American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

 

Back to the Classical Unitarian Writings page

Defense of 

"The Latest Form of Infidelity" Examined

George Ripley

The following two letters addressed to Andrews Norton were published in response to Norton's "Remarks on a Pamphlet Entitled 'The Latest Form of Infidelity Examined'" (October 1839), as part of an ongoing debate between the two men, which began as a result of Norton's discourse, "The Latest Form of Infidelity" (July 1839). The first of these letters was written in December 1839 and amounted to 85 pages; the second was written in February 1840 and totaled 154 pages. Norton never responded to either of them.  

Dear Sir,

In a former letter, which I addressed to you, I submitted your Discourse on "the latest form of infidelity" to a critical examination. I pointed out the inconsistency of adopting the exclusive principle in a Discourse before an assembly of liberal clergymen, and maintained the right, which they have always claimed, for each man to decide for himself the speculative belief which entitles him to bear the name of Christ. I presented a series of arguments from history and scripture against your assumption that miracles are the only proof of the divine origin of Christianity, and stated several practical objections, under which that theory was believed to labor. In conclusion, I briefly discussed one or two topics of a literary and historical character, and exposed the errors into which you had fallen in your notices of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, and De Wette.

In the reply to my letter which you have lately published, you attach the principal importance to the literary questions that I incidentally touched on, and observe that "had the writer confined himself to an examination of your reasoning, you should not have thought that there was any call upon you to take notice of it" (p. 3). But as "a considerable portion is expressly occupied in charging you with grave errors," "it has seemed to you due to your friends, and to all who may think and feel with you on the great question at issue," "to enter into some explanations" (pp. 3, 4).

If I were to pass over, without comment, the reasons which you thus advance for continuing the present discussion, I might be understood to acquiesce in their correctness.    An individual, undoubtedly, has a perfect right to be governed by those considerations which seem most forcible to his own mind, provided they do not infringe any rules of moral or social propriety; no one may presume to call on him for an exposition of his private motives, but, when he brings them forward of his own accord, the case is altered, and they become the legitimate subjects of examination and remark.

I must, accordingly, express my dissent from the principle that the defense of personal reputation is more important than the discussion of opinions. It appears to me that our success, as individuals, hardly deserves to be mentioned in comparison with the illustration of a general idea; the interests of truth should be made paramount, our own name subordinate. I do not, of course, object to the repelling of attacks on private character. A delicate sense of honor feels even the breath of suspicion as a stain; it cannot bear the mere appearance of an unworthy imputation, and though sure that its brightness cannot be sullied, it condescends to wipe away reproach. But the cause of truth has far higher claims on our best services than the defense of ourselves, under any circumstances. It is better that we should suffer, than that error should prevail. We owe it to our convictions of truth to make them intelligible to the common mind, to present, without weariness or impatience, the grounds on which they repose, to meet the objections that are alleged against them by the humblest inquirer, and to court the freest scrutiny into their character, as the best means of their support. The opinions which we hold dear should be brought into the clearest light of day, every argument in relation to them fully considered and sifted, every sedate and earnest investigation of their claims met with respectful attention, and no attempt made to hush the voice of objection or doubt by the exercise of authority. The great topics, which I discussed, in my letter, are worthy of the most serious and dispassionate consideration of which our minds are capable. Compared with their solemn and vital importance, all personal interests are as chaff and dust. They are closely connected with the most valuable hopes of the human soul; they form an essential portion of the influences by which society is affected. The progress of mental culture and the condition of the age depend, in no small measure, on the views that are cherished concerning them, and imperfectly as I may have succeeded in treating them, I am conscious that the most earnest convictions, the most sincere desires for light and truth, were brought to their discussion. It would have been a more appropriate course, therefore, it seems to me, if you had distinctly answered the arguments which I brought forward, instead of confining yourself to a consideration of personal charges, as you call them, but which were personal only so far as they might affect your literary reputation, not as directed against your private character.

Neither can I believe that our duty on a subject of such general and momentous interest as this is limited "to our friends and those who think with us on the question at issue." Much, no doubt, is due to the claims of sympathy and personal friendship—something, perhaps, to those with whom our principal tie is agreement of opinion—but these claims include but a small part of our obligations. On a subject which we have brought before the public, I conceive that we are bound to enlighten the public as to its merits. We are not authorized to advance opinions and then pass by the objections they meet with in silence. We owe it to the community in which we live—a community that cherishes an hereditary interest in questions relating either to speculative or practical theology—to stand by our words and give them the fullest explanation and defense of which they are susceptible. We have no right to circulate opinions, which agitate many, grieve some, and deeply interest all, and then shrink from their discussion. The attention of our religious public, in particular, within a few years past, has been turned with no ordinary solicitude to the subject treated of in your discourse. The views there presented have been felt to be, in the last degree, untenable. A more profound conception of the Christian revelation, as it seemed, has been embraced by numerous minds. A strong interest is cherished in the comparison of ideas. Scarcely at any former period have abstract speculations been able to excite such general thought; and every word spoken from a true and free spirit is sure to meet with an audible response. I can hardly think of the present state of things without being reminded of the words of Milton. Would that they were still more applicable to us than they are!

"Behold now this city; a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement."

In a condition of society, to which such a description even by the most remote allusion is appropriate, the wisest endeavors of every scholar, or thinker, by profession, are constantly due. They are called on for the most gracious sympathies with the whole community. They should freely give of all the light which they have freely received. This cannot be done by diverting public attention from general topics to personal interests. These topics must be met with manliness and with temperate zeal. There must be no disguise, no timidity, no bitterness, no exclusiveness. Even those of us, who are deeply sensible of having no claim on the attention of the public, and who would gladly exchange the field of dispute "for the still and quiet air of delightful studies," or the more attractive walks of practical usefulness, are bound to utter the word which it may be given us to speak. The circle of our friends should be made to embrace every devoted seeker of truth. We should have regard for those who are at the widest distance from our opinion. We should seek to save those whom we believe to be wanderers. We should strive to remove every stumbling block from the way of the people, to make straight paths for all feet, and thus to prepare the coming of the Lord.

With these views, I cannot but regret, moreover, that you have given a new direction to this controversy, in your remarks on my letter. You have taken it from the people and given it to scholars. You have confined it to points in which few take an interest, and neglected those on which the public mind is awake. You have passed by the great theological question, and given your attention to a subordinate literary question.

In pursuing this course, you have shown no small degree of controversial adroitness—a quality to which I can lay no claim. For, you have removed me from the ground, which we might be supposed to hold with equal advantage, to that on which all the circumstances may be presumed to be in your favor. An individual, whose time is for the most part absorbed in the duties of an engrossing practical occupation, may be expected to wage an unequal contest, on a purely literary subject, with a scholar by profession. I do not, however, shrink from your call. If I must speak to scholars, rather than to those whom I daily meet, I will not decline the attempt. An appeal to books, as well as to the heart, may not be without fruit; and if I am enabled to gain any advantage in this discussion, it will be owing less to the skill of the advocate, than to the justice of the cause.

[Ripley then goes on to address Norton’s opinions of Spinoza at length. They are not included here for reasons of space.]

I intended to consider your account of Schleiermacher and De Wette in this letter; but I have already made it too long. I will, therefore, reserve that subject for another occasion and discuss it in a separate letter, which will soon follow.

Meantime, should you deem it "proper to remark" on what I have now said, notwithstanding the previous "improbability" that you allude to, I shall give your "remarks" an attentive, and I trust not an uncandid, perusal. If I find anything in them that seems to call for special notice, and the discussion of which may serve the cause of truth and justice, I shall probably continue my examination. I do not feel at liberty to retire from a contest—if that name is to be applied to what should be a mutual search for truth—so long as a word spoken may aid a sincere seeker, or increase the light and peace of our religious community.

You once or twice allude to the fact that my letter was published anonymously. What inference you would draw from that circumstance is not apparent. It certainly does not change the force of the arguments presented in the letter; but I relied on an appeal to arguments, not to personal considerations, and as it was of no importance to bring an obscure name before the public, it seemed to me to be more in accordance with good taste, as well as common usage, not to obtrude myself unnecessarily. I surely had no desire for concealment; this was impossible, even had I wished it. I would, however, avoid the slightest appearance of shrinking from responsibility. I would not utter under a veil what I should not be ready to proclaim from the housetops, and therefore I drop the signature of "An Alumnus,"

and subscribe myself,

Yours, etc., etc.,

george ripley

boston, December 23, 1839.                

 

Dear Sir,

I propose, in this Letter, to consider your account of the religious opinions of Schleiermacher and De Wette. In the "Notes" to your "Discourse," as well as in your "Remarks" on my first Letter, you have presented several statements on this subject, which it is my duty to examine, and which, as I shall endeavor to show, are adapted to produce an erroneous impression concerning the character and position of those eminent theologians.

If it were merely my desire to verify the statement, which I have previously made, in opposition to your own, my task could be dispatched in a short compass; but I conceive that it may not be without use to exhibit a more complete view of the theology in question than has yet been attempted; and I must, therefore, solicit the indulgence of our common readers, in the demands that I shall make on their time and attention.

It is seldom, I am aware, that the earnest seeker of truth will deem it worthwhile to engage in an elaborate historical discussion of individual opinions; the question which most interests his mind is not, ‘What has been thought,’ but, ‘What is.’ He prefers to establish his convictions by the comparison of arguments, rather than by an appeal to authority; and provided he has gained a clear insight for himself, he looks with comparative indifference on the controversies of the past.

There are reasons, however, in the present case, which impart a more than ordinary interest to the question which has been stated. Among the men of genius, whom the literature of Germany presents to our notice, few have been more distinguished in their respective departments than Schleiermacher and De Wette. They are both genuine, original men. Both have exerted a creative influence on the science, to the cultivation of which they have devoted their powerful minds. Theology, in their hands, has been redeemed from scholastic traditions and inspired with afresh and vigorous life. With a manly freedom in all relating to the mere letter, they combine the profoundest reverence for the essential spirit of religion, and, with a just comprehension of the results of speculation in modern times, they cherish a living and earnest faith in divine revelation and the mission of Christ for the redemption of the world. Their singular intellectual ability, the wonderful diversity of their gifts, the importance and variety of the subjects, to which they have directed their attention, their calm and balanced appreciation of discordant tendencies, their transparent candor of judgment, and the rare learning which they bring to the support and illustration of their opinions, have given them a conspicuous station in the development of thought, and a wide influence upon the present theology of Europe. They will be certain, accordingly, to become the subjects of a liberal curiosity; and the recent interest they have awakened among us, I cannot but consider as a happy indication of our times.

It is not as individuals, however, that they chiefly concern us at present. We are to regard them as exponents of the progress of opinion in German theology. They are the two most prominent names in the modern history of that science. They mark the most interesting epoch in its gradual development. They represent the issue of the great struggle which has been carried on since the middle of the last century. With their labors commenced the first decided reaction against the Rationalistic tendency, which, from the time of Immanuel Kant to the period of the establishment of the University at Berlin, may be said to have been predominant in the German Lutheran church.

The character of this movement, it would seem, has not been very clearly understood, and, as will appear in the sequel, had not attracted your attention before the publication of your "Discourse." If you had known that the scientific endeavors of Schleiermacher and De Wette have had for their principal object to reconcile the belief of the divine origin of Christianity with the objections of the Rationalists, who denied that doctrine, I presume you culd not have spoken of either of them as among, "the most noted in the modern school of infidelity." A slight sketch of this movement, therefore, will be necessary as an introduction to the detailed exposition which I am about to present.

The theology of the Lutheran creeds is founded on the principles of a rigid and exclusive Supernaturalism. As carried to the utmost limits by many of its early expounders, it regarded revelation as an insulated fact in history, confirmed by prophecies and miracles, recorded, in an infallible form, in the Holy Scriptures, from which its import was to be derived merely by the aids of grammatical and historical criticism and the rules of logic.    It labored under the defect of removing revelation from its connection with nature and history; it thus deprived it of its vitality, reduced it to an inexplicable and mechanical system, and disclaimed the attempt to establish its inward reasonableness and truth. The supernatural element was made prominent and exclusive; the rational element was undervalued and neglected.

It was unavoidable, in an inquiring and critical age, that the system should have been submitted to a bold and unsparing examination. The whole theory of revelation was discussed, the narratives of the Gospels made the subject of a fearless scrutiny, every tradition looked in the face, every doctrine tried for its life. A general fermentation ensued. The Church rocked, as with the explosions of an earthquake. Rationalism began to prevail, and religion to go down.

This system, which resulted from the general conflict of thought, in its exclusive character, discards the idea of an immediate divine revelation and substitutes reason in its place, as the only legitimate source of religious truth. It considers Jesus Christ as a wise and good man, the defender of many valuable ideas, and the sincere friend of the human race, but denies his claims to Divinity, either for his mission, his doctrine, or his person. It regards Christianity as an important historical phenomenon, but arising in the ordinary course of nature, with no valid pretensions to a peculiar divine origin, and no right to authority over the reason of man. In short, it makes the rational element in religion prominent and exclusive, while it undervalues and neglects the supernatural element.

These systems, accordingly, were in direct antagonism with each other. Each perceived an important element of truth, but, by each also, an important element was overlooked. Neither did complete justice to the subject; neither could satisfy the rational, religious mind. The one was defective by its neglect of the reason, the other by its neglect of revelation.

A system was necessary, which should combine what was true and reject what was false in both, which should take its stand on a higher ground, which should do equal justice to the supernatural element and the rational element in the Christian revelation. The problem was to defend the divine origin of Christianity after the attacks it had received from the advocates of Rationalism, to reconcile the universal faith of the Church with the conclusions of scientific investigation, and, in the solution of this problem, the spirit of Christ was made the principal element. It was admitted that many objects of reverence had been deprived of their sacred character by the efforts of the Rationalists. Divinity could no longer be seen in the external letter. It escaped the researches of the critic and the skill of the logician, but it could not be banished from the person of Christ; the presence of God was displayed in the manifestation of his Son.

This system, which attempts to restore the original unity between reason and revelation, faith and knowledge, to combine all the elements which are contained in the history of Christ with the purest light of modern science, and to establish a living belief in Christianity on a foundation inaccessible to the assaults of the skeptic, has received its most efficient support from Schleiermacher and De Wette. It is no less erroneous to class these theologians with the Rationalists, who are distinguished by their denial of the divine origin of Christianity, than it would be to arrange them with the early Lutheran dogmatists, who called in question the claims of the human reason.[1]

[Ripley then goes into a lengthy discussion of the views of Schleiermacher and De Wette. They are not included here.]

In thus presenting the views of the distinguished theologians who have formed the subject of this Letter, I would not be understood to cherish any anxiety in regard to their introduction among ourselves. I have no doubt that, sooner or later, they will attract the attention to which they are entitled. They will be examined, discussed, and justly appreciated. They will be sifted by clear and unprejudiced minds. The chaff will be separated from the wheat, and whatever noble and quickening truth they may be found to contain will be welcomed with love and joy.

If they can aid us in our endeavors to attain a thorough comprehension of Christian truth, to build "up a sound and living theology, which shall reconcile all differences, satisfy the intellect, win the heart, and bless society, we shall avail ourselves of their aid; if not, we shall cease to look for help to a source whence help cannot come; we shall remain contented in the exercise of our own thoughts, seek out wiser and safer guides, go back to the old paths in peace, or strike out others which promise to be still more straight and excellent than any that have yet been opened to our choice.

For my own part, I am persuaded that the theology which we have considered contains the germs of many pure and vital truths; more than this can scarce ever be claimed for any system. That it composes a perfect whole, finished in all its parts, doing justice to every attribute of God, or every faculty of the soul, and incapable of further illustration and improvement, will not be pretended by those who believe that the law of gradual progress is the great law of the Universe; but I cannot conceal from myself that the essential principles of this school are already hailed by many devoted lovers of religion and science, "as the vital, profound, and ennobling theology which they have earnestly sought for, but hitherto sought in vain."

It is not to be supposed, however, that the product of a foreign soil can be completely naturalized in another clime, or that, without important changes in its form, it can be made to take deep root at all, and produce fruit. Nor is this desirable. The efforts of great minds abroad, at best, can be only an imperfect assistance to our own thoughts. Our opinions must proceed from our own inquiries, for, like religion, no conviction is of any value unless it be personal. The form, which philosophy and theology—the highest philosophy—will at last assume among our thinking men, cannot now be predicted, but we may be sure that it will be no imitation of an obsolete model. It will not be cast in foreign moulds. It will possess the freshness and originality of genuine life, but, at the same time, its intrinsic vigor will prevent the dread of increasing light, though from strange and remote sources.

I cannot close this Letter without adding a few words in regard to the character of the theology which is presented in your " Discourse " and " Remarks." Its radical defect, in my opinion, proceeds from the influence of the material philosophy on which it is founded. The error, with which it starts, that there is no faculty in human nature for perceiving spiritual truth, must needs give rise to the other errors which I have formerly pointed out, and which will be rejected, one would hope, as soon as their character and tendency are understood.

You maintain that "there can be no intuition, no direct perception of the truth of Christianity" (Discourse, p. 32) and that "the feeling or direct perception of religious truth" is an "imaginary faculty" (Remarks, p. 56). Revolting as this statement appears when presented in its naked form, it is the legitimate and unavoidable consequence of the philosophical system which grounds all possible certainty on the testimony of the senses and allows no distinct and independent reality to the testimony of the soul. I honor the mental consistency which accepts and asserts this consequence far more than the effeminate timidity which shrinks from it and would fain keep it out of sight. Truth is usually promoted by following out every path to its ultimate limit. We thus learn to what it leads, or that it leads to nothing; and in either case, we may be induced to retrace our steps.

The principle that the soul has no faculty to perceive spiritual truth is contradicted, I believe, by the universal consciousness of man. God has never left himself without witness in the human heart. The true light has shone, more-or-less, brightly on every man that cometh into the world. This Divine Spirit has never ceased to strive with the children of earth; it has helped their infirmities, given them just and elevated conceptions, touched their eyes with celestial light, and enabled them to see the beauty and glory of divine things. God has ever manifested himself to his intelligent creatures; but have they had no faculty to behold this manifestation? Did the ray from above fall on sightless eyeballs? Not so. There has always been truth in the world; man has never been quite shut out from intercourse with his Maker. The early patriarchs communed with the unseen Father as they wandered over the verdant plains of the East. The meek spirits that yearned after divine knowledge, among oriental bards and Grecian sages, were not blind to the heavenly vision. "The ignorant savage has believed in God without the aid of metaphysics." And when the full-orbed Sun of Righteousness and Truth arose upon the world, in the soul of Jesus of Nazareth, it was hailed by the unlettered fishermen of Galilee, and has been reverenced by the most faithful spirits in every succeeding age as the visible manifestation of the Eternal glory. Must there not have been an eye for this? Does the body see, and is the spirit blind? No. Man has the faculty for "feeling and perceiving religious truth." So far from being imaginary, it is the highest reality of which the pure soul is conscious. Can I be more certain that I am capable of looking out and admiring the forms of external beauty, "the frail and weary weed in which God dresses the soul that he has called into time," than that I can also look within and commune with the fairer forms of truth and holiness, which plead for my love, as visitants from Heaven?

In the exercise of this faculty, man is able to behold the presence of God in the phenomena of the universe. The glory of the invisible Spirit beams from the visible creation and is recognised as such, by those "whose eye is single, and whose whole body is full of light" [Matt. 6:22]. The same faculty reveals to them the sacredness of their moral nature, invests conscience with divine authority, shows them the baseness, as well as the guilt, of sin, makes them meekly grateful in view of their affinity with the Supreme Power, and enables them to read the law of God, which is written on the heart. This perception, moreover, gives them "the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" [2 Cor. 4:6]. They see the Father in the person of the Son. They feel that God was with him who displayed such divine grace and truth. They perceive the express image of his perfections in the character of Jesus, and embrace him as the Saviour of their souls and the light of the world.

The denial of this faculty in the higher nature of man, of course, leads to the endeavor to make truth dependent on external support. It will thus be valued, not for what it is in itself, but for the circumstances in which it appears. Its intrinsic authority will fail to be recognised; its affinity with the soul, if admitted at all, will be only as a barren formula, and all inward feeling of its reality, "the tasting that the Lord is gracious" [1 Pet. 2:3], "the judging for ourselves what is right" [Luke 12:57], will be rejected as visionary or presumptuous. Religion is thus removed from the sphere of consciousness and subjected to historical conditions. The certainty of faith must proceed from reliance on others, not from a spiritual witness in ourselves. The humble Christian can put no trust in his Redeemer, till he is assured of its safety from the lips of the learned. The researches of the critic are deemed of greater importance than the experience of the believer. The royal priesthood of faith is dishonored, and a hierarchy of scholars installed. The wise after the flesh must sit in judgment on the teachings of the spirit. The character of a revelation is no proof of its divinity; the signatures of an heavenly origin borne on its front are unworthy of account. Nothing is valid but the evidence of miracles. The prophets and divine messengers of old who uttered the burden of the Lord, without external attestation had no claims to inspiration, and even "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God" [1 Tim. 1:11], which, in every word of its promises, every tone of its rebuke, every expression of its truth, exhibits "the power of God, and the wisdom of God to salvation" [Rom. 1:16], must rely for its support on the fact, that "it was authenticated by miracles as coming from God."

A faith, thus founded on historical testimony, with no reliance on the inward feeling or perception of truth, can never attain to positive certainty. I do not see how any mind can derive from it the repose which our nature craves. Without a higher faith than this, I know that, to many, life would be a burden, duty but a name, and religion a dream. The serene assurance of the reality of immortal truth, which is imparted by the contrary doctrine, cannot rest on such a basis. Hence the confession that "there is no absolute certainty beyond the limit of momentary consciousness, a certainty that vanishes the instant it exists, and is lost in the region of metaphysical doubt" (Discourse, p. 30).

The soul of the Christian, as I understand Christianity, seeks a higher boon than this. He demands a certainty of a different character, from that which can be enjoyed in the unstable affairs of this life, in the transactions of earthly business, "in the establishment of a manufactory, or the building of a railroad." "The things which are seen," he knows, "are temporal," subject to manifold fluctuations, perpetually eluding the firmest grasp, incapable of giving assurance or repose to the immortal soul. "But the things which are not seen," he is equally certain, "are eternal" [2 Cor. 4:18]; when everything earthly has passed away, they will remain, and in the worship of undying truth, of spiritual beauty and goodness, he finds a source of sustaining convictions and a perpetual and "exceeding great reward" [Gen. 15:1].

The enlightened believer, it seems to me, cannot rest satisfied with a mere balance of probability, decided by intellectual researches. This would leave his heart dry and impoverished. It is the nature of faith to cling to its objects with earnest grasp, to throw around them the warm light of the affections, and to incorporate them with the deepest and most sincere experiences of life. Its tone is that of confidence—in its best moments, of triumph—habitually, of serene and joyful trust. It discards negations; it will accept nothing but truth. It acknowledges the efficacy of the Divine Spirit to inform the soul, not as a theological phrase, but as a daily reality. Its language is, "I know in whom I have believed; I know that my Redeemer liveth" [2 Tim. 1:12; Job 19:25], and in perpetual communion with the spirit of holiness and love, it beholds the presence of God.

With such views of the character of the Christian faith, it is not surprising that the ground assumed in your recent publications should call forth my strong and earnest opposition. I do not regret, however, that you have attempted to maintain it. The question is now before our religious community. It will not be settled without thorough, and I trust also candid, discussion. The results cannot but be favorable to the interests of truth. That they may be equally favorable to the interests of charity and peace is the sincere wish of

Yours, etc., etc.,

george ripley

boston, February 22, 1840.

For a more favorable opinion of Norton's discourse, see

Andrew Preston Peabody's review in the Christian Examiner.



[1]  See a complete and interesting account of the principles of this movement, by ullmann, in Studien and Kritiken, for 1836, vol. i, pp. 5-61. A portion of the article referred to may be found translated in my first Letter, pp. 144-148. It is intimated in the "Remarks" (p. 52) that "the religious character of Ullmann is different from that of Schleiermacher." If it is meant by this that the theological opinions of Ullmann are different from those of Schleiermacher, on the point concerning which I referred to them, the supposition is incorrect. It may easily be set right by the article quoted.

 


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference