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The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE XXXII. LUKE i. 3,4.

LUKE i.3,4.

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that than mightest know the certainty of those things in which thou hast been instructed.

I said at the conclusion of my lecture, last Sunday, that when we of the Church of England assert that the Scripture is the sole authority in matters of faith, we by no means mean to exclude the office of the Church, nor to assert any thing so extravagant, as that it is the duty of every person to sit down with the volume of the Scriptures in his hand, and to make out from that alone, without listening to any human authority, what is the revelation made by God to man. But I know that many are led to adopt notions no less extravagant of the authority of the Church and of tradition, -- even to the full extent maintained by the Church of Rome, -- because they see no other refuge from what appears to them, and not unreasonably, so miserable and so extreme a folly; for an extreme and a most miserable folly doubtless it would be, in any one, to throw aside all human aid except his own; to disregard alike the wisdom of individuals, and the agreeing decisions of bodies of men; to act as if none but himself had ever loved truth, or had been able to discover it; and as if he himself did possess both the will and the power to do so.

This is so foolish, that I doubt whether any one ever held such notions, and, much more, whether be acted upon them. But is it more wise to run from one form of error into its opposite, which, generally speaking, is no less foolish and extravagant? What should we say of a man who could see no middle course between never asking for advice, and always blindly following it; between never accepting instruction upon any subject, and believing his instructors infallible? And this last comparison, with our particular situation here, will enable us, I think, by referring to our own daily experience, to understand the present question sufficiently. The whole system of education supposes, undoubtedly, that the teacher, in those matters which he teaches, should be an authority to the taught: a learner in any matter must rely on the books, and on the living instructors, out of which and from whom he is to learn. There are difficulties, certainly, in all learning; but we do not commonly see them increased by a disposition on the part of the learner to question and dispute every thing that is told him. There is a feeling rather of receiving what he is told implicitly; and, by so doing, he learns: but does it ever enter into his head that his teacher is infallible? or does any teacher of sane mind wish him to think so? And observe, now, what is the actual process: the mind of the learner is generally docile, trustful, respectful towards his teacher; aware, also, of his own comparative ignorance. It is certainly most right that it should be so. But this really teachable and humble learner finds a false spelling in one of his books; or hears his teacher, from oversight, say one word in his explanation instead of another: does he cease to be teachable and humble, -- is it really a want of childlike faith, and an indulgence of the pride of reason, if he decides that the false spelling was an error of the press; that the word which his teacher used was a mistake? Yet errors, mistakes, of how trifling a kind soever, are inconsistent with infallibility; and the perceiving that they are errors is an exercise of our individual judgment upon our instructors. To hear some men talk, we should think that no boy could do so without losing all humility and all teachableness; without forthwith supposing that he was able to be his own instructor.

I have begun on purpose with an elementary case, in which a very young boy might perceive an error in his books, or in his instructors, without, in any degree, forfeiting his true humility. But we will now go somewhat farther: we will take a more advanced student, such as the oldest of those among you, who are still learners, and who know that they have much to learn, but who, having been learners for some time past, have also acquired some knowledge. In the books which they refer to, and from which they are constantly deriving assistance, do they never observe any errors in the printing? do they never find explanations given, which they perceive to be imperfect, nay, which they often feel to be actually wrong? And, passing from books to living instructors, should we blame a thoughtful, attentive, and well-informed pupil, because his mind did not at once acquiesce in our interpretation of some difficult passage; because he consulted other authorities on the subject, and was unsatisfied in his judgment; the reason of his hesitation being, that our interpretation appeared to him to give an unsatisfactory sense, or to be obtained by violating the rules of language? Is he proud, rebellious, puffed up, wanting in a teachable spirit, without faith, without humility, because he so ventures to judge for himself of what his teacher tells him? Does such a judging for himself interfere, in the slightest degree, with the relation between us and him? Does it make him really cease to respect us? or dispose him to believe that he is altogether beyond the reach of our instruction? Or are we so mad as to regard our authority as wholly set at nought, because it is not allowed to be infallible? Doubtless, it would be wholly set at nought, if we had presumed to be infallible. Then it would not be merely that, in some one particular point, our decision had been doubted, but that one point would involve our authority in all; because it would prove, that we had set up beforehand a false claim: and he who does so is either foolish, or a deceiver; there is apparent a flaw either in his understanding, or in his principles, which undoubtedly does repel respect.

Let me go on a step farther still. It has been my happiness to retain, in after years, my intercourse with many of those who were formerly my pupils; to know them when their minds have been matured, and their education, in the ordinary sense of the term, completed. Is not the relation between us altered then still more? Is it incompatible with true respect and regard, that they should now judge still more freely, in those very points, I mean, in which heretofore they had received my instructions all but implicitly? that on points of scholarship and criticism, they should entirely think for themselves? Or does this thinking for themselve mean, that they will begin to question all they had ever learnt? or sit down to forget purposely all their school instructions, and make out a new knowledge of the ancient languages for themselves? Who does not know, that they whose minds are most eager to discern truth, are the very persons who prize their early instruction most, and confess how much they are indebted to it; and that the exercise of their judgments loads them to go on freely in the same path in which they have walked so long, here and there it may be departing from it where they find a better line, but going on towards the same object, and generally in the same direction?

What has been the experience of my life, -- the constantly observing the natural union between sense and modesty; the perfect compatibility of respect for instruction with freedom of judgment; the seeing how Nature herself teaches us to proportion the implicitness of our belief to our consciousness of ignorance: to rise gradually and gently from a state of passively leaning, as it were, on the arm of another, to resting more and more of our weight on our own limbs, and, at last, to standing alone, this has perpetually exemplified our relations, as individuals, to the Church. Taught by her, in our childhood and youth, under all circumstances; taught by her, in the great majority of instances, through our whole lives; never, in any case, becoming so independent of her as we do in riper years, of the individual instructor of our youth; she has an abiding claim on our respect, on our deference, on our regard: but if it should be, that her teaching contained any thing at variance with God's word, we should perceive it more or less clearly, according to our degrees of knowledge; we should trust or mistrust our judgment, according to our degree of knowledge; but in the last resort, as we suppose that even a young boy might be sure that his book was in error, in the case of a manifest false print, so there may be things so certainly inconsistent with Scripture, that a common Christian may be able to judge of them, and to say that they are like false prints in his lesson, they are manifest errors, not to be followed, but avoided. So far he may be said to judge of his teacher; but not the less will he respect and listen to her authority in general, unless she has herself made the slightest error ruinous to her authority by claiming to be in all points, great or small, alike infallible.

Men crave a general rule for their guidance at all times, and under all circumstances; whereas life is a constant call upon us to consider how far one general rule, in the particular case before us, is modified by another, or where one rule should be applied, and where another. To separate humility from idolatry, conscience from presumption, is often an arduous task: to different persons there is a different besetting danger; so it is under different circumstances, and at different times. Every day does the seaman, on a voyage, take his observations, to know whereabouts he is; he compares his position with his charts; he considers the direction of the wind, and the set of the current, or tide; and from all these together, he judges on which side his danger lies, on what course he should steer, or how much sail he may venture to carry. This is an image of our own condition: we cannot have a general rule to tell us where we should follow others, and where we must differ from them; to say what is modesty, and what is indolence; what is a proper deference to others, and what is a trusting in man so far, that it becomes a want of trust in God. Only, we are sure that these are points which we must decide for ourselves; the human will must be free, so far as other men are concerned. If we say, that we will implicitly trust others, then there is our decision, which no one could have made for us, and which is our own choice as to the principle of our lives; for which choice, we each of us, and no one else in all the world, must answer at the judgment-seat of God. Only, in that word there is our comfort, that, for our conduct in so doubtful a voyage as that of life, amidst so many conflicting opinions, each courting our adherence to it, -- amidst such a variety of circumstances without, and of feelings within, and on which, notwithstanding, our condition for all eternity must depend, -- we shall be judged, not by erring man, not by our own fallible conscience, but by the all-wise, and all-righteous God. With him, after all, even in the very courts of his holy Church, we yet, in one sense, must each of us live alone. On his gracious aid, given to our own individual souls, and determining our own individual wills, depends the character of our life here and for ever. Trusting to him, praying to him, we shall then make use of all the means that his goodness has provided for us; we shall ask counsel of friends; we shall listen to teachers; we shall delight to be in the company of God's people, of one mind, and of one voice, with the good and wise of every generation; we shall be afraid of leaning too much to our own understanding, knowing how it is encompassed with error; but knowing that other men are encompassed with error also, and that we, and not they, must answer for our choice before Christ's judgment, we must, in the last resort, if our conscience and sense of truth cannot be persuaded that other men speak according to God's will, -- we must follow our own inward convictions, though all the world were to follow the contrary.

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