Blessed John Henry Newman: A Charter for Liberalism

Liberalism in religion was, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, the thing that he consistently fought against throughout his life. By Liberalism he meant the preference of our own private judgements over the mind of the Church, and the alteration of revealed truth to suit our own desires and/or the spirit of the age. His opposition to Liberalism is often misunderstood or simply ignored given that he was, in the classical sense of the word, a true liberal – he believed in taking a generous approach to the opinions of others, in the open discussion of ideas, and in charitable engagement with contemporary culture. And yet, he was also (again in the classical sense) a true conservative, believing in the importance of tradition, in the rightness of appeal to authority in settling disputes, and that the jettisoning of tried and tested truths in favour of new ideas based solely on their novelty was both imprudent and destructive.

It was this careful balance between his generosity of spirit and openness to debate on the one side, and his insistence on the need to adhere to and learn from tradition (especially revealed truth) and authority on the other, that gave Newman so many problems after his conversion – at a time when the kind of Liberalism abhorred by Newman (i.e.; the germ of what would later become known as Modernism) was being fortified against by retreat into an overly protective dogmatism zealous to increase papal powers beyond what Sacred Tradition could actually support, Newman was rejected by both parties. He was too ‘liberal’ for the Ultramontane party, and too ‘conservative’ for the Liberalist party. Nevertheless, out of his personal trials good would come, as the party spirit that was condemned by Saint Paul was exposed more clearly, and a more nuanced position would grow out of it – amongst other things, the idea of doctrinal development was given a surer and more robust definition.

Nevertheless, such things took time, and for Blessed John Henry, it was often a struggle (in remembering this, his testimony to the fact that he never once regretted his conversion and, despite his trials, always felt that he had found his home in the Church, have even more force). At any rate, when he wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he added an extensive note explaining exactly what it was that he meant by Liberalism in order to further settle some of the ferment surrounding it and his position on such matters, and in this note, which is in great part a reflection on his personal experience of theological Liberalism in action (the concrete always being of supreme importance to Newman), he provides a succinct and potent description of what the term does and doesn’t mean:

Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (2004), p.254, Penguin Classics.

                Newman clearly draws a line in the sand here – liberty of thought and the free discussion of ideas are not only acceptable but goods in and of themselves; however, there are certain basic principles that cannot be subjected to critique or question, because they are the things which form the base from which we do all our other questioning. This latter thing, which Newman refers to as ‘false liberty of thought’ (presumably because whilst giving the illusion of freedom it actually, by removing the base from which thought is conducted, undermines the whole process of genuinely creative and critical reflection) is what he calls Liberalism. In matters of religion, the basic principles which thus cannot be questioned are the truths of Revelation – for once we start to question these, immediately we lose our identity with respect to the religion in question.

For any system of thought to maintain coherence and identity, the fundamentals must be set apart and not subjected to critique – otherwise we become caught adrift, and are no longer genuinely enjoying freedom of thought, but are rather beholden to a conceptual chaos. Saint John Paul II, in the opening sections of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, makes a similar point to Newman, but broadens its application to all philosophy – i.e.; to all critical thinking:

Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthos logo, recta ratio.

Fides et Ratio, 4.

                This is of course exactly the sort of position that is now so often deliberately undermined (not usually by argument but rather according to the claim that it is ‘outdated’ to appeal to certain foundational, objective principles) and is at least partly why philosophy today has become to a large extent a matter of toying with words – something cut off from lived human experience and thus largely unable to engage with real life problems. Utilitarianism and relativism are, quite frankly, not fit for purpose – they do not aid or enrich people’s lives at a level which can effect long-term, meaningful change because they are cut off from that core body of insight that Saint John Paul speaks of. Just as there is Liberalism in religion, philosophical relativism represents a Liberalism in thought more generally, and it is this (with its destructive consequences for culture) that Pope Benedict XVI worked so hard to counter during his career.

Blessed John Henry Newman though was principally concerned with theological Liberalism, and at the end of his appendix to the Apologia he presents a list of propositions which he had drawn up during his days at Oxford as an Anglican – propositions which could be said to represent a kind of charter for Liberalism, and which he summarily rejected. He lists eighteen in total, but I shall only share the first ten, as the remaining eight are concerned more with the rights of civil powers and the relationship between Church and State:

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

                Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.


  1. No one can believe what he does not understand.

                Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in religion.


  1. No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

                Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.


  1. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

                Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.


  1. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

                Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.


  1. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

                Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.


  1. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation, and the exigencies of the times.

Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.


  1. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

                Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the “corn of wheat” which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish.


  1. There is a right of Private Judgement: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

                Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.


  1. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

                Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp.259-260.

                Again, it is important to remember the depth of Newman’s commitment to conscience, and to the open engagement with culture, so that when he mentions scientific conclusions in no. 6, he is not being ‘anti-science’ and when he discusses freedom of conscience in nos. 9 and 10, he is not suggesting we stop thinking for ourselves. What he is concerned with is that we recognise the proper priority of the fundamentals of Revelation, so that we order our conclusions regarding scientific discovery (which is always to some extent provisional and subject to further evaluation) to what is already known via Revelation and allow our consciences to be formed by that teaching in a way that recognises its prior authority and does not place the self above it.

Making a couple of adjustments here and there to allow for examples more relevant to our age though, it seems to me that the points laid out here by Newman are, in essence, consistent with what we see in the theological Liberalism of today. Whilst typing out the propositions, I was struck by how many of their assumptions are still operative in the thought of many influential clergy and laity, across denominational boundaries. Thus Newman’s ‘charter’ for Liberalism is still something we would do well to pay attention to, summarising as it does some of the main expressions of the spirit of Liberalism within Christianity. The ‘mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it’ and the ‘false liberty of thought’ which both precedes and succeeds this mistake are still very much in evidence, and the spirit that so concerned Blessed John Henry Newman is one we must continue to fight against.

To Know Good and Evil

The nature and/or existence of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, mentioned in Genesis 2:9,17; 3:1-24 has often been the subject of much discussion, with some considering it (along with the Tree of Life) to be purely metaphorical, representative of the truths that God is the source of all existence and that our true creaturely freedom is thereby only to be found within the limits set by Him who knows the contours of the creation He has made. Such a position indeed connects with much of what the two trees represent, but for consistency’s sake one would have to see Adam and Eve themselves as purely representative figures – a view which the magisterial teaching of the Church does not allow for. Like the trees, our first parents do have a representative function, but it is to be held by all the faithful that they were also historical persons – that is, that the first people to know God were a discrete couple, not simply one of many who evolved towards an awareness of the divine.

There is much more that could be said about this of course (what the relationship is between the reception of a divinely implanted soul capable of knowing God and the purely physical attributes that would be able to facilitate such a reception, for example) but my point here is only that if one recognises the historicity of Adam and Eve (as all Catholics must) then it would seem to make the mythologising of the two trees unnecessary. Perhaps one reason people are tempted to do so though, is because they feel to make the trees historical would be to make them magical – it would make the fruit of the trees enchanted fruit. But clearly, given the context in which we read of them, this cannot be the case – they are, as is all else in creation, but particularly in the Garden, gifts of the Creator, and thus should be seen as sacramental, not magical; any benefits they afford to mankind is a direct gift of God, mediated through His creation, not an intrinsic property of the material itself.

Nevertheless, all this, whilst important from an exegetical point of view, is not really the most important thing that the text is trying to communicate. It is important to recognise that the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were more than metaphorical, but this does not mean that they therefore stop being metaphorical, and it is the truths that they represent that are the most important thing. The truths represented by the two trees are interconnected, but I would like to focus on the latter here, and consider what kind of knowledge was being prohibited, as well as what kind we had before the Fall, and also what this might tell us about the human condition in general.

Adam and Eve already knew the distinction between good and evil – if they hadn’t done, their disobedience would not have been culpable. The proclamation of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ to the first people presumes that they had an intuitive grasp of the fact that moral obligations exist, and also that these obligations ultimately have their source in the will of God. What Adam and Eve did not have was experience of the consequences of transgressing the moral law laid before them; they knew that as creatures it was not only their due, but for their own good, to follow the plans laid out by the One who made them, but at this juncture in human history the bitter fruits of misusing our free will were not yet known. The experience was what was new in our story, and ironically it was that which led to the frustration of true freedom thereafter (c.f.; Romans 7:13-25).

God gave humanity, in the first instance, the opportunity to respond to His love with love in return, with a fealty born out of the knowledge that He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. In this moment of history, it was possible to live in harmony with the will of God, and Adam and Eve enjoyed that filial relationship to Him which thereafter could only be made possible at great cost. In this sense then, the function of the Tree of Knowledge is primarily prohibitive, and the precise kind of knowledge it represents is secondary – what counts is that it is God’s will we should not have eaten of it, and it is God’s will that is the very thing that keeps us in existence, something which it would be madness to contradict. And yet, we must be able to say something of the knowledge that it imparted, as we are the inheritors of it.

The two things are of course not unrelated, as the fact that the tree had a prohibitive function also points to the core of the consequences eating of it would deliver – it stood (and stands) as a symbol for the fundamental choice we had before us then and still have before us, though now with intimate knowledge of those consequences; it stands for the choice between discipleship and rebellion, between harmony with Creator, creation and self, and the illusion of self-sufficiency, self-making, which as we now know, always results in dissatisfaction and discord. The tree plays the role of the two doors we read of in so many stories, where we are given the option of walking through either one, but are only told what lies beyond each – we must trust that the signs above the doors are genuine indicators of what we would see if we were to walk through.

To eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is thus to refuse what is offered via the Tree of Life – it is to refuse a life lived in dependence upon, obedience to and in harmony with God and prefer the self-made life; an illusory option, but no less powerful for that. It is to think that the One who made us and all that we live in the midst of is somehow insufficient for our needs, and that we could do better if only we were allowed to test things out for ourselves – which is to say, it is to challenge reality itself. The original sin, and every sin afterwards, have this in common – that they involve a sort of madness, a rejection of things we know to be real and the choosing of things that only might be so; it is the making the self to be the centre of the universe, the illusion that we can ‘be like God’ (3:5). The essential insanity of sin, the tendency to work against the current of reality that is within each one of us – it all started here.

Our knowledge of good and evil, through this disobedience, thus became both like and unlike the divine knowledge (c.f. 3:22) differing from the omniscience of God and the innocence we had beforehand in the way that the sick man’s awareness of his illness ‘differs both from the insight of the physician and the unconcern of the man in health’ (Tyndale Commentary on Genesis by Derek Kidner, Intervarsity Press, 2005). And so it was that free will, one of the things that set us apart from the rest of creation, would also, by being misused, lead to the birth of another aspect of our human condition that so sets us apart – a sense of dislocation, not just of self-awareness, but of being aware that we are not quite in step with things, not quite living as we should be. Heinrich von Kleist, in his short story On the Marionette Theatre, examined this issue of humanity’s sense of displacement, noting that the other animals have a grace that we lack, as they simply act according to the place in nature that has been given them – lacking the freedom to act otherwise, they follow instinct and are in harmony with themselves.

This story also considers the fact that we are not just out of sorts, but are always looking (both backwards and forwards) to an ideal time in which this was not so – a time when we were integrated with our selves. This idealism is something von Kleist is ultimately sceptical of (and his recognition of our deep instincts for such an integration, coupled with a reluctance to accept that we could be otherwise, tragically led to him taking his own life) but he does point very powerfully to the nagging sense we all have for a fundamental disconnection between what we are and what we should be. Some would also take von Kleist’s scepticism further, and suggest that the state of the animals is actually preferable to our own – that their unthinking obeisance to their nature is a better state than our disconnection.

Given that the central premise for this argument is that the beasts cannot do otherwise precisely because they are incapable of the self-awareness that makes for real free choice (and thus the misuse of that choice that leads to the disharmony we see in humanity), it would hardly seem that theirs is really a preferable state – they cannot reflect on the experience of harmony with creation in order to enjoy it, because that very harmony comes from their lack of free will. One cannot have it both ways. But not only do we humans have free will and self-awareness, we also did have that harmony with Creator and creation once as well, and were able to enjoy it as the beasts cannot – is it possible to do so again; are there any hints in this life that, contrary to von Kleist’s contentions, it is possible? Yes, it is, and the proof is in the lives of the saints.

We do not have to wait until Heaven to see what a return to harmony with the will of God looks like – we can look to those who embrace that very will in their earthy lives. These were (and are) people who not only denied the selfish impulses of their own wills and submitted to the will of the divine, but who in doing so found great joy – a joy that comes from being right with God and thus in line with what is intended for the self. No matter how ascetic some of their lives may have been, or how far removed they might seem from our everyday experiences, the one thing that is common to them all is that they are not sad, but filled with the very fruits promised to us if we do likewise (c.f.; Galatians 5:22-23). The saints have, as with all of us, eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and found it wanting; but instead of languishing in the shadows that tree casts upon us, they chose Life, and that abundantly. To know good and evil, in the sense we read of in the account of our Fall, is a costly business, but there is still a way to be free of that legacy – a more excellent way that I shall (hopefully) take a look at in a future post.

Pope Benedict XVI on the Story of the Magi: Historical and Theological Truth Combined

In the final book (which, though released last, is considered by the Pope Emeritus to be an introductory ‘ante-chamber’ to the series overall) of his multi-volume series on the life of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI reflects upon the infancy narratives of Our Lord. Relevant issues of biblical criticism and the harmonising of various scriptural details with known (or presumed to be known) facts of history or natural science are given due consideration in this study, but such considerations are always made in order to better illuminate the articles and mysteries of the Faith. This book, as is the case with the other chapters of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth series, is written from the perspective that takes seriously the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture and the fundamental reliability of Sacred Tradition, and which is confident that thorough investigation of primary sources will not undermine what we believe.

Such an approach to exegesis – one conducted within and alongside the ‘mind of the Church’, as opposed to the hyper-critical hermeneutic of suspicion which we have gotten used to seeing in so much biblical criticism and/or theological reflection over the years – is refreshing, not only because we are given greater opportunity to enter into the events of salvation history, but because we are able to do so without having to check ourselves every five minutes, asking whether we can actually trust the Evangelists’ versions of those events. Pope Benedict sets out to show that exegesis conducted via the lens of faith is not the impossible exercise we had been led to believe, and furthermore, that in allowing us to penetrate the subtleties of the texts more deeply, taking seriously the presentation of events set before us, we can grow to know Our Lord all the better; both of these objectives have been achieved with great success.

One part of the Bible that is subjected to the hermeneutic of suspicion with more regularity than others is the story of the Magi. Both those keen to undermine Christian belief and those keen to reinterpret those beliefs in the light of critics’ claims that such-and-such an event couldn’t possibly have happened seem especially eager to explain away or minimise the story of the Magi, claiming either that it clashes with what we (supposedly) know from history or that as long as the theological import is preserved, the historicity of the events does not matter. Now, it is indeed true that if the story of the Magi were able to be conclusively shown to be ahistorical, then it would not really affect any central aspect of Christian belief; however, the narratives available to us do present these events as having actually occurred, so if it were shown they did not, we would have to significantly reassess the extent to which we can speak about Sacred Scripture as being a communicator of truth.

That the events in the story of the Magi have been presented by Saint Matthew in a way which makes particular theological points – namely the representation of the Gentiles coming to Christ and the ability of true wisdom to transcend mere accumulation of knowledge and to turn the mind towards transcendent things – is clear, and it is true that if the events themselves did not occur, these points would still remain valid. Pope Benedict eloquently summarises this message of the Magi’s journey thus:

The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers. They were “wise.” They represent the inner dynamic of religion towards self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of the intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.

From all that has been said, we can obtain some sense of the outlook and the knowledge of that prompted these men to set off in search of the newborn “king of the Jews.” We could well say that they represent the religions moving toward Christ, as well as the self-transcendence of science toward him. In a way they are the successors of Abraham, who set off on a journey in response to God’s call. In another way they are the successors to Socrates and his habit of questioning above and beyond conventional religion toward the higher truth. In this sense, these figures are forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), pp.95-96, Bloomsbury.

                The basic message conveyed by Pope Benedict here would be true even if the Magi had never visited the Christ-child. We can also say that Magi may have visited Bethlehem, but that this central historical fact had been layered with scriptural allusions which themselves have no factual foundation – such as the ox and the ass were added to the scene by tradition in light of Isaiah 1:3, and that the wise men became kings riding atop camels in light of Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60. However, is it wise for us to so readily lose confidence in the historicity of what is described in Matthew 2; is there good reason for us to think all scriptural details pertaining to these events are theological invention and can be spoken of as such?

I would say not. Saint Matthew mentions that gold, frankincense and myrrh were brought as gifts to Our Lord, and Isaiah 60:6 mentions that those coming to see the ‘glory of the LORD’ (v.1) will bring at least two of those gifts – do we then assume that Matthew was taking such details from the Old Testament and attaching them to a story woven from theological reflection alone; or can we rather assume, as we do elsewhere in the Gospels, that the Evangelist has searched the texts of the Old Covenant in order to apply them to events and details that actually occurred? If we take the former route, as many exegetes do, we will end up denying that Our Lord was born in Bethlehem also, as well as a good deal more that eventually will encroach on core aspects of the Faith. As there is no good reason to suspect the Evangelists of invention, or of dishonesty in their presentation of events, we are perfectly justified in assuming the plain sense of what is written:

An interesting comment, in the light of this situation, is the carefully argued position presented by Klaus Berger in his 2011 commentary on the whole of the New Testament: “Even when there is only a single attestation…one must suppose, until the contrary is proven, that the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers, but rather to inform them concerning historical events…to contest the historicity of this account on mere suspicion exceeds every imaginable competence of historians” (Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, p.20).

With this view I can only agree. The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.

ibid, p.119.

                It is a familiar tactic of non-believers or sceptics to seize on part of the biblical witness never intended to be read as literal historical statement, claim that the Bible as a whole is invalidated and that the part of it in question therefore contains no truth whatsoever. This is, depending on who is making the claim, either a dishonest ruse or based on a failure to understand the variety of literary genres that are extant in Sacred Scripture. The story of the Magi though, does not fall into this category – it is presented by Saint Matthew as historical events, and the fact that these events have been ‘theologically thought through and interpreted’ does not mean that their essential veracity needs to be questioned. When the historicity of events related in the Bible is questioned by secular critics, telling them that such events were never intended to be seen as real history will not only further confirm the critics’ belief that Christians move the goalposts when it suits them, but it doesn’t do justice to the way the text asks to be read.

One final question remains, and that is whether there do exist any valid reasons for us to doubt the story of the Magi. The assertion that their journey simply could not have occurred will not do – there must be reasons for one to take such a position. If there exist no other records of their journey, this is hardly surprising – three men, with no official directive and no objective other than satisfying their desire to witness the fulfilment of a prophecy from a far-off land would hardly make the front page news. We do know though that such men existed, as members of the Persian priestly caste, that the ideas of this caste were influenced by Greek philosophy, and that the Persians had access to a great deal of astronomical knowledge and expertise (inherited from the Babylonians). Another question is why such men would come from the East; why would the promise of a king from the land of Judea interest them?

Pope Benedict mentions (p.95) that Tacitus and Suetonius testify to a widespread speculation that a new king would come from this part of the world, and that Josephus later applied such prophecies to Vespasian, earning him the emperor’s favour. We know also that by this time the Jews had spread far and wide across the Hellenistic world and had translated their Scriptures into Greek, the common parlance, thus making texts like Numbers 24:17 available to anyone with the questing and questioning sort of disposition we associate with the Magi. Moreover, the ‘star’ that the Magi followed can be corroborated by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in 7-6 BC (the same time that Our Lord is now believed to have been born). Incidentally, the fact that Jupiter symbolised both Marduk (the highest god in the Babylonian pantheon) and the principal god in the Greco-Roman pantheon could well have added to the curiosity of interested astronomers in the East.

Similarly, there is no compelling reason to doubt the historicity of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, or the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Again, Saint Matthew employs texts from the Old Testament alongside his reportage of these events, but to assume he has invented the events from a prior biblical reflection, as opposed to his having seen significance in the texts because of the events is to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion which is neither warranted nor necessary. There may be times when a scientific or historical discovery threatens to undermine part of the biblical witness, and when those times occur it is incumbent upon us to take seriously those challenges as well as, given how many advances presented as ‘assured’ fact are merely one more theory soon supplanted by another, to be wary of accepting their claims too readily. When it comes to the Gospels in general, and to the story of the Magi in particular though, we need not concern ourselves, as no real challenge exists. Our faith does not stand or fall on history, but it is rooted in it, and we should take heart that the New Testament is a reliable document, written by those wanting to convince and assure, but not to deceive or mislead.

Saint Leo the Great on the Mystery of the Incarnation

I had planned a new post for today, but unexpected additions to my schedule and bad time management on my part mitigated against it. Instead then, I would like to re-blog this post from the feast day of Pope Saint Leo the Great, as it contains an excerpt from his famous ‘Christmas Sermon’ – appropriate reading as we draw close to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Journey Towards Easter

Today is the feast day of Pope Saint Leo the Great (410 – 461), who was one of the most significant figures in Church history, and certainly one of Christendom’s most memorable popes. A native of Tuscany, he became a deacon in the Roman church in 430, and gradually became known for his diplomatic skills, so that in 440 the Western Emperor Galla Placidia sent him to Gaul to heal the divide between the two most prominent officials in that region*. His importance in this respect was in fact known as early as 431, when Saint Cyril of Alexandria wrote to him to ask that Rome use her influence to prevent Juvenal of Jerusalem claiming jurisdiction over all Palestine (he wanted to merge Caeserea and Antioch into one patriarchate under Jerusalem).

Happily, Cyril and Juvenal made up later that year, siding together against Nestorius at the First Council of Ephesus…

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Saint Basil the Great on Scripture and Tradition

Saint Basil of Caesarea (329 – 379), also known as Saint Basil the Great, due to his highly significant work on early Christian dogmatics (particularly with respect to the Holy Trinity) and his great influence on Eastern monasticism, is remembered (together with Saint Gregory and Saint John Chrysostom) as one of the ‘Three Holy Hierarchs’ in the East and is recognised as a Doctor of the Church by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. As well as providing valuable testimony for us today regarding the faith and practice of the early Church in general, he is also therefore a voice with a particular amount of authority, fighting as he did to preserve the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines that are foundational to the beliefs of all Christians, regardless of denomination.

The following passage then, in which he discusses the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, should not be discarded lightly. In it Saint Basil reminds those he writes to that Scripture is itself part of a wider body of teaching handed down from the Apostles – it does not detract from the authority of the written teaching to remember that there is also unwritten Tradition (which, as Basil says, ‘has the same force for true piety’) but is a reminder that the authority of the Church to pass on that body of teaching (written and unwritten) is logically prior to the authority of Scripture itself. This runs contrary to a commonly held, though seldom explained, Protestant principle, namely that whilst we may recognise that the Church wrote, preserved and canonised the Bible, this does not enjoin us to recognise the authority vested in the Church which allowed it to do so.

The extent to which Saint Basil emphasises how important unwritten traditions are in the life of the Church, and how widespread knowledge of this principle was, should make it clear just how far those Christians who repudiate Sacred Tradition have diverged from the historic Faith. His listing of the various practices common in the Church but that are not found in Scripture should also give any sola scriptura Christian cause to consider how different their interpretation of faith and worship is from that of the early Church, as well as the extent to which modern churches employ modes of worship which are equally extra-biblical, but that lack any connection to historic, orthodox Christianity.

Saint Basil also provides us with an interesting argument for why a manual (or such like) of the practices he gives examples of was not compiled – that the liturgical traditions he lists were preserved in the Church via unwritten means because they pertained to something too holy and too precious for the uninitiated to be privy too (i.e.; many of the traditions not found in Scripture were not written down precisely because they were so highly valued by the believing community and thus could only be accessed once a commitment to that community had been made).

At any rate, as we approach Christmas, and the usual cries of such-and-such a practise recommended by the Church being unbiblical or ‘just’ tradition, it is good to be reminded of the venerable nature of the unwritten teachings we receive in and through the Church, the wider context in which we must see Scripture as existing, and from whence it draws its authority in the first place:

Of the beliefs and practices preserved in the Church, whether by tacit sanction, or by public decree, we have some delivered from written teaching; others we have received as delivered to us “in a mystery” from the tradition of the Apostles; and both classes have the same force for true piety. No one will dispute these; no one, at any rate, who has even the slightest experience of the institutions of the Church. If we tried to depreciate the customs lacking written authority, on the ground that they have but little validity, we should find ourselves unwittingly inflicting vital injury on the Gospel: or rather reducing official definition to a mere form of words.

For example, to mention the first and commonest instance – who has given us written instructions to sign, with the sign of the cross, those who have set their hope on the name of the Lord Jesus? What written instructions have we for turning to the east in prayer? Which of the saints has left to us, in writing, the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist, and the cup of the blessing? For to be sure, we are not content with the record of the Apostle and the Gospel, but we add, by way of preface and conclusion, other elements which we have received from the unwritten teaching, and we regard them as having great importance for the performance of the sacrament. We bless the water of baptism, and the oil of the chrism, and moreover we bless the person who is being baptised. On whose written instructions? Is it not on the authority of silent and secret tradition? And what of the anointing with oil itself? What written word rejoined that? And whence comes the custom of triple immersion? And with regard to the other rites of baptism, from what scripture do we obtain the renunciation of Satan and his angels?

Does this not come from this unpublished and secret teaching? Our fathers, by silence, preserved this teaching from inquisitive meddlers, having been well instructed to safeguard, by silence, the awful solemnity of these mysteries. It was scarcely likely that a public display, in the shape of written documents, should be made of teaching about things at which the uninitiated are not even allowed to look…

…Moses had the wisdom to know that contempt readily falls on the trite and the easily accessible, while eager interest tends naturally to attach to the remote and the unusual. In the same way the Apostles and Fathers, who at the beginning laid down ordinances concerning the Church, were concerned to safeguard the solemnity of the mysteries, by secrecy and reticence; for what is published for the casual hearing of the general public is no mystery at all.

from De Spiritu Sancto, 66 in The Later Christian Fathers (1987), pp.59-60, Oxford University Press.

The Root of Jesse and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

In his exposition of the first verse of the eleventh chapter of the book of Isaiah, (a short homily which is featured in the Roman Breviary as one of the lessons for the Second Sunday of Advent) Saint Jerome details in what way Isaiah’s prophecy – that ‘there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ – should be related to what has been revealed in the New Covenant. In his exegesis, Jerome draws attention to what the Church has traditionally believed to be the identity of the ‘shoot’ or ‘rod’ that emanates forth from the ‘root’ of David’s father. Clearly this prophecy is related overall to Our Lord, as the heir of the House of David, but some of the finer details of Isaiah’s text can also be related to Our Lady:

‘A Rod shall rise out of Jesse. Up to the beginning of the vision, which Isaias the son of Amos saw, and which was of the burden of Babylon, all this prophecy relates to Christ; the which we propose to explain, part by part, so that the subject treated of, and the discussions upon them, may not confuse the mind of the reader. The Jews interpret the Shoot and the Flower of Jesse as the Lord Himself; namely, that by the Rod is signified His Royal Power, and by the Flower His Beauty.

We however believe that the Holy Virgin Mary is the Rod from the Root of Jesse, to which no encroaching plant hath cleaved, and of whom we earlier read: Behold a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son. And the Flower is the Lord Our Saviour, Who says in the Canticle of Canticles: I am the Flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys.

Upon this Flower then which of a sudden will rise up from the stock and the root of Jesse, through the Virgin Mary, the Spirit of the Lord will rest: because in Him it hath pleased all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell corporeally: and not in part, as in others who were sanctified; but as the Nazarenes read in their Gospel, written in the Hebrew tongue: The whole fountain of the Holy Spirit shall come down upon Him. Now the Lord is a spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), p.37, Longmans.

            Saint Jerome makes clear, by his use of the phrase ‘we however believe’ that what he is describing is something commonly known and held to within the Church – by contrasting it to what is believed by the Jews, the ‘we’ must be the common belief of all Christians. Here then we have testimony to the belief that Isaiah prophesied not only the coming of Our Lord, the heir to the House of David, but also that the Shoot which comes forth from the Root of Jesse, which in turn produces the Flower, Jesus, is in fact the Blessed Virgin Mary. Aside from the way in which Jerome presents this as a widely held tradition within the Church, it is also sound exegesis in and of itself – for it is indeed Our Blessed Mother from whom Our Lord comes into the world; who else but her could be the shoot that produces the flower of our salvation?

This interpretation sheds some important light on what is believed about the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, as it draws our attention to the deeply organic connection between Mary and Jesus. It is from her that He receives His sacred humanity, including His human soul, and it is at the heart of the dogma in question that, because the whole Christ was and is without sin, the one from whom He received that humanity must also have been without the stain of Original Sin. In terms of Isaiah’s prophecy, if the shoot/rod were in any way marked by the weakness of our inherited nature, it would inevitably lead to what emanates from that shoot being tainted as well. We can see the truth of this in the way in which Saint Jerome, after having established the belief that Our Lady is the Shoot, immediately goes on to exalt the Flower which springs forth from her.

Many years later, in a much longer homily given during Advent, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux discusses the six ‘circumstances’ of the Coming of Our Lord – His Person, whence He comes from, whither He goes to, the cause of His Coming, the time of it, and the way by which He came. After covering each of these in turn, Saint Bernard then gives some extra attention to the final circumstance – the way in which Our Lord came to us – and in doing so arrives at the same question Saint Jerome had tackled centuries earlier. He gives the same answer (namely that it is the Blessed Virgin who is the Rod of Jesse) but provides a much more exhaustive illustration of why this is the case, supplementing it with some of the exalted language for which the Mellifluous Doctor is known:

‘Behold He cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. In place of mountains and hills understand patriarchs and prophets, and as He came leaping and skipping, read in the book of the generation of Jesus: Abraham begot Isaac: and Isaac begot Jacob and so on. From these mountains came forth, as you will find, the Root of Jesse, whence, according to the prophet, there came forth a Rod, and thence a flower shall rise up, upon which the sevenfold Spirit of the Lord shall rest (Is. xi. 1). And revealing this more plainly in another place, the same prophet says: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Mt. i. 23). For He whom he first refers to as a flower, the same he here calls Emmanuel; and that which he before calls a rod, (virga) he here speaks of as the Virgin.

From this I believe it to be evident who is the Rod coming forth from the Root of Jesse, and Who is the Flower upon which the Holy Spirit rests: that the Mother of God is this Rod, and her Son Jesus the Flower. A Flower accordingly is the Son of the Virgin; a flower white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands (Cant. v. 10); a flower upon which the angels desire to look (I Pet. i. 12); a Flower whose fragrance restores the dead to life; and as He Himself has said, a Flower of the field, and not of the garden. For the field flowers without human help, it is by no man sown, unbroken to the spade, nor made rich with soil. So truly has flowered the Womb of the Virgin; so has the inviolate, the unstained, the pure flesh and blood of Mary, as a field, brought forth this flower of eternal beauty; Whose perfection shall see no corruption, Whose glory shall be forever unfading…

…You have already comprehended, if I am not mistaken, that the Royal Virgin is Herself the Way through which the Saviour comes, coming forth from her womb as a bride-groom coming forth out of his bridechamber. Holding fast then to this way, let us strive, Beloved, to ascend through Her to Him, Who through Her has come down to us; to reach by Her aid to His divine forgiveness, Who came by way of Her to take away our woe. Through thee have we access to Thy Son, O Blessed Discoverer of Grace, Mother of Life, Mother of Salvation! May he through Thee forgive us, Who by Thee was given unto us. May thy blameless integrity plead with Him, that He look not upon our corruption; and let thy humility that so pleases God, obtain the pardon of our pride…

Our Lady, Our Mediatrix, present us to Thy Son. Speak for us to Thy Son. Grant, O Most Blessed, through the graces thou hast earned, through the privileges thou hast merited, through the mercy thou hast received, that He Who deigned by means of Thee, to become a Sharer of our infirmity and sorrow, may through thy intercession make us sharers of His Glory and of His Joy, Jesus Christ Thy Son Our Lord, Who is above all God the Blessed for ever and ever. Amen.

ibid, pp.26-27.

            Again, despite the exalted ways in which Saint Bernard speaks of the Blessed Virgin, it is always with references to Our Lord Jesus – she is so highly thought of and praised precisely because it is through her that He comes to us. She is spoken of as ‘Mediatrix’ and ‘Mother of Salvation’ because, properly understood, this is exactly what she is – she is the Shoot from which springs the Flower; it is through her that the fullness of grace poured out by God to effect the Incarnation is channelled. She is immaculate in her humanity, because she is the very way by which Our Lord takes humanity unto Himself. One can argue that God does not need the cooperation of human beings to effect what he wills, but it is plain from salvation history that it is His pleasure to do just that, and Our Lady is the pre-eminent example of such.

Finally, with respect to the issue of the exalted language with which Saint Bernard praises Our Blessed Mother – whilst he speaks of her in much more lofty terms, the point he is making is essentially the same one we find in Saint Jerome, who as we saw, was tapping into a well-established tradition himself. Thus, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, whilst not formally promulgated until 1854, can be seen as the merely formal statement of a belief about Our Lady’s role in the work of salvation that is deeply patristic at root.

When Pope Pius IX defined the dogma, he was also appealing to a rich and venerable history of popular devotion to Mary over the ages, as well as any theological discussions that had taken place through the years. It is strange then that so many non-Catholic Christians should take offence at a teaching that represents so well the fertile interplay between faith and worship, which has such deep roots in antiquity, and which exists solely to make clearer what is most central to the Christian Faith – namely, the Incarnation. Mariology is always a corollary or refinement of Christology, and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is the perfect example of this; no wonder then that Saint Bernard also said that we should not imagine we obscure the glory of the Son by praising His Mother, but rather the more she is honoured, the greater is His glory.

Karl Barth: Sloth as the Essence of Sin

In discussions about temptation, spiritual discernment, etc, the sin of sloth does not seem to get mentioned quite as much as its more illustrious cousins. Lust tends to get the most press, as it is more visible than the other deadly sins, easily noticeable to the one affected by it, and wreaking evident havoc in the lives of those who give in to it. Greed is another very noticeable sin, though one which we tend to see more in others than in ourselves, and which is often discussed in the public sphere with reference to bankers, politicians and other prominent civic figures; similarly with gluttony, which is something that we in the West are particularly conscious of, focusing as we do on our physical wellbeing almost to the exclusion of the spiritual.

Wrath is, like lust, hard to ignore, and envy is something that, although it is an operation of the soul that often lacks physical expression with its effects therefore often more subtle, we are still quite conscious of, particularly the extent to which it is liable to do us long-term damage if we indulge it. Pride, which is more elusive still, vies with lust for being the most notorious deadly sin of all – it is certainly widely reckoned to be the deadliest, if not the most obvious, and the vast majority of spiritual directors and theologians have seen it (with good reason) as being at the root of all other sins. Sloth however, never seems to get quite the recognition it deserves – it is the one that most of us will have wondered to ourselves at some point or other how it got on the list; it is a sin for sure, but its deadliness is often hard to see.

Karl Barth, in his seminal work the Church Dogmatics, examined pretty much every aspect of Christian doctrine, rigorously investigating foundational concepts, and the question of the essential nature of sin was inevitably one of the things that he studied. In the second part of its fourth book, Barth examines the traditional view that sees pride or hubris as representing the essential character of sin, and then suggests an alternative view – namely that sloth might more accurately capture that essence. Pride, Barth argues, is a heroic, Promethean expression of sin’s essence – disobedience – which at times even approaches a tragic beauty. Sloth however, is an expression of sin as a reluctance to know and follow God in its more trivial aspect:

The sin of man is not merely heroic in its perversion. It is also – to use again the terms already introduced in the first sub-section – ordinary, trivial and mediocre. The sinner is not merely Prometheus or Lucifer. He is also – and for the sake of clarity, and to match the grossness of the matter, we will use rather popular expressions – a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-for-nothing, a slowcoach and a loafer. He does not exist only in an exalted world of evil; he exists also in a very mean and petty world of evil (and there is a remarkable unity and reciprocity between the two in spite of their apparent antithesis). In the one, he stands bitterly in need of humiliation; in the other he stands no less bitterly in need of exaltation. And in both cases the need is in relation to the totality of his life in action. We will gather together what we have to say on this second aspect under the term or concept “sloth.”

The forbidden or reprehensible tardiness and failure of man obviously fall under the general definition of sin as disobedience. In face of the divine direction calling him to perform a definite action, man refuses to follow the indication which he is given. Even in this refusal to act, however, and therefore in this inaction, he is involved in a certain action. The idler or loafer does something. For the most part, indeed, what he does is quite considerable and intensive. The only thing is that it does not correspond to the divine direction but is alien and opposed to it. He does not do what God wills, and so he does what God does not will. He is disobedient and he does that which is evil. In all that follows we must keep before us the fact that because sin in its form as sloth seems to have the nature of a vacuum, a mere failure to act, this does not mean that it is a milder or weaker or less potent type of sin than in its active form as pride. Even as sloth, sin is plainly disobedience.

from Church Dogmatics (1961), IV.2.65, pp.404-405, T&T Clark.

            Barth goes on to emphasise the fact that sloth, whilst giving the appearance of mere inactivity, is really just as much an active form of unbelief as is pride – it is an expression of the interior disposition which does not wish to do God’s will and thus wishes He would simply go away, leaving us to ourselves. Whilst pride is often expressed in subtle ways within a person’s makeup or behaviour, sloth is by its very nature always understated and hard to pin down as direct disobedience. Pridefulness, while often complex and woven in together with other disordered desires, is often notable by its overt expression as rebellion, and in this form is actually easier to convert and sanctify than sloth.

The man who shakes his fist at the heavens is one who deep down cares about truth and justice, though his conception of such things may be misconceived; the slothful man simply wishes to be left alone, and hates God for intruding on the security of his detachment from the obligations of Goodness and Truth. A desire to make such an escape, argues Barth, may actually find a home in purely ‘natural’ religion, and thus it is not just God in the abstract but the concrete expression and revelation of God in Jesus Christ that the slothful man in his heart truly despises:

Sin in the form of sloth crystallises in the rejection of the man Jesus. In relation to Him the rejection of God from which it derives finds virulent and concrete and forceful expression. For it is in Him that the divine direction and summons and claim come to man. It is in Him that the divine decision is made which he will not accept, which he tries to resist and escape. It is to be noted that in the main there is no radical opposition to the idea of God as a higher or supreme being to whom man regards himself as committed, nor to the thought of a beyond, or something which transcends his existence, nor to the demand that he should enter into a more or less conscious or unconscious, binding or non-binding connexion with it. He will never seriously or basically reject altogether religion or piety in one form or another, nor will he finally or totally cease to exercise or practise them in an open or disguised form. On the contrary, an escape to religion, to adoring faith in a congenial higher being, is the purest and ripest and most appropriate possibility at which he grasps in his sloth, and cannot finally cease from grasping as a slothful man…

…But he is not tolerated, let alone confirmed, by the reality and presence and action of God in the existence of the man Jesus. He is basically illuminated and radically questioned and disturbed and therefore offended by the deity of God in the concrete phenomenon of the existence of this man. His own tolerance is thus strained to the limit when he has to do with God in this man. His rejection of God finds expression in his relation this man. Tested in this way, he will unhesitatingly avoid God even as the religious or pious man. But this means that he will unhesitatingly resist God. In his relation to God he will show himself to be slothful man, turned in upon himself and finding his satisfaction and comfort in his own ego.

Why is it that this is expressed in the rejection of the man Jesus? The reason is that in this man, as opposed to all the higher beings and transcendencies which he knows to be congenial and to which he may therefore commit himself, he has to do with the true and living God who loved this man, and was His God, from all eternity, and who will love this man and be His God, to all eternity; the God whose outstretched hand of promise and preservation of deliverance and command, has always been, and always will be, the existence of this man. The reason is that what God always gave to all men, what He was and is and will be for them, is simply a demonstration of the free grace which became an historical event in the appearance and work, the dying and rising again, of this man. The God of this man, and therefore concretely this man, offends us. Our sloth rejects Him. In relation to Him it is our great inaction, our hesitation, our withdrawal into ourselves. Man rejects Him because he wants to elect and will himself, and he does not want to be disturbed in this choice.

ibid, pp.406-408.

            The line taken by Barth above, which I think is a pretty accurate assessment of what many of us will have either seen in others or experienced in ourselves (or more likely both), reminds me of the basic plot of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, where two men – a devout Catholic and a staunch atheist – dispute and attempt to duel across the country, yet ultimately find that they have much more in common with one another than with the rest of the populace; they at least care about God, everybody else floats along in semi-indifference, some tipping their hat to religion, some not, but all desperate to be left to get on with day-to-day business and to the creation of a secure corner of the world for themselves.

Barth and Chesterton agree that the impassioned atheist perhaps has more of a chance of redemption than the agnostic, the man who is ‘spiritual but not religious’, or even worse, the church-goer who goes through the motions but either crosses their fingers whilst reciting the Creed or doesn’t pay much attention to it in general. Whilst Karl Barth’s thesis that Christianity is fundamentally opposed to natural religion is, I think, overstated, failing to account for the confluences between the two and the sense in which the latter can be a ‘schoolmaster’ for the former, his instinct is right. It is very easy to turn religious observance into an idol, or into something that gives me the space for paying my respects to a congenial, vague God who doesn’t challenge me or shine a light on my weaknesses at all.

The God revealed in Jesus Christ though is one who shatters all the illusions we have about ourselves – that we are basically good people, that we can save ourselves, that we deserve to be respected for our ‘fine’ qualities and to have our selfish behaviour tolerated. The truth about ourselves is something that we routinely shy away from and thus the essence of sin as expressed in sloth is to turn our back on God because we know He will expose the very things we are trying to hide (Barth, earlier in the essay, uses the apposite image of man rolling himself into a ball like a hedgehog – secured from the light and passively turning his spikes outwards towards God). The purely natural religion – a vague theism (or sometimes even pantheism) – that now espoused in many churches is thus a betrayal of the Gospel, as it fails to shine the searching light of Christ onto us, instead confirming us in our sloth.

The desire to be left alone, left to our illusions of self-sufficiency and ‘basic decency’, is just as essential to sin as is the overt rebellion of pride – in fact, as Barth notes, they are two sides of the same coin. We want to be left alone so that we might ignore God and His call for us to live in true freedom – a freedom that involves risk and responsibility but that is full of light and life – but God will not do that. He came to us in Jesus Christ so that we might know Him and in doing so know our real need of Him. Whilst this revelation should be and in reality is joy to the world, for many it remains a threat – a challenge to our indifference and a disturbance of our self-created securities. Sloth is something stubborn and perverse, which makes man cosy in his rejection of the living God – this makes it a very deadly sin indeed.