« PreviousContinue »
the ancient heretics maintains that the God of the Jews was an apostate Angel; or who with another of them teaches the transmigration of the soul; or who inculcates with a third, that it is expedient for the future happiness of a Christian to indulge every possible appetite of the flesh. Is it now difficult to determine in regard to each such opinion: 'This is not Christianity?' Is it not, on the contrary, an easy and safe judgment? Now this is virtually all that is done in the proper use of articles of faith: this is all that, in the use of such articles, the Catholic Church has ever done: this is all that the Church of England, since the Church of Rome separated from her, ever did or does to this day."-p. 197.
The author happily remarks, in reply to those who impute to the framer of the Thirty-nine Articles an attempt to add to the truths revealed in the Gospel, that their object is quite the reverse-that "they are not to augment, but to retrench; not to enlarge the primitive substance, but to remove the incrustation." They remove human additions and corruptions, without diminishing the Divine substance. The great doctrines of Christianity, and the sacred formularies in which they are comprised, are frequently denounced by men of unsound faith, or of a sceptical disposition, as remnants of scholasticism. This is one of those arguments which relies for its force on the ignorance of those to whom it is addressed. Scholasticism was certainly a very faulty system: its characteristic was the substitution of human philosophy for the authority of Divine revelation. The Bible, and even the belief of the Church in former times, was to a great extent subordinated to the deductions of a subtle and refined logic. Christian theology lost its ancient simplicity, and became loaded with endless distinctions, subtleties, obscurities, and difficulties. But then this system commenced many ages after the creeds of the Christian Church had assumed their present form; and it is an anachronism to describe them as scholastic, while the Articles were drawn up by those who had rejected scholasticism, and whose greatest object was to return to the ancient simplicity of the Christian system, when reason was subjected to revelation. This whole subject is very well treated in the work before us. pp. 228-256.
There can be no doubt that the Articles express the sense of the Church of England on the subjects on which they treat; and thus they appear to be binding on all her members to a certain extent, although actual subscription is not required from any except the clergy. The canons of the Church denounce excommunication against impugners of the Articles, which implies her full confidence in their truth, and a firm resolution to maintain them in authority. In short, the intention of the Church plainly is, that doctrines opposed to those of Romanism, Pelagianism, VOL. X.-NO. XIX.-SEPT. 1848.
Anabaptism, Socinianism, and other errors rejected in her Articles, should be taught and received within her borders. No true Churchman can for a moment deny the high value and importance of the Thirty-nine Articles for these objects; but, at the same time, these Articles are limited to certain specific tenets. They do not comprise the whole body of Christian belief and doctrine; no one formulary can possibly do so. The Christian faith is enshrined in the Holy Scriptures, but its expression and its form are capable of indefinite variety, consistently with the preservation of the substance of revealed truth; and the very language of Scripture itself, as well as of formularies composed by uninspired men, are capable of perversion. To propound the mere letter of the Thirty-nine Articles as the sole test of soundness on all points of Christian doctrine would be unwise, because, as we know from experience, there may be devices for escaping from the plainest declarations. This difficulty, however, would be obviated by the exercise of judgment by some competent authority, which would pronounce what the simple meaning of the article was, and would thus preclude subterfuge and prevarication.
But our objection to any proposal of innovation in the ecclesiastical law, as we have lately heard of, which would constitute the Articles the sole test in regard to all subjects mentioned in them, e.g., the sacraments, is, that it would exclude from the character of tests of doctrine those formularies of the Church which have always possessed that authority from the period of their composition. We allude to the three Creeds of the Church, and the Book of Common Prayer. There cannot be the slightest question that these formularies express as fully and distinctly and authoritatively the doctrine of the English Church as the Thirty-nine Articles. The Creeds are even of more authority than the Articles, and are expressly referred to in the Articles as necessary to be believed by all; while the Articles are no where pronounced to be necessary to salvation, or directly imposed on all men as absolute conditions of Christianity. If there are to be any tests of doctrine whatever besides the Holy Scriptures, there can be no reason assigned for giving to the Thirty-nine Articles an exclusive authority in matters of doctrine which they have never yet possessed. The very fact of a proposal to declare them the only test of doctrine in the subjects on which they treat, is a proof that they have never hitherto been so considered, and it is therefore an innovation of a most important character which is thus attempted: the Church of England is called on, three centuries after the Reformation, to make an alteration in the principles on which she has hitherto acted, without even the formality
of any previous discussion or argument. Some nameless individual or body intimates an intention to propose a clause in an Act of Parliament most decidedly affecting the interests of religious truth in the Church of England, although such a proposition had never before been suggested by any member of the Church, as far as we are aware of.
It may be easy to allege, that the Articles represent truly the doctrine of the Church of England. Undoubtedly they do so. But so also do the Creeds and the Ritual of the Church; and considering that these various formularies were composed at different times, with reference to different controversies, or with different objects, it seems evident that the real doctrine of the Church must be gathered from the comparison of its various formularies, rather than from any one of them exclusively. To act otherwise would be to disregard one portion of the Church's teaching which may throw light on the remainder.
Independently, however, of these objections, we cannot but look with the greatest uneasiness and alarm at an attempt, emanating, apparently, from the secular power, to interfere with the tests of doctrine hitherto recognized in the Church of England. We do not dwell here on the obvious unfitness of the secular power for such attempts, without the previous sanction of the Church; nor on the scandal of debating such sacred matters in a popular assembly, including religionists of all classes. But what we do look with still greater jealousy upon is any attempt whatever, in this age of indifference and latitudinarianism, to make alterations, without any obvious reason, in the system of religious tests which has hitherto, amidst various divisions, preserved so great an amount of real agreement in the doctrines of the Gospel. True it is, that these tests may be evaded by persons who can satisfy their consciences by sophistical reasonings and strained interpretations. But we have seen that the tests of the Church of England have been sufficiently effective to procure the expulsion or voluntary retirement of parties who are really and distinctly opposed to them. We allude to such cases as those of the Socinians and Unitarians in the last and the present century, of various Antinomian and Calvinistic teachers in the present century, and, recently, of the Romanizing party..
If alterations are, in a spirit of recklessness or of irreverence, now to be introduced in the system of tests hitherto in force in the Church of England, without even the slightest pretence that such alteration is likely to promote the union of Christians who are now separated from us, it is impossible to say what may be next attempted. The Articles themselves may be hereafter set aside in the same summary way in which it is now proposed to
deal with the other formularies of the Church. In the present day, the secular power must generally be expected to be favourable to any removal of restrictions on liberty of opinion, and therefore the very hands which would now strike down the authority of one portion of the Church's teaching, would most probably hereafter be willing to aid in subverting the remainder.
If, however, any such attempt should be made, as the Church has had reason to apprehend, there can be no doubt, we trust, of so strong an opposition being offered to it by the bishops, the clergy, and the great mass of Churchmen, as to render its success impossible. We may surely ask of all men who have really at heart the continuance of the doctrine and principles of the Church of England, whether this is a time in which we ought in conscience to make rash experiments upon the doctrinal tests of the English Church; and whether it is desirable to excite additional controversy and agitation on so momentous a topic. We do not remember any proposal like the present, which attempts to interfere directly with the doctrinal formularies of the English Church. It is altogether a new feature in the times. Hitherto we have been preserved by the indifference, the discretion, or the right feeling of politicians, from innovations of this character. Any interference with the doctrines of the Church of England has been always disclaimed by those who have been most anxious to exercise the power of Parliament over her temporalities. But if any such a proposal as this should be adopted, it opens the door to further interference with the sacred deposit of Christian truth. Whatever may be the motive of those who have attempted to introduce so serious an innovation, or who may be led indiscreetly to support it, the precedent for alteration thus set, may lead to results which they would contemplate with dismay.
If a precedent were to be established for tampering with the formularies of the Church, the consequence would probably be, that persons with various objects might be induced to combine for the purpose of putting an end to subscription to the Articles. Persons may be found who regard the Articles as an unnecessary restraint on private judgment. Others, again, would wish to be freed from their positive statements on the subject of the Holy Trinity; others would not regret to be relieved from the necessity of pronouncing a condemnation of Romish doctrines or practices. Thus, if any persons who might regard the Articles as more perfect expositions of doctrine than the other formularies of the Church of England, should be induced on any account to lend their aid to a design apparently calculated to give the Articles exclusive authority, they might find that they had only been
preparing the way for the downfall of the Articles themselves. The same political convenience or necessity which would interfere to restrict ecclesiastical courts to the letter of the Articles in judging persons accused of heresy or error, might at any moment render it imperative to remove subscription, which is undoubtedly an interference with private judgment, and which may sometimes be found an inconvenient hindrance to the enjoyment of ecclesiastical benefices. To the statesman, who generally is taught to look on the controversies of Christianity with impartiality, the strong declarations of the Articles in opposition to Socinianism and Romanism must necessarily appear to be unsuited to the tolerant and liberal views which prevail around him; and as a general rule, such men must be expected to be favourable to any measures for relieving the minds of men from any tests which interfere with the freedom of thought and speculation.
We do not say that either the interference lately attempted with the tests of doctrine in the Church of England, or the abolition of subscription to the Articles would in themselves essentially alter the character of the Church; the one being chiefly an impediment to the due exercise of discipline, and the other a removal of a safeguard for sound doctrine; but in their practical results they would be found deeply injurious, as promoting the increase of extreme doctrines, the strife of rival theories, and the unsettlement of the popular mind on these great truths of Christianity which all now receive with firm and unhesitating faith.