence and obedience of her members; Scripture may be read without tending to schism; minor differences allowed, without disagreement in fundamentals; and the proud and self-willed disputant discarded without the perplexed inquirer suffering. If there is schism among us, it is not that Scripture speaks variously, but that the Church of the day speaks not at all; not that Private Judgment is rebellious, but that the Church's judgment is withheld [Note 3].


I do really believe that, with more of primitive simplicity and of rational freedom, and far more of Gospel truth than in Roman system, there would be found in the rule of Private Judgment, as I have described it, as much certainty as the doctrine of Infallibility can give. As ample provision would be made both for the comfort of the individual, and for the peace and unity of the body; which are the two objects for which Rome professes to consult. The claim of Infallibility is but an expedient for impressing strongly upon the mind the necessity of hearing and obeying the Church. When scrutinized carefully, it will be found to contribute nothing whatever towards satisfying the reason, as was observed before; since it is as difficult to prove and bring home to the mind that the Church is infallible, as that the doctrines she teaches are true. Nothing, then, is gained in the way of conviction; only of impression,—and, again, of expedition, it being less trouble to accept one doctrine on which all the {144} others are to depend, than a number. Now this impressiveness and practical perspicuity in teaching, as far as these objects are lawful and salutary, may, I say, be gained without this claim; they may be gained in God's way, without unwarranted additions to the means of influence which He has ordained, without a tenet, fictitious in itself, and, as falsehood ever will be, deplorable in many ways in its results [Note 4].

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1. [This of course takes for granted that "historical testimony" is minute enough and complete enough to determine beyond question these "definite subjects."]
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2. Stillingfleet, Grounds, i. 5, § 2, p. 138.
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3. [This is a plausible theory. The question is whether it would work. The author confesses in various places of his volume it has not been carried out into act anywhere yet.]
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4. [Is this Lecture written in the tone of "Antiquity"? "Jesus Christ," says Ignatius, "is the mind of the Father; the Bishops appointed even to the utmost bounds of the earth, are after the mind of Jesus Christ, wherefore, it will become you to concur in the mind of your Bishop." Tertullian: "[Heretics] put forward the Scriptures, accordingly we oppose them in this point above others, viz. not admitting them to any discussion of the Scriptures." "The successors of the Apostles," says Irenĉus, "guard our faith, and expound for us the Scriptures without peril." "Does a man think himself with Christ," says Cyprian, "who strives against the Christian Priesthood, and separates himself from the concourse of Christ's clergy and people? He is bearing arms against the Church, setting at nought the Bishops and despising the Priests of his God." "It is necessary," says Vincent, "in order to avoid the labyrinth of error, to direct the lines of interpretation, both as to Prophets and Apostles, according to the sense of the Church and Catholic world." And so on ad infinitum. To the Fathers the idea of private judgment, and private judgment on Scripture, suggests itself only to be condemned.]
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