The Renaissance and liberalism

[Chapter 3(b) of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.28-32]

The second factor in the tripartite division of Western Christianity since the sixteenth century is the group of tendencies which are best described under the titles of ‘Renaissance’ in the earlier stage, and ‘Liberalism’ in the later. Like Protestantism and Catholicism, Liberalism has its own avowed adherents as an interpretation of Christianity. But its influence has infiltrated far beyond its avowed adherents, and has created many of the common presuppositions of Christians of diverse traditions. The sifting of these common presuppositions is vital for our understanding of contemporary religion, and of movements towards Christian unity.

While the Reformation was proclaiming the helplessness of man, the ‘bondage of the will’, and the doctrine of Justification by Faith [28/29] alone, the Renaissance was asserting its own idea of the dignity of man, and pointing towards the ideal of human freedom, and the idea of history as a steady progress towards happiness and enlightenment. Possessing roots both in ancient classical humanism and in the culture of the Western Church, the Renaissance had among its fruits many that could be authentically Christian. The devotion to truth for its own sake–whether in the study of the Bible or in the discoveries of natural science–the reverence for Man as created in the Image of God, the insistence that all that is true and good and beautiful is of God: these insights are as necessary as is the Reformation insistence upon the priority of God’s grace, or the Catholic insistence upon the visible Church. But these characteristic Renaissance insights have, through their isolation from other insights into man’s relation to God, led the way to some of the tragedies of modern secularism and godlessness. For without a profound sense of the dependence of creature upon Creator, sinner upon Saviour, the belief that man is created in God’s Image can turn itself into a belief in man as man. And without the recollection that ‘He will come again to be our Judge’, the belief that there is a real connection between the Christian faith on the one hand, and culture, education, social betterment and human emancipation on the other, can degenerate into the belief that God’s Kingdom is wholly within history, and may be identified with the march of human progress.

If this combination of insight with the wearing of blinkers can be seen in the Renaissance, it can be seen no less in the Liberal movements of the nineteenth century. Two achievements of Liberal scholarship and thought especially stand out; both of them faced bitter opposition from orthodox Christians, and both of them have come to be accepted far and wide. The one achievement was the vindication of the critical study of the Bible, together with a new appreciation of the human element in the Bible. The other achievement was the demonstration that belief in a Divine Creator is not bound up with a literal acceptance of the narratives of Genesis, and is consistent with the data of evolution and natural selection. In these achievements the strength of Liberalism in theology showed itself; but, almost pari passu, the indigenous weakness in Liberalism led to the mis-use of these achievements. For the recognition of the human factor in the Bible was accompanied by the tendency to employ canons of interpretation fatal to the understanding of the Bible as the word of the living God.1 And the new attention to the Divine operation [29/30] in the evolution of nature and man, while it had the merit of recovering a forgotten aspect of primitive theology, opened the way to a doctrine in which the uniformity of nature ousts the Biblical conception of the living God, and the certainty of human progress ousts the belief that God is Judge. These doctrines are the ugly nemesis of Renaissance perceptions divorced from those which Catholic and Protestant have preserved.

For the achievements of Liberal scholarship took place amid a constant infiltration of notions which tended to make man rather than God the centre of the picture.

(i) There was, for instance, the influence of Schleiermacher. In contrast with an arid dogmatic system which seemed to him to substitute propositions about God for a true awareness of God in Jesus Christ, Schleiermacher made ‘feeling’ the central notion, and found the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the character of His ‘God-consciousness’. If he made religion vital for many for whom it had been dead, he fostered enormously the tendency that is still with us, to put discovery in the place of Revelation, the religious consciousness in the place of the Word of God, and the ‘not-yet’ of imperfection in the place of sin.

(ii) More subtle in its penetration of the modern outlook has been the influence of Hegel. In place of the Incarnation of the transcendent God in history, Hegel substituted a conception of all history as the process in which God advances to self-realisation as God. It was indeed possible for theologians to make use of Hegelian idealism in the defence of a spiritual as against a materialistic view of the world. Influenced by T. H. Green, the writers of the Lux mundi school ‘stole honey from the Hegelian hive’ in combating the materialism of their contemporaries. But, in the long run, Hegelian influence has been a source of corruption to Christian theology, and not least to those aspects of Christian teaching which bear upon the religion of ordinary people. There has been the notion of God and man as bound in a partnership in which we are as necessary to His Being as He is to ours, and the heart is cut out of man’s dependence upon God as His creature. Again, the notion that evil is a part of the rationality of the universe, makes evil less evil than the Bible proclaims it to be. Above all, finding God within the process of human life, and often in effect identifying God with this process, men have forgotten the fear of the Lord, the everlasting I AM THAT I AM.

(iii) Less widespread, but more direct, has been the influence of Ritschl and the Ritschlians. Recoiling from the tendency to lose [30/31] sight of the figure of Jesus in a religion of ‘process’, Ritschl bade Christians go back to the figure of Jesus in history. Jesus, as we know Him in history, is the centre of Christianity, the Saviour who has for us ‘the value of God’. But metaphysical questions concerning the Being of Jesus in relation to the Being of God, must neither be asked nor answered: these matters lie beyond human scrutiny.

It would be idle to deny that Christians can need to be recalled from Christology to Christ Himself as the Gospels depict Him. But the Ritschlian refusal to ask and answer those questions about the Being of Christ which the earliest disciples, no less than the Nicene Fathers, were compelled to ask and to answer, has brought no little mischief. For sometimes the affirmation that Jesus has ‘the value of God’, has implied the idea that Jesus is God because He is a good man, His Divinity meaning that He is a symbol of the potential divinity of us all. And, more often, the basing of the Christian attitude to Jesus upon ‘value judgment’ has carried with it not our submission to Him in His claim upon us, but our submitting of Him to our own ideas of moral value as we pick out what fits our own moral ideology and reject the rest as ‘husk’.

It would be a rash venture to judge the influence of each of these figures of the nineteenth century upon the modern Liberal outlook. But together they illustrate the forces which have made for the man-centredness of Liberal Christianity. And there has been greater readiness amongst educated Christians in England to appreciate the achievements of Liberalism at its best, than there has been readiness to realise how deep has been the penetration of man-centredness into theology and religion, and how great is the contrast between this man-centredness and the central positions of New Testament theology. The problem is not only the existence of avowedly modernist and ultra-Liberal schools and groups, but the intrusion of debased tendencies into the theology of those who are avowedly orthodox.

Where these debased tendencies prevail, Christian teaching has these characteristics: God is presented as the loving Father, conceived after our own notions of love and without a word about the Divine Judgment. The great events of the Gospel are affirmed, but so robbed of their apostolic interpretation that Redemption is equated with the movement of spiritual progress within history, and Resurrection with the ability of good men to survive death. A severing of the New Testament from the Old undermines the duo-testamentary basis of the faith, banishes the continuity of the Church as the Israel of God, stultifies the relation of Law and Gospel, and sentimentalises the doctrine of God. This debased teaching finds its way into official pronouncements, sermons, hymn-books and classrooms. It seems to be foreshadowed in some words of Dr Hort, when [31/32] in discussing both the achievements and pitfalls of Liberal thought he wrote:

‘But no possible modification can be accepted as Christianity which contradicts the broad testimony of Scripture, and requires the rewriting of its most distinctive passages’ (The Way, the Truth, the Life, p. 186).

Yet it would be disastrous if the reaction from Liberalism were to lead us to decry its positive insights. These insights, nowhere more conspicuous than in the work of Hort himself, belong to the primitive and essential being of Christianity. From the earliest days of the Christian Church, it has been the calling of liberal men to devise liberal things, and by liberal things they shall stand. What has been destructive is the separation of these insights from Christian insights of another sort. Indeed, Renaissance and modern Liberal religion resemble the humanistic aspect of the Catholic faith with the Evangelical aspect forgotten. The task is to re-integrate the positive Liberal achievements, and this involves the shattering of the false Liberalism which has mis-used them.

Unfortunately, the path of re-integration is beset by a popular fallacy. This is the fallacy that Liberalism is ‘broad-minded’ and ‘tolerant’, and can therefore claim to provide the atmosphere of charity in which Christian re-union can come about. The truth is, however, that Liberalism is fiercely intolerant. It cannot tolerate the Evangelical’s emphasis on Atonement, because it disallows the situation between God and Man in which Atonement is needed. It cannot tolerate the Catholic’s conviction that Church order is vital, because it disallows the place of the visible Church in relation to the Incarnation of God. Hence an important distinction has to be drawn. It is one thing to recover the positive insights of Liberalism within a Catholic and Evangelical faith: it is another thing to take the common and popular sentiments of Liberalism as a kind of norm of Christian broadmindedness wherein we can all ‘get together’. And many who would not dream of avowing this crudely Liberal theory of re-union, yet tacitly employ it whenever they treat dogma or Church order as things of small importance.

[Next: Chapter 3c: The post-Tridentine papal communion ]

1. Some examples are: the rejection of the miraculous in the interests of a doctrine of the Uniformity of Nature: the rejection of messianic and ecclesiastical elements in the tradition of our Lord’s sayings as later accretions or interpolations: the identification of the idea of The Kingdom of God in the Bible with an evolutionary idea of progress: the replacement of the Biblical doctrine of God by an immanentist conception which has no room for the particular action of God in redemption and judgment.