CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY - THE DOCTRINE OF GOD - by the Rt. Rev. ARTHUR C. HEADLAM C.H., D.D. Bishop of Gloucester ; Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford ; formerly Professor of Dogmatic Theology in King's College, London, and Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. First Published: Oxford University Press, 1934. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


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IN the preceding chapters an attempt has been made to examine the sources from which a knowledge of religion, and in particular the Christian religion, may be obtained. They are natural religion and revealed religion. The one tells us of those answers to the problem of religion which have been discovered by human reason, the other of that knowledge of divine things which it is maintained has been given to mankind through revelation. We find on inquiry that as a matter of fact there has been great variety of belief in religious matters not only in the world generally, but in the particular sphere of Christianity, and the question must inevitably arise, By what process am I able to discover which of these various beliefs are true and which of them I ought to adopt? Is it necessary for me to examine all these different forms of belief or is there any authority which will put before me clearly and definitely what is the true religion? Is the basis of Christian belief reason or authority? What is the relation that these two sources of human knowledge have to one another in religious matters?


Let us begin by investigating the relation of these two sources of knowledge in the common affairs of life. It is sometimes maintained that it is the duty of an intelligent man to regulate his life and form his opinions entirely by reason, that it is true indeed that a large number of matters come to us on the authority of others, but that this is an inferior sort of knowledge, that we must think everything out for ourselves and free ourselves from the fetters and chains of authority. Now very slight consideration will show us that this is not possible, nor would it be wise to attempt it. It is not possible because in our daily life and customs, in our relations with one another, in political and social life, in our business, trades, and professions there are many beliefs, in fact a large proportion of our knowledge, which we have not either the time or the opportunity to investigate. Nor would it be wise, because the great mass of people when they begin to reason independently arrive at conclusions which are found to be undoubtedly incorrect.

Let me quote a striking passage from Lord Balfour's work on The Foundations of Belief in which he describes the important part played by authority in regulating our conduct and belief.

'When we turn, however,' he writes, 'from the conscious work of Reason to that which is unconsciously performed for us by Authority, a very different spectacle arrests our attention. The effects of the first, prominent as they are through the dignity of their origin, are trifling compared with the all-pervading influences which flow from the second. At every moment of our lives, as individuals, as members of a family, of a party, of a nation, of a Church, of a universal brotherhood, the silent, continuous, unnoticed influence of Authority moulds our feelings, our aspirations, and, what we are more immediately concerned with, our beliefs. It is from Authority that Reason itself draws its most important premisses. It is in unloosing or directing the forces of Authority that its most important conclusions find their principal function. And even in those cases where we may most truly say that our beliefs are the rational product of strictly intellectual processes, we have, in all probability, only got to trace back the thread of our inferences to its beginnings in order to perceive that it finally loses itself in some general principle which, describe it as we may, is in fact due to no more defensible origin than the influence of Authority.'
The Foundations of Belief, by the Right Hon. Arthur James Balfour (London: Longmans, 1895), pp. 227-8.

He then proceeds to estimate the value of authority.

'It is true no doubt that we can, without any great expenditure of research, accumulate instances in which Authority has perpetuated error and retarded progress; for unluckily none of the influences, Reason least of all, by which the history of the race has been moulded have been productive of unmixed good. The springs at which we quench our thirst are always turbid. Yet, if we are to judge with equity between these rival claimants, we must not forget that it is Authority rather than Reason to which in the main we owe not religion only but ethics and politics; that it is Authority which supplies us with essential elements in the premisses of science; that it is Authority rather than Reason which lays deep the foundations of social life; that it is Authority rather than reason which cements its superstructure. And though it may seem to savour of paradox, it is yet no exaggeration to say, that if we would find the quality in which we most notably excel the brute creation, we should look for it, not so much in our faculty of convincing and being convinced by the exercise of reasoning, as in our capacity for influencing and being influenced through the action of Authority.'
Op. cit., pp. 229-30.

Now what does this authority mean? It means I think the sum of human achievement. It means what the human race has attained up to any given time in capacity for living, in skill in the arts and crafts, in knowledge of the world and of itself. As the attainments of each nation and people are different, authority speaks with a different voice in different places. There is general authority, the authority of the whole community, there is the local authority of the town or village, and there is the special and particular authority of every trade, profession, or group. For instance a boy who is going to be a joiner or a blacksmith learns on authority the way in which he should do things. Besides these there is, up to a certain point, and dealing with some of the more fundamental principles of knowledge, an authority which is common to the whole human race, and arises from the fact that fundamentally the whole race lives in the same environment; that is to say its experience is the same, and it has the same gifts of observation and reasoning, the same wants, passions, and desires, and the same emotions.

There are two things that I propose to ask about this authority. The first, wherein its power lies, for undoubtedly it has great power and influence in the world; and the second, what is the source of the knowledge that it puts before us. The power of authority is great. For the most part it is very difficult to break down what is accepted as authority. The arguments to prove that it is wrong may appear to the unprejudiced mind quite demonstrative, but they will be found to have little or no weight against authority. The custom that we attempt to change may be harmful and pernicious, but it will continue to survive in spite of continuous attempts to destroy it. The belief that we wish to eradicate may seem to us an absurd superstition, yet we shall find that people continue to hold it tenaciously. Arguments which appear to be sufficient are easily discovered, if it comes to argument, to defend what the mind clings to.

I would suggest three reasons for this power of authority. The first is the force of habit. We may leave it to the physiologist and psychologist to investigate the causes of this, to us it is sufficient that whether in the realm of thought or of action we adhere easily, readily, and gladly to that to which we are accustomed. Our mind and our body work in regular grooves. Many in fact are quite unable to get out of these grooves at all. The early impressions of life, and the inherited impressions, cling to us closely. In fact we cannot change, we are what we are.

Then, secondly, there is the force of public opinion. Even if any individual gifted with superior intelligence or greater individuality tries to break away from customary habits or beliefs he experiences serious difficulty. The collective influence of a body of people with the same inherited beliefs, prejudices, and customs is very great and overpowers any but the strongest minds. Unless circumstances arise to assist the innovator, he remains without support. And this force and power of habit and of public opinion are increased by custom. Inherited ideas become embedded in laws, customs, observances, ceremonial, and so on. It becomes the interest of a large body of people to support them. In fact they are generally appointed to do so. The lawyer is appointed to keep up the authority and power of law, the clergyman of religion and morals. Inherited customs also become entwined in all the actions of our daily life. Inherited religion expresses itself in the observation of certain days, in the performance of certain rites, in its particular association with the different crises of our lives, with birth and adolescence, with marriage and death. A change of custom as well as of thought is necessary to break down the power of authority.

A third reason for the power of authority is that experience has proved its value. Not only does its teaching harmonize with our mental equipment, but it is generally found to be right. The innovation is generally wrong. This arises (as will be seen) from the fact that it is itself the result, often the unconscious result, of the experience and intelligence of many generations and that the reasoning power of the average individual human being acting by himself is of small value. Prejudice against change has on its side the fact that the existing custom is generally wiser than any proposed change, that the existing belief is truer, that even if the change be necessary or wise it will eventually be found that it does harm as well as good. So the natural repugnance to a new course or to new ideas is justified by arguments of considerable value.

It is therefore in periods when external events have altered circumstances that authority breaks down. A great war, the conquest of a country, the spread of commerce, a great increase of wealth, intercourse between nations, mechanical inventions, the value of which is obvious and the ultimate influence incalculable – all these break down the force of habit and custom and consequently tend to undermine the influence of authority. For example the transformation of the world by the establishment of the Roman Empire, the great changes in political ideas which inevitably resulted, the steady unification of society, made the continuance of separate religions for each state and people no longer possible, broke down old beliefs and customs, and prepared the way for a universal religion. We have thus to recognize the power and, within certain limits, the beneficence of authority.

What is the source then from which this accumulated knowledge which we have called authority comes? It is partly the result of the experience and intelligence of the race; of beliefs and customs which, whatever their origin, have gradually and unconsciously been accepted as sound because they have been continually found to be so in practice. Then secondly it represents that part of the attainment of individuals who have influenced their contemporaries by their character and ability which has been taken over by society.

All our leading beliefs about the nature of the world in which we live and about human nature come to us through authority. For example, the doctrine of the uniformity of nature in the only form in which it is true has become impressed upon us just by this accumulated experience, and we always regulate our action by it. The uniformity of nature means that the same antecedent must have the same consequent, and that therefore a variation in the antecedent must mean a variation in the result. That means that the world around us is a cosmos, not a chaos. Now this truth every woman who cooks knows and acts on instinctively, it is the basis of all the arts of life, and of the whole structure of science. A world might have been conceivably constructed in which this did not happen, but we know that this world is so constructed, and the human race has proved that it is so through centuries of experience. There are many other things about the world which we receive from authority. The fundamental basis of all moral action and of speculation about morals is that 'the good is good'. This is, for example, both the starting-point and the conclusion of Dr. Rashdall's great book on The Theory of Good and Evil. It means ultimately that goodness is a constituent of the nature of things. This the human race has discovered, although with less certainty, perhaps, than our first proposition, through continuous observation and reasoning concerning the experience of life. So the leading ideas which form the basis of our political, social, and religious life – less universal and more precarious – are yet the result of the accumulated experience of the race, of the civilized world, or of a particular nation. There is continually going on a gradually increasing acquaintance with the reality of the conditions under which we live and an adjustment of our ideas to them which builds up our tradition of life.

Then the next source of authority is the individual who has proved to society that his skill or his knowledge exceeds that of others. It is obvious that it is necessary that we should accept the great mass of our knowledge on the authority of others, because no individual could possibly either discover or verify for himself any but a very small part of the knowledge he requires. That has always been the case, and is increasingly so at the present day; in fact now we accept more things on the basis of authority than ever before. So Henry Sidgwick writes:

'It is sometimes said that we live in an age that rejects authority. The statement, thus unqualified, seems misleading; probably there never was a time when the number of beliefs held by each individual, un-demonstrated and unverified by himself, was greater. But it is true that we are more and more disposed to accept only authority of a particular sort; the authority, namely, that is formed and maintained by the unconstrained agreement of individual thinkers, each of whom we believe to be seeking truth with single-mindedness and sincerity, and declaring what he has found with scrupulous veracity, and the greatest attainable exactness and prevision.'
The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription, by Henry Sidgwick (1898), p. 124.

I am not sure that this is not a somewhat idealized account of what happens even in the present enlightened days. But undoubtedly the influence of those who have proved themselves or have seemed to prove themselves capable in any particular sphere has had great influence on the community, and the sum of human knowledge is largely made up of the attainments of those who have succeeded in impressing their generation. Often the influence of such authorities has excessive weight.

Authority then is the chief source of our beliefs, customs, and habits. It means the accumulated knowledge of the race. It has wide experience behind it. It is the result of the continuous intelligence of countless generations. It has been also continuously verified. It has created a system of life adapted to the environment in which we live. But as we have already seen the human mind and human society are tenacious of old customs and beliefs. The environment in which we live is constantly changing. Our generalizations are continually becoming more perfect, but the old beliefs have a tendency to live on. Authority may be a preservative of error as well as a teacher of truth. The pursuit of truth then will mean two things. The first is that whether we are engaged with the study of life as a whole or of any particular department we should be able to start from the position already attained. Each generation, unless it had this accumulated knowledge behind it, would have to start in the position of primitive man. We must start where our predecessors left off. And then secondly, there must be the process of enlarging and correcting this knowledge. If a country or a Church or any other body of men were to accept the whole of its traditions without investigation, correction, or independent thought, life and society would become stereotyped and would begin to decay. The acceptance and the continuous correction of authority are equally necessary for a healthy state of society.

A stereotyped condition of society or thought is far easier to acquire than we are apt to think. For instance, it is a comparatively short time since the medical profession consisted largely of those whose medical knowledge was a matter of tradition, who quoted their authorities rather than investigated nature, and whose methods of treatment were prescribed for them by custom. On the other hand at the present day a certain number of people are killed every year by the employment without adequate experience of new and half-tested remedies. At the present day the study of natural science is pursued with great vigour and intelligence. So it was in the days of ancient Greece. Only twice in human history have there been periods of really independent scientific investigation. It would be very easy for a period of stagnation to follow one of what might seem excessive speculation. Even now there is often a tendency to impose a particular opinion on the world and to resent free investigation and criticism.

An examination then of the source and character of human knowledge shows that the great bulk of what each individual or society as a whole knows and accepts comes to us not as the result of independent observation and reasoning but simply on authority. We believe what we are told. This authority is the accumulated and accepted attainment of the race. But however valuable this knowledge may be we know that it is not infallible, and that a continuous process of investigation and correction must go on if it is to be developed and improved and fitted to new circumstances.


We pass now to the question of Christian authority. We have seen how for each of us authority is the chief source of our beliefs and customs, and that as it embodies both the accumulated experience of the race and the attainment of the best minds of each generation, it is for most men the most valuable, often almost the only, source of knowledge. But it can make no claim to anything in the nature of infallibility. Those who wish to advance knowledge must start with what has been already attained, and if they do not do so will be in danger of becoming cranks, but unless there are minds continually working who are capable of advancing and correcting our inherited ideas, knowledge will become obsolete, stereotyped, and dead.

When we turn to authority in relation to the Christian Religion, there is another factor to be introduced, for we are concerned with a revelation. So long as the question is one of philosophical or political thought, of scientific truth or of historical research, we are dealing with knowledge attained by the human mind by its natural powers; but those who believe in Christianity believe that the knowledge it gives us comes from revelation. That is to say there is conveyed to mankind by the direct gift of God knowledge which they could not attain by their natural and unaided powers. There must be behind Christian belief an authority different in kind and scope from anything we possess in more secular subjects. But although all Christians alike recognize in some way the existence of such an authority, there is great diversity of opinion both as to where this authority lies and what is its nature. While some types of Christianity have exalted, we might say exaggerated, this idea of authority, others have ascribed to it slight influence, and have spoken of Christianity as a religion of the Spirit, and the question has arisen whether the authority lies in the original revelation or in the teaching of the Christian Church inspired by the Holy Spirit. Some again have associated Christian authority with the teaching of strong dogmatic statements, others with liberty and freedom of thought.

Most notable in relation to Christianity has been the desire for an authority which is certain and infallible. It is a natural tendency of the human mind to seek guidance. Such a desire is especially strong in religious matters; in times of doubt and controversy men seek something which seems to be certain; there is a natural indolence which makes the great mass of mankind desire not to have the trouble of thinking. All these motives have created a great desire to find some infallible authority, and this has been found in the Bible, in the Church, and in the Pope. Each of these claims demands some investigation.


The idea of an infallible book written by the finger of God containing an authoritative record of the divine will, and giving to mankind divine knowledge, is one that has made a strong appeal, and the belief that the Bible is infallible has prevailed widely in the Christian Church. The reasons why we cannot any longer accept that belief have already been discussed and it is not necessary for us to pursue them further now. « See Chapter II, pp. 69-76. The Bible has been proved (so far as demonstration is possible) not to be infallible. Its statements are at times inconsistent with one another, and can be shown to be erroneous on historical points. Its science is inconsistent with scientific discovery, and criticism, literary and historical, has shown that the history of the Jewish people was different from the traditional view. Moreover there are, as was seen even in the second century, inconsistent descriptions of the character of God and of human duty – an inconsistency quite explicable on some principle of development, but not consistent with infallibility. Nor can we accept or be satisfied with any theories which would limit the infallibility to some of its teaching. A book which is sometimes infallible is for us not infallible unless there is an infallible authority to show when it is infallible. No theory of the infallibility of the Bible can be accepted at the present day.


Even when the infallibility of the Bible was accepted it was found ultimately insufficient, because it became clear that Scripture might be interpreted in many different ways, and an infallible authority needed an infallible interpreter. So the idea of an infallible Church grew up, and this doctrine is now put forward – by those who still need this feeling of certainty – as a substitute for the doctrine of an infallible Bible.

To study this I will refer you to an interesting controversy between Dr. Sanday and Dr. N. P. Williams published in a work called Form and Content in the Christian Tradition. In this Dr. Williams puts forward and defends a belief in the absolute infallibility of the Church, and as it is the ablest defence of that belief it will be convenient to take it as our text-book. He begins by stating the basis of his belief:

'I find myself in need of a religion: that is, of some means of access to God, some means of obtaining help from him towards salvation from sin, and some reliable information about him. For various reasons which I need not go into here, Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Bahaism and so forth do not satisfy me. Christianity, therefore, holds the field in default of other claimants. But I no sooner state to myself "I must be a Christian" than the question rises up in front of me "What is Christianity?" And at first sight, it would seem reasonable to reply "Christianity is what the great majority of those who profess and call themselves Christian believe it to be"; in other words, what I have designated as "Catholicism".'
Form and Content in the Christian Tradition, a friendly discussion between W. Sanday, D.D., and N. P. Williams, M.A. (London, 1916), p. 155, 156.

The ultimate basis of this belief is that the Holy Spirit has guided the Church, a belief based on intuition:

'I should admit that my view – the belief in the Holy Spirit as guiding the process of dogmatic evolution specifically and in detail, not vaguely and in a general sense, rests upon an intuition. This intuition, whereby the Holy Ghost is seen to be in the Church, is (I should say) analogous to that sense of God in nature which comes fleetingly at times to all, and is possessed in fullest measure by the favoured few, poets, prophets and mystics.'
Form and Content in the Christian Tradition, p. 38.

It is not only that the Holy Spirit guides the Church – a belief that many Christians hold, but that the Church thus guided by the Holy Spirit is infallible. So our orthodoxy must be 'uncompromising'. All our fundamental beliefs rest ultimately on an assumption.

'You might as well criticize the Laws of Thought, or the axioms of geometry, for being "assumed without proof" – which is exactly what they are.' 'The ideas of God, Freedom, Immortality, are matters of intuition rather than of demonstration-----The belief that God is Love is an intuition. Whatever you teach and whatever you believe takes you back ultimately to certain intuitions: is it in any way a greater demand upon faith to take as your intuition the infallibility of the undivided Catholic Church up to the great schism of 1054?'
Ibid., pp. 57, 58, 59.

The undivided Church puts before us a complete and defined system of faith. This we are to accept as an infallible revelation. It is perfect and complete, and if any one point were found to be untrue, it would make the rest incredible.

'I believe,' he writes, 'in the Virgin birth
(a) because the Church and the Scriptures say that it was so;
(b) because it seems to me appropriate and congruous to the idea of a Divine Incarnation that it should have been so;
and (c) because I know of no good reason for disbelieving that it was so; but if a papyrus were discovered at Nazareth which proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our Lord was not born of a Virgin, I should at once and without hesitation abandon, not merely the belief in the Virgin Birth, but all the rest of Catholic Christianity as well.'
Ibid., p. 120.

This Catholic Faith then is something whole and indivisible which we have to accept or reject. It is something expressed in creeds and forms of thought which cannot be changed. These lomuiliis must be taken literally and cannot be altered:

'This "unaterability" has, on our view, two consequences. It means, first, that it is not permissible to substitute other intellectual forms (the verbal expression is after all a secondary matter) for those which the Holy Spirit has once sanctioned, speaking through his organ the Church universal: and it means secondly that it is not permissible to discard these forms in favour of a mere formless vagueness – to reject the clear and precise apprehension of truth which God has given us through his Spirit in the Church and to relapse into the original indefiniteness on the plea of returning more nearly to the conditions of early Christianity or the intentions of its founder. These consequences may not be welcome to the modern mind, but it cannot be denied that they follow irresistibly from the assumption of that peculiarly intense and vital presence of the Spirit in the Church.'
Ib. pp. 33, 34.
I have given these extracts because they express with great clearness and accuracy the theory that I am examining, but since the above was first written Dr. Williams has published in Northern Catholicism, Centenary Studies in the Oxford and Parallel Movements (edited by N. P. Williams, D.D., and Charles Harris, D.D., London, 1933), an able article on 'The Theology of the Catholic Revival' in which he appears to have so modified his theory as to make it (if I am not misjudging him) closely resemble the theory put forth in this book. He finds authority in the teaching of Christ as interpreted in the Christian Church. He ascribes to Scripture and the Church, not 'infallibility' but 'sufficiency' and 'indefectibility'. He defines tradition as 'the corporate memory of the Church of God' (p. 176). He says 'The appeal to antiquity is not claimed to be more than a working canon' (p. 179). He quotes Father Serge Boulgakoff, 'who deprecates the over-sharp distinction between the ecclesia docens and the ecclesia discens implied by the doctrine of conciliar infallibility, and, like ourselves, regards teaching authority as resident in some measure in the general body of the Christian society' (p. 182).
He still makes a distinction between Catholic and Protestant Christianity, as if there were two sorts of Christians. This I believe to be incorrect. 'Catholicity' is an ideal which no existing Church represents perfectly, and on some points such as the authority of the general body of the Christian society the true Catholic ideal is better represented by Churches which are called Protestant than by those called Catholic. However, this point I will discuss more fully when I come to write of the doctrine of the Church.

I think that the above extract gives a sufficient account of the position that is held by those who in the Church of England base their beliefs on the infallibility of the Church. It is held that there is a definite body of doctrine and teaching, accurately formulated, unchangeable, unalterable, containing real truth, handed down to us in the Christian Church, to which we must adhere.

Now on examination it will be apparent that there are serious difficulties in such a position. It is quite correctly pointed out that if an authority claims to be infallible, the disproof of any one article in its teaching destroys our faith in the whole. If the Church claims to be infallible, and if it teaches the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and if that doctrine were disproved, then the infallibility of the Church would be disproved also. Although it is not possible to disprove the doctrine, and as will be shown later there are strong arguments « On the Virgin Birth. See Chapter XII, pp. 286-96. in its support, yet many thoughtful people are for various reasons doubtful about it, and it is not wise to make our religious beliefs depend upon the weakest link in the chain. Nor again is it really possible to accept the creeds as documents which are inerrant or final. The language of them and of other formulas is that of the time when they were drawn up and in some cases either scientifically or philosophically obsolete. We may attach a quite intelligent meaning to the phrase 'he ascended into heaven', and 'he descended into Hades', but we do not and cannot take either of them literally, and if once we admit the possibility of symbolism we cannot ascribe any infallibility to these documents. Nor again do we feel that in such a matter as this formularization of truth, or its explanation, anything that the Church does should be unalterable. The promise to lead us into all truth was not limited to any period. It applies to the present and future as to the past. The Spirit is working through the modern mind and we must listen to his voice.


But there is a further and more fundamental difficulty and that is the fact that it is not possible to know accurately what on this theory is the Catholic faith. If it were confined to those formulas which have the assent of a General Council, and we could be quite sure what were General Councils, it might be easier, but the system called Catholicism is not confined to such teaching, many beliefs are part of an unwritten tradition which has never been authoritatively defined and there is no means of distinguishing what should or should not be accepted. There is no definite standard defining the complete system. What is put forward vaguely as Catholic at the present day is eclectic in its origin, derived partly from Eastern Christianity, partly from Western, with no authority behind it but private judgement. It may well be, as has been already pointed out, that there may be gathered from the general history of Christian theology a reasonable system of belief, which may be justly described as Catholic, and may be held to be a sufficient representation of what has been always held in the Church, but for a defined Catholic creed, embracing all that is commonly included in that term, there is no authority which could enable us to say what according to hypothesis is infallible.

It is for this reason amongst others that some of those who are so anxious to find some infallible authority have sought it in the infallibility of the Pope. That step in the development of Roman Catholic Christianity was reached in 1870. The following is the relevant part of the decree passed at the Vatican Council:

'The Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines the doctrine in faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in the blessed Peter, possesses that power of infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be furnished in defining doctrine or faith or morals, and that accordingly such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves not from the consent of the Church irreformable. But if as may God forbid any one should presume to gainsay these our definitions, let him be anathema.'

Now it may be noticed that this definition states that the Roman Pontiff is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But when does he do so? On this point there is no definition given at all. There is, therefore, no means of knowing what decrees of the Roman Pontiff are infallible. There have been solemn pontifical utterances condemning discoveries of the geologist, taking an extremely conservative view on the criticism of the Scriptures, condemning modernism. There have been two conflicting pronouncements on the principles which determine the validity of Orders, and a definite condemnation of Anglican Orders. Are any of these ex cathedra pronouncements? If they are, they show that an infallible authority can arrive at incorrect conclusions, if they are not, they suggest that this infallible guide is somewhat illusory. The fact that we have no means of knowing when a pontifical utterance is infallible will to a thoughtful person deprive the definition of its value. It does not really mean anything from the intellectual standpoint. The claim of the Roman Pontiff to supremacy and infallibility is found useful in the Roman obedience for it "gives an apparently strong basis to a great ecclesiastical system, but from the intellectual point of view it adds no weight whatever to the authority of the Roman Church as embodied in the decrees of the Council of Trent and other authorized formulas.

One of the ablest attempts to support on rational grounds the authority of the Church of Rome is that made by Cardinal Newman in his book on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and a short examination of his arguments will be of value in our investigation, as one of the keys to his life was his desire to find a basis of authority for religious belief. Like others of his writings it is partly a philosophical investigation of the grounds of Christian belief, partly a defence of the position he had just attained and a vigorous criticism of the Anglican position that he had recently held. It is an apologia for the Roman position as against the Anglican. There has been, he argues, and it is in accordance with the nature of things that there should be, a development in Christianity; it is reasonable, therefore, to hold that if there has been such a development there should be also an infallible authority to aid men in knowing what developments are true.

'Reasons shall be given,' he writes, 'for concluding that, in proportion to the probability of true developments of doctrine and practice in the Divine Scheme, so is the probability also of the appointment in that scheme of an external authority to decide upon them, thereby separating them from the mass of mere human speculation, extravagance, corruption, and error, in and out of which they grow. This is the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church; for by infallibility I suppose is meant the power of deciding whether this, that or a third, and any number of theological or ethical statements are true.'
An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), by John Henry Cardinal Newman, chap, ii, § 4.
'The essence of all religion,' he says, 'is authority and obedience, so the distinction between natural religion and revealed lies in this, that the one has a subjective authority, and the other an objective. Revelation consists in the manifestation of the Invisible Divine Power, or in the substitution of the voice of a Lawgiver for the voice of conscience. The supremacy of conscience is the essence of natural religion: the supremacy of Apostle, or Pope, or Church, or Bishop, is the essence of revealed.'
Op. cit., chap, ii, § II.

And he adds later,

'The absolute need of a spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest of arguments in favour of the fact of its supply. Surely either an objective revelation has not been given, or it has been provided with means for impressing its objectiveness on the world.'
Op. cit., chap, ii, § 13.

It being postulated then that we should expect a development in the Christian Faith, and that we should also expect an infallible authority to direct that development, it is argued that it is reasonable to hold that that development which has taken place is the right development and that authority that exists is the true authority. This, of course, is the authority of the Church of Rome. Newman proceeds further to argue that these developments that have taken place and are found in the Church of Rome are healthy and natural developments of the original deposit of faith and are not corruptions.

The whole argument is far more ingenious than convincing. It appears to be a somewhat artificial attempt to justify what it is desired to justify, and the later influence of this work seems rather to corroborate this. Its publication started a principle which harmonized with current philosophical and scientific ideas, and the introduction of the idea of development into Christian theology has had far-reaching consequences which were not contemplated by the author. If Christian doctrine has developed, clearly it will develop further during future times. We recognize that the formulated systems of past days are imperfect, may it not be true also of the systems of the present day, and of much of the ordinary teaching of the Church of Rome? What reason is there for saying that that particular system is infallible except that it makes the claim that it is? There are other developments which may be true, there may be more in the future.

A basis is therefore found for what is described as modernism, and it may be suggested that the very system which Newman wrote to defend may give way in time to a more advanced theology, fitted to the evolution of human thought. Christian theology is no longer looked upon as something static. Newman's defence of the infallibility of the Roman Church has created ideas which are really undermining it.


We have studied certain presentations of the authority of the Bible, the authority of the Church, and the authority of the Pope, and we shall notice that all of them alike have this in common. They start with the assumption that what is necessary is an infallible authority. That they all postulate. It is argued that if there is a God we might expect that he would reveal himself to mankind, and that if he did thus reveal himself there would be some clear and authoritative guide to enable us to know what his revelation was. Therefore, when we find such a clear and certain guide, we feel that it is in accordance with what we ought to expect. And this harmonizes with the natural desire of the vast majority of the human race. We want, they say, to have some certainty in these matters. We must know what is true. We cannot sacrifice ourselves for a cause which is uncertain. Men's conduct will not be influenced if there are serious doubts about their religious belief. Religion appeals to men only when they know that it is true.

Now there are, I think, two strong arguments against this desire for infallibility. The first is that this appearance of certainty is entirely delusive. It is quite true that the authority claims to be infallible, and brings forward arguments to justify that claim, but the proof that it is infallible is at best only probable. A series of arguments are brought forward to prove the infallibility of the Bible, the Church, and the Pope. To some they may make an appeal, but however good they may be, they are not and they cannot be demonstrative. They only at the best make it probable that there is an infallible authority. There is really no certainty. It is quite true that when the authority is accepted, the doubtful nature of the evidence on which that acceptance is made ceases to be apparent. Conviction is attained and there is a feeling of certainty. Moreover, the system, based as it seems on an infallible authority, is satisfying. There is the assurance and support which is desired. There seems to be no need to trouble longer. We can live our life henceforth in a satisfying atmosphere. Once accepted, doubt seems to be gone. All this is true. It is quite true that many people attain this feeling of satisfaction. It is, however, purely subjective. There is really no more certainty about the religious system which makes these claims than there is for any other system of thought.

A second argument against any of these systems which claim to be infallible is that the study of God's methods of dealing with mankind as revealed in human history does not suggest that this is the way he would work with men. The Creator has endowed man with such powers of mind as have enabled him by his own powers to build up his knowledge of the world. What man has attained has been attained by his own effort. This is true alike of his knowledge of the external world which we generally call science, and of his knowledge of the human mind and life, and of the reality of things, which we call philosophy. It has been true also in the history of natural religion. In our first chapter we sketched the process by which man has gradually attained some knowledge of the things of the spirit. Now analogy would suggest that there is no reason to suspect that God would employ any other method in the case of revealed religion. We believe for what seem to us adequate reasons that God has revealed himself to us first in the Old Testament and then in Jesus Christ. We believe that he has endowed man with rational powers to enable him to interpret this revelation, and has given the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in the interpretation of it to mankind, but if we study the history we shall find very little to justify any claim to infallibility at any time.

Turn to the Old Testament. Here is clearly no infallibility. There is a record of development guided by the inspiration of the Prophets. That revelation appears to us adequate for the time when it was determined and occupies a high place in the record of human achievement under divine guidance, but it is in no way infallible. In fact a large part of the teaching of the Old Testament appears from a later standpoint erroneous. At a later time the religious teaching of the nation became stereotyped and the Rabbis ascribed both to the Law and to the interpretation of it an authority which claimed infallibility, and it was just this that our Lord denounced. The characteristics of the New Testament revelation we shall discuss more fully later, but neither here nor in the life of the Church do we find anything static. The development of Christian thought seems in many ways to correspond to the development in progressive nations of natural religion, and suggests that God has dealt with mankind in relation to religious teaching as he has in all the other activities of life.

The claim then to an infallible authority can in no case be made good. Such a claim does not harmonize with anything that we might expect in God's method of dealing with mankind so far as we can learn it from a study of human history or the records of revelation itself, and it really destroys the value and impressiveness of the very authorities that it means to support. The Bible, if treated as an infallible authority, loses its inspiration and becomes wooden and lifeless, the history of the Church is used to teach us formal doctrines and ecclesiastical rules, and ceases to be a record of the glories of the spiritual attainment of mankind, the Pope who as the head of a large part of Western Christendom is an inspiring figure becomes, when unreal claims are made on his behalf, simply ridiculous.


The great evil of this passion for an infallible authority has been that it has obliterated and obscured the real value and influence of legitimate authority, and has led to a harsh and crude distinction being made between authority and the work of the Spirit.

A typical instance would be the work on Les Religions d'Autorité et la Religion de l'Esprit, by the well-known French Protestant Professor Auguste Sabatier. « Les Religions d'Autorité et la Religion de l'Esprit, par Auguste Sabatier, Professeur de I'Universié de Paris, Doyen de la Faculty de Theologie Protestante. Deuxieme edition. Paris, 1904. A conflict of methods is, he tells us, a greater difference than a conflict of doctrine. That is the cause of the antagonism between the traditional theology and the homogeneous group formed by all other modern disciplines. In the first reigns the principle of authority, the second is based upon experience. The result is that between the two there is no common link or measure. Authority bases doctrine on external marks of its origin and the practice of those who have originated it, such as miracles; the experimental method puts us in immediate contact with reality and bids us judge a doctrine from its intrinsic value. Authority therefore is without reality.

It is true that he defines authority to mean infallible authority, but he suggests that the very essence of authority is that it claims to be infallible, and he does not recognize any source of knowledge to which he can give the name. The only source of religious knowledge is in ourselves. Now the position that he has taken up seems to me to have blinded him to the realities of religious history, for it remains true that even those who claim most conspicuously to have revolted from traditional authority are really indebted to authority for most of their religious beliefs. It is no more possible in religion than in any other walk in life for a man to think out all problems for himself, and if he does so he will make a great many blunders, even the experience to which M. Sabatier appeals is itself not something natural and original to human nature, but is the result of the education which comes through authority. Christian experience is itself conditioned by the teaching of the very authority to which it is placed in antagonism.

Authority, in fact, plays the same part in Christian theology that it does in all other human attainment. It represents the sum of Christian religious experience. It represents what the Church has attained in its interpretation of the Christian record and its adaptation to general and particular human needs. It is derived from general human experience and from the attainment of those whose spiritual insight and theological knowledge has been greatest. It has therefore the same value and the same limitations as authority in common things. It is not infallible or inerrant or irreformable or anything of that sort. It has exhibited development and will, as we may reasonably hold, exhibit further development in the future. But it is of the greatest value as the guide of each generation. Its teaching has been formularized by the corporate voice of the Church, and is enshrined in our traditional services. It presents a body of truth which each generation inherits, and provides it thus with a wise standard of truth and a wise rule of life, and these it should pass on to the next generation, enriched, adapted to new circumstances, and perhaps corrected.

This tradition which we receive on the authority of the Church is both general and particular. There is the Catholic, that is general Christian tradition, which it may be somewhat difficult to define but which represents all that body of faith and practice which in the popular mind we associate with the name Christian, and is a very real part in the tradition of civilized humanity. Then there is the particular tradition of the separate religious societies, the result of a more limited experience and adapted to more special and limited circumstances. The Christian man receives his religion on the authority of that particular body to which he belongs, but he has to make it his own and adapt it to the special needs of his own generation, and perhaps to correct it by the more universal Christian tradition. It is the business of the society to which he belongs to help him in that task. The authority of the society is shown not only in the original gift but in the corporate guidance, and a society or Church which cannot exercise that corporate guidance will lose the adherence of its members.

The influence of the wider society should always be ready to guide the smaller society. This wide influence of Christian tradition is as much a factor in religious progress as the freer thought of the individual. We might illustrate this from the more recent history of the English Church. The representation of Christian life in the eighteenth century in this country has been generally and rightly looked upon as in a special degree inadequate, and that from more than one point of view. The Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century was an appeal to Christian tradition and the authority of the Church against the narrow theology of the previous century. No doubt it made mistakes. Its knowledge of history was not always good. It exaggerated its own discoveries. But by being able to correct a meagre representation of Christianity through the richness of inherited traditions it broadened the whole religious life of the country.

In a time like the present when new ideas are constantly being pressed upon us, and, what is more, appear often to be supposed to be almost necessarily true, a recognition of the value of tradition is of the greatest importance. Modernism has no doubt something to teach this generation, but Modernism is a mere phase of thought, the product of the limited experience of a small body of people at the present day, whereas in the tradition of Christian authority there is the accumulated experience of nineteen centuries of Christian thought, in a society taught as we believe by God's Holy Spirit.

The antithesis then between religions of authority and religions of the Spirit is really entirely false. In Christian theology, as in all other regions of thought, there have always been two elements. There is the sum of human experience which we call authority, and this represents the continuous work in the world of the Divine Spirit. If we separate ourselves from that we are in danger of becoming in a very real sense of the word heretics, a word which may be translated into common language as cranks. Then there is the Spirit working in each generation and helping the Church to mould that inherited authoritative creed to the particular needs of the day. If we separate ourselves from that we become dogmatists out of touch with our own times. The authority of the Church thus exercised is of the greatest value as a means of regulating truth, provided that it has not ascribed to it an infallibility which cannot be proved and has nothing to support it.


Let us examine more closely the two sources of Christian theology.

There is first of all the Bible which is the authority of Christ. There is the Old Testament which is the preparation for his coming, and has its consummation in him. There is the New Testament which is the record of his life and teaching, and of his influence on his disciples.

Now what we have to emphasize about this is that it is the authority of a person. The Christian revelation is given us in and through the Person of Christ. It is not either a creed, or a moral system, or a code of laws. He teaches us principles conveyed to us in and through his personality. Now the characteristic of a person is that it is always wider and deeper than any definition. A form of words whether a creed or a code is limited and defined. It is unchangeable and unadaptable. But a personality is different, it is neither limited nor exhaustible. And if this be true even of a human personality, how much more of a divine personality? Our knowledge of God is presented to us in the divine person of Jesus, in a manner adapted in the first instance to the times when he lived, speaking its language and making use of its ideas, but in that way presenting to us a theology and principles of life which are the interpretation of reality. That revelation, therefore, being through a person and the life, words, and actions of a person, and not through a code, is capable of being interpreted and adapted to suit other ages and forms of thought, and is found to respond to the needs of each successive generation.

Then, secondly, there is the Church which is the authority of the Spirit, that is the interpretation of the revelation in Christ by the human mind acting in a corporate fashion and inspired by God's Spirit. This implies a fundamental revelation of that which is unchanging, interpreted to suit the changing conditions of human life. Fundamentally the Christian Church teaches, as it always has taught, a faith which is unchanging, a belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God, the only begotten God in the bosom of the Father, and for that faith we have the authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as interpreted by the continuous experience and reason of the Christian Church, formulated in creeds, and exhibited in the Christian life. But the meaning of the life and work of Christ is far deeper than any separate interpretation. It has responded to the very varying needs of the different Christian centuries and it will have even more profound lessons to teach us. There is always, therefore, in Christianity both a static and a progressive element, and while we rightly speak of the unchanging faith in Christ, because Christ represents reality, the Church should never be burdened with outworn forms of thought and rules of life.


One further question remains. What is our individual relation to the authority of the Church as expressed in creeds and articles? What should be the attitude of a clergyman at the present day in regard to subscription?

There are two things required of him. The first is sincerity. He must be a sincere Christian, that is to say, he must be firmly convinced in his own mind that he sincerely believes that conception of Christianity which has been taught by the Christian Church from the beginning and is present in the creed that he has to recite. I use these words advisedly. He must believe that conception of Christianity and of the Person of Christ which is taught in the creeds. It is not the creeds that he accepts, but the faith presented in the creeds. That means that he is not required to accept each word or statement as if he were dealing with an infallible document, but that he has no doubt in his mind that he accepts the faith thus defined by the Christian Church in the best terminology that was available for it.

And then, secondly, there is loyalty – that is the attitude of the clergyman towards the particular branch of the Church in which he has been ordained and of which he is the servant. He does not ascribe infallibility to it. He may think that some of its ways might be better changed. But so long as he is its servant he will loyally carry out its directions, and devote all his powers to its well being. The rules do not touch anything which concerns his conscience, that is his fundamental position as a Christian. It is a matter of loyalty, loyalty to the society in which he serves.

These are two things required. The one is perfect sincerity in the acceptance of the Christian faith. The other is loyalty to the Church of England. A clergyman is not asked to say that he believes the Prayer Book to be a perfect document. He promises to use it, and no other form of service unless it is allowed by lawful authority. Some people have, I think, confused these two things together. They have thought that if for any reason they have come to the conclusion that some other form of service or some other manner of conducting service than that ordered would be better, therefore their conscience would bid them make the change. This is a mistaken idea of the function and meaning of conscience. What conscience does teach you is that a clergyman is to be loyal and obedient to the society in which he serves, so long as he is a member of it. If he thinks its teaching fundamentally erroneous he must leave it. If he thinks it imperfect, he is at liberty to take all lawful measures to improve it, but he is bound to obey its rules. A desire for reform is quite compatible with loyalty, disobedience is not.

But as regards belief in Christ and acceptance of the Christian faith no compromise is possible.
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