Topic - Private Judgment Lecture 6. On the Abuse of Private Judgment

{145} I MUST not quit the subject of Private Judgment, without some remarks on the popular view of it; which is as follows,—that every Christian has the right of making up his mind for himself what he is to believe, from personal and private study of the Scriptures. This, I suppose, is the fairest account to give of it; though sometimes Private Judgment is considered rather as the necessary duty than the privilege of the Christian, and a slur is cast upon hereditary religion, as worthless or absurd; and much is said in praise of independence of mind, free inquiry, the resolution to judge for ourselves, and the enlightened and spiritual temper which these things are supposed to produce. But this notion is so very preposterous, there is something so very strange and wild in maintaining that every individual Christian, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, young and old, in order to have an intelligent faith, must have formally examined, deliberated, and passed sentence upon the meaning of Scripture for himself, and that in the highest and most delicate and mysterious matters of faith, that I am unable either to discuss or even to impute such an opinion to another, in spite of the large and startling declarations which men make on the subject. Rather let us consider what is called the right of Private Judgment; by which is meant, not that all must, but that {146} all may search Scripture, and determine or prove their Creed from it:—that is, provided they are duly qualified, for I suppose this is always implied, though persons may differ what the qualifications are. And with this limitation, I should be as willing as the most zealous Protestant to allow the principle of Private Judgment in the abstract; and it is something to agree with opponents even in an abstract principle.


At the same time, to speak correctly, there seems a still more advisable mode of speaking of Private Judgment, than either of those which have been mentioned. It is not the duty of all Christians, nor the right of all who are qualified, so much as the duty of all who are qualified; and as such it was spoken of in the last Lecture. However, whether it be a duty or a right, let us consider what the qualifications are for exercising it.

To take the extreme case: inability to read will be granted to be an obstacle in the exercise of it; that is, a necessary obstacle to a certain extent, for more need not be assumed, and perhaps will not be conceded by all. But there are other impediments, less obvious, indeed, but quite as serious. I shall instance two principal ones; first, prejudice, in the large sense of the word, whether right or wrong prejudice, and whether true or false in its matter,—and secondly, inaccuracy of mind. And first of the latter.


1. The task proposed is such as this,—to determine first, whether Scripture sets forth any dogmatic faith at all; next, if so, what it is; then, if it be necessary for salvation; then, what are its doctrines in particular; then, what is that exact idea of each, which is the essence of each and its saving principle. I say its exact idea, for a {147} man may think he holds (for instance) the doctrine of the Atonement; but, when examined, may be convicted of having quite mistaken the meaning of the word. This being considered, I think it will be granted me, by the most zealous opponent, that the mass of Christians are inadequate to such a task; I mean, that, supposing the Gospel be dogmatic, for that I am here assuming, supposing it be of the nature of the Articles of the Creed, or the Thirty-Nine Articles, the greater number even of educated persons have not the accuracy of mind requisite for determining it. The only question is, whether any accurate Creed is necessary for the private Christian; which orthodox Protestants have always answered in the affirmative. Consider, then, the orthodox Protestant doctrines; those relating to the Divine Nature, and the Economy of Redemption; or those, again, arising out of the controversy with Rome, and let me ask the popular religionist,—Do you really mean to say, that men and women, as we find them in life, are able to deduce these doctrines from Scripture, to determine how far Scripture goes in implying them, to decide upon the exact force of its terms, and the danger of this or that deviation from them? What even is so special, in the mass of men, as the power of stating any simple matter of fact as they witnessed it? How rarely do their words run with their memory, or their memory with the thing in question! With what difficulty is a speaker or a writer understood by them, if he puts forward anything new or recondite! What mistakes are ever circulating through society about the tenets of individuals of whatever cast of opinion! What interminable confusions and misunderstandings in controversy are there between the most earnest men! What questions of words instead of things.


View the state of the case in detail. For instance {148} let it be proposed to one of the common run of men, however pious and well-meaning, to determine what is the true Scripture doctrine about original sin, whether Adam's sin is or is not imputed and how; or again, about the Holy Eucharist, how to interpret our Lord's words concerning it; or again, whether we are justified by works, or by faith, or by faith only: what answer can he be expected to give? If it be said, in answer, that he may gain religious impressions and practical guidance from Scripture, without being able to solve these questions, I grant that this, thank God, is, through His blessing, abundantly possible; but the question is, whether Gospel doctrine, the special "form of sound words" which is called the Faith, whatever it be, can be so ascertained. I say "whatever it be," for it matters not here whether it be long or short, intricate or simple; if there be but one proposition, one truth categorically stated, such as, "Prayers to good men departed are unlawful," or "we are justified by faith only," I say this is enough to put the problem of proving it [Note 1] from Scripture beyond the capacity of so considerable a number of persons, that the right of Private Judgment will be confined to what is called in this world's matters, an exclusive body, or will be a monopoly. And I repeat, it does seem as if reflecting men must grant as much as this; only, rather than admit the conclusion, to which it leads, they will deny that the Gospel need be conveyed in any but popular statements, it being (as they would urge), a matter of the heart, not of creeds, not of niceties of words, not of doctrines necessary to be believed in order to salvation. They would maintain that it was enough to accept Christ {149} as a Saviour, and to act upon the belief; and this, they would say, might be obtained from Scripture by any earnest mind.


Here then it will be asked me in turn, whether there is not a great number of Christians who on either supposition, whether the creed is given them by the Church, or whether they have to find it in Scripture for themselves, yet cannot get beyond that vague notion of the Gospel which has just been mentioned. I do grant it; but then I maintain, that whereas every Christian is bound to have as accurate notions as he can, many a man is capable of receiving more accurate and complete notions than he can gather for himself from the Bible. It is one thing to apprehend the Catholic doctrines; quite another to ascertain how and where they are implied in Scripture. Most men of fair education can understand the sacred doctrine debated at Nicea, as fully as a professed theologian; but few have minds tutored into patient inquiry, attention, and accuracy sufficient to deduce it aright from Scripture. Scripture is not so clear—in God's providential arrangement, to which we submit—as to hinder ordinary persons, who read it for themselves, from being Sabellians, or Independents, or Wesleyans. I do not deny, I earnestly maintain, that orthodoxy in its fullest range is the one and only sense of Scripture; nor do I say that Scripture is not distinct enough to keep the multitude from certain gross forms of heterodoxy, as Socinianism; nor do I presume to limit what God will do in extraordinary cases; much less do I deny that Scripture will place any earnest inquirer in that position of mind which will cause him to embrace the Catholic creed, when offered to him, as the real counterpart and complement of the view which Scripture has given him; but I deny that the mass of Christians, {150} perusing the Scripture merely by themselves, will have that nice and delicate critical power which will secure them from Sabellianism in Germany or America, from Pelagianism in Geneva, or from undervaluing the Sacraments in Scotland. All that can be objected is that Sabellianism, and Pelagianism, and low notions of the Sacraments, are not injurious, where the heart is warm and the feelings (what is improperly called) spiritual.


But it may be said that at least the common run of people can see what is not in Scripture, whatever be their defect of accuracy; and that thus in a Roman Catholic country they may obtain clear views of the Gospel from Scripture, when the Church has corrupted it. To a certain point they may; but an accuracy, which they have not, will be necessary to teach them where to stop in their retrenchments of faith. What is to secure their stopping at the very point we wish? Is all that really is contained in Scripture clearly stated, and may all that is but implied be rejected? What is to hinder the multitude of men who have been allowed to reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation because they do not find it in Scripture, from rejecting, also, the divinity of the Holy Ghost, because He is nowhere plainly called God, whereas the consecrated Bread is called Christ's Body? No; such Private Judgment is a weapon which destroys error by the sacrifice of truth.

From all this I conclude that persons who maintain that the mass of Christians are bound to draw the orthodox faith for themselves from Scripture, hold an unreal doctrine, and are in a false position; that, to be consistent, they must go further one way or the other, either cease to think orthodoxy necessary, or allow it to be taught them. {151}


2. In the next place, let us consider what force prepossessions have in disqualifying us from searching Scripture dispassionately for ourselves. The multitude of men are hindered from forming their own views of doctrine, not only from the peculiar structure of the sacred Volume, but from the external bias which they ever receive from education and other causes. Without proving the influence of prejudice, which would be superfluous, let us consider some of the effects of it. For instance; one man sees the doctrine of absolute predestination in Scripture so clearly, as he considers, that he makes it almost an article of saving faith; another thinks it a most dangerous error. One man maintains, that the civil establishment of religion is commanded in Scripture, another that it is condemned by it. One man sees in Scripture the three evangelical Councils, another thinks them a device of the evil one. Such instances do not show that Scripture has no one certain meaning, but that it is not so distinct and prominent, as to force itself upon the minds of the many against their various prejudices. Nor do they prove that all prejudice is wrong; but that some particular prejudices are not true; and that, since it is impossible to be without some or other, it is expedient to impress the mind with that which is true; that is, with the faith taught by the Church Catholic, and ascertainable as matter of fact beyond the influence of prejudice.


Again: take the explanations in detail given by Protestants of particular texts of Scripture; they will be found to involve an inconsistency and want of intelligible principle, which shows how impossible it is for the mass of men to contemplate Scripture without imparting to it the colouring which they themselves have received in the {152} course of their education. Nothing is more striking, in popular interpretations and discussions, than the amplitude of meaning which is sometimes allowed to the sacred text, compared with its assumed narrowness at other times. In some places it is liberally opened, at others it is kept close shut; sometimes a single word is developed into an argument, at another it is denied to mean anything specific and definite, anything but what is accidental and transient. At times the commentator is sensitively alive to the most distant allusions, at times he is impenetrable to any; at times he decides that the sacred text is figurative, at other times only literal;—without any assignable reason except that the particular religious persuasion to which he belongs requires such inconsistency. For instance, when Christ said to the Apostles, "Drink ye all of this," He is considered to imply that all the laity should partake the cup: yet, when He said to them, "I am with you always," He spoke to the original Apostles, exclusively of their successors in the ministry. When St. Paul speaks of "the man of sin," he meant a succession of sinners; but when Christ said, "I give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," He does not mean a line of Peters. When St. Paul says of the Old Testament, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God," he includes the New; yet when he says, "We are come to the city of the Living God," he does not include the Church militant. "A fountain shall be opened for sin," does not prove baptismal grace; but "Christ is unto us righteousness," proves that He fulfils the law instead of us. "The fire must prove every man's work," is said to be a figure; yet, "Let no man judge you in meats and drinks," is to be taken to the letter as an argument against fasting. "Do this in remembrance of Me," is to be understood as a command; but, "Ye also ought to wash one another's feet," is not a command. "Let no man judge you in respect of a holyday, {153} or of the Sabbath-days," is an argument, not indeed against the Sabbath, but certainly against holydays. "Search the Scriptures," is an argument for Scripture being the rule of faith; but "hold the Traditions," is no argument in favour of Tradition. "Forbidding to marry" is a proof that Rome is Antichrist; but, "It is good for a man not to marry," is no argument in favour of celibacy. The Sermon on the Mount contains no direction for Protestants to fast; but the second Commandment is plainly against Image Worship. The Romanist in using prayers in an unknown tongue is guilty of disobeying St. Paul; but the Protestant, in teaching justification by faith only, is not guilty of at once garbling St. Paul and contradicting St. James.


Let me not be supposed to imply that all these interpretations are equally true or equally false; that some are not false and others not true; it will be plain to any one who examines them that this is not my meaning. I am but showing the extreme inconsistency which is found in the popular mode of interpreting Scripture;—men profess to explain Scripture by itself and by reason, yet go by no rule, nor can give any account of their mode of proceeding. They take the most difficult points for granted, and say they go by common sense when they really go by prejudice. Doubtless Scripture is sometimes literal and sometimes figurative; it need not be literal here, because it is literal there; but, in many cases, the only way of determining when it is one and when the other, is to see how the early Church understood it. This is the Anglo-Catholic principle; we do not profess to judge of Scripture in greater matters by itself, but by means of an external guide. But the popular religion of the day does; and it finds itself unequal to its profession. It rebels against the voice of {154} Antiquity, and becomes the victim of prejudice and a slave to Traditions of men. It interprets Scripture in a spirit of caprice, which might be made, and is made by others, to prove Romanism quite as well. And from all this I infer, not that Scripture has no one meaning in matters of doctrine, or that we do not know it, or that a man of high qualifications may not elicit it, but that the mass of men, if left to themselves, will not possess the faculty of reading it naturally and truly.


But more may be said in illustration of this subject. It is very observable how a latent prejudice can act in obscuring or rather annihilating certain passages of Scripture in the mental vision, which are ever so prominently presented to the bodily eyes. For instance, a man perhaps is in the habit of reading Scripture for years, and has no impression whatever produced on his mind by such portions of it as speak of God's free grace, and the need of spiritual aid. These are at length suddenly and forcibly brought home to him; and then perhaps he changes his religious views altogether, and declares that Scripture has hitherto been to him nothing better than a sealed book. What security has he that in certain other respects it is not still hidden from him, as it was heretofore as regards the portions which have now unsettled him? Anglican divines will consider him still dark on certain other points of Scripture doctrine. Or, again, I would ask him what satisfactory sense he puts to our Lord's words, "Verily, thou shalt in nowise come out thence till thou hast paid the very last farthing"? or, "Stand fast and hold the Traditions"? or, "Let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord"? and whether a Roman Catholic might not as fairly accuse him of neglecting these texts still, as he at present considers certain other texts, to which he was before blind, the sum and substance of his religion? {155}


Or, to take another and more painful illustration. The (so-called) Unitarians explain away the most explicit texts in behalf of our Lord's divinity. These texts do not affect them at all. Let us consider how this is. When we come to inquire, we find that they have a preconceived notion in their minds that the substance of the Gospel lies in the doctrine of the Resurrection. This doctrine is their Christianity, their orthodoxy; it contains in it, as they think, the essence of the Revelation. When then they come to the texts in question, such as "Christ, who is over all, God, blessed for ever;" or, "The Word was God;" they have beforehand made up their minds, that, whatever these words mean, they can have no important meaning, because they do not refer to the Resurrection; for that alone they will allow to be important. So, when they are pressed with some such text in argument, they are annoyed indeed at having to explain what it means, when they cannot satisfactorily; yet without feeling shame or misgiving at its appearing to tell against them. Rather, they think the objection idle,—not serious, but troublesome. It is in their view almost as if we asked them the meaning of any merely obscure passage, such as "baptizing for the dead;" and would not let them read the chapter through in which it occurs, till they had explained it. In such a case they would of course urge that we were acting very unfairly; that, when the drift of the whole was so plain, it was mere trifling to stop them at one half sentence, which after all they were ready to confess they did not understand. This is what they actually do feel towards the solemn texts lately cited. They consider them obscurities; they avow they do not understand them; and they boldly ask, what then? that they are but a few words, half a sentence perhaps, in a chapter otherwise clear and {156} connected; and they do not feel themselves bound down to explain every phrase or word of Scripture which may meet them. If then, at any time, they undertake to explain them, it is not as if they laid any particular stress on their own explanations. They are not confident, they are not careful, about their correctness; they do not mind altering them. They put forward whatever will stop or embarrass their opponent, nothing more. They use some anomalous criticism, or alter the stopping, or amend the text, and all because they have made up their minds already what the Gospel is, that some other doctrine is the whole of it, and that in consequence the question in dispute is very unimportant.


Is this state of mind incredible? Yet, from whatever cause, these persons undeniably do contrive to blind themselves to what Scripture says concerning the Trinity and Incarnation, which is all that concerns us here. It shows that Scripture does not teach doctrine as the Athanasian Creed teaches it; the prejudices which misinterpret the one, cannot succeed in misinterpreting the other. But after all it is not so incredible, ourselves being witnesses; as will directly appear. As Socinians take the Resurrection to be the whole of the Gospel, so do others take the Atonement to be the whole of it. This sacred truth is most essential, as essential as the Resurrection, but it is nowhere said to be the whole of Christian doctrine; nowhere is it so presented to us as to sanction us in neglecting the rest. Yet such is the view taken of it by many in this day, who, abhorring, as they ought, the creed of Socinians, agree with them as far as this, viz. in indulging certain theories and prejudices of their own, making, as they do, the doctrine of the Atonement not only an essential but the whole of the Gospel. This then {157} is their orthodoxy. For instance; St. Paul says, "God was manifested in the flesh;" Socinians pass over these words, or explain them anyhow; but what are the words, immediately before them? They stand thus: "The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the Truth." Now, I do not ask what these words mean; I do not ask in what sense the Church is a pillar; but merely this,—has not many a man who calls himself orthodox, and is orthodox so far as not to be a Socinian, passed over these words again and again, either not noticing them or not thinking it mattered whether he understood them or not? And when his attention is called to them, is he not impatient and irritated, rather than perplexed; fully confident that they mean nothing of consequence, yet feeling he is bound in fairness to attempt some explanation of them? and does he not in consequence drive to and fro, as if to burst the net in which he finds himself, giving first one solution of the difficulty, then another, altering the stopping, or glossing over the phrase, as will most readily answer his immediate purpose? And so, in like manner, many a man insists on the words, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God," who will not go on to our Lord's answer, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church." Let us, then, no longer wonder at Socinians: the mass of Christians bring their prejudices and impressions to the written word, as well as they, and find it easier to judge of the text by the spontaneous operation of habit and inclination, than by the active and independent exercise of their reason; in other words, they think inaccurately; they judge and feel by prejudice.


Here then we have two serious disqualifications in the case of the multitude of men, which must discourage those who are in any measure humble and cautious, from {158} attempting to rely on their own unassisted powers in interpreting Scripture, if they can avoid it. Scripture is not so distinct in its announcements, as readers are morally or intellectually slow in receiving them. And if any one thinks that this avowal is derogatory to Scripture, I answer that Scripture was never intended to teach doctrine to the many; and if it was not given with this object, it argues no imperfection in it that it does not fulfil it.

I repeat it; while Scripture is written by inspired men, with one and one only view of doctrine in their hearts and thoughts, even the Truth which was from the beginning, yet being written not to instruct in doctrine, but for those who were already instructed in it, not with direct announcements but with intimations and implications of the faith, the qualifications for rightly apprehending it are so rare and high, that a prudent man, to say nothing of piety, will not risk his salvation on the chance of his having them; but will read it with the aid of those subsidiary guides which ever have been supplied as if to meet our need. I would not deny as an abstract proposition that a Christian may gain the whole truth from the Scriptures, but would maintain that the chances are very seriously against a given individual. I would not deny, rather I maintain that a religious, wise, and intellectually gifted man will succeed: but who answers to this description but the collective Church? There, indeed such qualifications might be supposed to exist; what is wanting in one member being supplied by another, and the opposite errors of individuals eliminated by their combination. The Church Catholic may be truly said almost infallibly to interpret Scripture aright, though from the possession of past tradition, and amid the divisions of the time present, perhaps at no period in the course of the Dispensation has she had the need and the opportunity of interpreting it for herself. Neither would I deny that individuals, whether {159} from height of holiness, clearness of intellectual vision, or the immediate power of the Holy Ghost, have been and are able to penetrate through the sacred text into some portions of the divine system beyond, without external help from tradition, authority of doctors, and theology; though since that help has ever been given, as to the Church, so to the individual, it is difficult to prove that the individual has performed what the Church has never attempted. None, however, it would seem, but a complete and accurately moulded Christian, such as the world has never or scarcely seen, would be able to bring out harmoniously and perspicuously the divine characters in full, which lie hid from mortal eyes within the inspired letter of the revelation. And this, by the way, may be taken as one remarkable test, or at least characteristic of error, in the various denominations of religion which surround us; none of them embraces the whole Bible, none of them is able to interpret the whole, none of them has a key which will revolve through the entire compass of the wards which lie within. Each has its favourite text, and neglects the rest. None can solve the great secret and utter the mystery of its pages. One makes trial, then another: but one and all in turn are foiled. They retire, as the sages of Babylon, and make way for Daniel. The Church Catholic, the true Prophet of God, alone is able to tell the dream and its interpretation.


3. But it may be objected that full justice has not yet been done to the arguments in behalf of the popular religion. A widely extended shape of Protestantism in this country, and that which professes to be the most religious of all, maintains that, though Scripture may seem to mean anything in matters of faith to unassisted reason, yet that under the guidance of divine illumination it speaks {160} but one doctrine, and is thus the instrument of the Holy Ghost in converting the soul. Starting from this fundamental article, its advocates speak as follows:—that Scripture is the only divine instrument given us; that everything else is human; that the Church is human; that rites and sacraments are human; that teachers are human; that the Fathers are but fallible men; that creeds and confessions, primitive faith, Apostolical Traditions, are human systems, and doctrines of men; that there is no need of proving this in particular instances, because it is an elementary principle, which holds good of them all; and that till we acknowledge and accept this principle we are still in the flesh. It follows that to inquire about the early Church, the consent of Fathers, uninterrupted testimonies, or the decisions of Councils, to inquire when the Church first became corrupt, or to make the early writers a comment upon the inspired text, are but melancholy and pernicious follies. The Church, according to this view of it, is not, and never was, more than a collection of individuals. Some of those individuals have, in every age, been through God's mercy spiritually enlightened, and may have shed a radiance round them, and influenced the Christian body even for ages after them; but, true religion being always rare, and the many being always evil, an appeal lies as little with Antiquity as with modern times. The Apostolic Church was not better than the present, nor is of more weight and authority; it was a human system, and an aggregate of fallible men, and such is the length and the breadth of the whole matter. In the eyes of such religionists the very subject of these Lectures is irrelevant and nugatory, and the time and attention required to hear or to write them are but squandered upon earthly subjects, which supply no food for the hungry soul, no light for the wandering feet, no stay or consolation in the hour of death or the day of judgment. {161}


I suppose this is, on the whole, a fair view of what many thousands alas! of serious and well-meaning persons hold at this present time among us, and with so firm a conviction that they are right, as to believe that no one is a real Christian who does not assent to it, and that no one can have once seen and acknowledged it, but must for ever profess it as something more heavenly and comfortable than any doctrine he ever maintained before. And this belief, which their conduct evidences, perhaps accounts for the state in which they leave the theory in question, which is as follows.—It is perfect as a theory; I mean, it is consistent with itself, it being quite conceivable that Providence might have acted in the way it represents, might have called the predestined few, or tried the earnestness of all, by what is at first sight a various and intricate volume. But secondly, I observe that, whether it be true or false, no part of the foregoing account tends towards the proof of it, nor is any serious attempt made that way by its advocates. As Baptismal grace is supposed by Roman Catholics to convey to individuals the evidence of their Church's Infallibility, so a similar divine influence, but not in Baptism, is supposed, according to this popular form of Protestantism, to assure the soul without proof that the Bible is the only instrument of divine knowledge.


The only semblance of argument of any kind in this doctrinal theory, as above drawn out, lies in this, that, the majority being always evil, its assent to certain points of faith is no presumption of their truth. Something has been said in former Lectures which will serve to explain this objection, and something will be said in one soon to follow. Here, fully acknowledging that the many are bad, I will but observe that they may witness for truth and {162} yet act against it. Surely it is the very characteristic of the world, that it kills the Prophets of God and builds their sepulchres,—the very charge against it that "knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death," yet it "not only does the same, but has pleasure in them that practise them;" and this inconsistency in its conduct was never considered to interfere with the value of its witness. When men witness against themselves, this surely affords no presumption that they witness falsely. Does "the corruption that is in the world through lust" invalidate or strengthen its unanimous testimony to the being of a moral Governor and Judge, and again to the sovereignty of the moral law and to the guilt and pollution of sin? Surely then the concordant assent of Christendom to doctrines so severe and high as the Christian Mysteries, is no slight argument in favour of their Apostolic origin. Is there anything in the doctrine of the Trinity to flatter human pride? or in that of the Incarnation to encourage carnal tastes and appetites? or in that of the Spirit's abidance within us to make us easy and irreverent? or in the Atonement to make us think lightly of sin? Fallible men then may convey truth infallible; human systems may be instruments of heaven. And he who feels his ignorance will seek for light wherever he can obtain it; he will not prescribe rules to God's providence; he will not say, "Instruct me by inspired oracles or not at all." If indeed full information had been promised to individuals from private study of the text of the Scriptures, this indeed might be a reason for dispensing with Antiquity, whatever was its value. But even could it be proved without value, as fully as the persons in question desire, still it must be recollected this would not go one step towards proving that such a promise of guidance from reading Scripture has been given; and it happens most remarkably, as I have already hinted, that satisfied, I suppose, {163} with the simplicity of their theory, they have chiefly employed themselves in assailing the Christian Fathers, without proving what far more nearly concerns them, their own doctrine, that Scripture is sufficient for teaching the faith; which failing, the Fathers are their sole, even though an insufficient resource. To maintain that the Fathers cannot be trusted, does not prove that one's own private judgment can; positive reasons are necessary for so serious a claim; let us then, in conclusion, review the chief arguments, if they must so be called, adducible in defence of this main principle of popular Protestantism.


Now, if its advocates are asked on what grounds they conceive that Scripture is, under God's grace, the one ordained informant in saving truth, I suppose they will refer to such texts as our Lord's words to the Jews, "Search the Scriptures;" or to St. Paul's, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works;" or to St. Luke's account of Christ's "opening the understanding" of His Apostles, "that they might understand the Scriptures;" or to St. James's telling us "to ask wisdom of God, who giveth liberally;" or to our Lord's assurance, "Ask, and it shall be given you;" or to St. Paul's statement, that "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God;" or to our Lord's promise to the twelve, that the Holy Ghost the Comforter "should guide them into all truth;" or to the prophet Isaiah's prediction, "All thy children shall be taught of the Lord;" or to St. John's declaration, "Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things." Yet after all, can any one text be produced, or any comparison of texts, to establish the very point {164} in hand, that Scripture is the sole necessary instrument of the Holy Ghost in guiding the individual Christian into saving truth? for it may be very true that we ought to search the Scriptures, and true that Scripture contains all saving doctrine, and is able to make us wise unto salvation, and true that we cannot understand it without the Holy Spirit, and true that the Holy Spirit is given to all who ask, and true that all perfect Christians do understand it, and yet there may not be such connexion between these separate propositions as to make it true that men are led by the Holy Spirit into saving truth through the Scriptures. We may be bound to search the Scriptures in order to gain wisdom, yet not to find saving doctrines, but chiefly to be "throughly furnished unto all good works;" it may contain all saving doctrine, yet so deeply lodged in it that "those who are unlearned and unstable may wrest it unto their own destruction;" the grace of the Holy Ghost may be promised to all Christians, yet not in order to teach them the faith simply through Scripture, but in order to impress the contents of Scripture on their hearts, and to teach them the faith through whatever sources. Let us inspect some of the foregoing texts more narrowly.


First, there are texts which bid us ask wisdom of God, and promise that it will be granted [Note 2]. It is true; but this does not show that the private reading of Scripture is the one essential requisite for gaining it. If such texts are taken by themselves, they would rather prove that no external means at all is necessary, not even Scripture, for Scripture is not mentioned. To be consistent, we ought to call the Scripture an outward form as well as the Church, and to say that "asking," in other words, prayer, is alone necessary. If then one external means of gaining {165} light is admitted as intervening between the Holy Ghost and the soul, though it is not mentioned, why not another? When Christ says, "Seek, and ye shall find," He does not specify the mode of seeking; He means, as we may suppose, by all methods which are vouchsafed to us, and are otherwise specified. He includes the Church, which is called by St. Paul "the pillar and ground of the Truth." Our Service applies our Lord's promise to seeking God in Baptism, and as He may include the use of the Sacraments in seeking, so may He include the use of Catholic teaching.

Again, no Christian can doubt that without divine grace we cannot discern the sense of Scripture profitably; but it does not follow from this that with it we can gain everything from Scripture, or that the "wisdom unto salvation," which we thence gain, is theological knowledge. The grace of God seems to be promised us chiefly for practical purposes, for enabling us to receive what we receive, whatever it is, doctrine or precept, or from whatever quarter, profitably, with a lively faith, with love and zeal. If it supersedes Creeds, why should it not supersede Sacraments? it acts through Sacraments, and in like manner it acts through Creeds. Sacraments, without the presence of the Holy Ghost, would sink into mere Jewish rites; and Creeds, without a similar presence, are but a dead letter. The appointment of Sacraments is in Scripture, and so is the proof of the Creed; yet Scripture is no more a Creed, than it is a Sacrament,—no more does the work of a Creed, than it does the work of a Sacrament. By continuous Tradition we have received the Sacraments embodied in a certain definite form; and by a like Tradition we have received the doctrines also; Scripture may justify both the one and the other, when given, without being sufficient to enable individuals to put into shape whether doctrines or Sacraments, apart from oral teaching and tradition. Besides, if the Holy Spirit illuminates{166} the word of God for the use of the individual in all things, then of course as regards unfulfilled prophecy also; which we know is not the case. As then, for all that the Spirit is given us, the event is necessary in order to interpret prophecy, so in like manner a similar external fact may be necessary for understanding doctrine. True then though it be that "the natural man discerneth not the things of the Spirit of God;" it does not therefore follow that the spiritual man discerneth spiritual things through Scripture only, not through Creeds.

Lastly: there are texts which recite the various purposes for which Scripture is useful; but it does not follow thence that no medium is necessary for its becoming useful to individuals. Scripture may be profitable for doctrine, instruction, and correction, that the man of God may be perfect, without thereby determining at all whether or not there are instruments for preparing, dispensing, and ministering the word for this or that purpose which it is to effect. Certainly Christ says, "Search the Scriptures," but He is speaking to the Jews about their Scriptures, and about definite prophecies; how does it follow that because it was the duty of the Jews to examine such documents as prophecies, which profess to be prophecies, that therefore we are meant to gather our doctrines from documents which do not profess to be doctrinal? Besides, when Christ told them to search the Scriptures for notices of Himself, He had vouchsafed already to present Himself before them; He was a living comment on those Scriptures to which He referred [Note 3]. What He was to be, was not understood before He appeared. The case is the same with Christian doctrine now. The Creed confronts Scripture, and seems to say to us, "Search the Scriptures, for they testify of Me." But if we attempt to gain the truth of doctrine without the Creed, perhaps we shall not be more successful in our {167} search than the Jews were in seeking Christ before He came,—yet under circumstances different from theirs, in that in our case knowledge is necessary to salvation, and error is a sin.


Enough has now been said on the theory of Private Judgment. I conclude then that there is neither natural probability, nor supernatural promise, that individuals reading Scripture for themselves, to the neglect of other means when they can have them, will, because they pray for a blessing, be necessarily led into a knowledge of the true and complete faith of a Christian. I conclude that the popular theory of rejecting all other helps and reading the Bible only, though in most cases maintained merely through ignorance, is yet in itself presumptuous.

I make but one remark in conclusion. A main reason of the jealousy with which Christians of this age and country maintain the notion that truth of doctrine can be gained from Scripture by individuals, is this, that they are unwilling, as they say, to be led by others blindfold. They can possess and read the Scriptures; whereas of Traditions they are no adequate judges, and they dread priestcraft. I am not here to enter into the discussion of this feeling, whether praiseworthy or the contrary. However this be, it does seem a reason for putting before them, if possible, the principal works of the Fathers, translated as Scripture is; that they may have by them what, whether used or not, will at least act as a check upon the growth of an undue dependence on the word of individual teachers, and will be a something to consult, if they have reason to doubt the Catholic character of any tenet to which they are invited to adhere.

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1. [Or inferring it. Categorical statements of fact can be understood by the least cultivated mind; I mean such as "Christ is God;" "The Church is the Teacher of her children;" "The Church is the Ark of Salvation;" "Sinners are sentenced to hell," &c., whereas to prove or to deduce such truths from Scripture may require various gifts of intellect.]
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2. Matt. vii. 7. James i. 5.
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3. Vide Acts viii. 30-35; xvii. 11.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.