Newman on Theological Liberalism (“Tracts of the Times” No. 73)

Newman on Theological Liberalism (“Tracts of the Times” No. 73) March 5, 2011



See the online version of Tract 73 (On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion): dated 1836.

Newman nails the theologically liberal / dissident / heterodox / “progressive” mentality in this tract. In the aspects he deals with, the thinking is no different today. Error and disbelief and self-contradictory worldviews are seen to be boringly repetitive (and for that matter, boorish), as always.

* * * * *


Rationalism is a certain abuse of Reason; that is, a use of it for purposes for which it never was intended, and is unfitted. To rationalize in matters of Revelation is to make our reason the standard and measure of the doctrines revealed; to stipulate that those doctrines should be such as to carry with them their own justification; to reject them, if they come in collision with our existing opinions or habits of thought, or are with difficulty harmonized with our existing stock of knowledge. And thus a rationalistic spirit is the antagonist of Faith; for Faith is, in its very nature, the acceptance of what our reason cannot reach, simply and absolutely upon testimony.
* * *


. . . it is Rationalism to accept the Revelation, and then to explain it away; to speak of it as the Word of God, and to treat it as the word of man; to refuse to let it speak for itself; to claim to be told the why and the how of God’s dealings with us, as therein described, and to assign to Him a motive and a scope of our own; to stumble at the partial knowledge which He may give us of them; to put aside what is obscure, as if it had not been said at all; to accept one half of what has been told us, and not the other half; to assume that the contents of Revelation are also its proof; to frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them, and then to garble, gloss, and colour them, to trim, clip, pare away, and twist them, in order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them.

* * *


The Rationalist makes himself his own centre, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him.


* * *


Our private judgment is made everything to us,—is contemplated, recognized, and consulted as the arbiter of all questions, and as independent of everything external to us. Nothing is considered to have an existence except so far forth as our minds discern it. The notion of half views and partial knowledge, of guesses, surmises, hopes and fears, of truths faintly apprehended and not understood, of isolated facts in the great scheme of Providence, in a word, the idea of Mystery, is discarded.


* * *


Such a belief, implicit, and symbolized as it is in the use of creeds, seems to the Rationalist superstitious and unmeaning, and he consequently confines Faith to the province of Subjective Truth, or to the reception of doctrine, as, and so far as, it is met and apprehended by the mind, which will be differently, as he considers, in different persons, in the shape of orthodoxy in one, heterodoxy in another. That is, he professes to believe in that which he opines; and he avoids the obvious extravagance of such an avowal by maintaining that the moral trial involved in Faith does not lie in the submission of the reason to external realities partially disclosed, but in what he calls that candid pursuit of truth which ensures the eventual adoption of that opinion on the subject, which is best for us individually, which is most natural according to the constitution of our own minds, and, therefore, divinely intended for us.


* * *


He assumes . . . that clear knowledge is the one thing needful for the human mind, and by consequence that Christian faith does not really consist in the direct contemplation of the Supreme Being, in a submission to His authority, and a resignation to such disclosures about Himself and His will, be they many or few, distinct or obscure, as it is His pleasure to make to us, but in a luminous, well-adjusted view of the scheme of salvation, . . .


* * *


Not that the reality of the Atonement, in itself, is formally denied, but it is cast in the background, except so far as it can be discovered to be influential, viz., to show God’s hatred of sin, the love of Christ, and the like; and there is an evident tendency to consider it as a mere Manifestation of the love of Christ, to the denial of all real virtue in it as an expiation for sin; as if His death took place merely to show His love for us as a sign of God’s infinite mercy, to calm and assure us, without any real connexion existing between it and God’s forgiveness of our sins. . . . Rationalism, or want of faith, which has in the first place invented a spurious gospel, next looks complacently on its own off-spring, and pronounces it to be the very image of that notion of the Divine Providence, according to which it was originally modelled; a procedure, which, besides more serious objections, incurs the logical absurdity of arguing in a circle.


* * *


But it is the way with men, particularly in this day, to generalize freely, to be impatient of such concrete truth as existing appointments contain, to attempt to disengage it, to hazard sweeping assertions, to lay down principles, to mount up above God’s visible doings, and to subject them to tests derived from our own speculations.


* * *


. . . this narrow-minded, jejune, officious, and presumptuous human system teaches nothing but a Manifestation, i.e. a series of historical works conveying a representation of the moral character of God; and it dishonours our holy faith by the unmeaning reproach of its being metaphysical, abstract, and the like,—a reproach, unmeaning and irreverent, just as much so as it would be on the other hand to call the historical facts earthly or carnal.


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