Conservative Colloquium

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The Error of the Supremacy of Private Judgment of Scripture (Cardinal Newman’s Analysis)

Posted by Tony Listi on December 15, 2009

[From: Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (Via Media, Volume I), 1837, Lecture Six, from Newman’s Anglican period]

Private Judgment is a weapon which destroys error by the sacrifice of truth….

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 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, 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….

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 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….

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?

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…. 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….

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.”[T]he 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….

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…. Neither would I deny that individuals, whether 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.

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